— for Rhonda and Kate
Speak the truth with one foot in the stirrup.
— Arabian proverb
For about ten months I worked at a radio-antenna factory in the tiny town of Hays, Kansas. The factory workforce was comprised mainly of the inexperienced, the handicapped, the socially discarded, the desperate, the just-out-of-jail, and the fallen-to-the-bottom-of-the-ladder, with a handful of cheerful, non-English-speaking Mexicans thrown in. The starting wage was fifteen cents above the minimum. The work was monotonous but undemanding. The average employee lasted probably two weeks.
I was recovering from a nervous breakdown, or whatever you call it when you realize you are a complete failure and you fall down crying and can’t get back up again. The compactness and simplicity of my room at the Sunset Motel reassured me. I had my ritual. I was not interested in traveling. (I had lived a nomadic existence for years.) Nor was I interested in being worldly, or in finding the answers to deep questions. I felt lucky to still have my independence and my health. I read the Bible every night because it gave me comfort and because all the writers I admired read the Bible, and I wanted to be a successful writer.
I was reasonably content at the radio-antenna factory. I appreciated the sameness of the days, the lightness of the tasks, the proximity to the motel. (I had no car.) And I had weekends off to write. I worked in the welding department, where we sanded, machined, and “straked” — wrapped wire braids around — mast antennas for Ford, GM, and Chrysler. I watched other employees come and go. Our department received at least one fresh applicant a week. Sometimes the new guy didn’t even finish a shift. The factory was gritty and loud. The owner treated us like children, touring the floor daily to point out our shortcomings, or else his voice came over the PA to inform us that we were not meeting our quota, or that a holiday would have to be suspended due to a deficit in production. Once, he announced, without irony, that we would no longer be able to listen to our radios. Whenever a healthy adult male reported for his first day of work, I wondered what kind of trouble he was running from. Four of the healthy adult males on our line had weekly appointments with parole officers.
When Russ from Topeka showed up, I estimated he would last two days. He had the face of a heavily tranquilized mule, black plastic-framed glasses (which kept sliding down his nose), a neatly trimmed mustache, and a slope-shouldered stance, palms turned back. Mike the foreman let him weld for a couple of hours, saw that he had no aptitude, and put him on the rod machine next to mine.
I showed Russ how the machine worked: place ball tip on end of rod, slot base plug into chuck, drop rod between hydraulic clamps, press buttons, whoosh-thump: machined car antenna. I explained that he would eventually be expected to produce four hundred antennas per hour. (Five hundred was the official quota, but only a showoff could keep up that pace.)
“Piece of cake,” Russ said.
“What brought you to Hays all the way from Topeka?” I asked.
“Got mangled in a bicycle wreck,” he replied. “Four hundred stitches. Mashed up my head pretty good.” He grinned.
I didn’t know what a bicycle accident had to do with moving to Hays, but I didn’t pursue it. Clearly something was wrong with him. He had the thick, slurred speech of the mildly brain-damaged. A vague jigsaw pattern of scars covered his face, as if he’d recently undergone dramatic but unsuccessful plastic surgery. He flashed a slightly crooked, incongruous, but pleasant smile. He said he was thirty-two years old. As he assembled antennas, his gaze wandered around the factory. The three of us who worked the rod machines had trouble conversing because of the mandatory earplugs and the endless whoosh-thump (four hundred an hour, times three) of our machines, but Russ lifted his voice over the racket to narrate a barely coherent account of how he and his cousins, whom he was living with, had videotaped their own version of Home Improvement in their basement the night before. “It was funnier than hell,” he shouted, taking his hands off the machine and sticking his finger up his nose, apparently to illustrate one of the funnier parts.
Kathy, the spot-welder to my left, turned from her magnifying glass and gave me a look that said: Where did this goofball come from? Because there was already a Russ on our line, the new Russ instantly became “Home Improvement.” Home Improvement produced about twenty-five antennas in his first hour, half of them without ball tips.
“This is pretty easy,” he said.
“Try to put ball tips on the ends,” I said. “Some people are picky about that kind of thing.”
He smiled good-naturedly and began to list and summarize the plots of all the science-fiction videos he’d watched over the past week with his cousins. “I like to escape,” he explained. “I have enough realism in my life.”
Russ and I had lunch together at a picnic table. It seemed I always bonded with the new guy, perhaps because after more than sixty jobs and at least a hundred moves — all in pursuit of the writing dream — I knew all too well what it was like to be the new guy. For lunch, Russ had brought a half pound of baby carrots (one of his cousins ate a pound a day, he told me), an apple, and a cola. I learned that his driver’s license had been revoked for multiple drunk-driving violations. He alluded to a wild past and a romantic life of drifting from town to town. As he answered my questions, I got the impression he would say whatever he thought might impress his listener.
