Kyle Stanley

Blue Collar Mosaic

I’ve lost count of scars. Some I don’t notice until years later. Pink indentations across my hands, my back, my shoulders, my legs, my ribs, where the skin seems to creep and join together over the knife blade ravines, over deep splinters that become integrated into my body, over sutures and staples, the meat filling in beneath I suppose. I’ve missed seconds, minutes, hours, days and months of work to heal each one, waiting impatiently to stand, walk, see, grip a hammer and wake up without a worry in regards to my body.

* * *

It’s so hot I can see the steam rise from the flagstone walkway in billowed clouds of moisture after an afternoon thunderstorm. My father hops up the stairs on his left foot, crutches under one arm, his other wrapped around an employee. The skin beneath his eyes sags in bags of black like foundation tar, and sweat beads on his forehead between strands of curly brown hair he brushes straight every morning. He winces, hunched over, right knee bent back unnaturally, and I open the double-paned glass door to our home, my right hand grips the back of the couch, braces my own wounded body. I help him into the same couch, his leg now obviously pinned into a sitting position. He pries at the corner of tape wrapped round a pinkish hue of gauze with his shaky fingers. Creases web out from the corners of his mouth as he clenches his teeth. There is a perfect hole in the soft skin just above his knee where the nail disengaged from the gun he had rested there and found an unwelcome home in his flesh.

A half an inch lower and I would have bled to death, he says.

He smiles. I shake my head.

* * *

I have the last injury I’ll ever have working for my father—a hernia. The bowels pushed through the torn muscle wall below my abs on the right side of my body, leaving a knot the size of a plum protruding the skin. With eyes ringed in something like an eight-hour day of work on a couple hours of sleep and testicles bruised like a cinder block to the shins, I lay curled into the fetal position on the cold tile floor at the hospital; children played tag around my body. That was the first time I prayed. I prayed for an end.

* * *

I’m afraid he’ll see his own death in my eyes. I concentrate on the speckled tile floor, the EKG Machine, an open box of large latex gloves, the untouched lunch tray, the shuffle of my feet—toes pointed inwards then outwards and back. That’s not my grandfather, I console myself. It’s the cancer, the tumor laid up on that bland hospital bed, so smug, so sure of its success. But I have a tinge of hope that he’s still there, somewhere safe. Somewhere calm like the eye of a hurricane or a fallout shelter in the depth of the ground, to wait for the storm to pass. He catches my eyes.

How are you, he says.

I’m good, I lie. How are you?

I’m fine.

I should have said—

I love you.

My eyes lie.

You are my hero.

* * *

I worked for my father and I learned several interesting things:

1. How to sneak a couple beers at lunch.
2. How to draw a vagina in mortar with a brick mason’s trowel.
3. Sometimes an unshaven, tattooed, scarred, and tattered exterior can lead to the purest and kindest of hearts in a man.

* * *

Sometimes it is rebuilt from scratch. The body increases its production of the protein collagen. The collagen cells fill in the gaps. These patches bind together to form scar tissue. Sometimes the body produces too much collagen and the scar tissue breaks the standard plane of skin like miniature mountain ranges. Other times, if the injury is significant enough, when tissue layers beneath the dermis are destroyed, scar tissue sinks like trenches beneath the ocean floor.

* * *

I dream my father’s death. A fall from a wet roof onto an iron-rail fence, a stone support pier collapses during demolition leaving him crushed beneath floor joists, a nail gun nail misses the rafter and punctures through the plywood roof where he rested his head too close. I dream the rusted box van parked in the driveway after work. My father’s partner steps out, pulls his Duron painter’s pants up. His belly bounces like a sack of dog shit and comes to rest over his waistline. He brushes his fingers through his over-manicured hair, averts eye contact. I know it’s my father’s blood that stains his shirt. He says an iron fence post pierced through my father’s chest, that a stone pier collapsed and crushed his body, that a nail drove an inch and a half into his brain.

