“On day four, you wrote a post about losing something. Today, write about finding something…Today’s twist: if you wrote day four’s post as the first in a series, use this one as the second installment — loosely defined.” —Writing 101, Day 13: Serial Killer II
This is a continuation of The End of My Innocence. We pick up our story as Tom and I are on our way to work at the Appliance Repair Center for the day.
Innocence Lost, Insight Gained
Tom stopped the truck at a red light and started coughing. The severity of the cough increased about every five repetitions and after about twenty coughs I could see that he was in pain. The light turned green and so did Tom as he coughed and drove and swerved and heaved.
We stopped at the next red light. Tom said, ”I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m ok, I’ll be alright.”
“You don’t look ok, or sound alright. Why don’t you let me drive and you can rest, drink some coffee, maybe have another smoke,” I said, searching for anything that I could think of to get him out from behind the wheel of that truck.
“No, I’ve got it, I’ve got it,” Tom insisted, and on he drove as he lit another Marlboro.
We went about two more miles when the worst of the cigarette-fits hit. This time Tom was not in control of the truck. The deep-down coughs started again, sending him into uncontrollable bouts of shaking and rocking in his seat while swerving the truck from one side of the two-lane roadway to the other. There was a set of railroad tracks to our left and eight blocks of commercial storefronts on our right… on my side… the one with an open door…and no seat.
I thought about grabbing the wheel and trying to steer the truck, but with the way Tom was flailing around in the driver’s seat I was afraid that one, or both, of us would be thrown out of the vehicle. Amidst much honking of horns and squealing of brakes, Tom managed to get control of the truck and pull along the curb in front of a small restaurant.
The patrons inside did their best not to stare at us as Tom lit a fresh cigarette, his lighter held between both of his trembling hands. I said, “That’s a tough habit. One cigarette makes you cough uncontrollably and the next one backs it off.”
“Yeah, I gotta quit smoking these things,” Tom said.
“How about I drive from here and you can suffer through he next one, the one that is gonna make you cough, you can suffer through it over here?”
Tom shook his head from side to side. “No, thanks. I’ll tell you what we’re gonna do, we are going to go in here and have breakfast, my treat.” Tom was pointing past me at the restaurant full of people who were not staring, but fully aware of us sitting in the truck.
My mind was racing, somewhere I heard someone saying something about eight for eight, something about I know that you aren’t like that, I could see Earl’s face. This can’t happen, we are supposed to be working, not eating breakfast.
“Tom, we are supposed to be at the repair center, you know, doing electrical work,” I stammered.
“It’s ok Al, don’t worry.”
“But Tom, we are supposed to be working, not eating breakfast on company time,” I said.
Tom closed the door on his side of the truck, removed the keys from the ignition and motioned for me to get out of the truck. “Has anyone told you that you worry too much?”
“Yes. I get that a lot,” I said.
“You are with me, kid. Don’t worry about it; Earl won’t mind, we go way back.” Tom said.
“Yes but don’t you think that this is taking advantage of him?”
“No, I don’t. I am going to feel a lot better, and be more productive, after I get some food in me. You’ll feel better, too, after you eat something. So look at the menu and get whatever you want. This is my way of apologizing to you for my problem this morning and thanking you for your patience.”
“I had breakfast at home before I left for work this morning, Tom,” I said.
“So pick something light, but eat.”
It dawned on me at this moment that there were forces and situations at work here that were beyond my understanding. There was a connection between Earl and Tom that I would never be privy to (and to this day I have no idea what it was) and that in some way there was a connection forming between Tom and me. I felt that this breakfast, this breaking of bread together, was an important ritual in Tom’s life and that I should just shut up and accept it for what it was—and that is what I did.
We went into the restaurant and I took a good look around. Four tables with two chairs opposite each other ran the length of the restaurant in parallel with eight round-topped stools at a serving counter that faced the cooking equipment and staff. Six tables and two dozen chairs filled the area in front of the plate-glass window where the morning sun washed over the assembled crowd.
We got menus, made our selections and we each enjoyed a cup of hot coffee while we waited on our order. Tom asked me about my background in the trade and how long I had been with Earl and Dick. I recited a list of the journeymen that I had worked with so far and Tom indicated which guys he knew/worked with in the past.
Our breakfasts arrived and we dug in to plates mounded with eggs, pancakes, sausage and grits; 4 slices of toast were on a plate beside a bowl of butter. So much for eating light.
