I had decided it was time to grow up, whatever that meant, so I cut off my dreadlocks and talked to this guy about a job.
The guy went by the name of Hippy. He was an acquaintance of another guy I used to sell speed to, someone who owed me a favor. ¶ Hippy worked with a crew of framers that built big houses all over the suburbs. He said the boss was looking for a new hand. That’s how he put it, a hand, someone to carry boards to the other guys and to clean up the jobsite. Piddly shit. Nothing too special. I said okay. I needed the money, and it would come weekly and under the table. Seven bucks an hour, which was good in 2002.
The first day I showed up in my friend Ernie’s puke-brown car. The jobsite was way in the outskirts down west I-35 where some rich guy was building a house. There was a fresh clearing surrounded by woods, like a scoop out of ice cream, and piles of bulldozed trees just asking to become bonfires. Stacks of lumber pushed into sand, damp from a rare July rain, and the inevitable red clay was crisscrossed with tire ruts. The other guys’ trucks – all of them had trucks – were wedged haphazardly between post oaks and black jacks, crookedly parked along the main driveway. The clearing was large enough for the mansion we were building, plus a yard they would roll out long after we were gone. I only know that because that’s what they told me.
As I parked I killed the radio and saw through the cracked glass a short stocky man walking straight toward me like an angry batter ready to fist fight a pitcher. I opened the door and he was already beside me.
“You the new guy?”
“Yeah, my name’s Rice.”
“What kinda fucking name is that? I won’t remember that,” he said, and spat tobacco on the ground, right beside my boots. “You got any tools?”
“I brought a hammer, a tool bag, a tape measure, and a square. That’s what Hippy told me to bring.” I had to borrow all of them from my friend Nik, but of course I wouldn’t confess I didn’t know shit about how to use them.
“Pick up all the trash on site. Anybody yells, do what he asks.” He turned around and walked toward his truck, a dented gray Dodge dually truck with red mud smeared all the way to the windows. I began picking up trash and the rest of the crew rolled out cords and hoses, and moved equipment from the boss’s truck.
By 8:30 the other guys were already laughing and chitchatting about women. I was nervous and someone noticed. He said his name was Kurt, or Kirk – I never got it straight. He wore nothing but a huge framer’s tool belt that mostly obscured his tiny cut-off jean shorts and only enhanced his round over-sunned belly. His feet were shod with formerly white Wal-Mart looking shoes. Somehow, despite the belly, he ran across the top of two-by-four walls as gracefully as a tightrope walker or ballet dancer. Real precision. Anyway, Kurt said I looked as nervous as a whore in church. I faked a smile and then asked him what I should be doing.
“You already were told to pick up all the cut ends and make a pile,” he said. “There’s the dumpster for the shorties.” He pointed to the green roll-off dumpster across the yard. The side of the dumpster had the words “American Waste” stamped on it. I thought of that Black Flag song I used to really like.
“Yeah, but after that,” I said. “I’m done for now.”
“You know how to cut straight? We lost our cut-man. New guy too. Didn’t show up today. Fucking figures. That’s it for him.” He had a blurred tattoo of Woody Woodpecker on his right shoulder that I saw as he turned to flip off the sky, as if everything was God’s fault.
I didn’t know how to cut anything. “I learn fast if somebody wants to show me.”
“New guy!” the boss said from behind me, causing to spin around. “What the fuck are you talking for,” he continued. “I thought you were working. You’re just standing there with your teeth in your mouth.”
“I was just asking him what to do next.”
“Cut that stack down to ninety-two and five eighths. We got the wrong order. Got that?”
“Yeah, I think so.” I wrote it down on a short scrap of wood.
“What did you say?” He said. He was glaring into my eyes. I couldn’t tell if he was older or younger than Hippy, who I had guessed was about forty years old. I was always bad at that.
“I think so.”
“Goddammit new guy, you better fucking know so.”
“Okay. No problem.” I walked quickly over to the stack of wood and Hippy looked at me from the second story floor where he was building walls. He must have felt bad. I’m sure he could see I was scared and trying to hide it. But his ponytail and tie-dyed shirt didn’t make me like him more.
“Hippy, come down here and show this guy how to do it. I can tell by looking at him he don’t know shit.” He was pointing at me with the handle of a wooden framing hammer as big an ax handle.
“Alright Junior.” I hadn’t known the boss’s name before this.
