A Working Man
by Shane Fraser
Paul was slow. Held back a few grades in school. Never learned to make friends. Never made much noise at all. His folks weren’t good either. His mom tried, God bless her, but she wasn’t given much and couldn’t give what she didn’t have. His dad doesn’t even deserve a mention for what he did to them.
They were poor in the classical sense. Dad worked when he could find it and when he cared to be around, and Mom was a secretary. She was able to pay for Paul’s schooling, and he went through all the grades and graduated when he was 21. Outside of supporting him financially, she didn’t help with much else. In her defense, Paul never asked, but he always had a hard time expressing himself.
The family couldn’t afford luxuries like dental care, so Paul lost most of his teeth, and the ones he had left were brown and rotten. Naturally, Paul got picked on for it, more than for anything else, so he stopped smiling. He didn’t open his mouth if he could help it, and tried to talk in the most discrete way, parting his lips only slightly to hide his crucifixion.
When Paul was 26, his uncle gave him a job at his upstate factory at the insistence of Paul’s aging mother. He set Paul up with a one bedroom apartment within walking distance of the plant and Paul became a working man. It was an assembly line that produced disc blades for farm equipment. Paul would cut, shape, and sort the metal, and he did a fine job of it.
The other workers mostly let Paul be, but occasionally they would mock him, and his teeth would be the subject of interest. A man can only hide his teeth for so long before people become suspicious, ask John Wayne. And in a place like that, where everything’s the same, day in and day out, the minor gets magnified. Paul didn’t like being magnified.
All things considered, Paul was quite average looking. He was a little hunched and a little husky, but that could describe nearly everyone who worked at the factory. Nobody took him for slow, just quiet. Those who did only knew because his uncle told them.
* * *
Once the checks started appearing with regularity, Paul got an idea. Long ago he heard tell of an operation that could replace his missing teeth and turn the rotten ones into pearly whites, but it was thousands of dollars. Now, after processing the amounts on his checks, Paul came to the realization that he could potentially afford it, but only if he was smart with his money. So he started saving.
He worked hard and kept his head down, spending on nothing but food and rent and saving the rest. After about a year he had enough to get the procedure. He booked the appointment, scheduled two weeks off from work, and waited patiently for the day to come.
* * *
Paul returned to work sporting the largest, fullest, brightest smile that a man could possibly own. He wasn’t hunched anymore and barely touched the ground as he paraded into the change room. After getting changed, he walked everywhere that he was allowed to go, passing everybody in the factory at least once. When he finally joined the line, he spent nearly a minute with each blade, marveling at his appearance in its reflection. His mouth never closed.
Nobody said anything. Most didn’t notice and those who did just shot him an apathetic glance. Paul kept coming into work the same way every day, with the painted smile and the confident walk, hoping somebody would acknowledge him, but it never happened. After a couple weeks, Paul started slouching and stopped smiling, and everything was like it was before.
* * *
In the change room one day after a shift, the men were busting balls as working men do, while Paul sat near his corner locker, avoiding attention as he always had. After ribbing the regulars, one of the men focused in on Paul.
“You know, Larry, you got some big ears, but they’re nothing compared to Paul’s. Jesus Christ, look at those things.”
“Yeah, no kidding. They look like two satellite dishes,” another man added.
“Hey Paul, do you get HBO?” The men all laughed, Paul said nothing.
As the men moved on to another victim, Paul stared at the floor.
I wonder how much an ear operation costs, Paul thought, and he started saving.
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Shane Fraser has written fiction and nonfiction pieces for various publications under various pseudonyms.