The pile was under a street light so we figured we could go ahead and grab it anyway even though the morning was still black as pitch. Kent mounted up and dropped the stabilizers, raising the cab end of the truck, the front tires hanging in the wells. I assumed my position between the front quarter panel and the pile, having retrieved the pitchfork from under the frame to prop myself up. In order to get power to the crane assembly, the PTO brought the engine idle to the low end of a dull roar. Then came the pause, the point where all the elements were in place but had not yet begun the dance, when I most often found myself trying to wake up, wondering how I came to be there.
As soon as the boom rose I realized we’d fucked up and left the heavy chain attached to the grapple from handling leaf-collection boxes the day before. The knuckle soared above the streetlight so I couldn’t see anything, but from the sidewalk I heard eight foot worth of links clamor against one another as the two strands unkinked rapidly. Rusted, latent energy caught in each loop, awoke and collectively transferred into a new frenetic and deadly idea. As it cleared side of the dump body and got truly airborne, in calamity and steel, I heard nothing more, though I could feel it. The weight flying effortlessly, two hundred pounds arcing over my head, pushing through the air. I ducked and hauled ass for the cab. Once again, by some miracle, nobody died.
They brought on five of us at once so those first months, the temp sheet saw a lot of change-up as to who was riding with whom but as summer lengthened its gait and hurtled into August each driver became matched with his own groundsman and, for whatever reason, I belonged to Kent.
I couldn’t tell you the first time I met Kent. I remember him giving me a tired and soft-spoken “good morning” when I was still getting accustomed to the hellish hour that we started. He was tall as me and, after a while, I realized he was just about as thin as well. He always wore the navy blue City coveralls so it was hard to tell. He was the quiet ringleader of the youngbloods as they waged cold war against the old-heads across the ruined leather expanse of the conference room table where they organized their paperwork each morning. In one corner was a sagging folding table where Gloria, the only other woman besides our boss, Mrs. Hudson, would eat her breakfast. Whenever the old guy with the Cadillac showed up in the parking lot with breakfast sandwiches wrapped in foil, she bought one. The eggs and meat in them smelled simultaneously delicious and repulsive. The sound of her eating was usually the only noise in the room. Because he couldn’t stand the silence, Kenny made a lot of loud talk with us temp guys who were slumped in mismatched office chairs shoved against the perimeter of the room. Since there was nothing for us to do, I had taken to standing by the opening into the long central hallway, leaning against the wall dozing with my face against the cool, smooth painted cinderblock.
The mornings stayed hot as summer continued to grind away, refusing to die. You’d walk out the door and smell the heat rising. Hanging around the conference room waiting for Mrs. Hudson to bring out the walkie talkies, keys and paperwork became an exercise in silent meditation. The negativity hanging in the room was palpable, so I began coming in just to show my face and that I was, in fact, on time, sign my name on the temp sheet to check who I was riding with and then head back out into the black of the morning.
I'd quit dealing with getting water for my thermos at the cooler by the back hall where the guys from Trash (our department cousins) gathered. There was always too much mouthing off and posturing for my taste. The temps from Trash always eyeballed us, the rumor being that we didn't do work. We had gotten blue City shirts and tan City hats that we were expected to wear, and this had marked us as special or something. The rumor was we were part of some kind of hiring initiative introduced by the Mayor. Or maybe I simply got eyeballed because I was the only white guy in the room.
I found out most of the Trash temps came straight from jail or else hard time. They lodged in halfway houses around Highland Park and arrived each morning in a van driven by a tiny old guy in a flat cap who I’d seen wandering the crowd. His name was Jones, I think and he was loved across the board. Everybody — temps, drivers and management — clustered into the large open room where I got hired. It was ringed by red lockers, a room filled with noise, hard looking men, some of whom seemed to forever be talking a tremendous line of shit. I figured out how to bypass the room altogether by using another steel door near the bathrooms and to get my water from a spigot outside the double doors that led to the trucks. I told myself I wouldn’t get physical with anybody unless I absolutely needed to. As I knelt in long, wet grass filled with cigarette butts, lit by the pale orange light from a dusk-til-dawn filling the small thermos they had given me, I felt the tug of violence most profoundly. The threat of it seemed to always hang in the air like smoke. When I was calm, I could identify it’s origin from a place deep in my chest, a part of my body that was filled with terror.
