Loman Hardcastle was a mess.
I don't have a better way to describe it. It's the first words that came to mind any time I looked at the man. He was a mess. Still is a mess.
You know who you tell some people that they clean up well? You know, when they've decided to put on a decent pair of slacks and run a comb through their hair the three or four times a year they feel obliged to do so? I've heard that it's a polite way of saying "you look like shit most of the time but for right now, you look like a civilized human being."
Well, Loman didn't clean up well. To get him to the point where he'd get close to cleaning up well would take a team of environmental experts and a fifty-gallon drum filled with Dawn dish soap, if only to clean the oil from his hair. To get him to presentable, you'd probably need a sandblaster, a grout brush and a bit of floor stripper just to get through the first two layers of grime.
And even then, Loman looked like a dollar bill that you'd find in the street, down in the gutter amongst the cigarette butts and dead leaves. The kind where the initial thrill of "Hey! Dollar!" gives way to the realization that brown smudge underneath George is just as likely dog shit as it is axle grease. We had that problem with brown smudges with Loman, too.
My first impression of Loman, as well as my second, third and many more there after, was that Loman looked like a pile of dirty laundry had sprouted legs and gained sentience, and decided to walk around laying backwoodsy commentary on everybody. On an average day, Loman looked like he'd decided to spend an hour wrestling a pig in a No Holds Barred match on its home turf, and then lost in overtime.
Want a better way to describe the man? You ever spent anytime in an old root cellar? Or some manner of other unventilated storage space that had dirt for one or more walls? That wet, dank, earthy smell was very much Loman Hardcastle. Add to that the smell of diesel exhaust, except it's from a worn out tractor that's run a couple of times a year at most, so it's dirty oil, tinged with rust. And you know that humid, swampy smoky smell when somebody can't take a shit in a public restroom without smoking a cigarette? Throw that into our Loman miasma. Roll it all together with a dash of barbecue sauce and chronic halitosis. Take a deep breath. That revulsion that wells up at the pit of your stomach? That's very much Loman Hardcastle.
Loman didn't have dirt under his fingernails so much as he did a thin layer of nail covering his fingerdirt.
His jeans were a patchwork of hasty repair work and engine oil.
His shoes look like they'd been stolen off a dead soldier, in the Civil War.
Loman Hardcastle wasn't so much a mess as he was an environmental catastrophe on two feet. He is a mess. He was a mess. And he will very likely be a mess until the end of time.
Beyond all this pleasant talk of sights and smells, I think there are two more important things you need to know regarding Loman Hardcastle. The first is that Loman Hardcastle was as tough as a truck stop steak. And Loman Hardcastle was exactly the sort of man who would get into a fistfight over a sneeze.
It was very much in this capacity that he and I came into acquaintance.
My very first night working at the Food Town there in Poplar Springs, I'd stopped into Big Ed's Pizza (Home of the Majestic Meatball) to have a slice before my first night of work. Now my not being accustomed to staying up the night working had led to an afternoon drinking coffee by the pot full. By that point late that Tuesday evening, I'd had enough caffeine that I could probably stocked half a grocery truck using only the energy flowing from my mind. I credit this for the clarity of memory I have, regarding that night at Big Ed's.
I was seated in the corner booth, reading an old copy of Something Wicked This Way Comes I'd found at the Salvation Army store, eating a slice of Italian Sausage pizza. The first time I saw Loman, he was sitting at a center table in the restaurant, wolfing down slice after slice of Big Ed's Meatball Special like he was going to wiin a prize for it. This walking pile of dirty laundry, I thought to myself, wasn't eating the pizza so much as stuffing it down his neck, like a duck. I don't know that you'd have gotten rid of the pizza any quicker if you'd been stuffing it down into a wood chipper. I was wondering if maybe the guy was homeless, when he reached forward for his bottle of Sun Drop, and I saw the glint of a Food Town nametag on his chest...it was the same as the one I'd been given the day before.
I was staring at the name tag, maybe wondering what I'd gotten myself into for a job, when I realized that he was staring back at me. After a second, I nodded. He returned the greeting only be glaring even harder at me with his cold, gray eyes.
I went back to my book, and though I didn't look up, I knew he was still staring. Could feel it. Equal parts disgust and loathing.
It wasn't long after that a group of guys from the local college came laughing and slapping into the door. Not quite three sheets into the wind, but a couple of pillowcases towards it, anyway. I knew one of them from my high school, but the other two were unknowns to me. All of them carried that that well-to-do white boy confidence that the world had been built for them. Even today, I don't know that I could begrudge them that point.
I went back to my book, rather hoping not to get noticed. I'd made through all of a paragraph and a half when I heard three sounds in quick succession. The first, a sneeze, by the one I'd went high school with (Greg? Maybe Craig Matherson). The second, "The fuck?" a staccato swear from the pile of dirty clothes, and the last the sound of metal chair feet scooting across tile floor.
