Wednesday, February 3, 2010

People I meet in bars #11: Hank

"There's bags all under your eyes," Hank says, pointing a stubby finger. "You look like shit. Like you just lost the title to Rocky."

"I don't sleep much. What's your excuse?" I don't know why I'm being so antagonistic, but Hank's taking it in stride. He's built like a brick chimney, so his boxing reference doesn't really catch me off-guard, but he doesn't much seem like a fella that'd point at anything that wasn't either made of sausage or wearing leopard-print heels.

"What're you so pissy about?"

"I'm sorry, I'm just grumpy." I call to the bartender. "Can I get an orange juice or something?"

"Why would you come to a bar if you don't drink?" Hank asks.

"Yeah," the bartender seconds.

"Can I get an orange juice or what?"

The bartender juts a thumb toward me and turns to Hank. "The hell is he so pissy about?"

"Don't know," Hank says. "Doesn't seem like he wants to talk about it."

"I don't want to talk about it." A short glass of OJ is placed before me. "Thank you so much." I toss a crumbled five across the bar, and it's quickly snatched and put in the jar. "Keep the change."

"So," Hank says, trying to diffuse the grumpy, "what do you want to know?"

I take a sip of my juice and my mouth puckers and shrivels like a dying daisy. I raise my voice to get the bartender's attention. "You know, you're only supposed to age the liquor, not the orange juice."

Hank shakes his head. "I'll only talk to you if you're nice to the barkeep."

"Fine. Sorry. So what do you do, Hank?"

"I'm a carpenter. Freelance. Check it out." He holds out his hands. On the top, they look brand new, like he'd just gotten a transplant (handsplant?). They're wrinkle-free, scarless, and feature cuticles that look so good I'd swear they were landscaped.

"Those do not look like the hands of a carpenter."

"Pretty good, right?" he says, beaming (hey, beam! carpentry pun!). But he flips his hands over and his palms are more callus than tissue. Every naturally occurring line running across them is broken and interrupted by an unnatural cut, scar tissue, or pockmark. The tops of his hands look like they belong on a model, but the palms look like the surface of the moon.

"How much time do you put into your hands?" I ask.

"Manicure twice a month. Makes me feel like a new man."

"I think you just made the 'Things No One Has Ever Said Outloud' list."

Hank laughs. "Yeah, maybe. But I don't really care. It feels good. I've got no problem with it."

"Isn't it sort of a waste of money to pamper your hands and fingers like that? Doesn't the handiwork--jeez, another bad pun--of the lady at the mall or wherever just disappear after you do your work?"

"Yeah, but it's not a waste," he says, examining his fingertips with the same pride most carpenters would save for their custom-made bookshelves. "And it's not that easy, either."

"What do you mean?"

"I like to have a reminder that I'm more than just a carpenter, you know? I like that my hands look nice. All of the other guys I know, guys I talk shop with, guys at the lumber yard, whatever, these are dudes that don't care how their hands and fingers look. Which is fine, I don't think I'm better than them or anything, but if someone sees my hands, they won't just automatically assume that I work with them. I get to be a mystery of some kind before I become a carpenter in their brain."

"So what's not so easy about that?" I ask. I brace myself for another sip, and it goes down slightly easier. "If I'm not drinking, is orange juice so old that it's fermented against the rules, too?"

"It's all they had, so you're probably okay if you pace yourself," Hank chuckles as he drips a steady stream of gold tequila across his tongue. "There was this girl."

We sigh simultaneously.

"There always is," I say.

"And this girl--Virginia was her name--Virginia loved my stuff. I'd known her for years, and she'd never seen my work, and one day she came over and asked to see my shop, so I showed it to her. She saw that I had a desk, a few cabinets, a big oak entertainment center I was working on for this rich asshole, and she just sorta fell in love."

"She fell in love with you because you can build shit out of wood?"

"No, she fell in love with the stuff I built. But I was the next best thing, so I took their place."

"And how'd that go?" I ask.

"It was really great for a while, you know?" Hank looks over my shoulder like he can see the fourth dimension replaying out in front of him. "But we started spending so much time together that I wasn't working as much. We were traveling or going to movies or doing it on the dining room table--which I made, by the way--or whatever, so the stuff I would've normally done just for fun, just to take up my time, got pushed aside. And since that extra stuff, the stuff that she could tell I made just because I wanted to, that was what she fell in love with, she sorta fell out of it."

