I somehow survived the disfiguring identity crises of high school and the end had finally come. School closed and summer burst open like a solar flare, so scalding you wanted to take off your skin and drape it on a hook in some cool drafty closet. And I knew what no one in my family knew yet − that I would never again set foot in my father’s shop, the family business, where since childhood I had spent much of my time sawing wood, smoothing wood with a plane, sanding wood, routing wood, nailing pieces of wood together, spraying wood with sealer and lacquer, packing the final wood into cardboard boxes that would be trucked off to Atlanta, Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Greensboro, Tampa, everywhere, all the time, boxes within boxes, the glossy wooden boxes we manufactured, called baffles, into which someone at the other end screwed loud speakers and affixed to the walls of schools, department stores, government buildings, doctors’ offices, hospitals, churches . . . I had seen them all in such places on our travels. They jutted out, near ceilings, inconspicuously.
I remember spotting one in an Esso station in Mobile. “Dad, look,” I said, “I bet I made that blond eight up there.” Dad was paying for the gas. A “blond eight” meant the color and size of the baffle. It looked pristine and sort of noble and hung below a giant, greasy industrial clock, right above a girlie calendar curling at its tips. I bought a package of Planter’s peanuts from the machine and ripped open the plastic.
We were on our way to Pensacola. Both Mom and my sister Lori slouched in their seats, dizzy and nauseous with car sickness. They fed each other bits of crystallized ginger. That year has disappeared into the miasma of history, but at the time I still chartered my future in Dad’s footsteps. My grandfather had started the business (they always do), my father had nurtured it, and of course as heir they expected me to take it over someday so Dad could wind up like Paw, an old man sharpening chisels on Saturday mornings. Paw would pump the whetstone lever with his right foot and the metal screeched as it met the gritty, rough wheel. I liked the sight − my grandfather enshrouded in a glittering drizzle of sparks as the dull blades eased back to life.
When he finished we all took a break, including the two black guys working with us, Ralph and Dan, and drank hot Lipton tea with Carnation condensed milk. Even on sweltering days we drank hot tea, sometimes room temperature Cokes. One of my plans for the future was to invest in a small refrigerator and a decent percolator. It didn’t dawn on me to ask why don’t we have them already? At a certain age you just drink your pekoe and take it no further – no questions, no spitting the foul slop onto the floor, no threats to resign or join the union. Hell, what union? This is why high schoolers make such model soldiers, and the crusty old brass running the show know it, sitting around with their epaulettes, medals and stripes, farting and belching as they send the sons to slaughter in Ultima Thule.
Things were changing fast at that point in the American century. Graduation from college had become an indispensable birthright, and those who opted out also chucked respectability, gainful employment, even minimal social status. I had not thought much about the prospect until my senior year of high school. The plan was for me to simply step out of my Keds into the stiff boots of livelihood. That’s how families worked then, families still marooned in the mindset of the Great Depression. It would have pleased Paw and Dad immensely − third generation of the dynasty emerging just as they diagnosed the old man with hardened arteries and Dad was cursing his diminishing strength. I had it made, an established business mine for the taking.
The shop had kept my Depression haunted family more than solvent and made Paw a relatively rich man who could pay cash for new Chrysler Imperials every two years, retire and watch “Johnny Yuma” and “Palladin” on television in a dark room for the rest of his life. But no one realized how much I hated the place. Paw’s generation had hustled and worked like dogs just to stay alive; they had no choice. Dad’s generation could not afford the luxury of even momentary sedition; of scanning the horizon for options; or wallowing in primal doubts. Dad got anchored in something he had not created. By the time I came of age, fate had loosened, the Depression, a black swan floating away to die. I had no idea there were millions more like me, baby boomers, who were altering and raising the stakes. Escape dawned on me abruptly, with thunderclap resonance, during mid senior year. I had dared to peek out of the cave. The old order unraveled like the shavings of a paper pencil. We didn’t have to suffer anymore . . . imagine actually believing that.
