Heart of the South
Jack Ross owns the scrap metal yard. Rossco, acronym for Ross Company. He talks about it like he would a person; Rossco's being a real sonofabitch today; Rossco wants too much of my time. I say, Jack, that's business. He likes to play golf. He's got a mobile home in the yard that serves as his office. The master bedroom's converted into a practice green, coke cans and stuff shoved under the carpet to put some bend in his putts. He does all his business on a speakerphone, negotiates the deal while he gets the line of his putt, taps the ball, takes the order. He shouts out the particulars to Mickey down the hall who writes it up and gets it shipped. Ross says he does a half million a month that way.
He used to be a steel executive, some big company, VP at twenty-nine. Jack says, "Some of the guys I used to work with came over the other day. They're wearing blue suits and last year's shirt is pinching at their fat necks and they don't see it at all. They think I'm making a pile. That's how they justify it to themselves. 'Ol' Ross's place ain't pretty, but I bet he's making a pile.' Every one of them scared to death of what tomorrow's gonna bring, checking their watches, tapping their feet. Man, I
mean you can smell the pressure they're under. They make me nervous."
I'm staring out my studio window at Rossco. I'm feeling some pressure myself. I need to get back to work. Today's the 14th. I've got 28 days left to finish my sculpture. I look at what I've got and I think, I've got to move! I've got to make some progress! I'm not nearly so critical and it seems easy to be creative and I just start. I'm not worrying about who's going to be at the exhibit or what people are going to think, the usual bullshit you go through before you offer yourself up to the public, to your friends, when you say this is what I've done, what do you think? I'm just working under the pressure of a deadline, trying to finish, trying to get it over with.
For a while, I'm just banging on metal, bending it into shapes. And then somehow the magic starts.
Ross comes over about noon, says, "Let's go hit 'em." The Kelly green sweater matches his check pants, picks up the stripe in his cap. "It's one great day for golf," he says. "There won't be many more like this."
"You're right, Jack. Too bad I've got to work."
"Work tomorrow if you have to. Play today."
"Now there's a new twist."
"Yeah, you like that? I figured it out myself."
I try not to pay too close attention hoping he'll get the idea. He's
wearing his cleats. He crunches across the concrete floor to the
mini-fridge, pulls out a beer, pops the top. He crunches back to the table where I'm modeling a sculpture, says, "What the hell is that?"
"That's the reason I have to work."
"I mean, what's it supposed to be?" That's when I put down my tools.
Jack says, "You want to see my new putter? It's Japanese."
He holds it like a cane, with the blade in his palm. He hands it over and I try it for weight, balance.
"Nice," I say.
"I can get it wholesale. I'm kind of a regional distributor. Try it out. If you like it, I'll order you one."
"I've already got a putter I don't use."
"That's the point," he stresses. "You need to get out more. You can go stale working too much. When's the last time you took an afternoon off, huh? I'll bet you can't remember."
Jack's all the time selling. He'd be a rich man if he stuck to selling steel.
"Why don't we go over to the club for lunch," he says. "We'll hit a
bucket of balls and see how we feel. At the worst you'll be gone an hour and a half max." I'm tempted so he adds, "Hell, you still eat, don't you?"
"If I say no to playing, you'll bring me back, right?"
"No, hell no, I can't. I'd like to but I've got to work."
"Jesus," Jack says. He tilts back his head and slugs down some beer in disgust.
"How is it you're so loose?" I ask.
Jack shrugs. "What's the point of working for yourself if you can't take an afternoon off?"
"Yeah, what's your handicap these days?"
"God, I've blown up to a twelve," he says, wide-eyed and wagging his head like he can't believe it himself. "Why?"
"Just checking. Your golf game and sales seem to have an inverse relationship."
"Business is all right. I'm just not making any money."
"I thought that was a contradiction in terms."
"That, Professor, is the steel business."
Jack makes it sound as if any day now the roof is coming down, like he has put it all so closely on the line that a twitch of lady luck would ruin him.
"Hey, you can't take it with you," is what he says to all that.
"You might want to save a little for that boy of yours. Just in case he decides he'd rather get an education than end up like his old man."
"Plenty of time," Ross says with a wave of his hand. Things he doesn't like to think about he brushes aside as easily as shooing a fly. "You should see the little shit," he says in a prouder, fatherly tone. "God, he's big."
But his smile is wiped away by some other thought and Ross stands around fumbling the change in his pocket, frowning, something's on his mind. I think, surely it can't be because I won't play golf. He stares at a sculpture without seeing it, his eyes so flat they don't penetrate the few feet of space between him and the table where it sits.
