by Debra A. Daniel
WATCHING HOWARD WAS our job, and it took both of us, my best friend Noodle and me. That was what the boss hired us for at the new Pepsi plant the semester we couldn’t pay tuition. We needed money fast. We needed our asses back in school, or we’d lose our deferments and find ourselves smack damn in the middle of Vietnam.
Not the place for us long-haired guitar-playing hippies. We believed in beer and John Lennon, in pot and peace. Definitely not jungle rot and napalm. Hell, no, we were raging against the war every way we could. We strummed our guitars at sit-ins and sang Dylan until the cops tear-gassed us out. Noodle and I knew it was vital to stay in school. A real life or death situation.
Since the lottery started, lots of our buddies had been drafted or had disappeared into Canada. Noodle said he’d take off, too, if his number were called. In his bedroom he kept a jar of Run Money. I wasn’t sure what I’d do if my number came up, but there wasn’t much chance of that happening. I had a much better number than Noodle’s. I wasn’t as scared as he was. Sometimes, I’d stuff a couple of bucks into his jar to show I was looking out for him.
The surest thing for both of us though was to stay in school. That’s why we were at the Pepsi plant. The regular crew, made up mostly of men our fathers’ ages, had fought in famous battles we’d studied in history classes. Flag-wavers, that’s what they were. They believed in the war. All they had to do was look at us to know that we didn’t. We got hired anyway. The foreman needed somebody with quick eyes and quick reflexes whose only job was watching Howard. Simple. Complex.
Howard, the main welder, saw the world through a little slit in his safety visor’s thick glass. Blurry. Confined. No peripheral vision. It seemed to me that the visor meant to protect him put him in more danger than if he’d been bare-eyed. That’s why he needed us.
When the foreman first took Noodle and me to meet Howard, I expected a grizzled old man, but Howard was young. About our age. In fact, I’d actually seen him hanging around a waitress at Doc’s Bar where we played pool and met to jam. You couldn’t not see him. Not with that hair of his. The curliest and orangest I’d ever seen. Almost like it was on fire. Howard always sat with his shoulders hunched. Lanky. Pale. He smiled without opening his lips.
‘Hey, man, thanks for watching me. I need good watchers,’ he said, taking off his work gloves to shake hands. ‘The last guy got me burned bad.’
Howard pulled up his shirtsleeve to show us a bandage on his arm. ‘I had to lay out a week because of this. I can’t afford to be out of work, boys.’
The foreman grimaced and huffed out a big cigar-smelling breath. ‘Nobody else can either. Howard’s critical. Welding’s critical. Nothing happens till the welding’s done, and if it ain’t done right, nothing will stand up,’ he said. ‘So you boys do whatever the hell Howard says and everyone will be fine.’
When the foreman left, Howard motioned for us to follow him. He walked far enough away so the old guys couldn’t hear. He lit a cigarette, inhaled long and slow before he talked. ‘First off, keep your mouths shut. It don’t take a genius to see you ain’t like us,’ he said. He looked around at the old guys. ‘Spouting off around here ain’t healthy. I hope you college boys smart enough to keep quiet.’
Noodle and I looked at each other. We didn’t like keeping our mouths shut about peace and politics, but we needed money for school. Noodle looked at Howard and nodded. ‘We get it, man,’ he said.
Howard flicked his ashes. He looked back to where men hammered nails and tightened screws. Then he said, ‘Just watch me. Watch me every second. If one of you blinks, the other one better be watching,’ he said, staring straight into my eyes and then into Noodle’s like a death-vision robot from some science fiction movie.
‘You take care of me. I’ll take care of you. Watch me, but when I’m welding, don’t watch the arc of the torch. It’s like you’ve got to watch me but not watch me.’ Howard frowned. He puffed on his cigarette, blew a ring of smoke. Then he said, ‘Watching the welder’s arc will hurt your eyes. Then you can’t do your job. The hardest part is keeping your eyes on what’s important. And what’s important to you, to the both of you, is me.’
It didn’t take long to figure out what he meant and why we had to watch him. Howard’s torch emitted sparks. Mostly, the sparks didn’t cause problems. They burned out in midair, but sometimes a spark would land on his clothes, which could catch him on fire. Howard, seeing only his little rectangle, wouldn’t know until, maybe, it was too late and he’d be burning.
