Goldbricks by Robert Lopez


Text by Robert Lopez


We are in a boat but there’s no captain, no crew of any kind. I do know bow and stern and starboard and port and I know the hull and that the captain always goes down with his ship but you have to know navigation to be a captain and I don’t know navigation. I couldn’t navigate a toy boat from one side of a bathtub to another. I have no sense of direction other than everything is always going to hell. You don’t have to study navigation at the naval academy or own a compass to know this much about the world, to know where everything is always going. I’ve never owned a compass myself but my father did once. He never let me touch it, said I wasn’t responsible enough. I lost his pocket-watch is why he said this about me, why he never let me touch the compass. He said he hated my guts because I lost his pocket-watch and that I’d rue the day. I never did rue any of the days but I always regretted losing my father’s pocket-watch, which turned out was given him by his grandfather who fought in the great war. He said that his grandfather held onto that watch through many a hard fought battle and it was good luck and a family heirloom. He said that watch survived the Germans and mustard gas but couldn’t last five minutes in my feckless hands. I didn’t know what feckless meant back then and I still don’t think I know what it means, but I used to look at my hands to try and figure it out. My hands are small and smooth and offer no clues. My father said I was delicate, called me a daisy. I don’t think my father ever had anything good to say about me, at least not after the pocket-watch. I’m not sure how I lost that pocket-watch but I’ve always suspected my brother stole it. My brother was no good and a common criminal but even still he always outsmarted me. I think my brother is in prison now, which probably serves him right. I heard from some relative that he tried robbing a liquor store but it didn’t work out, that his accomplice gave him up during questioning. It seems right to me because our father gave up on both of us long ago and my brother and I gave up on each other shortly after that. Our father always wanted the two of us to enlist but neither of us ever did. This is another thing I regret. I think I would’ve done well in the service. I’d probably have joined the army because I don’t much care for water. This is another reason I’m no captain. I’m probably not qualified to be a crew member, either. I don’t know what the crew is responsible for on a boat, but one assumes it’s the grunt work. Toting barges, lifting bales, things of this nature.  I’ve never been good at anything physical. I can’t even mop a floor properly. I always leave swaths of floor streaked and un-mopped. Our father used to admonish me for mopping the floor this way. It was the same whenever I mowed the lawn, which was only that one time. My father came outside and said this is what you get when you ask a daisy to mow a lawn. He was referring to certain lanes where the grass was still knee-high. This is why I’d do better as a field general behind the front lines or in front of them, drawing up battle plans on a blackboard, barking orders to subordinates. I suppose field generals are out there in the field, though, inside tanks, looking through periscopes, but I don’t know if they have periscopes in tanks. Surely there are periscopes in submarines, but probably not tanks. I have no idea how they see from inside a tank. I don’t know how they can steer from inside a tank or how they know where to aim the cannon. I don’t even know if that’s what they call the guns that sit atop tanks. To me it looks like a cannon but I’ve never seen a cannon in real life so I don’t know what one actually looks like. Another thing I don’t know is if they had tanks during the great war or if my father’s grandfather ever rode in one. The only thing my father told us about his grandfather was that he fought in the great war and had a lucky pocket-watch. My brother said that our father made up these stories about his grandfather, that he never did fight in any war, let alone a great one. He said our father probably bought that watch in a pawn shop. I almost felt like arguing with him, but realized I agreed with him. I’m not sure how many people ride in a tank though I’m guessing there has to be at least two, one to steer and the other to shoot. I’d probably want to do both, but not at the same time. It would be too much to do both at the same time. My father always told me that I had to concentrate on what was right in front of me, the floor, for instance. He wanted to know what kind of daisy couldn’t mop a floor properly. He would grab me by the scruff of the neck and point my head toward what I’d done or left undone. He would say, look at this, Daisy, are you blind or something. Not long after this my brother started calling me Daisy and it got so that everyone started calling me Daisy. I didn’t mind it then and I still don’t. I might be the only full grown man in the world called Daisy. Not every man has that kind of distinction, being