Rick is the new carpenter and he thinks his alcoholism is a big secret. He makes up excuses to visit his truck every half hour or so; says he needs to consult the blueprints about the layout, or he needs a certain tool. On a real bad day, he’ll come out and say he needs a break to get away from the job. If you go out front while he’s reading the paper in his truck, he won’t see you until you’re close. Hang back by the spruce tree in the yard with the low branches and watch him not move. It’s like an adventure, almost. Pretending that you know a secret, except everyone knows. Rick must know the word is out because how does he think is breath smells? It smells just like whisky.
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The other lead carpenters complain about how extraordinarily slow he works. The way he moves reminds you of a tree that has fallen partway over in the woods, and is held up by the other trees. It continues to fall, gaining inches in severe wind storms. He once spent an entire day putting in three pieces of trim. Another time, three days on a single door. It’s the way he moves. He kind of shuffles around with his feet always landing with full contact, like elephants feet. It’s like he’s trying not to make a sound or to sneak unnoticed. When he uses his arms to work a tool, it is as though his arms are heavy with the kind of weight that comes with the numbness of limbs.
It doesn’t matter to you. You’ve been trained to accept the popular attitude of the hourly paid by the very ones who complain of his slowness. They work at a good pace, when they work. Masters of the fifteen-minute break, the coffee run, the five-minute rest, the other carpenters don’t realize Rick’s acclimation to this work crew has emaciated the entire concept of productivity.
Now come our from behind the wide spread of boughs and approach his truck, not knowing what to say, hoping he will notice your approach. He waits in the stupid condition of not knowing he is about to be fired any day now for lack of performance. It’s been an hour since lunch ended, and Mike, who is another lead carpenter, waits anxiously behind the house, sitting in an upturned wheelbarrow. He’s not the lead of this job, so he can’t bring himself to Rick’s truck to let him know break is up. That would communicate an intention to overpower, and Mike is very sensitive that way.
You’re sensitive too, but perhaps in a deeper way because you care to see Rick keep his job and this is all that is on your mind at the moment, so the words you can’t find are not important. Don’t use words. Walk straight to the driver’s side door and give the window tow quick taps and walk back before he sees that you noticed the beer can nestled between his legs as he slept.
Report back to Mike that he was sleeping with a beer in his hands.
“Passed out drunk, you mean,” he says.
Mike tightens his eyes and lips, searching. “Should’ve called Mark get him over here so he coulda seen that.”
It’s not your place to defend Rick with words that would be slapped away like a child’s fists. Actions are mechanical forces that humble their object to voicing distain. Laugh and wonder if you are laughing at yourself.
Rick comes around the corner while you and Mike are still waiting, doing nothing. “What’s up?” he says. “I told you I was goin to sleep at lunchtime.”
Pull your hammer out and set a roofing nail through a wrinkle in the Tyvek and into the plywood. Let the sound of pounding be your reply. Rick waits but then understands and walks over to the sawhorses where he prepares to cut sheathing. Usually sheathing us cot on the pile to save time, but Rick must bring each piece to his station so he can use the saw at chest level and not get down on his knees. He’s fifty-two but he seems much older.
He says, “I don’t know what it is. I’ just feel like shit today. Just total shit. I just can’t seem to get it together. I don’t know how to describe it either. It’s—I just feel like shit.” The whites of his eyes are yellow as cheese and the pale areas of his arms are yellow and green. He can’t find his tool belt so he crosses the yard, so slowly. From a distance he sees the belt was under his cut station. “My brother had two heart attacks and a stroke in the same week and he says with all my symptoms I’m a prime candidate.” As he comes slowly over tossed pieces of two by fours and plywood, smell the whisky on his breath. He is fifteen feet away, and it’s a horrible stench. He must know it’s liver failure that’s wrong with him. He doesn’t need to hear it from you. Remember, you are like one of the trees holding him up with your branches. It’s not your place to say anything.
Arrive Saturday expecting overtime. Saturdays are usually different. No coffee before work today.
Late May in south Jersey is muggy, hot, hard to breath in. Your painting jeans stick to your thighs as you step up into the doorway of the addition. There will be three steps here before too long.