“I’m trying to get over being callous and cold,” he said, lifting his scar-paneled face to mine, as if he were James Dean enduring the burden of misunderstood greatness. “That’s what they call me.”
“Why do they call you that?”
He shrugged and popped another baby carrot into his mouth. “I used to drink three or four cases of beer a day.”
“That’s about a can every ten minutes,” I observed.
“I had help,” he said. “My friends would come over.”
“It’s good to have friends.”
He nodded, the slightest flicker of doubt (fear?) in his eyes. “My ex-wife was a stripper,” he said. Then he added, with moral sobriety: “She quit dancing six months after we got married, but she’s still suffering the effects.”
“You got kids?” I asked.
“Two,” he answered, “and two from her previous marriage.”
“Six and eight. I don’t remember how old hers are.”
“What are you doing working for minimum wage if you have two children to support?”
“It’s an easy job to get,” he said.
“How do you make ends meet?”
“I’ve got another job. I’m painting my cousins’ house. I’m a painter by trade.”
The next day at lunch Russ bought a bag of Bugles and a Pepsi from the snack machine. All morning, while he’d worked, he had daydreamed aloud about getting his driver’s license back. His life seemed to revolve around this event, which was more than a year away. Once he got his license back, he would get a car, and probably a trailer, too; he planned to be mobile for the next two years. Also, he thought he might buy a house — a big place, two bedrooms at least, so his kids could stay with him. A minute later he was going to rent a small apartment so he could save some money. I wondered if his short-term memory had suffered the most damage.
“It won’t be long,” he said, “before the court puts a 55 percent child-support garnishment on my paycheck.”
“Seems like it would be cheaper just to stay married.”
“Too late,” he said. “Can I borrow a cigarette?” He leaned back against the picnic table, lit the cigarette, and began to muse on romance. “Got a girl coming to see me this weekend from Topeka. Think I just might buy me a Harley-Davidson.”
The next day Russ announced proudly: “I haven’t had a drink for two years, nineteen days.”
“Congratulations,” I said.
“God is the answer,” he said earnestly.
Half an hour later, Russ asked if I wanted to go out after work for a beer.
“Can’t,” I said. “Have to work.”
“Oh? What kind of stuff?”
“True-life,” I said.
“I like realism,” he said. “Will you write a book for me? I’ll pay you.”
“A book on what?”
“My testimony.” He gave me his quick-flash smile. “But I’m afraid you’d see who I was and say, ‘Whoa.’ ”
“The more whoas, the better the book,” I said.
“I like to live on the edge,” Russ said.
Russ couldn’t remember anyone’s name except mine and the foreman’s. He slunk around in his James Dean fog, parroting the tired lines of the day. (“Been there, done that.”) His co-workers weren’t even remotely interested. He never machined more than 150 rods an hour. Often he was not putting on ball tips. “They can’t expect speed and quality,” he said indignantly.
After two weeks, Russ was transferred to a less-demanding department, the mercury-lamp line. At lunch, in between clichés, he told me he didn’t think he would be able to stay on the new line. “There’s too much jumping around,” he said. “I need to relax while I work. Like on the rod machine.”
Though everyone else instinctively wrote Russ off, I continued to give him the benefit of the doubt. I had known a few other head-injury cases. In every instance, the before and after were two different people. A self had to be rebuilt from scraps, sometimes from smoke and mist. I wondered: What if you started with the wrong part? What if the very foundation of your existence was a lie? How would you ever know? Russ, I suspected, had not always been a drifting, sleazy cliché monger. The real Russ was down there somewhere, like a man trapped in a collapsed mine. I thought I could see him struggling to get out while the crazed, bogus Russ prattled heedlessly on.
I had been obliterated by fate myself. I was forty-two, and all I had to show for my years of privation, hard work, and anonymity were more privation, hard work, and anonymity. I wanted to write something true. I had ridden my Big White Steed of Truth into the craven world and been knocked face first into the mud. After wandering around sobbing and rearranging the letters S-U-I-C-I-D-E for a year and a half, I’d landed in that motel room, where I sat with the curtains closed, underlining passages in the Bible, two rejection slips waiting for me in my post-office box. The writing dream was dust. Mystery had supplanted truth as my religion.
I once read an interview with Kurt Vonnegut in which he talked of his disenchantment with scientific truth because “we dropped [it] on Hiroshima.” Vonnegut’s metaphor is apt: The truth is no flickering Hawaiian lantern. It is searing white light. It scorches roaches and saints alike. It can flash a liar to cinders and in the same stroke smoke the poor bozo next to him who all the while thought that God was on his side.
