I’ve seen the guy before. Big black guy. Bigger than everyone else one the line. At The Vine in Coralville. He’s loud. Always talking to people. White folks and black folks. It doesn’t matter. He talks to everyone the same. Not like the young black guys on the line who play hiphop real loud and speak in a language I don’t fully understand. Which, I guess, is the way they want it. They are wary of me. Holding back a little. I don’t blame them. I might be the guy who thinks I’m better than them. The guy who hates them. Thinks they took my job. Moving here from Chicago the way they do. Or maybe they hate me. Because I’m white. Maybe I hold back too. But the big guy doesn’t worry about that stuff. He’s friendly to everyone. I don’t need to earn it. Prove anything to him. This morning he’s talking about his wife. His new wife. Who has never met his family from Louisiana. “But she going to meet them next month. Coming down. Meet the whole family.” He talks about moving out of state. Down to his forty acres in Louisiana. Where his father owns a dairy farm. “Grew up on the farm. Working all the time. I mean all the time.”
I’m nodding as I dial the kitchen manager. There is no answer.
“You know which lowboy was making noise?”
The big guy looks where I’m pointing.
“No, man. I don’t know. I’m just working. Back to work again. Thank God. After I had an operation back in late November. My esophagus. Lost a lot of weight. Ask Donnell here. I used to be a lot bigger. Now all I can eat is grits. Mashed potatoes.” And he lists off a lot of food I’ve been trying to avoid because it’s so fattening. “So I been out of work. And my wife she says why don’t you slow down? Take some time. And I say no. The day I start sitting around is the day you’ll have me carried out feet first. And I’m serious. That’s just how I am. I can’t just sit around.”
I kneel and remove the panel of the nearest lowboy. A lowboy is a drawer cooler that is usually installed below grills and flattops. Each drawer holds a certain number of stainless steel pans — one with chicken breasts, one with chicken wings, one with steaks, one with hamburgers, and so on. Food to be grilled or deep fried. After I remove the panel, I notice that although the compressor is running, the condenser fan is not. I spin the condenser fan by hand and feel the resistance. Bad bearings. I unplug the cooler and begin the process of removing the fan motor. I remove the fan housing. Cut the two wires that feed the motor. The motor is hot because it has’t been spinning. When a motor is spinning, most of the current is used up spinning the rotor in the stator, thus spinning, in this case, the fan blade. But when a motor stops spinning for whatever reason, the windings become nothing more than electric heating elements. Like a toaster. This one’s so hot I can’t touch it.
The big guy has moved on to talking about how his wife wants to buy more than one of everything. “She buy like four can openers. And I’m like, why you need this can opener? What it going to do the other three don’t do? I don’t understand it. I just don’t understand it. A hundred and fiddy dollars on basketball shoes. And I’m like, I ain’t going to do it. These shoes going to tie themselves? And walk for me? I ain’t gonna do it!”
I don’t want to insult him by walking out on his story, but I walk out anyway. In my truck, I find what I need, a 9 watt, 115 volt, clockwise motor. I bring it in and kneel again. Eight screws hold the fan shroud to the motor. I line them up and start assembling.
“And the whole time I was sick,” says the big guy, “you know, I wasn’t making no money. And so the pastor she say she need some money from me and I say I’m going to give the church a surprise at the end of the month. You’ll be happy at the end of the month. And she say, I don’t need money at the end of the month. I need it right now. She said it just like that. Right now! And I say that’s it. That’s the end of it. So I quit that church.”
“What church is that?”
“Gospel Word,” he says.
“I know that church,” I say.
“Yeh. She say, I need it right now! And I come to find out, she going to Africa next month. She going to Africa and marrying this guy from Africa. Got a ring on her finger this big! And I tell my wife, I say, Why don’t she pawn that ring she need money so bad right now! She can pawn that ring. Can you believe that?”
“Who’s the pastor again?” I say.
“Reverent Morgan. Lulla Morgan.”
“I know her,” I say.
“Yeh. You go in on Sunday and it get so all you hear is money money money. She want money money money. And you know it ain’t about money! I never buy nothing. I was raised poor and I never buy nothing. I’m grateful. I am. I am grateful for this job. Grateful for my children. Two boys. One going to college. I’m a grateful man. And you get two hours on a Sunday. And I need my God time. I do. I need that time. And I go in and hear about money. And that ain’t right.”
“No,” I say. “You ought to come to my church.”
“Where you go?”
“AME,” I say.
The guy shakes his head. “Where that at?”
“South Governor,” I say.
“Awww,” he says, dawn breaking. “Dark skinned pastor?”
“Used to be.”
“Little whiskers? Like a fumanchu?”
