Wynn hooked a mostly clean fingernail under the chrome tab of the tape measure. The internal spring tack-tack-tacked as yellow inches emerged. Six, eight, ten, twelve. He stopped, had an idea, but let it go. The metal strip zipped back into the case, rocking his hand with a thwack. He did it again, careful not to cut his already dry and cracked fingers. Tack-tack-tack. Zip. Thwack. He waited. Nothing.
The click of the punch clock on his wall told him he had just wasted another half-hour of his day. In his mind, the woman from last week’s self-development seminar accused him of “activity avoidance.” Boy, there was three hours of activity Wynn was never getting back. No avoiding that. As a rule, he did the hard things first, paid the bills before he bought the boat, mowed the yard before he hit the lake. But what he had to do now, well, how do you start a thing like that? He wanted to skip it and cast a line in some distant, deep water away from this job and its self-development.
He swiveled back around, banging his knee against an industrial green cabinet. The Tanker Steelcase desk was a relic from the hospital’s beginnings. Its thick-gauge metal frame took up most of his office. It was noisy to use, cold to touch, and ugly to look at. But it was functional and virtually indestructible. Wynn kind of liked it.
Buried somewhere beneath a mound of must-do’s, should-do’s, and never-would-do’s, a flat rubber desk pad grew gummy with rot. Above it lay a detritus of daily discards, a leftover toilet handle, random sockets from a long-lost ratchet set, and a three-ring binder containing an updated employee policy manual. Wynn never read the first one.
He picked up one of the three Styrofoam cups within reach and peered inside. Stained and empty. He tossed it in the trash. Then he added his Stanley tape to the collection of leftovers and left-outs and picked up a warped legal pad. As of this quarter, all supervisors had to type their employee evaluations. But Wynn’s fingers on an IBM Selectric were blind chickens struggling to peck out a stilted sentence. Instead, he would make his notes (when he had notes) in a craftsman’s scribble on the stained pages of the notebook that lived like a hermit in the back of his Samsonite briefcase. He would ask Annie to come over tonight and type up everything for him. She was better than her old man at making things sound complicated. He never had enough words. She, on the other hand, had plenty to spare.
Like a prisoner, he looked out of the window and its grid of metal reinforcements to the empty break room. Maybe he should supervise the crew on six. Then he remembered the mud just went up this morning. The crew was likely catching a post-lunch smoke break. At least he hoped so. If they sanded too soon, they’d have to patch all over again. But they knew that. Right?
Who could tell with these new guys? The faces never stayed the same. So many of the original crew, what he still called his crew, had moved on. Bobby Stott, a human walkie-talkie who smiled constantly and jabbered even more, was his best sheetrock guy. No guesswork to his sanding schedule. But he moved back to Tullahoma last year to manage his manic mother. Talk about words to spare. Stott would literally talk to the walls. The walls missed him.
A few weeks later, Sam Mayo retired, which was for the best. His weekend benders had started to seep into his weekdays. Seven out of ten professionals might prefer Mineral Spirits to thin their paint, but Wynn was pretty sure Sam used Old Milwaukie. He never used tape though. Even half-lit (especially half-lit) he was a machine with a brush. Wynn would catch up with him from time to time over a cold one at Wings and whatever-they-called-it-now. But only one. Then Wynn would give Sam back his keys and watch him drive away. Maybe he’d give Sam a call this afternoon, just to check in.
Still, Wynn missed Banger Pyle the most. At six foot three and one hundred seventy pounds after supper, the largest part of that gangly friend from Mississippi was his nose. Not only did Banger look like a hammer, he could use one too. One swing could drive a sixteen-penny nail head deep into a pine stud. It was in the carpentry shop, where he and Wynn both started twenty years ago (same day in fact), that the name Banger eventually stuck. Over time, Wynn forgot his real name, until he saw it on the funeral program. Arthur. Lots of family cried that day for Arthur. Wynn missed his friend Banger most of all.
These were guys who knew their jobs and did them well. Nobody had to hover over their shoulders or bark directions or worry if the mud was still wet. They were their own supervisors. Now, only a few of the original crew remained, like himself and Adel. Sometimes Wynn wondered if Bobby and Sam got it right in the end, leaving before the decision was out of their hands. Wynn didn’t feel like an expert anymore. And Adel, well there was the rub, wasn’t it?
Instead of getting up, Wynn took out his pocketknife and leaned over the wastebasket to sharpen his carpenter’s pencil. After decades of leaving his mark, he still preferred the bulk of that simple stylus to the toothpick number twos they stuffed in all the supply closets around here. The carpenter’s pencil had weight and fit his fat hands. Of course he still carried the silver Cross pen that Bev gave him (for one anniversary or another) clipped to the plastic pouch in his left shirt pocket. But that was just to look more like a manager. He never actually used it.
As he whittled, he glanced up at the calendar taped to the painted concrete wall. April 1984. Almost a full year since his promotion. The words on the image above the calendar read, “Just Say No.” It was an admonishment from the President’s wife, one he was certain some of the men on his new crew had failed to heed. He thought back to April ’83 and the offer he couldn’t refuse. Maybe he should have taken her advice as well. He checked his progress on the pencil, poking the pinpoint lead into the callus of his index finger. Satisfied, he pushed the release on his knife and snapped it closed. He shoved it back into his pocket and brushed at the wood shavings littering his slacks. He missed his Dickies. He never had to worry about getting those dirty, and he certainly didn’t have to worry about what to wear every day. Now Wynn spent most mornings standing in front of his closet in nothing but his V-neck, neatly tucked into his BVDs, wondering if this paisley tie went with that striped shirt, etc. Like he had any idea. He might as well try to type War and Peace before breakfast. And nothing fit him. If clothes truly made the man (a cooked up conspiracy if there ever was one) then he was more himself in common-man brown. All the identity he needed was his name, stitched in red on an oval patch above his heart.
