Rare voices in fiction, the lives of the working class consume this collection. Winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist brings to life the narratives of midwestern blue-collar workers. In these sixteen stories, author Dustin M. Hoffman invites readers to peek behind the curtain of the invisible-but-ever-present “working stiff” as he reveals their lives in full complexity, offering their gruff voices—so often ignored—without censorship. The characters at the heart of these stories work with their hands. They strive to escape invisibility. They hunt the ghost of recognition. They are painters, drywall finishers, carpenters, roofers, oil refinery inspectors, and hardscapers, all aching to survive the workday. They are air force firemen, snake salesmen, can pickers, ice-cream truck drivers, and Jamaican tour guides, seething forth from behind the scenes. They are the underemployed laborers, the homeless, the retired, the fired, the children born to break their backs. One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist initiates readers into the secret nightmares and surprising beauty and complexity of a sweat-stained, blue-collar world.
About the Author
Dustin M. Hoffman painted houses in Michigan for ten years and is now an assistant professor of English at Winthrop University in South Carolina. His short fiction has appeared in many magazines, including Threepenny Review, Black Warrior Review, Puerto del Sol, Midwestern Gothic, and Cimarron Review, and his story “Building Walls” received a Pushcart Prize special mention.
Read an Excerpt
By Dustin M. Hoffman
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
Pushing the Knives
He's supposed to be pushing the knives. Thrusting them up to the humming tube lighting of the supermarket so the polished steel sparkles, so you can almost hear the reflected twinkle slide across the blade. But gazing into vast ceilings, pure white girders grazed by boxed and shrink-wrapped bulk products towering in twenty-foot-tall aisles, makes him dizzy. He'd prefer to keep his head down. He should be showing off the sexy curves of the fillet knife, flaunting the no-nonsense power of the bulking cleaver. Instead, he runs his fingers over the name tag pinned to his white chef's uniform complete with the white hat that poofs at the top like an atomic mushroom cloud, his thinning hairline tightly concealed underneath the explosion. His name tag is bright gold. The grooves of his name are sharp and cut skillfully, deeply. It reads, "Wyatt." But how can he live up to "Wyatt" engraved in gold, sparkling in tube lights like the knives should be?
A woman with short brown hair barely stretched into a ponytail and wearing gray sweatpants pushes a cart toward his stand. One of the wheels squeaks shrilly. It reminds Wyatt of the tenor in his trainer's voice, the guy with the sharp triangle of black facial hair below his lower lip who wore the managerial navy-blue chef's uniform. His two weeks of training just ended yesterday, but he can still hear his trainer shrieking, This is your target audience! Midthirties, slightly overweight, listless eyes that wander over shrink-wrapped ground chuck looking like red brains. Reel her in, Wyatt. Make the sale!
But he can't bring himself to do it. He is a pathetic salesman. Shy, terrible at talking. He feels lost in a forest of aisles the height of redwoods. He's glad to be standing near the meat, near squat, refrigerated troughs less daunting. Still, in front of him, colorful displays and bar codes stack to the ceiling, obscuring his vision, and he wonders if there are actually more people somewhere in this store. Is this lady in her sweatpants his lone audience member, his only shot? If he had any courage, he might scale an aisle, perch atop stacked two-hundred-unit diaper boxes, and proclaim his sales pitch.
The woman is close now. Almost to the steaks, near where his promotional stand sits, painted blue with a big yellow lightning bolt and a sign that reads THUNDER BLADES: STRIKE CULINARY PERFECTION. He wishes he had the wit and intensity his sign promises. She inches toward him, squeaking closer. This is his big moment, his first potential sale. He thinks back to his training manual, how he should approach this customer.
Ma'am, a moment of your precious time?
(Don't wait for her. Take it!)
Has your cutlery gone dull, uninspired, pointlessly pathetic? This is a common tragedy that befalls nearly nine of every ten households in America. A fact!
(Keep it up. Don't relent now. You've got the facts down; now show her the blades.)
Ha! Your troubles are solved!
