The formula for measuring and cutting the awning fabric involved something of Pythagoras, a fact that made the job feel like what the ancients might’ve done. The owner Mr. Watts had a terrible temper, and he yelled at me the way coaches had when, three times in a row, I forgot to snap the ball to the quarterback or, in succession, threw the baseball from third base into the stands behind the first baseman. I’d been blamed that week for a rash of awnings that didn’t fit.
Mr. Watts kept a whiskey bottle in his office or the tool shed, so I never knew if it was sun, anger, or whiskey that fueled his burnt-red face. Not another one, I thought, as he approached, the awning in hand. A tiny squat man with hidden power, a wrestler, hairless arms and legs and chest.
A pathway connected me to the seamstresses, two of them, one who sewed the pieces I cut, the other to add the hardware and whatever else awnings needed. Mr. Watts kicked against the door and burst his smallness and hard self into my tiny shed: a bench, an overhead light, chalk, a ruler, scissors, awning fabric behind me in rolls, an air-conditioner running continuously in the one window.
“It defies logic,” he said. He grabbed one of the awnings I’d recently cut and put aside for him to take to the seamstresses. He laid the pieces on the bench, measured, re-measured, scribbled in chalk, erased, scribbled again. “It adds up.” He noticed me then. “Stop your shaking. Jesus. You don’t come from hearty stock, do you?”
I didn’t. We all trembled, centuries and eons back to some infinitely-great-grandfather in a cave corner, scribbling sabertooth tigers and tiny figures fleeing in all directions.
He told me to follow him, and I did, out the door, around the shed, to the seamstresses. I’d never been inside, had never met them that entire summer. I’d imagined all kinds of people in that building, some of them fantastical, like shoe-elves.
He held the door open for me, then grabbed my shirt as I passed. “You ever take any philosophy classes at that school of yours?”
“The Modern Mind.” I hesitated, but he kept hold. “Freud, Nietzsche, Marx.”
I had gotten an A, but I always had. I thought about the final essay but nothing came to mind, and it had only been a few months ago. “The alienation of labor,” I said. “People selling their lives. Something about being removed from a natural state and then being forced to trample nature.”
“So bullshit,” he said, and I couldn’t argue. Just slivers of ideas left.
He let go and pushed me inside. Pitch black. A flashlight turned on next to me, and Mr. Watts shone it upon two old women, blind. I looked for the eye-on-a-stick passed back and forth to each other, but no, nothing.
“Ladies,” he announced. “We have a visitor. The awning-cutter. It seems we have been too harsh in our assessment of his skills. His measurements all add up but the awnings—” He put the flashlight under his chin, so he appeared inside out. “Well, the awnings don’t add up, do they?”
The old women were mostly hair and wrinkles, white eyes. They sat perfectly still behind their machines.
“Sabotage,” Mr. Watts said. “I was going to fire this young lad. And now — ” He put his arm around me, drew me closer. “I think I’ll keep him.”
I trembled against him and he squeezed me tighter. He felt like shade turned to rock. He moved away, searching in the dark with the flashlight so I couldn’t see the women. But I heard them, or thought I did. Hard, rushed voices, like the kind of wind that wants to blow things down. We hid them where he’ll never find them.
He searched the corners, under and inside boxes, rummaged through bags, but whatever he wanted to find wasn’t there. He kicked at a trashcan. A phone rang in an office. He handed me the flashlight, told me to wait, don’t move, not even a step.
I think we’ll keep him, he’d said. The job paid okay, but no one wanted awnings until summer. It was early August. They’d be shutting down soon and I’d have to figure things out, what to do with my degree, begin life alone. He had asked me about philosophy of all things, as if that mattered here.
The woman who installed things into the stitched-together fabric beckoned me over with a stubby finger, yellowed. She reached into her shirt, dug into her bra, and pulled out strips of awning I’d given them earlier. I heard her again in that way that felt as if she were inside. Give these to him. Say they’re yours. Fired. That’s what you want.
What did I care? I’d be gone. They had shortened the awning purposely, as if to save me. A senseless thing to do. They were crazed.
Well, what is it you want?
I wanted the life after college, the thing promised for all those As since kindergarten, all the honor rolls. I wanted the future I’d been prepared for.
She held out the strips. Take them. A door banged shut. Take them. He had told me not to move, not even a step. Take them. I moved back into place, those strips dangling from her hand like tentacles.
He would change the sign to read Watts & Son, and there would be plenty of things to do in the winter for an awning company. Storage, cleaning, repairs, replacements. Businesses, especially. It wouldn’t even feel odd, after a few years, how the shed would feel like home and the work would get to be easy, so easy, in fact, that I would be able to do it with my eyes closed.
Randall Brown is the author of the award-winning flash fiction collection Mad to Live (Flume Press 2008), a collection that has been recently republished by PS Books in Philadelphia as a Deluxe Edition with “bonus tracks” (PS Books 2011). He directs and teaches at Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing program. He’s been published widely, both online and in print. He is also the founder of Matter Press and its Journal of Compressed Creative Arts.