one of a kind. I try to think about this whenever I have a job to do, concentrating on what’s right in front of me. I remember my father showing us how to make French toast step by step as an example of doing this, from cracking the eggs to pouring the milk to sprinkling the cinnamon and vanilla and the rest. He said you can’t think about the vanilla until it’s time for the vanilla. He said this is what it takes to be a man, to be a leader. It’d be the same with the tank. One drives while the other shoots. There’s a division of labor. I think it would be nice to take turns so that on some days you are driving the tank and on others you are shooting the gun but I’m not sure if that’s how they work it. There is no cannon on this boat, which is just as well. I’m not sure who we’d be expected to shoot if there were a cannon on board. There’s no captain to tell us where to steer or shoot, which is something I think I’ve already said. This is something I do from time to time, repeat myself. My father used to hate this about me. He used to ask what was wrong with me. I’d ask him to be more specific. He took me to the doctor once but they told him they couldn’t find anything terribly wrong, no more than anyone else. They said something about a vitamin deficiency, but my father scoffed at that. He called them a bunch of quacks, said vitamins can’t help daisies. If you ask me I don’t think I’ve ever had a vitamin deficiency, though I do think something isn’t right. I’ve always had a hard time remembering facts, names and dates, what happened and in what sequence along with concentrating on what’s in front of me. Maybe everyone has these problems. Maybe everyone has a hard time remembering things but they’re better at pretending otherwise. There are planes flying overhead. This is what’s currently in front of me and I don’t have to pretend otherwise. Perhaps if there was a captain or a cannon we’d be instructed to shoot at the planes. I have never once been on a plane but when I was a child I thought I’d grow up to be a pilot. I thought it’d be a good job to have but it turns out I can’t see out of my left eye and they won’t let you fly a plane if you’re half blind like that. I found out I was half blind after my father took me back to the doctor and insisted they were mistaken the first time, that there had to be something wrong. I didn’t realize I couldn’t see out of my left eye until they told me. I can’t remember what my father said when they told him I couldn’t see out of my left eye, but he probably said something like it figures. So this is how my career as a pilot ended before it even began. I didn’t have to fill out an application or sit through any interviews to know that much. My brother and I sometimes pretended to fill out applications whenever our father told us to go out and get a job. He called us free-loaders and goldbricks and said we were good for nothing which was only true if you looked at it a certain way. So my brother and I would run out to the other side of town during working hours so that we could come back and say we’d pounded the pavement but came up short. This was right before my brother turned to a life of crime, I think. Maybe he’d already committed a few crimes by then, but I’m sure they were petty. My brother was always a nickel and dime operation. It wasn’t long after whatever happened next that our father disowned both of us and everyone went their separate ways. My brother’s name is Omar so you knew it was hopeless right from the start. No one named Omar ever amounted to anything. I’m not sure why our father named him Omar but that’s what he named him. One of our relatives said my father’s grandfather was named Omar but we never heard this from our father. I don’t think anyone on this boat is named Omar. I haven’t heard anyone get called Omar and no one here looks like an Omar, but neither did my brother, so that means nothing. The passenger next to me has his hands in his pockets like my father always used to do on account of his arthritis. This is why he said he couldn’t enlist himself, he said he was 4-F, which is another thing he never explained to us. I used to wonder if his hands were feckless, too, but his hands weren’t at all like mine. They were bent and crooked and had lines shooting out in all directions. He’d point a bony finger and wag it at me whenever he was explaining how to concentrate on what’s in front of you. He’d even make up signals for me to do certain things around the house but I never understood them. This is another reason I’m no captain or crewman. I’m no good at signals and you have to be if you want to be a captain or crewman. You have to know how to send a distress signal and you have to know Morse code. If the boat starts sinking I hope someone knows how to send out a distress signal, but it probably won’t matter. We’ve been sailing for hours and I’m sure there’s no one around to save us if it comes to that. I’m sure I’d drown before help arrived as I don’t know how to swim. There are life preservers tied to the rails here, but that’s usually for decoration or