Tommy Blue - a work in progress novel
The bloody handprint was missing a finger, the trigger finger, the nose-picking one. The swipes and splatters gave Tommy’s angels deep pleasure, told him so, approved his work. Pools of red spread across the wood floor, footprints, some dense and dark, not the brilliant red of recent gushes. Blood changes; Tommy knew that. He knelt, dragged a finger over the closest edge, still tacky. Stepping back, he smiled, they’ll be quiet for a while now, pleased with him. He’d considered every square foot of room number six, his favorite. He’d fixed a few too-perfect patterns by smudging here, blotting there, used a three-prong garden tool to carve gouges in the drywall — my dreams, crackling, night hissing things. The missing finger was Tommy’s idea, one of the few his boss liked. Rising, he licked his finger, tasted, wiped his hand on bib overalls. Picking up the half-full bucket, he limped from the building, swinging the weight on his left side, his side with the honest leg. Before stepping into the chill afternoon, he looked down, checked to make sure the severed hand was submerged in the red paint pail. His right hand felt the ring, recently worn on the missing finger of the emancipated paw, now shining gold perfection in his pocket. Gotta check the picture list, see what need doin next. Mr. Walsh say we’re behind. Tommy looked at the long shadows, near supper soon.
Other than the daily sun cycle, time meant little to Tommy; there were hot spells and cold spells. Aunt Vera called them seasons. It was a warm, humid day when curiosity drew him close to the men yelling and cursing, toward the rumbling of mechanical mammoths, toward Mr. Walsh’s land. He liked the yellow machines with thick arms, lifting, digging, dragging, proper work, good work. Tommy’s urges were driven by sparkling prods, prickly warnings, flaming hurt about things very much not right. Things that needed correction called to him for balance. That took effort, hard muscular patience, the exertion pleasing in the final result, angels quenched.
He stood close, touching the chain-link fence separating him from the worksite, hand gripping the warm metal weave, a pile of planks on the other side beckoning. Following the fence line, he found the opening. There was always an opening. Some were hard to find, some were locked, all eventually surrendered. Tommy walked in, stood before the pile of wood, studied it. The first step in righting things took the longest, the most thought.
“What ya doing there, boy? I ain’t paying you to stand around. Get those boards over to the laydown area and be quick about it.”
Tommy didn’t turn, didn’t face the man, knew this was a boss. Bosses talked like that. Choosing three thick rough planks, he hefted them, cradled them in his arms, not over his shoulder as most would do, walked, his gait slightly bent. Aunt Vera made him carry things like that. Less clumsy for a clumsy boy, she said. Vera was dead, had been corrected, but her words remained, burrowed deep. The laydown area. Tommy didn’t know where that was. He waited, knew the boss would tell him. Bosses always told him.
“Are you tetched? Over there, over there, damn it.”
The man cursed. Aunt Vera said cursing was wrong, needed correcting, but the pile needed his hands first. Turning, head down, he saw the man’s shoes; not workman’s scuffed heavy ones, not small those of a small boss, these were big boss boots, polished. Tommy avoided looking at faces, stayed hidden under his drooping, wide-brimmed slouch hat. People were startled when they saw his face, not sure what was wrong, knew something was, finally recognizing it was his eyebrows and lashes; he didn’t have any, didn’t have one blade of hair on his body. His strange eyes frightened folks when he raised his head, looked down at their faces. Some turned their heads, some backed up, some took to silence in mid-sentence, a few, mostly men, pushed him, struck him, called him names. It was his size, angels told him, his strength they envied. He didn’t correct people right off. The sky must be red for that. Some would change on their own. Those who didn’t, the green ones … it took patience waiting for red sky days.
Thirty-seven things, Hard Angel told him, thirty-seven corrections were needed inside the fenceline. Tommy knew that meant a lot. After putting the lumber pile in order, no jiggity-jagged ends, he helped other men, sometimes he dug where a boss pointed, but mostly he carried sacks of sand and mortar dust, building crisscrossed squares piled ten high on the ground laid wooden pallets, occasionally stopping to wipe sweat from his eyes or for a dipper of water from the tank truck before starting another stack on the X a small boss carved with his heal. Ten was a good number, made from three letters, aunt Vera said. One line and a circle, fingers counted to ten, the spaces between, eight; enough for Tommy, beyond that number were bunches, dozens, lots.
The sun was high when the men stopped, put down their tools, turned off and stepped down from machines, climbed down scaffolds, headed to the line of pickup trucks outside the gate. Tommy watched; he was good at watching, poor at remembering. The men returned with lunch pails and thermoses, gathered at the fence line under shade trees. Tommy stayed where he was; no one told him to stop working. He picked up two bags, carried them to the mixing area, aligned them, make the stack just so, returned for another load.