Wynn looked up to find his boss clogging the office door like cigarette butts in a low-pressure urinal. Ron Ramsey was a small, stupid man whose own paisley ties were even shorter than he was. Despite an overgrowth of facial hair and the fluorescent glare on his crown, most of his employees suspected he was little more than a second-grader moonlighting as a plant supervisor. Wynn had underwear that was older (and spent less time up his rear end).
“Ron,” Wynn nodded. He didn’t stand or offer his hand. They were past that, way past that. A leftover crumb of club cracker clung to Ron’s walrus mustache. When he spoke, it fluttered in the hot air.
“How are those evals coming?” Ramsey asked in a voice that seemed to be stuck in some suspended state of puberty. It reminded Wynn of the day he and Banger built a counter in the gift shop and found the helium tank. They only messed around for a few minutes, but it was enough for a few laughs and a massive headache. Not as bad as the one he was getting now though.
“Just wrapping them up,” Wynn lied. He tried not to smile, but he couldn’t help it. He was still picturing Ramsey in footie pajamas saying his “now I lay me down to sleep’s” and drifting off sucking his hairy little hobbit thumb.
Wynn had worked on those evals most of the morning, but had nothing to show for it. He hoped Ramsey didn’t notice the blank page beneath him. But it probably blinked like the roadside marquee he passed twice every day to and from work. “Catfish Corner: Free hush puppies with every order.” Wynn thought of simpler times before employee evaluations, of fish fries in the back yard, the smell of bluegill brim, the shade of a giant mimosa, the shelter of good friends. Ramsey probably didn’t even like hush puppies.
“I want you to document that mess with Adel.” He said the name like “Michelle,” as if Adel (whose name really sounded like HAY bale) was a girl, which of course he was not. Ramsey crossed his arms and legs and leaned his head back, lounging against the doorframe. Just make yourself at home. Wynn pressed the pencil lead into the pad until it broke. Then he sighed.
“Ron,” he offered. “Are you sure you want to make a federal case out of this?” Of course he did.
“You bet I do. I had to listen to that charge nurse on the phone wear my ear out for two hours.” He paused for effect, his eyes bugging out and his face growing red. “Two hours!” he shouted. “You want to talk about a federal case?”
Wynn held up his hands in submission. He did not. “Okay. Well, not to correct you,” he corrected with as much respect as he could fabricate on short notice, “But I’m pretty sure it’s pronounced AY-Dale. And just so you know, it’s completely fixed now.” But Wynn’s effort to mitigate only made matters worse.
“Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up.” Ramsey straightened. “Let’s talk about that.” Wynn could see he had just stepped in a pile of something he should have seen coming. But he was still new to this pasture, and the weeds (good night) were tall enough to choke a bush hog. He felt his face go red as the pretense of respect flushed like a sink full of Drano. Ramsey wanted to talk? Okay, they’d talk. And this time, Wynn had plenty of words. Most of them weren’t ones he would use in church, but oh boy. He had words.
“So I go up there this morning,” his boss continued, “you know, to assess the situation and minimize the political damage.” Good grief. The man made it sound like an international incident. It was a row of cabinets for the love, not the Bay of Pigs. “And the whole thing is as good as new.” He threw up his hands like he was trying to fly away. “Just like nothin’ ever happened. In fact, had it not been for the two hours (did I mention the two hours?) on the phone with the charge nurse, I might not have even known it happened.” Wynn stared back at him, daring him to make his point. “But this is Adel’s day off.” He said the name correctly this time, but with as much spit as possible. “At least that’s what I thought. So I guess the fix-it fairies just dropped in from Cabinet Land like magic while we were all nestled in our beds.”
Wynn waited a moment, entertaining the thought of Ramsey with his binky and his nightlight. Then he shoved back from the Tanker desk and did a little straightening of his own. He hadn’t thrown a punch in two decades, but Ramsey didn’t know that. Years of carrying bags of shingles and concrete blocks and a family on his shoulders had given Wynn a toughness that made his silence more threatening than his words. Just because he had to quit school and earn the paycheck his daddy drank away didn’t make him dumb. And he wasn’t about to let some pot-bellied, bricks-for-brains punk who probably sold his mother to pay for his MBA talk to him like he was.
All Wynn did was help a friend who was getting a little absent-minded. When a kind heads-up got back to Wynn (and it almost always did thanks to years of actually being nice and making friends, not things you learn getting an MBA apparently) he took his tools and did what he did best. He got the job done. Now this crybaby wanted to make that an “opportunity for improvement.” Like Wynn had screwed up.
Ramsey shifted closer to the door in case he needed to make a quick escape. Sweat beaded along the lines of his prematurely retreating hairline. But for the moment, his leather loafers held fast. “You’re not doing him any favors, Bishop.”
Wynn deepened his voice, only half-meaning to. “I’m not trying to do favors. I’m trying to get the job done.”
“Your job is to manage, not to hang cabinets,” Ramsey barked, sending the cracker flying. He jerked in surprise as it flew across his field of vision and landed (magically) in another of the Styrofoam cups. Rebounding, he pointed his finger at Wynn’s face. “All you’re doing is hanging your employee. And frankly, your neck is on the line too.”
“It wasn’t like a wall fell down, Ron.” Wynn tried to regulate his breathing and made a mental note to get out his blood pressure cup when Little Lord Fauntleroy left his office.
“Yes, it was. A wall of cabinets. And they came down on the charge nurse’s niece for crying out loud. Second day on the job, too. Geez, Bishop. We’re lucky no one got hurt.” What a whiner.
