“A Wire Man”
I think it’s what you don’t know about people that strings them together, keeps their lives going, makes them who they are. My father is gone now, Emmanuel too; I can tell the truth. But on the Sunday before Christmas, on my weekend to cover The Shop, my weekend with my son, we were all together. Emmanuel had worked for us for over two months by then. That was fifteen years ago.
Sometimes it’s the sounds that bring me back, the sound of the jets coming in low over my father’s factory heating up the air bridging their wings, the sound of Emmanuel’s broom sweeping past heavy machinery spinning and pulling and bending and punching, the sound of my son playing in those tight-packed aisles running between shadows. Sometimes it’s a particular kind of darkness.
That Sunday there was only a partial shift on, down the far end. Emmanuel played with my boy and I watched them from a few yards away when my father asked Emmanuel to empty the scrapbins out back.
“Yes, sir,” Emmanuel said. But he didn’t make any move to get up or stop his play.
My father tugged at his cigarette, pulled it out roughly leaving tobacco scraps on his lip, held it between his thumb and middle finger. He was always smoking, always moving. He carried a pocketful of pens and wore rubber-soled steel-toe shoes cracked with the violence of his steps. Grime gathered at the corners of his glasses disappearing only when he bought a new pair, and then only for a day. He had black indelibly stained on his fingertips that no amount of washing cleaned. He had minute cuts and nicks on those fingertips, on the shanks of his thumbs, in the center of his index fingers.
“And while you’re at it, stack the new sheet metal for the first shift,” my father said.
“Yes, sir,” Emmanuel said again, still not moving except to pick up a piece of black metal that had fallen from Josh’s grasp.
Emmanuel was peculiar. He was more coiled than sitting. He moved funny too, walking as if he were once taken apart and put back together wrong, working around us in silence, stacking boxes for shipment, carrying signs to the ovens, nodding to me or to my father but always pressing ahead. Finished, he returned to a far corner of The Shop where he had a locker. There he smoked and sat on an overturned wire spool waiting for one of us to get him, to give him something else to do.
“Emmanuel, you listening to me?” my father said.
I heard the tone. His strap tone.
I drifted over and said, “Can’t we let Emmanuel stay with the boy?”
My father tugged at his cigarette, glaring. He said, “You running the place now?”
I had to let it go. My ideas on management were never well received.
Emmanuel had built a small menagerie of metal animals from some of the scraps he picked up. He cleverly bent and crimped the metal, smoothing off any rough edges to make what looked like a cow, horse, a sheep, and maybe a chicken.
My father picked one up. “What the hell is it?”
In truth, they were the ugliest, most abstract things I’d ever seen. Just black metal, none were more than three inches high. Josh was fascinated. I was fascinated. My father was fascinated, rubbing the metal and holding it up at all angles to the light.
He caught himself, said, “You sure didn’t learn that sweeping floors.”
Emmanuel stood, slowly unwinding his limbs. “Yes, sir,” he said.
“Where did you learn, Emmanuel?” I asked him.
He looked straight at me. “Don’t want to say.”
“You must have learned somewhere,” my father said.
“Don’t want to say,” Emmanuel repeated.
“Why’d you give it up?” I asked.
“Prison shop?” my father said. “Was it?”
“Don’t want to say,” Emmanuel said.
“Get out of there,” my father shouted.
Josh had crawled next to an empty barrel that once held metal solvent. The drums stood together in a jumble of dark cylinders, their vitrified sides muted and ruined, rusting out. The letters were obscured; only the death’s head mark of poison glowed through.
He wasn’t in any trouble that I could see, but he looked up startled then started to cry. “Josh. Joshie,” I called. “Don’t. No tears.” I picked him up.
“Almost closing time,” my father said.
The flesh hung from his cheeks, from his throat, the laugh lines fissured deep and sagging. I remember thinking he was going to be gone soon. I stayed, holding my son, watching my father walk. He walked the way I walked, the way his father walked, the way his father’s father must have walked. We bend at the waist. We clasp our hands behind our backs. We lead with the chin.