That season I found myself thinking about the poem Zoe gave me a hundred years previous. One of Simic’s early works, back before I even knew who the man was. Something about smoke mounting in great strides above the City, that was all I could remember. Zoe, who I hadn’t seen in at least twenty years.
Zoe had a jealous, controlling boyfriend with wild, darting eyes who came down from Fredericksburg once every six months so I knew not to fuck around with her but we were pals anyway. She must have been only five foot two and a hundred pounds soaking wet. We’d chain smoke my Marlboro Reds at the Village and she bought me food to make sure I was eating, she said — like an older sister. We kept a booth in the way back furthest corner, down the stairs in the lower section, so hidden away the waitress forgot about us a lot of the time. We talked about exploitation movies and whatever hideous act of violence had happened recently out there on the street and art, but mostly we talked about sex. I think I admired her hands most. Small enough to be a child’s but strong and hard, yet somehow elegant. The hands of a farmer’s wife, I decided. I particularly enjoyed how she held her cigarette just away from her mouth when she was thinking about something, with smoke curling around her fingers, finding its way into her hair.
She’d always get cold and huddle up into one corner of the booth, pulling her knees into the filthy denim jacket she always wore, managing to only take up a third of the seat. She told me for months how I reminded her of this poem, and when she finally got around to writing it down and giving it to me, I carried it in my wallet for a decade. I still had this scrap of a poem in my wallet, paper worn thin as memory, when I shook the man’s hand — Charles Simic I mean — after a reading in Charlottesville. Of course I was too chickenshit to tell him about it. After I got married, I lost touch with Zoe and never saw her again. All that and all I could remember one or two lines. For some reason it felt important in those days, for me to find it and then to know it by heart.
“So Gloria says you don’t drink,” Kent said to me one day. It surprised me, not so much that word got around but that I’d been riding with him for what had been a mostly quiet two weeks and the idea that we wouldn’t be talking much to one another seemed okay with me.
“Uh, yeah, I’ve been clean for three years now,” I said.
“Good. That’s good,” He said.
We were parked midway down an alley in a tiny corner of the West End, that still had a tinge of working class flavor clinging to it, about halfway through the morning and three quarters done with our tickets. The world outside the cab was roasting into oblivion.
“Yeah, went to rehab and everything.”
“Oh, okay,” he said.
He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the steering wheel. He was looking far away into the clouds, considering something. I figured I felt comfortable talking about it. There was no sound except the howling vents set on “Max AC”
“Do you miss it?” he asked, looking back to me.
“No. Not at all,” I said. “Pretty sure I was gonna die.”
“Damn. Sounds like you were pretty bad off.”
“I was,” I said, “Even wound up on the street for a minute there. I got lucky.”
“Yeah. That’s a good thing,” he nodded. The alley stretched in a line straight away from us, chain link lined, for at least a quarter mile before a clump of squat pines bullied the lane, obscuring whatever happened to it after that.
“Actually, I take that back,” I said, “I don’t ever want to drink again, but sometimes I’ll get on my motorcycle, or actually, I take that back too. Sometimes I would get on my motorcycle back when it used to run, on a hot day like today, just before I was about to ride a couple hundred miles, you know, and I’d think to myself,‘Dammit if a joint right about now wouldn’t be fucking sweet.’”
He laughed. “Yeah. I remember the first time somebody showed me a brick. Homeboy broke off the tiniest corner of it, right? And I was like, ‘What the hell is that gonna do for us?’ and he said, ‘Just wait.’ So then he put it in the microwave and damn if it didn’t go POOF and blow up about six times what it was.”
“Really?” I said, “I never saw that one. I mean I always heard of brick weed but never had it before.”
“Yeah that’s what they used to sell us back in the hood. I heard it came up from Mexico. It wasn’t the best, but it would get you high.”
“We had this stuff called lettuce,” I said, “You’d have to smoke a dime worth of it by yourself just to feel anything. My buddy would show up with a grocery bag worth of it. I got no idea where it came from.”
“Ha ha. Yeah all I get into these days is sippin’ on my yak, listen to some music, and then all it does is make me sleep.”
