Jay says we’re building a snitch box. All this gluing and screwing and hammering and checking levels with lasers is so they can run cables under the floor, so the cables can carry calls and text messages—“meta data”—to those big black servers where secrets are kept.
“Fucked up, ain’t it?” Jay shoots me a look. “Like installing a tap on your own phone, bro.”
I dip my steel stick in the bucket of glue and prep the base of another pedestal. We lay them out in a grid, topped with steel stringers, stringers screwed in place and hammered around so that concrete panels fit inside the tabs. If you’ve seen that movie Independence Day, you’ve seen our floors. President Bill Pullman walks over one right before that scene in Area 51 where the captured alien slams the scientist against the glass partition and uses his puppet corpse to convey the nefarious alien plan for world xenocide. Our boss Krenzel looks a lot like that strangled scientist except his hair is too short, and from what I’m told, he used to be a lot skinnier.
Jay barks that I’m using too much glue on the under floor.
“Sorry,” I say.
“No worries,” says Jay. “I just don’t want you to get bitched at, bro. Gotta stay under budget or big boy don’t get his precious fucking bonus, you know?”
I edge closer to my co-worker Alonso, tuning out Jay man’s impending gripe against Krenzel and his penny pinching games. Yesterday he was making noise about some shady stuff he pulled at a corporate job in Glendale, how he ordered the wrong tile and double-charged them on the backend, said he’d rip the shit up if they didn’t like what they were getting but no way could we do it for free.
My feeling is that stuff like that is out of our hands. Jay lets it affect his blood pressure.
The bitching fades as Alonso drops screws into the stringer’s prefab holes and Jay slams in tile behind him. He chases Alonso along and Alonso chases me as a pair of scuffed boots belonging to one of the anonymous newbs scrapes along the chest-high precipice, dispensing stringers and gray tile for our next evolution, feeding the line like a game of Tetris on some color free TV.
Alonso asks how I’m feeling. The Pimsleur CD set I picked up at the library hasn’t taught me how to say “horrendous,” so I tell him “bien” and leave it that.
“Gracias,” I say.
“Ho ho! And getting better all the time!”
I thank him again, although I’m pretty sure that this is sarcasm I’m hearing, that half the toddlers in Aurora could run circles around me in any panaderia or Super Mercado off East Colfax.
Alonso zips in a few more screws while I knock out the rest of the row and jog to the other end of the floor where I’ll resume gluing. This typewriter approach strikes me as inefficient, but I was told it ain’t broke so there’s no use fixing it. I used to just step back a row and stick the peds in one smooth motion, show how it was more effective that way until one of the old hands informed me that effective doesn’t mean shit on a leaky boat. He said they hired us from the neck down and we’re getting paid by the hour, so fucking around means more money.
On the way over, Jay catches me by the biceps, turns me towards him so the miner lamp on his hard hat hits me full in the eyes, and asks if Mike said anything to me this morning.
I search for an answer, fighting deceleration and the nauseatingly bright light of the lamp while I try to figure out what it is Jay wants to hear. Something to do with Mike, our other lead, who doesn’t say anything to me unless he has to, who lives in a camper he pulls behind his Jeep Grand Cherokee and came out here from some chronically depressed Pennsylvania shit hole where his parents died young and left him to fend for himself. The only thing Mike loves in this world is his dog, Deacon. The guys say he acts like he does because he’s queer, but I don’t really see it. They mean it as a put-down, and if I had any kind of integrity I’d mention how my queer cousin is nothing like him. But I’m not here to march on Selma, throw hands at Stonewall, take any kind of stand for what’s right and fair, so I end up telling Jay that the last thing Mike wanted to know was would I like to accompany him to the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo? This might be the weekend he puts a ring on it, I say, makes me the happiest cowboy in all of Colorado.
“Listen, “says Jay, “if Mike tries to pull you downstairs to help him with that bullshit down there, you tell him I need my guys up here. He does that shit he should come talk to me first.”
“‘Cause I think he’s trying to sabotage me.”
“Yesterday he took three dudes away just to finish that dinky ass mechanical room. Three!” Jay puts his palms up like he’s beseeching the Lord, demanding a redress of some cosmic grievance. “What I’m saying is, how many guys does it fuckin’ take?”
