You Can Get Lost Anywhere
The old workman put down his wooden box of well-worn tools and sat at the bar next to Dickens. He laid his rough worker’s hands on the bar and his mouth moved in his deeply lined face as he said one word to the bartender. “Beer.”
The beer came on the bar and the bartender hadn’t had to ask him what brand he wanted because he always wanted the same brand. The old workman picked up the beer and brought it to his lips and drank. He put the beer down. He turned to Dickens.
“So what kind of day you have Dickens?”
“Pretty good,” answered Dickens.
“I had a pretty good day too,” said the old workman.
Another lousy day, he thought. I’m all aches and pains—maybe someday I won’t have to work anymore—maybe someday I’ll be able to retire—would that I had a cushy office job like this guy—look at his suit—look at his shoes. Yes, I should have gotten one of those jobs when I got out of school. I should have went to college—I’d have a nice office job now too—look at what I do for a living—nail up walls, hang doors—things that anyone can do. I always wanted to make my mark—in a cushy office job I could really make my mark--
“That’s great,” said Dickens.
The two men looked into their drinks and Dickens once more readied himself to down his whisky shot and again, as he did every day, he envied the old workman. Dickens worked as a manager in a large financial corporation and felt deep down that he had produced nothing all his life, while the old workman had actually left his mark on the world. Dickens didn’t actually know what kind of work the old workman did but he was sure the man had made his mark by fixing or building things that you could touch feel and use. The box of tools was well worn and battered from years of use on job after job after job after job.
All Dickens produced was—nothing. That was all he could think of. He watched over a department of people who went about their jobs without needing to consult him or get advice from him and claimed at the end of every year that he had produced so many thousands of whatever his people produced but it hadn’t really been him; he himself produced nothing. He felt his soft hand grip the shot and bring it to his lips—he knocked it back and motioned to the bartender for another. He glanced at the old workman’s hands—dark and rough and craggy and cracked—and he considered his own hands—soft and smooth and weak, like a child’s.
The old worker drank his beer and called for another. As it came, he turned to Dickens.
“Worked hard today though,” he said. “Working hard’s hell when you’re old. Don’t you think?”
Dickens nodded. Did the old workman think that Dickens was also old? He must, else how would he know working hard is hell when you’re old? Dickens did not think of himself as old. Being forty-five is not old. Though he thought his best years were probably behind him. That’s a sad thing to think—he wondered why he thought it. Dickens had never thought such a thing before. Maybe being forty-five is old, if such thoughts start coming to mind.
The old workman fingered his beer and thought of what awaited him at home once he left the bar. The same old wife, the same old grown child still living at home and paying no rent. Would that I had stayed single—I would like to have an apartment all to myself—I would like to not have to bother with a wife and kid—I would like to go home to a quiet place all alone—I’m never all alone—I want to be all alone—there’s peace and quiet when you’re all alone--
“What you doing tonight, Dickens?” he suddenly blurted.
Dickens lifted the shot and downed it. “Nothing,” he said to the old workman. He knew he’d drive home alone and go up to his door and turn the key and open the door to a dark apartment. No one would be there but his cat. The cat will wind around Dickens’ legs and purr, and Dickens will reach down and scratch the cat behind its ear. Then he’d go to the kitchen and look in the refrigerator and freezer and wait for an idea to come of what to eat. He’d pull out a frozen microwave meal and pull it from its box and go make it. Then, he’d eat alone surrounded by a halo of silence. There would be nothing, no sound, no house, no world—just him surrounded by silence. And again he’d think of the wife who had left him five years ago and he’d wonder what she was doing. The cat had really been hers. A new shot sat before him, though he had not asked for one. Attentive bartender, he thought. Deserves a good tip. Like he had been an attentive husband—he would have done anything for her—but she left anyway. Needed to find herself, she said. As though these were the sixties or something. He grinned to himself as he touched a finger to his shot--
“So what do you do all day?” asked the old workman.
“I said what do you do for a living? You’ve never told me.”
“Oh. I’m a manager.”
“Oh. Big company.”
“Yeah, big enough.”
“What does a manager do?”
“I’m responsible for the work of the department.”
He wrapped his hand around the shot glass. It felt cold. The old workman looked away after taking a large swig off his beer.
In charge of people, thought the old workman. Would that I could be in charge of people and not have to do any work of my own—I would like to give orders—be the big shot—walk around all day saying good job men, good job—sitting in my office with my feet up reading the paper while the men worked hard for me--
Responsible for the work of the department, thought Dickens. Said that way, it sounds important. Too bad he wasn’t. They didn’t need him. Sure, he had authority over them. They had to do what he said, but he never had to say anything to them. They knew their jobs—they were good at them—he had done well hiring his crew, but beyond that, what had he done? Another case of what was good being behind him. They were all young. They were starting their careers. He was not young. He was not starting his career. He was forty-five years old. He had twenty years to go. He thought back to twenty years ago—it just seemed like yesterday! Would the rest of his life speed by just as fast? He shuddered to think.
