Stranger with the Sweet Voice
In this U Thugs excerpt, Vonny flourishes in exile. Does he even want to return to school?
Vonny felt among men at the shipyards. He felt this way especially in the mornings. Driving up he would see the crowds of men already gathered out front the hangars and along the chainlink fences, the hard hats nodding at one another in sideways conversations. The big giant crane hung overhead, over everything, looking bigger than even the aircraft carrier with tiny men crawling in and out its holes. Looking at that big giant ship in the distance, Vonny knew, and throughout him felt, that he had never contributed to something this significant. Before he started working at Newport News Shipbuilding, his pop told him that he would be helping out the country. He was told that again on the first day of training. That he’d have the privilege working on the biggest, most advanced ships in the world. The country needed young shipfitters like him, especially now because of the war, and for that he should feel a deep sense of pride.
Up to this point he had never really thought of himself as a patriotic person. He had never really thought in terms of the country or of a world populated with countries, though he knew these were facts. It’s that these facts hadn’t a reason to occupy his mind before. Why would they when you had stuff going on? People to see, places to go today. School, work. He didn’t think of other countries at all besides those with restaurants nearby. He would sometimes realize that his mother was from a different country, and that she had had a whole life in Korea prior to him, and that things were set up different there. Did she have patriotic feelings for Korea? She feel something whenever their anthem played during the Olympics? She still remember the words right? Every so often his father would mention his time as a young missionary in Africa, which evoked in Vonny generic images of potbellied kids and packed up dirt and women holding stuff on top their head and the shape of a continent on the globe, a big ol chicken nugget …
Being a ship fitter paid good, real good. Yeah, that was one of the main things, if not the. Matter fact, paid about as much as being an engineer. Being a shipfitter you had to take classes too but the company pay for that. That was on top of paying you to work. And you’re off by 3 every afternoon. That’s wassup.
One of the olderdoods broke it down this way. Once you figure out college isn’t for you, you know you have to work. This right here is work. This aint no air conditioned job. Sometimes you’ll have to crawl up tight spaces. Other times you’ll be in the shop all day with the torch. When it comes down to it, we solve problems. I know they lecture about that at college. Well we do it every day.
It was all good at the shipyard. Vonny could see himself here until they let him back into UVA. It would be a whole year, shoot, if not longer, the math being what it was. The first few weeks flew. But he sensed something off about his situation. It was so cozy, so perfect for him, there was bound to be something wrong. He went to welder certification training every day wondering, waiting to find out what it was exactly. He’d go back to these thoughts at lunch sitting in the shade with the rest of the young guys. Vonny would think to himself, So this is it? This how it’s gon be?
The olderdoods were always talking news. News news. Not sports, though how they talked about it seemed familiar. Vonny started listening to the news on the radio on the way to work. Was surprised to find out there was a vote for the president soon. This realization made other things them olderdoods talking bout more clear. He was able to follow the plotlines better. Parse out motivations. See who was pulling for who. What was likely. What was only dreams. He was able to make private predictions about who would show up to work in what kinda mood. He didn't really have a strong opinion yet he knew why people had strong feelings about things. He realized about himself that he enjoyed seeing things from the different sides. It was neat to him how the different sides fit together and made sense. You just had to step back far enough. It amused him to hear people getting so heated. At some level he thought they were pretending to be that mad. How can yawl be so upset? It's not like the world was ending. Though he knew it was sometimes fun to play along. Talk a lil smack to each other. Nothing too deep. The camaraderie made him miss Madden, miss UVA. He regretted leaving the PS behind. Calculations formed. Maybe by the end of the month he would have enough saved for a system. Or he could drive up to Charlottesville to pick it up? Then he'd have to be back in time for work. Would he fall asleep on the road? Man what's that traffic like?
He found somebody at work who played Madden. One of the youngerdoods he was cool with, Antonio, though he lived out in Chesapeake. At least he had his own apartment. Vonny was nervous beforehand but once the ball was snapped, it was clear his reflexes were still there. He could see things develop. Without even thinking he was up 3 touchdowns. He didn’t even talk no smack when Antonio said they should switch up squads.
Vonny had a good setup at the shipyards. He put that first paycheck towards one of his credit cards, the yellowish one with the deer looking up from the tall grass and the sun was setting behind it. This card had been one of the first and he was soon caught up on it.
The training hit a new part where he needed to be in a different building. The man behind a desk was taking down his information, a pudgy, strong-looking olderdood who seemed real annoyed, like Vonny wasn’t talking fast enough. Vonny sat at one of the computers in the corner of the trailer, breezed through some clicking and typing and spent most of the time arms crossed staring through the screen when the videos were playing. The earmuff headphones didn’t sit right on his head and made his ears hurt after a while. With those on and all his hair, he was hot and uncomfortable. As soon as he finished a unit quiz, he removed his headphones and stretched and tied his hair up again. He looked round at everyone else hunched at their computers, the expressions on their faces extreme—pain or boredom—one guy was scratching his arm, his teeth bared like a dog when it had a good itch behind its ear. The guy behind the desk who was annoyed at him earlier was typing at his computer with his pointer fingers. It made Vonny suffer watching those thick, stiff fingers hover over the keys, and the olderdood’s face grimacing with effort.
