Phil, the foreman, starts his truck and it coughs with the exhausted guttural roar of a lifelong smoker. Wheels waist high spray gravel back into aluminum siding, into my face. Noontime traffic in this part of town, I’ve got fifteen minutes before he returns. Black-smeared, paint-spattered arms will cradle foot-long grinders and Gatorade for associates and contemporaries: bearded Vietnam vets, football poolers, gun clubbers with skin the color and texture of the crusted stains on the tile beneath the shop toilet. I watch the salt-stained F350 out into traffic, out past the green light, and scamper back inside the machine shop remembering that I am numbered among them. Box plenums, Pittsburgh locks, king cleat ducts: this is my life now.
Tasso—a Greek college student in an overseas exchange—picks at the overgrown roots of his dreadlocks, scrutinizing broken strands of nappy hair in the streaked plexi-glass of a cheap bathroom mirror. “You come to market and help me find the Rogaine tonic, yes? Extra-strongth is very good for me, buddy.” Tasso and I are alone. I’ll go with him later on, I tell him.
“But first, I need you to do something for me.”
He has to duck when he lumbers around. Too tall for good posture, ambling toward me, he’s a simian marionette: loose legs, flapping arms. “What you are doing?” he asks. I work heating and air with nine men and only Tasso will I forgive his syntax. “You are stuck? Is bad for you, buddy.”
I’ve put myself down in a folding chair adjacent to towering, rusted out, modular shelf units stacked with sheet metal. At this height, leaned in close, I’ve wedged my right shoulder under the dangling lip of an upper platform. I’ve pinned my wrist beneath a cinder block; body semi-reclined, arm extended, elbow unsupported over a gap. “I am stuck, Tasso. And I need a favor.”
“Yes, for certain, I will extradite you.” Tasso places alien fingers on each shoulder and pushes down. Strange hands: knobby, hirsute joints, unclipped nails, each digit the length and breadth of a pencil. I tell him, Stop. There’s not much time.
“You do not wish rescue?”
“No,” I say. “I need your help.” I point to a cracked trash can packed with tools. “I need you to get the sledge.” Tasso is my only choice: anyone else I’d have to kill after and I don’t have that constitution. I’m an academic, for Christ sake. Tasso takes off within the month, semester abroad at an end. Back to the Aegean to sip strong coffee in ancient buildings, not thinking twice about it. He’ll forget the winter’s insults, forget pre-fab houses, forget everything I ever asked him to do.
He lopes back, hammer in tow, heavy head dragging over the floor, ape arm stretched behind him. “Why you are want this, boss?” He scratches his face with his free hand, pops a ripe, white-headed pimple at the cusp of his beard with index and thumb.
“I need a favor and I have no time to explain. You’ll be a hero, okay? I need you to hit me with the hammer, Tasso. I need you to break my arm.” His face is a seizure mask, expression caught in a wind tunnel. Nostrils flair, stiff hairs sticking out rattle with expelled breath. A trickle of blood runs down his cheek. “No—I will not hurt buddy! I am thinking that is crook, not hero! You tell funny joke.” Ten minutes left. Already, my hand is numb, vessels constricted in the twisted limb. Pins and needles: it’s agonizing. I ache to rise and shake it off. I smile wide, wishing I had time to savor such irony.
“No, Tasso. You’ll be a hero. My hero. Like Ajax.” He nods nervously, confused. “I need you to hit me right here.” I point to the meat of my arm—Brachioradialis above capitulum and radius. Joint on its side, suspended in space, it won’t bend with the blow. “If you hit me right here, right now, my wife, daughter and I will live happily ever after. Help my daughter, Tasso.”
His face falls: human again. Eyes glaze, looking inward. “Little girl, yes,” he says, each word its own paragraph. “Little girl.” Eyelids clap shut like Venetian blinds; reopening, he explodes out of reverie. “How this does help little girl? How this helps her, breaking up daddy?”