“The cabinets shifted. They didn’t fall. And the guy’s got eight months before retirement.”
“Not my problem.” Ramsey shook his head.
“But he’s been here longer than I have. Just let me talk to him. Maybe there’s a better way to deal with this.”
Ramsey’s eyes drifted to the workday shrapnel across Wynn’s desk. “Honestly, man. How do you find anything on this desk?” He looked up and finally answered the question. “The evaluations are the way to handle this. It’s called a process.”
“But the handrail thing last quarter wasn’t even his fault. And if I give him a second ‘Needs Improvement,’ you know as well as I do he’ll get canned. Pension, benefits. Thirty years gone, Ron. Have you ever done anything for thirty years?”
Ramsey’s eyes narrowed. In a bar fight, he’d have curled up in a dirty corner and cried. But here in the office, he was holding his own. Wynn had to give him that much. “Bishop, enough buts. You need to learn to be a boss and not a friend. You staff appropriately, you assess, and you make adjustments. That’s what you do. It’s not as simple as measure twice, cut once anymore. Management demands more of a man. And frankly, I need to see more from you. Remember, I’m writing my own evaluations.”
There was a time when Wynn would have evaluated Ramsey’s face with his fist. But it was something, what time did to a man. It put a fence around his fight until he found his reason. That fence was the only reason Annie’s ex-husband was still alive. Now it was preserving Ramsey’s jawline (and Wynn’s job). On the way home, Wynn might chomp a roll of Tums and chase it with half a bottle of Pepto. But for now, he was cool, cool as the first warning breeze from an imminent tropical storm anyway.
“Ron,” Wynn said and took a deep breath, “you do what you have to do. And I’ll do what I have to do. And I reckon it is as simple as that.”
Ramsey’s sneer waxed passive-aggressive as he took a trepid step forward and offered a conciliatory pat on the arm before backing away. His smile was one half condescension and the other half condolence.
“I went to bat for you, you know. I said, ‘That Wynn Bishop, now there’s a man with grit. He may not have the education, or the communication skills, or the vocabulary. But he’s got grit. Yes, sir. Can’t measure a man like Wynn Bishop without grit.’ I told them that.” He turned his back on Wynn and walked out. As he retreated, he shouted, “And how about cleaning up that desk?”
Panic Pete lived on the edge, next to the razor blade refills. He moved in the office the day Wynn moved up the ladder, a congratulatory gift from Annie. “Whenever you get stressed,” she encouraged, “just squeeze him like this.” She demonstrated, and Panic Pete’s eyes and ears popped out as air filled his head. Now, Wynn reached for the rubber doll to relieve the pressure. As the little red eyes shot out from their sockets, Wynn repeated in a mocking voice, “Two hours!” He supposed he felt a little better. He ran his fingers through his own thinning hair and winced. His head was still sore where the doctor removed the skin cancer last week. He should have worn more hats. That was the thing about getting old. By the time you realized you weren’t Superman, the kryptonite had done its damage. He pulled off his bifocals and rubbed the bags underneath. This was the longest part of the day. He stared at the blank and blurry page beneath him, then closed his eyes. Only for a few minutes, he told himself. He wasn’t sure how many actually passed before he heard the scream.
Wynn jumped to his feet and ran to the door. The slumbering desk rattled in aggravation.
“Bishop!” The voice cracked as a boy, a string bean with a mask of freckles and acne, blew into the break room. Long red hair stuck to his slick forehead and crawled across the arch of his shoulders.
“Hey, kid,” Wynn answered from his office door. “Calm down. What’s wrong?”
“I need Bishop,” the boy wheezed, doubled over.
“You’ve got him, son. That’s me. Now, what’s your trouble?”
“Oh, thank God.” The kid collapsed in a nearby chair. “Dude, I ran all the way from the ER and was like, ‘I’m never gonna find this guy.’ It’s a total maze down here.” He closed his lips and tried to regulate his breathing by whistling through his nose. “How do you even find your office every morning?”
Wynn knew most people in the hospital, but not this kid. He guessed the boy was from one of the local high schools. They were always rotating in students as part of some health occupation program. Wynn didn’t think that was such a great idea. The emergency room was the county seat of stressful, and this kid needed a Valium. And a cheeseburger. He was like scrubs on a stick.
“Son, calm down,” Wynn repeated. “Now, tell me what you need.”
“Yeah. Sorry. So, Carter says you’ve got to come, like, immed – I mean, uh, STAT.”
Sarah Carter was the attending in the ER. His crew had installed a new work sink in the trauma unit two days earlier. It must have sprung a leak. Ugh. Why couldn’t the leak have been in radiology or laundry? He hated the ER.
“Let me guess, trauma unit?”
“Dude!” The kid’s eyes bugged in surprise. Wynn thought of Panic Pete, and then of Ramsey. “That’s awesome. How did you do that?”
“It’s just that kind of day, son. That’s all. Hang on, let me get some tools.” He left the kid to hyperventilate and turned back into his office. That’s when he realized he’d left his belt up on the fourth floor next to the cabinets in the Bay of Pigs. He cursed himself. He cursed Adel. He cursed Ramsey and the empty room and wanted desperately to send someone else. He picked up Panic Pete and heaved him across the room in disgust. To his surprise, that worked better than squeezing.
Eventually he resigned himself to inevitability and walked out of his office and across to the tool room. All he needed was a set of wrenches, some pliers, and maybe a roll of Teflon tape. But finding any of that in the chaos heaped before him would be like finding his sunken boat keys at the bottom of Guntersville Lake. Cords wove in and out of power tools. Boxes and buckets hoarded useless scraps. How had the crew let things get so bad? Then he thought of his own desk and ignored the implications.