And of what did suffering consist?
I’m sitting on a rickety wooden stool in viscous, obscene heat, sawdust coating my clothes, sawdust glued to my face and lips, sawdust up my nostrils, sawdust exploding into my eyes, sawdust embedded in my hair down to the scalp. Not ordinary sawdust. Not old-fashioned wood, feisty oak, somber walnut, stately mahogany, pine, with rich, aromatic, earthy aromas . . . the world was already running out of real wood and prices had soared. Dad always complained, “You can’t get decent wood anymore. Can’t afford it. Make way for plastic.” So we used massive plywood sheets, thousands of them, stacked to the rafters, quality grade I must say but still, adhered with broth that contained formaldehyde and God knows what else.
The smell was caustic, industrial, punitive. My eyes were always red, my nose burned. We could never wash off the residue. We wore clothes only to throw them away after a month or so. I’m sitting on the rickety bench cutting vertical slits into the fronts of what will be five hundred blond eights. A towering stack of quarter-inch wooden slabs wait on a table to my left. One by one I insert the slabs into a wooden mold and guide them onto the router pivot. I lower the lever with my foot. Down comes the bit, a rounded blade attached to a motor, and I dig in as it whines and screeches. Five hundred times. Six slots to each slab, our original design, to allow sound waves free passage from the future loudspeaker. When I rise from the stool hours later I’m deaf and shaky, wobble rather than walk over to the big doors for some fresh air as I wipe the ubiquitous sawdust from my body, sawdust that cannot be wiped away, ever, sawdust that lingers on the skin, in the pores, as a fine powder. How can I forget the six more stacks to go? I despise this ersatz evil wood, crave the real stuff, long to wrap my arms around one of the two-hundred-year-old live oaks in City park, savor its musty old bark ripe with lichen and time.
Or I’m standing before the big saw, a steel table from which rises the carbide-tipped blade with merciless teeth, an engine of destruction. I stand and stand and stand until my feet begin to cramp. I rip four by four sheets of the plywood into smaller sheets (which will become the slabs I later route) as, again, sawdust ricochets in the air like pellets of confetti, not quite gravel but close. Every fifteen minutes or so a chunk careens into one of my eyes. I’m again coated with the stuff. The saw is, however, more pernicious than the router. If the wood jams against blade and metal guide, it can buckle, recoil backwards and knock the wind out of you. Or drag your fingers toward those deadly teeth.
My father knew the saw intimately, like a lover, understood its perils, and even so it had managed to slice away the tip of his right thumb and a chunk of one forefinger. “Respect the saw,” he always said, “it’s a friend who bites.” Oh, how I respected that saw. I took my time with the ripping, to Dad’s dismay. I had seen the bloody tip of his thumb poking almost obscenely out of the sawdust. He howled in pain, went into low-grade adrenaline shock and wrapped the wound with dusty gauze. The severed skin looked like a shriveled chunk of onion. Dad left me in charge and drove home to wash the wound, slather on Dr. Tichenor’s Antiseptic and tape on clean gauze. Today those in similar straights would rush to an emergency room, but not back then. Back then you were your own emergency room.
I vowed too that as proprietor I would equip the place with a dozen or so first aid kits locked in air-tight vaults which dust could not penetrate. I had grandiose plans even as the seeds of treachery and betrayal sprouted in my mind. I could not bear to think much about a vocation that ensured bodily mutilation. I had swept the remnant of Dad’s thumb out with the big janitorial broom, along with mounds of sawdust then shoveled the lot into an empty five-hundred-gallon drum which we used to haul it out. To still another drum, the fire drum. One of my favorite parts of the job, by the way. Setting all that sawdust on fire, watching it burn, emblazoned bits rising from the drum and spiraling amid the heat waves like tiny, chaotic demons. And there went Dad’s thumb, up in smoke.
