“Call me Jed, Mr. Ewell was my father”
Unlike his father Jed found conversation unduly taxing, and so he relied heavily on rhetorical clichés and stock jokes (such as this) to guide him through the interpersonal abyss.
His father, who incidentally was almost never referred to as Mr. Ewell, was a man-of-the-people, a welder, and the pinnacle of masculinity. Mr. Ewell would strike up conversation with anyone that met his eye and Jed had deeply admired this quality (if envy is a requisite component of admiration).
Like his father, Jed too had entered the welding profession; he even readily admitted to himself that his becoming a metal worker was merely a transparent attempt to both emulate Mr. Ewell’s potent masculinity, which he felt he lacked, and to earn his respect, which he felt he also lacked.
The tone of his and his father’s conversations had begun to change as he drew further into the secrets and skills of the profession. They were equals now. Ewell and Son adorned the front of shop, where once it had read Ewell and Ewell for Jed’s uncle, Frank Ewell, who died suddenly some time ago, and whose shoes Jed was now struggling to fill both professionally and familially.
Jed’s middle name was Frank after all, after his uncle, and he was despite appearances a Ewell also. To Jed this was akin to a religious calling; Ewells were a sacred order, blessed by rugged charm and incomparable work ethic. Even if Jed did not possess these qualities naturally, he was damn sure going to mimic them until even he could no longer mark the difference.
But welding is hard to mimic, it is a genuine skill, impossible to imitate but hard won only through ceaseless labour in the stiflingly hot workshop that now bore his name. Steel was his particular weakness; he felt his father’s eyes burning into him whenever this unruly, inflexible beast failed to yield to his torch and tongs. Other metals would comply with his art, but never steel; Achilles’ iron alloy.
. . .
Years later, Jed is accomplished at his craft, he still feels a pale imitation of his father but at least he is to some degree a genuine man, a genuine Ewell. Except in one aspect, hot panic overtakes him whenever a new contract is signed and he knows he is to work with steel.
A construction company now wants 30 beams reshaped to specification; Mr. Ewell is too old to oversee such a large contract, his worsening arthritis has rendered him a mere administrator. A crisis of identity ensues for Jed, keeping him up at nights reconsidering the products of a lifetimes worth of small decisions. Maybe metal work had always been a mistake, maybe he doesn’t need his father’s approval as much as he thought he did, as now he had it it proved insubstantial, evaporating on contact with air.
Maybe Ewells could be artists or teachers and not just welders, maybe men don’t have to work with their hands to be men. Jed is single minded now, an unfamiliar determination possesses him, and so he calls the foreman of the construction company whose contract has triggered his spiritual revolution.
‘I’m sorry, I can’t do it’ he says solemnly ‘Jed F. Ewell can’t melt steel beams.’