That he’s dead.

That he’s sorry for our loss.

I pull back my fist. Over my shoulder. Let go. I wake up.

* * *

Eighty-two years is a long time. My grandfather must have done a lot. We worked in the garden together. He taught me how to snap green beans, pluck tomatoes and cucumbers from their vines without damaging the plants and dig potatoes from the ground without scarring their tender bodies. We drank cokes on the carpeted back porch. He’d drink half, cap the can to keep it fresh and place it on the top shelf of the fridge, the shelf just tall enough for a coke can. I’d do the same. He saved cans all year long. Every summer he took me down to the recycling plant in his old red Ford Pickup. We’d exchange the aluminum for cash. He’d put it in my hand and tell me to spend it wisely.

I never asked him about the war—World War II. He was a sniper and my father says snipers cleaned up their fallen soldiers after the battles. I should have asked him questions:

How do you cast a fly reel?

What was your father like?

What’s harder, killing a man or cleaning up a dead one?

* * *

My father bought a rundown three bedroom home with five acres of land before I was born in the heart of North Stafford. It sits at the point of a hill overlooking a manmade pond. A gravel driveway leads to a two car garage, which leads to a small laundry room, which leads to a small kitchen. The floors are mostly plywood. My father steals a cable spool for a kitchen table. My parents sit on coolers to eat dinner.

I’m four-years-old in the photograph, sitting in the soon to be cross-base of the twelve hundred square foot addition my father is adding onto our house. I’m wearing khaki shorts that reach mid thigh, a green and white striped polo shirt and a plastic tool belt buckled round my waist. I’m stabbing hardened Virginia clay with a sand shovel, an empty five gallon bucket at my feet.

I’m 11-years-old and I have an old hammer of my father’s; I drive nails into leftover pressure treated timber and hit more finger than nails. I keep at it, purpled fingers and all. I hold the ends of boards my father can’t handle by himself—ten, twenty, thirty feet in the air—while he nails them up. We take breaks and I run inside to pour two Mountain Dews into cups with ice. I make his in a green Sea World cup and make sure the ice is filled to the rim before I pour the soda. My mother hates it. Not the cup but my taking to the work like I am born to do it.

The addition wears on my father, the late nights, the aches. But it shows his carpentry skills at their finest—cherry ceilings, exquisite trim work, hand crafted China Cabinets and Corian Countertops. But he grows old. The upstairs, the planned master bedroom, is never finished. The Jacuzzi tub won’t pour water, the floors have no carpet, the closets have no shelves and the light cut outs are just empty holes to the attic.

* * *

My father gets the call and the details of his father’s death a day after he moved him out of the hospital. I try to console him but he pushes me away with the back side of his arm, unable to produce words, even tears. He rips the screen door from its track on the way outside. Three years later he asks—

What happened to the screen door?

I tell him I don’t know.

* * *

We are finishing a job, on a Friday, installing toe-kick beneath cherry kitchen cabinets we’ve just screwed in place. It’s late, round six o’clock, and my father pushes us. I’m distracted by the homeowner’s gorgeous daughter. My utility knife slips. It slices into the skin between my thumb and pointer finger on the left hand. Tendons and an artery severed. Blood gushes. My father rushes over to squeeze the gash shut.

Don’t bleed on the hardwood, he says.

He rushes me downstairs, the pressure he has on my hand worse pain than the actual cut. I run the wound under cold water and watch the blood mix before it disappears into the drain. I take his hand off to look at it, press the sides of the wound together to make it pucker. I tell him I can wrap it up and go back to work but he sends me to the hospital.

You never cut towards you, always away, he says and heads upstairs.

* * *

I start my own business—Reverie Landscaping. I mow, mulch, weed, power wash, cleanup leaves, and trim hedges. I build retaining walls, patios, walks, small decks, and fences.