(Brandish the Electroshocker Chef's Knife. But don't brandish too much; you don't want her to think you're a serial killer.)
On this planet, you won't find a sharper, more balanced knife. As if forged in the fires of Olympus, it slices with incomparable power and accuracy. But I could talk all day. The proof is in the results. Observe as the Electroshocker slices with perfection. There! Impossible? No. Amazing! And so easy a child could do it.
(Note: Don't sell knives to children under the age of ten. These things are sharp!)
A finer edge and I'd be splitting atoms. But there's more. So much more ...
(Attaboy! That's how we do it!)
But he can't begin the pitch, can't dredge the words from his quivering abdomen. Standing so close to the steak troughs is freezing him. The frigid temperatures that keep grade-A meat fresh stop him cold. This seems like a valid excuse. He must remember to not be so hard on himself, but he always is.
And now she's front and center, her eyes looking him up and down. Him, not the knives, up and down. He straightens his posture, pushes out his flat pectorals, tries to smile with his yellowed teeth. It makes him worry. In training, they explained how important appearances are, how you're not just selling products, but yourselves. He remembers how desperately he needs tooth whiteners and Chuck Norris's abs machine. She looks away. He can't blame her. Her cart squeaks on toward the ice cream and frozen key lime pies. She is gone. No sale. No commission. No money for whiter teeth and abs of steel. It's okay; he'll get the next one. He's still learning.
"Why didn't you get that one?" His supervisor, Lee, bursts from his hiding spot at the endcap of the cereal aisle, scattering cardboard toucans across the tile floor. He is a good hider. Wyatt didn't even know he was there. It's an impressive skill. Lee is a fat man, but short. He must have rolled up like a hedgehog to stow himself in the bottom shelf behind all those cereal boxes.
"You didn't say a damn word." Lee is breathing hard. Droplets of sweat form on his round, bald, baby-faced head. Wyatt doesn't mean or want to disappoint him. He wants Lee to like him. But Lee will never be his friend until he starts making sales.
"Are you at least sawing the sledgehammer?"
Wyatt completely forgot about the sledgehammer. He fidgets with his name tag.
"Well, damn it." Lee pushes Wyatt out from the knife stand. He reaches under for the sledgehammer and thunks it down on the stand's massive oak cutting board. "You should be. You should have worked up a nice pile of shavings at this point. Start sawing for Christ's sake."
Wyatt unsheathes the serrated knife, the Thundertooth. Why didn't he remember the sledgehammer? It's sure to draw in customers. How could he be so absentminded? He draws the blade across the head of the sledge a few times, a few more. Metal sledge shavings sprinkle the cutting board, his fingers, his hands.
"That's the ticket! Show them what the knives can do. How they'll never go dull, even when it's steel against steel."
Lee squeezes himself back into the bottom shelf of the endcap. He indeed does look like a balled-up hedgehog, tucked knees clutched in his hairy arms. His face is less red now, but he still looks nervous. Lee has two teenage girls and a baby boy on the way. His kids' welfare depends on the sheer selling prowess of his regional salesmen. So much depends on Wyatt's sales pitch. Lee's daughters will not wear designer clothes and hence will never find lovers. The baby will not utter genius giggles at educational mobiles and will grow up dull-eyed, uninspired, and stupid. Wyatt hates the pressure piling up like the metal shavings. A light-gray line forms across the sledge head, where metal meets metal. A layer of shavings covers the stand top.
"Good. Great. Go get 'em, Wyatt. We're all behind you, rooting for you," Lee says, balled up in his hiding spot. "Now, before you get too far, cover me up with the cereal boxes again."
Wyatt picks the toucans off the floor and stacks them around Lee in a colorful, tropical igloo. He leaves a slot for Lee to peep through, even though he doesn't want to. He'd rather not have Lee watching him so closely. His presence is pressure, a reminder of all the lives at stake. He focuses on sawing.
