Work Shirts for Madmenby George Singleton
Renegade artist Harp Spillman is lower than a bow-legged fire ant. Because of an unhealthy relationship with the bottle, he’s ruined his reputation as one of the South’s preeminent commissioned metal sculptors. And his desperate turn to ice sculpting might’ve led to a posse of angry politicians on his trail. With the help of his sane and practical
Renegade artist Harp Spillman is lower than a bow-legged fire ant. Because of an unhealthy relationship with the bottle, he’s ruined his reputation as one of the South’s preeminent commissioned metal sculptors. And his desperate turn to ice sculpting might’ve led to a posse of angry politicians on his trail. With the help of his sane and practical potter wife, Raylou, Harp understands that it’s time to return to the mig welder. Yes, it’s time to prove that he can complete a series of twelve-foot-high metal angelswelded completely out of hex nutsfor the city of Birmingham. Is it pure chance that the Elbow Boys, their arms voluntarily fused so they can’t drink, show up in order to help Harp out in a variety of ways? And why did his neighbor smuggle anteaters into desolate Ember Glow? Is it true that there’s no free will?
PRAISE FOR WORK SHIRTS FOR MADMEN
"If there is a fiction genre blending the riotous, bleary-eyed excess and absurdity of gonzo journalism with the rather earnest sensitivity of a John Irving hero—who always does right by his wife in the end—Work Shirts belongs to it . . . it’s a fun read . . . an adventure to be undertaken."—Newsweek
PRAISE FOR GEORGE SINGLETON
"George Singleton writes about the rural South without sentimentality or stereotype but with plenty of sharp-witted humor . . . A raconteur of trends, counter-trends, obsessions and odd characters."—NPR Morning Edition
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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- First Edition
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- 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.06(d)
Read an Excerpt
Work Shirts for Madmen
By Singleton, George
HarcourtCopyright © 2007 Singleton, George
All right reserved.
You’d think that, being a saturated and memory-lost drunk, I would’ve been the one who stole the twelve snapping turtles, but it was my wife Raylou behind the entire operation, from original vision to relocation. I didn’t even know she had an interest in the plight of nontraditional lab animals, never mind the moral bridges certain toxicologists were choosing to cross. Maybe I didn’t pay enough attention. Raylou shook me awake from the floor of my Quonset-hut workspace one dawn and told me she needed a steep-sided three-foot-deep pool chiseled into our yard by the time she got home that night. She told me to line it with plastic and the ceramic earthenware tiles she’d fired in the electric kiln a week earlier. She said she had enough for about a 240-square-foot area. I, of course, opened my eyes, tried to remember the past twenty-four hours, and thought about how this was too much math for me to ever remember. Raylou said she’d written out the phone number of her lawyer friend Darren—a man who over the past ten years had bought more than a hundred wood kiln–fired scary-face jugs from my wife—on the To Do list stuck on our refrigerator, should she get caught and need bail money. Raylou would have her cell phone with her, she said, but asked me not to call in case she needed to quietly stake out this female biotoxicologist somewhere between theLester Maddox and George Wallace boat landings on the Georgia/Alabama border, far from where we lived.
I nodded, but tried to think if “biotoxicologists” really existed. And I pretended to know exactly what she was talking about, seeing as I felt sure she’d told me all about this particular ploy some time within the previous week, month, or year. That’s how I operated back then, mostly. I’m not proud, embarrassed, or ashamed. At the time, I figured that drinking helped me to conceive the original ice sculptures that I sold and displayed at weddings, corporate functions, and the occasional bar or bat mitzvah down in Charleston.
I don’t think that my wife kissed me good-bye there on the cement floor, but she didn’t cluck her tongue in a your-reputation’s-been-ruined way, either. After I heard her drive my refrigeration truck down the driveway I got up, walked past an unused shovel, and grabbed work gloves, two chisels, and a twelve-pound hammer. It seemed right to have a project.
Now, our chosen homestead stood atop a mica-flecked and pine tree–deficient granite hill known as Ember Glow, a bulge in upstate South Carolina that, according to past settlers and present-day aviators alike, sparkled even on sliver-mooned nights. Raylou and I bought twenty acres of what Hollywood sci-fi movie directors dream about—our place didn’t look dissimilar to Saint-Exupéry’s Asteroid B-612, is what I’m saying.
The previous four or five generations of owners, a family named Coomer—of questionable genes, moral standards, and rational capacities—spent their time believing that they’d find a vein of gold somewhere on Ember Glow. I wished that they had dug three-foot-deep holes instead of the narrow bores that were twenty feet deep and wide enough only to be a danger for misstepping stargazers, drunks, blind people, and awkward stray dogs. They didn’t find gold, of course, and over the years they got buried, from what I understood, standing straight up in the graves that they unknowingly dug in their youth. One remaining Coomer named Jinks finally decided to give up the family dream, and sold us the house and land for the same amount of money his great-grandfather spent on the place during the Reconstruction. Then Jinks Coomer moved to Nevada because, according to him, he could get a civilian job with the government seeing as he had firsthand knowledge of missile silos and barren landscapes.
