Barry Hannah Competition 2nd Place–Charles Hale

The Wire Out

For the sec­ond morn­ing in a row Lawrence leaned back in the chair onto two legs and away from the table and let go.  Count­less attempts at strik­ing the per­fect bal­ance so the chair would stay on two legs had Lawrence exhaust­ed.  Yes­ter­day morn­ing he had fall­en on his back once.  It was on that attempt that he held the bal­ance the longest but he was pun­ished for his suc­cess with a sore back.  In front of Lawrence on the table was a bowl of cin­na­mon cere­al that was well on it’s way to being mushy.  He was try­ing to bal­ance the chair on two legs while the cin­na­mon fla­vor was being assim­i­lat­ed into the milk, but it wasn’t ready yet.

A flow­ered kitchen tow­el was next to the bowl.  Yesterday’s attempt was still in the sink along with glass­es and straws from lunch and din­ner.  The impos­si­bil­i­ty of bal­anc­ing a chair both­ered Lawrence the longer he wait­ed.  Even if he found the moment of bal­ance some­thing would change, the chair wouldn’t recon­fig­ure itself to rest on two legs into infin­i­ty.  It was a fools’ errand, but one he couldn’t avoid pur­su­ing.  More often than not Lawrence had to put his feet down to keep from falling back­wards.  He liked to think this was because he was going for it as opposed to Sal­ly­ing out before he reached the bal­ance posi­tion.  In push­ing the chair back too far he was at least giv­ing him­self a chance to bal­ance it.  But it also meant the pos­si­bil­i­ty of falling.

Lawrence bumped the bowl slight­ly, allow­ing the cere­al to read­just among itself with­in the milk.  Things were as mushy as they would get and the fla­vors were thor­ough­ly inter­spersed between flakes and milk.  Lawrence tucked the kitchen tow­el into the neck of his shirt and spread it out so it would cov­er as much of him­self as pos­si­ble.  Then he picked up the bowl with both hands and poured the milk up against his teeth.  After near­ly a week of hav­ing his mouth wired shut Lawrence was des­per­ate for the taste of sol­id food even if it was only mushy cere­al.  He could taste the cin­na­mon fla­vor in the milk that made it into his mouth but not much of the actu­al cere­al made it past his clamped teeth.

But dras­ti­cal­ly more of the milk streaked down the kitchen tow­el and onto his box­er shorts than made it into Lawrence’s mouth.  The doc­tor wasn’t sure exact­ly how long his mouth would need to stay wired but the lack of sol­id food seemed like appro­pri­ate pun­ish­ment for run­ning his mouth while we has drunk and feel­ing sor­ry for him­self about his wife.  She was gone and Lawrence wasn’t any good at accept­ing that fact, espe­cial­ly at night after their daugh­ter was asleep.  He tilt­ed the bowl to his mouth a sec­ond time with iden­ti­cal results, then a third time.  With most of the milk gone from the bowl, Lawrence set in to bal­anc­ing the chair again.  He posi­tioned the chair where he thought it would bal­ance, only his thumb touch­ing the table before he let go.  This was a new tac­tic and one Lawrence didn’t enjoy.  The dan­ger ele­ment wasn’t there so he went back to push­ing off with his feet and hop­ing to reach the per­fect position.

This deci­sion quick­ly became tur­bu­lent.  In going for it, he pushed off hard, for a moment think­ing he had it, then for a moment he thought he could find it again.  While hold­ing out longer than nor­mal Lawrence sprung his arms into the air.  It was there, the bal­ance posi­tion, he felt it but then it was gone.  His body fol­lowed his arms and for a brief moment, he knew he was falling and he was pissed.  Lawrence grunt­ed through the wire when his head hit the kitchen floor.  It bounced back up and slammed into the tile a sec­ond time but he was silent and momen­tar­i­ly unconscious.

Lying on his back he wasn’t think­ing about the pain in his jaw until he real­ized he wasn’t think­ing about the pain in his jaw.  It was enough that Lawrence didn’t want to get up, but the only thing that could have made this moment worse was if his daugh­ter had been there to wit­ness her father in milk stained box­er shorts lying on his back in the mid­dle of the kitchen.  But she had already got­ten on the bus for school and Lawrence need­ed to dress for work.  He tried to focus on his daugh­ter instead of the pain in his mouth and head, but think­ing about her brought so much dread he didn’t know if he could stand it.  She didn’t real­ly under­stand it three weeks ago when he told her her moth­er was gone.  She didn’t under­stand that she wasn’t com­ing back and there wasn’t any­thing the two of them could do.  He had nev­er imag­ined him­self as a sin­gle father but he knew there would be many more ques­tions over the years he didn’t know how to answer.