Jack," I say, waving my hand. "Something wrong?"
His neck gets blotchy red when he's embarrassed. He tries to swagger it off, hey, it's nothing, I'm asleep on my feet. Thing is, he won't look me in the eye.
Jack and I have seen a few days together. I say, "What's up, buddy?"
He mumbles a bunch of nothing, takes a pull off his beer. He walks a circle around my table, touching things, picking them up, turning them over. When he's opposite me he quits fooling around with my stuff, takes a deep breath and sighs.
"I must be crazy."
"Nobody's disputing that."
"Those guys that came over, the ones I used to work with, they really made me think. You know, I had a damn good job. That company was going places."
"You weren't happy there, Jack. How many times have you told me how lucky you were to get out when you did, while you still had a choice?"
"Yeah, I still believe it too. It was just the way it happened. I've
told you about the guy I worked for, what a frantic nut he was. You know I still have dreams about him? It's been three goddamn years and I'm still dreaming about the little prick. And it's always my last dream, you know, the one you have right before you wake up, so I open my eyes to it. The first waking moment of my day is spent listening to his greedy little voice
echoing in my brain. Man, I mean on those days it takes
everythin I've got to get out of bed." I know what he means.
Jack says, "I'd put it all on the line for the company, and here I was all of the sudden being told I wasn't wanted. I was so hard-nosed about it, so bullheaded. If they wouldn't do it my way, then I'd just go off and do something on my own. It was a form of running away, you know. I mean I could've stayed and fought it out. As it is, I left everything unanswered, my policy changes, hell, my ability."
"It takes ten times as much guts to leave," I tell him. "Most people don't have the guts to do it on their own."
"I guess so."
"You know so. Those guys that came over, why are they still working there?"
"They can't make as much money any place else."
"Yeah, why do you think that is?"
Jack holds his beer can in his fingertips and shakes it to weigh how much is left. He stares into the sunlight glare of the window.
"I worried about it so much I didn't know if I'd ever be any good again, and come to find out I wasn't, not like that anyway, no sirree. I found out all that shit's missing the point."
"Live your own dream, not somebody else's. You get in the situation I was in, you forget who you are. You start acting like the guy you're working for, believing in the same crap. It got so bad with me finally you couldn't tell our handwriting apart, me and the owner's. Even I couldn't some of the time. Let me tell you, you lose yourself that completely, it takes one hell of a long time to find out who you are again. And you never get it all
back. You've lost something else besides just the years you pitched away. That's the worst of the bad taste in my mouth. I lost something and I'm still not sure what it was."
"Yeah, but that's experience, Jack. You have to pay for it."
"What I'm talking about's not the same thing."
He firmly shuts his jaw and his eyebrows gather into a scowl.
"You're a fucking artist. You don't know a thing about it."
I remember birds at the beach, on Cumberland Island. There's a burned out forest on the high ground of the north end. The fire happened a few years ago and the palmettos and pines are making a comeback, but there are hundreds of acres of blackened tree trunks, black soot coats the sand, not even the buzzards fly here. There's a sense of desolation. The wind makes a different sound here, comes unshielded from beyond the dunes and the ocean murmur is garbled and empty of promise.
When it seems there is nothing more to see I look up at the top of the tallest tree and silhouetted against the sky is the stick-basket of an osprey nest. That it is there at all engenders hope. I grab my sketchbook and start to work, drawing fast while I can feel it. I do not see the osprey stand up. He is simply there, stretching brown wings, cocking an eye, leaning forward into flight. After an initial swoop, he spirals up circling the nest, then hangs like a kite, wings at full span, slightly drifting until he catches the breeze, then he skates across the sky. In seconds he's past the dunes and over the water, veering down the beach,
hunting the shallows. Soon he's nothing more than a speck against the blue, maybe only imagined.
What I'm after is flight itself. I want the sculpture to soar. Last week I went out to Charlie Brown. I hired a guy to take me up in a
single-engine Cessna. He was an older guy, said he flew in Nam. I said I want to feel it. He thought that was funny. He took it straight up until the engine stalled, the nose tipped over and we fell like a rock. Not a sound but the wind and my heart. He whooped like a drunken cowboy, yelled "We're riding on Newton!"
I was saying to myself, come on, baby, come on baby, willing the prop to turn. I was picking out my plot when the engine sputtered to a start and he pulled us out of it. He goosed it into a barrel roll. He did a loop the loop. He brought us in nice and slow, a soft glide to the runway, hardly a jolt when we landed. He asked me what did I think?
I told him I had to go pee first.