Whimper: A Story by Joanna Scott
From the Final Issue of Black Clock
It’s huge, Dan, huge!
Did you say huge, Harry?
I said huge, Dan!
Did you say Hickey’s Used Car Barn, Harry?
That’s what I was going to say, Dan, you beat me to it. Did you say Hickey’s is having a sale, Harry?
Sal Formosa’s old van rang out with an asthmatic backfire as he climbed Cider Mill Lane: Bang! He was heading to his final job of the day and what would be his fifth visit to the new Dunkirk development. In recent months, Dunkirk homeowners were discovering that the construction company had cut every corner possible. Pipes were leaking, weak foundations were already cracking, basements were flooding because of inadequate grading, and light fixtures—Sal’s specialty—were falling out of ceilings. Sal was so familiar with the type of lights installed at Dunkirk that he had loaded up on a supply of the appropriate replacement sockets. The work would take twenty minutes at most, and he would be home before five.
At the bottom of the driveway, a cast iron jockey stood holding a lantern. He was of the vintage Jocko style, with a red vest and white pants, his original black face painted over in white. The driveway curved past the figure and between the halves of the groomed lawn to the attached garage, where Sal was glad to find extra room for parking. In preparation for an easy exit, he made a K turn and left his van with the front bumper pointing downhill.
The house was an updated Georgian model, with a brick walkway that passed a side door before continuing on to the front door. It always confounded Sal when there were two doors from which to choose. At some houses, a side entrance with its own mud room was clearly the preferred option for repairmen. At others, like this Dunkirk residence, two doors sharing a walkway were equally inviting. But maybe the side door was used as the primary entrance because it was closer to the driveway. How could Sal know?
It was his good luck that he didn’t have to make a decision, for the homeowner appeared from behind the garage, a dripping garden hose in hand. “Hey, are you my savior?” he called, throwing the hose aside and approaching. “A new day, a new problem. You must be the electrician. Welcome to Dunkirk—Repairadise, we call it. Let me tell you, man, we were taken. Taken! Can you guess what this monster cost?”
The question made Sal uneasy, especially coming from a stranger. It was like being asked to guess someone’s age. “Houses round here… I’d wager they start in the low 400s.” “Start, sure, not counting the add-ons, like floors, walls, a furnace. We’re stuck with a lemon. Nothing works, everything is falling apart. Last week, the roof was leaking. Yesterday the plumber was here to fix the disposal. And now you…but I’m keeping you waiting, you got a job to do, you probably want to get home to your wife. Come on in.”
huge, Dan, never before in the time of history has there been a sale this huge! Um, Harry—
Not just big, Dan—
I think you got it backwards.
Not even ginormous. It’s—
I know, Dan, I know, and I want our listeners to know how huge, really huge— Harry, I think you mean in the history of time rather than in the time of history, not that it matters but
Sal usually could predict from the look of a house how he would be treated by the owners. From the oversized hydrangeas that shone like plastic to the vinyl facade, he would have expected to be met by the brittle executive type, male or female, who called for a repair and then treated Sal with impatience, even vague disgust, as though the problem had originated with him. The owner of 37 Cider Mill Lane, in contrast, was welcoming; his friendly candor put Sal at ease as he led the way up the walk to the front door. There was even something faintly familiar about the man. Sal had a good feeling about him, as if they’d met long ago, in another context.
“Henry McCarter,” the man said, extending his hand.
“Sal Formosa.” Sal awkwardly bumped his belt pack against the entranceway as Henry led him inside. He straightened the buckle and then bent down, preparing to untie his boots.
“Go ahead and keep them on, Sal,” Henry said, adding, “we’re not clean freaks around here.”
With a glance, Sal thought the house did indeed look exceptionally clean, with sparkling wood floors, milk-white walls, and a gleaming mirror above the mantle. The two- story foyer extended into an expansive family room with panel screen doors that opened to the deck and a huge backyard. A teenage girl was sunken into the leather couch, watching a movie on her iPad. On the floor, a younger boy was building an unidentifiable structure with Legos.