I liked being alone in the shop because I could goof off, hang out in the packing room, which absorbed the least dust, and call my new girlfriend on the phone. Rachel. I had ignominiously abandoned sweet Laurie for Rachel because Rachel was fast, exciting, exotic and challenging. I loved Laurie, one of my sister’s best friends, head cheerleader, two years younger, beautiful, reliable, faithful . . . but she would go only so far, then draw the line like a window shade. I looked into her face and saw a steadfast, easy and assured future: I would man the shop, she would tend the babies and we would grow old together like Dad and Mom and no shadows would darken our passage into dotage.
Rachel actually read books, poetry books, and she acted in a few plays at a local theater called Le Petite–Chekhov, Ibsen, people I never heard of. She made me read a poem by T.S. Eliot called “The Hollow Men.” She spoke with a British accent, a real one, for her mother still remained a British citizen after decades of living in America, a country of barbarians she often proclaimed. The woman was insane, marooned in her own maelstrom of discontent. She hissed when Rachel introduced me, called me “the village idiot,” growled that her daughter was “a very naughty girl.” She had a certain sophisticated charm, but no one could predict her eruptions. At first she alarmed, even terrified me, but I soon learned to deal with the flamboyant outbursts by simply ignoring them, which, of course, ignited her all the more. Everything about Rachel was dangerous, unstable, unpredictable, infuriating, magnetic; and she clung to me as if I were a god. It was nice being god for a change, far more satisfying than menial work at the shop. She insisted that I go to college, “save” myself, aim higher. And I must say that T. S. Eliot’s poem also caught me off guard. I had read stupid little poems in English classes, but nothing so charged, so electrifying.
Rachel gave me a book of poetry and told me to read Wallace Stevens. “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” I felt the walls of old Jericho crumble and gazed out upon a new, dashing, thrilling world of words. I became an instant convert and addict. I would go to college, definitely, and take courses in poetry, not business, which was the tentative plan if I went to college at all. Hastily I applied to Tulane and was as hastily accepted for the upcoming Fall semester. I envisioned myself cavorting with Rachel between classes taught by pipe-smoking professors wearing tweed jackets befouled by not a speck of sawdust. Clean, clean, the new world was clean! Nor would an errant scrap of poisoned wood ever knock the breath out of me again.
My thumbs would remain attached to me until the day I died. I would never again enshroud myself in clouds of sealer and lacquer vapor which, despite a roaring exhaust fan in the paint room, made me gag and gasp for breath. I still can’t understand how Dad withstood all the sawdust, wounds and fumes; he never complained, never faltered, never showed any sign of displeasure. No doubt he was more of a “man” than I would ever be, but if being a man meant stalwart, unwavering fortitude in such misery, then I would opt for cowardice among the blue stockings. I found little difference between working at the shop and slavery. But to think as much amounted to blasphemy. I was a living Fifth Column.
It’s now early August and New Orleans has become a vast oven. The soggy heat stifles your breath, you can hardly move. I’m alone in the shop, Dad off on errands. We have about fifteen fans circulating the infernal air. I’m waiting for a big truck to back into the yard to pick up about a thousand packed boxes. I add more glue crystals and water to the ancient Devibilis Hold Heat electric glue pots and stir the muck until it became creamy and molten. Dad says the glue is made from horse bones. It smell foul and sour enough though I kind of like it. It’s an odor from the past that I remember it keenly, precisely, but I will never smell it again. How does the mind store scent? One mental whiff, years later, we’re transported back in time- – and the whiff isn’t even real. Hello, Mr. Proust.
