Everything You Ever Had
Wasted and wounded
it ain’t what the moon did
I got what I paid for now.
—Tom Waits, “Tom Traubert’s Blues”
the wire man.
AIN’T NOBODY left in the Roosevelt. She’s empty as a cathouse on Easter Sunday. But she ain’t no cathouse, never was. She’s just a old girl what’s took in too many bad eggs and paid the price.
There was a time—roses up the trellis, trimmed and proper—when folks on the street, soon as they seen her, they was fighting for a chance to call her home. Nowadays folks walk on by. If they look her way at all, what they see’s a burned-out mess of bricks and mortar, a half-spent shell what looks ready for the wrecking ball.
All that’s about to change. First it’s the architect, then the contractor, then all manner of them, like carpenters and plumbers and folks like that.
Today it’s the wire man. He’s come to work on the electricity. Now me, I was a wire man myself, so it’s up to me to keep a eye on him, make sure he does it right. I follow him from the basement to the first floor, from the first floor back to the basement. He’s all right, this wire man. He does a fine job. Last week it was him and two more like him—they had to start from scratch, of course, re-wire the whole shebang, not just replace a plug or two—but today it’s Saturday and it’s only him. He’s putting in extra time and he ain’t minding it one bit. He’s whistling to hisself like regular pay’s just for dopes and suckers.
Come Monday, the re-wire should be done with. Then will come the plaster and the floors. They’ll put in a mess of nails and paint and spit and polish, and presto, she’s good as new. And maybe with a little luck, there won’t be no more bad eggs. Maybe it’ll be decent folks this time, folks who’ll watch out for her, treat her right again. They won’t remember how she’d gone up in flames, emptied out overnight like a eviction notice from God Almighty hisself.
Nope, The Roosevelt apartment house ain’t ready for no dirt nap. She ain’t beat yet.
Watching this fellow pull wires, I can’t help but picture the old girl when I first set eyes in her. I say in her, because the first I ever seen the old girl was from the inside.
It took me nearly forty years to learn how I come to open my eyes in a place I never seen before—forty years! And that is one helluva thing.
Helluva thing or no, forty years or only a day, turns out it ain’t nothing special. Turns out, we each of us come to find, it happens to every poor soul on God’s Green Earth.
‘learn shorthand,’ he says.
Some folks figure it out quick, some folks not so quick. And some, well they never figure it at all. It don’t have nothing to do with what kind of smarts you got. You might figure it all out of once, and you might, like me, figure it out in little pieces. That’s just the way it works.
Besides, who’s to say what’s smart and what’s not? Here, I’ll tell you a little story:
Was a boy down in Emporia looked dumb as all get-out. He’d be setting on the stoop, his hands in his lap or hanging down his sides like limp greens, like he don’t got no use for them. Rocking back and forth. I don’t mean he’s in no rocking chair. It’s just back and forth, back and forth, like that. Sometimes, when I walk by, I see his mama’s feeding him with a spoon. She’s put a dishtowel around his neck and she wipes the food from his chin when it dribbles out. It’s hard for her because he’s rocking all the while.
Now it’s plain this boy can’t tie his shoes or pull up his socks or nothing like that. Can’t make a baloney sandwich or pour hisself a glass of milk. Maybe can’t even wipe his own behind for all I know. So I say he’s two times stupid, like the kids down the way say—I’m like maybe eight years old, see—and Granna Poe whacks me upside, marches me over to his stoop and says, “you go on up there and talk to that boy. You’ll see what dumb is and what dumb ain’t.”
Turns out the Lord give this boy some kind of gift, can learn by heart whatever you put in front of him—matchbook, cookbook, Bible—don’t make no difference what. You show him that matchbook for five seconds and take it away and he’ll rattle off the whole thing back at you. Now he don’t look at you but he’s talking at you just the same. “Learn shorthand in your spare time,” he says, his eyes all screwy-like, his arms dead away by his side. “Only minutes a day!”he says, his eyes all blank and whatnot, and he tells you the address and phone number what to call and how many matches is left to boot.
Granna Poe says even though it don’t look like the poor boy got as much sense as God give a goose, you never can tell. “’Cause look at that,” she says, “he’s quick as can be.” He can tell you how much a whole bag of groceries cost if you tell him what’s in there. He can tell you what’s on the front page of the Emporia Star-News and he can tell you what’s on page four, and he can repeat it for you a whole two years later. And he can tell you the names of all the presidents of the United States, in alphabetical order. And he can even tell it backwards. Spelling and all.
Not smart, not dumb either, just plain different.
So when I say it took nearly forty years to figure out how I come to find myself in The Roosevelt apartment house, you got to understand that I ain’t complaining. Lord knows I got enough to complain about without complaining about that. Complaining don’t do you no good. Water under the bridge is water under the bridge, even if it’s forty years of water.
Out to the sea and gone.
© D. S. Thornton. All Rights Reserved.