Phillips: A Short Story from The Tool Series

Photo by Maxim Shklyaev on Unsplash


Where’s Debbie?” asked Tim.

“She went in the house to talk to your mom,” said Oscar Phillips. “Hey, I heard you had a new girlfriend.” 

“Yep.”

“Is she coming?”

“No, Trish had to work.  She’s a nurse.” 

Tim leaned against the workbench and picked at a scab on his index finger.  Oscar sat on the chopper with the sparkling silver gas tank.  Everyone, including Oscar, knew the theme of this family barbecue was to offer him a hand up as he lurched in the quicksand of depression. The radio effortlessly played classic rock; Spirit of the West ushered in the moment. Spirit Of The West “Home For A Rest” – Official Music Video

“So, did Debbie bring home any boyfriends.  To do the meet-the-parents thing?” asked Oscar instantly regretting using air quotes. 

“I remember one guy.   He was really smart, tall and polite.  Debbie was still in college but he was working a full time job.  He had a pick up.  My Mom didn’t like him.  Dad did.”  Oscar straightened his back and bent his neck to crack it.  Oscar feared Tim’s dad Stan. 

“Debbie is like, 10 years older than you?” said Oscar.  

“Yes, 10 years and 8 months apart.  In school Debbie always had a part time job.  I saw her on weekends.  Kind of like visitation rights with your own sister while living in the same house. Basically we grew up in two different families with the same parents.  Debbie was before the accident.”

“Right,” said Oscar.

“She wasn’t perfect or anything but she didn’t cause my parents so many headaches like me.  We never really had any big brother-sister fights.  Never lit the kitchen on fire heating the pizza box in the oven or anything like that”

“Right,” said Oscar.  

His shoulders deflated in a whatever surrender. Depression is usurping his mojo.  It’s a pesky grinding of his tectonic plates causing landslides of conflict between him and Debbie.    

Tim took in the Oscar’s theatre in response to his question.

“What the fuck do you want me to do,” Oscar imitates an exasperated Debbie.

Then nodding to Tim.  “And you know Debbie never swears.”

“So …?” 

“So what?”

“So bro,what … do you want Debbie … to do?” asks Tim.

“I don’t know what I want to do,”  Oscar throws his arms open.  “So how the fuck can I tell her what to do?”

“Dude.  Fake it till you make it.  Ya know, tell ‘em you wanna buy a house.  Or have children.   Or to go for that promotion.”

“What promotion?”  Oscar needed to know.

“I am making it up.  It doesn’t fuckin matter.  They just need to hear that you are the man. They need you to make them feel they made the right decision bro.”  

Tim and Oscar nodded as they sipped their beers.

“Sorry man,”  Tim tried to redirect the heavy silence that was weighing them down,  “I’m just tryin to help.”

‘This family therapy gig is getting old quick,’ Tim thought during yet another awkward pause.  Oscar kept himself busy by thinking, ‘I just need to keep the conversation going.’  But he couldn’t find anything to say so the bottom fell out of the conversation again.  Tim turned around to face the workbench and grabbed a long, red handled Phillips screwdriver.  He spun it in the air, caught it and turned back and looked at Oscar.

“Look bro ….”

Oscar looked at him.

“It has everything to do with you and nothing to do with you all at the same time,”  Tim pointed the red screwdriver handle at Oscar.

As Oscar’s soul mined him for traction, he heard his instinct, ‘Reflect.’

Like a witch Tim says,

“Listen bro, you just need to reflect on, you know, the situation.  But, you have to fuckin swear you will not sit there and stew in your own regret.   You cannot, cannot mire yourself in your own, you know, bullshit.”  

Like the open garage door, Oscar gaped.  Tim was proud of how he used the word mired.  He had never used it before.

“Dude, I can see why Debbie is so frustrated.  Your mojo, your fuckin chi!” Tim extended his neck at Oscar, “Has been sucked out of you like you were a cherry freezie on a hot summer day.  Know what I mean?” 

“If I don’t, Debbie does.  And she isn’t shy about telling me. Daily,” said Oscar.