* * *
Vonny came straight from work to the hospital. He took a nap there in the waiting room of the maternity wing, his clothes still damp because he had to work outside and at the end it rained. The baby was born sometime in the early evening. His brother Shawn came into the waiting area with Reverend Childress’s arm around him, Shawn’s face wet and swollen with tears. Vonny sat there with his brother, his arm around his shoulders, the other people in the waiting room occasionally looking at them with tilted heads smiling. He asked his brother what it feel like bruh? There’s no going back, that’s the first thing that popped in my head. Soon as I saw the doctor holding her up by the legs, Shawn shaking his head, living the moment again. It’s a miracle Vonny. Life come out of life. What wasn’t here before, now it is.
Vonny continued thinking about that phrase, Life out of life. He'd never heard it put that way before. It—it really made him think. The idea of things coming into existence. Out of other people. That’s what had happened to himself. What happens to everybody. Miracles. He’d never seen his brother so moved. Life outta life.
Vonny kept coming back to that phrase while he was at work. He’d be looking at the hull of the aircraft carrier peeking out over the low slung buildings, going man and beginning to absorb the meaning, life outta life. Could come out of nowhere too. Man. That's wassup. He drifted off again in the computer training center. The same ornery fella behind the desk with the sign in sheet would be trying to type with his pointer fingers. The expressions passing over the man’s face—agony, hopelessness, curiosity, amusement—flowing one into the other connected. Vonny was staring at this olderdood a while. He wondered if he had kids. If he had been touched by what Shawn had.
At the buffet a few days later his family gathered, some visiting from out of town. The tables were pushed together longways to accommodate them all. Joining hands, they listened to Reverend Childress say a blessing and they set out to the food stations with their plates, wafts of steam rising from the trays, and Vonny was reading the printed labels of the food on the clear glass sneezeguards when a little hand reached past. The parent helped with the tongs, What do you say? Excuse me.
He noticed kids in the booths playing. The strollers in the aisle. A pregnant lady going by leading her children as she balanced plates in both hands. Everybody having babies these days. Maybe it’s always been this way.
He liked being around the baby. Close by. Not necessarily touching it. In fact, he hadn’t held it yet. Even now when Shawn and April held the baby out to him he backed away, naw it's alright. Maybe later. He sat looking at it sleeping in the car seat. The baby had a name. Little Miss Janette Turner. He didn’t think of it yet by a name. Or even as a she. It was still Baby, still something else, purer, still trying to figure out itself. He was fascinated at how the skin looked. Soft but there was like a dried film. The shut eyelids reminded him of the knuckles on a thumb. Man. And just sleeping too. Sleeping through all this. Like a lil piece of breathing meat. Sitting back in his seat needing to take a break from looking, Man so little. Everyone sat eating, and it wasn't very talkative but everyone was content. It was clear there was no other place anybody wanted to be.
Vonny got up for one last round of food. On his way back, that's when he heard the voice. It was clear, deep and pure and clear, almost whispery it was kinda relaxed-like. PLACE YOUR TRUST IN ME. The voice came from over his shoulder and he turned smiling, ready to acknowledge the stranger with the sweet voice. A couple was walking past with their trays muttering Spanish. One of the workers, Chinese, was sweeping things into a dustbin. He looked around some more not finding the tall, deep-chested man who fit the description, and became self-conscious he was spinning around for no reason. As he took another step, the voice came again, again from over his shoulder. I’LL BE THERE WITH YOU.
He felt a chill in his stomach and told himself not to panic, and went back to the table with his plate. Showing no outward signs, he sat absorbing, processing, chewing, afraid that if he moved too suddenly, the voice would come back again, this time angry and shouting. After a little while he began to relax and felt he wasn't crazy, then another part of him opened up and he began to consider the possibility that what had happened was somehow special. Whoever had spoken to him wasn’t out to get him. In fact the opposite seemed more likely. And he finally asked the obvious, the presence smiling on him and approving as soon as the question formed in his mind. Is it You?
Sensing the response, he returned to his plate, smiling inwardly, a relief, a peace, this vast plain spreading open inside. Yet he was still conscious to make things go as normal as possible on the outside, trying to stay loose in his movements, keeping up with conversations going on around him, occasionally entering into them and laughing. He listened to what people said, looking at all the faces, and no one seemed to notice that something was different, that what had happened had happened and now they were looking at an altogether different person. Occasionally he glanced at the sleeping baby beside him who was the only one who seemed to know.
FREE CHEF IS FOR THE PEOPLE
The “Broke Book Tour” must now rest. Check out the previous readings in this series:
8/3 - We All Mascots Here
8/16 - Sure That Was an Authentic?
8/24 - Some Nighttime Vigilante
8/31 - Nowhere Spot in Richmond
9/7 - The Song
9/14 - All-Madden
9/21 - Nelson Mandela, Part 1
9/28 - Nelson Mandela, Part 2