A Tank Without a Gun
A TANK WITHOUT A GUN
Inkslinger Award Winner
Issue No. 3 – March 2014
We knew it was going to be a doozy of a day when Karl’s meth addled brother-in-law asked Karl at work (yet again) for some money, and instead of giving him a dime Karl threw a busted ratchet into the floor model garage door opener and, through the dying grind of the opener’s gear, told him that he’d had enough. We had seen jumpy behavior from Karl before. Once on Black Friday, Karl’s line grew so long we thought he was having another Vietnam flashback, his hands out in front of him like he was about to be steamrolled, shouting Lord, oh God! then my name, until I left my own line unmanned to cover his, and he puked inside tray two of the copier like some fucked retail exorcism. Management wrote him up for leaving his post — standard procedure. We referred to it in whispers as Karl’s Cleansing after Karl returned to work and continued to pray his rosary to the silver socket wall, which was only a breeze away from being the largest wind chime in town. We referred to the ratchet-chucking incident as Karl’s Awakening. That day was the first time any of us had seen Karl stand up for himself. Remarkably, his brother-in-law took offense to Karl’s outburst and threw an oil filter wrench back at him before Loss Prevention smashed his face into the cash register and cuffed him. Karl, somehow, was written up for that, too.
Next to the tool department Karl manned, I sold lawn tractors, lawnmowers, blowers, whackers, tillers, grills, and patio furniture, and did so in the wake of Robert, who our store manager wistfully described as the greatest tractor salesman he’d ever seen. The description wasn’t hyperbolic. I once saw Robert sell chrome-finish plastic tractor wheel covers to local Baptist pastor and AARP member Rex Galey. Your neighbor might have a bigger yard and tractor, Robert said, but he don’t have wheels like those, and I can guarantee you that. When he was hard-selling, his voice was imperceptible; he’d lean into the customer and smile as if he were disclosing intimate secrets. Sales poetry spoken by a soft silver tongue.
As much as we hated him, we marveled at his craft. Every month he was in the top-ten tractor salesmen in the country. At the closing of every fiscal year he was tops by fifty grand. Arguably, the only better salesman in the entire company was a Greek refrigerator rep named Spyros whose accent became indecipherable when a customer declined a five-hundred dollar protection agreement. To our knowledge, Robert never tried to get away with anything like that. His strategy was to ignore any other salesmen in the department, stand just inside the doors, and yell to potential tractor-buyers that he could help them. The rest of us were left with scraps. In mocking that asshole, we weren’t above pointing out that he had some sort of bleeding cyst/fissure on his backside that went untreated and bled through his khakis from time to time. Management knew it, too, asked us if we’d tip them off when it became visible. We never did.
Point is, after Karl busted the floor model Chamberlain and raised his voice, the vibe in Home Improvement got weird. The particles in the air charged and raced from the disturbance. Space bent. There was a bit of fire lit under all of us, even Robert, and just before lunch Richard limped in with his two knee braces, wooden cane, and Velcro shoes, looking like he just finished eating a pizza buffet and jogged to the store.
Richard was a chatterer, corner-er, wander-mouthed blabberer. If we wanted to make zero money in a morning, we’d say hello to him and, voila, we made dick for the day. And we had all tried to convince ourselves that we were winning one of those invisible races of life, you know, spending time commiserating, sleeping better at night believing we tempered a lonely man’s loneliness for a couple hours, and maybe then he would have the strength to face his failed path as a professional shortstop and acknowledge his ultimate present in the lawn care business and need for a diet and a haircut. But he never bought anything. He would look look look, run his fingers up and down the most expensive equipment, educate us on product features we didn’t know. He didn’t need to buy, was too mechanically inclined, could fix a rabid dog in a dogfight. His words.
So Robert crooned “Hey, guy!” when Richard walked in, because Robert hadn’t been watching the doors, and if he had been he would’ve darted to his lunch break and left one of us to take that bullet. It was a mistake seasoned sales veterans didn’t make.
“Robby,” Richard said, “you do care.”
Things to know about Richard: He played AA ball as a shortstop for the Biscuits; he got hit in the ear with a fastball after he spiked the top second base prospect on the Barons trying to stretch a single into a double; his left eye frosted over, rendering him without the proper depth perception needed to hit or defend; he was hitting .347, leading the league in doubles and stolen bases, and was considered the best defensive prospect in the minors when it happened. Rumor has it he was on the verge of a call-up, a big league debut; he got the managerial position at Shoney’s because the scout that scouted him knew a guy who needed a guy; fiancé left; gained weight; position terminated; lawn mowing; he sent all of his money to Vietnamese women in internet chat rooms who needed a big strong American husband to take them from squalor, approximately two grand a pop, to cover the plane ticket and other expenses (whether these were women or not, it was an obvious scam job that he kept falling for because maybe one time she’d come out of the terminal and fall exhausted in his arms). On the day this story takes place, he had again left the airport empty handed, this time with his savings wiped; he had been drinking the night before to calm his nerves and continued drinking in the airport bar; he referred to Robert as Slobbert to us other salesmen, loathed him because he was certain he could sell tractors better than him.
