This story first appeared in the March-April 2009 issue of The Rambler.
“Hey,” he yelled, “I’ll put you to work.”
He had been yelling to me every day. He was standing on the front porch with a hammer in his hand. I was running past. I was out running because the afternoons were my own, and because I’d been doing a lot of running. I had run away from the Midwest, from my job, from my old existence. I’d run off to Denver because of Kerouac, or maybe Ginsberg, and because I had to see if I could recover something I had lost. I hadn’t lost it in Denver, which was why I went there looking for it. Counselors and therapists call this “the geographic cure.” It was my plan. It seemed as good as any other.
I’d been doing my best to avoid work, although running in the purgative heat of Denver in mid-July is tougher than a lot of jobs you might name. It’s a hundred degrees and it hardly ever rains. You can’t breathe because you’re a mile up and the air is dry and the smog index is bad. So you run and gasp and sweat, and you are cleansed. Or sometimes people just yell at you.
In this case: “Hey. I got some work for you if you got that much energy.”
His name was Rick. He was a big guy with a sleeveless shirt and jailhouse tats. He and his crew were restoring a beat-up old house on Garfield Street, near Colorado and Colfax. They’d been working on it for weeks. It had the potential to be a nice little place, but someone had turned it into a garbage dump. Day after day Rick & Co. dragged out dead appliances, mildewed clothing, broken furniture, and sofa-sized paintings of dogs playing poker. They had filled and emptied a forty-yard roll-off Dumpster five times over. That afternoon, when Rick finally succeeded in flagging me down, he said there was still a lot to do. His deadline was Friday. Wouldn’t I like to make a few bucks? Lunch would be included, of course. I said I’d see if I could clear my schedule. He said to be there at seven a.m. I hadn’t seen seven in a long time.
When I arrived the next morning, I found they had been at it since five. They were all in different rooms, driving nails and plastering holes. Rick handed me a sander.
“Ever done this before?” he said.
“Uh, not much.”
“Well, it’s easy enough. Even J.C. can do it.” He motioned toward the skinny kid working in the opposite corner. The kid didn’t look up.
Rick led me through the house, pointing out the guys. “There’s Andy. That’s Angel. You met J.C.” I mentioned how it seemed like Providence—uh, you know, to work with J.C. and an Angel. Rick wasn’t much for dumb puns.
I spent the next several hours crawling around on my hands and knees. The work was tough. I was trying to sand deep scars out of the hardwood floor. It looked as though someone had tried ice skating in the living room. It seemed like a lost cause. We all worked away, sweating and listening to the bad rock stations from Denver. I was happy when somebody ran a power tool because it gave me a break from the merde du jour.
Soon my mind was wandering and that same old restless feeling was back. I couldn’t stop thinking how much I wanted to be somewhere else, doing something else. I tried to coach myself through it. I thought of what I had read on the Buddhist perspective of work. The idea is that you submit to the task as a means of overcoming transient thoughts and desires. You give yourself over to the job and enter a state of moving meditation. It’s a way of finding purpose in your work—maybe even a path to enlightenment. It’s a nice thought, isn’t it? But on that floor, slowly wearing a hole in an old, asbestos-filled house, all I could think of was the sad futility of the human condition. Sorry. I just wasn’t at a point in life where I could pick up a power sander and be at peace with it.
I could hear Rick yelling at J.C. in the next room. The kid had forgotten to clean a paintbrush the night before, and Rick had just discovered it. It was a dried, gnarled mass of white bristles. Rick yelled, “I give you a simple task and you can’t even get that done. What you’re telling me is you can’t be trusted. What does it say for you if you can’t be trusted with a paintbrush? What, it’s too hard? You can’t be bothered? Maybe you’re just too stupid.”
Everyone else kept working.
Later Rick stopped in to ask if things were all right. I told him I needed more sandpaper, so he sent J.C. to get it. The kid ran to the truck and came back with the wrong grit. Rick looked at him and clenched his teeth. “Step into my office,” he said. The two went into the next room and Rick slammed the door. He began an eight-minute diatribe on what an idiot J.C. was, and how a kid who didn’t even know P50 from P80 would never amount to anything in today’s world.
“You just try that with them dudes up in Sterling,” he said. “You wouldn’t last a day in there. Look at me. You got any idea what I was doing when I was thirteen? You hear me?”
We all heard him. I couldn’t sand hard enough to block it out. A couple of times I thought Andy would stand up for J.C., but he never did. A couple of times I thought I would stand up for him. I never did. I just kept on working. Eventually the yelling stopped.
A few more hours passed in relative peace. Andy stuck his head in the room. “Hey,” he said, “somewhere out there people are actually working for a living.”
“Yeah,” I said, wiping away the sweat.
“Come on, man,” he said. “Break time. Get some water.”
It was already in the nineties and getting hotter. We sat down out front, all of us except Angel. He kept working. Rick was admiring himself in the mirror that was propped on the porch. He pinched a zit, squeezed the pus out, and said, “Damn, boys. If I get any better looking, I just don’t know what I’m gonna do.”