There were only three or four other patrons in the restaurant at the time. All of them were like me, watching slack jawed to see what would happen next, a couple looking reading to bolt for the door at the next sign of ugliness.
"You fucking sneezed on me, you son of a bitch," Loman said, bits of Big Ed's Meatball Special falling onto his beard and the floor. He pronounced it "sumbitch."
"I'm sorry, man," Greg (Craig?) said, though there wasn't much in his smile that agreed with the statement.
"Yeah," GregorCraig said, his smile likely fueled by his share of a case of Natural Light. "I'm fucking sorry."
A large man in a cook's smock had wandered out from the back. I assumed he was Big Ed. His eyes went frantically from Loman to GregorCraig and his friends.
"You fucking sneezed. On me." Loman repeated.
"Yes," GregorCraig said, his voice dropping to mocking, near sardonic tones. "I fucking sneezed on you, homeless man."
I wish I could describe what happened. I know that it started with Loman kicking GregorCraig in the balls, and then punching the one on GregorCraig's left in the nose.
"Hey!" yelled Big Ed, navigating his way around the counter.
Loman shoved the GregorCraig's second friend, and grabbed GregorCraig around the right arm. With a strength belied by his rat-like frame, Loman hurled GregorCraig toward my corner booth. I realized this in enough time to pick up my pizza, which was in retrospect the wrong thing to do. GregorCraig, came together, with my pizza sandwiched between us. The two of us, and my pizza, fell into a heap.
I'd had time to register being on the bottom of the pile, and that GregorCraig was indeed on top of me. I saw his eyes widen, and then felt him lifted off of me. Loman picked Craig up, punched him, and was then halted by Big Ed who'd finally intercepted him.
"That's enough!" he said. Big Ed had one arm wrapped around Loman's waist, and another around his shoulders, when GregorCraig's first friend, the one with blood now running down his nose came hurtling at Loman. He his Loman in the chest with his shoulder, knocking him from Big Ed's grasp, into me. I'd managed to gain my feet, and Loman's impact into me knocked us into the plate glass window. I'd wrapped my arms around Loman without thinking about it. I saw GregorCraig's friend, a black and gold Holy Trinity College Football logo on his shirt chest, rare back to throw a punch at Loman's head.
"Fuck," I thought at the same time Loman said it.
I whirled. Why I didn't release Loman to let him fight, I don't know. Maybe it's because it was the first fight I'd been in since the sixth grade, and this one didn't involve a stolen baseball card. I whirled, putting my back between Loman and Football Shirt. The punch intended for Loman's eye, hit me on the back of my head. I heard a sickening crunch, and though for half a second it had been my skull. I released Loman, and took a second to shake off the cobwebs, before I realized Football Shirt had just broken his hand on the back of my head.
Big Ed pulled Football Shirt to the other side of the room. GregorCraig and his friend, who had taken to cowering behind the counter after getting shoved by Loman, were joined roughly by football shirt. Loman started to jump at them, but was grabbed again around the chest by Big Ed.
"Loman!" he said (that's when I learned his name) "You knock this shit off."
"He fucking started it," Loman spat.
GregorCraig and his friends were in no mood to continue the fight. Football shirt was holding his hand, and the other two were watching Loman like he was some manner of biting creature. To this day, I do not think they were incorrect.
"Loman, get your ass out of here," Big Ed said, shoving Loman out of the door. Loman skipped across the sidewalk but kept his feet.
"I'm gonna kill them," he said, pointing over Ed's shoulder.
"No, you ain't" Ed said, you're gonna get the fuck out of here before I call the cops!"
"Fuck you then, Ed."
Loman stormed off in the direction of Food Town.
"You all right?" Ed said, turning to me.
"Uh, yeah," I said, rubbing the back of my head, and looking at Football Shirt, who was asking for ice.
"He rung your bell pretty good, I'd say," he said, before turning to GregorCraig and his friends.
"Call the cops," GregorCraig said. "He's nuts."
"I ain't calling anybody," Ed said." "And you're getting out of here, too, unless you'd like to explain to your coach why you're 19 and drunk in a pizza place during summer practice."
GregorCraig weighed this information. He looked at Football shirt, and Football shirt nodded.
About this time, we all turned to the sidewalk, where we heard running footsteps. Loman sprinted back into the store. GregorCraig and his friends all backed away, but Loman only ran to the table where he'd been sitting. He grabbed his last pieces of pizza, regarded his empty Sun Drop bottle sadly, but only for a second. "Forgot this," he declared, before he ran out of the store again.
Ed ran a hand over his brow, and shook his bald head. "That boy's a haybale short of a barnfull," he said.
"Now," he said, turning back to GregorCraig's miscreants, "you boys get out of here."
They complied, shooting a dirty glance again at Ed, and saving one for me. Probably served me right, for breaking football shirts hand with my head like that.