They lined the walls of my father's home office floor to ceiling like big game trophies. Best New Employee; In Honor of Continued Excellence; For Commitment in his Chosen Field; For Exceptional Leadership; For Visionary Leadership; For Leadership and Outstanding Guidance; For Continued Team Building, Leadership Skills, Exceptional Guidance and Continued Excellence in the Field of...
My father, an archduke of vapid accomplishment.
Glass plaques. White marble plaques. Rosewood plaques with high tone brass. Black aluminum on American walnut. Alderwood. Red brass plates on smoky, heavy marble. Copper on coated cherry. Mahogany with glass panels. Upright plaques made of inch-thick crystal sitting on three-pound marble bases. Perpetuals. Plaques with gold-dial clocks. Premium acrylic stones — freestanding — with his likeness laser-etched in the strange, floating ether of the glass.
Plaque has its etymology in Middle French (Plaquer) and Middle Dutch (Placken) and Middle High German (Placke), and its origins more or less stem from valiant family crests. Coats of armor. But the modern plaque, the commemorative award given by an employer to an employee for the sake of recognizing certain achievements or contributions, is a recent phenomenon, one that did not exist before the Industrial Revolution. According to Humanities professor emeritus Jens Reichler:
...the first documented case of the use of the commemorative plaque as a means by which an employer could offer non-fiscal compensation to a particular employee (thereby eliminating even the tiniest of budget overhead whilst still bolstering morale) occurred in 1902, in Bismarck, North Dakota, at Whalen & Sons Meat Packing Plant, on December 5, a Friday. The recipient, Bruno Moretti, an immigrant...was granted the award...[for his] ability [as safety inspector] to decrease on-the-clock mutilations by 250%. [PHOTO INSET: CAPTION: Oliver Whalen and Bruno Moretti at the entrances to Whalen & Sons. Bismarck, North Dakota. 1902. Note Moretti's bewildered expression, unsure as to what he has been gifted.] The whereabouts of the award are unknown. It is conceivable that Moretti took the plaque apart and sold the metal for scrap, using the proceeds to buy shoes for his children.*
This might also serve as the first instance of employer–employee unease. I don't mean in the Upton Sinclair, You've-lost-both-thumbs-in-a-meat-grinder-and-I-could-care-less way, or in the existential questioning of one's worth in the face of the ever grinding gears of market capitalism. I don't wish to conjure the Wobblies, child labor, poor wages, black lung or the two-loom system. I mean a quieter unease, a more abstract sense of mistreatment, of not being appreciated. Plaques are not inexpensive. Your basic brass on oak getup runs upwards of seventy-five bucks, whereas laser-etched steel on glass or titanium with even modest walnut finishings flirts with five figures. Millions of employees have felt the same bewilderment as Bruno Moretti; they often express (rarely in public) a wish for the money over the award. Plaques are garish, difficult to haul around. They are aesthetically loathsome. They've become the butt of jokes, much like fruitcake at Christmas.
But you would never have known this from my father. My father still saw the connection to chivalry.
So when he died and my mother sold them or gave them away or donated them to Goodwill, she had committed a barbarous act. The doctor had given her a high-dose prescription for antidepressants to help her cope with her grief. Venlafarzine, 375 mgs. We're talking serious shit, here. I didn't know about it. The plaques. The pills. I was off at college, learning things.
Then, at Thanksgiving, I went into the office and found the walls bare. He'd smoked cigars, my father, and so the drywall was stained amber except where the awards had hung. Hundreds of 10" x 8" rectangles as white as veneer bicuspids, meticulously spaced.
— Jesus. What happened?
— I couldn't take it, Charlie. All those things staring back at me. I could see your father's face in the brass. Ghostly, you know?
— Mother, listen closely. I need to know what you did, who you sold them to.
— Scrap metal, baby. Pawn shops. I think your father wouldn't mind, really. He always wanted to believe in reincarnation. Entrenched Presbyterianism kept him at bay. Is entrenched the correct word? Was your father ever in combat, Charlie? Or am I thinking of another man, a lover, as I had in those days. I was wanted, son. My flanks were tremendous.