to trick people into thinking there’s hope. I don’t know these other people in the boat with me, but they seem fine. I’m not particular about who it is I drown with. I guess my brother wasn’t particular about who he robbed liquor stores with, either, which feels like the bigger mistake. My brother did ask me to pull a job with him once and I agreed to it initially but then feigned a stomach flu when it came go time. My brother said it was only nerves and I had to buck up from the other side of the bathroom door. He said, be a man, Daisy. I told him some other time maybe. This is when he said our father was right and that I was good for nothing. I’m not sure if he tried to pull that job without me, but he was gone in the morning. My father didn’t even notice until the following week when he asked me where my good for nothing brother was. I told him Omar enlisted and was at basic training. My father laughed in my face, said that was a good one, Daisy. He was in the living room when he said that, wearing a bathrobe and drinking a beer. Turns out that was the last thing my father said to me in person so maybe I was wrong about him not ever saying anything good. He sent me a postcard a year or two later, told me to concentrate on whatever was right in front of me. The postcard was sent from some city in Texas I’d never heard of and it made me think that maybe Omar was there, too. I don’t think he was, though, and I haven’t thought too much about Omar since. I do wonder what prison Omar is in from time to time and what would happen if I were to visit him. I wouldn’t have much to tell him myself, not that he’d ask. I suppose I’d tell him that I’ve done okay for myself, that I’ve managed to feed and clothe myself most of the time and even had a girlfriend once. But that probably won’t ever happen and what’s in front of me is an everywhere sky and the open sea. The boat is big enough so that you can stand up and walk around and so this is what I do. I look at the other people on the boat and I am not impressed. They are a collection of misfits and goldbricks and if I have to drown with these people then so be it. I spot a young man who looks like he thinks he’s in charge, that he can save us. I see him gesturing and pointing. The people around him are paying attention. They seem ready to follow his orders and it looks like they think we might make it out of this if everyone does his part. This is when I go up to the young man and say, you don’t have a brother named, Omar, do you. He tries to sidestep me but I maneuver in front of him. I do this like I expected him to move to his right, which I think I did. There is something about this young man that says he moves right whenever he is cornered or confused. My own brother Omar did this very thing and this young man resembles him if you look hard enough. This is when he says he doesn’t. Actually, how he phrases it is, no, I do not. I don’t care for this formal tone but I decide to let it go. So I say, are you sure about this, young man, and he says I do have a brother but his name isn’t Omar. I ask, what’s his name then. He answers Barry. I say do you expect me to believe this and he says I don’t care what you believe. I say, listen, young man, this doesn’t have to be adversarial, this business about your brother. I extend a hand in front of him and wag a finger while I say this, like I’m teaching him a lesson, which I am. This is what our father used to do whenever he called us goldbricks except his finger was mangled from arthritis so you had to keep yourself from laughing. Right now no one is laughing. The young man isn’t laughing and neither are the people who think he can save us. The young man says I have to go now, I have things to do, someone has to take charge. I say we all have things to do and your brother, Omar, is no exception. I tell the young man that he is lost at sea and everything is going to hell. I tell the young man this is on you, he’s your brother after all. The young man says, listen, mister, and I say you got that right. I say do you think your brother Omar denies having a brother like you do. He and I stand toe to toe and I can tell the people around us are nervous. They probably think this is some kind of mutiny. They probably think we’re about to have a fistfight on the deck here. The young man takes a step back and crumbles. I tell him I’m here to speak about his brother, Omar, and that this business can’t continue. I tell him he is good for nothing and a goldbrick but everything will be fine because I am taking charge of the boat. I walk over to the bow, find a short stool to stand on. Then I turn and face the crewmen and passengers. I tell them to follow my lead, do exactly as I say. I tell some to tote barges, others to lift bales. I tell them I have taken over.

Robert Lopez is the author of three novels, Good People,  Part of the World and Kamby Bolongo Mean River, and a collection of stories, Asunder. He has taught at The New School, Pratt Institute, and Columbia University and is a 2010 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in Fiction.