He wonders if he's really cut out for this vocation. Before Thunder Blades, he worked in a nursing home called The Best Is Yet to Come. The residents thrived off his listening skills, stringing their stories along for hours. So many stories. But too many of the residents died in a freak outbreak of heart attacks and strokes and aneurysms. Everyone's circulatory system just went wonky one week, twenty-three all on one Wednesday. Clogged up or burst, and the nursing home staff needed to be cut in half. These things happen. Hearts explode or just stop. There was no one to blame, Wyatt tried to convince himself. But there must have been more he could have done, more stories he could have listened to, kept record of in his mind like a Venus flytrap of dead men's tales, which might have lessened the loads on their strained hearts.
One resident in particular, Mr. Henderson, never told him a story deep enough. He didn't want to share his family tree with Wyatt or to talk about children or even to reveal his first name. Instead, he told Wyatt about cars: his bright-yellow Bel Air with the sexy tail fins; the Crown Vic lined with red velvet upholstery, so sleek no ass deserved such classy cushioning. He told him about slinking California blacktop, windows down at sunset next to the ocean, not a bump in the road. Then, the roads in Michigan for the second half of his life — cracked-spine concrete, potholed, blowing out his alignment, windows shut tight in winter. This was all that Wyatt learned before Mr. Henderson's heart swelled to two times its original size and eventually stopped. A massive, useless organ. Wyatt wished he could have dug deeper past the cars to whatever made a heart swell so big.
After The Best Is Yet to Come, Thunder Blades hired him over the phone. They didn't want experience. They didn't want skill. Blank slates preferred. Lumpy masses of clay to be sculpted into an army of unstoppable salesmen. Wyatt came to know a world of products, each one more amazing than the next. Products, his training stressed, that no one could live without. Products, he realized, he'd been living without. This was surely why he lived alone, why he had no girlfriend or best friend or a close relationship with Mom and Dad. He had dead people's stories, but he needed stuff. Stuff and money. Everything was about money, commission, sale, paycheck, purchase.
By the time the next customer rounds the corner, swinging a shopping basket merrily, Wyatt has made a nice groove into the head of the sledge. The knives really are amazing. He likes the sound of the knife sawing back and forth, like the sound of old men's labored breathing as they near sleep on a comfortable mattress. He can feel Lee's eyes behind the boxes urging him. Saw like the wind, Wyatt. Make an impression. He saws more vigorously, sledge shavings accumulating like a metal blizzard, drifts of dust rising around the head of the sledge.
The customer reaches the cheese display, just before the meat troughs where Wyatt saws. He has messy brown hair and freckles, a dusty face with a thick shadow of stubble. He wears an orange reflective vest over a black T-shirt, asphalt-splotched jeans. A road paver, probably a city worker, the guys who blur past his car windows at the side of the road on his way to work. The customer picks out a quart of small-curd cottage cheese and plunks it into his basket. Then he's on his way, Thunder Blades directly in his path.
Wyatt is lactose intolerant, and watching the man at the cheese display puts him all in knots. It starts in his stomach and creeps into his arms fast at work, now cramping. How long can he last? How long until his arms melt into butter or cream cheese or small curds? How long until the blade goes dull?
Thunder Blades never go dull! Put your trust in the product. A master salesman is filled with faith.
Remembering his training rejuvenates his confidence, gives him a burst of sawing speed. The customer stops, stares, rubs his sandpaper cheeks. Wyatt has captured his attention, is finally doing something right.
We got our hooks in him now. Don't stop. Saw that son-of-a-bitch sledgehammer right in half! If he's impressed now, wait until he sees the rest. Break out the tomatoes!
From the deep pockets of his apron, Wyatt produces a bright-red tomato. He holds it up for the customer, rotates it left and right. It might be the biggest, reddest tomato the man in the orange vest has ever seen. The man scratches his head. He should be explaining what he's about to do, how the blade will still slice with Excalibur sharpness. But his tongue is tar. The words catch like stones in his throat.
Pushing back his nerves, Wyatt slides the serrated blade over the tomato, and it sinks through as if the sledge were nondairy butter. He breathes a sigh of relief. The customer widens his eyes with recognition, nods. Yes, it all makes sense now. The pieces are coming together. These are the best damn knives you'll ever see or want or need.
