Fall 2008, Volume 5

Fiction by Joshua Daniel Cochran

Getting Fired

Dale broke our radio last week, so now there’s only a nasal hum from the overhead ceiling fan to disturb the dusty stillness of the workroom. He sits across the egg-crate table with a serious look across what can be seen of his eyes peeking over the tops of the cards held tightly in his hands. The air between us sways with motes of dust illuminated in the burnt-yellow morning light like tiny stars. We breathe them in and breathe them out, and the air tastes familiar of solvents and dust. Like the muted light, the motes swirling in the air have no clear source, just heavier here, less dense over there. Dale’s eyes have that burnt-yellow tint too, in shadow beneath the brim of his grimy baseball cap.

He asks flatly for two cards and I slide them over, taking two myself, but I don’t take my eyes off Dale’s face. Sure enough, after a few seconds, a few seconds where I can almost hear the gears clicking in his head, his face lights up with excitement and he begins to fidget. He’s so antsy he doesn’t hear the door creak open behind him, our boss standing in the doorway with his hands on his hips, lips flattened across his face.

“Boy, do I feel lucky,” Dale says beaming.

Terrified slightly, I fold and throw my cards on the pile of pennies in the pot. I put my hat on and shuffle to the workbench looking at Dale, then look at the boss standing in the doorway, back and forth. Dale just stares at me with a wondrous, puzzled expression and I think about how his face always gives his thoughts away. Sometimes I just like to watch his face change.

“So this is what I get for hiring your brother, huh Sam?” The boss’s voice roars out of his massive body, shuddering through the workshop. Dale flinches into a hunched shape, and the motes swirl frantically in the disturbed air. The boss’s name is James Copp, a rough, hard man but a good employer if you do your job and keep busy.

“I—we had just set down for a cigarette break,” I say, fumbling over tools at the work bench. Watching Dale’s face out of the corner of my eye, I see it pass through a few shades of shock. But now Dale just sits slumped, his shoulders and head stooped over the egg-crate so I can’t see. Mr. Copp breathes so loudly, it’s heard over the fan.

“And I say, if you two have the time to sit around and play cards, you. . . I. . .” Mr. Copp trails off, choking on a ball of anger lodged in his fleshy throat. His face is red and sweating, eyes slightly bulged. “You got four tubes to finish by the end of the day. I suggest you get to work.” He slams the door behind him, causing further chaos in the air.

“Jee-sus Sam, why didn’t you tell me that fat bastard was behind me?” Dale asks with a hurt expression. He shakes his head as if saddened and picks up a bare, hulking tube, setting it roughly on the steel workbench.

“Careful or—”

”Yeah, yeah, ‘careful or that’ll explode, Dale.’ I know exactly what you’re gonna say.” Roughly, he punctures the plug near the end of the tube, releasing the vacuum in a sudden hiss that’s a little too fast. He starts to remove the rear assembly and I wince with each slam of tool or frustrated whack on the tube. He’s just as quick to laughter as he is to anger though, so I try to soften his temper.

“Boy, it sure was funny. . . the look on Copp’s face with you saying how lucky you were feeling,” I say through a light chuckle, remembering his eyes. Sure enough, Dale’s wrinkled brow gives way to smoothness, a broad smile that remains on his face for a full half hour as he works putting in the new guts, then sealing the tube. I’m having trouble with mine, an old Zenith Colorlux. Only the occasional curse or request for a tool lying nearby accompanies the nasal fan, the dust and solvent taste in the air, the great stillness. We have no radio because Dale broke it last week.

“Hey,” he says suddenly. “Did you hear Zenith is coming out with a color tube that’s only fourteen inches from front to back?” He doesn’t look up while he speaks, but continues to work on the tube setting it on the floor to return vacuum to the inside.

“No way. That’s impossible.”

“It’s true I tell you, ask that fat bastard next time he comes in here.”

“Don’t talk like that, Dale.”

Three of the tubes are completely done and put back into the sets with the covers on before lunch. I filled out the little repair tags and forms because Dale won’t do it. And as soon as we sit down and open our lunch buckets, the boss comes thundering through the door with a eighty pound TV set in his club-like arms. We both jump in surprise. Dale knocks over his bottle of soda.

“Sitting on your asses again, eh boys?” Copp says, setting the tube gently on the ground next to the workbench.

“Actually, we just sat down to—”

“Hmmm, you got those three done?” He interrupts me nodding toward the three we finished. “Good. I need this one for Mrs. McCormick by two this afternoon, you hear? So do it first.” With that said, he slams the door shut behind him.

 “That sonofabitch,” Dale says around a mouthful of food.

I prefer to eat outside under the big mesquite tree so the food doesn’t taste like solvents and dust, but Dale always wants to eat inside. I can’t even smell the ham an inch in front of me.

“Now Dale,” I say, “Mr. Copp is a good—”

”Yeah, yeah, ‘a good employer if you do your job and keep busy.’ I know, Sam.” But Dale is hardly understandable speaking with so much food shoved in his mouth. After speaking, he stuffs the remaining ham sandwich into his mouth blindly, chomping and swallowing in huge motions. He gets up quickly, struggles with a final gag as if the sandwich doesn’t want to go down, and starts rummaging through the piles of old sets, tubes, covers and assemblies arranged around all four walls of the workshop in various states of leaned and stacked heaps. Dust billows into the yellow air with his effort.

