Aphelion Issue 290, Volume 27
December 2023 / January 2024
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The Estimator

by David Flynn

When he heard the old General Hospital had burned to the ground, a twinge of sadness shot through Charles Armstrong. That was where he was born.

True the old structure had been turned into an insurance office, but he drove past it every morning going to the office. That's where I was born, he could think, and it gave him satisfaction, like there was a concrete floor to his life.

He pictured himself held upside down by the doctor. His mother was drugged during the birth, and saw her only child for the first time a day later. His father had stayed in the waiting room for awhile, then left, typically to drink with his factory friends.

Being born was painful. Now the room where the doctor had saved his little life--he couldn't breathe at first--was a pile of smoky ashes. Charles' feelings crashed as he drove by in his rusted yellow truck, and all day, immersed in construction estimates and demands from suppliers, he hardly said a word to anyone in the other gray cubicles.

Next morning the house where Charles first lived also burnt down. Fifth Street, a rough neighborhood. White clapboard, shotgun, but with a front porch. Two bedrooms, one where his crib then his bed were kept. The white walls with never a picture. He still could hear the snores of his parents through those walls.

The Armstrongs moved when Charles was five, but his first memories were in that house: His father whipping him with a hairbrush or a belt, like when he pulled a knife on the red-haired girl next door. He didn't mean to scare her, just be tough. His third Christmas: One present, a used toy rifle, because his father Louis was in danger of being fired from his welder's job.

Charles smiled, seated at his metal desk, a parts catalog in his hand.

The accountant that shared his cubicle looked at him strangely. He had been humming.

So after work, he drove to Fifth Street, on the far side of town from the cheap studio apartment where he had moved the last month, still adjusting after his second divorce. Another pile of ashes smoldered in the middle of a patchy yard. His heart fell. Fifth Street looked so ugly, the chipped white paint of the rows of shotgun houses, and not the playground he had imagined.

That Sunday a tornado destroyed the Armstrongs' second house, and the estimator feared something terrible was happening.

As wind and rain battered the walls of his one room efficiency, he lay on the red sofa, staring at the TV pictures of his second neighborhood. Each house was a square of flattened, shredded wood. The three-bedroom had been brick, ranch style, and on a better street, lined with oaks. The better north side of town. Louis, due to seniority, had been promoted to foreman at the factory, though he still came home drunk most every night.

Charles' school days were lived behind that brick, the outsider, the blue-collar kid. He was chunky and beat up the smaller kids. Their parents worked in offices, and snubbed his father and mother. One day the teacher asked him why he never smiled.

At first he let the third destruction go as a coincidence, but next evening the estimator drove to the north side. As he edged along his street, lined with shredded oaks, one heap of the torn timber and brick made him cry. He hadn't cried in two decades, not since his first divorce, from his high school sweetheart, but Charles parked his old pickup truck by the curb and bawled his eyes out.

When he looked up, a fat faced boy stared through the car window. He drove off. Brown-haired, overweight, short. The boy looked like him at that age.

That house was where I brought Diane to meet my parents, he thought, and pictured with a shiver the disapproval on his father's face. How the big-bellied man had said hello then disappeared. Diane was from his old neighborhood, her father was a garbage man, and Louis didn't respect her. His mother, grown enormously fat as well, frowned, looking like white trash.

The tornado, a force four, also destroyed the row of five shops a few blocks away. West's Grocery where the owner followed Charles around the rows to be sure he didn't steal any more candy. You can't trust anything or anybody, Charles thought. He pulled over to the nearest curb to cry.

At the office, the contractor asked if he was O.K. The old, elegant man sat at the conference table, at a meeting about an office building. Charles needed to talk to the boss, or to a friend, about the three ruins, but he had nobody. Almost fifty years stuck in that city, and his only acquaintances sat around that table, men in neckties. After his parents died, he'd even lost touch with his relatives.

I have to deal with this myself, he decided, looking into the gray eyes of the boss. In the end, all anybody has is himself.

"Fit as a horse," he lied.

After 5, Charles drove back to his apartment in what looked like a one-story motel, but was "Garden View Apartments." His room did look like a motel room though. Kitchenette, speckled linoleum floor, a chair with a cigarette burn. He had to find an even cheaper place soon, a room in some old woman's house maybe. Alimony payments were killing him.

Thank goodness he never had kids. Kids screaming, getting into trouble. Kids looked at him and turned serious. The love of his life, Diane, had wanted a family.

Number Two, Tammy, was just a cheap bottle blonde he kept seeing at the grocery. She let him do what he wanted with her skinny body their first night. A few months after their wedding, Tammy left him for a paint store owner with more money.

Money buys love, Charles thought. Money buys life, and I'm poor. He started crying, watching TV on the sofa.

The estimator was in his yellow truck, driving toward a pizza place for dinner, when the radio newswoman cut into the oldies with a bulletin: Both his elementary and high schools had been flattened by explosions.

