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.