Across the sea of rubble, Wynn surveyed the row of lockers on the far wall. On a door labeled “Adel,” a tool belt hung neatly, complete with assorted essentials. The man’s mind might be slipping, but his organizational skills were as predictable as ever. Wynn treaded through the trash, careful not to face-plant into a box of plumb chalk and sheetrock screws. With considerable effort (blood pressure cup, he reminded himself again), he reached Adel’s locker and slung the belt over his shoulder. He paused to catch his breath and swallow the dread rising in his gut. The ER.
“Uh, Bishop, sir?” the kid called from across the room. “We, like, really have to go.”
“Yeah, son. I’m coming,” he said, kicking a pile of paint cans on his way. That also made him feel a little better. Finally, he returned to the kid a few precarious steps and a couple of scary moments later. “Okay, let’s go.”
“Right. Just one more thing.”
“Like, do you know the way back to the ER? ‘Cause, dude, I am totally discombobulated.” Wynn smiled in spite of his stomach cramps. What kind of words were they teaching these kids now?
“Yeah, I got it. Just follow me.”
“Right,” the kid sighed. “Oh, schnikies! I almost forgot.” He slapped his forehead.
“What? What?” Wynn turned back, irritated. His mind was already wading through waist-high water. He wanted to get in and get out already.
“Carter said, um, ‘Bring a saw?'” The kid seemed to be asking, not telling.
“Yup. That’s what the Carter lady said, dude. A saw,” String Bean repeated, more sure of himself this time. Wynn had no idea why he’d need a saw to fix a leak.
“What kind of saw?” he asked. The kid puzzled over this for a moment.
“Right. So, what are my options again?”
“Forget it,” Wynn grunted and doubled back. Sitting mercifully close to the door on a spool of phone cable was a pair of wire snips, a coping saw, and a small handsaw. He grabbed the latter and held it up.
“There. Now can we go?” Wynn urged. The boy smiled with a pronounced overbite.
“Lead on, Bishop man.”
Wynn wound through the bowels of the building up through circuitous arteries to the north corridor. With every turn, memories rose like hot liquid in his throat. As he and the kid cleared the service elevator, the antiseptic air made his knees weak and his ankles ache. He gagged on the acid reflux of twenty-five-year-old memories he thought he’d swallowed for good. Now he tasted them again like lurched up bile from a wasted stomach.
Wynn had been working on the I-65 bridge near Wheeler Dam. Every day, he and a partner rode the headache ball up, up, and away as a crane carried them to their office in the sky. But when the work was complete, Wynn needed to find his next ride. He and Beverly had managed to save a little over their three years in Decatur, but that wouldn’t last long with a new mouth to feed. And boy, could babies eat. Bev tried to nurse, but that well ran dry faster than all three of them had hoped. So half of Wynn’s paycheck every week went straight to little glass Gerber jars full of mushy prunes and carrots.
Wynn dreamed of one day being his own boss and making real money. They could move back home to Guntersville, maybe plant a garden. He could do some tile work, light construction, or even drive a truck. Fifteen years later, Wynn would in fact buy his own big rig and hit the road hauling tires for that plant out of Huntsville. Breaker breaker one-nine, this here’s Big Daddy. Anybody gotcha ears on? Come back. Sometimes Wynn would roll down the window and listen to the rhythm of eighteen wheels rolling down a bridge he helped build with his own two hands. But as a young man back in Decatur, Wynn’s hands were all he had. And they would soon be empty.
One of the boys on the ball crew knew a construction gig not far from Birmingham. Could Wynn lay shingles? Yes, Wynn could lay shingles, and more if needed. He was still Superman at this point. But that would end soon.
The day it happened was hot, Alabama hot, the kind of hot people from Nevada complained about. Of course, what they were really feeling was the humidity. Sweat was pouring into Wynn’s eyes as he looked up into the sun, hammering the next few nails into the garnish of a second-story gable. He wiped his brow with the handkerchief that lived perpetually in his right back pocket. He replaced it and shimmied up to the next level.
Wynn was as nimble as a cat (at least two and a half decades ago) crawling up and down the hastily rigged scaffolding. But his high-rise agility didn’t matter much when three considerably less nimble bubbas from Holly Springs climbed up unannounced and pushed the poorly maintained planks past their breaking point. How many guys did it take to hang a garnish, anyway? The rest was like the song. When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come Bishop, bubbas, and all. Still like a cat, Wynn landed on his feet, crushing both ankles and ripping apart ligaments throughout his legs. The other guys were fine. They landed on Wynn.
Much of that moment was a merciful blur. But not enough of it. He remembered the impact, for example. It was like water balloons had burst inside his feet. No. Not water. Sulfuric acid. And he lay twisted on the grass, he tasted the pain and vomited instantly. Then his teeth began to chatter. He remembered someone (the foreman, Beason?) yelling curses, and something about digging him out and getting those boots off. He later learned that his fall had buried him eight inches into turf still soft from heavy spring rains. Otherwise, it would have been even worse. Maybe April showers really did bring May flowers. Beason, if it was him, was smart to remove the boots from his mangled limbs. The swelling was instant and left massive boils across his feet, ankles, and calves. The pain of that triage must have been too much. Wynn blacked out.
The first fuzzy moments that followed were of the emergency room. To this day, those images hung in his mind like a moth in a widow’s web. The shock that gripped him after the fall was starting to wear off by the time the EMTs rolled Wynn through the hospital’s double doors. Instant, searing pain crystalized the scene for the rest of his life.