“What kind of music?” I asked.
“Jazz. It don’t matter, new, old,” he said, “I like jazz.”
“How ‘bout you?”
“What, now? You don’t wanna know,” I said.
“How about back when, you know….”
“In the bad old days?” I asked.
“Well uh, used to be my idea of a good time was to smoke some weed, take whatever pills I could get my hands on and listen to some Black Sabbath while drinking a twelve pack or more of German lager. Had to be in a green bottle was all. Pretty sure I met Jesus that way a couple of times.”
“Damn. You went hard didn’t you?” Kent said.
“Yeah. I went pretty hard.”
We talked about drugs well into the afternoon. I took this development to be a good thing. Perhaps the man liked me after all. For a minute I even felt hopeful. The outside world continued to boil away.
One of the things I noticed first about Kent was his hands. They were long and thin, almost delicate. He kept his nails trimmed and clean. At first I thought it must be due to vanity. It was only after a couple weeks that I realized they were the hands of a maestro. Sitting atop the cab, he set the segments of the crane to move through space like a dancer et allegro. When he wasn’t asleep he drove the truck through town like a madman. He was by far the most talented operator I rode with. I always tried to time it so that while the operator was dropping material in the back, I’d have the pile consolidated and be out of the way by the time the boom returned. The problem was with Kent, there was hardly any time between grabs.
“Man, you need to stay out of my way before I tap you one time on the head.” He told me this repeatedly when we started.
“I’ll be careful,” I told him. “I don’t want to die, I swear.”
“Yeah, well you pop up all over the place. It scares the hell out of me.”
“I’m sorry, you can’t point me at work and expect me not to do anything,” I said, “I’m like a horse that way, I’ll go crazy.”
“Okay but look, I already got two kids of my own. Something happens out here I can’t be taking care of yours I’m just letting you know.”
We began our day around the Ukrop’s on Three Chopt road — that being the western-most point of the City — and worked our way down river from there. Our route extended all the way into Downtown and Shockoe bottom, however Kent generally refused to go downtown. Being the oldest part of the City it had the tightest alleys, designed for mules and carriages, not a sixteen and a half-ton diesel International with a crane along its back. Going into Jackson Ward was a terrifying experience for the first couple months. Some streets were only accessible from one direction and there were a couple of alleys where we could not pass at all.
The bays of the garage were tall and the roll-up doors to each were a grid of glass panes that reflected the setting sun, or else the Boulevard traffic, back to itself. It was the first building on Parker Field when we pulled off Boulevard onto the Avenue of Champions. As usual, every bay had a vehicle occupying it plus other trucks: garbage, street cleaner, or boom waiting just outside so we parked back in what I thought must be long-term parking but was really more of a junkyard. It had managed to get even hotter in the afternoon so Kent had left the motor running with the air on as he wandered off to who knows where. The week before had seen us broke down repeatedly, in and out of the shop. We ran into other drivers and groundsmen milling about in the filthy wood paneled linoleum room that served as a breakroom. There had been a television but the supervisor, a small swarthy terrier of a man had it removed as his office was located directly adjacent to the room. After the third time he bitched out a group of us for talking too loud, I opted for staying in the truck whenever we went there. I liked my junkyard better anyway. The week before I found a small orange tractor with a City emblem I’d never seen before, a silhouette of the Jeb Stuart monument. It had last year’s leaves stuck in the seat and cobwebs strung across the cracked steering wheel. The orange was locked in an eternal struggle with the pitted rust that crept up from the undercarriage.
My theory was this: A super cell of late summer storms had torn across Highland Park not unlike a tornado and we had burned through most of September running full-bore cleaning up storm damage. The trucks and their machinery ran hot and loose, the hoses supple like muscle and sinew. The oil coursed easily through the engine blocks, everything under the hood covered all the way back along the chassis covered in a grime where pressure forced it into an airborne mist. The hydraulic fluid in the lines ran hot and frenzied. Then we had our first cold snap, not quite a frost, and everything seized up and broke down. Too-thin hoses running down the crane got brittle and burst. It took longer to get out of bed in the morning. Nature gave us a mandatory slowdown. My theory being based on how my own body felt to myself.
