James Toth of Wooden Wand

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James Jackson Toth.

The Blue Quarter Mile: A Story For Boys (excerpt)

Dad fired Charlie for setting a customer’s house on fire with a blowtorch. It was an accident, of course, just one of those freak things, but inexcusable still.

We were laying a flexible particle finish over old linoleum in the large kitchen of a split level home. The three-inch waterproof planks are supposed to stick to each other over an existing floor via a strip of adhesive tape that looks like the kind of cheap magnets you see advertising a local dentist or florist. To cut a plank to fit around tight spots, like door jams or appliances, you simply score it with a utility knife and snap it.

Only today the planks weren’t snapping. The previous morning we’d stacked the long rectangular white boxes on the back of the truck, where the frigid air made the once-malleable boards hard and unyielding. Dad had ordered us to drop the tiles off at the site two days before the job, allowing them to acclimate to the temperature of the room, but we neglected to do so because Charlie said he had a fistfight planned for that afternoon. Charlie said the whole acclimating thing was bullshit, anyway.

Charlie went out to his truck and brought back with him a Clayton Lambert 38A and fired it up in an attempt to defrost the planks.

The fire started with the curtains and spread along the drywall and down to the baseboards until the entire living room was engulfed in flames.

Dad said it was the most reckless thing he’d ever seen, on an installation job or anywhere else.

After my mother ran off to become a Las Vegas waitress shortly after my brother Bo’s fifth birthday, Dad moved the three of us into a shotgun style ranch that lay on the outskirts of a town called Easy Dick, where we dined almost exclusively on chili. “Frontier stew,” Dad called it.

Easy Dick is a small, clover-shaped mudhole whose tip points at the Highland Rim. The town was said to have been christened by a party of Wataugan explorers who found the subtropical climate ‘easy,’ though Dad said it was unlikely those Indians would curse the town with its present full name. Once, a newspaperman did a little dubious research and denounced the Wataugan theory, claiming that the moniker was the doing of Virginian long hunters some time after the Seven Years War. He was summarily lampooned, and holds the distinction of being the only man I’ve ever seen thrown out of a church.

Charlie and a few other charlatans at the bait shop liked to insist that the name dated back even further, to Hernando de Soto in the mid 1500s. Dad said that was impossible, and was nothing but the wishful thinking of the same tale-tellers who’d just as soon have you believe they’ve each, at one time or another, caught – and released – Old Richard Widmark, the legendary forty-five pound catfish that is said to inhabit Lincoln Lake.

Local teenagers took great delight in referring to the town by its unusual full name, but almost everyone else simply abbreviated it to “Easy” in the interest of common decency.

We lived in the sort of neighborhood where a person’s profession could be gleaned by simply peering into the bed of the pickup truck parked outside their house or doublewide trailer. Paint cans, slats, ladders and lawnmower parts were as good an indication as any of what sort of character you were dealing with. Dad was suspicious of new trucks. At the time, he drove a 1993 Ford F150 with a four-inch lift and 33” tires. Dad was loyal to Ford. He said anything less was barbarism.

The tool-battered bed of the truck was littered with flooring equipment – power stretchers, compressors, carpet kickers, nail guns, and saws. One sticker on the back bumper bore the logo of the Eagles football team, the other the logo of the band of the same name. Empty plastic bottles of Cheerwine filled with tobacco spittle lay strewn about the cab. The vehicle carried with it the odor of ashes and SAE 30 motor oil, and appeared to trail behind it a turbid billow of the same wherever it went.

When I turned 13, on the condition that I would quit drinking beer, Dad took me on as part of the crew. Bo came on a year later when he turned 12. I was husky, with small arms and a distinctive waddle, and, like my brother Bo, largely worthless as a laborer. Charlie was the only installer who regarded Bo and I as anything but pests. A self-described “veteran of the trade,” Charlie worked for my father for a record three and a half years. Dad fired Ed Satterfield for suggesting that Bo and I ought to have been in school instead of working as helpers. Willford Long got caught rifling through a customer’s medicine cabinet, and was likewise dismissed. Some other boys Dad hired would just quit showing up. Seemed like nobody stuck around too long, so I tried not to get used to anybody.