When my father left, Emmanuel didn’t move. He only looked at me, reached down and pulled up the leg of his pants showing me an artificial leg made of wire. It was devised with the same care as the toys in metal bands of black and gray. I saw the results of some terrible accident ending in the absence of flesh and bone and the thigh’s termination into a wire construction—leg but not leg. There were scars too, ancient and strangely widened, swollen, half obliterated with time and the body’s meager healing, and yet distorted like those sometimes found in the bark of trees. Not skin at all but lines of keloid faults, grown scaly and red, daily roughened, if not every minute, by a constant aggravation in the contact of metal with what flesh remained.
“You could buy a real one,” I said.
“I made this myself,” he told me.
The leg and the toys and more. What command, to walk upon devices of your own creation. My father had such skills. Not me. I am not my father’s son, I mean I’m not the one he wanted. There was no time for playing catch or movies or an afternoon at the lake. I’m not looking for pity here, these are facts; he had his ways. Don’t borrow. Buy your own. Learn the value of money. These were my father’s lessons.
I didn’t do anything with the toys for a long time because it hadn’t yet come to me; I thought about them though. I thought about Emmanuel and his wire leg; he built the toys, he built his leg—he walked on a thing of his own creation.
Josh always asked for the toys, wanted to take them home. But I kept the animals in a drawer, took them out to play. They felt good and black and smooth. When I brought two cows together fast their wire bodies seemed to cut the air in level plains that had substance.
Still I was waiting.
I went to work each morning. Each night I was the last out finding the street lights on and a band of red nearly vanished from the sky. All winter, snow piled up high in the vacant lot across the street and some child’s attempt at snowman-making listed to one side, getting closer to the ground with each passing day. There was only the rush of the wind, the planes landing, close enough to jump and touch as they neared, their lights winking. At quitting time, when The Shop was silent, the airplanes roared. With the sun down and the frozen air, the sound filled every space, coming off the bricks, merging and rolling out beyond, through the tenements, rattling their iron fire escapes, merging and rolling out to the distant darkened sky, to the airport tower, the ocean beyond.
At first I did nothing with the toys. At work I oversaw the small crew that hunched over their workbenches where they worked on wood floors that splintered from the heavy wheels rolling from one station to the next. The place smelled of machine oil and iron filings and drying paint. The light was bad and there were bright pools that swung in circles between larger patches of dark as the tin-hatted bulbs moved from the vibrations of the machinery. There was so much noise from the metal cutters, from the pneumatic presses, from the punches coming down five hundred times an hour marking and bending the same spot on wire strands. We turned out pieces that, when bent and welded and painted and boxed, combined to make the magazine racks, the candy racks, the cigarette racks you and I find at the front of supermarket checkout stands. I recognize my father’s products when I shop, the magazines jammed inside.
An idea was coming to me with the toys, the simplicity of their construction, Josh’s continued interest. I kept them in my desk. My father found them once. He had them arrayed in even lines as if they were walking toward an ark. When I found him moving the cows around, he brushed them onto their sides in a black heap, pretending they were in the way.
On Josh’s visits, he played with the set. He, too, was particularly attracted to the cows, the black bend of the belly, the four abstract but sturdy legs. The terms of my divorce gave me odd-weekend custody of him. My father’s refusal to hire another manager and his determination to make me learn his business, that, coupled with child support and alimony, forced me to work nearly every one of those weekends. I had nowhere else to take Josh and I confess that I kept him busy with his animal menagerie.
A month or so later, I had a birthday party for him. It was late, ten days after the real day, and not much of one at that. My birthday party was Josh and me and my father, three generations of Wisemans around a card table. For a moment it was a happy tableau. The lines in my father’s face appeared to soften and I sensed affection in his gaze. Then Josh tried to blow out his three candles. He got cake and ice cream on the floor.
“Get him out of here,” my father said. “Some party.”
When I took the boy outside he was crying and squirming in my arms. There, Emmanuel gathered together a great pile of scrap cloth from the factory upstairs. “That’s a good boy there,” he told me, “comes from good stock.” While the planes roared in and out above us, while the lights started to fade, Josh jumped into the cloth, trying to touch the sky, screaming, Daddy, Daddy.
I decided on my next weekend with Josh I was going to take him somewhere fun, just the two of us. Maybe we’d take a ride to a park up in New Hampshire or go to the zoo. It didn’t happen. A big order came in. Even though I worked overtime, kept what seemed like four eyes on the men, something went wrong. The zeebar got improperly welded to the f-frame or who knows.