“—and what does the department do?”
“We update data. For systems to use.”
“Data? What kind of data?”
“All kinds of data.”
All kinds—but he put none in they all put it in and figured out what it should be and fixed it when there were system problems but he did none of this. They knew how to do it. He just stood around—what they must think of him.
“What do you do?” Dickens suddenly asked the old workman.
The old workman took a drink to mask the wince that crossed his face. Carpenter—lifting heavy wood, getting lots of splinters, doing backbreaking work all day that anybody else could do just as well—nothing to be proud of, nothing of his own—who cares who put in that door you just opened—who cares who built those shelves you use—nobody, is what—nobody.
“Oh, said Dickens, nodding. That sounds great.”
He thought what it must be like to make things, to fix things. Years back in high school, he had taken what were called industrial arts classes. Shop. He remembered working with tools but couldn’t remember ever having made anything. He thought of the one thing he remembered from shop class. A boy named Panetta. Always talking about how awful the world was, how messed up things were, how wrong everything was. He had a long face and a fifty seven Chevy. Dickens had befriended him, even after all the others had given up on him because of his constant negativity, because there was something about him that Dickens could relate to. Dickens couldn’t remember what that was but it wasn’t important because of how things ended up. Dickens was in shop class with Panetta, and they were cutting pipe to length with hacksaws—they were always doing things like that—and things were going along well until the hacksaw slipped and cut through Dickens’ thumbnail to the bone. He dropped the hacksaw; he gripped his wrist; he wailed.
“Ohh my God God damn it it hurts it hurts...”
The blood spurted all around and Panetta came up.
“How can I help you? What happened Dickens?”
“Oh my God—“
“What happened Dickens?”
Dickens’ eyes blazed.
“God damn you Panetta, leave me alone! You dumb bastard, can’t you see what happened? Go to hell Panetta.”
Panetta’s jaw dropped.
“That’s right, I said go to hell!”
Panetta turned and rushed from the room. The shop class teacher took Dickens to the nurse. This was on Friday. The weekend passed quietly. Dickens went to school on Monday. In the halls, there was a buzzing.
“Did you hear what happened?”
“Did you hear?”
“Do you know?”
“What? What?” asked Dickens.
“Panetta blew his brains out on Saturday with his father’s twelve gauge.”
“Oh my—oh my God—“
Last time he’d seen Panetta, he’d shouted into his face.
That’s right, I said go to hell!
Oh my God oh my God--
Go to hell!
Panetta blew his brains out--
“Where do you work?” Dickens half-shouted at the old workman.
“Oh, big construction site downtown. Forty story office building.”
He thought how great it would be to have an office job—to lift nothing heavier than a pencil or a piece of paper all day and to sit all day in a cushy chair pushing papers from the inbox to the outbox—he knew he could have had a job like that—that’s the kind of job he really deserved, not this awful filthy backbreaking carpenter’s job.
Dickens nodded and downed his shot.
“I’ll switch to beer,” he told the bartender.
“Forty story office building,” thought Dickens. Another place full of men and women doing work being managed by managers who stood around and sat around and chatted it up and did nothing. Just like Dickens. And once a year they would get together and pass judgment on the people doing the work and decide as a group what kind of raises or bonuses the people who did the work would get. Dickens did this. And they would make a list on the board of all the people and they would rank the people top to bottom and allocate the money from the highest to the lowest. Now who are they to do something like this? Dickens did not even know how to do the jobs that his people did—but yet he is qualified to judge them? Oh, it will be a big office building all right. A big office building full of the same old bullshit--
“Big building,” said the old workman. “Bigger than shit.”
He drank his beer empty. He thought of the time he had seen a man fall fifty stories to his death—a carpenter just like him—yes, bigger—bigger than shit—to see the bigger than shit building speeding up past you and to see the ground rushing up and to be helpless—do you brace yourself for the impact? Are you conscious, or are you blacked out—oh, I hope you’re blacked out in case I ever fall—I hope you’re blacked out in case I ever fall—in an office job, people don’t fall. Office jobs are safe—easy—office jobs matter--
Dickens sat feeling worthless.
“The building where I work is just four stories,” he said. “But it’s spread out—way spread out.”
“Yeah. Believe it or not, you can get lost in there. I got lost trying to find a meeting I was supposed to go to.”
“I believe it.”
Sure you can get lost in there, thought the old workman—on your way to your important meeting where you’ll make important decisions sitting in a comfy chair at a conference table being important feeling important knowing they’re all hanging on your every word not like me a God-damned carpenter nobody says hello to, asks anything of, or pays any attention to.
Yes, Dickens had gotten lost in his four story building. He’d been told by his boss to start attending a certain weekly meeting of a network group. The meeting room was on the fourth floor of a remote corner of the complex, and he got to the fourth floor of the correct section but searched and searched and couldn’t find the room. The start time for the meeting came and went and still he was stuck lost—until he asked someone.