“Is she right, daily?”

“Is this a yes or no question?”

“Yes.”

“Yes. I mean, sure we had all those immature marital squabbles cuz our parents didn’t orient us about marriage.  I know now that’s nothing personal.  But now we are a fuckin tsunami of feces even before we wake up.  We don’t talk, we argue.  We don’t speak, we yell.  We don’t love, we dread.  It’s real.  It’s horrible.  I want to fix it,” said Oscar with the humility of a porcupine before a gale force wind.   His own words stood him up from the motorbike.  Tim was impressed.  Oscar looked at himself standing as if he just woke from a dream.  He sat back on the motorbike.

Bobcageon by The Tragically Hip reminded the radio of younger times. 

Oscar and Debbie lived in a condo downtown Toronto.  Having recoiled from most of their relationships, Oscar squats at home all day coding; becoming paler, losing valuable hair and gaining stupid pounds so he can be a better punching bag for depression.

His man cave was either: early morning concrete coffee cross legged on the 5 x 10 balcony overlooking the Gardiner Expressway or: seated on the ground in a clutch of red pine trees in the lakeside park across the street from the condo.  In other days, these ‘encuentros’  would have provided better dividends. 

The garage was Stan’s man cave.  Storage boxes stuffed with sentimental anchors among aged yard equipment collected on his shelving unit.  He was a salesman for Global Racking Systems.  One day a client wouldn’t pay for one of Stan’s sales, so the install team took back all the racking and put it in his garage.  

Tim had never seen his dad in work mode.  Stan started out really appreciative of the install team bringing it over and installing the racks.   Then in the flip of switch he was really bossy when it came to the installation.  Then he gave the guys pizza and beers.  It was fun for Tim to observe others caught in his dad’s passive/aggressive jousting.

Tim shuffled his feet on the gritty garage floor painted slate grey, looked back at the racking and realized he was proud of his dad.  He decided he would ask his dad about how to invest in a house.

The earthy air of the garage buoyed Oscar from falling deeper into the abyss of depression.  There was a hint of oily rags coming from the corner.  The ceiling was high enough and the garage wide enough so you didn’t sense you were missing out on the day when you were inside the garage.  

“Lemme see that thing, said Oscar reach for Tim to pass him the red handled screwdriver

“This thing is probably older than you,”  Tim said.

Oscar exhaled laughter,  “You know I am actually named after this fuckin thing.”

“Get outta town.”

“Ya.  My dad is a total tool geek and he insisted my name be Henry Phillips – the guy who patented the cross screwdriver.  He didn’t tell my mom until after I was born.  I’m pretty sure that is why they got divorced.”

“What?!”

“Well not exactly, but it couldn’t have fuckin helped.  Anyway, I was like three.  My mom made sure from then on everyone used my middle name.

“Oscar,”  Tim said.

“Nice to meet ya,”  Oscar raised his empty beer bottle and they both laughed.  Tim wanted to get them another beer but feared breaking the moment by going to the kitchen.

“Guys.”  Stan opened the door connecting the garage to the laundry room with his left hand and held up his right hand carrying two green bottles of beer.  “Do I have any customers?”  

Oscar jumped to his feet.

“Right on.  Perfect timing dad.”

“Where’s your beer Stan?”  Oscar asked.

“Back at the barbecue.  Burgers are gonna be ready in 5 minutes,”  Stan said, closing the door.

“Thanks dad,”  Stan loved hearing those words.  They ferried beautiful meaning.

“Nice and cold, thanks Stan,”  said Oscar as he grabbed a metal scraper with a wood handle from the workbench and popped the bottle caps off.

“Boys, dinners on the table,”  Tim’s mom chirped and then she knocked on the door.  Tim and Oscar chuckled at the backward sequence of it.

ar Oscar imagined that the granite boulder of depression weighing on his shoulders was crumbling into shiny grains of crystalline red, black and silver sand that fell off his back spilling around his feet.

—- Phillips is part of the Short Story Series called Tool by Kevin McNamara

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