Jay looks around like someone is watching, eyes dilated with white fever. I’m happy he can make the most of his cocaine habit but what sucks is that Badger’s has a ten-dollar all-you-can-drink special between nine and midnight, so he’s actually got it better than me in terms of job security. His shit flushes out in a day and the spots where he cops aren’t in everyone’s face like these liquor stores and dispensaries, people just looking for reasons to hit me with a piss test. Blanco is odorless too. Booze and reefer, not so much.
“You know what?” he says.
“Thing about it is, he can take all the people he wants and it still ain’t gonna be enough. He’s only been doin’ this eight months, bro. Eight months to my eight years. So think about that.”
I think about it. About how eight years is a very long time.
“You remember last week we had to rip up all those panels?” he asks.
I tell him I do but it isn’t true. It’s too early for all this and I have the kind of hangover that makes me wonder if that drink special wasn’t just a plot to steal kidneys. None of my organs feel right. Someone did something to me and I think I know who.
Jay’s game face breaks into a broad grin. “Well, he’s the one who shot in those elevation. That was his fuck up. Motherfucker can’t compete with me on an even playing field so he’s gotta do it underhanded. But how’s he gonna fuck with the Jayman when he can’t even master the basics?”
“He can’t, can he?”
“That’s what I’m saying!”
“You gotta lengthen your line,” I say. “All he’s doing is trying to cut yours short.”
“I know, right? That little bitch. Runs his mouth, talkin’ sideways at a motherfucker…”
I tell Jay we should kill. Mike needs to die. Let’s kill him and be done with it.
A security guard walks by just then, this older guy, shaking his head. Far away, but you can smell the sanctimony wafting in, like he’s never had an urge or reason.
“Don’t think I haven’t thought about it,” says Jay. “Homies in Globeville who do it for nothin’. Shit, I could plant some of my homegrown in that weasel’s Jeep and get him stabbed for a pack of squares up in County. Bitch wants to talk shit to me? I’m a grown man! You gotta show a grown man respect, don’t you? Show respect to get respect?”
“Yeah,” says Jay. “Ain’t no fuckin’ one-way, that’s for sure. You know how he got to be lead in the first place? Fucking couldn’t get on-base on account of an old drunk driving charge from five years ago so I had to file a fuckin’ appeal! Meanwhile, this meth-mouth motherfucker strolls through the gate like he never done dirt his whole life. Man, I know a tweaker when I see one. That white trash motherfucker is exhibit fucking A. No offense, though.”
I shrug again. I’m poor and I drink Keystone. Nobody cares I once wrote a senior thesis on Cormac McCarthy’s unparalleled overuse of conjunctions and run-on sentences. Blood Meridian was a great book, they’ll tell you. And they don’t just give those MacArthur genius grants to any jerk off the street.
“Yeah, he smells like a damn laboratory,” says Jay. “I know he’s got prints on file… Know I do. You ever been arrested? You have, huh? I remember you telling me about it that night we went out. Public intox or some shit? Greg’s been arrested but I don’t know about Alonso. I don’t think Utah’s ever been picked up though. Utah!”
The skinny kid from Salt Lake City looks up from his work and squints in our direction. It’s hard to see much in these low-light conditions since the GC issued all of our guys tinted safety glasses for outdoor use, glasses that shade everything a flat watery blue. Utah looks displeased, maybe about this, maybe about being distracted from his work. Unlike us, he’s an actual professional, farmed in by Krenzel to help out with production since we keep falling behind schedule.
“What is it?” he says.
Jay makes a megaphone with his hands and shouts across the room, “You ever been arrested?”
Utah sets down his hammer. “What?”
“Arrested,” says Jay. “By the cops!”
“Arrested by the cops… No, Jay. I’ve never been arrested.”
Jay punches my arm. “Awesome! Hey, Utah!”
Utah takes up his hammer, turning back to the grid. But his shoulders slump. He could shut us out if not for his bizarre sense of interpersonal obligation. He would hate us if it didn’t go against his programming.
“I gotta talk to you about something after work, okay?”
“Okay,” says Utah.
“Over a beer!”
“I don’t drink, Jay.”
“I don’t drink coke either.”
Jay looks at me, baffled.
I suggest pool.
“We’ll play some pool then,” shouts Jay.
“Fine,” says Utah.
“Outstanding,” says Jay. To me he whispers, “Hey, what’s that dude’s deal anyway?”