This afternoon I sat with my boot on the dash attempting to not obsess over the last three applications I’d filled out. I tried to force my mind away from gossip I’d heard earlier that week about our positions being terminated. I read my daily meditation, ate my banana and attempted to focus on the clouds gliding across the glass grid of the bay doors. Just beyond, the Coliseum rose like a basket-shaped rib cage, a tribute to the soaring expanses concrete could achieve. It was no use, though, I was a caged animal. After sitting for an hour, the raw twisted feeling in my solar plexus churned away and my mouth filled with a metallic taste. Panic laced through with despair. The constant engine rattling pestered me so much with the idea of waste that I finally turned it off and rolled down the windows despite the heat.
Instead I thought about the gun. I never got around to planning it out, but I could feel perfectly the hard circle of the muzzle opening nestled against the edge of my jaw line, the right side, just downward where it curves from the hinge. It was always a .45, or it felt like one. My right finger teased once and ran along the outer arc of the trigger, and I squeezed. For what? To empty the chamber and onto whatever was next. Why? To empty my mind. To turn it all off for good.
Appalled, I spilled out of the cab to find a place to piss among the lines of ruined vehicles, rusted orange and pocked brown where the battered white enamel had flaked away. A dozen police cars lay in an organized jumble, each of them totaled, some t-boned but mostly from what seemed to be head-on collisions. Their hoods burst open, windshield shattered, their front ends collapsed and tires all flat. A massive Sycamore, dead in the middle, spread its empty limbs overheard like the ghost mother of them all, offering no shade — just a few palm sized leaves brown and crisp and lingering like remnants of a broken promise. Traffic rattled the expansion joints of the bridge just beyond. I found an old trash truck, a Peterbilt with a small rounded cab, shoved back against the barbed wire fence that was choked with creeper, ivy and junk shrubs. I got around behind the hopper and opened my filthy Carhartts. The hopper was a toxic swamp, filled with empty blackened paint cans and beer bottles floating in a miasma of oil streaked water. An unopened loaf of Wonder bread floated, half-submerged. Mosquitoes swarmed at my pant legs and immediately settled on my arms. I had the sudden fear of being caught and instantly terminated like they warned back at orientation. I made my way further back toward the scrub and vine covered fence, tall grass and briars tearing at the stained fabric covering my shins as I nestled into the walled embrace of trumpet vine and honeysuckle. Tiny orange horns, still blooming for some reason, nodded at me in a slight breeze. Something huge and rumbling crept up below the fence line and had to blare its horn before I realized it was a train signalling an approach. Of course it’s a train, I thought. Just on the other side of the Boulevard Bridge was the mouth to the Richmond Yard, miles long. It crept by, a rolling wall of steel, or a building, coming in on the tide. I tried not to urinate on my boots and said a prayer for last night’s application to the railroad, the eighteenth one so far.
I found myself staying at the girl’s house more often than not, her place being closer to the Yard anyway. The heat was finally gone, along with the last of the great brush piles, the cutting heralding the end of summer, green limbs stacked along the streets like corpses or cordwood. I found a rhythm in the days. I prayed as I sat in the tub. Sometimes it worked, most others it did not. The people on the phone would call again that day like they did every day until they came for me and my children. Using the fingers of my other hand as a guide, as I shaved in the darkness, tracing the outline of my face with the razor. I shook the waste of my beard into the rivulets that ran from my body, over the porcelain, headed for the drain. I ran it by feel over my throat and drew no blood. The hot water pelting my shoulders did not quite set me to dizziness. I imagined the tub to be a small boat, adrift on a rolling, wine dark sea.
In darkness, I sat on the bed and bent over to lace up my boots, pretending I could stare into the grain of the ruined floor boards underneath. That was a line from the poem, something about staring into the earth. The girl lay sleeping behind me, one pale shoulder and arm exposed, glowing from the street light just outside the window. I had told her the night before that sometimes I just wanted to disappear from the kids’ lives forever. I sat on her couch and told her about it while she lay on the faded Persian rug, stroking both her cats. Amazingly, I was actually able to cry a little. My reasoning was that if I actually killed myself I’d leave a great traumatic scar across their lives, a huge rift in the history of their dad that could never be formed into anything other than pain. My wish was that I could just fade away, slowly and without much notice, growing more and more transparent so that when I was totally gone they wouldn’t notice. My wish was that I’d leave them without even a memory. She thought about it and then told me it sounded like the most purely suicidal thing I’d ever said to her. That it was worse than the occasional daydream about the gun. I told her okay, and promised to go out the next week and, somehow or another, find myself some help. I finished lacing up my boots, kissed her shoulder and headed out into darkness.