Oh, he was told after showing the person the room number—that room is in the fourth floor of the other end of the section. This fourth floor and that fourth floor don’t connect—as a matter of fact there’s only three stories between them. You’ve got to go down a level, go over, go up a level and the room will be easy to find. Just keep heading that way--
Just keep heading that way and you’ll get there. Okay?
And he did what the man said and he found the room. He stood before the closed door of the room and knew that if he knocked and went in and sat down they’d all say “Who the hell is this guy?” The room would get quiet and everybody would stare as he found a seat and he knew, just knew, that everybody in the room knew each other and they would stare and say “Who the hell is this?” though he knew they’d look up and nod and smile hello and look and act the opposite of how they really felt. He didn’t want to go through the door, but he’d been told to attend the meeting. Though he hadn’t been told what the meeting was for or what this particular network group did or why his boss would care to have someone there.
Years later, it would be second nature for him to ask all these questions but now, here, as the new guy, he didn’t ask questions. Just did as he was told. He pulled the door lever and the door opened and he stepped in and there was a long conference table and about ten people in there at the table and when he went in they all looked up and smiled and nodded, but he knew what they were really thinking and he sat quickly in a folding chair at the edge of the table and someone slid him a thick sheaf of stapled together papers from a stack in the center of the table, and he casually leaned back and put it in his lap and thumbed through it, as though he were someone who belonged and who knew what he was there for and what he was doing. He said nothing to anyone and never looked up from the handout thick with papers full of columns of numbers and codes that he didn’t comprehend—he sat through the whole meeting saying nothing and not looking up and when it was over he left—and he attended that meeting for five years the same way comprehending nothing and sitting in silence, and after about four years he began to think that all the others probably thought he was the biggest weirdo as he sat in their midst silent and unintroduced week after week after week and he knew they must talk after each meeting and say “Who is he—what group is he with—who does he work for—why is he sitting and taking all this in—and why is he so quiet—so deathly quiet?”
After five years of this, he got reassigned and got a new boss who told him he didn’t need to go to the meetings anymore, and he wondered if they worried about him when he finally disappeared from their midst and never came back and was never seen again.
“—you can get lost anywhere,” said the old workman, who had been talking all this time.
“Yes, I guess that’s true,” said Dickens.
“Hell,” said the old workman. “I can get lost in my own bathroom.”
They chuckled, though it didn’t seem that funny to Dickens. When the one you’re with chuckles, you chuckle back.
“So anyway,” said Dickens. “What kind of stuff do you work on?”
“Oh, I do framing, hang doors, do stuff like that.”
“Right,” thought the old workman. “Stuff that anybody could do, not leaving my mark anyplace—a door is just a door, a wall is just a wall—it’s not like my name’s splashed all over them saying look who did this look who built this remember him remember him—when I die who will care about anything I do—as an office manager I would get respect, though—as an office manager, people will care what I do.”
Dickens swigged off his beer. He thought it must be nice to have a job where you did things and did them right and knew what you were doing. When his wife had still been with him, he built a garden shed they bought from Home Depot. All the wood and sheathing and siding and studs were delivered in a neat package with easy-to-follow directions. There was even a video tape you could watch that showed how the thing should be put together. Nevertheless, Dickens put it up wrong. The walls were not square and the roof was cockeyed and the door was hung up wrong. Dickens worked hard with hammer and nails and followed the directions exactly, but it still came out wrong. It was like the time he’d tried to change the oil in his Pontiac himself and didn’t tighten the drain plug in the bottom of the engine enough and after he’d driven a while the oil all came out, while he was driving on the highway and suddenly the car started going slower and slower and finally it stopped; and he turned the key to restart it and the engine wouldn’t turn over and it turned out to be true that the engine had seized up from the lack of oil and he needed to get a new engine for the car because the car was still young enough for it to be worth it to invest in a new engine. He went to an engine rebuilding shop and had an engine installed and paid through the nose for it, and after a week the new engine seized up too. And the shop where he had bought the engine wouldn’t honor the warranty because they claimed the he ran the new engine without enough oil, too. And he didn’t know enough about engines to argue with them so he of course lost the argument and ended up having to buy a used car. He couldn’t afford a new car because he hadn’t really started on his managerial career yet; he was a young and foolish man in those days who couldn’t do anything right--
“You look pretty down fella,” said the old workman.
“What? Oh—no, I’m not.”
“The way you were frowning into your beer made it look that way.”
“No, nope—I’m feeling fine.”
He swigged off his beer, as did the old workman. They sat in silence for a while because it seemed to Dickens that yes, indeed, he felt pretty down. He thumbed the lapel of his suit jacket and loosened his red tie. Yes, would that things could have been different for me, he thought. The old workman held his beer on the bar and looked straight ahead into his future. I’m the one should be feeling down, he thought. I’m the one should be full of regret. They sat beside one another in silence a while, their thoughts flowing, intertwining in the single reality in which they would sit drinking for the rest of their lives.