The walls pulsed to the beat of his fibrillating heart, closing in with every irregular thump. The room was an oven, then a freezer. Everything was in slow motion. Or maybe that was just the people. Birmingham was too far away, so the ambulance shuttled him to a nearby county facility in Odenville. Wynn’s trauma was the most action they had seen since January. (That streak would actually end only three weeks later when a fugitive Santa Gertrudis wandered into the path of Herm and Jean Sanders’ semi on Highway 411. Herm and Jean survived and made the papers while Wynn recovered in relative obscurity.)
Wynn had way too much time to contemplate the pain before some geriatric nurse casually happened by with a vial of morphine. The drug itself must have been some slow, Southern derivative narcotic that acted on the pain when it was dang good and ready. The ensuing minutes elongated into hours while evil scientists (doctors and nurses) tortured (treated) Wynn’s wasted metatarsals. After some indeterminate period of tribulation, Wynn relocated to the University of Alabama Birmingham Hospital and eventually went home reinforced with steel rods and plaster casts. But those hellacious moments in the ER of St. Clair Medical in Odenville left a mental scar far worse than the three-inch indents still present on the inside of each foot.
Since then, Wynn had only been to an emergency room twice, once to repair a faulty fire alarm and once to get a breathing treatment for croupy little Annie. He had suffered through both visits with chills, nausea, and dutiful steadfastness. Now, sink or no sink, Wynn wasn’t sure this trip was worth it.
The kid walked ahead, now reoriented and anxious to deliver his package. But Wynn waited by the elevator, like mail on permanent Post Office hold.
“Mr. Bishop, dude. It’s this way. I know where I am now.” But Wynn only heard the boy somewhere in the distance. ‘Dig him out!’ someone else cried. ‘The Boots. Cut ’em off.’ The voices mingled in his memory, and Wynn went weak. He heard metal banging, twisting, and felt something cut into his leg. “Dude. Are you gonna toss your cookies, or what?”
“What?” Wynn worked to clear his head. He looked down to see that the handsaw, now on the floor, had torn a small hole in his slacks and grazed his skin.
“For sure, dude.” The boy rushed back to Wynn and took him by the arm. “Like, you better sit down. You look like you’re about to hurl.”
Wynn pushed him away. “I’m good. Sorry. Let’s just go.”
“Okay. But like, you dropped your saw. And you don’t look so hot.”
“Well, you won’t either when you get old, kid.” He bent to retrieve the saw.
“So true, dude.” The kid guffawed like a donkey. Tragic. But Wynn managed a smile too. He felt better, until he saw the blood.
“Move those people out of here!” Carter shouted above a cacophony of chatter and tears and pain. “Who is this guy?” she asked no one in particular. A crowd of men hovered around a gurney near the entrance of the trauma unit, a trail of blood leading to their nucleus.
“That’s Davis,” a round man with a bronze face answered. “He was there when it happened. He’s been holding the other end ever since.” Wynn recognized the round man’s color, a combination of dirt and sun. The man’s hair stuck to his forehead, matted in a hard hat’s bell. He wore a plaid work shirt, coming untucked and bulking around frayed red suspenders. Beason? But he knew better.
“Okay, fine,” she said. “He can stay. But you and the others have to go. Now!”
“But what about Carlos?” the man who wasn’t Beason clarified.
“He’s the only one who can interpret.”
“Oh, good grief.” Carter turned to a small man holding a straw hat and looking frightened. “Sir,” she said, shouting again and over enunciating. “Do you speak English?” Wynn did that too. He guessed to most Americans, you either spoke English or you were deaf.
“Sí,” Carlos answered, quickly and quietly.
“Carter!” the kid called out from beside Wynn, startling him. “I brought the Bishop dude.”
“Oh, good. I thought you got lost again.” She motioned them over.
“I did,” the kid laughed as they made their way to the crowd, but Carter did not seem to see the humor.
“Okay,” she turned back to the crowd. “Anyone not named Davis or Carlos or – wait – what’s the patient’s name again?”
“Manuel Gutierrez,” a bored nurse from behind an adjacent desk droned.
“Right. Gutierrez, Davis, and Carlos, stay. Everyone else, out. Now!”
The foreman grumbled at sitting this one out with the crew. But he led his men away nonetheless. As the crowd cleared, Wynn saw a soiled and slender man, Davis maybe, holding one end of a long board. The other end extended behind a railed curtain and out of view.
“Can I stay?” the kid asked. Carter turned a cold eye in response.
“I don’t know. Can you?” It was less of a question and more of an indictment.
“Sha!” The kid laughed and bobbed his head up and down. Wynn thought that might have been yes. But he wasn’t sure. He was absolutely certain, however, that he himself did NOT want to stay. His name was not Davis, not Carlos, not Manuel Gutierrez. Strike three. You’re outta here, said the overweight umpire. So why did he have to stay? He had the sudden sensation of falling, and his knees buckled.
“Bishop,” Carter caught him by the arm. “Whoa, careful. There’s some blood on the floor. Listen, thanks for coming.” Wynn nodded. He couldn’t speak just yet. “I was hoping you were still haunting that basement down there.”
“Yeah, like a ghost,” he finally offered. “How’s the sink?” he asked, stupidly. That kid was rubbing off on him.
“The what?” Carter asked.
“Never mind,” Wynn said quickly. “Listen, I’m not gonna lie. I don’t do so good in…” he trailed off and shook his head. “I’m not feeling so good. So, just tell me what you need, and let’s get on with it. Okay with you?”
“He’s gonna hurl,” the kid sang under his breath, but Carter didn’t hear him.
“Sure.” Carter agreed. “Okay with me.” Her eyes flashed a smile. It didn’t quite make it to her mouth, but Wynn thought it was a kind smile all the same. He thought of Bev and the first time he met her, a common girl with uncommon beauty. Even in the distance across the soda shop counter, Wynn could feel the warmth of Bev’s smile. Natural, not stuck-up like that other girl he was already seeing but soon wouldn’t be.