“What’re you doing, Dale?” I ask his turned back as he strains with something, farting loudly. “Aww jeez, I’m eating my sandwich.”

“It’s some idea I had a few days ago. Can you give me a hand with this?”

I set down my lunch and go over to him. I help him lift two screen covers from off the floor. The screen covers are heavy, easily a quarter inch thick at the edges, off the first RCA color models. They’re square with flat sides, curved outward like a lens and designed to cover the tube so if something hit the screen the tube won’t explode and blind everyone in the room. I help get the two covers to the workbench and Dale starts to work busily, cleaning the edges of old epoxy.

“What’re you doing, Dale?” I ask again.

“Did I tell you about my date with Laura McNelly? Hoo-wee.” Dale starts to gab all about his date, comparing it to other dates he’s been on with Laura’s sister, then in turn through every girl he’s ever chased after, success or not. I eat the rest of my sandwich while he works with the covers, talking and talking. Dale has always had an easy time with people, always laughing and carrying on, having an easier time at it than me. I never know what to say. Dale drills a hole in the corner of one of the screen covers and I don’t ask even though I want to. Instead, I begin work on the McCormick set listening to Dale talk, watching him out of the corner of my eye. I laugh when he wants me to.

Dale runs a thick bead of epoxy around the edge of one of the covers and then carefully set the other atop it so they’re domed outward on both sides with a hollow space between. He keeps talking too, now about our mama seeing that grocer man, and goes back and forth to the sink with his coffee cup carefully pouring water into the hole drilled into the top cover. I don’t ask but just listen to him talk and work on the McCormick tube. It needs to be done by two and it’s already one.

“That should do it,” Dale says suddenly, interrupting his own conversation. He finishes daubing a giant wad of epoxy over the drill-hole to keep all the water inside, in-between the two huge pieces of glass. He brushes his hands across the chest of his overalls, adding to the splotched pattern of stain. “Wanna give me a hand with this?” Dale smiles at me with his whole body, eyes alight. He looks like a little kid again though we’re older now. He still runs circles around me, and I’m the older brother.

And I want to say ‘I’m almost through with the McCormick set,’ but don’t. I want to ask again ‘What’re you doing Dale?’ but don’t. Instead, I go over to him, my jaw tightening, and grab a side of the melded covers. We both heave upward and grunt, stumble slightly at the surprising weight of it. It must weigh over a hundred pounds. We held it upright between us straining, awkward and heavy.

“Where we going?” I ask through a huff of breath.

“Outside, outside,” Dale says, wagging his head toward the back door. Of course, I’m the one that has to walk backward the entire way, stumbling through the maze of discarded assemblies, abandoned TV sets and boxes of supplies strewn about. It used to be more organized until Dale started to work here. I recall the image of our workbench; my side organized and clean, his side a loud mess of confusion and lost time searching for a screwdriver.

I kick open the back door and a hot white light pours into the doorway, the sound of cicadas in the Salinas afternoon heat. Looking inside, the dust mills about in commotion, riot. As soon as we both clear the door, we have to squint away from the blinding light coming from the bulk in our hands. We shuffle clumsily with the weight and shape of the water-filled covers.

“Holy shit— look Sam!” Dale huffed breathlessly with his eyes wide, nodding to my left. I follow his gaze to a circle of light about the size of a silver dollar too bright to focus on. “It’s working, look,” Dale says and pushes toward me, causing me to back up. “Over there, over there,” he says, wagging his head in a direction behind me, over my shoulder. The cicadas have stopped their buzzing and only a pounding in my ears and our labored breath accompany the blinding heat, the crackling circle of light moving across the ground. I don’t understand what he’s doing, what we’re doing, until it’s too late.

After we stumble ten feet I notice a line of fire following us, growing behind us in the dried spring grasses that fill the rear yard of the shop along with the old sets, crates of blown or broken tubes. Dale turns too and smiles ridiculously. He starts to hoot and laugh, moving this way and that, flashing the beam across the yard even though I’m trying to hold it still. My hat falls off. Flames and smoke lick and crackle knee high, then higher. Mr. Copp bounds out of the back door, his voice booming in rage and disbelief.

But Dale keeps laughing and yelling ‘it works’ and ‘look at that, sonofabitch!’ I can feel my jaws clench together tightly.

“I’m gonna let go Dale,” I say. The boss is stamping his feet and screaming for us to get a hose as we stand there, staring at each other with the beam still flashing on the dry ground.

“Don’t let go,” Dale says to me, his face melting to hurt. His face always shows exactly what he’s feeling.

And I feel the thing slowly slip out of my hands.

BIO:  "Originally from Arizona, I currently teach creative writing and composition at The City College of New York, in beautiful Harlem. But my skills do not end there. I have also worked in fast food, as a landscaper, wildland firefighter, man about town, carpenter, welder, EMT, biological technician, elementary school teacher, and copy shop manager. I have a long history of publication, have won awards for both poetry and prose, and my first novel, Echo Detained, was published in November 2007 by Fractious Press."