Fiction Saturday – Continued
The fog was in and the dusk was stealing the colors out of the day. The neon signs in the Marina cast a fuzzy light.
By 7:45, most of the tourists had retreated back to the Fisherman’s Wharf area where the huge restaurants were shoveling frozen crab and other dubious bits of overpriced seafood into the folks from Iowa. The Marina was now safely in the hands of the locals. Herbs and spices were mating to produce wondrous flavors that the tourists would never get to taste.
Dinner was scheduled for eight p.m. Davis had called Scott’s restaurant from the Safeway parking lot and made the reservation. He didn’t want any snags.
He couldn’t explain it, but he felt like a teenager again. He hadn’t been this excited about going out with a girl since his junior year in high school when one of the cheerleaders finally said “Yes.” He hoped tonight would go better. He double-checked the seams on his trousers, just to be sure.
It had been almost twenty years, but he could still feel his face redden at the memory. It leaves deep and permanent scars when the seat of your pants splits open in the middle of a Bob’s Big Boy Restaurant on a busy Saturday night.
Why not just kill yourself and get it over with? he thought then. You have embarrassed yourself by showing off your boxers in front of every kid in the school.
His date, the gorgeous cheerleader, was embarrassed because she was with the doofus who had just flashed his ass at the world. Of course, everybody in the place had laughed, partly out of all teens’ inborn sense of cruelty and partly out of the self-conscious knowledge that it, just as easily, could have been him or her with their polka-dotted butt hanging out for all to see.
Davis checked his seams one more time.
Sitting in front of her tiny makeup mirror Laura prepared for her new birthday dinner date. Date?
“My God, am I going on a date? No I’m not! It’s just dinner.” She shook her head, pushing the idea of a date out of the picture. “It’s just dinner.”
She dressed in the nicest outfit she could put together from her shallow closet. She wanted to look good for a dinner in a nice restaurant. It was going to be a bit chilly out with the fog being in, but she refused to wear the denim jacket.
It was only a short stroll from her apartment to Scott’s restaurant, so she felt no need to rush. She didn’t want to get there first. She didn’t want to appear too anxious, although she was, terribly so. It would be good to let him cool his heels for a few minutes. He had made her break into a sweat in the supermarket, so a little turnabout would be fair play. Let him think he’d been stood up.
She flipped off the lights as she closed her door, checked the lock twice, made sure the safety was set on the revolver, and started toward the restaurant.
It’s just dinner.
He picked at his Dover Sole and she herded her scallops around the plate like they were little breaded sheep.
“Are the scallops okay? We can send them back and get you something else,” said Davis, noticing her lack of interest in her dinner.
“No,” she replied. “They’re fine. I guess I’m just not as hungry as I thought.” She looked at his plate. “You’re not doing much with your sole there, I see.”
He looked at his fish and set down his fork. “It’s really good, but I must not be all that hungry either. Oh, well.”
Laura put down her fork and said, softly, “I want to thank you again for your help with that man on the street last week. That took courage. You didn’t know. He could have been armed. Thank you.”
Davis blushed a bit. “I wasn’t raised to sit on the sidelines. You’re welcome.”
“And…,” she continued, wanting to get all of this out, “I want to apologize for the way I treated you in the supermarket today. I was rude to you and it was uncalled for. I’m sorry. Forgive me.”
She picked up her fork again and tasted a few grains of the golden saffron rice. She avoided looking at Davis. If she had looked up she would have seen him gazing at her with a thousand questions in his eyes.
“Laura, it’s me who should be begging for your forgiveness. I should have just let you have that ice cream instead of making a federal case out of it. I don’t know why I behaved like that. I didn’t mean to upset you. Please, accept my apology.”
Laura lifted her eyes to meet his. “Apology accepted. Now we’re even,” she said with a shy smile. She shook her head and said, “You must have thought I was crazy.”
“Well, for a second there, I thought you were going to go postal on me,” he said. She didn’t hear him. Her mind was searching for the right words to explain to him what happened.