Wait for Rick until he is half an hour late. Then walk out front and see him waiting in his gray truck, looking tired. Right away he steps out, hitching his pants, clearing his throat. As he brushes his nose notice that his mustache is so long it covers both lips. When he lets out a breath it results in a tired whispering sound. It’s there when he talks too, clinging to the ends of his words. “I was kinda hopin you wouldn’t show up today. I was gonna wait around a little longer and go home cause I feel worse today’n I did yesterday.”
Say, “If you’re not feeling well, maybe you should go on home.”
“No. No. No,” he says. “Let’s grab some tools. I got the saw here in the box and the gun and air hose. I’ll get them if you can grab the cord and maybe the radio.”
Say, “Can’t forget the radio!”
Help him set up the tools. This means primarily to unravel power cords and bridge them to their electrical source, which is your specialty. It seems to be a rare gift to be able to wrap and unwrap a cord every day without knotting the cord into a hopeless mass—the standard approach being more or less to plug in one end and throw the coil into an open area. You have exceptional attention for detail because you carefully pay the cord as you would a rope. Determine which direction the cord was wound up the day before, and try to unwind it the opposite. Most cords are wound from tool to outlet.
Rick uses bright orange clips that look like one half of a set of hand cuffs to hold the coils together so he can throw them into the bed of his truck will little care. He unhooks the clip from his one hundred foot yellow three way cord and kind of chucks it feebly into the air. It spins and then tumbles into a pathetic heap on the plywood floor. He curses it out with such heat you begin to feel vulnerable. Then he proceeds to tighten the knot until he has enough slack to reach the cut station. The constricted portion will overheat if he pushes the saw too hard, which he must know after thirty years of carpentry. Think, it is American to trust this kind of setup for what little cutting he will probably do. Pay out your own thirty foot light duty green cord until you reach the female end. Pay back to the male end, and plug it into the outlet, and slide the cord one last time through your left hand until you can plug in your wormdrive saw.
Plugging the radio in would come next, and he is holding it in one hand, but instead of plugging in, he searches, turning either way, not finding what he needs. There is pain on his face, clouding his corneas, which seem to have lost some of their curvature. It’s the way they catch the sun when he moves them. “Do you mind settin up by yourself this once?”
Say, “Not at all.”
He says, “It’s just I feel even worse’n I did yesterday—I almost turned round’m way in, but I just need the money, y’know? And I didn’t have your number.”
Quickly reach into your jeans pocket. Say, “I should call then, right now and you can save my number.”
He turns his head, anguishing. “I don’t even know how to do that. I just keep the phone numbers in my notebook and dial em in. I—I guess I’m old fashion and slow, but it’s what I know.”
Nod. Say that you understand. Say, “I understand,” and say it like you mean it because—this is very important—he’s dying and he trying everything he can think of to hide it away from you and himself and probably his family. Ignore it just like he wants you to because even though you think you should say something, you don’t know what he’ll say back, or what he would do and you’re afraid of triggering him to do something crazy or go into a depression. Hide behind the idea of understanding him. Hide behind sympathy. Empathize because you’ve kept secrets that didn’t concern anyone else. Trust the feelings that say, bring comfort to a dying man, and show love no matter what. You must accept his lie if you want him to feel accepted.
Also, wonder if this means your faith is running low because maybe you should confront this kind of lie.
He sets the radio on the floor as if he plans to come back to it later. “I hate to do this to you,” he says, “but I need to head up to McDonald’s and find a bathroom. I just—I never felt this bad before and I only just started feeling this way a few weeks ago. I should probably see a doctor, but I don’t know how I’d pay for it.” He laughs. “I guess my real problem is I need money and I have to work for it. That’s why I’m here in the first place on a Saturday.
Say, “You gotta do what you gotta do.”
“Yeah,” he says, “I know. I’d rather be home in bed the way I’m feeling.”