Halfway to work Lawrence real­ized he had for­got­ten the dry erase board back at the house.  Not hav­ing it would make talk­ing to his daugh­ter after school more dif­fi­cult.  Lawrence slammed his clenched fist down on his thigh.  He want­ed to yell but the wire was in the way.  If he wasn’t so close to work he might have cried.  Or turned around.

His neon vest seemed to fit a lit­tle loos­er than it had a week ago.  Stand­ing on the steam­ing asphalt he had plen­ty of time to notice things like this.  And he had time to dwell.  Every few min­utes he turned the sign he was hold­ing around and thus passed his morn­ing.  Usu­al­ly around 10am some­one came around col­lect­ing five dol­lars per man for a lunch of fried chick­en, cole slaw, and bis­cuits.  It was one of the ways Lawrence kept time at work since his job was so monot­o­nous he had giv­en up wear­ing a watch.  Lawrence saw the man walk­ing to the oth­er guys but avoid­ing him.  Since his jaw had been wired shut he’d been ostra­cized by the oth­er guys.  They’d made him the butt of jokes, even throw­ing a chick­en leg at him yes­ter­day.  His hard hat was plen­ty of pro­tec­tion for a thrown rock or a chick­en leg, but it did noth­ing to keep the sweat out of his eyes.  Lunch used to be the high point of the work­day, what all the guys looked for­ward to from the moment they clocked in, but since he couldn’t eat it was just a time he felt more iso­lat­ed than normal.

Wait­ing for the day to pass he strad­dled the cone with his feet, the pole in his left hand for sev­er­al min­utes, then switch­ing to the right.  Ear­li­er Lawrence had picked up a cou­ple of rocks and was fid­dling them in the pock­et of his vest.  In reg­u­lar inter­vals he rotat­ed the pole in his hand so dif­fer­ent sides of the sign faced traf­fic.  He pre­ferred the ‘stop’ side of the sign, that way he didn’t have to nod or wave to strangers in the oncom­ing traf­fic.  Back when he tried explain­ing the sit­u­a­tion to his daugh­ter she had looked at him with a straight and solemn face.  But he wasn’t sure if she under­stood what he was say­ing, actu­al­ly he was sure she didn’t, he didn’t either real­ly, but he could tell her mind was try­ing to process it but got dis­tract­ed.  She asked sev­er­al ques­tions that Lawrence couldn’t answer, ques­tions that swal­lowed a piece of his insides each time she asked.  But there was one ques­tion that remind­ed him that she was still a five-year-old girl.  One ques­tion that didn’t real­ly have any­thing to do with his wife, but did.

Stop was fac­ing a four-door pick­up truck loaded with shirt­less col­lege kids who were blar­ing music loud enough to be heard over the machin­ery when “lunch” was called out over the walkie talkie.  Instead of sub­ject­ing him­self to lunchtime taunts with­out a way to answer back, Lawrence moseyed over to the iso­la­tion of his truck.  It wasn’t much of a truck, a four cylin­der Ford with rust on much of the low­er half, but inside it was a place where Lawrence could sit alone with the pain in his head and jaw.  He leaned his head against the head­rest and closed his eyes.  Although the sleep was light he fell into it eas­i­ly.  He hadn’t been sleep­ing well at night late­ly.  There was the pain from los­ing his wife, pain he couldn’t do any­thing about, but there was also the pain he caused him­self.  Lawrence was pret­ty good at find­ing ways to hurt him­self, get in his own way, and screw things up.  But it was going to be hard­er now with no one to rely on and it was these thoughts that kept him from sleep­ing at night.

It was the same kinds of thoughts that caused Lawrence to jerk his head for­ward when he real­ized he had fall­en asleep.  He noticed one of his daughter’s toys on the floor­board of the pas­sen­ger side.  The pink syn­thet­ic hair was man­gled and one of the pony’s eyes was miss­ing.  Today was report card day she had remind­ed him when he walked her to the bus stop.  Back when they were talk­ing about her moth­er being gone Lawrence had made a promise for today.  A promise he could keep, even though it was a small thing he knew there would be so many days that he would fail that he bet­ter do this one thing right.