— You owe your flanks to my genetic code alone.
— Tell me you kept a ledger, receipts, some documentation.
— Don't be stupid. Was I ever one of those pathetic women who hoard receipts.
— You had drawer-fulls.
— You're talking about another life, Charlie. A different person.
Later that evening I watched her take a ball-peen hammer to the face of a garden structure, a heavy stone frog my father and I bought her one Mother's Day. I was enraged. I wanted to pummel that fraud doctor.
She came down finally, and was filled with grief and horror.
I took incompletes in my classes and told the girl I'd been seeing that it was possible for passion to take a hiatus, that the kind of love we had between us was the kind many in this world would kill for, would be willing to give their earthly possessions for even the tawdriest of imitations. She disagreed.
(As for the girl: It wasn't long before she met a veterinarian and married. They live in the country now, from my understanding, where he pulls calves from Herefords and she runs a day-care. It sounds close to heaven.)
Mother and I took to her Pontiac. We drove through town trying to jog her memory. It was cold; a snowstorm was building to the north; low sooty clouds descended around us. Downtown, a group of retirees were wrapping Christmas lights around lampposts and constructing a nativity scene near the auto parts store. They were having to contend with a nasty wind, and much of the hay for the manger was blowing across the avenue.
Our town looks prettier on overcast days. Most of the mills and factories have outsourced their labor; even the company my father worked for — a manufacturer of the least sexy parts of computers: caps locks, power buttons — has downsized its labor force by two-thirds. In the spring and summer the empty buildings suck all joy out of the blooming gardens and poplars.
— This place looks familiar.
I pulled the car into the parking lot of a busy pawn shop, its neon sign flashing in gran mal style: G-U-I-T-A-R-S G-U-N-S J-E-W-E-R-L-Y G-U-I-T-A-R-S G-U-N-S J-E-W-E-R-L-Y G-U-I-T-A-R-S G-U-N-S J-E-W-E-R-L-Y G-U-I-T-A-R-S-
I would like to describe Jed Horatio, the man behind the counter, in a manner that makes him human, dignified, or at the very least average: a man making a living the way the rest of us are. But I can't do that.
He wore a heavy trench coat that reeked of gasoline, and he looked pleased as punch, his store filled with people hocking their class rings and wedding bands, their mother's mother's cameos. 30.06s. Les Pauls. Things they'd once held closest to their hearts. Horatio had a thin, uneven mustache. His right hand held five fat fingers. His left was missing, replaced with an old style hook, something no doubt conned or stolen from a former customer.
I did my best to explain our predicament to Horatio. A dead father, a neurologically imbalanced mother. He listened, his good hand up to his mustache and the blunt end of his hook gently tapping the glass showcase he leaned against, as if he were wanting me to take another look at the impressive array of butterfly knives available.
After a while, Jed Horatio said,
— You're lucky. I still have it in the back. These types of things don't last long. People want them. You'd be surprised. They buy them here, take them home, do a little editing, revising — a little cut and paste — and wouldn't you know it? Suddenly there's their name, suddenly they're top salesman of 1989 or what have you.
Horatio disappeared into a back room. Mother and I waited. The people around us looked desperate. I thought of making this observation to mother but decided against it. We were desperate.
The award mother had pawned was a freestanding piece of engraved crystal fashioned in the likeness of a shamrock, sitting on a tortoiseshell base. Jed Horatio used a handcart to roll it out toward us. He used a chamois to polish the crystal, and asked us what we thought.
— Perfect, I told him, running my fingers along my father's name. This is fantastic, I said.
— Great. Asking price is twelve hundred. I'll throw in an Abs of Steel DVD box set. You know, for the holidays. We here at The Trading Tipi want our customers to be happy.
— Twelve hundred? You're out of your goddamn mind.
Jed Horatio shrugged and put his good hand inside his jacket and pulled out the loan papers. No, he said. I'm within my goddamn contractual rights, is what I am.