Andy wanted to know who I was, where I’d come from, what I did. This seemed like a breach of etiquette to me. I thought we had agreed to work in semianonymity. I didn’t know their last names; they didn’t know mine. I wasn’t there to make friends. I was doing manual labor for some cash under the table. Then I would go home. That was it. The last thing I wanted was to be interviewed. I tried to be polite, but I stuck to one-word answers.
There was another crew at the house across the street, putting in a wooden floor. They showed up in a new truck with a nice logo on the side: Lear & Sons Flooring. Even their work clothes were better than ours. The youngest was about seventeen. He was getting on-the-job training. When Rick saw him, he shook his head and said, “That lucky kid. He’s got a trade. His whole life is laid out for him and he doesn’t even know it yet. That lucky kid.”
“Yeah,” said Andy. “He don’t know how good he’s got it.”
“J.C.,” said Rick. “Out back. Now. We got to talk about that spigot.”
They walked through the house, leaving Andy and me on the porch.
“He gets fired up sometimes,” Andy said, “but long as you do good work, you’ll be fine with him. Angel, he don’t speak English. Least I never heard him say nothing. You point to something and he’ll hand it to you. That’s all. Don’t take breaks, neither. He just comes here and works.”
“Got ya,” I said.
“And me, I only been working for Rick a month now. Used to wash cars for a living. Then I ran into him one night and he offered me this. I couldn’t refuse.”
I could hear Rick at the back of the house, yelling at J.C.
“Well,” said Andy, “time to get back to it.”
My knees were killing me. I knew it would be wrong to complain after just a few hours of sanding, but I wasn’t built for that kind of work. On the bright side, though, I found that the pain of kneeling on a wooden floor for hours at a time helped to relieve the monotony of sanding. At least pain was some stimulus to keep me awake. Contemplating the nature of suffering was as good a pastime as any.
Angel was in the kitchen, running a circular saw. When it ran long enough, it put me in a trance, which was a wonderful thing: it made my knees melt away. When the saw stopped, I could hear Rick yelling at J.C. He had caught the kid sanding against the grain—a cardinal sin. But when your arm gets tired from doing the same motion for an hour, you try something different. It can be a relief to strain your muscles in a new and interesting way.
A few more hours passed, and it was coming up on lunchtime. Rick said he was going out to get us a pizza. There was an old refrigerator in the kitchen, and Rick told J.C. he was in charge of getting it out to the backyard by the time he got back. Rick got in the van and pulled away.
I told J.C. I’d help him. The refrigerator was a huge thing from the 1950s. It looked like a tank and weighed about as much. Instead of wheels, there were only jagged edges on the base. That was a problem.
There was another problem with Rick’s plan. Even if we were able to haul that beast across the kitchen floor, it wasn’t going to fit out the back door. The only other option would be taking it out the front, which would mean dragging it through the living room. For reasons unclear to me, someone had already varnished the living room floor.
I told J.C. we should wait until Rick got back. There were complications, I said, and rather than do some damage, we should run things by him.
“But I have to have this done,” J.C. said.
“I know,” I said, “but there’s more to it than Rick realized.”
“But Rick said I have to have this done,” he said. “I’ve got to.”
He walked over to the refrigerator and tried to rock it toward the back door. He strained with all his might.
“J.C.,” I said.
He got lower and tried again. He was getting nowhere. I gave in. There was one way to convince him. I helped him push the fridge to the back door. When we got there, it didn’t fit. He stepped back and sized it up, checking every angle. It didn’t fit.
So we started again, pushing and pulling, rocking and dragging the thing toward the front door. When we finally got it onto the porch, there were two grooves carved in the newly finished floor. They ran all the way across the room.
Andy walked in and his jaw dropped. What had we done? What were we thinking? What were we going to do now?
Then Rick got back with the pizza and there was no pizza for anyone.
At seven o’clock Rick finally cut us loose for the day. We were all covered with sawdust and varnish and paint. Andy was stretching his right arm, massaging his wrist. He said he was worried that he wouldn’t be able to throw darts that night. As I passed Rick in the front yard, I figured he would tell me not to come back. Instead, he gave me a hundred bucks and said he’d see me at seven.
Denver is the capital of the Rocky Mountain West, the place you run to. When you have to abscond from Red Cloud, Nebraska, or Rock River, Wyoming, all roads lead to the safety and the anonymity of Denver.
There is no shortage of poor, ragged people. I saw them everywhere I went.
There were the twenty-something drifters, couples that hadn’t bathed in a week or so, who had hitchhiked down a desolate stretch of I-70 and gotten dropped off. They slept beneath overpasses and hung around 7-Eleven parking lots, wondering what was next.
There was the guy at the end of my street who lived in a car with his dog.
There was the homeless guy who stood alongside East Fourteenth Avenue, holding a sign that read “Dreaming of a cheeseburger.” Each day when I passed him, I couldn’t help but feel I was looking at the future.
