May 22, 2009

The pity dollar

His nickname was ironic, in the humorless way big men are called Tiny, and angry, brawling men are Pinky. It wasn't funny, but a little cruel. He was called Hammer, but he was indecisive. He stuttered through decisions, second-guessing everything he did, always saying he didn't know, always hesitating, always a man who'd learned through long experience to bet against himself.

Hammer spent ten years in college, taking the deferments to avoid the draft. After ten years, he had a degree in art. He was a sculptor, creating modernist abstractions out of steel and melted plastic, but he never really believed it. He stopped soon after school, without really realizing he was stopping.

He got married. He had three sons. All of them were more confident than he was. He joined a Calvinist church, where men were manly men who believed in tough theology, in hell and cigars, and he was intimidated by this brawny God. His wife left him when he was 56, and he didn't know why, but he knew he had failed, and he often cried.

He had no skills, no trade, so he always worked for other men and for corporations. He was a shipping clerk for a warehouse, until the warehouse closed. He unloaded trucks, pulled weeds, and stocked Christmas toys from midnight to 8 while corporate-approved holiday music played on repeat every hour. He worked at Waffle House, at the grill, and listed that as management experience on job applications. He couldn't find work for six months, so his wife went to work for a financial planner. She made more money than he'd ever made and that's how she left him.

One of the men from the church gave him work pouring concrete. The men there drove oversized trucks and he had a 12-year-old Saturn. He made $13 an hour, which was one more than the kid who was working to save money for college. The kid was studying physics and he tried to read what the kid was reading, but he couldn't understand it. He said he went to college too and the kid said what did he do in college and he said he mostly dragged it out, for the deferments. He regretted it now. Maybe war would have been good for him. When he found out what the kid was making, only a dollar's difference, he went to his car and cried.