Having no real acquaintance with reality, Russ did not fear the truth. He talked about God, church, and family, misquoting the Bible and fumbling Republican TV sound bites. Undaunted by any question, he possessed that special brand of liquid ignorance that covered every subject like a high-tech fertilizer. He educated our co-worker Pock — a Buddhist welder from Thailand — about Thai culture. (Russ had once had a Thai girlfriend.) He told a group of us how someone had once tried to rob him with a 9mm, but Russ had whirled on the mugger, grabbed the gun, and shot him in the leg. (He later pawned the gun for fifty dollars.) He was embarrassing to listen to. Was it possible that he thought everyone was as insincere and ignorant as he? I didn’t know what, if anything, about him was true.
One day Russ decided it was time to move out of his cousins’ house. (I suspected he was being kicked out.) I told him there was a vacancy at the residential motel where I lived. He followed me over after work to have a look. He was dressed in an athletic jersey with a zero on the back and a crisp baseball cap that read, “Walk by Faith, 2 Corinthians 5:7.”
The Sunset Motel was down by the railroad tracks and had a turnover rate similar to that of the radio-antenna factory.
“Pretty nice,” Russ said, standing in the doorway of my room.
Like all the rooms, it had changed little since the Great Redecoration of 1958: same smoke-tinged chenille curtains, Second Empire desk and dresser, cracked vanity mirror, billiard green carpeting, hamster-cage air conditioner, black-and-white Zenith TV, and collapsed, love-stained mattress. In the sunlight, I could see all the scars on Russ’s face, the odd shape of his skull, the looseness in his eyes and jaw. Something had really walloped him. If I’d been hit like that, I thought, I’d probably be a blithering idiot too.
“How much?” he said.
“This one’s two hundred, but it has a sink and a range. The sleeper has no kitchen, and it’s smaller.”
“That’s cool. I won’t be in much anyway.”
“Linda the manager isn’t here now,” I said, “but she should be home soon.”
He nodded. “You have a computer.”
“Is that what you write on?”
“When I get my license back . . .”
Russ moved into Room 18, a sleeper with a microwave and fridge, $185 a month. He furnished it with stacks of milk crates, a television, and a VCR.
I stopped by that afternoon to see how he was getting along. He was reclined on the bed, legs crossed.
“How do you like it?” I asked.
He clasped his hands behind his head and gave a satisfied sigh. “I’m just going to hang out and save my money.”
I thought: A 55 percent child-support garnishment at five dollars an hour, and you’ll be able to save about forty dollars a month.
Though he worked in a different department now, Russ continued to sit with me at lunch. Other times of the day I saw him standing off by himself, a lost figure, waiting for his next department transfer. “Hey, Home Improvement,” everyone greeted him. He sneered, pulling back further into his James Dean fog. Whenever he saw me, he brightened and called out my name, as if he were seven years old and I had just turned the corner in my ice-cream truck. Try it, Russ, I wanted to say to him. Tell the truth just once. See how it feels. Witness the benefits, like job security and people who don’t despise you. What have you got to lose?
We walked to and from work together. One day, crossing the railroad tracks, he pointed suddenly at the ground and said, “Those plants are marijuana.”
As we negotiated the patches of wild “marijuana,” I considered the irony of our unlikely alliance: dark charlatan and wounded cynic. We had arrived here by different courses, but to the naked eye we were indistinguishable: drifting factory workers crossing the tracks to their single rooms.
“I need me a job that makes more money,” Russ said miserably.
“Now, there’s an idea.”
The next morning he knocked on my door at six, obviously upset. “My son’s been in a bicycle accident. I have to get back to Topeka. Can you tell them at work I won’t be back for a few days?”
“Of course,” I said. “How are you going to get to Topeka?”
“My uncle is going to give me a ride.”
“Go,” I said.
When he returned a week later, I asked him about his son.
“He’s fine,” he said. “Just a concussion. I had a long talk with him about bicycle safety.”
Just the man to give it, I thought.
“I hate him,” said Linda, the motel manager, who came to my room for coffee once in a while. Linda was constantly vexed by tenants: drunks who forgot their keys at two in the morning, late-night banjo players, secret ferret owners, non-rent-payers, people who dismantled engines in their rooms or tried to have indoor barbecues. But Russ had her more worked up than I’d ever seen her.
“He came over to use the phone the other day,” she said. “He said he had a local call to make. I got the bill yesterday, and he’d made three long-distance calls.” She held up three fingers. “He also borrowed my car. He drove it all the way to Topeka. Do you know he doesn’t have a license?”
“Why did you give him your car?”
“He said his son had a bicycle accident. I talked to his wife. His son didn’t have any bicycle accident.”
“How did you get ahold of his wife?” I asked.
“Her number was on my phone bill.” She took a sip of coffee and lit a Salem. “I won’t repeat what she said about him.”
“They’re divorced,” I said.
“According to her, they’re still married.” Her hands were trembling. “He’s the biggest liar I’ve ever met.”
“And not a very good one, at that.”