There was a communal feeling as we ate, talked and just relaxed. The terror of the ride thus far had begun to fade and Tom’s cough had miraculously stopped—the relative quiet was welcome.
We finished our meals and Tom left a tip for the waitress and paid the bill at the cash register by the front door. He got behind the steering wheel of the truck, unconsciously pulling the pack of Marlboro cigarettes out of his shirt pocket as he put the key in the ignition switch of the truck.
I said, “Uh, Tom? Maybe you might wanna give yourself a break with the cigs, huh? You haven’t coughed once in the last twenty minutes.”
“I can’t stop, I will be smoking again soon so I might as well get it over with.”
“O-k,” I said. “Thank you for breakfast this morning, it was a nice treat.”
“It was my pleasure, and thank you for hanging in there with me and my problem,” Tom said as he pulled the truck away from the curb and headed toward our destination.
The cool early morning breeze blowing through the open door of the truck felt good on my face and chest. Tom’s coughing had assumed the level of post-nasal drip since breakfast. I turned to him and said, “Tom, if you don’t mind me asking, how did you decide to get into the Electrical Trade?”
Tom downshifted the transmission as we slowed our approach to a red light. “Hah! Interesting question, what have you heard?”
“I haven’t heard a thing, why should I have heard something?”
“Nah. It’s just that sometimes guys talk, ya know? Outta turn, they think they know something or somebody and they don’t know shit, really, in the long run. Am I right, or am I right? Huh?”
“What are you…”
“I’m just sayin’, sometimes people don’t know what they think they know. Ya know?”
“Yeah, I know…”
“Back to your question,” Tom said, ”I started out as a Grunt.”
“No kidding, you were a Linemen’s helper?”
“Yep, we were running a Highline through the Everglades.”
“Wow, that must’ve been something,” I said.
The traffic light turned green and we accelerated toward the next one.
“Lemme tell you somethin’—after two months of putting up with bugs, snakes, skeeters and every other living thing that crawls, slithers and flies through the air, anything, anything, looked better than being a Lineman.”
“So you put in to join the Inside Unit?”
Tom hesitated. “It was suggested to me that I might be better off working as an Inside Wireman.”
“It was suggested? You mean you didn’t want to leave the Line crew?
“Well I had thought about it, you know, what with the bugs and all but I was going through a tough transition at the time and that didn’t help.”
“Yeah, well, if you don’t care to talk about it—“
“Nah, it’s ok,” Tom said. “Nobody has told you, warned you about me?”
“Warned me? Is this guy paranoid or crazy?” I thought to myself.
‘Yeah, hey, Tom, I don’t know what you are getting at, but I don’t know you and haven’t heard any rumors about you. For the record, I judge people based on how they treat me—not what others say about them.”
“That’s nice, that’s nice. How are we doin’ so far?”
“You smoke too much, but other than that we’re good.”
We caught the next four green lights and the mood in the truck brightened as Tom drove across downtown Fort Lauderdale.
“You’re right, on both counts,” Tom said. “I was a hot-head back then, more vocal about my political beliefs. It was hard on some of the guys. I feel bad about it now.”
“Your beliefs have changed?”
“No, f—k no! I just don’t talk about them as much. Shit, I even got myself kicked out of the Birchers. Buncha f—king pussies. All talk, no action.”
“Wow.” I knew only one card-carrying member of the John Birch Society and he had some radically conservative views. What did you have to believe to get kicked out of the Society?
“It’s that f—king Commie Pinko Earl Warren up there on the Supreme Court causing all these problems for us today!”
“Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about. Desegregation, Miranda Rights—I’m tellin’ you that somebody ought do somethin’ about this guy! You know what I mean? Huh?”
“You’re talking about the ‘Impeach Earl Warren’ movement?”
“Impeach, impeach? Impeachin’ him is too damn good. We gotta send a message, loud and f—king clear!”
Tom’s spasmodic coughs started again as we coasted into the parking lot of the Appliance Repair Center. “What the hell just happened?” I thought. “Did I just hear what I just heard?”
Tom stopped the truck in a parking space in front of a door that marked, “Counter Sales”. “Stay here, I’ll be right back.”
It was a good thing that he said that because I wanted nothing more than to run away from this situation. The times were changing, but not everyone was changing with the times.
Note: This story will continue with Part 3.