Charles pulled to the curb, and sat awhile. He started bawling, tears flowing over his fat cheeks. I've got to quit this whining, he thought. I've got to be hard.

The elementary school looked like his houses hit by the twister only bigger, a rectangular pile of debris. The debris was scattered into the dirt yard where he had his first fights.

The left side wall was erect, and the chairs and the blackboard of one classroom stood.

Charles hated school. His parents made fun of his studying, and he flunked most of his tests. The teachers were concerned for a while, then let him fail. Never read a book in my life, he recently had bragged to a co-worker.

Now he wished he had learned more. Maybe he wouldn't have made so many mistakes in life if he had. He remembered being really interested in science. But he felt too old, and there was no hope.

The high school was even bigger, but exploded the same. One bomb, or gas leak, couldn't have destroyed both buildings. Only the central gym, where he had goofed off--he was too slow and clumsy to like sports--stood in recognizable shape. Ambulances with their amber lights flashing parked in front, where technicians in uniforms searched the rubble for bodies. The janitor and security guard might have been inside, but Charles didn't think so. There had been no casualties, just the chipping away at the concrete floor to his life.

Something enormous hated Charles Armstrong.

That week he worked overtime every day, a warehouse complex that had to be redesigned, and, of course, the materials list completely re-estimated. He immersed himself in the calculations, the calls to suppliers. If he hit the final construction cost within ten percent he felt like he'd won a game, though there were buildings he'd missed by 30 percent. Being inaccurate was O.K. Nobody expected any better in construction.

The accountant behind the next desk noticed the fat man staring worried into space.

"You O.K.?" he asked.

Charles wanted to punch the man's mole-speckled face.

"Fit as a horse," he repeated.

But in his room, with not even a poster on the white concrete-block walls, Charles felt so scared he couldn't rise from the sofa to get another beer.

The factory where he had worked as welder's apprentice a year after high school until he got fired for missing work, the vocational school where he quickly trained as estimator, the rented house where he and Diane lived their eight years, his four apartments afterward including the townhouse with Tammy, the offices of his two old employers, both contractors, his current office: The total of his 10 buildings, still standing, was a relief, a barrier between whatever was after him and the room where he sat watching a sitcom rerun.

Does God hate me? Have I led such an evil life? But he never had such deep thoughts, and he knocked them out of his head.

Have I wasted my life? He tried to quit thinking.

Charles had to tell somebody. But growing up with his father's temper, he had learned to keep his problems to himself.

Which was why, when he heard that his first old factory had been vandalized by an assumed drunken gang of dropouts, burnt and smashed and spray painted so badly that the shell, which hadn't been used in years, likely would be torn down, and that the vocational school and his beloved rental house with Diane had both disappeared into sinkholes, Charles howled, then cried.

He had been listening to the truck AM radio, but when the light changed and time came to step on the accelerator to the office he just couldn't. The estimator had never been so scared. In four years with this contractor, his longest job ever, he had missed only eight days, mostly for flu. But Charles called in sick. Only six buildings to go.

"You O.K., man?" the boss's son asked on the phone.

"Everybody's sick; it's a sick world," he heard himself say, then wondered where that came from. "Fit as a horse."

When he looked, his right hand was rolled into a fist.

Charles took a nap on the sofa, and when he woke up, felt better. In fact, he felt silly, and guilty that he had missed work. He sure needed the money.

That workday without estimating, with rain pouring in sheets, the apartment where he moved after his first divorce was swept away by a flood. Five to go.

Diane was a blonde too, his type, short hair and pudgy cheeks. They had dated after high school, and what he liked most about her was that she stayed with him. Charles drank a lot during those days, before he settled into his first estimating job that her uncle got him. She put up with it, helped him into bed when he stumbled back from the bar. She complained that he had no ambition.

Diane was sweet. His leaving her was the dumbest thing he ever did in a life of dumb things. There were reasons: She was dull; she was too religious; she insisted on kids--but really it had been just something restless inside him.

Staring at the picture of the water-ruined apartment house on TV, Charles remembered the brief feeling of freedom after he left Diane there, then the terrible rejection when he begged her to take him back. That night he stumbled away from her door in misery was the last chance he had for a family life.

Diane had remarried, and now, almost twenty years into her marriage, had two kids in college. Charles heard by rumor, because he hadn't even bumped into her at the mall since the court hearing. He still loved her so much he hurt. She was the only person, including his mother and father, he had ever loved.

I've had my chances and blew them all, he decided. No more chances for me.

When the estimator, between bologna slices, examined his recent behavior, getting the estimates 50 percent wrong, forgetting to shave one day, he wondered that the big boss hadn't called him in for a warning. The contractor didn't cut much slack, even for long-time employees. A foreman, with the company twenty years, had been fired for cracking one concrete wall slab.