Morning kept the streets empty for me. The pale orange of the street lamps were hung in the yellow of the pin oaks, lights nestled in the leaves all down Stuart. I walked down the middle of the avenue to avoid the looming black of the sidewalk. All the mornings of that season ambers and blaze oranges were arching overhead as I headed for the Avenue of Champions.
The sun came up like a fire then color, long dormant, erupted throughout the City. Our city of trees, purple boughs reaching over our hurried passage each dawn, hanging fire. Oranges like flame against an iron grey sky, dodging bursts of crimson and scarlet. Locusts mad with yellow. Oaks towering with a skin of brittle leaves along Monument as we headed west, twisted old men with coats the bright umber of new rust. I noted a line of crepe myrtles, marking their change over the course of a week. Theirs seemed to be the most outrageous crimson, vibrant, tipped in orange almost exactly like dull embers glowing towards dawn. I pointed out some of the superstars to Kent. The unruly maples seemed especially determined to show off, dull red almost burgundy fading out to flaxen yellows.
“Yeah, they look good now, but you wait and see what happens when they start falling. We’re the ones gonna have to get ‘em up.”
Of course he was right. Soon enough the forest of our City unloaded its freight leaving scrawled empty limbs painted black against the horizon, silhouetted by the sunrise. But for Roadways, our ancient stone-lined storm drains would clog and drown us. One day, their supervisor, Hechstal called for Kent and I.
Hechstal was short and smiled a lot. He had the high energy of your favorite coach from High School, the positive, upbeat one. He smiled and laughed enough that I didn’t care if he was full of shit like some folks said. I loved the man.
From what I could gather our job was to meet with a crew from Roadways and load leaf collection boxes onto the backs of the fleet of tandem dump trucks. Kent pulled us around behind the mountain of sand reserved for the snow patrol and sliding up alongside an assembly of a hundred of the squat blue structures, threw it in park and promptly went to sleep. Really just six-foot plywood cubes bolted to angle iron frames, the leaf boxes were knocked together, rusted out, beat to hell and then painted royal blue in what I reckoned was an attempt to match the City uniforms. They sat in the bed of a truck and were filled by a leaf vacuum that was towed behind. Hechstall hustled out before anyone else and took inventory of the area. He turned the collar of his jacket up against the bracing wind and kept looking back at the yard impatiently. There were no trucks to be seen. The wind was up, cold and whipping across the yard but the sky was wide open and blue like nothing you’d ever seen. As I didn’t have anything else to do, I decided to sit in the cab and wait until the last possible minute before stepping out into the cold.
“Kent, take a break!” The man yelled. Kent, not picking his head up from against the glass of the driver’s side window, gave a thumbs up.
A mangled old crew cab pick-up appeared from further back of the complex, coming toward us at what seemed like an unsafe speed for such a large vehicle. Its ruined frame lurched on a ruined suspension as it cut a wide arc across the expanse of gravel and dust separating us. The length of its starboard side had sustained enough damage that it was questionable how safe it was to drive anymore. The tailgate was down and sagged earthward under a heap of chains, bars, and other heavy tools colored the dull patina of old rust. It lurched to a stop by the sand mountain, just enough to be out of the way, tires digging into a thin beach of sandy run-off. There were a couple “old-heads” inside — middle management guys. Hechstall went over and hung on his elbows leaning into the driver’s side window. A somewhat heavy trail of white smoke curled around from all the idling, nobody elected to get out yet into the bracing wind.
Then, like a parade of elephants arriving at a watering hole, a half dozen or more tandems began rolling into the open gate. Small dump trucks that were used for anything from pushing snow, to spreading the salt and sand mix, to dumping gravel — they were the mules of the fleet. Kent woke up and grimaced as they came to a stop by us. He rubbed his face with both hands then opened up his door and began to climb the ladder to the operator platform. Just before closing the door, he leaned into the cab and gave me a serious look.