I almost drove away in the middle of my first day, but I didn’t. Lunchtime came, and all seven guys, besides the boss, smoked weed; after that nobody cared about me at all. Then the boss left for some errands and I finished out the day. I even took a break to pet Hippy’s young brindle pit bull that lay all day in the shade of Hippy’s beat up once-white Toyota. Hippy said he always brought him to work. He called him Brutus.
The second day was easier. By easier, I mean that the boss wasn’t there most of the day. The work itself was backbreaking. They had me carry about a hundred four-by-eight-foot pieces of plywood up a rickety wooden chickenwalk to the second floor. One after another, all day long, like an ant carrying a leaf.
At lunch, like the day before, we all piled into somebody’s truck and drove to the gas station at the interchange down the road. They had a hot box: chicken strips, potato wedges, fried chicken, onion rings – that kind of thing. We each bought our lunch and a 32 oz. soda pop, and went back for what they called “lunchtime entertainment.”
“What’s that?” I asked Hippy, thinking that he was somehow closer to me than them. We each got out of the truck and stood in the dirt.
“Got a coon for Brutus today. Missed one yesterday but we’re back on track today.” Everyone laughed in a knowing and moronic way.
I didn’t understand what he meant until he walked to his truck and picked up a steel box with tiny holes in the side that had been in the back of the truck all along. An animal was frantically clawing and moving from side to side, and Brutus was standing on two legs, whining and licking and growling at the box.
Hippy sat the box on the dirt and the dog began insidiously clawing at it and barking. The barks were shrill. He was still young.
“This fucking dog will learn to run off varmints yet. I live fifty mile south of here in the country. I gotta have a good coon killer. Those sumbitches get into my food all the goddamn time.
“You tell ‘em, Hippy. Let that sumbitch go. What’re waiting on?” One of them said with the thickest Okie accent I’d ever heard.
“They tear up the walls of the trailer,” Hippy continued. “Last week they tore all the insulation out of one wall, and decorated my goddamn house like it was tinsel on a Christmas tree.”
With that he released a little metal door and a full-sized raccoon burst from the cage like a bull from a shoot at a rodeo. The dog and raccoon instantly began fighting in a deathlike dance. They rolled, and lunged, and scratched, and bit. The growl of the dog was familiar. But the raccoon sounded like an angry tomcat slowed down and deepened in pitch, something like an otherworldly lion’s roar.
The raccoon was vicious, and after what seemed like five minutes, it managed to break away from the dog and run toward the line of trees. But the dog caught up with it, and then the dance began anew. Behind me were cheers and laughs and commotion from the crew. It was like watching a crucial featherweight championship fight on HBO. There was a trail of blood spots in a semi-straight line toward the trees. The dirt was torn up. Eventually the raccoon broke away again and ran fast enough to get up a tree. Brutus went hysterical, barking and yipping and whining at the base of the tree, trying to jump into it and climb it, circling the tree like a shark. Hippy walked over to him, grabbed him by collar, and led him back to the jobsite while Brutus looked back hard toward the raccoon in the tree.
“That’s a good boy, Brutus. Kill that fucking goddamn coon.”
“Man, that bastard was tearing him up,” someone yelled. I didn’t look to see which one it was. Only one or two of them so far were separate people. I still hadn’t talked to the rest.
“Goddamn varmint’s tougher than the dog,” another said. I didn’t look up that time either. I just joined Brutus in staring at the tree where the raccoon ran.
“Bullshit. That raccoon just got lucky. He’s still young you know.”
And then we went back to work. I had to finish the stack of plywood. Fifty pounds each and fifty more trips up the chickenwalk. I almost fell a couple of times, but I just tried not to think of anything but holding onto the board stretched across my shoulders like an old wooden cross. I hunched up the chickenwalk over and over until five o’clock finally came.
That night at the house my friends wouldn’t let it go.
“Dude that is so fucked up,” Ernie said. He was vegan then, and had a dog of his own that he found in a dumpster one night while out looking for food behind the Homeland grocery store. It was a tiny puppy someone had wrapped up in a black trash bag and thrown away. He called it Yelp because it was yelping through the plastic when he found it.
“You have to quit that job,” Ernie continued. “Fuck those rednecks!” His hair was shaved on the sides, and the top overlapped the sides and clumped together. It was black and sharp like daggers.
Then Dee chimed in: “You should sabotage their shit first. Slash their tires, or something. Or steal their tools and pawn them.”
“Man, they know my name. That would be really stupid,” I said. We were drinking Side Pocket forties. Drunk for a buck, we used to say. Only I was trying to get my shit together so I just poured myself a cup.