“There’s the culprit,” Henry said, pointing up at the chandelier. It was of a modern ebony wood variety, with linen shades and brushed nickel accents. Sal estimated the drop at fifty inches, plus the extra length added where the fixture had come loose, ripping the wires.
“That’s unfortunate,” Sal said.
“I’m meeting with my lawyer. We’re gonna go after the contractors, I tell you. And we’re not the only unhappy owners around here.”
“We get a lot of complaints from this development.”
“The question is, can you fix it?”
“I’ve fixed plenty worse.”
“Sal, you are my savior. Hey, you thirsty, you want a beer or something? Are you
allowed to have a beer when you’re on a job? I mean, it’s almost the end of the day. How about a beer?”
“Sure, that would be welcome when I’m done. I just gotta carry in my ladder, and I’ll get going.”
but what, Dan? What matters is that it’s happening now, and it’s the biggest sale of the summer! Did I say biggest! No, I said huge, and you are hearing about it for the first time on WHIZ 102.2. So come on down to Hickey’s in Websterville and tell them you heard about the sale straight from Harry the Whiz. Now let’s ask our eye in the sky for an updated weather report. Dan, what’s it doing out there?
I’m looking out the window. The skies are clear and the sun is shining. Back to you, Harry.
Great news, listeners, it’s sunny in Websterville. Time is 8:15, and you know what happens at 8:15, Dan!
Story time, Harry.
That’s right, Dan. Are you ready for
The girl complained that she was hungry, her brother told her to shut up, she kicked at his Legos, crumbling a portion, the boy bit her on the ankle, the girl howled, and Henry threatened to murder them both by vivisection if they didn’t behave.
“Dad, you’re gross!” The girl punched the sofa.
“What’s vivisection?” the boy asked.
Henry ignored them. “You got kids?” he called up to Sal.
Sal’s wrench slipped out of his hand, luckily landing on the ladder’s top rung. He made a grunting sound that Henry mistook as affirmative.
“Then you know what it’s like. I mean, what do you say to universal free boarding school for children ages six to eighteen! They try our patience, don’t they, Sal? They think they own the world.”
“Dad.” The girl beat up the cushion again, this time with the top of her head.
“How does your wife handle it? I bet she is a sweetheart, you must have a nice family, real polite, waiting for you at home, Sal. Not like my family. My wife’s the main breadwinner. I’m a kept man, I’ll say it, I’m not ashamed. The missus is a dermatologist, she makes a good living shooting up housewives with Botox. We have Botox to thank for 37 Cider Mill Lane. Does you wife do Botox, Sal? I bet she’s got natural good looks. A man like you wouldn’t settle for anything less.”
It became apparent only gradually to Sal, as he struggled at the top of the ladder to keep his balance, huffing from the effort, his fingers deep inside the chandelier’s junction box, that the man named Henry had leaped to assumptions about Sal’s personal life that now would be difficult to correct. It was true that Sal had had a wife once; he’d even had a son. But his wife had moved to Arizona twenty years ago and taken the boy with her. Sal used to see the boy once a year, then once every few years, and then not at all, and so wasn’t able to say goodbye when the boy, after joining the Marines, was shipped to Kabul where he was killed eight months later in an IED attack. None of this could be communicated by Sal from the top of a ladder, so he decided to keep his mouth shut. While he reattached the wire to the socket and bolted the bracket into the ceiling, he let Henry rattle on about family life. By the time Sal climbed back down the ladder, the rung locks squeaking from his weight, he found himself caught in such a thick web of presumption that there was nothing to do but play along.
a doozy, Dan?
I’m ready, Harry.
Ok, Dan, it begins like this. Me and my wife, we decide to upgrade, you see, and we’re looking around for a new house, something flashy—
Nothing less than a cardboard McMansion for Harry the Whiz.