Things to know about Robert: He had been happily married to his wife for forty years; he had the two most beautiful daughters any of us had ever seen; the oldest was dating a minor league pitching prospect; Robert would not be undersold, God as his witness.
Richard and Robert stood jousting facts around the black fifty-four inch zero-turn tractor with the V-Twin Kohler engine that the regional manager referred to as Carol (after his late mistress) during sales meetings. Carol sold once a year. Selling Carol meant you made your sales goal for the month and got an extra five hundred on your next check and a gold star next to your name on the dry-erase board in the break room — my name was always in red, Robert’s always in black. One time they put a blue frowny face next to my name because I hadn’t sold a credit app in over a month. My poor performance set a blue marker precedent. Point being, I was a nobody in a nobody store and an opportunity arose that day to sell Carol and see my name in black with a gold star and have the money to help buy my dad some hearing aids so he could continue driving a school bus for high-functioning special needs fourth graders.
Richard explained to Robert that the Kohler has aluminum cast something-or-others, and Robert kicked the deck and said, “See this deck? That’s eight-gauge steel, guy. It’s like a tank without a gun.” And that’s the line all of us wish we could have come up with; that’s the art—deadpan absurdity and unwavering belief in it. Sure it could slice a body’s foot off clean at the ankle, but it was no death machine, and at the end of the day it did the same thing any tractor did. Namely, shave a couple inches off a lawn or pasture with a roar and emit a throat-searing cloud of burning gasoline.
Meanwhile, a woman in her fifties walked in with an enormous belt buckle and Frye boots nothing short of class, her flannel shirt unbuttoned to show just a little cleavage, against which I personally had no defense, and she pointed at me from across the department, beckoned me with a finger and flicked the back of her hand between Richard and Robert and said, “Package it up, son.” I felt my face blush, and I heard Robert stop dead in his explanation to Richard of Carol’s mulching capabilities to cut in with a lie that he’d helped her some weeks before that very moment. But Linda (that was the spectacular woman’s name) cut Robert off and said, “Are you or are you not helping this gentleman right here?”
Richard had a choice, here, to let Robert have the sale of the year, and I find it important to note that I owe Richard a great debt. He was responsible for my family’s health and happiness that year. His motives are beside the point.
Linda looked at me and asked me to repeat the name Richard and Robert had been calling Carol when she walked in. Not without hesitation I told her. She said, “I think Jack is a little more fitting, don’t you?” I agreed, typed in stock number 35273 with tremulous fingers, while Robert stood in bloody-seated pants.
How Richard ended up locked in the floor model tool shed crying was, Robert in a blind rage looked at him and asked, rhetorically, how on earth Richard had ended up with no family whatsoever. Richard, still drunk from his anxiety-induced bender, took a swing at Robert and missed, pitching him forward onto the tractor now named Jack, launching his cane into the rack of small-engine spark plugs, many of which rattled to the ground. Linda turned back from the register and gave a single piercing Ho! Richard rolled off the deck onto the tile with a moan. Robert took two steps back and exclaimed he hadn’t laid a hand on Richard. Richard climbed back up the side of Jack to his feet and hobbled into the shed in the corner, using his cane to lock himself from the inside. Linda walked over to Jack to make sure he remained unscuffed and managed to get three-hundred taken off the bottom line because of the incident.
We let Richard have his moment. I finished ringing up Linda for Jack, and just as I handed her the receipt and breathed a sigh of relief, we heard Richard weep.
Things to know about Linda: She divorced her husband after he struck their teenage daughter; she used her half to start a landscaping business that was taking off in its second year; she wasn’t interested in dating again; she carried a flask of Cuddy Sark in her left boot.
I know these things about her because she stayed with Robert, Karl, the H.I. manager, and me outside of the shed doors and sought tenderly the combination of words, phrases, silences that would bring Richard from his dark hour. We stayed long past closing time, unable to console Richard, alternating pulls from Linda’s flask, sharing embarrassing stories about our own pasts, until the fluorescent lights timed out and left us in a circle of orange light. Linda convinced Richard to crack the door and show us a picture of the Vietnamese woman that was being held captive across the globe to whom he’d sent his last bit of savings. It was a stock photo of a Mexican woman in a pink bikini, though that didn’t keep Karl from snapping the flip phone in half and sending it skittering down the aisle. Motives aside, we all agreed it was the right thing to do, though our manager was forced to write him up again for destroying a customer’s property. He was forced to write us all up, including himself, for drinking on the sales floor.
Linda finally brought Richard from the shed after she told the story of her husband striking her daughter, and through some tears of her own asked Richard if he’d, please, hug her. We were all drunk with sympathy and gentle touch and the type of human warmth induced by mutual pain and the trickling fear of dying alone. The hug was soft. They felt no shame.