When summer was in its death throes and we started getting more work, and he was confident that all of his employees could be trusted, Dad began designating and farming out two-man crews to work separate jobs. This tripled Dad’s profits and allowed him to give everyone a raise to go with their added responsibilities. He paired Salvatore Acosta, a Spanish ex-con, with Pete Sake Sanders, a despotic geriatric who claimed he was able to communicate with the souls of presidential assassins. Dad opted to work with the slower and asthmatic Bo, and he had me work with Charlie.

Charlie wore the same clothes every day – stained black jeans, a torn and faded Bad Company t-shirt, and cork-brown work boots. His eyes were deep and dull and purple-green like nuclear dirt. He wore a bandana, faded in folds by the sun so that it resembled a tie-dye pattern, over his balding head. A diaphanous crimson beard dribbled from his chin. He was the skinniest man I had ever seen.

By then, I had seen enough people on speed to know when someone was tweaking, and Charlie was in a constant state of amphetamine-charged mania. When he wasn’t busying his hands working on something, he’d clap them together as if he believed that to cease moving for a even a second might cause the universe as he knew it to come to a halt.

Our first job together was a small repair on a tile job Pete Sake Sanders had gaffed the week before. Charlie’s ‘87 Chevy S-10, which by all indications was only operational by the grace of mondo and Family Dollar duct tape, smelled worse than Dad’s Ford. He drove with one limp finger on the steering wheel and wore a resigned smirk as he blew Winston smoke out of the corner of his mouth.

“Boy,” he said, “that’s a hell of a name your daddy give you.”

“Metallica was a very popular band in the 90s,” I said, parroting what I’d heard my father say hundreds of times. “People loved Metallica. Besides, everyone calls me Mac.”

“Well,” he said, taking a drag off his Winston, “I’m gonna call you Metallica, because it’s funny to me. Shit like that’s funny to me.”

“That’s OK,” I said.

“Your mama must have been some kind of saint to let a name like that make it onto a damn birth certificate,” he said. “A saint or a maniac.” Then, considering it, he let out a large “hoo!” that sounded like a bad impression of a birdcall.

“I don’t remember her,” I said.

Whenever Charlie and I finished a job together, he’d send me out to the truck to load up any debris and sweep the driveway of staples, nails, and utility blades while he went in and had the customer sign off on the job. One day we were sent on a carpet job at the home of an old woman. We finished in record time.

“Let’s go,” Charlie said. “Nothing out there to sweep today.”

“What about the carpet scraps?” I asked. “And those staples? Let me just get those staples.”

“Fuck ‘em staples. S’go, Metallica.”

“Aren’t you gonna have the customer sign off on the job?” I asked.


That’s when I pieced together that Charlie was attempting to fuck the pretty housewives while I waited in the van. When he didn’t need to have a customer “sign off” on a job, it was because the customer was too old, too fat, or too male. For every ten spurned advances, there were at least a few conquests as far as I could tell. Later I revealed this to Bo, and so began our habit of talking about movie actresses in terms of getting them to sign off on our jobs.

* * * * * * * * *

It was an ordinary Thursday morning when Charlie took me hostage. We began the day like any other, convening at dawn at the decrepit old warehouse. Dad handed everyone their paperwork for the day and Pete Sake Sanders operated the forklift, heaving huge rolls of carpet from the tall metal shelf. We all six worked together laying out the carpet for each job, cutting each to size, and then rolling them back up to be loaded onto the trailers. Dad let me write the identifying numbers on the coarse underflaps of the rolls after they were measured. Holding the black felt tip marker, I felt vital to the organization. Once the trucks were loaded, the teams split up to begin their installation jobs for the day.

“We an’t doing any carpet job today, Metallica,” Charlie said before putting the truck into gear. His fig-colored eyes were suddenly drunk with mischief.

“Where are we going?” I asked, trying not to sound nervous.

“Drag boat race,” he said. “I got a buddy Lee s’gonna run his blown fuel hyrdo at Lincoln Lake.”

I looked straight ahead and silently sipped my Cheerwine, hoping we’d be back by suppertime.