The Beveler by Ben Jahn

I visited the beveler on my break after he put his boy in a sling. He worked out of a warehouse down by the bridge and the water treatment plant, over the bluffs from the prison where my brother was.

The beveler’s name was Ken, same as my brother. He was not surprised to see me, and said so, that he’d crossed a line, and not that it wouldn’t happen again, which I appreciated because who can know, but he would try to control his anger. I told him there would be consequences, or that there are consequences for what he had done, but I was careful not to imply those consequences would be meted out by me.

He took in my collared shirt, no tie, belt with pager clipped, clean jeans and boots. He asked what I did and I said I worked claims for the utility.

I thought you were a preacher, he said.

Not a preacher. A believer though.

He told me he’d wanted to be a honkytonk crooner like his father, had grown up in that life, hauling amps and tuning guitars and drinking beer in rowdy bars as early as he could remember. It was no life for a kid.

Things I’ve seen, he said. You wouldn’t believe.

I knew about his talent. My son said he sang country Friday nights with friends. He had the voice, could play a little. He even, I saw now, had the look, a ruddy complexion, thick black hair parted high on the side, a little shaggy around the ears, and blue eyes that promised to laugh at your jokes despite the cobalt sorrow at their core.

One thing he couldn’t do was write a song.

I tried, but everything I wrote sounded stupid. I even tried writing the lyrics to famous songs as if they were my own. Even those seemed stupid in my handwriting.

I thought to point out that if known good lyrics seemed stupid but weren’t, it followed that his might also be good.

He said, So I learned to bevel glass.

That’s why they call it a trade, I said.

He laughed and I felt bad because the line wasn’t mine, and because I felt far removed from the purpose of my visit smiling with him in the shade of the shop entrance.

I looked back toward the bluffs and noticed the huge gas bags of the waste water sludge tanks inflated, bright white domes taut and soft against the dry summer scrub.

I was invited, I said, to deliver a sermon. By the meeting elders. I worked on it evenings after dinner, practicing out loud, every pause, every inflection timed for effect. But on Sunday I lost my voice.

That happens, he said.

After my opening remarks I looked up and saw my brother in the back row. He wasn’t there but I saw him. And when I saw him my voice went reedy and weak.

Singers sometimes see a face in the crowd, he said.

Ken had stepped farther into the shade of the shop. I turned from the bluffs and briefly couldn’t see him, just his outline dim against the tinted prism of a warehouse full of glass.

The great ones know to sing to it, he said. Maybe you had something to say to your brother, but the sermon wasn’t it.

The last time I saw him I punched him in the face.

Come on, he said, adopting the upbeat voice of a barker. Take a tour of the house of mirrors!

The shop was orderly, organized by some principle not immediately clear to me. Mirrors and plates of clear and tinted glass leaned chocked against rows of A-frames. There were other bevelers working, their movements multiplied by however many mirrors were arranged in their workspaces, giving the appearance of synchronous industry. Even the transparent glass, I saw now that my eyes had adjusted, cast reflected apparitions of the men, thickened as they were to opacity in layers on the frames, or generally set against disparities of light.

Ken showed me his day’s work, a rose-tinted vanity with gold leaf filigree. My eyes kept drifting from the details of his craft to my own reflection. I asked what it was like working around so many mirrors, and he said you learn to ignore yourself.

But the best part, he said, about working here. He gestured toward a break area with a small refrigerator and a bigscreen tuned to ESPN. He pointed out a glass shelf of beer mugs, each engraved with a name. I saw his name on one, and then I saw the fridge was fitted with a tap handle in the center of the door.

Kegerator, he said, his voice low and dreamy, I’m getting one of these for my garage. He said he’d run the numbers. Accounting for spillage, the increased energy drawn year over year, the setup would pay for itself in six months. He admitted there might be deeper costs associated with having a keg of cold draft beer tapped in his garage, but these costs would be—had been—incurred with bottles and cans. At this point, he said, he was who he was.

I took the rest of the day off and drove out toward the bridge ramp, veering onto Sir Francis Drake, the big curved road that led up past San Quentin. I parked in a gravel turnout within view of the guard towers and the north wall. I didn’t want to see my brother, nor did I think he would want to see me, though I’ve since changed my mind about that—who wouldn’t want to see the faint trace of his own reflection superimposed on his kin?

After the slick reflective order of the beveler’s shop, my truck suddenly felt cloistered and chaotic, strewn with hard hats and gloves, moldy rain gear, a banker’s box bulging with old case files.

The sun was bright and warm but a briny breeze kicked off the bay, chopping the water, busy now with wet-suited windsurfers bouncing along freely behind bright triangular sails. I climbed down onto the boulders banked along the peninsula to break the ferry wakes and stayed there until the end of my normal work day. I wanted to feel close to him. I believed if I could feel his presence he might feel mine. When the fog rolled over the mountain range and obscured the ramparts of the prison, I convinced myself that he was shivering too.

Many years later, I asked my son if he’d stayed in touch with the beveler’s boy who’d come to us that night cradling his shoulder.

My son said they’d drifted apart after high school. He shook his head and smiled in reminiscence.

The kegerator, he said. He told me how he and the beveler’s boy used to slip into the garage and siphon off quantities of Coors Light in 7-11 BigGulp cups and go get piss drunk in the wooden risers arranged along the straights of the high school track.

Ken never knew, my son said. Or he didn’t care.

I think he did, I said. I think he knew and he cared, but he’d learned to ignore his reflection.

Remember when I wanted to be a broadcaster? It was because Ken let me hold the camcorder and call Eric’s ballgames.

I forgot you wanted to do that, I said.

Eric hit a home run in a playoff, capping a comeback, and I tilted the camera to track the ball and said, Do you believe in miracles? Just like Al Michaels. Ken thought it was great. He called me Miracle Boy after that. Eric didn’t like it. He thought his dad was prouder of the call than the home run. But that wasn’t true. You could hear him high fiving the other dads in the background, saying, Yes we do!

I hadn’t been drunk in a long time, but I suddenly wished we had some beer—to extend this moment, to tap a little deeper into remembering what we wanted to be, the ways we wanted to use our voices, and to forget what we did instead.