I looked at my mother. She'd begun to cry. The other customers were now staring at us, filled with pity.
After I'd maxed out three credit cards and after we had loaded the award into mother's back seat, the two of us spent the rest of the afternoon driving in figure eights, down back streets and alleyways. Nothing came to mind.
— I'm sorry, Charlie. Everything's a blur.
I tried to cheer her up. I took her to an old restaurant she liked. We hadn't been there since I was young. The place was under new management and the food was greasy. But the booths were decorated in tinsel and the waitresses wore Santa hats; some of them even donned Rudolph noses. I believe this helped.
Toward the last light of the afternoon, mother said she remembered a scrap yard on the north end of town. We drove out to where the carefully planned neighborhoods and avenues gave way to hills and tall pines, and the neighborhoods were more groupings of old postwars and trailers in cut out sections of the woods. The scrap yard had no name, so far as I could tell. But it had been a fixture of the town for decades. It sat just off the highway: sprawling, unorganized acres of rust behind a makeshift fence of corrugated steel. I knew the place was owned by a family, and I knew this family was mostly ignored the way families on the outskirts were. But that's all I knew.
Mister Newton, the owner, met us in the middle of the yard. He left the door to the warehouse open, and as I explained the situation to him I could see, just over his shoulder, the low glow of a television inside. Then I realized a woman was in there. She sat on a couch facing the television, holding a baby in her arms. Mister Newton kept running a tongue along his back molars — bulging his cheek — and then I understood that the Newtons lived here, that this was more than their place of business, that we had interrupted dinner.
When I finished, Mister Newton shook his head slowly. He wasn't wearing a coat and it had begun to snow. He crossed his arms.
— Gosh, he said. That's awful. That's a real awful story.
Inside, the baby had begun to cry. The woman rose from the couch and came out and looked at us and closed the door. We could still hear the baby.
— I wish like hell you'd've told me all of this middle of last week.
— I can pay you. Whatever you think is fair.
— It ain't that. Here, come with me.
We followed Newton along a path cut out of the wreckage. Mountains of car engines and twisted steel towered over us. It was dark now; Newton had brought a flashlight, though the batteries were dying; every so often we stopped to let him slap the light back to life.
We came upon a wide clearing in the middle of which stood a badly rusted ice chest. Newton placed the flashlight near his feet and opened the latch and the stink of old refrigerant rose from within. He pulled out seven wood slats and handed them to me. Then he took up the light and shone it down into my hands.
— I've already melted down and sold the facades. All that's left are the panels.
I held them in my hands.
— I'm real sorry about this. Can't tell you that enough. You can keep those if you'd like. Don't suppose they're any good to you, though.
Mister Newton's flashlight went out and he hit the butt of it against the icebox's lid for a good while. It wouldn't come back on.
— There you have it. We're without light.
It was dark now and the snow was falling in heavy sheets. For a while the three of us stood without speaking, and the quiet was large and far-reaching. I tucked the seven wood slats into my jacket.
— Well, listen. If we're going to get out of here, you're going to have to take my hand. Ma'am, maybe you could take mine and your son could take yours. Think I know this place well enough to get us back to your car.
I felt my mother's hand take mine, her palm warm and soft. We followed Newton through the heaps of garbage, the snow crunching beneath our feet and whirling through the scrap metal and falling onto our shoulders and hair. We were silent, listening to the snowfall. We didn't know where we were headed, though we knew Newton was taking us in the direction of his home.
That was years ago. Later, once we'd made it back to the warehouse, Mister Newton invited us to dinner. And later still, I put mother in a care facility. She's doing fine. We don't talk about the plaques. I have what I have: seven faceless maple planks and a thick, useless hunk of crystal. It's more than what some have.
My father's name is Roy F. Turnley.
I don't expect anything, but if you happen to come across something, something you think might be of interest to us, please don't hesitate to call. I've included my mother's phone number here:
* Reichler, Jens. "Reexamining Conferral Procedures of the Early Twentieth Century." Journal of Approbrative History, pp. 143 – 169.