“You want a bump?” Ernie said.
“Man, I’ve gotta work in the morning.”
“All right, all right. Be boring,” Ernie said. “Just don’t forget whose car you’re using.” His eyes darted everywhere like he was watching flies.
“Turn up the music,” Dee said.
All conversation was drowned out by Napalm Death or something in that vein. That was normal. We talked sometimes, but music and drinking was usually better. I had lived in the house off and on for three years. The house was owned by Ernie who inherited it from his dad who passed out one night drunk and fell into a pool of some lady he was fucking, and drowned. The lady’s rich husband was out of town and it was some kind of scandal on the news. Anyway, the house we lived in was called The Crack House, which was supposed to be ironic but the front windows were boarded up from a party that got out of hand, and we had definitely smoked crack there more than a few times. I had to move back in when my girlfriend Abby kicked me out. Ernie was happy to have me back, and liked to tell me about every five minutes that she was a stupid stuck-up college girl. “Out of your league man,” he’d say. “She’ll probably be a lawyer, or something, someday.”
The next morning was hell getting out of bed. I was so sore my eyeballs hurt. Somehow I had ended up drinking a Side Pocket after all. And then some whisky. I mean, who was I trying to kid?
But I did manage to get out of bed, and bought a barrel full of coffee on the way to our stupid half-built mansion.
That day was like the one before: same rednecks, same yelling boss, and same dog/raccoon fight at lunch. We worked like mad, the hot summer air echoed with rapid-fire nail gun sounds, and hammering, and men’s murmuring and swearing voices. It sounded like war. Everyone was in a hurry and the boss was yelling “Hurry up ladies” about once an hour.
I was told to cut some boards to a certain size so somebody could make some headers and I was thinking about how I shouldn’t have drank so much the night before and cut right through the air hose, which wiggled and flopped in the air like a hooked eel. The boss screamed at me, of course, but somebody quickly fixed the problem and put me back on cleaning up and running boards to whoever yelled “new guy.”
The week passed and the dog and raccoon had a fight every day. On Friday two raccoons were caught and, though they were on the small side, I thought they might get the upper hand on Hippy’s pit bull. On that day there was more blood than usual, and I wondered how much longer the carnage could continue.
On my second week of work, on Monday, Brutus finally triumphed. Hippy had trapped a small one the night before, and that day at lunch it fought just as hard for it’s life as the rest of them, but it wasn’t quite big enough to hold its own. It nearly made it to the trees and I was secretly rooting for it, but Brutus clamped down on its neck and wouldn’t let go. He thrashed it in every direction, in spasms, whipping it like a rag doll around and around. Then he carried it to his master and dropped it in front of his boots. It lay there soaked in dirty saliva and blood. There was a ruddy ring around its neck and the fur spiked out with moisture and had a sheen to it. Kinda like punk hair. The men slapped Hippy’s back and they pet Brutus who was prancing and wiggling his butt with pride.
“Alright ladies, you’ve had your fun,” The boss yelled as he came out of the Port-a-John. I didn’t even know he was there. “Let’s get back to it. Throw that motherfucker in the woods before the customer shows up.”
Hippy picked the raccoon up by the tail and walked to the edge of the woods and tossed it onto the tangled underbrush of briars. It lay there atop springy vines, several feet from the ground, swaying in the wind. I stared at Hippy as he walked back toward us seemingly following the threadlike trail of blood. It was all I could do to keep quiet.
“What the fuck are you staring at new guy!” the boss screamed from just behind my ear.
“Huh?” I said, without thinking.
“Goddammit! Only faggots say huh. Are you a faggot, new guy?”
The day was warm, but my neck and face were a volcano.
“No.” I said through my teeth.
“Good, ‘cause I wouldn’t have one on my crew. Bring those studs upstairs,” he said, and pointed with a nod of his square sunburnt head. I fucking hated him and wanted to bury the claw of the hammer between his eyes. But I put it out of my mind and did what he wanted.
For four more hours I hauled a pile of boards upstairs and stacked them for the walls they would make. The whole place looked like a multitiered jungle gym with diagonal braces going every which way, holding the walls in place until we could get a roof over all of it. It looked strong, but I knew it was still vulnerable without the braces. A good Oklahoma wind might topple the whole thing over.
“Oh my god. Somebody should call animal welfare on those fuckers,” Ernie said that night at home.
“I don’t think they give a shit about raccoons,” Dee said.