Rub it in, Dan, go ahead. So we hear about the new development at Dunkirk. Maybe they shouldn’t have called it after a battlefield, Harry.
Maybe they shouldn’t have built it in the first place, Dan. Anyway, like I was saying
Sal was not normally a liar. He viewed lying in the same realm as acting, and he was not inclined to do it without training. That said, he envied actors their ability to hide inside their pretend selves. He’d had a brief experience in theater as an adolescent when he was cast as a photographer in a high school production of Anything Goes. He had enjoyed the whole experience and especially loved popping out to the front of the stage and making the flash go off on his camera. But it was clear he didn’t have the looks for a future in theater; instead he spent his later years in school working on the stage crew. That was how he got interested in wiring, though he had never lost his love of theater. Currently, he served as the volunteer electrician for the Websterville Community Theater Group. He was in the audience for every show, available in case something went wrong.
Sitting at the granite island in Henry’s kitchen in Dunkirk, promised beer in hand, Sal was forced to improvise. There was no gracious way to explain that he had been misheard when asked about his life. Instead he had to think up names for his three daughters (Sheri, Lucy, and Stacey) and give his wife, whom he called Kim, her hair color (strawberry blonde). He had to come up with an excuse for not carrying photographs of his family (his wallet had been stolen—the current one was a recent replacement). As Henry opened two more beers, Sal was in the midst of inventing particular talents for his children (Sheri played volleyball, Lucy was great with computers, Stacey was taking figure-skating lessons).
With his dormant creativity tapped, Sal found that making up a family for himself was more fun than he’d expected. He told Henry that Sheri was a fearsome creature when she lost in a volleyball tournament—“I can see the steam coming out of her ears!” Sal announced. “She’s like, there’s no worse tragedy than losing. But I can always cheer her up by taking her for vanilla-chocolate-swirl soft serve. Cheers me up, too. Nothing like vanilla-chocolate-swirl soft serve.”
“How come we never go for soft serve, Dad?” Henry’s daughter called from the family room.
“You’re making me look bad, Sal,” said Henry cheerfully.
The two men went on talking. Sal couldn’t remember another experience in his twenty years of service when a customer had treated him completely as an equal. Henry appeared truly interested in Sal and ready to claim him as a friend. He wanted to compare their experiences as fathers and hear all about the wife named Kim. Growing ever more comfortable with Sal, Henry admitted that he was a city man at heart; he had moved to the suburbs for the schools, but one day he hoped to live in a downtown loft overlooking the river. Sal said his own dream was to have a cabin in the Adirondacks—a rustic cabin lit with kerosene lamps, he said, so he wouldn’t be inclined to tinker with any wiring.
Sal felt good just wiling away what was left of the day, drinking, talking, pretending to be someone he wasn’t. Usually he ended work with a quick trip to the prepared foods department of his local grocery store. He was grateful for this variation in his routine. He felt invigorated by the freedom to make up a life for himself. He was like a man who had been too preoccupied to eat and suddenly was made aware of his hunger upon seeing his favorite foods laid on the table before him. He was ravenous—physically, yes, and emotionally as well. He had been working hard all his life. It made sense, then, that after Henry’s wife, the dermatologist, came home from work and invited Sal to stay for dinner, he gladly accepted.
there’s this guy comes over to my house. Who’s the guy, Harry?
This guy, he comes over to fix the new chandelier. Of course the chandelier is broken because it was installed by Dunkirk.
The guy you’re talking about, he’s an electric guy?
Yeah, I got a light falling out of the ceiling cause the builders didn’t install it right. So I pick up the phone and call a repair company. He’s the one they send, and he comes in, and the next thing I know he’s got the light fixed up, and he sees me drinking a beer. He looks at the beer like he wants one. So I offer him one. And he says yes.
Uh-oh, I think I see what’s coming. The guy says yes to a beer. He says yes.