“What kind of idiot lets work go out like that?” my father said.
This was in his office. There were bars across the window. Outside, a couple of kids played tag beside the parked cars. They were laughing. A plane came in, another one took off. The building shook a little. Emmanuel pushed a broom by the door. A buzzer sounded, loud and harsh, signaling coffee break. The machinery wound down.
I worked the whole weekend to straighten things out. Josh was unruly and I might have slapped him once or twice just to get him to shut up. But when my son started crying I knew something had to change.
It was in late April. For the factory upstairs this began the season of new cloth. Trucks rumbled in and out of the loading docks twice an hour as they delivered hundreds of bolts of cotton and lycra, gearing up for the seasonal production run. They laid on new stitchers. At the back of the lot, cloth scrap overwhelmed the dumpsters. We had orders too, but I had to do something with Josh so I got Emmanuel to collect scraps and make the jumping pile. Out in the parking lot, in between the truck and the loading dock, with the planes coming in and the traffic passing by to the airport, Josh jumped and screamed.
Ever since that afternoon when Emmanuel made the metal animals and showed me his artificial leg I felt differently about him. Nothing had altered in the workings of The Shop, yet Emmanuel acted as a buffer absorbing my father’s worst rages, and playing with my son. My father and I actually had several reasonable conversations. Emmanuel was calming to everyone as he moved awkwardly with the lurching gait, sticking to the shadows, seeming to trick time, to trick us all. But there was a steady and clear emanation of sorrow from this man, like a lighthouse beacon dulled by fog and distance.
In the late afternoon there was a lull in the traffic and in the planes. I could hear the shouts of other children playing ball or tag, running in the sparse yards of the tenements across the street. Josh and Emmanuel spoke together, the little boy’s head close to the handyman who had to bend down nearly double. Emmanuel pointed to the cars, to the brick shop building. That night Josh said, “Emmanuel told me about the planes.” Then he smiled, “I love Emmanuel.”
The Shop is in a strange part of East Boston where tenements front streets on one side, industrial space on the other. All of us feel the encroachment of the car rental places feeding the airports. There isn’t enough land and it’s all built on fill so the harbor seeps up keeping the ground damp only to freeze hard in winter. The low-tide smell adds to the general stink and most days I can’t wait to get through the cracking tunnels, carrying me inland.
When I decided to start making the toys I found space not far away, next to Santoro’s pizzeria. Although the pizza is kind of greasy, it has a nice, thin crust and it’s open late, even on Sundays. The boys on the stoop eyed me as I drove past, checking a slip of paper for the address. I found the open gate and pulled into the parking lot. Who designs these plants, sets down the same splintering floors, the tin-hatted lights swinging, the gray walls, the smell of machine oil that leaks from everywhere? The building was otherwise featureless, the signs of the former occupants gone. It was one long, long room, high-ceilinged with massive concrete pillars at even intervals, mostly dark, windows guarded, dusty with disuse. Even with all the space there was that feeling of the walls converging on me the way two parallel lines finally meet way off in the distance. I had no sense of size; this was little more than a copy of my father’s shop but empty.
The rental agent smoked a cigarette and stared out one of the barred windows. With the passion that one reserves for reciting the ingredients in breakfast cereal he told me about the power requirements and utility hook-ups. He talked about square footage and lease packages on other floors of the building if I needed to expand. He said a year was the minimum but he’d give me a break if I went five. Overhead came the sound of wheels rolling along and then a horrible squeaking.
“I need something smaller,” I said.
“Think the Red Sox have a shot this year?” the rental agent asked.
I told my father I was going. Not going, really, splitting my time. He gave me the strap look and I flinched. In the next minute I expected to hear the sound of leather whistling, feel the burning legs, the growing heat in my back. Nothing happened. He said, “You never learn.”
I saw then how much taller I was, broader too, as if he were shrinking with age. In that moment he was somehow different, not the man I remembered growing up, not the father I wanted. I wanted one who knew about tying flies and thirty-ought buck, about pitching tents and smoking cigars, who knew how to hang food away from bears and give me coffee when my mother said no, one who knew the secrets of girls and the proper way to throw a jab.
The one I got raised three kids—two of whom don’t speak to him—and worked. He told me to avoid sharp edges and what I learned was respect for cutting tools.