Back on the red sofa, the TV screen noisy with a game show, the word "suicide" popped into Charles' mind for the first time, but he pushed it out, terrified.

That afternoon's newspaper included gas explosions at two apartments where he lived between marriages, and a freak mudslide at the townhouse where he lived the year before with Tammy. All flattened. Two to go.

Charles fell to his knees, on the hard linoleum.

Next Sunday he would go to church. There he'd find a churchwoman, and help her raise her kids. He'd reform his life, do charity around town. What his parents or teachers never gave him was a precise purpose in life, and he'd find it. God's precise purpose. Didn't the preacher say it was never too late?

One night's sleep, however, and Charles felt hopeless. He had no energy, and had a hard time lifting his body out of bed. The junk food and the beer were making him huge.

God hated him. He might as well kill himself. He was just taking up space. When he realized he was picturing different ways--a gun, the stove, crashing his rusted truck--Charles quit thinking.

The phone rang. Probably his boss wondering why he wasn't at his desk. He didn't answer. Then he decided to see the minister at his parent's Baptist church. Only a minister might understand.

The voice on the answering machine was what did him in: Fake, like the preacher had to be somewhere else. In fact, Charles wasn't real sure he believed in God, or anything that couldn't be put on a materials list.

He wondered about poison.

A letter arrived, notifying Charles that he had been fired from his job, and with the helpful suggestion from his old boss that he seek help with a psychiatrist. Four years and all he got was the letter, and three month's severance pay.

"But," Charlie said to his apartment's blank walls, "I've got proof."

The very next morning, the contractor's office became so infested with flies, the staff had to run out the doors. He watched the old bastard on TV, stuttering, saying the infestation was so bad he'd have to build a new headquarters. Charles laughed so hard his enormous stomach got sore.

One to go.

Then whatever was after him stopped, like it was making fun. Three months passed in silence. Night after night, as Charles watched the few thousand dollars dwindle for food, rent, and alimony, he checked the newspaper; he watched the television news; he listened to his radio. But night after night that cheap one-bedroom building after Tammy still stood.

"Dear God," he whispered into his pillow, "whatever I've done, please forgive me."

In daylight, though, Charles didn't feel any guilt, and when he tried to figure out what his sin was, he could find nothing. Men all around him were a lot worse: They beat their wives, they cursed, and they stole. He knew women with four divorces who had abandoned their children to drink and whore. What had he done that was worse than them? He had done nothing.

Still one to go.

"Dear God," he said, standing at his kitchen counter in his underwear, "please kill me. You pull the trigger. I can't."

Once the funeral was over, not one human on Earth would remember him. He cried until his eyes were red.

Three months, during which he became afraid of sunlight, and grew pale, unshaven, dirty, smelly, with a beer belly swelling into mountainous size. He quit dressing, naked or only in underwear. Charles wheezed just struggling up from the sofa. He ate nothing but bags of potato chips, whole cans of pork and beans, and frozen pizza.

Then one morning, three months to the day, he woke up on the linoleum after a dreamless night, and turned on the TV news. Tears streamed down his fat cheeks in relief. A meteorite had shred his last apartment.

Zero to go.

The room started moaning. A pounding shook the door. He didn't answer it at first, being afraid, but when he finally did, throwing the door open like embracing the grave, nothing was there. Once he was back on the sofa, though, the ceiling started to sag. The ceiling sagged until it almost touched his hair. The floor began to fall below him. His apartment was folding, with furniture and crap on the shelves sliding toward the middle. Glasses shattered. A fire exploded in the kitchenette when the gas line broke.

He couldn't stand it. Charles waddled for the door, almost uphill, dodging objects flying in the air from a tornado that had started in the middle of the linoleum. The sprinklers went on overhead. The room shook, like in an earthquake. Hail pounded on the window. And the wind outside howled. Screams of torture filled the air. Black flies bit him. The TV sputtered then a halo appeared on the screen. Meteorites sliced through the room. A river began filling the apartment. He swam to the door, yanked it open, and fell outside

to a sunny, blue sky day. Yellow flowers swayed in a delicious breeze. The sun warmed his face.

Charles struggled into the parking lot. His old apartment fell into a heap with a bang. All the other apartments stood.

"Fit as a horse!" he yelled in defiance at the air, at God. A small crowd formed as he fell to his knees on the asphalt. He cried and screamed. Cracks formed in the parking lot. One widened toward the bloated, naked man. He fell into the opening. The crowd saw only his fingers grasping the pavement. They slipped bit by bit, then Charles Armstrong disappeared below the ground.


2013 David Flynn

Bio: Mr. Flynn has five degrees, and is both a Fulbright Senior Scholar and a Fulbright Senior Specialist currently on the roster. His literary publications total more than one hundred and thirty. David Flynn's writing blog, where he posts a new story and poem every month, is at http://writing-flynn.blogspot.com/.

E-mail: David Flynn

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