I chiseled and pried and scraped and tossed chunks of granite, releasing amber bourbon toxins out of pores I had never noticed before, until the sun stood halfway between me and the horizon. Who sweats from his elbows and the tops of his feet? I went inside to get one of Raylou’s crystalline-rock–aquifer, double-oxygenated, reverse-osmosised bottles of spring water that cost something like five bucks a pint because a special order of monks siphoned and blessed the stuff down in Louisiana, and saw her refrigerator notes—one for the lawyer, another reminding me that I promised to check myself into outpatient rehab before I got fired officially and lost my insurance.
I said out loud to no one, “Oh, man, those hot television lights did me in,” and started remembering everything that I hoped wasn’t really true. Like only a worthwhile desperate guilty drunk can do, I got in our other car, drove down Ember Glow’s hard, shiny road, and didn’t stop until I found a pet-supply joint thirty miles away that sold the Whisper Internal Filter System 10-20 with its large carbon ultra-activated cartridge, so Raylou’s newly rescued snapping turtles wouldn’t have to live in their own waste.
I bought a dozen, and put in an order for more.
When I got home I would’ve installed the things, too, had I not found one last bottle of Old Crow stashed behind my ice-sculpting tools back in the Quonset hut and then taken a nap on the same spot where I began the day.
It’s not like I ever kept a diary of my drinking escapades, but it wasn’t hard to recall that I’d gone from drinking mostly beer when I could get it, back before I was fifteen, to nothing but bourbon by college. And then from graduation until age thirty-eight I went from not drinking until after five o’clock in the afternoon all the way to drinking as soon as I woke up. I went from taking days—even weeks—off to being able to fit three good drunks into one twenty-four-hour period. Sometimes a fifth didn’t seem to affect me; other times I got wasted on two or three drinks.
My liver went from confusion to apathy, it seemed.
I went from receiving regular outdoor-metal-sculpture commissions from various cities—walk around Atlanta, Savannah, Richmond, Charlotte, Nashville, Cincinnati, and Greensboro, for instance, and more than likely you’ll bump into a giant Harp Spillman structure that’s usually in front of a bank or CVS Pharmacy—to not being able to think of anything new whatsoever. As Raylou’s reputation as a traditional potter grew nationwide, my reputation as an avant-garde welder diminished. It took fifty hate letters detailing everything I said and did in a drunken stupor at a particular unveiling before I said fuck it all and threw my acetylene torch down one of the man-made mini-caves on Ember Glow.
This might’ve been around the Ides of March, 2001. Within the year I was pretty much broke, so I contacted Ice-o-Thermal, a chain of ice-sculpture fabricators that hired artists, caterers, florists, butchers, and interior decorators who either couldn’t make ends meet in their chosen field or had fallen to has-been status. Ice-o-Thermal sent along instructional videotapes and a dozen molds. Its employees provided their own workspaces, which meant someone like me had to convert part of my Quonset-hut studio into a deep freezer.
I don’t want to brag, but within eighteen months Ice-o-Thermal executives were impressed by my freestyle ice sculptures. I didn’t use those little ice angels in a punch bowl or dolphins in midair above a tray of sushi. No, I received work orders from the home office, brainstormed the best I could in my condition, and invented one-of-a-kind sculptures to fit any occasion. For one particular wedding reception I learned that the bride and groom both took ROTC in college and that they would be joining the army as first lieutenants directly after their honeymoon. It took some time and experimentation, but I carved out an ice howitzer that—using the same techniques as that of a potato gun—fired a plastic bride and groom right onto the wedding cake. At a fund-raiser for a history museum down in Greenville I built an ice replica of Stonehenge at half-scale, which was still so big that I had to set up the thing out on the front lawn. When it finally melted a couple days later, the water clogged up the storm drains out on the street and a road crew had to show up.
The bottom line goes something like this: The CEO of Ice-o-Thermal, Fulton Dupont—oh, he liked to point out immediately that he could’ve gone on with his life as part of the family’s giant chemical company, but early on he got himself disowned—drove down from the home office in Dover, Delaware, and offered me a regional vice-president position overseeing all of the ice sculptors in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Tennessee. I, of course, declined, seeing as I still, through bourbon haziness, saw myself as an artist, not a corporate type. But I did threaten to quit unless I got some benefits, most importantly health and dental insurance.
Copyright © 2007 by George Singleton
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Meet the Author
GEORGE SINGLETON lives in Pickens County, South Carolina, with ceramicist Glenda Guion and their mixture of strays. More than a hundred of his stories have been published nationally in magazines and anthologies. He teaches writing at the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities.
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