by RF Thomas
I guess I have always looked at the dark side of things. But I don’t think of myself as the glass is half-empty sort of guy; maybe no one does. Probably inside ourselves we are much finer characters than what the world actually sees. Probably what the world sees in each of us is the same flawed, washed-out color we see in everyone else. The only bright and golden soul in the world is our own.
Anyway, back to the question of the glass and what is inside. I think it took getting married and suddenly having real responsibilities for me to realize I am in fact a worrier and a doubter and tend toward the negative side of things.
Also, I have always had a chip on my shoulder. Being an immigrant’s son will do that, growing up in public school with the improbable name of Nicodemus will do that. Having skin a little darker than other kids will do that. Having parents with a thick accent will do that. Maybe not to everyone, but it did to me, taught me early on that the world out there was hostile if you were different.
So, I worry, I try to find the problems before they become emergencies. I almost said ‘I can’t help it’, but I probably can. I probably choose to go there. When people tell me “You should be happy, young and healthy and newly married with your whole life ahead,” I smile and figure they see me agreeing, but maybe they don’t. Maybe they see the phony in me just like I do in them, because while I am smiling, I am thinking, “Yeah, but now I have to pay all the bills for three people, not just one. And the rent. And keep us fed and healthy and safe, and not just for today, but tomorrow and all the rest of the tomorrows there will be.”
Or now when people hear that we are expecting and I should be overwhelmed with bliss, I instead am stressing over the costs this gift of life will bring, and that is one giant hamster wheel of issues if there ever was one.
And what about Grandma? No, that’s not the title of some second-rate Broadway play; it’s one of my chief worries. Grandma has no other family besides me, and she is ill, an invalid actually. So, she lives with us, my wife and me. In our two bedroom apartment. What do we do when the baby comes? Only a few months to figure that one out.
But Nico, you might say, be happy! You have a good job! Well, that is true, sort of. It’s for sure a good start. Thanks to my wife’s Uncle Harry. Worked for the union forever, put in a good word for me, all I had to do was take an aptitude test any dummy could pass and I got on at the factory. Assembly work, and only a temp. But still, twice as much as I have ever made before at gas stations or fast food joints, and more importantly, real health insurance for my family. So yeah, thanks Uncle Harry.
Except for one thing. Suddenly, there is talk of a strike. I just started, I am the newest guy on the line, but even I can feel the tension between the guys on the floor and the management upstairs. Tension that settles down on your shoulders as soon as you file in with the rest of your shift. Being watched from up high. I am expected to fall in line since Uncle Harry is die-hard and always has been and all that is fine, I know the union provided him with a great life for his family. But don’t tell me not to worry about it.
But Nico, that is life, every adult has to face that stuff. And you know what? That’s true. That is one way to look at it, the mundane blur of day to day that eventually becomes someone’s life. Work, responsibility, bills, worries, whatever. A long and boring tale.
Fortunately, life has good things too. Joy and wonder and fulfillments of all types. And sometimes if you are lucky, opportunities. Unless they pass by unnoticed, or we see them too late, fading away in the rear-view mirror. But oh, the times when we are ready for them, when we see the thing or hear the thing and know we have a chance for change. And actually be that bright and golden soul for awhile.
Nico was intimidated right away, on his first day, before he even got out of his car. The factory was one of the big Midwest ones, with a footprint the size of a small town, and the parking lot alone rivaled that of an amusement park, or baseball stadium.
Once inside, it got worse. His building was big, nearly a quarter mile on each side, and filled with noisy, confusing, fast-moving, heavy, and dangerous things. Nico felt as much like the new guy as it is possible to feel, like he had just stepped into an alien world where everyone knew the rules but him.
He was put on an assembly line, which meant he stood next to a waist high conveyor all day, and except for two breaks and lunch, worked an air wrench torqueing bolts onto an endless stream of heavy gray iron parts.
On the other side of the conveyor was another young man, Stan, who didn’t talk much. He had been there a little longer, and worked sullenly. Stan was always a second or two behind Nico, just fast enough to maintain his quota and not stop the line’s progress. He had a common attitude on the floor, he was there, he was working, but he didn’t have to like it.
Besides Stan, and his line foreman, Nico knew no one else, nor did he make an attempt at first. Too overwhelmed, too aware of being an outsider, his protective coloring took over and he sunk into himself.
But even in his self-isolation, he noticed the crew. Everyone in the department knew about the crew. They were the old union hands, a handful of men who every day sauntered down the main aisle once an hour, headed to the vending machines for coffee or soft drinks. They were a raucous, cock-sure bunch, men in their forties and fifties playing grab-ass and telling locker-room jokes. They were skilled hourly workers, they were untouchable, and they dared anyone to say otherwise. Nico envied them.
And then there was Lloyd. An old man with a heavy limp, dressed shabbily and with head down, he came every morning, pushing a broom. If addressed, Lloyd would always answer the same way, with a muttered, “You gotta have faith.”
And so the days blurred, as they will with work like that. Nico, with a sore lower back, numb and tingly right hand, the hated stream of hard iron parts, and his small accompanying cast of characters. He had mostly given up trying to talk to Stan, but some mornings, he would call to Lloyd, because here was one old guy lower on the pecking order. Lloyd would just keep going with his head down and put out his “Gotta have faith.”