And then there were the day-labor places on Park Avenue West. They were alongside little shops with signs in the windows reading “Envíe su dinero a México,” and not far from Autobuses Los Paisanos. The people would line up to work construction for thirty-five dollars a day. It was a crime to get paid so little for doing so much, but it was cash, and you’d get it that afternoon, and then you could do what you wanted with it. There were no contracts, no set hours, no commitments. No one ever asked for your social security number. It was ideal for the illegals, the drunks, and the addicts who managed to get themselves in line that morning. They would sit and bake in the sun, propping up the building, humanity all sprawled out across the sidewalk, limbs and puddles spilling into the street, some awake, some asleep, some scheming, some praying, others preying. One day I watched a bum stomp another bum’s head into the sidewalk. Then the light changed and I drove on, because that’s what you do.
All those lost souls on Park Avenue West, they were day laborers. They were day laborers and so was I. That night, as I hobbled around my apartment, I realized my transition was complete.
The next morning Andy and Angel were pounding on something in the basement, and Rick was pounding on something on the roof. J.C. and I had to paint the walls of the bathroom and the bedrooms. The heat was oppressive from the moment the sun came up. J.C. and I worked without speaking. An hour passed and I got sick of hearing nothing but pounding, so I struck up a conversation. It was small talk at first, just meaningless stuff. After a while, though, J.C. stopped giving one-word answers. The kid had some personality. He told me about his dog first, football second, and his mom third, which seemed about right for a thirteen-year-old kid. He said there was nothing he liked more than a hot dog and fries, but he hated coleslaw. He even hinted that there was a girl he liked, but he refused to tell me her name. She was in his class at school—or she had been. He failed last year. He was going to have to take seventh grade over again.
He said, “I can’t wait for school to start.”
It was the strangest thing, the most offensive thing I’d ever heard a kid say—and a kid who had failed, a kid you’d think would hang on to every blessed moment of the summer.
“Because of that mystery girl with no name?” I said. It was my only guess.
“No,” he said. “Because they have air conditioning at school.”
We must have gotten into a rhythm, because we were making real progress with our painting. We’d already moved on to our next room.
“Hey, J.C.,” I said, glancing over my shoulder. “Do you like working for Rick?”
“Uh, yeah,” he said. “It’s all right.”
“Really?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s all right. At least I get to hang out with my dad all day.”
“Oh,” I said. It was the first time I’d heard that. “Andy is your dad?”
“Yeah,” he said.
Evening came and it was quitting time. I was out back with Andy, packing up the truck. Rick had taken off a few hours earlier and we hadn’t seen him since.
“So, Andy,” I said, “what do we do about money?”
“Uh, Rick will probably pay you tomorrow,” he said.
“It’s tough, ’cause you never know when he’ll pay you,” he said. “There’s times when you get money every day. Then sometimes you wait four, five days or so. But he always comes through, eventually.”
“Oh,” I said. “OK.”
“I know it’s tough work, but like I told you, I used to wash cars for a living. Believe me: even a bad day at this is better than a good day at that.”
“I can imagine,” I said.
“And Rick’s a good guy. A little rough, maybe, but he knows how he wants things done. He really is a good guy.”
“Hmm,” I said.
“Then you got Angel,” he said. “Nobody has a problem with him.”
“Angel’s cool,” I said.
Andy sighed. “But then there’s J.C.,” he said. “I know he’s a little fuckup. He’s not a bad kid, really. He’s just—uh, I don’t know—stupid, I guess.”
“I don’t think he’s stupid,” I said.
“He failed seventh grade.”
“Yeah,” I said. “He told me.”
“He told you that?”
“Yeah,” I said. “But I don’t think he’s stupid. Seems to me he’s doing all right.”
“He did all right today,” Andy said. “You should have been here Monday.”
“Yeah,” he said, pulling up his belt. “I can’t help but feel things would be different if he had a father at home.”
“Oh,” I said. “How are you two—I mean, what’s your relationship?”
“Don’t have one,” he said. “I play darts with his mom on Tuesday nights. That’s it. J.C. got into some trouble last month. She asked if he could work with me for the summer. Rick was good enough to agree to it.”
“Good of him,” I said.
“Do me a favor, will ya?” he said. “I’m gonna pull the truck around. Go in and tell J.C. to meet me out front.”
I went inside. J.C. was rolling up the extension cords. They were in a knot so I gave him a hand.
“There,” I said. “Made quick work of that.”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Hey, J.C.,” I said. “I meant to tell you: you did a good job with the painting today.”
He hung his head. “Sorry,” he said. “I’ll get it right tomorrow.”
“Huh?” I said. “No, I’m serious, man. I mean it. Those bathroom walls look great. And that molding around the doors? There’s no way I could do that as well as you did.”
“Really?” he said.
“Yeah, really. That’s the work of a pro if you ask me.”
“Cool,” he said. “Well, I liked—I liked when we were painting around the fireplace. That was good.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, but his enthusiasm faded. There was an awkward pause.
“Well,” I said, “we better pack it in for today, huh?”
“What are you going to do when you get home?” I said.
“Do? I don’t know. Get some food? Watch TV?”
“Well, all right, J.C.,” I said.
“You think maybe we can work together tomorrow?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Sounds like a good idea.”
“You will be here in the morning, right?” he said.
“OK,” he said. “See you then.”
I was the last one out of the house that evening. I was locking the door when Rick pulled up. He gave me another hundred bucks and I walked home.
I never saw J.C. again.