My father turned it into a discussion of Emmanuel. He said, “You have to be stupid to trust the colored.”
I told him maybe Emmanuel was different but my father only ground another cigarette stub into the floor. After he toed it into the wood two or three times more than necessary, he picked up the flattened butt and threw it in a wastebin.
“He isn’t,” my father said. “Don’t be stupid.”
He kicked over a line of cardboard boxes which fell like branches snapping ending with a dull thump. “Get Emmanuel to clean that up,” he said. “That’s something he’s good at.”
When I was a child, my father was a shadow that could block out the sun when he reared up to his full height, spread his arms to pull me in. His voice was careful and low and I have this memory, he says, Sleep well my son. Can that be? I have this memory of his strong arms lifting me from the back of the family car carrying me upstairs. I am safe and loved and cared for. I have this memory of cologne and his face checked by day-grown stubble, its rough against my own cheek, the smells of hard work and starched shirts.
I signed the papers and leased the space at the factory a block away. I drew down on my savings and set Emmanuel up as toymaker. I advanced him several weeks’ pay. The savings cushion was gone in the instant it took to sign a piece of paper. How was I going to pay alimony? Pay child support? Where was my own rent coming from? If I had stopped to think about it for a moment I never would have taken out the loan.
Emmanuel turned out a whole menagerie of samples, his thin frame swaying over a work bench, hammering and crimping and filing. His bony arms moved, his hands grasping. Under his hammer strokes the metal came alive, cows and horses and pigs and ducks and even a giraffe. He was slow. Patient. Methodical. Graceful in the way he turned the pliers, bent the steel with a couple of light taps from a vinyl-headed hammer. I tried to imitate his moves but I was clumsy. The metal never bent right. He stood next to me and guided my hand. “Three hits are all you need,” he said. “Use your wrist.” And he was right. We stood together turning out another set. When I was wrong he would point with a tool. When I was right he nodded and offered me white teeth.
But he was slow. It took so long to build a whole set; too long. I hit on the idea of mass producing them that involved forms and spot welds.
“Don’t want to,” he said.
I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I was too busy showing the samples around when I could get away from The Shop. I got a few orders, enough to keep us going, not enough to expand; Emmanuel did the work himself with me at his side. I emphasized in my sales pitch that these early versions were all hand-made. Some people were impressed. The sum mer was brutally hot and I had to be careful not to leave the toys in the sun. I burned myself on them once, just before a call, raised a blister on my palm that made it impossible to shake hands. I kept going, even when my car was broken into and the samples stolen, even when the buyers wouldn’t see me, even when my father told me, again and again, I was stupid to be wasting my time like this.
Then, I got a big order from the owner of Kal-Mart Stores. My father sold him a lot of racks and I have to believe there was some connection. Mr. Strauss saw me right away. There were no push-offs from hostile secretaries. There were no letters unreturned, no phone calls unanswered. I made an appointment. I showed my samples. He held them in cupped hands as if to feel the weight. His thumbs slid over the black curves. He held one up to the light twisting and turning a cow. He brought the animal down to the desk and moved it around. He caught himself playing and laughed. Then he put his hand on my shoulder and told me he liked to see young men striving. He had been there himself, worked his way up from nothing, and he understood. He liked to help out especially when it could be mutually beneficial. He asked about the packaging, about the colors of the box.
“Make it blue,” he said. “Children like blue.”
I was stunned to get the order and I remember almost nothing except shaking his hand and making some impossible promise to deliver a lot of goods in the not too distant future. I went back into the office holding a check with a lot of zeros, telling Emmanuel that this was the beginning of big things.
“Yes sir,” was all he said.
We were crammed into our original space and with the extra men I was able to afford, the extra equipment, we worked on top of one another. I needed a bigger place but five banks turned me down. Even with the contract. The one my father did most of his business with told me if my father would co-sign, they’d give me whatever I needed.
I worked late every night, trying to push extra product through, bending and pressing and welding, though Emmanuel shrank from the equipment. I got black on my fingertips that didn’t wash off, minute cuts and nicks on my finger tips, on the shanks of my thumbs, in the center of my index fingers.
A week after we got the big order was one of those late nights. We were behind. We needed more room, more men, more equipment. My father knew. He stood in the shadows and said, “Terrible materials flow, didn’t you learn anything from me?”