“Mormon,” I tell him.
I tell Jay I don’t think our Mormon friend will murder Mike for him.
“Seriously,” says Jay. “Have you ever been with one?”
This is a question to which Jay needs no answer, but I cycle through the mental backlog as a matter of personal record. I’ve been with secular Jews, a Pagan, an uptight Catholic (as opposed to the kind who’ll blow your mind), two drug-using yogis whose flexibility blew mine, and a religiously committed left-wing activist who gave mediocre speeches and amazing head. I’m leaving the one-night stands out because those girls come together as a great big anonymous blur, meaning that if the guys ask me, I’ve definitely had group sex.
But I have not yet fornicated with any Mormon girls, and now I feel a little less-than.
“I’m telling you,” says Jay. “Mormon bitches is bad, bro.”
I taste my own bile, something to do with something I ate. I know it wasn’t the candy bar because I woke up covered in what I thought was shit and it turns out I’d passed out on top of a Snickers and melted it with my body heat. The sheets are in the wash but I’ll probably have to buy new ones.
An awkward silence passes and I say to Jay, “So they’re healthy, huh?”
“Oh yeah, man. Clean as a whistle.”
“How about wholesome?”
I give him the look.
Jay slaps my back.
“Not after I’m through!”
We laugh, heartily for him, me feeling increasingly queasy. Last night was too much. It’s been a while since I’ve had a woman. I’m behind on my bills. I’m laying the groundwork for Skynet.
“Shit,” says Jay. “Look alive.”
Mike approaches, stiff-armed and brisk, weaving through stacks of tile strategically parked for easy access. His sweater is maroon under the safety glasses but roadkill in the light of day. I don’t know how or if he ever washes it. He has two stickers on his hard hat. One reads SAFETY COUNTS and the other (under a picture of a snarling pitbull) threatens DOES NOT PLAY WELL WITH OTHERS.
Mike wants you to think he’s a tough guy. He probably has a closet full of No Fear T-shirts.
He brakes at the precipice and informs Jay that he needs to borrow me for a few minutes. I’m to meet him downstairs.
“Sure,” says Jay. “Take him as long as you need.”
“Thanks,” says Mike. “I’ll bring him back in about ten.”
Mike walks away.
I stand there a moment, trying to figure out what the hell just happened.
This is when Jay punches me in the arm again, only this time it’s an apology.
“Bro…” he says. “You better get down there.”
The dungeon beckons: 100,000 square feet of finished floor, twisting, breaking at corners, running long down claustrophobic corridors. The raised dust of construction has settled here and the ductwork is covered up. Hammering has ceased on the flimsy, thin skin of HVAC veins, the clacking masons and masked painters relegated to memory. The only other tradesmen aside from us in this dim catacomb are a headlamped breed who hunch over in eerie blue bubbles, poking and prodding at expensive power distribution modules they always make a point of pricing, presumably so unskilled dolts like us won’t crush them under the wheels of our thousand pound pallet jacks.
Sparkies—also known as electricians—are the wizards of our world, passers of classes and exams, masters of the National Electrical Code. They are believed by many (though mostly themselves) to wield enormous power, so much so that last week one of these potentates threatened to cut ours off because we had the audacity to run a bandsaw during their lunch break. I guess it got in the way of talking with their mouths full. Jay just cocked his head and said, “Do what you got to, bro, but this is a fuckin’ construction site…” and went right back to burning perimeter panels for the mechanical room.
Balls like that and he still takes shit from guys like Mike.
I step through a square shadow and pounce to the concrete foundation I’ve been summoned to help measure. Mike’s handpicked people are strewn about the building performing tasks he considers me too dumb to handle. I’m here for heavy lifting and holding things in place while he stretches his tape for layout. I am a paperweight, a mule, a mindless animal willing to absorb any and every rhetorical sleight.
He asks me where I was in a voice owing its hoarseness to Pall Mall 100s and silica vapor, a voice that would be reedy if not for the octaves lost to his habit, the one that may have conspired with heredity to rob him of size.
Mike is a runt, five one maximum.
I tell him I got here as soon as I could, knowing it couldn’t have been more than a minute since this chupacabra snatched me from Jay.
“You’ve got a real talent for making excuses,” he says. “You think that’s why we pay you seventeen bucks an hour?”
