My father was a licensed contractor, a do-it-yourselfer, a Dave-of-every-trade. He built every house from the ground up. He only hired out for ductwork and sheetrock jobs—he didn’t have the manpower to do them, and it wasn’t worth his time. He hired Mexicans who threw them together in two days.
Father was the kind of man who separated the halves of his finger just to show my brothers and me the red flesh after accidentally slicing it with a construction knife and let it bleed into a scrap barrel for over a half an hour before bandaging it with duct tape. He hated baby-boomers, hippies, and football, blasted Rush Limbaugh from his truck radio, taped his torn shoes, wore sweats and full-body Dickies just to make a statement, and asked restaurant cashiers if they took Federal Reserve Notes for payment. Later on, he took to wearing a large white cowboy hat. He liked Subway purely for the reason that they asked him, “White or wheat?” to which he would reply, “Aren’t they both made out of wheat?”
Father’s job involved his children and allowed us to work with him. I’ve always wanted a job like that, something that would involve my children and allow them to work with me. I thought I found it in writing; but so far, writing hasn’t been too promising. It sucks me to the page for hours at a time. I think and think, and think, pouring over the thing and the other thing, cross-examining my thoughts, debating diction, searching nuances, analyzing syntax and paragraph structure, trying to keep the overarching idea cohesive, working. When I can finally breathe for finishing my thought, three meals are waiting for me on the desk. The food is always cold. I don’t remember the last time I remember anything. When I am stuck on a sentence, every minor sound, every minor movement is a monumental interruption. I explode. The children can’t figure out what’s wrong with their father, why he’s sitting at the computer tearing the last hairs from his balding head. That was the part I dreaded working with my father, when he started thinking.
I’ll never forget the hours he poured over the grading and the plumbing and the walls and the electrical. He did a lot of thinking and staring, trying to figure something out. He would think and think, and think. Then he would do a little taping or gluing laying in the gravel connecting black plastic pipe, level the grade for the forty-fifth time, raise a wall, run a couple wires, stare at the wire-panel, or run the numbers over again on a six-inch cut of 2×4 with a whittled pencil, and think some more.
It was either boredom or sleep that set in for us when he got to thinking. Mostly it was boredom. I always wondered why it took so long to think about it. Just do it. Then my older brother and I would get to fighting. Father would break us up by throwing us on some project, cleaning up the scraps around the job, which never amounted to much. He was always so close with his numbers. If he hated anything worse than a Democrat it was wasted material. He never wasted nails, or wood scraps, or anything. He tried to teach us his math, but that didn’t go over well. To counterbalance all that thinking, my brother slapped jobs together in a vigorously spastic rush. I couldn’t tell you how much material got wasted during those wonderfully electrifying moments when we were actually doing something. Father could. And it ticked him off. He wasted more time lecturing us on the cost of slop-jobs than I think the time or the materials were ever worth.
Father built his first house from a construction manual with only hammer and nails, a story he often boasted of when any of us got to complaining about the leaky compressor hose or the jam-up in the nail gun. Unfortunately, he lost that first house to the bank—a fact that my younger brother never failed to remind him. The truth is that he lost his house due to the interest hikes of the early ’80s when the interest rate on his job hit twenty-six percent. That was it. My parents packed up and moved to southern California. Father found work in carpentry. He doesn’t live there any more and has moved many places since.
We had a family gathering at my older brother’s who is, ironically, years later, working in commercial construction in southern California. We were going to Disneyland. One night at my brother’s apartment, he and I, our father and our youngest brother, went to the gated pool for a swim, our wives chatting inside. My older brother tackled me at the pool’s edge. I went under the water with all my clothes on. We had a good laugh after I realized what had happened. That night (all four of us soaking in the hot tub) Father opened up about his experiences in California exactly twenty-six years earlier. Some of those stories we had heard many times, but they never stood out to us more than they did then.
