A Bug on the Windshield, Driving Home

This is where he might have gone, after I saw him. No idea which versions are the biggest lie. Maybe you’ll be able to tell.

I saw him perfectly framed through the cracked windshield of our Subaru, slashed out in jagged chiaroscuro by the bladed beams of late October daylight. Like a digital exposure perfectly lit by the flickering sun, every detail jumped out sharp.

The man was thirty-two going on sixty. He was tired, by his expression. He cut his own hair, it seemed, but not that often. Not for a couple of months, anyway.

That hair fell out the back of a greasy ball cap, slapping at the collar of a brown trucker jacket not bulged by any wallet. The jacket had snap pockets, an unbuttoned front, and a corduroy collar. Some say corduroy (“corde du roi “) is the fabric of French kings. Others say it derives from a coarsely woven, 17th century English fabric that Bill Shakespeare might have valued as padding for stage bustles. Kings and rock stars, nerds and bums – one fustian fabric to rule them all.

He wore fingerless gloves and a dead man’s shoes, and a shirt that looked warmer than his jacket. Those shoes were big enough to store spare magazines, a solid five inches bigger-looking than his five-foot-nine frame could realistically have sprouted. They weren’t clownish, though. Not even sad-clownish.

The man dragged his right foot, moving with more purpose than speed along the crosswalk spanning Aurora Avenue North, what used to be the Big Road, just north of Bitter Lake where the whores tend toward fat and beige, with short skirts and extensible pudenda. Moving east out of the sun, the baby oil sheen of his forehead shadowed by the brim of his cap, his mantis green eyes focused on the far concrete shore.

His gloved left hand held a cigarette close, with that elbow never straightening beyond right angles. The stumble and scrape of his right foot kept him cautiously flailing it in circles, the tip of it describing tiny, red, firefly arcs between gasps and shuffles. Next to his right thigh was a hammer, firmly clenched.

“Estwing.” I recognized it. With solid steel shanks running into a grip of stacked leather biscuits, those unbreakable things had a well-earned reputation for being great underseat truck tools but if you ever drove nails all day with one, your elbow wouldn’t stop tingling for a week. Estwings come with blue rubber handles now. These days, leather is too expensive to use for tennis shoes, hammer handles, or even leather jackets.

Estwing bangs out all kinds of hammers. I know; I used to sell them, down in the U-District at a retail rendezvous confluence of restorers, cabinetmakers, art students, Burners and burn victims and burnouts. They manufacture rock hammers, good for cracking almost anything open. They sell drilling hammers for smashing. They make 14-ounce aluminum hammers with shot behind the face, because even hammers are high-tech now.

The staggering man in the crosswalk carried an E3-16S. That’s a 16-ounce carpenter’s hammer with a rip claw head. A man’s hammer, but not a big man’s tool and smooth-faced, unlike its possessor.

I like a 19-oz., hickory-handled Vaughan, myself; smooth-faced, with a standard (not California) rip head because California Framers are for, well… Californians. They don’t make my exact model anymore, but that’s okay. The head’s got more life in it than I do and if I ever break the handle, I’ll wedge in another one, drill it for cod liver oil to salve my crackling hands, glass off the shellac and oil it.

Like ya do.

With its nail grapplers closely describing the shallow, descending arc of a human arm’s blow, a rip swings truer than a curve claw. Some may disagree, but they’re mostly dead now. Rips pull nails better, too. Estwings – tough, hard-swinging, and devastating in a trained hand – are good for demolition.

It was easy to recognize that still-shiny 16S of his. I used to keep one of the old skool models, rattling around behind the seat of my pontoon-fendered Chevy half-ton. It had a polished face, pits on the shank, and occasional mold blossoming over the leather but it moved (along with my clutch drive tools) out of my life when the old truck did.

A properly swung Estwing smoothie will set a finish nail subsurface without marking your project. Makes a hell of a mess if you overdo it, but hey… what doesn’t? It’s a lesson learned early, if not easily.

I tapped my spare foot on the dead pedal. The pedestrian’s dragging foot made him twist and lurch as he pulled himself across the highway, his body describing larger, lumpier orbits than the graffito cigarette circles forming the center of his tattered galaxy, zooming into the outer darkness, further and further from his fellow galaxies of swirling blood and cracking bones, winds of breath and tides of spit.