I was boxing an item and didn’t stop to answer him. I saw the tip of a cigarette glowing. Then he came into the light, his hands clasped behind his back, leaning forward, inspecting each machine.
“Terrible clearances,” he said walking around and through a pair of bending machines. “Someone’s going to get hurt here.”
He had one of the toys in his hand, a cow, feeling the black.
“We’ve got ten percent of the order filled,” I said.
“Strauss’ll return half the stuff. He’ll find something wrong. Nit-pick you to death. Always does. I warned you.”
“Some of the men’ll work weekends to finish.”
“You’re going to eat up your profits in overtime and insurance claims.”
Nothing I said that night was going to convince him otherwise. A plane came in overhead, we were still close enough to hear them though my building didn’t rumble the way my father’s did. Nothing I said that night was going to make him leave quicker. I hadn’t seen my son in five weeks. I hadn’t had five continuous hours of sleep in five weeks. In the morning I had to have someone repack all the night’s work.
Forgery was the easiest part, the matching of the swirls of his first name, the round high part of the R, the straight legs, the angled t’s, then the Wiseman starting wide and finishing against the cramped ending that trailed off almost illegibly. The bank officer welcomed me like a real father might his only child. A loan agreement and a letter from my father as guarantor. I could do it in any color ink, on any surface, in any kind of light. We shook hands over coffee in china cups and sugar in sterling silver bowls. I had practiced all my life.
I became a wire man against my will. My father could pick out different grades of steel at thirty feet; I had to learn. My father could spot a faulty weld. My father could design a form and the feeding operation step by step bringing raw metal to each machine, wending its way across the shop floor until it was ready to ship. My pieces were smaller but I had to learn.
I took more space, loaded up with leased machinery, brought in a truckload of stock. Night became day. Day became night. Each 24 hours had no end merging with the next. Strauss is calling, Kal-Mart wants its goods. I slept on a cot off the shop floor. The splintering wood was the same. I drove the finished product over myself. Strauss smiles. My father screams, I’m paying you. I expect you here.
I screamed and I drove and I watched and I grabbed metal and made the welds myself, ran the finished pieces down to the paint machine, boxed stuff myself. Payrolls. Schedules. Coming in before dawn. Emmanuel and the first shift. Over to The Shop. My father smoking. My father glaring. My father. Long coffee breaks back to my place, back and forth and lunch and after work. I ran through a set of tires and brakes that fall careening back and forth between the two buildings. When was there time to see my boy? I nearly killed a few kids playing ball in the street.
We weren’t filling orders fast enough. Some of the work came out poorly when I was away and not watching. My ex-wife had my son. The planes still came in close enough to touch. I didn’t have time for him.
How did I let this happen?
I told Emmanuel he had to be more involved. “Don’t want to,” he said.
“But they’re yours.”
“Don’t want to,” he said again.
He came in every day and sat in one corner doing nothing but crossing one leg over the other. All day. Up and down his legs went, every request for help or advise or an order to do work met with: “Don’t want to.”
Missed a payment to the bank but managed to head off the phone call to my father.
“Don’t want to.”
Missed the deadline for shipping and got penalized.
“Don’t want to.”
One of the men got hurt and sued me.
“Don’t want to.”
The overtime mounted.
“Don’t want to.”
Nearly fell asleep driving home and found myself inches from a center divider traveling at sixty.
“Don’t want to.”
Emmanuel sat there crossing his legs. He never moved from his spot. He was there in the morning when I arrived. He was there at night when I left. He was always there.
My head ached all the time. The noise and the planes and the machinery and my father and my son asking when he was going to see me again.
I could run the presses, make the welds, box the stuff, ship it off. But I couldn’t figure out how to make new ones. I was days away from my father discovering that I had put up his shop as collateral for my new enterprise. He was in trouble, we were in, he was in, I didn’t know anymore.
All Emmanuel could do was sit there. All Emmanuel could say was, “Don’t want to.”
“Why don’t you want to?” I said.
I said I was going to tell the truth and I meant it, but Emmanuel could have helped. One new item, two. Anything. But no, just his presence, the crossing legs, his refusals.
