Rick is a new lead carpenter who thinks his alcoholism is a big secret. Go out front while he’s reading the paper in his truck, hang back by the spruce tree in the yard with the low branches and watch him not move. He won’t see you until you’re close. 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. It’s like an adventure, almost. Pretending that you know a secret, except everyone knows. Rick must know the word is out because he 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 on elephant feet like he’s trying not to make a sound or to sneak. When he uses his arms to work a tool, it is as though his arms are heavy with the kind of weight that comes from the numbness of limbs. He waits in his truck not knowing he is about to be fired any day now for lack of performance.
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 his entire concept of productivity. 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.
Now come out from behind the wide spread of boughs and approach his truck, not knowing what to say, hoping he will notice your approach. You’re sensitive too, but you care to see Rick keep his job. Walk straight to the driver’s side door and give the window two 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 hands. Realize actions are mechanical forces that humble their object to voicing distain. Laugh as if to agree with Mike, but wonder if you are also 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.” He sounds annoyed.
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 is cut 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 and 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 almost 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 but 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.
Late May in south Jersey is muggy, hot, hard to breathe in. Your old jeans stick to your legs as you step up into the doorway of the addition. There will be stairs here soon.
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, brushing his nose. His mustache is so long it covers both lips and 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 kind of hoping you wouldn’t show up today. I was going to wait around a little longer and go home cause I feel worse today than 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 with 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 leaving a constricted portion that will overheat if he pushes the saw too hard, which he must know after thirty years of carpentry. Think, what is it 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 the circular saw.
Plugging the radio in would come next, and he is holding it in one hand, but instead of plugging in, he searches, turning different ways, not finding what he needs. There is pain on his face, clouding his corneas, which seem to have lost some of their curvature. They catch sunlight when he moves them. He says, “Do you mind setting up by yourself this once?”
Say, “Not at all.”
He says, “It’s just I feel even worse than I did yesterday—I almost turned round on my way in, but I just need the money, you know? And I didn’t have your number.”
Quickly reach into your jeans pocket. Say, “I’ll call you right now so 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 them in. I—I guess I’m old fashion and slow, but it’s what I know.”
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 ruts and softball size mounds hard as rock. 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. 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, except I just don’t know how I’m gonna pay for it.”
Say, “Emergency room might see you for free.” Plug in the compressor.
“Yeah,” he says. “But I’d end up waiting round for hours with sick people all round me, and sick children. I hate to see dying kids.”
Maybe he’s the kids, so grunt to let him see you understand.
He says, “I’m really fucking your day here. Sorry bout that. I wanted to call you on my way in and tell you but I just need the money you know?“
Say, “That’s why I ride a bicycle.” Unwind the air hose and plug it into the compressor. The worn red hose tightens from the air pressure, and a small gentle hiss comes from somewhere along its length.
He laughs, catching his breath. “That must save on the dollars per gallon.”
Say, “You’d better go on home.”
“Yeah,” he says. “I’ll see you here Monday unless we hear from 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 an hour at least to cover some of the gas.”
The studs are damp enough to see the moisture but not enough to feel when you slide a finger across the grain of one. Drops hang in rows stuck to the bottom corners of the ceiling plates. The air is cool and nice to breath—it smells like churned mud. Mike pulls the tape from the first stud on the wall. Then he pulls from the first stud from the right. “What the hell is he doing?” he says.
Say, “Where is he?”
“Intensive care unit. He passed out in his truck Saturday, on the road.”
“I don’t suppose he’ll be back any time soon.”
“That’s probably it for him.”
Say, “He wanted all the studs to line up when you look through the walls.”
Mike says, “That might be a nice trick, but nothing is on layout. I hope I’m not the rocker. He’s going to be marking every single stud on the floor and ceiling.”
Your boots click in wide shallow puddles that formed on the floor last night.
Hold your tape up to the wall. Say, “The way I was taught is you pull wherever the rocker’s going to pull from. Here it looks like he’s pulling 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 and the puddle remained all day.
Mike continues checking other walls, pulling from the corners, then from random studs. “Notice anything unusual,” he says, “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 borderline.”
Say, “Couldn’t do anything right.”
“That’s like to happen when you start drinking first thing in the morning.”
Friday comes and Mike says Rick might come around to collect his last check and his tools. 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 in nice cursive on the front; his wife’s handwriting, you can tell. Sometimes he uses more twenties, which makes the envelope thicker and you can hear change rattling inside while he’s still holding it. 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.
At the end of the day, maybe three or three thirty this girl comes out behind the addition where you’re sweeping and Mike is still working. She startles you and you wonder how come you recognize her face. She says, “Are one of you Aaron?”
Say you’re him and stop sweeping to look closer at her.
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 car seat. 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 to check my own damn messages!”
“How are you feeling?”
He says, “I’m so weak I couldn’t stand up right now if I had to. I tried to make it out back to see you myself, but I only made it halfway up the drive and I had to turn back. That’s why I had to 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. “Do you know if Mark’s going to be here soon? He’s got my check. And we need to leave.”
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, “That’s a tough one.” 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’m selling all my tools and everything to move in with Becky down in Tennessee. We got to get started on that tonight cause she has to get right back to work and it’s a nine hour drive. I just thank God I have such a good 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 of the worst kinds.”
His daughter nods while looking at the floor. “Yeah,” she says. “Pancreatic cancer.”