This began to irk Nico. Faith in what? So he told silent Stan, “Hope I die before I get that worthless.”
The crew also irked Nico, because they were fearless and he was a nobody. Up and down the aisles they went, joking and laughing, always the same catcalls to the few females on the line, taking their sweet time lingering over their break.
And then one morning, Nico’s line was down when the crew came by, and on impulse, he left his spot and fell in behind. A few of them turned to look but no one said anything.
At the vending machines, the usual jokes about “Who is paying, whose turn is it?” ran their course. Since coffee was only twenty-five cents per cup, Nico didn’t quite understand the humor. But the crew loved it.
After everyone had their drinks, Jack, the union steward and loudest and most confident of the bunch, turned to look at Nico.
Gruffly, “You’re Harry’s son, works at the loading dock?”
Nico shook his head, “Nephew.” In-law he didn’t add.
Jack nodded and made way for Nico at the coffee machine. As he punched in his selection, Nico heard the crew go on with their conversation. He was no longer an outsider. He stepped back, blowing on the hot cup in his hand. But even as enjoyed a feeling of acceptance, he overheard a word that sent a jolt of fear through him.
“Strike?” His wife’s voice was loud with worry. “Why would they be talking about a strike?”
“I don’t know babe. I barely know anything. But I do know, if they go on strike I have to quit. No way I am crossing a picket line after what your uncle Harry did to get me the job.”
“But you aren’t union. You don’t have to join them, you can keep working.”
“You don’t understand. Any hope of ever being part of the union would disappear the second I crossed the line. No way.”
“But you just started!”
Nico joined the crew once a day after that. On his morning break, he tagged along, always careful to go last, never saying much. He didn’t particularly care for their rough talk or the way they put themselves above everyone, but he felt like he was starting to belong.
Some mornings, the crew would intercept Lloyd on their way back. One of their running jokes was to invite Lloyd to join their weekly poker game. But Lloyd would just shake his head, smile and say, “Gotta have faith.” And someone would always answer, “I’ve got faith you can’t afford our games.” Everyone would laugh, including Nico. He felt bad for the old man, but he had learned early on that it was better to be the laugher than the laughed at.
Or if it were Friday, “Hey Lloyd, it’s Friday, got a hot date tonight?” And then their trollish laughter as the old man limped away. “Imagine anyone loving that sad old thing.”
That was the day Nico asked the crew, “What’s the story with that old man anyway?”
Most just shrugged but Jack said, “All I know is he supposedly used to be a machinist in another building and then he got sick—had a stroke I think. So they moved him here. Couldn’t fire him so they put a broom in his hands.” The crew moved on and Nico heard one say, “Shoot me if I ever have to sweep floors.”
Then came a day when a different man came pushing a broom up the aisle. Another old guy, slumped shoulders and weighed down by life.
Nico asked the man, “What happened to Lloyd?” The old guy stopped and said, “Who?”
Time went on, tension at work escalated, his wife grew more pregnant, and his grandmother’s health continued to decline. Decisions had to be made.
“We’ll have another mouth to feed in a couple months. Either we find a new place with more room, or we find a place to put Grandma.”
Neither Nico nor his wife wanted to send Grandma away. But at this point, she wouldn’t even notice. Or so they told themselves. They discussed it for a week and then decided it was time to shop nursing homes.
When the day came to move Grandma, it was an awkward, sad affair with an awful feel of finality. This is where people leave their loved ones? Alone? To live their lives? There was such a heavy atmosphere of despair.
They will take good care of her, he told himself. Which was probably a lie. I will check on her often. Which he hoped wasn’t. Yet it had to be done, so Nico choked down the guilt and shame and took out his checkbook.
Hurrying towards the exit, Nico stopped short. There in the common room, at a table by the window, was Lloyd.
Nico fought the urge to sneak out, and instead went over. Lloyd had lost weight and was shrunken and pale. Half of his face sagged, and a little dribble of spit ran onto his unshaven chin. But instead of disgust, Nico felt pity. And fear. Because even though he had no experience with death, it was undeniably right here, right close.
“Hi Lloyd.” Nico had tried to force cheer into his voice, but it came out croaky and hollow. This wasn’t like running into an acquaintance at the store. What to say? How ya feelin? Fancy meeting you here. Or, Gonna die soon?
Lloyd turned to look up towards Nico, but his eyes were cloudy and looking beyond to another place in the distance, either the past or something yet ahead, or both. Lloyd champed his lips a few times, then said softly, “Gotta have faith.”
Nico felt a hot swelling behind his eyes. His hands turned to fists, and fiercely, he told himself, I am not going to cry.
He felt a sudden anger. Here is this old man at the very end of things, in terrible shape and in a terrible place, all alone and yet he says that? What had faith gotten him?
“Faith in what, Lloyd?” Sharp and demanding.
And for the first and only time, Nico heard Lloyd’s voice clear and sure and his answer was, “That you can make a difference.”