Carter didn’t wear makeup. And her complexion betrayed the abuse of too many hours under harsh fluorescents. Yet she still possessed a confidence that was its own kind of attractive. That, along with an athletic build beneath tight-enough-to-tempt scrubs, was enough to make Wynn maintain a prudent distance and look down at his hands. Her eyes must have followed his. Because she said, “Oh good. You brought the saw. You think that one will work?”
“I don’t even know why I’m here,” Wynn admitted.
Carter stopped smiling and cut her eyes at the kid.
“Hey, Carter lady.” The kid held up his hands in defense. “I traversed the labyrinth and brought forth the mighty dude and his trusty saw. So, easy with the mom eyes. Okay? Okay.” The mom eyes rolled anyway. Carter turned her attention back to Wynn.
“This is why you’re here,” Carter said and rolled the curtain away. What waited behind it was so bizarre Wynn felt like the butt of a practical joke. Smile, you’re on Candid Camera! He blinked, then blinked again, thinking maybe he was still asleep behind his desk in the noisy swivel chair that made his lower back ache when he sat for too long. But it was no dream and definitely no joke.
Manuel, head bowed in a pool of lethargy and sweat, sat motionless on a gurney. His right arm hung high from a makeshift sling fashioned from spare pillowcases tied to an IV pole. Below the sling, eighteen inches of bloody, splintered wood jutted from the outside of his arm just above the elbow. From the entrance wound on the other side, six more feet of lumber stretched across the room supported by a whimpering Davis, who clearly wanted to be anywhere but here. Wynn could relate.
Wynn noted the red blood seeping into the yellow shards of pine and felt the burning memory of the Merthiolate antiseptic his mother used to rub on his scraped legs and elbows at every opportunity. There was no infirmity so severe that it was beyond the prescription of that rusty orange miracle solution. If she were here now in her faded sundress and tattered apron, she would take one look at Manuel and his impaled bicep and tell him with all sincerity, “This won’t hurt a bit.” Then she would smear the orange liquid across his wound and gently blow her warm, mother’s breath across his skin while Manuel screamed for death to take him quickly.
“Good night,” Wynn exhaled in a whisper.
“I know,” Carter said. “Some work site a couple of blocks from here. Foreman said something about a table saw, I think. Five horsepower something or another. That mean anything to you?”
Wynn tried to whistle, but his mouth was too dry. That was a lot of power behind a ten-inch blade spinning at close to 4300 RPMs. Sooner or later, if you went too fast, you’d end up giving your friends a high “four” the rest of your life. Or maybe, Wynn thought as he tried and failed to look away, you harpooned your right arm.
“So, wait,” Wynn stopped as a gruesome thought materialized. “You want me to—”
“Cut it off.”
Manuel Gutierrez, Carter would later clarify, had entered the United States only five years earlier. And though he did not speak English, he understood it quite well, a fact he kept to himself for many reasons. But at this moment he could pretend no más.
“No, no!” he pleaded with breathless desperation. “Por favor, que no es Dios! No mi brazo. Por favor, no!” Carter eyed two nearby orderlies who moved into position should the patient go completely loco.
“He said—” Carlos began helpfully.
“Thank you, Carlos,” Carter stopped him with a raised hand. “I think we got that.”
“Okay,” mumbled the faithful interpreter.
“Carlos, tell him we’re not taking his arm,” she instructed.
“You are not?” Carlos frowned.
“Tell him!” Carter shouted back.
“Sí, sí,” Carlos agreed quickly and translated. But Manuel looked dubious, his glassy eyes fixed on Wynn and the toothy saw. Davis remained silent and tried unsuccessfully not to fidget.
“Okay,” Carter resumed. “Now that we have that settled, let’s give this guy his arm back. He’s still losing blood. We need to move, people. Move.” She blew bangs from her forehead with her bottom lip and went to work.
“Kyle,” she shouted down the hall at someone Wynn couldn’t see. “Get housekeeping down here with a mop STAT. I’m tired of walking in hemoglobin. Jenny, you finish cleaning up that wound yet?”
“Dunzo!” said a young girl from behind Wynn, startling him a second time. Carter ripped off her contaminated latex gloves and tossed them in a hazardous waste bin on the way to the charge desk. “Judy, notify surgical. Tell ’em what we’ve got down here,” she instructed an older woman who was less bored now and already picking up the receiver. “Jason! Vitals?” A young man with a patchy beard threaded a cart through a sea of scrub green.
“Still on your crap list, I guess?” he shouted back.
“Till further notice. Now, vitals. Go!” She snapped on a new pair of gloves.
“Yeah, yeah,” he mumbled obediently.
Wynn moved to make way, but his shoes stuck to the bloody tile floor. Maybe the guy should stop and see him first. He was about to hurl those cookies.
“Bishop,” Carter called. Wynn’s eyes burned. His heart pounded, and his breath quickened. All he was missing was the tingling arm, and he’d finally be in the right place at the right time. “So I need you to cut the smaller end of the board,” she instructed. “Cut as close to his arm as you can without cutting him, of course. Then we’ll pull the rest out from the other side. You ready?”
No. Not ready. Negatory, good buddy. You go on up ahead. I’ll just be right here, Big Daddy Wynn riding ten in the wind. Catch you on the other side. Over and out. Wynn thought about asking for something to calm his own nerves. He’d even settle for a slow Southern narcotic at this point. Perhaps Carter had a Panic Pete nearby.
“Yeah, I’m ready,” he lied, but then took it back. “Wait, did you give this guy anything for pain?”
