Thursday, October 30, 2008

How Jack Got Where He is Today (An Exercise)

I'm not really sure how to begin, having never done this before. I've always just sort of kept to myself. That's the best thing to do in my line of work. Keep to yourself. I'm a factory man, you see, and folks rarely ask us our opinion, unless it has to do with the machine we use to do our jobs. And folks never ask us to tell our stories.

I been working over at United FerretWorks for about fifteen years now. It's steady work, even if it's a little loud out there on the floor. You wouldn't think it'd be loud in a place that makes little ferret harnesses, but the staging area is fulla ferrets. It can be deafening out there sometimes, 'specially on Tuesdays when they bring in the ferretnip. The little guys go crazy for that stuff.

My name is Jack Verago, and I wasn't always a factory man.

I started out like most people of my era, I suppose, as an infant. I was born in a shack on the top of US Bank Tower in California. My father was a Belgian chef who operated a waffle cart on busy streets in town, and my mother was an Iowan farmer who had to commute every day to Iowa to farm. One day, my father took me upon his knee and told me something that I didn't quite understand:

"Yuer'll hehfta meurk a leurrving deuing a-seumthin' whet meuks yoo s'mooney, my son," he said in his thick Belgian accent. Of course, like I said, I didn't understand him at the time. I didn't understand a lot of the things my father told me, because of his accent.

But we were poor, and I didn't have time to decipher my father's words. I had to find a job. The family needed money, and my little sister, Cholera, kept dying. As you can imagine, that put a lot of strain on a family with no health insurance.

So, on Wednesday, I kissed my mother on the cheek and told her not to worry.

"I'm your mother! I will always worry about you when you're not directly in my sight," she said tearfully. "Take this. Your father and I are very proud of you, Jack. Please don't forget where you are from and who you are." She handed me a fanny pack full of homemade Twinkies and buried her face in her hands.

"Hehve a whurffle!" My father handed me a waffle. I tucked it into the brim of my hat, hugged both parents goodbye, and began walking east.

I was only six years old.

I think I spent that first night up a tree. I was only six, you know, and at that age, the world can seem pretty big and scary in the dark. I remember thinking that if the Boogie Man showed up, first he'd get all tired out climbing the tree, and then get distracted by squirrels. That would leave me time to run away.

The next night, I was a little braver, so I slept in a bush. Those of you who have never had to sleep in a bush won't believe it, but they can be extremely comfortable. Except for the shrews. You sometimes have to put up with a whole pack of really annoying shrews. They ate most of my father's waffle during the wee hours, which saddened me greatly.

After a week or so of walking during the day and spending my nights in doorways, abandoned cars, tire swings, on top of flagpoles, chimneys, and once in a five-star hotel someone left unlocked, I got my first job.

"Hey, kid!"

The voice sounded like it had to fight its way through a rusty bucket filled with broken glass, and I turned to see a motheaten old man with twigs and sparrows in his beard and one of those hobo hats on his head. You know those kinda hats? The ones that look like a soup can with the lid halfway off? He was actually wearing one of those.

"Sir?" I had been taught to be polite.

"Sir, nothin!" said the gaunt figure, ambling my way with evident good cheer. "Call me Chester, 'cuz that's my name. You want a job?"

"Yes! Yes, I do!"

"Hot diggity damn!" the old man hooted, snapping his suspenders. "Come this way, young'un."

Chester led me across the weedy lot he called home to a barrel full of empty soda cans. He leaned down and said, in a conspiratorial whisper, "The Devil be in one of these cans, my boy, and I need you to find him. You just holler at me when you do, and I'll come a-runnin'!"

I didn't know what to look for, having never seen the Devil before, but as Chester snoozed in a sun-bleached wooden rocking chair a few yards off, I began my search. I mean, I just picked up each can and shook it, and if nothing rattled, I set it aside. I got through about half when one of them rattled. The little opener tab was gone, and I could see it inside the can if I tilted it toward the sun. I supposed this was as good an excuse as any to wake Chester. I poked the sleeping old man in the shoulder and he awoke with a jerk that sent a cloud of startled sparrows fluttering from his beard.

"Aaargh! Didja find the Devil, m'boy?" he crowed.

I knew it was wrong to lie, but my family really needed the money. I almost didn't do it. I almost told Chester that it was just the tab rattling around in there, but then I thought of poor little Cholera
, and I found the strength. She had already died three times this year alone.

"Yes, Chester. I did," I said, making my voice tremble slightly, holding the can at arm's length. "He's definitely in this one."

"Well, fer pie's sake, son! Don't hold onto it! Drop the accursed thing, and let's have at him! Hand me that stick!"

Chester used the stick to fish out the tab. He held it up to the sky, the bright midday sunlight glinting off the metal. "Ah HA! Thought you could elude me, did you? Foul serpent! Horrid source of a billion itches! May the fiery yellow gaze of the Lord toast you most righteously!" He cackled, and then threw the tab on the ground and stomped on it.

"That's got 'im! Good work, boy. Here's a nickel."

My first wage! I gushed my thanks to Chester and ran all the way to the nearest UPS Store and shipped my money back to my parents. It cost me three dollars to ship, which, now that I look back, seems pretty stupid.

I think I worked for that old man for three years, hunting the Devil. Most of the times, he hid in pop cans, but every now and then the Dark One saw fit to conceal himself in empty cans of spray paint and old mufflers. Once, Chester said he was in a dog, and that's why the dog bit him. That was a lie, of course. Chester smelled like bacon, and that's why dogs bit him. I didn't say anything, though, because he was paying me pretty well by that time.

"Ya done good, Jack!" Chester said, clapping me on the back. "We done God's work these last few years, but I s'pose it's time for you to move on. I want you to have this."

It was a little cross made out of bent paperclips on a loop of dental floss. As you can see, I wear it to this day. I like to think Chester would be proud of me for keeping his memory alive, and the Devil at bay. You know? I still can't look at a pop can without thinking that the Devil might
just be in there.

Well, about that time, I got some bad news from home. A severe pecan drought was taking its toll on my father's waffle business. He could introduce all the new shapes he could dream up, but people just weren't buying them without the delicious pecans.

With my additional income, Cholera had was able to get the dental work she desperately needed, but now her legs were falling off twice weekly, which was even more expensive. The burden of supporting the family was again placed on my shoulders. It was heavy, yes, but I was a strapping young lad. It was mostly the awkward shape that made it hard to carry. You know how those things are. I once knew a girl like that.

I took my savings and bought myself a skateboard, a bucket of sponges shaped like duckies, a silver-tipped cane, and set off for the Big City... be continued!