He shuffles around for a while as you uncover the compressor and wheel it backwards over hard dried mud that has been formed into a small pock marked field. Bring it to the outlet and when you plug it in, notice how it does not kick on, but rather lays dormant because the air was not drained last night. This is his compressor and he hardly ever drains it, so the moisture inside will slowly rust a hole through the tank. Some day it will rupture like an organ, and the pump will burn out keep trying to fill it up. Don’t mention this because he already told you, weeks ago, about the one he owned before this one that suffered a massive hole in the bottom corner of the tank. He showed you with his hands how big the hole was. He says, “I’m sorry. I do need to go back home right now. Maybe I should see a doctor, cept I just don’t know how I’m’onna pay for it.”
Say, “Emergency room might see you for free.”
“Yeah,” he says. “But I’d end up waiting round for hours with sick people all round me, and sick children. I hate’a see dyin kids.”
Think, There must be a clue here. He’s saying what’s bothering him, except it’s not the kids. Maybe he’s the kids. So, kind of grunt to let him see you understand.
He says, “I’m really fucking yer day here. Sorry bout that. I wanted t’call y’on mu way’n and tell ya. I just need the money y’know? It’s like I gotta choose between m’damn cell phone bill or paying the rent. It cost forty bucks ever day just t’get t’work, and my truck needs all kinds o’work done.
Say, “That’s why I ride a bicycle!”
He laughs, catching his breath. “That must save y’on the dollars per gallon.”
Say, “You have no idea.” Then say, “You’re really not feeling well, man. You’d better go on home.”
“Yeah,” he says. “A’ll see y’here Monday unless we hear fr’Mark.”
“Hey, just so we can have the same hours, how much are you putting on your card?”
“What is it, Eight? Awe I need t’put down n’hour at least t’cover some the gas.”
Say, “Yeah. Even though we didn’t get anything done, it’s the commitment too.” If you weren’t here, you could be on a side job, if you had one, making real money. So technically mark’s obligation exceeds this job. It includes any and all of the time give to the job. Be prepared to never make this argument should Mark question the day’s single hour, because you have dignity. In fact, count of losing that hour without even hearing about it. This argument is for Rick, so he knows he’s important, even though you don’t plan to share it with him either. It came from trying to understand him.
Your big chance to hold back comes Tuesday morning just before work. Call Mark to see where he wants you. Say, “How was your Memorial Day?”
“It was good,” he says.
“Did you go to your place down the shore?”
“Well we did Sunday.”
“That’s good. I’m goin to Ivywood today, right?”
“Mike’s gonna meet you there.”
“Intensive care unit. He passed out in his truck Saturday, on the road.”
“I don’t suppose he’ll be back to work any time soon.”
“That’s probably it for him. Hey, Rick’s got one hour on his time card for Saturday. Were you there too? Or was it just him?”
“No, I was there.”
“I didn’t say you could work that day.”
“Really? I thought we discussed it.”
“We did but I said I would see. Now listen. Did you guys actually do anything?”
“Okay then I just won’t pay him.”
“I have an hour on mine for that day too, but that’s just to show I was there.”
“so, you’re sending Mike to Ivywood.”
“Why don’t you meet him there.”
Mike pulls the tape from the first stuff on the wall. Then he pulls from the first stud from the right. “What the hell is he doin?” he says.
Say, “He wanted all the studs to line up when you look through the walls.” The addition consists of a sitting room, a bedroom and a bathroom. Rick was used to new construction. Beech houses. Mansions down the shore. This thing is only twenty by twenty four.
Mike says, “That might be a nice trick, but nothin’s on layout. I hope I’m not the rocker. He’s gonna be marking every single stud on the floor and ceiling.”
It rained last night and there are wide shallow puddles on the floor.
Say, “The way I was taught is you pull wherever the rocker’s gonna pull from. Here it looks like he’s pullin from the sheathing.”
“That’s exactly what he did.”
Remember the day Rick told you to drain the puddles by making a hole in the plywood with a twelve penny nail. As soon as you removed the nail, the hole sealed itself shut.
Mike continues checking other walls, pulling from the corners, then from random studs. “Notice anything unusual, besides these fucked up walls?”
Say, “Yeah, the felt paper’s not waterproof.”
“Uh huh. I ain’t never seen the rain come through like that. How much did he overlap?”
Hold up your fingers. Say, “That enough?”
“Not really. That’s kind of boarderline.”