A short time later, on a Saturday morning, Nico and his wife were having breakfast. The baby, which was going to be a girl, was due any day, and they still hadn’t agreed on a name. Nothing seemed just right. It was their constant topic of discussion.
As was his custom, Nico was reading the paper. He remembered his father doing it every Saturday and so he had taken it up, and found he liked it. He liked holding the thing in his hands instead of scrolling his tablet. And it gave him an excuse to run to the corner station and get fresh coffee. It was his Saturday treat to himself.
While his wife listed off a few new names, Nico half listened and read his paper, sipping at his coffee. Suddenly, he froze. A picture had caught his attention. It was Lloyd, a younger version no doubt, but still, it was Lloyd. And it was an obituary.
No longer hearing his wife, Nico read the condensed version of one man’s life. As he read, Nico’s mouth dropped open in surprise. The shabby, feeble old man Nico had known wasn’t anywhere in this story.
“I still don’t understand why we are going to his funeral. So you worked with him, so what? You said yourself you barely knew him.”
“Baby, I have to go. I don’t have the words to make you understand. I don’t even understand myself. To pay my respects? I guess that’s part of it. I just have to go. And I can’t leave you alone, so you have to go too. I’m sorry.”
It was a sunny morning and the service was outside. Nico could not believe the crowd. He had expected just a few people, not row after row of mostly filled folding chairs. And there was a small stage, with a podium and microphone. Someone had expected large numbers, and they had been right. When the ushers saw how pregnant Nico’s wife was, they quickly sat the couple in the last row of chairs, for a quick and easier exit.
After the usual words by a minister, and a prayer and a song, people began filing up to have their say. Some took their time, some only needed a few sentences. Nico felt a growing swell inside. He started hearing only bits and pieces. He began to feel numb and far away.
There were several men in uniform. One of them stood at the microphone. “Today we honor Lloyd for his service. As all of you know, he had a prosthetic foot, his souvenir from Vietnam. For which he was awarded a Purple Heart.”
Nico thought of all the times they had laughed at Lloyd’s heavy limp.
A lady smartly dressed in a suit. “Lloyd and his wife lost their only child, a daughter, to leukemia when she was twelve. I represent St Jude and I came here today to tell you a story about this man and his late wife. After their daughter died, they sent a check to St. Jude every month. It was only $20, it was I am guessing all they could afford to spare. But it was every month for the last 37 years. Almost $9000. To try and help other children. That was how they chose to respond to their own terrible, unforgettable loss.”
I’ve got faith you can’t afford our games.
A tall man, gray hair, glasses. “I was the chief engineer in Lloyd’s department for many years. Lloyd was the most skilled machinist I ever worked with. Dedicated to his craft, meticulous, exact. When he had his stroke, he could have retired with a really nice pension and lived comfortably. Instead he demanded the company find him work he could still do. Which, after that stroke he couldn’t do much. But he was humble enough to go in every day and push a broom. His way of still contributing.”
Shoot me if I ever have to sweep floors.
A stout lady was next. “After his wife died, Lloyd had time on his hands. Weekends especially. I don’t know if everyone knows this, but he volunteered to help serve dinners at one of our homeless shelters. Every Friday night, without fail for the last three years. Everyone loved him.”
Hey Lloyd, it’s Friday, got a hot date tonight?
As the service wound down, the testimony pointed toward a man who had chosen to serve others all through his life. Nico felt a growing pressure to act.
And then the last speaker finished. The minister stood, probably to offer a prayer of dismissal.
Nico got to his feet. His wife’s eyes grew wide in alarm, she grabbed his arm. “What are you doing?”
Nico ignored her and strode down the long aisle between all those chairs filled with people. The minister saw him coming and sat back down. Nico climbed the three steps and walked to the podium.
He felt like he was in a slow dream. What was he doing? He didn’t know what to say, or even why he had stood up. He cleared his throat, and was startled by the loud sound coming through the PA.
“Uh. Most of you here don’t know me.” Nico swallowed a lump, felt sweat break out on his forehead. The crowd looked up at him.
“I, uh, worked with Lloyd for a short time. I am no one. And Lloyd was no one to me.”
Nico took a deep breath.
“But I was someone to Lloyd.” A few heads nodded.
Understanding was spreading throughout Nico in a great golden cloud. “I guess I just want his family to know, his friends to know, that this man helped me.”
With a sheepish grin, “I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise after all we’ve heard today.” Laughter from the crowd.
“Lloyd changed the way I see people. And how I see myself. Helped me see what is important.
“I want to say thank you, and I know it’s too late and I wish I had told him before.”
Nico wiped at his eyes. “Thank you Lloyd.”
Returning home, Nico felt emptied and yet full. He had changed, he could change. It was powerful knowledge.
He glanced at his wife and said, “I know what our daughter’s name is.”
She raised her eyebrows and smiled her beautiful smile. “I know, baby.”
They said it together.
Short fiction by RF Thomas has appeared in The Museum of Americana Literary Review, CC&D Magazine, Supermoon Press (Yarnswoggle Anthology), and Loudon Library. With lifelong roots in the Midwest, Mr. Thomas currently resides in central Illinois.