“Hey, fella.” A man in tan overalls and tee-shirt, a boss, stood in his way, blocking the straight way, the perfect path. Tommy stopped, listened. “You gonna work through lunch? You know old man Walsh can’t keep you from taking a noon break. If you were part of the crew, we’d keep that from happening. Are you his hired hand?”
Hired hand, lunch—those words stuck, the others drifted off, not needed. Tommy kept his head down. “Not hired, fixin things that ain’t right. Got no dinner.” Aunt Vera said the noon meal was called dinner.
“If you’re not his hand, why are you working here?”
“Fixin things, makin em right, always things to make right.”
“Damn. You ain’t getting paid? Well, stop working and grab some shade with us. My name’s Harry. What’s yours, big man?”
“Aunt Vera called me Tommy Blue. She liked blue things.”
“Alright, Tommy Blue, come on then.” Henry gripped Tommy’s arm, made him walk beside him. “How’d you hurt your leg?”
“Not hurt, shorter.”
Under the trees, men tossed him this and that, an apple, an extra ham sandwich, a fried pie, asked him where he lived. He pointed east toward the woods. The short dark man next to him asked if he had family nearby. Tommy shook his head no; it was easier than saying. Soft Angel said these were good men, men who made things right. Tommy worked through the afternoon. A few spoke. He listened while correcting things. After a time, the men stopped again, made their way to the line of trucks. Suppertime must be. The trucks roared to life one by one, pulled onto the gravel drive, then to the asphalt, leaving Tommy. Quitting time must be. A dipper of water, a splash on the back of his thick neck, a head wipe before he walked out the gate, turned left, headed to the green hollow in the woods, the place he’d slept for two nights. Tommy never got lost. The angels painted sky markers for him, for his eyes only.
A rustle and grunt came from the underbrush. Tommy grunted back at the animal he’d met yesterday. Ugly like me. Waved along, the beast followed him; most animals did when he invited them. This one liked soft root things, ate most other things too.
When close to his camp, he parted the muscadine vines, make sure nobody been here, don’t blunder in, never blunder. Safe, Hard Angel said. Tommy didn’t always trust Hard Angel.
It was a good camp, a comfortable enough place for him, leaves and pine straw gave place for his hips after a hard day’s work. Hungry. He looked in the larder sack. Three cans, pictures of beans on the labels, a salt-cured ham shank, cellophane packets of crackers, some with cheese. Grunt-grunt likes beans. Tommy pulled a tab, opened a can, dumped it on the ground. The hog appreciated the food—easier gettings than tusk-churning the dirt. Tommy asked the angles to fix his friend’s broken tooth. No, Soft Angel said. That one never used more words than needed, easier to remember.
Go shopping tonight — lake houses down the road, the empty ones, the blue ones. Foraging was a right thing under red skies when others wouldn’t notice him. He never took much from a single home; nothing readily missed.
The ham was stiff, needing the see-saw of his knife to get past the rind, to carve off chunks for the cookpot filled with creek water to soak out some of the salt. Tommy glanced at his new friend lolling about, licking its lips to get all the bean juice, spitting out pine needles. The shank came from one of its kind, does piggy know? Grunt-grunt knew, didn’t care, chomped on the discarded hog rind. Already dead, no hope for it now. Tommy never killed animals, though he’d eat their flesh, enjoy their fat if someone else did. Waste not, aunt Vera said, there was another part to that, but he couldn’t remember what it was.
Settling in, Tommy pulled off his boots, considered the thin soles. Need new shoes, hard to find my size. One of the construction crew had big feet, angles said. Would have them come his way, amen. Aunt Vera called them that; his angels, everybody has angels, she said, sometimes too many for Tommy’s liking. More than ten of anything was always too many. Take a sack tomorrow, one large enough for boots, whispered Soft Angel. Hunger sated; nighttime pleasures came next. No, wash first, always wash, every night since he was a small child—cleanliness, godliness, amen.
The small creek had a deep stretch in the bend, deep enough to dunk his head if he squatted. He stripped, socks, overalls, underwear, stripped naked, felt good. Wash clothes too. Grunt-grunt followed. Soft Angel said the pig liked the mud, used it to rid himself of ticks and fleas. Tommy never got ticks, and the fleas and flies left him alone. His wet things, rung out, lay on a flat rock; mine, don’t touch, piggy. Grunt-grunt agreed, left Tommy’s things alone unless offered, knew his place. In the deepest part, where the water flowed pleasantly, he laid back, floating before exhaling, sinking to the sandy bottom. He liked to watch bubbles rise to the surface, shiny balls rubbing against each other before they burst. Don’t say under too long, said Quick Angel. One more minute begged Tommy. He’d been submerged for five minutes, perhaps a bit more, maybe a little less; it didn’t really matter. Rising from the water, pleasure time now, said Fat Angel.