A car honked at him almost as soon as he got back from lunch.  It was a long honk, not one that told him to wave to some­one he knew as they passed, but one that was intend­ed to make fun of him.  He’d seen it before.  Then a few min­utes lat­er a woman talk­ing on her cell phone drove by him with­out pay­ing atten­tion.  She swerved toward Lawrence and he had to jump back to avoid being hit. His hand was already in his pock­et and with­out think­ing about it he grabbed the hand­ful of rocks and tossed them toward the car.  Fuck­ing peo­ple on their phone always irri­tat­ed Lawrence.  The sign warned them that some­thing was com­ing but still some­times peo­ple nev­er paid atten­tion.  They didn’t think of him as a per­son, just the thing that turned the sign around.  If he was run over he wouldn’t reshape like a cone would.  He had thrown the rocks not intend­ing to hit the car or any­thing but when the brake lights came on and the woman pulled the car over he knew he was in trouble.

The woman was hold­ing her cell phone in her hand while she was talk­ing to the fore­man.  She had exag­ger­at­ed hand ges­tures and moved her head around just enough to let every­one that passed know she was agi­tat­ed with the sit­u­a­tion.  Fuck her, she could rot in hell for all he cared and he planned on telling her exact­ly that until he thought about his daugh­ter wait­ing for him to pick her up after school.  Lawrence’s shoul­ders dropped and he turned his back to the fore­man.  They were far enough away that he couldn’t hear them and he hoped the next time he turned around she would be gone.  Maybe she was talk­ing to the fore­man about some­thing else.  Cob­bler recipes or direc­tions to the bank.  Maybe they were old friends and she want­ed to share baby pho­tos.  Lawrence waved the cars along while he avoid­ed look­ing toward the fore­man.  It was prob­a­bly less than two hours before quit­ting time, he fig­ured, and he was look­ing for­ward to pick­ing up his daugh­ter.  They had a date, kind of, and if there was one thing he was going to do right today it was that.  She was a good kid and deserved bet­ter than he could do, but it’d have to be good enough and he would try not to beat him­self up about it.

Hey dum­b­ass, dum­b­ass.  Do you hear me dum­b­ass?”  Lawrence’s fore­man was hol­ler­ing and mak­ing a bee­line straight toward him.  His skin looked like worn in leather and his atti­tude was rougher.  Lawrence didn’t like cross­ing him but he also didn’t like tak­ing shit off of him.

Did you throw rocks at that car?” Lawrence final­ly turned around and the fore­man was near­ly breath­ing his hot breath on Lawrence’s face.  “Bud­dy, that’s about the dumb­est thing you could do right now.  I’ve got a hang­over I can’t shake and two guys out sick and all I’m try­ing to do is get this sec­tion of road fin­ished before we got­ta shut down. So why’d you do it, just to get my blood boiling?”

Lawrence watched the foreman’s lips while he talked.  They didn’t move enough to read lips.  Lawrence found it fun­ny that he couldn’t respond to the foreman’s pity par­ty, he real­ized not being able to talk wasn’t such a bad thing.  It had its advan­tages, not being able to talk.  He shook his head no but knew he was mean­ing that he didn’t do it to get the foreman’s blood boil­ing, which was just a lit­tle added ben­e­fit.  And since Lawrence couldn’t talk at all the con­ver­sa­tion lost its heat quick­ly.  He was pret­ty sure the fore­man want­ed an argu­ment and it gave Lawrence just the small­est bit of sat­is­fac­tion to not give it to him.

The guys doing the paving were mak­ing steady progress after the fore­man yelled at Lawrence.  He watched them as they worked on top of their machines.  They had the more active jobs, push­ing petals, shift­ing levers, and steer­ing the machines, Lawrence was a lit­tle jeal­ous. But he had his daugh­ter and she was even more impor­tant to him now than ever before, but when he was able to talk again he didn’t know how he would explain the things she would need to know.  There would be bras, boys, and bleed­ing and he didn’t make much mon­ey either.  If the wire nev­er came out of his jaw then he’d nev­er real­ly have to explain stuff to her and out of the hot pave­ment with the sweet drip­ping into his eyes and soak­ing through his t‑shirt Lawrence was con­sid­er­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of nev­er tak­ing the wire out.  He could just not show up at the doc­tor.  Prob­lem solved.

