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"Tile Guy," short story excerpt

Sunday 3/19/23

I work with a tile guy whose hands are always shaking. His name is Ted, which is unfortunate, because I know he's thought about someday having his own business and calling himself Ted the Tile Guy.

That’s how guys tend to do it. They’re big into names and slogans. I knew this flooring guy who said he was going to have his company slogan be, “Wake up with wood.” I said to him that it sounded as if he and his crew would be sneaking into a house early, before anyone was up, which was creepy, like this surprise, “Boom! Gotcha!” approach to flooring that frightened groggy people in bathrobes as they came downstairs, but he didn’t even blink. He just really liked saying “Wake up with wood,” and probably imagining the words stenciled on the side of his van and looking bitching on company T-shirts.

Sometimes I'll see Ted trying to kick a last tile into place because his hands are so bad. I suspect if I wasn’t there he’d take his boot off so he could use a toe for better precision. He doesn't have anything in his life, so he drinks. If you promised me a million dollars if I guessed his age correctly within two years, I don't think I could do it. He might be twenty-eight, but in that way when you see a photograph of Southern soldiers in the Civil War and they've been starved out and you think it's impossible that not that long ago they were kids. But he also could be forty-four.

Guys at the job listen to the radio and podcasts. It's usually the latter now. The thing about a podcast is people who aren't smart, who want to be smart, and, more than that, be looked at as smart, believe it helps them achieve these goals when others know they're a podcast guy. It’s sophisticated. Not everyone could listen to a podcast, people think, taking no notice of the fact that everyone pretty much does.

Often it's me and Ted on the jobs alone. The different stages of jobs. We might work together on stage two, then the cabinet guy comes in, then it's Ted once more for stage four, which sounds like a cancer thing, but it's a construction thing. A lot of it has to do with availability. Every guy works for different people, some more, some less, and one job dictates where someone will be for the better part of a week, and typically not where you need them to be on the day you need them most. Jobs get done in tiers, which is really where the stress comes in. You’re not present in a single time and place.

But even a job at some rich person's house—the kind of people where the wife is okay with me using her bathroom, but you can tell struggles with regret when Ted does on account that he’s not the boss—parallels parts of human existence at the bone, which isn’t a wake up with wood thing.

For example, people come in and out of your life. You think, "Oh, damn, it's that guy," when you recognize that person again, or, "What was the chance of running into her there?" Some of the people you see the most amount of times you probably don't even know and you don’t even know you’re seeing them each time you do. Makes you think about what anyone really notices and how much they must miss.

But I don't miss anything with Ted, because I lack for tile guys and we're regularly four feet away and I may think about Ted more than anyone else does, perhaps including Ted. Some days he smells like booze, some days he doesn't. His hands always shake, though. I’m not sure if he knows I notice. But I bet he has a reason ready to go if I asked.

Someone who is not me picks whatever we’re going to listen to as we work. It’s never the boss’s call is how I do it. Ted picks Joe Rogan's podcast. A lot of my work day is spent listening to an idiot that other idiots think is highly intelligent. I got a buddy who is much smarter than me. He writes things. Books, articles. He said to me a while ago that he'd be better off right now if he wrote and spoke and thought the way he did when he was in sixth grade. That the things he would have said then, which he adds were stupid and childish, would be thought of as clever and deep right now.

I was telling him about Ted when we were talking on the phone, and at the end he just said, "Okay." Not dismissively. But understandingly. He said what he needed to say to convey that he’d gotten what I was trying to get him to get. And like he didn't want to give it more words than was necessary.

Rogan says dumb things but with this self-satisfied tone like he's Socrates, who I think wouldn't sound like he was trying to stroke himself with his words, which is how Rogan talks. Ted's hands will actually shake less than they were shaking when Rogan really gets going. He nods his head as he’s crouched down on one of his knees. Like he gets it. He really gets it.

Plus: He could maybe be Joe Rogan. If Joe Rogan was at home doing his podcast and Ted the Tile Guy was working in the house and Rogan got too sick to carry on, Ted could fill in and be Rogan, which is everything, being able to be that other person. Because then it’s kind of like you already are. It’s only a matter of circumstance or luck or having a relative in the right place.

Recently I was at work with Ted on one of the late stages of a job. I can't say it was “only” one of those days that come along where I just wasn’t in the mood, given that it was also different, because after work I had to go home and get the dog and take it to the vet to have it put down. Then my girls were going to be mad at me, even though my wife said that they understand that Missy was suffering. Missy being our Aussie.

When bad stuff—or I should say hard stuff—has to be done, the reason I want to do it is starts with my wife. I don't want the girls being upset with her. It's not rational. But I am the one I prefer them to be disappointed in. They're the three people I worry about the most. So it's actually kind of selfish on my part, because it gives me one less way to worry about them. They can bond together in their shared feelings. They're all good with their respective relationships, so I don’t have to think about how the girls are angry at their mom and how that makes my wife feel. Trust me, she can handle whatever she needs to handle, and lay down the law like she was paving highways, but all the same. And it passes anyway.

My wife said to me that in time they'll look back and understand better, about the things they’re dad was willing to do for them, which will mean that if and when they really need someone—and everyone does at some point—they can come to me and know I will do anything for them without a thought for myself.

I can't make up my mind whether this is good or bad. I want them to know these things now and I guess I figured they did. But I just want what's best. And that can be later, if that’s the actual, truest best. Just so long as it has the most value for them. Tiles get moved into their spaces where they belong in relation to each other and are then made to adhere. They’re not all there at once. You step back—or you get up real close—and it all looks the way it should. Either way. But it can still be a pain as it's coming together.


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