He told us how California had changed, what it was like in those days. Rich people were often keen to give him advice, and he was willing to listen. One man boasted to him that “the baby-boomers have it pretty well. They are living high-on-the-hog off of your generation. Someone has got to foot the bill, and it won’t be my generation.” Father told us about the financial advice given him by many wealthy people. Precious metals, he had learned, were where the money was. And he made a load of money in gold bullion. Father remembered sitting in a hot tub, much like the one in which we sat listening to him, except that it was just off a hill overlooking the valley, in his own apartment complex. It was at the end of a hard day’s work. From his vantage point he could see the whole valley, the sunset, everything. He sat there quietly, alone, his elbows floating in the bubbling water, and thought I am a wealthy man. He said, “I didn’t know what real wealth was then. I do now.” He had tears in his eyes when he said it, looking at his boys. “It’s been twenty-six hard long years. It’s been a rough road.”
My father didn’t need to take us out on his jobs, but he did. He did it for us. He told us it was to teach us character and to work hard. I still couldn’t do the work I did with my father on my own. I wouldn’t know where to start. But I did learn that, how to work hard. It’s about the only thing I do know.
So how did I come to be a writer when I grew up digging holes, shoveling concrete, blistering my fingers with a hammer, raising walls, cutting my head on the roofing nails protruding through the plywood between trusses while stringing electrical wire, experiencing the thrill of crossed currents while wiring plugs? Writing is to me like construction was to my father. I only hope writing does for my children what construction did for me. It takes work. It takes a lot of work. And you have to be strong enough to take a hit.
I once saw my younger brother shoot himself in the calf with a nail gun. He was framing a wall. I heard a strange groan and turned around. He pulled the nail out. It tinkled on the floor. His face drained of color. He staggered backward, the blood pumping from his wound and drizzling down his leg, and collapsed on a row of 2x4s over a stack of plywood. My older brother heard the shot, the groan, my cry. “Not again,” was the only thing he said. His pouch sailed from the second floor and thumped the floor behind me. He landed on his feet beside it, half-lifted our brother over his shoulder, and carried him off the main floor to the truck while our youngest brother sent a volley of snide remarks after them.
My brothers and I were kings, kings that explored the depths of earth, ran the tops of walls, hurled cords, scaled the heights of stories, soared from the mighty precipice, hunted with nail guns, and built empires; four kings lined upon the header, standing, watching the sunset. Those were the days of glory and guts. Life had no limits; life was the hammer in our hands. And we loved it.
Some things in life hit you stronger than others. You remember them with unbelievable clarity. I am reminded of a job I often did with my father. Concrete. I can still smell it. I can taste it. How unbelievably like writing concrete work is, for me.
Stars still filled the sky. I was, maybe, twelve. Light was edging into the eastern horizon. I yawned, squished between the shoulders of my father in the driver’s seat and my older brother in the passenger, the gear stick painfully jammed against my left knee. My hands were folded over a truck heater that never got warm until we hit the jobsite: a square hole filled with concrete walls. A mountain of earth covered the lot beside it. The truck grated to a stop. The engine cut. Father’s voice sounded hard against the sweltering silence. He ordered the transit out of the back. Both doors squawked, the only sound anyone heard in any direction. The bed of our rust-etched, taupe-colored Chevy was piled with tools.
I stumbled out. The cold smacked my face. The dirt was hard, unyielding, laced with frost. My hair stuck out like the quills on a porcupine. I wore a flannel shirt four sizes too large. Folds of black-and-blue-checkered cloth filled my arms from shoulder to elbow. The chest pocket was torn and hung out in a floppy triangle. It reassumed its correct position for a glorious two seconds whenever I righted it. A worn leather pouch too large for my skinny body circled my hips, clinging to one and hanging off the other the way John Wayne wore his gun holster in old western films. It was stuffed with a tape measure, three handfuls of sixteen-penny nails, and a hammer that fell from its metal loop when I ran. My pants sagged off my rear. My brown boots were the only thing that fit, and they were cinched extra tight just to make up the difference.