Wet clothes hung, others pulled on, treasure sack tugged closer, opened — shiny things, perfect things, round things, wedding rings, earrings, five nose rings, one for each finger of his free hand. He liked to swish his hand around in the bag until the angels were satisfied by the feel of his souvenirs. Tommy had been collecting metal rings for several seasons, he didn’t know how long, but more than six, he believed. Before that, he’d gathered hair, before the hair… he couldn’t remember, except the fluffy cat tails, his first collection, so long ago, when he was shorter, could fit in a bed. The angels didn’t want him to remember things, things that had no never-mind. Sometimes they argued with each other. Tommy didn’t like that; it gave him eye-piercing headaches.
The first rings came from a face he found walking along the road toward him, a wrong face, a green face, one that needed correcting. As he worked, the angels rewarded him with waves of pleasure, encouraging, guiding his hand as he sliced the metal circles from flesh, perfect things with no end, amen. The man had heavy, thick hoop earrings, four rings along each eyebrow, three on the lower lip; the small ones were the hardest to harvest when your fingers are big. He’d saved the nose ring for last, not sure how to make the cut to free the silver loop. While he worked, the face had looked up at him, eyes open, cradled in his lap upside down to him; funny. Finished, he smoothed the skin, wiped away blood, made it right. Hard Angle assured him the man would move along—no need for Tommy to shepherd him back to the road, amen.
There was a special place for his treasure bag; everything has a special place, a place it belonged. Tommy rolled the cloth bag tight, top to bottom, flipped open the flap on his pack, pushed the sack deep to the base into the left corner. The air remained warm from the day. No need for a fire tonight. When it turned cold, the rocks would glow dull orange, burn without being consumed, warming him as he slept, as he did now, dreaming of new boots.
It was a horribly pleasant accident, a slow-motion one-ton tumble from the forklift when the wood pallet shattered, raining cinderblocks down on the man, crushing him every way a man can be crushed. Tommy joined the men grabbing, tossing blocks off the pile, digging for their friend. Tommy slung the blue blocks, searched for boots. The sky was red. Nobody noticed him when the sky was red. The men stood silent around the body for several minutes, an amateur vigil, sad faces, hands jammed in pockets. They stepped back when the ambulance and sheriff’s deputy arrived. The red and blue lights confused Tommy, hard to look at, he settled under the shade trees, tried on his new boots.
There weren’t any more accidents, no need for them. The crew finished construction on the long single-story buildings. It had been a month-long project, quick and dirty, a man told him, quick and dirty since no one would live in them. By their color, Tommy could tell the men would leave today, knew he’d never see them again after the last shingle had been pounded down. No more fried pies.
“Come on, Tommy, let’s see about you getting paid.” The foreman pulled him over to the big boss. “We’re done, Mr. Walsh. Here’s the punch cards and inspection certificates. This here is Tommy, he’s been working for the last three weeks. Thought he was your hired hand at first. I think you owe him something.” Tommy didn’t like being in the middle of things, but the foreman insisted.
“I don’t have any damn hired hands. You pay him.”
The foreman took off his ball cap, scratched his head, lending countryman credence to his next words. “Well, as I recall, I saw you bossing him around more than a few times. Besides, if he’s not union, I can’t pay him. It’s not legal. The boys threw some in a kitty, but it ain’t much. He did a lot of the hard work, lifting, and carrying.”
“I’m not giving him a nickel,” Walsh said before looking up at Tommy’s dull face. Soft Angel murmured; Walsh’s color changed. “Well, maybe I could use a steady hand, probably cheaper than bringing in day labor or contractors. You up for room and board as part pay, boy?”
Tommy understood room, board, and pay. He’d had those in times past.
“Is he a mute?”
“Naw. Speak up, Tommy. Yes or no.”
“Alright, then. Go over to the house, sit on the steps, but stay off the porch. I’ll be along shortly.”
Tommy headed to the large house with spindled gables, wraparound porch, and rocking chairs he knew he’d never be offered. He enjoyed working, liked helping, making things right, liked his new boots.
Darkness dropped on the Ozarks—a sure, quick thing in winter. The moon sky illuminated black, leafless tree spikes, bayonets against intrusions from above, an impenetrable maze, a shield for those who knew its ways. Tommy spent most of his nights there, by the creek, preferring the small noises and smells. He favored the forest over the pallet in the tool shed Mr. Walsh provided. Sometimes the door would be locked, sealing him in for the night unless he wanted to leave; Hard Angel could unlock anything.
Tommy kept most of his possessions in his woods camp, knowing Boss wouldn’t appreciate the collection he held in his borrow, wouldn’t see the need, would probably try to take them from him. Aunt Vera got mad when she found his sack of severed cat tails and the knife, his first collection when he was small enough for a proper bed. She beat him bad with her cane that day. Of all the things he didn’t remember, Tommy wished that was one. She’d screamed, wailed, said she’d put him away. Aunt Vera told him that a lot, right up to the day she was corrected, made right, amen. The time previous was when he hid her bottle. Alcohol made her face yellow before she passed out.