Sippican Cottage

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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Holding It Back

It’s a solitary thing, to write. I hole myself up in a place that’s illegal to put a murderer in –too small. But you have to get away from the wrong kind of noise. Cicadas are OK. The wheezing of the refrigerator cycling on and off is not. A lawnmower four blocks away is delightful. Next door makes you dream of slitting throats.

My wife looks after the workmen. All their noises are foul. They get up too early and still smell of last night’s revelry sometimes. They swear loudly as their feet crunch noisily in the gravel of the driveway, thinking that by some magical transubstantiation of time and space they’re not brutes if they only swear outside where the woman ain’t. They remind me of a pack of dogs, only not as clean.

All save one. I watch him. I can’t write while they’re knocking around the place, so I started to watch out of boredom and frustration. There is one guy…

I don’t know how to explain it, though explaining it is my business. No, that’s not right. I obfuscate to fill the pages. I do describe, though. How to describe him?

He’s not like the others. It’s the best I can do. I made a serious error once, and they noticed me looking and started talking to me. The fetid gravy of my money being wasted was basted on the banal essence of their interests. I retreated. I watched from afar.

You didn’t need to be close to see he was different. He never spoke but to make himself understood. He pointed to things with his index finger, but never pointed to a person that way. I wonder if anyone but me ever noticed that. The beasts that were his brethren never noticed anything.

He seemed to be in charge in a way I’ve never seen. Maybe in the military it’s that way, when the Lieutenant is getting everyone killed, including himself, and the Sargent starts to point the way infererentially. The ideas must not seem to come from you, just appear in the ether.

He was not in charge in name. He was just one of them. The fellow in charge was never there except to apply verbal emollients to my wife and extract a payment from me. But when he left, they all looked to the quiet man.

How did he do it? I couldn’t look straight at them. But even if I could, I don’t think I would be able to get it. People yammer in team-building exercises in conference rooms about leading by example, but they are like teenage boys talking about grown women. It’s academic what you’d do.

I became obsessed with the idea. Why did this fellow command others’ respect? Not fear, or affection, not even interest –respect. Why did they defer to his judgment without even knowing it? Who taught this man? Is it on a shelf somewhere, a plebeian Eliot’s five foot shelf of books?

The others always left five minutes early. He’d poke around their work, dropped where it stood, and move it here a bit so it wouldn’t fall over. He’d turn their plane irons on their side. Sweep the little blocks away from underfoot for the next day. It was like watching a calloused Jeeves tidying a Wooster’s room without seeming to expend any effort. Extraordinary.

“Good afternoon.”
“Yes, it’s certainly that.”
“I’ve been watching you.”
“You have paid the band. It’s your tune.”
“You have a way about, you; it’s interesting.”

There was a certain kind of a pause. I’d picked up on it. An insuck of breath, almost inaudible. A kind of weariness? I don’t know.

“Everyone has a way about them, sir.”
“My name is David. Call me David, please.”
“Yes, sir.”
“I wanted to ask you how…”
“How it is you do it.”
“Do what, sir?”
“What you do; I’m not sure how to encompass the whole question in one question. The others, they look to you for what to do. They watch you all the time and you bend them to your will.”
“I do nothing of the sort, sir.”
“I’ve watched you. You might not know it, but you do.”

There was another slight insuck of breath. I didn’t know what to expect. I shouldn’t have confronted him, perhaps, but I had to get this on paper or the whole month was a loss. My wife would have her house and I’d have blank foolscap pile. I could get something out of this, easy.

“Have you ever seen Lawrence of Arabia, sir, when Lawrence is shot at the train?”
“You mean the movie? No, we don’t go to movies. I read the Seven Pillars of Wisdom in school.

There was another insuck of breath.

“Do you know Elvin Jones, sir?”
“The drummer?”
“Yes, that’s him.”
“What’s he got to do with Lawrence of Arabia?”
“Nothing, sir, I expect. But it’s like him.”
“I don’t follow you. You’re a musician, too?”
“I am not. But you see, when Elvin Jones is playing the ride cymbal. Do you know it?”
“I must admit I don’t follow you.”
“You see, it just sizzles. It sizzles with a kind of power. “
“But it’s quiet. He just touches it.”
“No. Don’t you understand, he’s bringing his arm down, every time, as hard as he can — and at the same time, he’s holding it back, holding it back, but not quite as hard as he’s hitting it, and the leftover hits the cymbal.”

And then he took his hammer out of the holster, and plunged it into the wall next to my head.

5 Responses

  1. I don’t remember exactly when I left my soul hanging over your fence; you drew a fair sketch of it, just the same.

    I do get it. I even spent quite a few hours with a hammer in my hand this past, last, week.

    Now it is back to school. Back to see if I can tap the dream this time around.

    Lovely piece, sir. I plead special circumstances, but please know you hit one reader right between the running lights.

  2. The sad part is the poor guy is probably so self-conscious now that he’s gonna question every single thing he does or says. A lot of people in a shop environment lead without being aware of it.

    ed in texas

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