[For Bob and Ellen Gentle, and everyone at Panini Pete’s who helped me put it right.]
The easy thing to do was to take the little bits of clarity from Rob’s slurry words and nod and move along. His slur was from medication, not alcohol –as some would assume, and Rob was very self conscience about the way he sounded. He desperately wanted to go back in time to a day when he had felt confident in his voice.
The hard part came when anyone tried to make sense of him, or worse, to ask him what he meant. And that is when the trouble started for a girl named Joy and when everything turned into a cloud of confused anger. That, of course, is where our story begins.
What Joy had done was ask Rob, “What do you mean when you say ‘balance’?”
And Rob said nothing. His personal balance had been ruined by a car wreck, never to be regained. He also could no longer drive. Painfully, Rob made his way through life. Not working, not standing with any certainty, not doing anything really, save for his carpentry. He used his workshop as a release and a valuable tool. He used it to pay his way.
Finally, he turned to Joy and gave an answer. “I mean like you standing there. You know. Certain everything is where it is and nothing will move suddenly,” Rob said. “It’s like that if you then were to carbonate your brain and shake it up.”
“But you seem to be standing fine,” Joy started reluctantly.
“Yes,” Rob replied. “But watch this.”
At which time Rob turned and used his head swing as if he was looking over his shoulder. At which time, he grabbed a hold of the table saw next to him and just barely prevented himself from falling.
“Really?” Joy asked incredulously. “That little movement and all balance is gone?”
“Afraid so,” Rob replied. “Or less.”
And it became clear to Joy just how fragile Rob had become. All due to a car wreck. One man’s failure to glance up and see a red light. It was unbelievable really. This proved to Joy the unjust nature of the world and left her questioning everything, even religion.
What was, in fact, open and honest for Joy was the precarious nature of Rob’s current existence.
Rob sanded the top of a desktop-in-progress. It gave him satisfaction to finish things neatly now that his life was such a mess. He carved out the corners of the desktop and left room for a screw to thread through. He found that creating a puzzle out of his crafts gave him an end to work for, and –for now- it was enough to steer him clear of suicide. And the money he made from selling the finished pieces gave him enough to live on. A magazine had run a story on Rob and sales had doubled.
That said, it was a daily challenge for Rob to keep going. His mind would wander to the ease of the big sleep. No more struggle, no more fighting. The thing that kept him going, of course, is to see what would happen next.
Joy turned to face Rob, who had turned himself around, but now straightened out and faced Joy once again. And Joy could see that look in Rob of utter frustration. Utter exhaustion.
Rob took the time to look Joy in the eye and say very slowly, and very clearly, “Just one more corner, one more element of design, and I will finish this for my client. For another month, my rent will be paid.”
But, all things considered, Joy was happy to see Rob turn and sand the corner of the desktop. Joy could see the great satisfaction Rob took in adjusting the desktop-in-progress just so. And put things right.
Murray Dunlap’s work has appeared in about fifty magazines and journals. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times, as well as to Best New American Voices once, and his first book, -an early draft of “Bastard Blue” (then called “Alabama”) was a finalist for the Maurice Prize in Fiction. His first collection of short stories, “Bastard Blue,” was published on June 7th, 2011 (the three year anniversary of a car wreck that very nearly killed him…). The extraordinary individuals Pam Houston, Laura Dave, Michael Knight, and Fred Ashe taught him the art of writing. His web site is www.murraydunlap.com.