It’s a long light at that crossing. He easily made it over the last gutter, mounting the curb with a grunt and a cautious spasm of his cigarette-encumbered balance arm but never twitching his right arm up from where the hammer rode firmly pressed against his thigh, polished by a stained pair of Dickies duck carpenter pants complete with hammer loop – unused.

Angling across the parking lot of the 76 Food Mart, he stopped to get his breath, standing on the blue square of a parking space matching the hangtag on my rear-view mirror. A silver Honda CRV sailed into the parking lot and honked at him where he stood, breathing, in the last available space.

Never did raise his eyes, only his smoke and took a last drag before tossing the butt down and carefully smudging it onto the blue wheelchair symbol with his better foot. The CRV driver, plump with real estate knowledge and MILF bleach, laid on her horn until he slid and stumbled his way up the sidewalk ramp to lean briefly against the ice machine. His motion looked like a small rockslide, a falling crumble, only in the uphill direction.

The Honda lady seemed in no real hurry to shop there. She pulled out a cell phone, dialed with the flashing quickness of an egret spearing tadpoles, and started bobbing her head professionally. I watched her. The limping man watched her, catching his breath again. I’ll guess we both noticed that her car had no blue hangtag, no DP license plate.

My light hadn’t changed yet. Just as it did, he raised his hammer slightly, and walked inside.

In one scenario, I whipped my wheel to cross that intersection, screeched into the 76 lot, and ran through the door just in time to stop an armed robbery. Sometimes I forget how I don’t run anymore.

In a scenario that definitely didn’t occur, he popped her client taxi sharply on its hood to remind her of others’ dignity.

In another, he limped straight through the store to the back, only to be found lying on the floor in a puddle of sticky red near the men’s room with the beige flash of a hooker’s meaty calf just disappearing around the corner, and his hammer nowhere in sight.

There’s a perfectly plausible scenario where he was returning that new-looking hammer – still sporting its yellow sticker with the red brand name, flag bunting and proud black letters spelling out “MADE IN U.S.A.” – borrowed from the store’s owner, a longtime friend, to work briefly on his trailer that was parked across the road with its skirting kept loose, ready for the next move-along.

An improbable scenario, the kind you might shoot but never bother to edit, has him running back out of the store, trailing flutters of cash like the feathery spoor of a coed pillow fight, and jumping into the silver CRV to make their pre-arranged getaway – although it’d probably be juicier if he kidnapped her on the spot, thereby elevating his Silver Alert to a statewide BOLO; a burgeoning, multi-agency manhunt; and his eventual death on the evening news, at the hands of a mantis-eyed Hostage Rescue Team sniper detailed to our state patrol from the FBI.

Maybe he was a disabled veteran, applying for work as a pump jockey in a self-serve state. Maybe his nephew worked the counter that day, spotting his tired uncle a withered hot dog from the roller grill cooker. It was just gonna get thrown out, anyway.

In the most likely scenario, I drove home and never thought about him again. That’s what I would recommend to you, anyway, because it’s not about his story and its not about her story, but only where we go from here.

When the light changed, I moved my good foot over. Then I pressed down on the gas pedal, and hammered on home.

I don’t have anything left to sell.

Comments

  1. Dave Kaser says:

    And I was just wondering today why you didn’t show up anymore! Once again get you make me a better reader. Also, I let my “motorcyclest” expire. No more articles about ‘02 Bandits.

  2. Jiohn Exel says:

    Great story and slice of life. Would have totally dug it even if I didn’t happen to own a 45 year old 16 oz. Estwing claw hammer with that leather handle and a nice patina of rust, dried titebond, blood and paint.

  3. Steve McCune says:

    Thank you.

  4. Dave G. says:

    Enquiring minds want to know. Do you “see” like this in real time? Some blessed kind of tachycardiac arrest spinning a movie onto tape for transcription later? Or do just the kernels of thought catch like drifting branches, the full-on thought-dam of a story built up and jammed in by the stream of consciousness over time? Either way, you’re the master, Jack. Keep being out there being you. Keep giving us the odd glimpse of a piece of twisted wrought iron that, in good time with serendipitous perspective, reveals itself to be absolutely perfect in its coming-to-be-just-what-it-is through the forge of time.

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