The Fiction of Owen Thomas

Signs of Passing

Precipitation Likely, Chance of Sun
(“The Might and the Will”)  —an excerpt

The last place Quinn had worked was at the Qwicky Pawn on North Front Street near the lumberyard. Before that, he had been the Assistant Produce Manager at the Pay-n-Go Grocery Stop, where he worked under the thumb of Edna Cornwallis, a woman almost twice his age and half his maturity. Edna had made it clear that she wanted a man, not an assistant, and she spent the better part of three years trying to show Quinn the difference. For not taking the lesson, Edna tended to punish him by imagining and then itemizing all of his shortcomings on the quarterly installments of his annual performance reviews. It was clear to Quinn that pay raises and promotions would only come at a price.

Not clear eventually; but clear almost instantly after his orientation. Almost before the dramatically demonstrative lesson in distinguishing between cucumbers and zucchini had reached its denouement.

And yet he had hung in there.

That he had endured the job for so long under those conditions without looking for some other job was as much a testament to Quinn’s conflict aversion as to his antipathy to change if indeed there is any practical difference between those things.

For as consistently degrading as the job had been, Quinn had still managed to leave on something of a high note, telling Edna where she could stick her most recent disciplinary notice, dropping his green apron on the floor, and walking out on her in the middle of his shift. He had turned for one last look at her just in time to see the ball of iceberg lettuce Edna had thrown at the back of his head. He had caught it casually, with one hand, as if it were a softball in a park, and sent it hurtling back across the receiving bay and into the back of the truck, where it had connected squarely with Edna’s stupefied face, detonating in cold, green shards of cellulose and sending her sprawling back into an open crate of tomatoes. It was, he would later admit to himself in a kind of reluctant pride, the single greatest triumph of his young life. It had taken him three years to do it, but that was how you put an end to a bad situation and got the last word.

The job at the Qwicky Pawn had only been to tide him over until he could find something better. Something that held a more promising opportunity for advancement. That, anyway, was how he explained the decision to himself. The truth was that Quinn was lost. Still lost. The truth was that for all of the satisfying decisiveness of the iceberg resignation, he had no idea what he was doing with his life and the Qwicky Pawn, like the Pay-n-Go Grocery Stop before it, was but a chunk of drift wood floating in an empty sea. He had seized upon it instantly, with all the desperation of a drowning man.

The gnawing truth of it was that his father had been right. Dropping out of high school was probably the worst thing he ever could have done. If nothing else, high school was constructive confinement. Even if he never actually learned anything, it would have spared him the hazards of personal freedom. At the very least it would have corralled him through a pre-structured life, moving him lock step into Summerfield Community College or some vocational training program and then into suitable employment, each year handing off securely to the next like a chain of fire fighters handing a limp, gasping body over burning obstructions and out the window and down the ladder to a place it can breath.

His father had done the most he was capable of doing, which was not, objectively speaking, very much. Anger had been the only emotion available to Clement in those days. Rage was his only tool and his only sustenance. It was rage that got him up in the mornings. Rage that made the funeral arrangements for Christy and that forgot to call The Party Palace to cancel the birthday clown. Rage that for months sat vigil at Carol’s bedside, still in his uniform, every night, after every shift, fondling the black shard of Detroit iron the surgeons had extracted from her brain, until she finally gave up and slipped out of her coma. Rage that testified at the trial. Rage that got him drunk and that got him fired from the police force and that got him a job working ten-hour shifts guarding inmates locked up in The Alley. Rage that got him the reputation as the meanest screw in the joint.

And it had also been Clement’s rage that had taken charge of young Quinn who, choking blind in the acrid smoke of his own life, was suddenly unwilling to sit at a desk and stare at a chalkboard and solve for X, day after day after day. In the aftermath of it all, Quinn and Clement had become enemies of a sort. Each saw in the other the ruin of hope and they each banished from their lives what they could not comprehend. Clement’s way was to fly into drunken tirades and to pretend to draw boundaries and issue edicts about what it meant to live under his roof. Quinn’s way was to turn into stone and sink to murky, unreachable depths, where no teacher or guidance counselor or strip mall psychologist or father could find him.

So, yes, his father had certainly been right about dropping out of school. But, in Quinn’s defense, his father had been right from a million light years away. The truth is simply unrecognizable at that distance.