“Hey. You sit this one out, okay?” he said. “I’m gonna make Roadways work for a change.”
“Sure thing, bud,” I said and screwed up my eyebrows at him.
After a minute I could hear him hollering down to the drivers who had exited the line of tandems and were gathering around us. Old-heads of different ages and sizes ambled up from the crew cab Ford. I noticed that Hechstall had taken off. A huge dark skinned man with no hat on his bald head walked up first. He stood out in front and actually seemed to listen to whatever it was Kent was saying. The collar of his navy jacket was up and the back edge of one pants leg hung on a bootstrap. The patch on his jacket said “L. Hudson.” I figured him to be the ramrod. I decided to get out and see the clusterfuck from up close.
Everybody looked at me, the lone white boy. I shuffled around with my hands in my pockets. Hechstall was gone and Kent, gesturing with his arms parallel, was attempting to communicate how he wanted everybody to pull alongside him. We were parked parallel to the first row of boxes and he wanted trucks to come up on the opposite side. Nobody seemed to get it. More temp labor had wandered up from somewhere and were standing around trying to stay warm, hoodies up, hands in the pockets of sagging jeans with bling-embroidered pockets. Shaking his head, Kent seemed to give up trying to direct the show when he noticed I was in the crowd. I kicked some rocks and gave him a shrug. He threw up his hands in mock exasperation and sat down in the operator’s seat. After a minute, he yelled down to me.
“Oh, Groundsman, could you engage the power-take-off please?”
“Right away, Sir,” I responded with a short salute. I opened the driver’s side door and flipped the black switch under the console. The engine immediately roared into a high idle as power was diverted to the crane assembly. Kent dropped the great orange stabilizers and with me mounted on the step-tank, we rode into the air.
The big guy, Larry was his name, had gone back to the pick-up and was leaning over the sidewall, struggling to retrieve something from the bedlam of mud and steel. Eventually he produced a pile of enormous chain. Since no one else seemed interested, I went over and helped him out. They were four chains actually, each about eight feet long, joined at a hoop, each with a forged eye hook the size of a man’s fist on the other end. Together we teased the length of it from the mass of shovels, crowbars and hammers. Kent had brought the boom around and set it on the tarmac close by, a closed steel fist knuckled down in the sand. Larry nodded his chin toward Kent and we proceeded to drag the chain over. It must have been every bit of three hundred pounds because the tailgate of the truck raised half a foot after the mass of it fell into the sand.
Upon reaching the boom, Larry hung the loop edge over the main cross member on one side, the wrist of the knuckle as it were, and then began threading each chain length through. I mostly got what he was doing, went out and straightened the remaining chains so they wouldn’t kink. Another shorter tenured guy had come over and watched us work, yawning and rubbing his eyes. A fat old Rastafarian with a grey beard and dreds packed into a massive black tam arrived as well and promptly started talking shit. The chain had that deep brown patina of rust that was never allowed to rust, a color not unlike old leather. I told myself, ‘Fuck it. Kent can come down here himself and tell me to stop,’ and helped the big City man pull the chains taught. He straightened and gave Kent the thumbs up. The boom raised slow with its deadly new freight dangling, and spinning back around, Kent lowered it onto a box, the chain coiling in a heap. I followed Larry around and meeting him at the box, he turned to me. His neck was thick with muscle and he had a brow like a cinderblock wall but the eyes underneath were kind.
“I’m too old and fat to get up there, go on,” he said
“Okay. What do I do once I’m up there?” I asked
“Hook ‘em up. You’ll see.”