But after all, I knew the shop since my earliest childhood years, its every inch. An L-shaped building constructed solely of studs, rafters and corrugated tin. No insulation, no sheet rock, a rough concrete floor. The yard is massive and enclosed, along with the shop, by a simple chain-link fence. Two massive swing doors, also chain link, allow cargo trucks to back in for pick-ups. The main work area contains all the big machines and tools − the saw, three floor sanders, a drill press, the whetstone, a Marvel band saw, the router, work tables, shelf upon shelf of hammers, steel levels with green bubbles, miters, vises, hack and coping and keyhole saws, metal and wooden clamps, brass plumb bobs, drills, mallets, tack hammers, hand block planes, pliers, screwdrivers, nail punches, gallon cans of wood putty (filler, we call it), rasps, files, the two venerable glue pots, stacks of plywood, a small grimy bathroom over in the corner, fans and a colossal space heater mounted on ceiling beams, a loft for storing still more wood (the better wood, solid planks of cherry, oak, walnut, the good stuff), bins stuffed with wooden router molds, an air compressor with hoses running over to the paint room.
The paint room: fifteen feet by twenty military-looking chamber within the larger room, contains three sets of saw horses and spray cans propped up on long planks. We align the smooth, sanded baffles on these planks, spray them with sealer, let them dry then sand manually with fine grade sandpaper. Next comes the first coat of lacquer. When it dries, we sand again, and spray on a second and final coat. The finished product is glossy and pristine as long as the massive exhaust fan sucks out most of the sawdust. Otherwise, fine silt embeds itself into the lacquer and makes for a gritty surface. We produce only two colors of baffle, “blond” and “walnut” (stains mixed into the lacquer stored in three fifty-gallon drums resting upon railroad ties out in the yard. Each drum has a tap at the bottom; depress the level and out spills the honey colored lacquer, not viscous as treacle, but close.) There are four sizes customers can order, each regulated by standard loudspeaker dimensions: sixes, eights, tens and twelves. Occasionally we get orders for fifteens, but that’s rare. We offer a number of face designs, but the most popular is the five vertical slit model, our trademark, except when really big companies get in on the act and we manufacture baffles bearing their logos. These are the money-making jobs and we work like dogs building from scratch thousands upon thousands of baffles. The biggest, most prestigious company, DuMont, sends us crates full of little metal badges that we affix to the grill cloth stapled inside the baffles behind the slits.
The packing room has its own distinct smell and feel, the coziest nook in the shop, if cozy is a word that can be used to describe even a mere inch of the place. Giant rolls of grill cloth, cane-like material or threaded cloth with silver or gold streaks, and some finer, silk-like material. The trucks deliver them every week. The come wrapped in burlap, secured with taut metal bands which require industrial-grade wire cutters to snap. It’s fairly dangerous to open the rolls because these metal bands are so tight that they “pop” and ricochet all over the place when severed. Their sharp ends have cut my face and arms more often than I can remember. The room is about the same size as the paint room, the grill cloth stored against one wall. Stacked against another wall are ziggurats of flat cardboard mailing boxes, which we assemble with sealing tape. One large table holds the glue-paper dispensers, cast iron monstrosities with brushes and water pans. The rolls of tape are about a foot in diameter. The table is littered with staple guns, awls, hammers, screwdrivers, the usual tools. A little shelf to the left bears all of the rubber stamps and ink pads; the stamps will print our return address onto the mailing boxes. We write out the “To” addresses by hand with huge felt marking pens. I like that job too, addressing, however tedious; the only displeasure to it is the gasoline-like vapors that seep from the pens. They make you dizzy and giddy; once I nearly passed out because I had forgotten to turn on the fan.
Before packing we cut up countless swatches of grill cloth to staple with ancient handguns to the insides of the baffles. We first unroll a tablecloth-sized spread from the tube, fold it into smaller squares then size down with heavy scissors. This job kills your hands after a while. Your fingers go numb and crippled and your joints ache for the rest of the day. Add to that the pressure of stapling with handguns. And you don’t merely staple. You stretch the cloth taut with one hand and staple with the other as if upholstering a chair, aligning the horizontal threads of the cloth at a ninety-degree angle to the routed slits. If it doesn’t look square, the staples need to be removed and you start over again. A typical eight require from forty to fifty staples, all driven in by hand. On stapling days you expect to leave at five or six in severe pain. Physical pain is as endemic to the shop as the sawdust. .It’s a given that no one, except me, seems to mind.