I’ve inherited some tools from my father, some from my grandfather. My equipment consists of an old Cub Cadet 19-inch push mower, an Echo trimmer that works when it wants to, a Stihl backpack leaf blower, two leaf rakes with missing tines, two dull-edged shovels, a mattock that slides off the handle from time to time, a bent digging bar, half a post hole digger, a set of finger crusher sheers, rusted loppers and an ’89 Honda Passport I pack it all into.

I feel brand new.

* * *

My grandfather opens a meat market after returning from Germany, from the war. It’s a little white building, about the size of a typical trailer park home, with a worn wooden porch in the front. Stanley Meat Market he calls it. My father says they supplied every Tasty Freeze in the Shenandoah Valley and that they haven’t been the same since that ended. My grandfather couldn’t keep it open. He went into work delivering cars cross country for a used dealership. He’s got the Ford hats to prove it. After he retired for good he went to work harder than he ever did taking care of my Parkinson’s plagued grandmother and tending to the garden.

He lives in a corner house. Strangers stop their cars in the street in admiration. They forget to put their cars in park. They walk up the six-foot slope to the back yard and ask him how he does it. I wish they’d been there the couple of times he drove the plow over the bank into the road. Then they might understand.

Black Seeded Simpson, Brandywine Pink, Watercress, Mesclum, Amsterdams, Candy Hybrid, White Lisbon, Romaine, Mr. Stripey, Brandywine Yellow, Ali Baba, Yellow Skinned, Burpee, Snow White, Videllia, Betterboy, Yellow Ebenezer, Russet Skinned, Danvers, Brandywine Red, Cherry Belle.

He always had witty responses. I just can’t remember them. He’d pack up paper bags of Mr. Stripey Tomatoes, cucumbers the size of forearms, potatoes the size of cantaloupes, cantaloupes the size of watermelons, watermelons bigger than imaginable. He did this three or four times a day.

* * *

I can feel every scar on my body like they have sunk into the very essence of my being. They tell what words are unable to; they recede, poignantly, over the tanned flats of my body, these deep ravines of death, of new life. They are roadblocks to the hands of lovers roaming the contours of lust, of love. They cry to warn of rain, swell arthritically in their own expressive language. They remind me of my father’s scars, of my grandfather’s scars.

* * *

My grandfather stabbed himself in the stomach five times with a pin knife no bigger than the average sized pinky of an infant.

Why did he choose five stabs and not four or six? Does it take five stabs of a pin knife to kill a man?

He was in the hospital for a couple of weeks, his second diagnosis of cancer. He had a tumor the size of a grapefruit in his stomach. He’d been sick for months and hadn’t told anyone. He survived the surgery. One doctor told him the cancer was still there, another that it wasn’t. He chose to believe the first doctor.

* * *

Today is cool weather for June. I think of copper weather vanes spinning on slate roofs, cats cradling on hoods of rusted Fords and touching my toes to the rippled surface of a lake. I’m watering my garden with a Miracle Grow mix—a beer and half-smoked cigarette in the other hand. My arms are tired after a day of hedge trimming and weeding. I lower the hose to the base of a 10-foot tomato plant to rest for another run to the top. I sit down on the six by six border to my garden and think on the monotony of watching vegetables grow and die. I think about how to tie up the mosaic moments of my life.

I think on how my father never forgets to tell me all the things I do wrong—the tomato plants are too close together, the onions are planted too deep, and I water too often. I know I won’t ever do it as well as my grandfather. I think on how I spent 300 dollars of my summer semester tuition mixing topsoil into clay; planting tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, lettuce, radishes, carrots, cantaloupe, onions, and watermelon; watering the goddamn thing at six o’clock every morning.

I wonder what my grandfather would have said as I walked up the stage to receive my bachelor’s degree. But I didn’t walk and he isn’t around to say anything.