I glanced at Kent, who looking around for any other volunteers, gestured with his gloved hand as if to say, go right ahead. I scrambled up the side and noticed an eyebolt at each corner on the roof of the box. I untangled the chains and drawing them out, hooked one to each corner. They rattled hollow and heavy against the worn plywood. I hopped back down and Kent, slowly drawing the chains taught, the knuckle twisted off kilter from the weight, raised the box into the air. A tandem driven by the shorter guy rolled up alongside the boom truck. Kent rotated the box up and over, brought it across the back of our truck, and slowly lowered it towards the bed of the smaller truck. Tenured dudes gathered around and four on each corner manhandled it into place. It got hung up sideways on top of the bed and caught there till Kent dragged it back into place. A lanky older City guy brought a dilapidated chair to stand on and started trying to prize the box around with a big screwdriver. He had a handful of large rusted bolts and nuts in the other hand. I clambered up the big tire and noticed the rough holes in the bottom bracket of the leaf box that looked to have been blown through with a cutting torch. The lanky guy was trying to line the holes up with ones that somehow corresponded with holes punched into the truck. None of it came together easy and the driving wind was only making matters worse. It occurred to me that the reason why each box was numbered — it only fit on a certain truck. Larry had come up with a couple of the youngbloods and he handed me a large crowbar. The guy on the chair wasn’t having much success. Searching for a toehold I found a perforated steel bar welded a little further up the sidewall of the tandem. I figured the ragged teeth punctured along its ridge were there to serve as a stepping point. I managed to gain enough balance and leverage to work the flat tip of the cumbersome bar into place. I just needed a little bite under the angle iron frame of the box in order to move it around.
A dull memory resurfaced from the depths of my long history of jobsites. I figured that if I raised the box edge and dropped the bolt loosely into both sets of holes, lowering it would bring them somewhat together and then I could fudge it into place with the bar. It worked the first time, close enough anyway, that I was able to make up the rest of the distance with just a little bite of the crowbar and a wiggle. The man with the long face standing on the chair helped me by beating stuff together with a nine pound hammer. Larry occasionally offered a hand for my one dangling foot to rest on, thus keeping me upright. I had the sensation of many sets of eyes watching me. The other three bolt holes lined up easy enough after we got the first. Kent still had most of the weight of the box and after Larry waved to him, let it the rest of the way down. Once again it seemed up to me to run back up the front of the truck and unhook the chains.
As it usually goes, none of the other boxes went in as easy as the first, though we had the basic idea down. Trucks lined up behind the sand pile, each waiting for their turn and more trucks kept coming into the yard. There was a delay as none of the Southside trucks had shown up yet however the Southside boxes were the ones in front. Kent got down and repositioned as needed for each box. I stayed busy relaying information back-and-forth between him and the drivers. Each truck had to be positioned differently, some in front of its concurrent box, some alongside us.
For most of it, Kent would get the box hanging in place and let the truck back under it. In the wind, it all swung around slow and deadly, men trying to steady and guide the wild thing into place. It was at the point of the bump, when the whole business came together, that something almost got seriously fucked up and more than a couple times it was nearly me. After three or so, we found our rhythm. A box hung could be prized from the ground with the digging bar. The small sledge could be used to bang things about. I found a smaller pry bar in the back of the supply pick-up that I could carry in my back pocket when I went climbing. There was always some sort of foothold to be found along each battered hull, sometimes only as much as a thin strap of metal reinforcing the side walls. Larry was there, his massive hands always handing off something, righting me whenever I almost fell. Everywhere white paint flaked around ruptured steel, pocked and rubbed like bronze from use.
I was running full bore up and down the sides of vehicles. Hechstall had come back out to observe the whole operation. I found my groove, everywhere at once, staying ahead of the problems, laughing and swearing like back on a framing crew.
Kent shot me a look and then glanced over at the boss, intimating that I was a temp under scrutiny. This being less than a week after I’d been told to stay off trucks all together. I decided I did not care if I got fired. I understood the chain and how it moved. I had fathomed the full weight of the boxes and what they could do to me. For the first time in weeks I felt alive. I was vital and useful and dangerous. My legs propelled me and my strong arms were capable, my hands knew what to do.
That night, sore and tired but happy, I finally made the connection to get my poetry anthology down from the bookcase and skim through its old pages until I found the Simic piece I’d been thinking about for months. The pages fell open right to it, as if it were waiting for me.
Every morning I forget how it is.
I watch the smoke mount
In great strides above the city.
I belong to no one.
I watch the smoke mount
In great strides above the city.
I belong to no one.
Then, I remember my shoes,
How I have to put them on,
How bending over to tie them up
I will look into the earth.
How I have to put them on,
How bending over to tie them up
I will look into the earth.