Lawrence was chin high in thoughts about his daugh­ter grow­ing up, what she’d look like as a teenag­er, braces, and let­ting her dri­ve his car when the fore­man called the end of the day.  There hadn’t been much traf­fic in the after­noon or much need for him to be stand­ing with his sign, but he need­ed the hours.  He had got­ten his pay­check ear­li­er in the morn­ing and now he was think­ing how it would all be gone by tomor­row after­noon.  He took his orange cone, vest and pole over to the foreman’s truck.  Guys were milling around, one or two said some­thing or anoth­er to Lawrence and he nod­ded as best he could to respond but it wasn’t much.  And then he tossed his gear in the back of the foreman’s truck and start­ed to walk away.

Hey dum­b­ass,” the fore­man called.  “You bet­ter watch how hard you’re throw­ing stuff in my truck.  I’ll take a chunk out­ta your hide if you ain’t care­ful.”  Lawrence turned around and caught the foreman’s eye, raised his hand and nod­ded in under­stand­ing, but what he was think­ing was that he need­ed to get on and get his daughter.

I love you Dad­dy,” his daugh­ter said as soon as she climbed into the truck.  Lawrence leaned over and kissed her just above the beret that was keep­ing her brown hair out of her face.  He again regret­ted leav­ing the dry erase board at home but instead drew a heart on a scrap piece of paper.  His daugh­ter could read some words, enough that they could com­mu­ni­cate enough while his jaw was wired closed.  He showed the paper to his daugh­ter, point­ed to him­self, then to the heart, and then at his daugh­ter.  The sides of her face stretched to con­tain the smile.  Then he point­ed to the pur­ple book bag she had tak­en off and thrown on the floor of the truck.

Can we go Dad­dy?” Kate asked.  “You said we could.  You promised.” He looked again at the book bag and raised his eye­brows to let her know he want­ed to look at what was inside.

Lawrence’s daugh­ter unzipped her bag, “Dad­dy, it’s good,” she said as she pulled the piece of paper out.  Lawrence exam­ined the let­ters. A’s for pen­man­ship, math, social stud­ies, and behav­ior, B’s for sci­ence and art.  There were pos­i­tive com­ments from her teach­ers and per­mis­sion to enter the sec­ond grade.  “Can we go get a kit­ty cat? Please?”

Lawrence smiled as best he could and ignored the pain from stretch­ing his face.  And nod­ded to his only daugh­ter.  It was only in this moment that he wished he could talk.  But moments like this one were so small and so infre­quent in the last week and in his entire life that his jaw being wired closed was almost not an incon­vience at all.  He was going to take his daugh­ter to get a kit­ten, even though he didn’t know if he could pay for the food and the lit­ter box and the vet vis­its that would sure­ly come.  Even if he were able to talk he wouldn’t be able to explain finances to her or what hap­pened to her moth­er.  But it seemed like it might be bet­ter to try than to draw fig­ures on scraps of paper.  As Lawrence drove he watched his daugh­ter out of the cor­ner of her eye.  She was bounc­ing up and down in the pas­sen­ger seat and qui­et­ly singing along to songs about farm­ing com­ing from the stereo.  Silent­ly he steered the truck toward the pound.

Charles Hale has had and still has the kinds of jobs writ­ers have that allow them to write.  His work has appeared in Noo Jour­nal, Dead Mule School, & Mus­ca­dine Lines, and oth­ers.  He received his MFA from God­dard Col­lege and calls Oxford MS home.

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6 Responses to Barry Hannah Competition 2nd Place–Charles Hale

  1. Shumate says:

    Great sto­ry. I real­ly felt the guy's sad­ness, deter­mi­na­tion and love.

  2. Shumate says:

    Great sto­ry. I could feel the guy's sad­ness, deter­mi­na­tion and love. Keep up the good work.

  3. Brian Keating says:

    Loved it man. Lots of dif­fer­ent emo­tions hap­pen­ing that I real­ly got into.

  4. Laurie Bradford says:

    Great story…you made me cry!

  5. Nonie says:

    Hey, this was quite mov­ing and I'm look­ing for­ward to a re-read. Keep up the good work!

  6. Sarah Shellow says:

    Charles, I LOVE this sto­ry! I expe­cial­ly like that he can't talk — that he is lim­it­ed in some ways — and the way his love for his daugh­ter grows in the cracks of his life. Congratulations!

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