“Yeh. That’s him. He moved down to Burlington. We got a new preacher now. Young woman. Well…not that young. She looks young. She can preach. Reverend Kim Bryant. Mother’s a preacher too. From Cedar Rapids. AME.”
The day before, I’d driven up to Luther College to replace a pressure transducer on a chiller. It was good to leave. My house was full of overhung children and I wanted to get away from them. They’re easy to be proud of them from afar, as they take their college courses or attend to their work in Portland, Maine or Philly or Baton Rouge, and its easy to imagine how they might be. When they might wake up in the morning. How they might abstain from drinking too much alcohol at night. But when Deb and I fly them home. Buy their meals. And Christmas gifts. And watch them shift in their seats after dinner, exchange furtive glances, torture their sentences in an effort to not hurt our feelings as they plan their nightly escape from mom and dad’s house. How can I blame them? Who wouldn’t rather fall into the mosh pit of Iowa City tavern life than watch Lord of the Rings yet again? Still, I’m disappointed. I imagined us waking up early and going out to breakfast. Going to matinees together. Writing together. Reading together. But my kids stay out all night. Sleep till two o’clock in the afternoon. Spend their afternoons in a postictal state. Pick up steam by nine. And go out again at eleven. Close up, my children can disappoint me. They’re too human.
But Christmas is over. I need a change of focus. A new perspective. And the same route to Decorah wouldn’t do. I passed my usual exit, Route 150, and stayed on 380 north for one, two, three exits before I Google Mapped it, taking an exit I’d never taken. A new route through the winter farm fields, snow covered but for the whiskers of corn popping through. The fields, in mid-morning, the exact same color as the sky, so there seemed to be a continuity between heaven and earth. The same with the ocean on the east coast in the evening when the sky and a calm sea join and fade into the dirty silver of an old coin, as Bill Morrissey wrote in a song thirty years ago when he was young. The small, vanishing Iowa towns. The big sign fronting three forsaken outbuildings — broken windows and faded paint — that read something like, WANT FINANCIAL SUCCESS? VOTE REPUBLICAN. All the stores on Main Street vacant but for the gas station. Even the diners vacant. And the post office closed down. Beautiful and sad. Beautiful and holy. These small towns. Viewed from the temporary perspective of the passing workman. The passing man. These sad and beautiful places we have built. And I felt then, passing through those towns, that I was very near the place where I could be grateful for everything. Like the Buddha under the tree. Realizing that he has been asleep until now. Like the blackbird in the dead of the night. Like there was a continuity. Everything glowing with holiness and perfection. The broken laundromat. The collapsed barn. Having fallen to its knees. As Deb said thirty years ago when she was young.
“These folks driving around in forty-thousand-dollar cars, man,” says the big guy. “Forty-thousand-dollar cars. How you sleep when you know that payment coming up? Not me. I go home. I sleep good. Make my payments. Sleep good. All this. With the TVs and cars and all that. How you sleep good?”
“Even when it’s all over,” I say.
“That’s exactly right,” he says. “Some folks won’t be sleeping so good then either. When it’s all over. And that’s the end. Me? I’m still going to sleep good. Forty-thousand-dollar cars don’t do me no good now; won’t do me no good then neither.”
I’m nodding. I hate to say what I’m about to say. I hate to say it because I never want to exclude anyone. But I say, “It’s like, to us, you and me, it’s real obvious. Real simple and obvious. That, you know, this is all going to be over.”
“Soon and very soon,” he says.
“And then, all these things we wanted so bad. That seemed so important…”
“Amen to that, brother,” he says. “Say it.”
But I’ve run out of holy ghost power. I have nothing left to say on that.
And the fan motor is installed. So I flip the switch and the blade spins. That little jot of amperage doing the work it was meant to do. The fan pulling the heat from the condenser on through the cabinet and out the back now. My tools all aligned in my pouch now. The box that once held the new fan motor now filled with the failed fan motor. I have given the lowboy a new life. A new chance at doing what it was designed to do.
“Well,” I say, heading toward the door. I’m waving, the wave coming off like a lowdown peace sign. Like I want to say peace. Or Love. Or something. But I need to say it low. Can’t really say it. Because I’m afraid of something. Giving myself away further.
“God bless you man,” says the big guy, bending down to open the drain valve on a fryer.
He’s not afraid to say anything. He’s not afraid. Working, the way he has always done. Having nothing, the way he has always had. Son of a preacher. Recently married to a woman who hasn’t met his family yet. Forty acres in Louisiana. “I used to ride horses,” he said earlier. “Rode cows too. Even rode pigs.” Smiling at that last admission. He might someday move back there, he said. He might someday not. But they will someday carry him out feet first. And that’s the day he’ll do no more work. And that’s a fact.