Accounting for every feature and facet of the shop would require volumes. Whenever I try to conjure it up full scale, I always forget something, as if coming upon a jig-saw puzzle with pieces missing − a shelf full of stuff here, the air compressors there . . . or even those crucial wooden dollies, or “trucks” as we called them, upon which we moved at least a ton of wood per day, from one machine to the next, wood in varied states of processing. The trucks amounted to a set of interlocked planks on heavy, geared iron wheels. Rough posts rose from each corner so that they could be guided in any direction from any position. When they moved across the bumpy concrete floor they drowned out every other sound in the place, even the shrill screech of the buzz saw or rumbles from the two sanders manned by Ralph and Dan. That was their main job, sanding; Ralph worked the rough sander, Dan the fine. They stood there, hour after hour, smoothing the gritty surfaces that would then be transported by our trucks into the paint room. In terms of sawdust, Ralph and Dan had the worst job of all. When they left for the day they were no longer black men; they looked like fuzzy white ghosts. They didn’t even spray themselves off with the air hose. They just left.
Dan and Ralph were biological brothers, small young men who never said a word, never complained, never intruded. They strolled in at eight, sanded all day except when off for the half-hour lunch and morning and afternoon tea breaks, then went their way. When they turned off the sanders, they gestured goodbye. The only words out of Dan’s mouth each day were a drawn-out basso “See y’all.” Ralph never spoke. When Dad told him what needed to be done, he fidgeted, nodded, faintly smiled and held up a wavering finger as if contemplating. But there was nothing to contemplate. They sanded the same wood every day; the task never varied.
During our tea breaks they huddled on one side of the room while Paw, Dad and I huddled on another. This was a year or two before integration. The races did not mingle. Every now and then Dad would crack a joke about women and send it their way; they would laugh courteously, nod then lower their eyes. They were never late for work, never slacked off, and they maintained a fastidious, almost ascetic decorum. Until one day, after they had worked at the shop for many years, both men disappeared. We heard through the grapevine that Dan shot one of his cousins in a barroom brawl and wound up in prison, and Ralph had gone berserk and was institutionalized. He ended his days hallucinating and swatting at imaginary enemies. Both brothers had made it to their early twenties before crashing hard. Neither had graduated from high school; college was never in their cards. I remember Ralph’s always forlorn face to this very day. And I often wonder if perpetual sawdust contributed to his ruin. Dan and Ralph worked at the shop every day year round; I worked only on Saturday mornings and summers and I could hardly bear it. Imagine, every day . . . .
Once classes started at Tulane, disaffiliation from the family business did not proceed as smoothly as I thought it might. Dad never pressured me but sometimes asked if I could come in on any given Saturday. I always concocted excuses – too busy studying, Freshman calculus would sink me if I didn’t work it like the router, I had a lecture, mid-term exams . . . . When the following summer rolled around he hinted feebly that he could use some help because everyone after Dan and Ralph had walked out on the job within two of three months. I informed him that I would be going to summer school. And I slipped in that I’d switched my major from business to English. I told him about some poems and novels we had read. He smiled sadly, seemed resigned and I guess in a moment of weakness said softly, “I don’t blame you.”
By this point I had started to live with Rachel and we rented a modest apartment near campus. It wouldn’t work out, of course. We were too young, mis-matched, already bored. And I had delved into her beloved T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens with a vengeance. Rachel merely liked the poetry, but I became a zealot. My almost holy devotion did not interest her. She took a secretarial job at, of all places, a casket company (more wood) and went to the same college part-time, majoring, ironically, in business. The rupture took its time, but I later heard that she had finally finished her courses and become a certified public accountant. Better numbers dash into your eyes than sawdust. Laurie married one of my best friends and they moved out of town. There was no doubt for me that I would remain in school for a long time.