“Poor sonofabitch couldn’t do anything right.”
“That’s like to happen when you start drink’n first thing in the morning.”
Rick had his own way of framing, of cutting, of working. You got the feeling he was always onto a masterpiece the way he visualized the steps. He could remember measurements for days, and instead of measuring the total length when two pieces butted, he recalled their lengths added them with their fractions of inches together in his head and cut the next piece without telling you and he would write the name of the piece on the side. He made no mistakes. The reason behind his layout has become a secret.
Friday comes and Mike says Rick might come around to collect his last check. It’s payday. Hope for cash but count on a company check with the taxes taken out. Mark isn’t likely to show till closer to four. Sometimes he’ll come earlier and hand it to you in a white envelope with your name penned nice cursive on the front; his wife’s handwriting, you can tell. You can also tell if it’s cash or check before it’s in your hand by the thickness and weight of the envelope. Sometimes you can hear change rattling inside. The other guys usually pocket their envelopes immediately like that’s polite. Not you. You like to rip it open and thumb through the bills as soon as he hands it over because this is business, not a friendship.
At the end of the day, maybe three or three thirty this girl comes out behind the addition where you and Mike are working. She startles you and you wonder briefly how come you recognize her face. She says, “Are one of you Aaron?”
Say you’re him and stop sweeping to look at her closer.
She says, “I’m Rick’s daughter. He’s out in my van and he wanted to know if you could measure his compressor to see if it can fit in the back.”
Say you can do that and as you start measuring, Mike takes off to see him. Measure twice because of forgetting the numbers, and try to catch up. The daughter follows you around the brick house and down the driveway. Turn back and get the compressor because one way or another, you’ll make it fit.
The van has Tennessee plates and there’s a baby inside, sleeping in a carseat. Rick’s up front with the door open talking with Mike. Measure the space behind the back seat and call Mike to help lift the compressor. It actually fits, and as soon as Mike sees that, he takes off back to the addition because Mark is bound to show up any minute. Don’t worry about Mark, though. Stand outside Rick’s door and say, “Did you get the message I left on your phone?”
“I don’t even know how t’check m’own damn messages!”
“How ya feelin?”
He says, “I’m so fuckin weak I couldn stand up right now f’I had to. I tried t’make it out back t’see you myself, but I only made it halfway up the drive and I had t’turn back. That’s why I had t’send Becky.” He’s lost some weight in the arms and chest. Eyes yellow as ever, he kind of stares ahead.
Say, “That’s too bad.”
He scratches his shoulder. “D’you know if Mark’s gonna be here soon? He’s got my check. And we really need t’be leaving.”
Say, “Yeah. He should be here any minute.” It will be hard for him to find another job. Probably impossible for him to continue working the way he looks. Anyway, say, “What do you think you’ll do next?”
“Die,” he says. He puts one hand just below his crotch and the other at the top of his chest. “A week, maybe a month. I’m full of cancer here to here.” He slowly rolls his head and looks upward.
Say, “No shit. That’s a tough one. That’s awful. I’m really sorry to hear that.” Just be quiet with him for a little while. The baby starts looking at you and moving its arms and feet in these wild rotations, all at once. The daughter is leaning behind the baby with her knees on the floor just inside the side door. She’s trying to find something inside a paper bag.
He says, “I gotta sell all my tools and everything and move in with Becky down in Tennessee. We gotta get started on tha’tonight cause she has t’get right back t’work and it’s a nine hour drive. I just thank God I have such a g’daughter.”
Smile at the daughter and then look down when she makes eye contact. Say, “Do you know what kind of cancer it is?”
“Pancreatic,” he says. “One’a the wors’kinds.”
His daughter nods while looking at the floor. “Yeah,” she says. “Pancreatic cancer.” She’s clearly holding back which makes you think, lies must reflect secrets. Be quiet several minutes straight, which is a long time for such a silence. It takes until four o’clock before Mark finally arrives. Walk back to the addition as he finds a parking spot so you don’t have to explain anything. He knows he was paying you to talk with Rick this whole time. In side, Mike is finishing up with the broom, which means he just did your job, and you feel like you kind of owe him.