"Didya use the right gas/oil mix?"
Contemptuous. Surly. Almost seething. He'd seen guys like me in there before. Soft guys. Hoodies. Bright sneakers. Shiny new chainsaws that broke after using them for one afternoon. He sniffed at the air. Fearing he would trace it to my overpriced hair product, I answered quickly, "Yeah, I just followed the directions."
I looked at his hands. His knuckles were busted, fingers crooked, nails cracked, as if the man had been strip-mined, dredged, and left. What do you do to get hands like that?
It's in the presence of men like this — men who can eyeball a wall stud from 100 yards, men who exfoliate with sandpaper and moisturize with Pennzoil 10W-40 — that I feel the most incompetent as a man. They can see, from under lowered brows, the part of me that's most lacking.
And, sure enough, this man finds it immediately.
"Jee-zus, son. Where's your bar oil?" He has unscrewed a little cap on the back of the chainsaw, a cap I hadn't seen up to now.
"It needs two kinds of oil?" I ask.
"You followed the directions, huh?"
OK, technically, I hadn't opened the instruction manual. "I followed the directions the guy I bought it from gave me," I said guiltily.
He turns the chainsaw on its side, sticks his thumb in the empty hole, then sticks it in his mouth to prove a point, "Bone ... dry. You're lucky you didn't burn the whole damn motor out."
There are areas of knowledge that simply don't adhere to any part of my brain — names the first time I hear them, trigonometry, anything involving financial planning, the presidents between the first 10 and the last 10. I suppose that portion is taken up with state capitals, whole scenes from John Hughes movies and esoteric blues lyrics.
Hardware is another one. I can juggle. I can follow a recipe. I can lift a good number of pounds up over my head. But if the heat goes out in my house, I'm feckless. I'm George Costanza railing against a mechanic telling him he needs a new "Johnson rod." I'm "like a pig looking at a wristwatch" to quote my father.
Speaking of Dad, was he the cause? Did he just not give me the right rugged education? Or is it simply my lack of aptitude? I always marveled at his ability to know the name of every bird and every tree and every bush. And I marvel nonetheless at these other men. The sturdy ones. There's something fundamental about them. It's as if they are more at ease with a tool in their hand. They're unflinching in the face of the internal combustion engine. A monkish serenity sets in as they look at the threading of a screw.
It's as though they are the evolutionary successes, while men like me are genetic deviants, unfit to create, build, fix or repair real-world tangible things that help support, sustain and promote life. When I'm freezing on the side of the road because my car won't start, I don't need a theory on why bad things happen to good people to keep warm; I need a goddamn set of jumper cables.
I see these men and am reminded, as a candy-ass like me would be, of the section of "Anna Karenina" when Levin works in the field for the first time in his life. "In the midst of his work moments came to him when he forgot what he was doing and began to feel light, and in those moments his swath came out as even and good as Titus's. But as soon as he remembered what he was doing and started trying to do better, he at once felt how hard the work was and the swath came out badly."
I envy the feeling of the first part. I've seen glimpses of it, but a day's work, even an honest one, has almost always felt like drudgery. The last part, however, that last part is me. The clumsy one. The one trying, but thinking too much about it. And in those moments, I'm left foundering, incompetent, helpless to manhood.
Would I trade the hours spent attempting to learn about Hegel or the Spanish-American War or metonymy for a touch of innate know-how in small engine, motor or electrical repair?
Like Jack Gladney in DeLillo's "White Noise" says when feeling these same inadequacies in the face of his excessively handy father-in-law, "What could be more useless than a man who couldn't fix a dripping faucet — fundamentally useless, dead to history, to the messages in his genes?"