“I was talking about the dog,” Ernie said. “That’s animal abuse.”
“Yeah, but we don’t call the cops, remember?” I said. It was true. We always said that calling the cops was working with the state, and the state was a bunch of murderers. I remember being shit-faced one time and arguing about it with some liberal college girl that was dating a friend of mine. I was out of my mind on speed, chewing my face off and not backing down in the argument.
“What if there is a dead body in your house,” she had said at the end of our long drawn out debate, as if she had been saving it as her final trump card.
“We’d compost the bastard,” I said. Of course, I knew that wouldn’t really happen, and she wouldn’t let my answer suffice anyway so I finally admitted that we would probably take the body and drop it off at the morgue or something. All of it was a moot point anyway because there wasn’t going to be a dead body.
“Animal welfare isn’t the cops, dumbass,” Ernie said. “I think we should ambush that fucker and kick his teeth in and steal his dog. I’d even volunteer to take care of him,” he said. “The dog I mean.”
“I can’t do that, besides the boss is even a bigger problem. I haven’t told you what he said to me.”
“Why are you working there, man?” Ernie said. “Are you that desperate?”
“Dude, get a job at a coffee shop or something,” Dee said. “Or sell weed again. It’s not like its speed.”
“Or just sell your plasma for a while until something comes up,” Ernie continued. I could see he was just trying to be helpful.
“I feel like I need to learn a skill,” I said. “I’m twenty-five years old. I should be trying to figure shit out, right?”
The next day I came to work prepared. I had figured it all out during the night. I would buy a summer sausage and stab holes all over it and push rat poison into each hole. It would be a toxic weapon.
At lunch Brutus had his daily fight for Hippy’s pride and honor. The raccoon was normal sized and it fought like the rest of them, and survived. I didn’t want to kill the dog but I didn’t want the bullshit to continue. When the fight was over the guys went back to wall-building and I cleaned up the yard until I had a load to throw in the dumpster. I had cut up the summer sausage into four pieces, each exposing green pellets of rat poison that resembled broken jagged Pez candy the color of a chalkboard. I kept the sausage stuffed down in my tool bag and waited until I was on the other side of the dumpster to feed it to the dog. After that I went back to the jobsite and waited for them to yell for me to do something.
While I waited I thought of Abby. She loved animals and would be horrified at what I was doing. But what could I do? She’d probably want me to call the cops on Hippy or something, knowing her. But that fucker would sell me out faster than anything. I couldn’t explain that to Abby.
I wanted to call her again; it had been two months. I wanted to explain to her that I was making changes, that I was working toward goals and learning things, that this job wasn’t much but it might lead to better opportunities. Only now I know how far from the truth I had been. I figured I would call her that night and see if we could talk sometime soon. Have a coffee or something. She would be back from her parents by then, I thought, and ready for school to start.
Before I knew it the dog was acting funny. He started walking in circles and licking the air, and the guys didn’t notice at first.
By the time Hippy saw him, Brutus was swollen up, panting and whimpering frantically. He gasped for air and Hippy was trying to calm him.
“Did he get rabies from that coon?” someone asked.
“You can’t get rabies that fast,” Hippy hissed. “That’s stupid.”
He sat with the dog until the boss told him to get back to work; so Hippy went back to nailgunning,. The dog scratched and dug at the dirt like he wanted to bury himself, and Hippy couldn’t quit looking at his dog. The other guys lost interest and started talking about going to the lake with their “old ladies.” I kept walking around the house, picking up trash and stacking boads in neater piles. At five Hippy picked up his dog, laid him in the passenger seat, and left. The dog was still breathing.
I didn’t go back to work after that. Seven days wasn’t much, but it was the longest I’d worked in a while. I called Hippy a week later and told him where to have the boss mail my check. He was irritated that I hadn’t shown up and then he told me that his dog had died that night. He was sad, he said. But just as soon as he got the word “sad” out of his mouth his voice became almost chipper, and he announced that got himself another pit from his neighbor. He said this one wasn’t a runt like Brutus. He kept weights tied to his neck, and he expected it to learn to kill coons much easier. Maybe he’d train it to fight other dogs.
I went back to selling weed for a while, just to get me on my feet. I never told Ernie or Dee a thing about Brutus because I knew they’d never understand. I just let the topic disappear into an oblivion. The summer clapped to a close with me drunk every night, and I tried calling Abby a few times when I knew for sure she’d be back in town. But she never picked up the phone.