My very first class of Freshman year, at eight in the morning, was called Introduction to Philosophy. The professor wobbled in, books tucked under his arm, and sat in a chair behind a desk up front. Tweed jacket, natch. And you could smell the faint, sweet aroma of Sobranie effusing from his clothing. He began class with Plato’s parable of the cave. I was in love. The man had probably never sawed or sanded or painted a piece of wood in his life. He talked about ideas and they paid him for it! I don’t recall discussing one single idea at the shop. (I would only later, much later, grasp what William Carlos Williams meant by no ideas but in things.) On another side of town, at the same time, some new Dan or Ralph approached a sander, flipped a switch and remained fixed in position for eight hours. The professor taught his class three fifty-minute sessions a week. It was cruel. Despite my love, my craving, I came to despise him. Because it wasn’t fair; millions of peons all over the world still lugged stones through the cave. A clean exit seemed to require the sacrifice of everything you had, knew, loved and cherished.
And what shall I say about guilt, that stern, dour Torquemada of the spirit? Paw and Dad had offered me their world on a platter, but I rejected it; I rejected them; I rejected who I was, what I could have become, opting for the unknown, like one of Prince Henry’s mariners sailing off the flat edge of earth. Rachel had something to do with it, my agony at the shop had much to do with it, but I can’t cast blame in any other direction than my own. I was the saboteur. Not for gain, financial privilege, spite, mean-spiritedness. It just happened. I had no idea where any of it would lead, where I was going, whom I might encounter, what perils might befall me. In time I would even abandon my home, city and state and live as if in self-imposed exile. Something in my brain needed the words, the beautiful, sad, exquisite, haunting words of poetry and novels and thick, inscrutable books. But it’s not as if I had become a complete alien; my family and I remained thick through it all. We simply never mentioned the blast of sun that had changed everything. I could read Dad’s disappointment in his always attentive eyes. Paw had become so old and decrepit he didn’t quite realize the prodigal son would never return. Recently, while rooting through a box of mementos I found a card he had sent to me while I lived in the Midwest, the only card or letter of any kind he had ever written to me. “When you coming home, boy?” was all it said, with his signature.
Or maybe I’m misreading the signs. Maybe Dad and Paw knew all along that I didn’t fit the mold, that I had proved a genetic dud unfit for real work in a man’s world; maybe they were glad to see me go. Whatever the case, I knew that my torment would never abate. I would have to live with the curse of insurrection; I was a renegade, a traitor to those who loved me most and had never let me down. Guilt, another kind of sawdust, a blizzard of it raging in the mind. I had merely traded one species of pain for another. If only the original sawdust had been as sweet and magical as words.
But another piece of the jigsaw has just come to mind. When Dad and I arrived at the shop at eight in the morning, we entered through a normal door opening into the packing room. My job was to hurry through the entire place and open up the colossal rear doors that separated yard and main assembly room. These doors rose nearly twenty feet high and were maybe ten feet across. I had to unfasten every manner of lock and jam, then swing them open one at a time, which required the same strength as pushing a stalled automobile. I had to place four or five bricks at the bottom to keep the wind from blowing them closed. What I liked, though, was how the light flooded in as they opened, what little light we had in the shop. And I like to think of those doors as a kind of modest, home-style version of the Great Gate of Kiev. And, as I conclude this piece, what I would really like, with Mussorgsky blasting in the background, is to open those doors again, before sawdust and fumes have time to work their evil. Return to the scene on my own terms, a revenant. Listen, watch, smell. Greet Dan and Ralph as they arrive for their travail. Stand beside my grandfather in the dizzying glitter of sparks. Retrieve my father’s thumb from the ashes of time and glue it back on with liquified horse bones.
Louis Gallo was born and raised in New Orleans and now teaches at Radford University in Virginia. His volumes of poetry include Clearing the Attic, Archaeology, Crash and Scherzo Furiant. Forthcoming volumes are Why Is There Something Rather than Nothing? and Leeway and Advent.