Hank's lips purse. "Bartender? Can I get another one of these, please?"

"No problem," he replies. "On the house, too, since you asked so nice." I smile as sarcastically as I can.

"I sure appreciate it," Hank says. "So anyway, I figured out what was going on, so I started making more stuff. She started coming back around, being sweeter to me, all that stuff. And it was better again, but then the cycle repeated itself again."

"So what did you do?"

"The only thing I could do. Build more shit. That's how I dealt with everything before her, so yeah, that's how I was going to deal with everything after. An ex-girlfriend cheated on me once in my own bed, so I built a new one and got a different mattress. My dad got cancer, and two weeks later, I gave him a little standalone medicine cabinet to keep next to his bed. Something gets taken away, I feel compelled to just, like, fill the hole, you know? Balance it out. Karma or whatever. But that, of course, got her to come back, since that's what she wanted in the first place."

"Cycles," I say.

"Exactly. And so it went on like this for a while, up and down, back and forth, but I eventually ended up with a shop so full of finished stuff that I couldn't work on anything real, anything I was gonna get paid for, and it's all well and good to make stuff for yourself, but there's that point where you stop being an 'artist' or whatever and you start just being an asshole. And that's the point I got to, so I only accepted paying work."

"Did you get another hobby?" I ask, coating my throat with the last drops of the juice, now watered down (and made drinkable) by the melted ice cubes. "You've got to have thought of something else to do."

"I tried a few things. I tried reading more books, going places, taking a correspondence course, fixing up my old car, all that, but nothing took. I don't know how to do anything else. I can try other shit. I even wrote a short story."

"What about?" My ears perk up.

"About a guy that doesn't ever talk but builds stuff for people to try and tell them what's on his mind. It was a shitty story, but I couldn't think of another way to do it. That's where my brain is. I build stuff. I'm a carpenter. I'm good at it, I think. At least, enough people like it for me to keep going."

"Can I read the story? Can you email me a copy or something?" I ask. "I'm always looking for stuff to read."

"Nah," he says, dripping his eyes to the ground and subtly shaking his head. "I wrote it longhand and gave the only copy to Virginia. Thought she'd like it. But I don't think she, what, got it."

"I know how that goes."

"Yeah." He looks down at his glass and pounds the contents of it down so fiercely that I assume it insulted his mother. "And when she didn't really like it, I built a table and felt better. Then I just figured that I'd do my own thing. It's my thing, you know? The building of stuff."

"Totally," I say, starting to understand. "Because one day, someone's gonna see that stuff and want to buy it, and you'll get validation and a check."

"Maybe," Hank says with a weary smile. "But if not, hey, at least I've got something to burn if I ever get too cold." His eyes drift toward the bar's door. "So why don't you sleep much?"

"I don't know," I admit. "I wonder sometimes if it's just that I don't like my bed. I didn't pick it and nothing really great has happened in it for a while. It's just not someplace I want to be these days, I guess."

"You know," he grins with a shrug, "if it's just that you don't like your bed, I can build you a new one."

"Nah, that's okay. I think sleep is just like riding a tandem bike, or having sex: better with a partner."

"You're a funny kid," he says. He lets loose a small aftershock chuckle and reaches into his weathered denim jacket, pulling out a mess of crumpled bills and straightening them out one by one, sorting them in ascending order of denomination. Two fives and three ones are picked out of the stack and placed on the bar. "Thank you," Hank calls. The bartender nods in reciprocal gratitude.

"So what are you gonna do now, then?" I ask Hank. "Gonna make something else?"

"Probably, I guess. Hey, if you know anyone that needs a bookshelf, I've got a basement full of them and absolutely nowhere to put them."

"I do know a lot of readers," I tell him. "I'll see what I can find."

Hank smiles. "Good luck with the stories."

We wave goodbye. As Hank steps outside, he blows on his hands and rubs the cold from them. His ears go flush red the second the door eases shut. The bartender's watching him, too.

"See those ears?" he says, pointing to Hank. "See how red they got all of the sudden?"

"Yeah?"

"That means someone's thinking about him."

And I sit there at the bar where I don't drink, looking at people that I'll never talk to, imagining furniture I'll never build, and I wonder who you're thinking about.

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