* * *

A few days after my grandfather’s suicide I park my SUV in one of Stafford’s three dingy commuter lots, the best concealed. My fiancée is with me and we move to the back where I have comforters sprawled across the floor. The heat blasts, we make love, windows fog against the cold night. After, she asks me how I’m handling his death. I shrug. Her next words are you know he’s going to hell right?

* * *

At the funeral the pastor from Ebenezer Memorial church in Staunton calls my grandfather Ken several times. His name was Kenneth and only his closest friends called him Ken. My grandfather hasn’t been to church for nearly eight years in order to take care of my grandmother. He hasn’t even seen one of the pastor’s sermons. After the funeral, at the picnic, he approaches me and I tell him to shove his condolences up his puppet ass.

* * *

It’s my second year of business and I can’t keep up with the work load. I’m the youngest owner of a landscaping company in this town and things feel too permanent. I ask my clients to pay me in cash, to avoid taxes, to avoid purchasing a business license. The work is monotonous. I mow the same yards in the same pattern week after week. I lay block on block in retaining walls, set my father’s old level on each one; a level retaining wall is a good one. I lay pavers down one by one, one patio after another. I scrape leaves by the thousands out of neglected flower beds, trim trees I’d rather see grow and plant annuals when perennials make more sense.

I’ve taken hard to whiskey, the way my father did, the way I suspect my grandfather may have as well. I drink the cheap stuff, as my father did, my brand called Ten High. My friend makes a joke about it, says you have to take a broom stick to knock a bottle out from under the shelf at the ABC store. It’s not that funny.

I wonder if they were this tired at 24 and if it gets better at 25.

* * *

My father left home at 16. His parents were strict Christians. He still believes in God, he says. He still believes in Heaven, he says. But he despises the church. I wonder how it makes him feel when I say there is no God. Does he think the same thing I do—that I’ll never see my father again when he dies.

He worked on a drywall crew at night. They taught him in closets, where mistakes weren’t as noticeable. He’d go straight to work after school, if he made it to school and work until morning.

When did you sleep? I ask.

Cocaine, he says.

And I think he means it when he says he won’t live past 60; not after 36 years of hard labor and eight years of alcohol and drug abuse.

That’s just the way we did it back then, he says.

He lived on Sears Hill in Staunton in his twenties. If you lived there you replaced your emergency brake every few years. He took his Jeep out one day, an old CJ5, after dropping acid—one tab, two, three, who knows. He got stuck in a snow bank in downtown and had to walk three miles back to his house in a T-shirt.

’Cept it was the middle of summer and my roommates found my Jeep parked on the median on the main road through the city, he says.

* * *

When I was little I watched professional wrestling with my father. We’d fight for hours on the living room carpet and he’d always pin me into submission. I’d struggle, turn red, hit him as hard as I could, finally tap out. But before he could catch his breath I’d be right back at it. We have a brick mantle fire place in that room and those are the scars I can point out better than any others.

I got in a fight with my father when I was 18, almost swung at him. He grabbed me by the throat and held me against my bedroom wall. My eyes turned red, the way they always did when I lost my temper. That was the first time I saw my grandfather in my father, the first time I realized I’d turn out a little like the both of them.

* * *

I realize now I’ll never locate all the scars. Some sink a little far for me to explain as well as others. I can’t trace their course on my skin and I can’t rub ointment on them. They don’t fade with time or tan.

* * *

It’s 95 degrees and the sweat slides off of my tanned skin like rain from canvas patio furniture. Flies dig into my legs incessantly and I dance like a fool to shake them off for a few seconds of sanity in between the buffet feasting. A low-lying Azalea branch catches in the electric hedge trimmer I inherited from my grandfather. I try to free it but forget to take my other hand off of the trigger. My ring finger catches in the blades, blood sprays my face and chest. I close my eyes. Seconds later I remember I’m standing over my client’s concrete driveway so I rush into the grass and let the blood pour down into the deep green blades. I wrap it in medical tape and go back to work, wondering if my father would be proud, if my grandfather would be proud.


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