Erwin Fletcher

“Welcome to shop class, ladies. Look around. You have your band saws, your jig saws, your circular saws. These are not toys. I want to tell you a story about a boy by the name of Erwin Fletcher. Ten years ago, he sat where you sit today. He didn’t pay attention. He thought this was all a big joke. And then one day, Erwin Fletcher was fooling around with a band saw and he sliced his right index finger — dígitus secundus — clean off.”
         There were a few snickers.
          “You think that’s funny? Erwin Fletcher wasn’t laughing. I wrapped that finger in ice, but the doctors were unable to reattach it. One Mr. Erwin Fletcher lost his right index finger and he can never get it back.”
         Danny wasn’t laughing either. Industrial arts was a required course for boys in the seventh grade and he had been dreading it all summer. In elementary school, Danny had been a straight ‘A’ student, but this was something unfamiliar. Mr. Cox was his first-ever male teacher: a towering hulk with sharp square shoulders, a round bald head that reflected the fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling, and a crooked vein you could see popping on his brow. He called the boys by their last names, as if they were Marines.
         Mr. Cox drew a shield on the blackboard. It looked like the I-495 Interstate highway sign. Inside the shield he wrote in block letters, “SLIGO STALLIONS,” and underneath, he sketched a picture of a horse’s head. The school shield would be their first woodworking project.
          “Due Monday, one week from today,” he said. “I want it perfectly symmetrical. I want it silky smooth with a stained professional finish. I want to see a school shield that is worthy of the pride you feel in your school, your community, and your country.”
          The next day, the class gathered at the band saw to cut out their shield patterns. It was Danny’s turn. Sawdust filled his nostrils. He pushed his wood block towards the whirring blade. The words — Erwin Fletcher, digitus secundus — echoed in his mind.
         He froze.
          “Let’s go, Silverman,” Mr. Cox said. “We don’t have all day.”
         Danny tried again. His hands shook.
          “Oh, Jesus Christ,” Mr. Cox said. He grabbed Danny’s piece of wood and cut out the shield in three continuous passes. He made it look easy. “Congratulations,” he said, handing it back to Danny. “You get a one letter grade penalty.”
         The next step was to pare down the edges of the shield with a block plane until it was perfectly symmetrical. Getting a ‘B’ wouldn’t be so bad, Danny reasoned. He tightened his shield in a vise and planed the left side, then the right. Each time, he removed too much. The shield was lopsided one way, then the other. It kept shrinking.
         Over the next several days, Danny planed and sanded his shield, trying to get the sides even. By Friday, the shield was almost as small as a deck of cards. Danny looked around. The other boys were working on full-sized shields with rounded curves and flawless symmetry. Most had finished carving out the letters and the stallion with a chisel. Many had started the final step, the staining.
         Danny took the shield home for the weekend. He worked all day Saturday chiseling out the letters and the horse head. That night, his father was watching a Senators game. During a commercial, Danny showed him the shield.
          “Good God, look at this thing, ” his father said, taking the shield and putting it on his TV tray. He turned the shield over, then back. “Why is it so small?”
         ”I’m going to flunk,” Danny said, trying not to cry.
          “When it comes to wood,” his father said with a slight chuckle. “Shrinkage is forever.”
          “What should I do?”
          “Maybe make the sides smoother,” he said, tracing his right index finger along the edge. “Try wet sanding.”
          “What’s that?”
          “Use water.”
          “How do I do that?”
         His father sighed. “Figure it out,” he said, turning back to the ballgame. “Someday you’ll need to know how to do this crap.”
         Danny submerged the shield in a bowl of water to soak overnight. On Sunday, he sanded the wet wood until his fingers were raw and scraped. As the shield dried out, the wood swelled. Panicking, he tried to chisel down the swollen parts. It left scars.
         Monday morning, the class was called up, each boy in turn. Mr. Cox sat at his desk, grade book open. Danny presented his shield.
          “What the hell is this, Silverman?”
          “My school shield.”
          “I had to cut this out for you. What happened to it?”
          “I don’t know.”
          “Why is the wood warped?”
          “I don’t know.”
         He pointed to the horse head. “What’s that supposed to be?”
          “The stallion.”
          “It looks like a dead rat. Why isn’t the shield stained?”
          “I don’t know.”
          “Goose-egg!” Mr. Cox sang out, writing an ‘F’ in his book. “Next!”
         Danny returned to his work bench. Mr. Cox shouted out more grades. A few B’s, mostly C’s and D’s. Danny stared at his school shield. This is what failure looked like: a dead rat carved into a warped piece of wood. He ran his right index finger over the shield. The sides were silky smooth against his reddened scraped skin. Erwin Fletcher. Somewhere, he had grown up to be a man. Did he now know how to make big beautiful shields with perfect symmetry and a stained professional finish? Was the stump of his right index finger worthy of the pride he felt in his school, his community, and his country? Or maybe, Danny wondered, Mr. Cox made it all up and there was never a boy named Erwin Fletcher who sliced off his right index finger with a band saw.
          “Next!” shouted Mr. Cox. Danny turned his school shield face down on the work bench. He wouldn’t look at it again.

Len Kruger lives in Washington, D.C. His short fiction has appeared in Zoetrope: All Story, The Barcelona Review, Potomac Review, Splonk, WWPH Writes, and others. More at