“It’s just that – It’s just that I – I’ve had some bad experiences with men and I overreact sometimes. I’m sorry.” That was as good as she could allow herself to say.
“I won’t pry,” he said, “but if I can help in any way or if you ever just want to talk, I’m in the book.”
“I don’t have a phone.” She had thrown her cell phone into a storm drain in Boston.
“Then,” he answered, reaching into his inside coat pocket, “here is my business card with my address. I’m either there or at the donut shop on Chestnut, most times.” He extended his hand across the table. Laura hesitated, then took the card and propped it up against the edge of her bread plate.
“Thank you. That’s very sweet of you. I don’t want to be a bother,” she said, looking at his card, noting that his address wasn’t very far away.
“No bother. I’m a good listener,” he replied.
In an effort to change the subject, Laura slipped the business card into her bag on the floor next to her chair. It leaned neatly up against the pistol. She then turned the focus away from herself.
“Well, Davis Lovejoy, accountant and late night hero to damsels in distress, tell me about yourself.” She smiled and reached for the bread basket.
“Me? There’s not a whole lot to tell, I guess,” he said, and for the next twenty minutes he gave her his life story. She stayed silent except to offer the occasional, “I see,” or “Really?”
Davis began with how he had grown up as an only child in a lower middle class home in Cleveland, Ohio. His father was one of the last of the lifelong steelworkers, a man who went to work in the mills looking for a decent wage and job security. By the time he was 55, there was neither for him. Thirty-five years inside the hellish world of the mill had taken his strength and his health. The only job he could do anymore was as an inspector and his failing eyesight was letting through too much flawed product. By his fifty-seventh birthday he was on full disability and lost in the oddities of idleness. By age sixty he was dead, in a sense by his own hand. Because he could no longer produce, he consumed. Alcohol finished the job that the Hot Mill had started.
Davis’s mother had doted on “her boys” for decades. She loved her husband and missed his presence in her life. She confided to her sister that she felt that she never saw her husband because of the hours he was working. Later, when he could no longer work, she saw his body at home on the couch, but it wasn’t the same man she had married at St. Columbkille’s church when she was young and three months pregnant.
The Lovejoys were decent, hard working people, reliable to a fault. They loved their son more than they had words to express. They were determined that his life would be better. That was the bedrock of their existence.
“No son of mine is ever going to set foot inside a steel mill,” vowed his father.
“I’d like Davis to be a doctor or a lawyer,” hoped his mother.
Dreams are promises chipped in whipped cream.
There was a needlessly long steelworkers walkout when Davis was 17 and a senior in high school. The lost income was just that: lost, never to be recovered, no matter how good the eventual contract raises were. The strike crippled the family’s finances. Plans had to be changed, dreams deferred.
Davis had to get a job and the only work for a young man that paid above minimum wage was in the mills.
There were a lot of young boys looking for work with the steel companies, but having a relative already on the inside was the only sure way onto the employment rolls.
Four days after his eighteenth birthday Davis and his father went out for lunch and made two stops on the way: the first at the post office where Davis registered with Selective Service, and the second at the union hall to get his card. A week later Davis was operating a ten-ton crane loading steel pipe onto rail cars and big rig haulers. He was making fourteen times the wage his father had made when he’d first walked through the mill gate decades earlier.
On Davis’ first day, his mother saw her two men off to work. She had packed them identical meals in their matching lunch boxes.
When they pulled the Dodge out of the driveway, she proudly waved goodbye to them. When they turned the corner and headed down into the valley toward the mill, she went into the bedroom and cried like a new widow.
It seemed that, no matter how tight things got, the one bill that his father made sure got paid was the monthly premium to Met Life. The insurance was always there, “just in case,” he said.
Davis stayed on in the mills after his father died. He died in his sleep on the couch, in front of the television.
For the first time in thirty years in the Lovejoy house there was money enough to live on without worrying about strikes or imported Japanese steel souring the market.
Davis decided it was time to go to college. His standing in the union and with the steel company helped him get reassigned as a “swing man.” He became a part-time worker who would be called on to cover different jobs and different shifts as needed. This would give him some free time to go after an education.
