Tommy the Motorman
On a beat-up old drilling rig in an overnight storm, a crew of rained-on roughnecks clang and thump in a panic. They’re just boys, mostly, faces smeared with tar under hardhats splattered with dripping oilbase and rain, and they’re slopping around with iron pry bars and chain tongs, whimpering curses at a cross-threaded valve head stuck in the drill pipe that burbles black mud fizzy as champagne.
In the doghouse, the driller’s eyes widen. He’s about to lose control of the well.
Muttering, big ol’ Tommy comes out of the toolshed. He crosses the rumbling rig floor through a haze of gas and seizes the tong handle from a slimy floorhand. He whips the chain around the valve, latches it, and leans into it. His neck swells, his face reddens; a boot starts to slide. His usual nonsense jabber builds itself into such an ugly moan that the fat old company man eyes the silent driller, whose bearded jaw hangs half-open; the kids on the floor step back. Groaning, Tommy takes an impossible step forward, and sparkling black oil rises as suddenly as blood from the thread-jam. A young roughneck in a rush to secure the loose valve head hits Tommy like a doorframe, and splashes on the diamond-plate steel floor. Tommy glares at another, who stays still, gas and mud spewing out of the open drill pipe between them. The baffled company man pushes out onto the rig floor from the driller's cabin. But Tommy can smell it; the gas is too thin for fire. He drops the bent chain tong to the deck and steps back as the young roughnecks come to their senses, hastily spinning and torquing the backup valve head down, the frantic driller back to barking orders into the radio.
In the change house in the morning, the driller tells the relief crew how Tommy saved the rig.
Thank ol’ Tommy for yer jobs, boys, cuz I almost burned ’er down last night. Damn dumbass kids I got workin’ floors torqued a cross-threaded TIW valve when the well started flowin’. Tommy put out s’damn hard he damn near broke a damn chain tong in half.
Tommy’s a strong sumbitch, says one of them. Need ’im on the board racking back pipe.
Shit, I’m thinkin’ they need to up the day rate on these sumbitches, we got two iron roughnecks on this motherfucker, the driller laughs.
The whole roomful of stinking men laughs.
Where’s ol Tommy at? somebody asks. I ain’t seen ’im.
Halfway back to Oklahoma by now, I reckon, says the driller. He don’t hang around when it’s time fer days off.
He ain’t no fuckin’ Yankee, the driller says, thinking of all the times he’s dragged piss-soaked Tommy out of bed for work, all the times he’s seen him blabbering to himself behind the roaring generators. He’s just misunderstood’s all.
On the highway, stinking and still covered in grease and splattered oil, Tommy’s blabber lapses into near lucidity. What few cars pass him see a raving driver-side silhouette gesturing with a plastic bottle of sloshing whiskey, drifting thoughtlessly between lanes.
Lone, alone, blown—once lamblike once hamlike, he half-sings,
Lone-larking lamblike lilies, leg-deep
Hills, lots of them lilting
He gulps, glugging whiskey that runs down his chin.
O, lily-like lilies, lamblike lilies like ladies I’ve known
In my lamb-knifing life,
I’m sorry I knife—Ha!—I’m sorry I knife!
I’m sorry to’ve leapt like lizards from leaves,
forever lost to your fluttering, lambish lashes.
A speeding idiot leans on the horn as he passes, and then pulls in front of Tommy, brake lights flaring.
I was a stem-bender, stem and storm bent myself, in love, I’m sorry, he says, wiping his glistening jaw.
But as any low lizard, what bent me like a lily
was wildfire, and I drifted to it like a leaf to listen
to the hissings, he rams the left side of the idiot’s bumper at 80 miles an hour,
of the drippings, the idiot careens wildly and flips off an embankment,
of my butchering hands.
Two hours later, a liter of whiskey drunk, still channeling nonsense, he pulls into a roadhouse parking lot lined with motorcycles, and stumbles in sideways. He slumps into a booth, smearing grease over everything he touches, drawing eyes like a drawn gun. The blonde waitress gives an impatient look to an overweight man behind the bar who defiantly doesn’t react. She rolls her eyes and, passing him, hisses, He probably stinks to high heaven, Bill.
On her way with a lunch menu, she begins to hear Tommy and slows. Guttural wheezing, drool.
He looks at her, still jabbering half words and cusses.
He elbows the condiment caddy off the table, eyes wandering beyond the her as the shattering glass and tinkling metal rings out between them.
When they do make eye contact, she sees the widening shadow of a meteor.
He lunges at who knows what, but the waitress screams and two looming bikers grab him by the neck. They scuffle until Tommy’s hit in the head with a chair and collapses onto two men as he’s put to sleep.
. . .
Back on the road, bleeding and with ears ringing from the fight that ended with him dragged unconscious through the kitchen and left face down on the concrete next to a Dumpster, Tommy slurps and slobbers at the plastic whiskey bottle.
Arriving home in the evening, his thudding, scraping footsteps end abruptly in a loud tumble down the basement stairs, where he inches lamely to the center of the room and reaches shakily into the heart of the hallucinogenic darkness. With the flick of the lighter to a candlewick, the walls and ceiling bloom into carnival twinkling, a mosaic of polished scrap iron and steel tiles that whirls in a lazy eddy of dancing candlelight.
He rolls onto his back, and drifts peacefully into a dream on the floor of the shining room.
Travis Logan has had a story in Bull: Men’s Fiction, one forthcoming in As You Were: The Military Review, and another in a compilation by the Veteran’s for Peace Spokane called Vet Lit II: ...So It Goes. He’s also had some headlines published in The Onion.