So you give him one.
I give him one, and
Although at first Sal believed that Henry’s admiration was real, he felt a gradual change in the mood during dinner with the McCarters. He couldn’t identify any particular comment or gesture that put him on edge, but he began to fear that the whole artificial apparatus of his fictional life was suddenly visible to his audience. Was there a slight snarl to the smile that Henry’s wife flashed at him? Were the children snickering? Was there something a little excessive in Henry’s curiosity about Sal’s home life? Sal did his best to pretend to be a family man, but he kept worrying that he had been exposed as a bald-faced liar.
The McCarters had whipped up a fine dinner: Dr. McCarter reheated a potato casserole she’d made the previous day, and Henry threw a big T-bone on the grill, bringing it to pink perfection. Sal should have had nothing to complain about. Still, his nervousness grew as his stomach was filled. He had a sore back molar and had to chew his meat with the left side of his mouth; bloody juice kept dribbling out the corner of his lips. When he blotted himself with the napkin, a pin-sized bit of paper stuck to his chin. He felt it there and rubbed it away with the back of his hand. The paper fell onto his piece of meat. Not knowing what else to do, he deliberately cut a forkful of steak and ate it, along with the bit of napkin. The boy giggled. The girl suddenly announced that she had to run to the store for something. The parents exchanged an inscrutable look as their daughter grabbed the car keys off the counter and left the room. Sal heard the garage door opening. He could feel a tension rash sprouting on his cheeks. He could smell his own stink from a long day’s work. He wondered if his awkwardness had more to do with money than the lies he had spun. Wasn’t there an old saying about how the twain of rich and poor weren’t meant to mingle? He wished he’d been better educated. Yet the McCarters were being generous, including him in their family dinner. If there was a source of scorn, he was it. The invented Sal was ashamed of the real Sal, he’d come to realize by the time Dr. McCarter was clearing the plates. Sal Formasa hadn’t been playing a harmless little game of pretend. He had been playing a game of hide and seek, and he had been found—by himself. He might as well have been gazing in a mirror and seen in his reflection a man defined by his loneliness.
He felt wretched, but only momentarily. Just as he was concluding that there was nothing left to do but fess up and admit he had no family of his own, the McCarters’ teenage daughter returned. Having used her own money at the Dairy Queen, she surprised their guest with a bucketful of vanilla-chocolate-swirl soft serve.
and he drinks your beer, Harry?
He drinks it, Dan. This guy, he’s got a family of his own at home, a wife and kids,
and it’s after five, and he’s just hanging out drinking my beer. He keeps talking. He tells me all about his kids, his wife. I make a point of looking at the clock, but he won’t take the hint. He gets to talking about going to volleyball games to watch his daughter play. What do I care about volleyball? Then my wife comes home, she sees this stranger sitting in our kitchen drinking a beer, she waits for him to leave, but he won’t leave, so what do you think she does?
Oh no, Harry. She doesn’t.
Oh yes, Dan. She does. She invites the jerk to
Sal felt triumphant by the end of dinner. He was considered worthy of a trip to the Dairy Queen! The lies he’d told were incidental. Of course, when Henry prepared to write a check to pay for the repair of the light fixture, Sal refused to produce a bill, saying that he couldn’t accept money from friends. There was good will all around, especially when the McCarters were showing Sal to the door.
“This has been real special for me, thank you,” Sal said.
Dr. McCarter took her husband by the hand. “Harry, you have to tell your listeners about Sal.”
“Listeners?” Sal asked, though his mind was working fast. He was on the verge of guessing Henry’s identity when Henry announced,
“I have a little radio show, man.”
“Not so little,” corrected his wife. “Sal, meet Harry the Whiz.”
“Sweetheart, you can’t just assume Sal knows my show.”
“Sure, I know it. I listen to you every day on the way to work!”