The idea of doing both things at once didn’t bother Davis. Hard work was a family tradition. Plus, he didn’t want to continue the other family tradition of being crushed and shattered by a lifetime in the mill.
His mother was proud and happy that he was going back to school. It was the only part of her dream left alive.
Davis enrolled at Cleveland State University as a twenty-three-year-old freshman. His plan was to major in Accounting.
He’d always seen the company’s white-collar employees going into the red brick office building just outside the mill gate. When he saw them leaving at the end of the day their shirts were still white.
He imagined them to be the accountants and the metallurgists that were at the heart of the company. He knew nothing about metallurgy, he thought, although most veteran steelworkers are practical metallurgists, almost chefs. Making steel is done by recipe, adding specific amounts of this or that element to obtain the properties needed in any particular “heat” of steel.
The life of the accountant seemed more attainable.
In time, the concepts of credits, debits and creative mathematics took hold and his grades marched upward towards the Dean’s List.
The other students were curious about the “old guy with the filthy fingernails” who often came to class exhausted, but who always had his assignments ready, and who never whined about the workload.
During Finals Week, just before Christmas, in the middle of his junior year, there was an accident at the mill.
Davis and two other men were loading oilfield pipe onto skids for shipment to Oklahoma. One of his coworkers was a new kid, a local football “phenom” who had managed to flunk all of his classes at Ohio State. He was so lost in the classroom that even the head coach couldn’t save his athletic scholarship. Now the “phenom” was working in the mills, just like all the other men in his family.
The new kid was adjusting the slings on the crane that would hoist the forty-foot lengths of black, oil-covered pipe up and into position. When it was ready, he gave the signal to proceed. The steel lifted slowly and moved toward Davis, who would finesse the pipe into place. Within seconds, the load began to spin slowly to the left. The kid had not centered the load properly and it was starting to slide out of the sling. At this point, there was nothing anyone could do. Six forty-foot long steel pipes were going to fall fifteen feet to the concrete floor of the mill. All hell was about to break loose.
Davis yelled out a warning and ran toward the young football star hoping to rescue him before it was too late, but flying steel blocked his path. The nineteen-year-old stood transfixed at the sight of the tonnage now headed straight for him. He never moved until the steel blasted into him, sounding like a million church bells. He disappeared underneath what looked like a giant’s game of pick-up-sticks.
Davis went to class that night. He had an exam to take.
He graduated with more than respectable grades, and was given a transfer by the steel company out of the mill, and into the red brick office building. There he learned that there are other ways to die on the job.
He went to work every day in the Accounting Department doing billings on the steel pipe that he used to make. He wore a white shirt and took care of his mother. It was the hardest job he had ever had in his life.
After his father’s death, Davis saw his mother’s life unravel. No matter how many people dropped by to visit her, she was by herself too often, and in the end, she died of loneliness.
For the first time in his life, Davis Lovejoy was on his own. No one needed him. There was no reason for him to hurry home after work. There was no reason for him to go home at all. There was no home. There was only a house on a side street, in a neighborhood too close to the steel mills.
After one more bitter winter of being alone in his childhood home, shoveling snow and watching the old neighborhood rot, he decided to make another change in his life.
He wanted to be where the sun shined more, where there was air that didn’t carry warnings, and where there was no snow to shovel. He used his vacation time to scout out likely cities. When he got to San Francisco he felt comfortable at once. The cool breeze off the ocean carried a salty tang and the warm sun let everything blossom.
So, at almost thirty years of age, Davis said goodbye to what was left and planted himself in the town that proudly referred to itself as “The City.”
“So, I’ve been here almost five years now. I guess that’s pretty much it,” he said with a small shrug. “I hope I haven’t bored you to death.”
“Not at all.” Laura looked at him and felt safe.
“Now, let’s hear about you, ‘Laura Smith,Woman of Mystery’,” said Davis, a smile on his face and in his voice.
“Another time, perhaps,” she said. “But, now, I’d like another cup of coffee.”