On the night it happened I was at my shop until late. There wasn’t enough payroll to cover a second shift so it was only me, running back and forth from station to station. I was thinking only of working to turn out enough product, work up some cash flow, head off the bank. Keep my mind on the operations, take a just over six foot length of steel, cut it in thirds then trim off a small piece from one end making sure to keep everything even, the cuts straight, place the smaller pieces of steel in piles on a wheeled pallet and start again. The machine had stops so no thinking. Push the strip against the stopping block, hit the foot pedal, the cutter descends. Except on the final cut my fingers were a half inch from the blade. But if I concentrated, watched carefully, it was an easy job. A boring job. The room was hot. A job that wouldn’t go fast enough. I couldn’t cut enough, couldn’t bend enough. Dust hid in corners and nothing lived outside the shadow of my smoke. I was still there after midnight, after three, cutting and bending and welding and rushing to the paint machine. Trotting down the wood floors, moving from station to station.
I knocked over a can of solvent. There was no time to stop. The liquid soaked into the wood. I spilled paint. I threw scrap paper wrapping that covered the bundled steel anywhere it fell. I cut my hand. My clothing was covered in black. There was dirt all over my face. I stank of metal and oil and a grime on my hands that would never wash out. I ran. I welded. The sparks flew red. I bent. I punched. I painted. I welded.
It was the sparks that did it. Some of the wrapping paper caught, maybe a rag. I was too tired to see. By the time I smelled the smoke, felt the heat, half the floor was in flames. There was only time to pull an alarm and get out. The news reported it was a three alarm blaze. Fire companies from Chelsea had to be called in.
There’s calm after a fire. The heat subsides though ash blows in a light wind and the charred wood hisses where water falls. Puddles are everywhere reflecting the half-moon and the overhead lights. The planes roar in. Walkie-talkies squawk. Soon, the neighbors lose interest, drifting home, leaving the shop owner slightly dazed and wringing his hands, looking as if he’d been dragged from the building. He sips coffee, generously provided by a food truck. The fire companies begin to pack up their gear. Then comes terrible news, there’s a body in there. Someone is dead of smoke inhalation. The police brought me over and asked me if I knew the dead man. Emmanuel was easy to identify.
We hit a cold spell around Thanksgiving. A storm raced down out of Canada and dropped eight inches on Boston. It was my weekend at The Shop, my weekend with my boy. He looked at me differently, wouldn’t kiss me hello, cried when I tried to hold him. After a while he stopped asking for Emmanuel.
The police didn’t though. The insurance company neither. It all came out about how overextended I was—how overextended my father and I were—because his name was on all the loan documents, all the lease agreements, everything. It looked bad. He and I faced the investigators together. They were pleasant men. They appeared to want to help. We took questions in their offices. We took questions at home. My father hunched into them, smoking, and I consulted my notes.
“What about this purchase, Mr. Wiseman?” they asked. “Isn’t that more paint thinner than you needed?”
“You’ll have to ask my son,” he said through the haze of smoke that blew from his mouth.
I explained about that last night over and over again, how I couldn’t pay the men so I was trying to do the work myself. My father never deviated from his three pack-a-day habit. Even at the height of the investigation when the bank was making threatening noises about The Shop, even when the insurance company suggested arson but couldn’t prove it. He looked at me and I saw it in his eyes; he believed I fired the place. We both knew. He knew. We never said anything to one another and I let him go on thinking I set the fire for the money, killed Emmanuel in the process.
I know why—it earned his respect. The message was passed in the silence of long stares and short nods. I had earned his respect, for killing a man, for duping the insurance company. That was the message passed when I took off a weekend and then another and then another to reclaim my son. Soon I was working no weekends. It just happened. We walked by each other on the floor never speaking but he knew. He thought he knew everything.
The insurance company ruled in my favor, the authorities too. Who knew Emmanuel was sleeping in the basement near a heater? I always assumed he left with the rest of the men. I was paid off in full. I satisfied my creditors.
My father died of a heart attack one day, with a cigarette in his mouth, yelling at someone for doing something wrong somewhere in The Shop. He and I never talked about Emmanuel. But the toys, those first toys Emmanuel created, they sat in Josh’s playbox. Whenever I took them out my father gave me his knowing stare. And for a while, Josh played with them, making his own pretend farm, making cow and horse noises while the presses punched and the machinery rumbled away, while the planes came in over head. Then the toys got lost. Maybe someone threw them away.