“Of course,” Carter answered. “A general sedative to calm him down, some antibiotics, and Tylenol to help the pain, sure. Why?”
“Well, this is really gonna hurt.”
“Bishop, you’re cutting the wood, not his arm. He’ll be fine. Now let’s go. We need to move.”
Manuel whimpered from the gurney, reminding them that he was still in the room and surreptitiously bilingual. Carlos wisely elected not to translate any of the ongoing dialogue. Davis danced like he had to pee. Wynn gripped the saw in his hand, his fat, sweaty hand. The hand that held the tape that took the measure of things. The hand that held the carpenter’s pencil that took the measure of men. He was good with his hands. His hands were all he had. His hands were the measure of him. That’s when he pulled his hands away.
“Listen,” Wynn said, trying to navigate the cotton that used to be his tongue. “I know you know your stuff and all that, but to cut through that piece of wood is going to take thirty, maybe forty strokes. Now he might be able to handle the first ten or twenty. But after that, those vibrations. I just—” he swallowed and tried to keep his teeth from chattering. Sweat ran into his eyes like he was looking into the sun. “I just don’t want to hurt anybody. That’s all.” He took a shuttered breath and prayed Carter couldn’t see the tears that now mixed with the sweat. He must have looked ridiculous, an old man with his torn dress slacks and bloody loafers and sweaty handsaw. He could tell just by the way she considered him now. Then she surprised him.
“Fair enough,” she agreed. “Jenny, fifty milligrams lidocaine,” she ordered from the nurse hovering to her right. “Give it five minutes, Wynn. But not a second longer.” She patted his back with an unexpected, latex-lined hand of encouragement.
Wynn. She had just called him Wynn. No one did that anymore. He liked it. He might have said it made him feel like a peer if he had thought of that exact word. But he didn’t. He just knew he liked it.
He laid the saw on a small metal tray and rubbed his hands together, trying to steady them. Out of habit, he watched Carter as she worked. It was how he learned everything. He watched, then he did it. There were no books about how to ride a headache ball, no MBA on backing a rig into a loading dock. The summer he turned eighteen, he went to work laying tile for Marvin Gully. For two years, he just watched. He handed Mr. Gully tools. He cleaned trowels. He hauled boxes. Then eventually he took the trowel in his own hand and put his knowledge to work. The same for sheetrock, shingles, concrete, framing, all of it. Years of watching, then doing. Now, as he watched Carter, he was learning a new trade, one his own manager had failed to model, one that had little to do with medicine.
“You ready?” she asked. He was calmer now. The throbbing in his ankles had subsided, and his hands only trembled slightly.
“Yeah,” he whispered. “I’m ready.” He looked at Manuel. “Son, this will be over pretty quick. And I promise I’ll try to be as smooth and fast as I can. Okay?”
Manuel nodded in understanding.
“Okay,” Carlos translated.
Wynn smiled for the first time since leaving the elevator. Then he picked up his saw with his right hand and took the short end of the wooden shard with his left. If Manuel could do this, Wynn could do this. The phrase “measure twice, cut once” rattled in his head like the banging of his knee against an industrial green cabinet. After two deep breaths, Wynn set the metal teeth against the lumber and pulled the saw forward. Management demands more from a man. Manuel drew in his own quick breath, but did not scream, not yet. Reversing direction, Wynn rocked the saw up and down at alternating angles, maximizing the cut of each stroke. Dig him out! Cut them off! Careful not to go too fast or use too much pressure, he sawed evenly, stroke after stroke. Manuel moaned. Closer now. Just a few more. Wynn hummed to himself, “When the bow breaks…” Sawdust fell to the floor, soaking up the blood pooling at Wynn’s feet. Friction grew in crescendo with Manuel’s growing wail. “…the cradle will fall.” Faster, faster, then finally – freedom. And silence.
After twenty-five strokes (Wynn knew because he counted every agonizing one of them) the shard separated from the arm. Wynn held the stake in his left hand, like Van Helsing over Dracula’s dead body. Fresh blood dripped from the arm. For a moment, that was all Wynn heard, followed only by a dull ring, the sound of pressure from holding his breath. He looked around the trauma unit. Everyone stood still, as if time had stopped with the final stroke of the saw. Then, above the ringing, Wynn heard a small voice.
“Gracias.” Manuel sat slumped, exhausted, and crying.
“You’re welcome,” Wynn whispered. He was crying too. “You’re a big man, Manuel. Tough as nails.” From behind, Wynn felt a hand on his shoulder.
“Smart,” Carter said. “The extra painkiller. I see now what you mean about the vibrations. Now step back so we can get this thing out of his arm before Davis passes out or wets himself.”
“Dude,” a young voice shouted from behind them, rising to falsetto. “That was totally righteous! I am like so glad I didn’t take Home Ec. again this semester.”
Wynn ignored the kid and turned away as Carter and her team extracted the remaining wood. He knew Manuel still had a lot to endure before the day was over. This made him think of his own to-do list and the long night ahead. Hands still bloody, legs still weak, Wynn slipped silently back to the bottom floor.
He sat for a long time at the break room table looking at his hands. He had washed them with green Gojo cleanser at least three times. But some jobs never left you, not entirely. You could wash away the dust, the grease, even the blood. But the calluses, the cracks, they were all a kind of resume of scars declaring where you’d been and what you’d done, whether you knew you could or not.
He had made a fresh pot of coffee. A cup of it sat before him now. The heat and the steam settled his nerves. He cradled the cup with his palms and opened his hands, as if asking them what to do next.
