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.