So Noodle and I took turns watching either Howard’s front or his back. Then we’d switch. Front. Back. Back. Front. If he started to smoke or if he caught fire, we’d wave our arms, point, yell, ‘Howard, left shoulder. Right thigh. Howard, chest.’
Usually Howard would slap himself out danger with his thick padded gloves. If he couldn’t reach the spot, we’d jump in and pat him down. The site was noisy. We had to yell so he’d hear us. We worried constantly that if he didn’t hear us, if things went really bad, then we’d have to tackle him, throw a safety blanket over him, and snuff him out with our own bodies. Like he was a grenade or something.
We’d heard about a welder who’d gotten a spark inside his overalls. By the time the flame was out, he had a grapefruit-sized burn. Third degree. We didn’t want to be cause of Howard’s pain. We worried. We watched.
Every night after work, Howard would head off to Doc’s to play pool and hang around his waitress girlfriend, but Noodle and I were exhausted, muscles aching from tension, eyes so dried out from staring it felt like they’d been nailed with red hot rivets. Even though Howard had warned us over and over not to watch the arc, it was impossible not to. We felt like the arc of the welder had seared straight through our eyes all the way to the backs of our skulls and branded us with some kind of Howard-shaped mark.
The only thing Noodle and I wanted to do was close our eyes. We’d head home, fall on the sofa, pop a beer, turn on the TV to hear the war news, bear witness to the death.
One night Noodle said, ‘Man, the news is like that damn torch. I don’t want look, but I’m watching it every damn night. It’s blinding me, man. This damn war. There’s no way in hell, I’m ever fighting in a war we shouldn’t even be in.’
Every night, with each body count, Noodle became edgier. He paced and cursed. He couldn’t mellow out, not with beer or pot or girls. Not even with music. I’d sit on the couch, arms around my guitar, playing Lennon and Dylan while Noodle fumed. Several times I found him counting his Run Money. One night, the news reported bombing in Cambodia. Ten times worse than usual. Intense. Horrifying. Noodle swore and threw his beer can at the television.
‘Let’s get a drink at Doc’s,’ I said, thinking it would calm him down. ‘It’s jam night. I got a new song worked out. It’ll get your mind off the war.’
‘Our minds should be on the war,’ he said. He was yelling and hot-faced, almost crying. ‘It’s crucial we keep our eyes on the war. There’s a damn good chance that if we don’t keep our eyes on that war, we’ll die in it.’
‘Then we’ll go to Doc’s and talk about the war.’ I hoped, maybe, once he got there, he’d play some music, relax a little. When we walked in, I saw Howard in the first booth, shoulders hunched, alone. I started to walk by, but he looked up and motioned us over.
As we got closer, I noticed his eyes were bleary but not from beer.
Noodle said, ‘You look like shit.’
‘My number’s up.’
Noodle sat down. ‘I guess you don’t think this war is so great now.’
Howard shook his head. ‘I never did, man. I’ve just learned to keep my mouth shut,’ he said. ‘I’m not a college boy like you guys, but I’m not stupid. We’re more alike than you know.’
For a while, we sat with him but he stayed silent. Finally, I got up. ‘Man, I’m sorry about your number. Wish there was something we could do.’
Noodle didn’t budge so I walked away, leaving the two of them wordless and still.
Next time I looked, the booth was empty. It was late when I got home, but Noodle was sitting on the couch counting his Run Money, lining it in neat stacks.
‘Damn, Noodle, you’re giving that to Howard, aren’t you?’ I said.
‘I tried to. He wouldn’t take it,’ Noodle said. He closed his eyes, rested his head on the back of the couch. ‘He said he couldn’t live with himself if he took somebody else’s way out. He’s heading off to Canada on his own. Right this minute he’s disappearing.’
Noodle crammed the money back into the jar. Then he stood up, walked across the room, reached for his guitar. I got mine. We played chord progressions that felt right, sang words we believed in. We started with Lennon. Then Dylan. Finding harmony. Sharing the lead.
Debra A. Daniel, author of two novellas-in-flash, A Family of Great Falls and The Roster (Adhocfiction.com), Woman Commits Suicide in Dishwasher, (Muddy Ford Press), and two poetry chapbooks, has been shortlisted for Smokelong Quarterly’s Mikey Award, Five South Flash Awards, Bath Novella-in-Flash and others. Awards/publications include: Guy Owen Prize. Bath Flash Fiction, The Los Angeles Review, Bacopa, Chautauqua, Los Angeles Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Kakalak, Emrys, Inkwell, Southern Poetry Review.