There’s nothing worth saying to this but I think about possible responses, how I could remind him that wages aren’t set by our company at all but enshrined in federal legislation. How the law that pays me so handsomely is rumored to pay three times that to our out-of-state bosses. How we would all make four hundred dollars a month extra if someone didn’t have us erroneously labeled as entry-level carpenters that will be bringing home half this when the job ends and we go back to doing floors for the bank that lent me 60 Gs to study English Lit. And how yes, I’m aware that this was a very poor decision on my part.
I know I have no one to blame and it’s all my fault. That I should be grateful I even have a job such as this. And how deep down I’m really not.
I let it go. I’m shaking, but not much, and Mike doesn’t notice or care, give a single solitary thought to how this is what precedes broken ribs and a gushed nose, wailing red cherry/blueberry blurred nights, sprinting down alleys off South Broadway, laughing and spitting blood I’m never quite sure is my own. A lot of times you headbutt and bite, scratch and swing bottles, can’t fight fair. It should never go there but it does because what that steelworker told Studs Terkel back when will always be true: punching General Motors is out of the question, but you can sure as shit hit the guy on the bar stool next to you.
Mike is protected though, insulated from harm behind fences and cameras and roving security. There’s a jail on this base that brings to mind one of those Russian dolls, the kind of thing that makes you wonder what wardens hope to accomplish with all the bars and bricks, why people believe you can ever actually be outside of a zoo.
“Nothing to say, huh?”
I hold my ground, my tongue, until Mike extends his tape to me.
“Put this on the chalk,” he says. I look for his mark, away from the dark stuff striping his lower teeth, the violent web surrounding his eyes which might be blue or green. We’ve been on the job sixteen weeks and I couldn’t tell you.
“You’re standing on it, okay?”
“Okay,” I say.
He throws me on the saw so I can cut stringers for Old Man Greg. Greg needs them cut at two feet, twenty-four inches exact. He’s been by twice to make sure I get it right. Twenty-three and seven-eighths would work as well as twenty-four but that doesn’t cut Greg’s OCD mustard. Perimeter work is the most important thing we do here, he tells me, important because he’s in charge of it. With all his pleases and thank yous he’s too nice to say this to directly, but you get the feeling that Greg is the kind of guy who has never once put on a condom without first reading the instructions.
Probably I shouldn’t be thinking about his sex life while cutting steel. If my thoughts were up to me, I’d think only of safety because I know from other guys’ stubby examples just how easy and dangerous it is to lose fingers and focus when you’re on the blade. Fortunately, we only have one set of earmuffs and they’re on the other end of the building. The screeching is unbearable, making me wince, but it keeps me aware and awake. Helps me keep track of my parts.
It’s a few minutes after the last time I checked my phone, close to the quitting hour, when Krenzel shows up and announces that he comes bearing gifts—a great big load of steel for bridging those pesky ducts, the ones that are wrapped in some kind of aluminum, the ones he calls Chipotle because they remind him of the foil wrapped around Chipotle’s burritos. He jokes about bringing in some Chipotle burritos to eat by the Chipotle ducts. He laughs at his own joke and fails to notice the way no one else reacts. And I find myself wondering if he’s ever even heard of Independence Day.
Everyone jumps to help him push the pallets of steel up the outside ramp. Like last time, he’s parked at the bottom, hasn’t and won’t back up to where it plateaus. He’ll light up a smoke and watch as we strain to push it a hundred feet through ice and snow. Stand around and ask questions about why things are taking longer than they should until a few minutes after four, crack more jokes, tell us we’re being paid to stay over, and dodge questions pertaining to the last time we heard that and it turned out to be a lie.
Jay and Mike make sure to smile and laugh and kiss his ass. I hate them for this but it isn’t fair of me. I don’t have kids like Jay and I didn’t fuck up my life on the same drugs as Mike. All the same, I’m as much a slave to necessity as anyone here. Fear and desire rule the heart. The paycheck has me leashed and basically obedient.
Still, it’s not everyone who stays tethered, unwilling to find out or even think about what else they would do if they had the chance to do it. I happen to know how much a policy pays in case of dismemberment or death. To know I can type up a story in the course of a day, two at most, one hand behind my back.
My fingers are on the stringer is what I’m trying to tell you.
The blade doesn’t care.
Rumpus original art by Kaili Doud.