“It really is a maze down here.” Her voice broke through the hum of florescent lights. Wynn turned in his chair to see Carter standing with her hands on her hips. Her bloody scrubs reminded him that M*A*S*H was on television tonight. “I smelled coffee.”
“All the way from the ER?” Wynn asked with incredulity.
“Hey, I’ve got a nose,” she offered with a shrug.
Wynn got up and poured another Styrofoam cup. “Black?”
This was good, Wynn thought. He hadn’t seen a cream or sugar packet down here since Ford pardoned Nixon. He placed the cup across from his own. Carter sat accordingly.
“So,” she began, “just another day at the office.” Wynn smiled back through the Maxwell House mist, but was silent. He wanted to ask a question. But for the second time today, he didn’t know where to start. “So, you okay? You looked a little pale when you left.”
“The kid,” he blurted out before he even realized it. Oh well. There it was. He’d better come up with the rest now.
“I guess. The one that came to get me.”
“That’s Roland, Mr. Dungeons and Dragons.” She laughed and shook her head. “There’s a piece of work. Not sure he’ll make it in the ER. But he’s entertaining.” Wynn laughed in agreement and took another sip of his coffee. He sat it back down and waited a beat before continuing.
“Right. But what I mean is, he came to get – me. Called me by name.”
“The only thing he did right all day, to be honest.”
“But why me?” he pressed.
Carter thought about this, but only for a second. “Well, I had a man bleeding all over my trauma unit with a small tree sticking out of his arm.”
“And what part of that says ‘Bishop’ to you, exactly?”
“The part where you showed up and got it done. You have a certain reputation for that.”
Wynn looked deep into the blackness of his cup. “I used to, maybe. Now I just write evaluations. Well, I stare at a blank page and pretend to write evaluations.”
“I hear that,” she admitted. “I’d repeat my third year of med school to get out of writing those things.”
“I got a guy, thirty years this December, old friend of mine.” Wynn sipped from the cup, now almost empty. “Got to write him up, second time this year.”
“Bummer,” Carter said, betraying her age. “If it makes you feel any better, I caught my intern with a candy striper in the storage closet. I reassigned him to triage for a whole month. All he does all day is check vitals. It’s absolutely killing him.”
“Candy striper, huh?” Wynn grinned.
“Can you believe that?” she leaned forward on indignant elbows. “I mean, I’d expect that from Roland, little neurotic goof ball. Not that any candy striper would give Roland more than a tranquilizer. But Jason? I just expected more.” It was her turn to stare into her cup. “Anyway, it was the only way I could keep it off the record.” Carter took one more sip. Then she rose and tossed the cup into the trash beneath the counter. Wynn realized he had never noticed that particular trashcan before.
“So, listen. I just came down to say, thanks. Manuel is in surgery, and he’ll keep his arm. Of course I still have a waiting room full of stinky, sweaty construction guys. But all things considered, I’d say we both got it done today.”
“I guess we did.” Wynn offered her his best smile. He wasn’t flirting. But he was trying to be charming. He had a new respect for Sarah Carter. She returned the smile, a Bev smile. As she walked to the door, she passed the workroom. With raised eyebrows, she nodded at the clutter.
“Wow. I thought I had a mess to clean up,” she teased. “Thanks again for the coffee.” With that, she walked around the corner and into the light beyond the basement.
Wynn sat for a moment in the aftermath of the day. As he listened to the silence, he tried to remember something Carter had said. What was it, exactly? Something about keeping it off the record? Wynn walked to the workroom and sat Adel’s tool belt by the door. No way was he going to traverse that minefield again today.
He walked into his office and looked around. Everything looked exactly as he had left it. The calendar still called for an end to substance abuse, the pile of parts remained stranded on his desk. Yet somehow it all looked different. It was as if Wynn could see what was beneath that pile, work that waited under the weight of buried potential. The punch clock clicked, and so did something in Wynn’s mechanically gifted mind. He turned and headed back to the break room.
Grabbing a box full of Burger King wrappers and Dr. Pepper cans, he turned the refuse into the newly discovered trash bin. Then he returned to his office and sat the empty box on the floor. He picked up the policy manual, a two-inch, three-ring binder, and looked at the cover. Without thinking, he turned the notebook on its side and used it to rake everything from his desk into the box. A symphony of clangs and bangs sent dust flying. Wynn coughed, even as he laughed out loud.
As he sat down and waited for the dust to settle, his foot bumped a familiar form. Wynn bent to pick up Panic Pete, no worse for wear, and placed him back on the edge where he belonged. Then he pulled the carpenter’s pencil from his shirt pocket. Splinters of wood crowned an empty hole where the lead used to live, the one that broke under the pressure of Ramsey’s visit. Wynn started for his pocketknife, but reconsidered. Instead, his hand went to his heart and the pen that marked his marriage. The ballpoint cut dry grooves into the pad while the ink wondered if it was worth it. Then, the words began to flow onto the page. “Orden, Adel.” Wynn opened the policy manual. With his hands he flipped the pages, reading and re-reading each word. An hour later, his lower back aching, he put pen to paper and began to take the measure of a man.
Brandon Abbott lives life just south of the city. Raised in a rural Alabama town about an hour below the space industry of Huntsville, Brandon spent his most formative years learning less about rockets and more about the purpose of teets on a boar hog. With grandiose dreams of becoming a singer/songwriter, Brandon later migrated north to Nashville, where he soon discovered his waitress at Romano’s Macaroni Grill was more talented than anyone he had ever met. Disillusioned but highly entertained, Brandon settled once again south of the city in the suburb of Spring Hill, TN. Here, he currently serves as a Baptist minister and navigates the ever-growing complexities of living with a wife, three kids, and a mortgage. In his spare time, he writes. Sometimes, he writes a good story. But mostly, he just writes.