“Then maybe you noticed I’m one of those guys with a motor mouth. And I always like to give a boost to local talent. You can count on me to recommend your services on air, Sal.”
So Henry McCarter was Harry the Whiz, the locally famous talk show host on Sal’s favorite station. Sal might as well have discovered that he’d been dining with a king!
Dinner? No way, Harry.
Dinner, Dan, he stays for dinner. He’s there telling us about his wife and kids, and how much his daughter loves soft serve, he’s telling us he gets his daughter soft serve when she loses in
As he drove away, Sal reflected on the evening. The McCarters had treated him as an honored guest. They had wined and dined him as they would have a true dignitary. They had expressed sincere interest in his life. When the wife had made a comment about upcoming state legislation, hinting that she was anti-union, Henry had come to the defense of plumbers and electricians and mechanics, insisting that they were just as important as doctors. He’d gone so far as to compare electricians to neurosurgeons. “I can’t imagine all you guys need to know in order to work with live wires.”
By the time Sal arrived at his solitary house in Valentine, a suburb further out, he was nothing less than joyful—a feeling that lasted all through the night, infusing his dreams, and into the morning, as he headed out to his first job and tuned the van’s radio to 102.2.
volleyball. It’s five o’clock, then six, then seven, and he’s still there in the house, Dan. He’s still talking. It’s like, it’s dark outside, and he’s never going to leave.
You’re telling me he just came to fix the light, and he’s still
Sal listened for a few minutes. Driving along the country road that would take him to the highway and into the suburbs, he passed a herd of deer standing in a meadow. A hawk circled overhead. A series of dump trucks sped downhill in the opposite direction, heading toward the construction site of a new development. Sal found his aching molar with the tip of his tongue. He couldn’t tell whether it was his glasses or the windshield that became foggy. He raised his hand, his plump fingers hovering close to the dashboard. He kept his left hand lightly balanced on the steering wheel. His mind wandered, though not far. He reviewed the events of the previous evening and tried to come up with a new interpretation, but his thoughts kept circling unproductively around arbitrary memories from the previous day: the dripping garden hose, the clatter of the wrench, the taste of the soft serve. He glanced down at the radio.
Chugging uphill, his van let out a loud backfire, startling the deer, who looked up from the grass. Sal did not flinch and instead thought about how everyone has the freedom to make choices. No matter how unimportant you are, if you are a voting citizen in a democracy you
there, and it’s dark, and you’re thinking, this is friggin weird, Harry.
The whole dinner, Dan. He stays for the salad, the steak, the potato casserole, he can’t stop eating. My daughter, she’s a real jokester, she goes out and gets soft serve and brings it back in a bucket. The guy loves soft serve.
So he eats it.
He eats it. This guy, he really
can choose between doing your job or neglecting it. You can choose between being a friend or a bully. You can choose between going forward or turning around and going home. When you’re young you can choose to enlist in the marines or to become an electrician. If you’re an electrician, you can join the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, though you don’t have to if you don’t want to, you
can pack it away, and he hasn’t been working out in the gym, I doubt he’s ever set foot in a gym.
Are you saying he’s fat, Harry?
That’s what I’m telling you, Dan, I mean, you
don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, not even exist another day. Existence is not an uncontestable obligation. You can veer into the path of an oncoming dump truck, or you can stay in your own lane, the same way that you can let electrons keep flowing through a wire loop or stop them merely by flipping a breaker, just
got to realize, this guy isn’t merely big, Dan, he is
like you can choose between stopping the thoughts looping through your brain or, with your finger an inch away from the buttons for the radio, stopping the voices reverberating across the airwaves, though maybe not all at once, maybe turning down the volume gradually just so you know you’re the one in control, you’re the one doing the choosing by reducing the noise until all you can hear, before you hear nothing at all, is a pathetic whimper as you reach the final rise and your old van lets out one last, satisfying bang!
Were you going to say huge, Harry?
You got it, Dan, I was going to say