“If there’s one thing I can’t stand,” she said, “it’s a liar.”
“I’ve got me a check for eighteen thousand dollars,” Russ told me a few days later at lunch.
I nodded but said nothing. Send a few bucks home to Topeka when you get a chance, I thought. People are counting on you.
At 3:30 that afternoon, as we headed out the factory doors, he was still talking about the check, which was now down to five thousand dollars. Before we had turned the first corner, he said, “You should’ve seen this guy at work today. I really turned his head. ‘How much you want for that car?’ I said. ‘Five thousand,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you twenty-five hundred cash for it right now,’ I said. ‘Got me a check for three thousand dollars.’ ”
Russ had been transferred to soldering, his third department. He was having trouble with quality control and wasn’t getting along with his fellow employees. He couldn’t accept the idea that people did not like him because he was lazy and constantly lied. In the mercury-lamp department, he said, he had tried to “kid around with the kids,” and they’d turned on him. Now he was happy to be with “adults, like myself.”
“I’m just going to sit back and play it cool,” he said.
When he was transferred out of soldering, Russ decided it was time to find a better job. He knocked on my motel-room door. “I need to print my résumé,” he said.
“Bring it by after seven,” I said.
That evening he handed me three ragged notebook pages scrawled on with pencil. Except for a security-guard position that he’d floated in and out of for two years, he’d never kept a job longer than six months. At Frito-Lay, he was “let go for reasons beyond my control.”
“Frito-Lay must have been a pretty good job,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “They give you free Doritos. I got tired of Doritos, though.”
“You’ve got these big employment gaps,” I said. “Employers generally don’t like that.”
“Oh, I drifted around from state to state for a few years,” he said.
Every one of the jobs listed, since he was seventeen, had been in Topeka.
“I’m gonna get me a computer here pretty soon,” Russ said.
“What are you going to do with it?”
“Learn how to use it.”
It took me an hour and a half to correct his spelling, fill in the gaps, and get the dates to agree. Judging by his sad little work history, he had not been changed in any essential way by the head injury. I had wanted a glimpse of the real Russ, and there he’d been all along, sitting on my bed, waiting for me to finish his résumé.
The next morning was Saturday. Russ came over early, while I was writing, and shouted my name as he knocked on the door. He was holding his résumé again. “I need you to rewrite it for me,” he said. “There’s a couple more things I thought of.”
“I’m working, Russ.”
He craned his head to peer into the room. “I have to have it by tomorrow,” he said. “I’ll be glad to compensate you,” he added, sensing my disapproval. “I’ll take you miniature golfing.”
“The library is open,” I said. “They have public computers.”
“I don’t know how to use them.”
“Well, it’s time you learned.”
On Monday morning, I made sure Russ left before I did. Even so, I caught up with him just across the tracks. He had taken a wrong turn and was lost.
“Kind of foggy this morning,” he said.
I pointed in the direction of the factory, and we began to walk.
“Sorry about the résumé,” he said. “I didn’t mean to inconvenience you.”
“Did you go to the library to finish it?”
“No, my aunt helped me,” he said. “She has a typewriter.”
As we walked, Russ related to me his dream of working for Allied Concrete, which we passed on our way to and from the factory every day. He explained how the better-paying companies were more selective. (Really?) He thought he might be able to get on with Allied because he’d driven a Mack truck before. (I don’t recall that on your résumé.) The interviewer, he said, had told him to keep sticking his head in the door.
I was surprised when Russ got a job, not at Allied, but with another firm on the outskirts of town. It was some kind of maintenance position that paid $8.90 an hour, or so he claimed. “I’m making twice as much as you now,” he crowed. “The big bucks!”
I smiled and shrugged and wondered how many times he’d been knocked down. Maybe there had never been a bicycle wreck, only people knocking him down.
Though his license was still suspended, Russ bought a car for two hundred dollars from one of the more desperate tenants and drove it, still registered under the seller’s name, to and from work. I didn’t see him much after that. He claimed to be working seven days a week, plus overtime, pulling down three grand a month. Once, however, he came over to my room to borrow a dollar.
The next time I talked to Russ, he told me angrily that he’d been demoted. They’d cut his salary and switched him to the graveyard shift. He said he was thinking about quitting.
Not long after, Linda told me that Russ had stopped paying the rent. He’d wait for her light to go off before sneaking into his room at night. In the morning he would leave before she got up. She didn’t think he was working anymore. By the end of the month, she’d evicted him. The last time I saw him he was walking out of a bar on Vine.
Call me naive if you like, but I never regretted my kindness to Russ. I don’t believe kindness can ever be wasted.
“I’ve lived on the edge most of my life,” Russ told me. “I enjoy the rush. Most people wouldn’t understand.”
No, Russ, I understand. Realism is brutal, and the truth is a killer that none of us wants to face.