Back to the sledge. Wyatt is going for a world record with astronomically fast thrusts and pulls of his wrist. Einstein said nothing could move faster than the speed of light, but he was wrong. The passion and pressure fueling Wyatt's thrusts shatter the conventional theories of speed and physics. The shavings shoot out the deepening divot, spilling off the table top and onto the floor, like planets being born from astral dust.
From the opposite direction of the cheese — the seafood side, with the giant tank of plump, mottled brown lobsters — a high-pitched hum approaches. It almost sounds like a song, as if a mermaid might have been plunked into the tank and is trying to sing her way out. It's really quite fantastic, and this distraction causes Wyatt to slip and graze his knuckle — just a scratch, not much blood — but it seeps as bright and ripe as the tomato. He wipes his bloody knuckle on his uniform, under his apron where he hopes no one will see that he's bleeding, that these products can be dangerous. Appearances are important. The customer doesn't notice, because he looks toward the sound, too.
A woman wearing a bright-yellow blouse and black pants hums past his stand, armed with a small vacuum on a slim pole. She sucks up the spilled shavings of Wyatt's salesmanship. After one pass, not a speck remains. She pushes her small vacuum in a full circle around the customer and stops in front of him, propping her elbow on the slim pole, stretching a confident smile. She's small and skinny, has short blonde hair combed over like a school boy. With that tiny body, she could almost be invisible. But she assumes the presence of a greater-sized woman. Every movement — the curve of her wrist, her seductive twists of the tiny vacuum, the slight but unmistakable jut of her hip when she leans — is executed with graceful showmanship.
"Sir, do you wish you had an easier life?" She winks at the customer. "I'm here to make that dream possible. Well, not just me. Our product was envisioned and designed by expert NASA engineers to bring you an out-of-this-world sweeping experience from Warp-Speed Vacuums."
She swoops her hand into her tight pockets and releases a handful of varying-sized gems and gold nuggets. It's amazing so many could fit into such a tight pocket. They sprinkle and bounce across the tile floor. "But Warp-Speed doesn't just handle small messes. It can tackle the heavyduty work as well."
And then she's at it again, making quick, graceful circles with the tiny vacuum, sucking up each precious stone with a flick of the wrist and a side step here and there. It's a dance. Wyatt is mesmerized. He's forgotten all about the sledge, wondering to himself what heavenly training program blessed her with such a persona and why his hasn't kicked in yet. Perhaps some people are just born with salesmanship talent. She is perfect. He seriously considers upgrading to a new vacuum. But he'd need to sell more knives.
Stay focused on the knives! Don't be taken in by flashy false prophets. There's only room for one miracle product today.
He's back to sawing, stealing a glance as she swoops up the last gem. So perfect. The customer is in awe too. Blood wells up in the cracks of Wyatt's fingers, forming into tiny red tributaries. Maybe the cut is a bit deeper than he first thought. He wipes behind his apron again, hopes nothing shows through, hopes she might keep the customer's attention until his blood coagulates. Damn his blood.
"And just like that, your floors are spotless," she says. "You'll never need to toil away again. Just think of all the time you'll save in cleaning the very biggest of messes to the peskiest specks of insignificant dust."
The customer sets his basket down in order to clap.
Wyatt ponders the last thing she said: insignificant. She was referring to him and his metal shavings. This is not just competition. This is an attack. His stomach burns. Oh God, an ulcer! And no health insurance until he's made one hundred sales or worked six months. He feels sweat build on the crest of his thinning hairline hidden under the poofy chef's hat. His finger bleeds on, and he buries it in his pocket. He's glad his sweat and blood are hidden. Customers want effortlessness. For Wyatt to have a chance here, everything must appear easy.
Excerpted from One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist by Dustin M. Hoffman. Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgments Pushing the Knives One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist Sawdust and Glue Can Picking Everything a Snake Needs The Fire Chasers Subdivision Accidents Ice-Cream Dream We Ride Back The Shepherd’s Work Conch Tongue One More for You Strong as Paper Men Building Walls Workmen’s Compensation Touching in Texas