The tension was smothering. It seemed to tear the very air from itself and wrap it around my head. The cement truck was coming and that meant we had to be ready. If we weren’t, he would just sit on the job and wait, charging up the time. I climbed into the hole through the basement window after my father, my eyes still crusted over from sleep. My brother, looking like a picture I had seen of a soldier in the Gulf War, dropped into the hole after me, carrying the transit box, tripod, and lines of air hoses draped across his shoulder. The gravel we had spread the night before squashed beneath our feet. Father told us to walk carefully.
The rest of the tools were lowered over the wall. The generator kicked on. We set to work, nailing together lengths of 2x4s and driving down stakes with the sledge while Father adjusted the transit. My brother lifted the board to the driven stake, trying to nail it together, while I held the end, trying to keep it steady. Only after did we learn to nail the stakes to the 2x4s first, but Father had let us struggle with it.
My job was to hold the stick—a long, white plastic rod marked with inches and feet. I placed it on the horizontal 2×4 and moved it down the line as instructed. It towered over my head. Father bent over his tripod, his eye sucked to the scope, his hand turning the knob. My brother adjusted the 2×4 as Father shouted out up or down.
When my attention waned, Father’s head would poke around the transit and he would tell me to keep the stick straight. It was then I realized it was leaning so far right it would hardly have given an accurate reading. But if my attention didn’t falter, the strength in my arms did. That was the trouble with my job, keeping the stick straight. If it wasn’t leaning right, it was leaning left, or back, or too far forward, or lifting off the 2×4. By the time we finished the forms, the sun was stretching over the horizon.
The truck made its début. It sounded like a diesel. My heart leapt. Pouches were dropped. Shovels and gloves were snatched. I couldn’t see from down in the hole, but I could hear it as plain as if it was driving over me. A door opened and slammed. A man with sandy-colored hair eking out of his ragged blue ball cap appeared over the top of the wall. Father climbed out of the hole. I could hear their voices, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. Moments later, my father climbed back into the hole and pulled on his rubber boots. My boots might as well have been waders. The truck roared like a city bus pulling out of a bus stop. Its belly ground to a halt and began turning the opposite way.
The chute crept over the wall and lowered into the pit. The truck looked like an overweight unicorn. Everyone snatched a shovel. I wore leather gloves as my father and brother had the only pairs of rubber gloves. Standing over the chute was not unlike waiting for the water to come barreling down an irrigation ditch. The truck rocked and bounced. The first of the gray mud crawled down the bronze chute. I thrust my shovel into it and pulled it down. It spattered on the ground. Father waved his hand. The truck started hurling.
Mud swiftly piled on the ground. The chute moved across us, depositing a thick, wet trail. We spread the muck in every direction. It drowned our boots and speckled our clothes and faces. My brother leapt into the middle of the mud lake and shoveled with a ferocity few people could boast. Slop covered the gravel floor. My father and brother sawed over the surface with the 2×4 screed. Sweat dripped from my nose and hair as I rowed through the lake with my shovel. Avoiding the chute was like avoiding the trunk of a raging elephant. It was lucky nobody was hit in the head.
The truck left. We screeded until my back felt like it was going to break. I ripped off my sweaty flannel and flung it at the open gravel. The cold chilled my arms. A gray sea filled half the basement floor.
When it came time to float the slab, I carefully hung over the edge, balancing on my knees, my body suspended, my back clamped tight, reaching out as far as I could with the hand-float to make an even pass. Every stroke was followed by a thin, gray, watery line. Lifting the float slightly at one end, I carefully resurfaced each line only to produce another. At every pass my frustration intensified. I did this over and over again until Father told me at last to let it go. Give it some time.
I turned to the water bucket filled with soup-covered floats and shovels. I washed them clean and laid them out to dry. The shadows shortened. The sun hit the north and west walls. It was getting hot. Father pulled out the bull float, piled heavy stones along the corrugated top, and attached aluminum metal rods that screwed into one another to make a twenty-foot handle.
We ate Wendy’s that day. I fixed a good seat on the footings at the base of the wall among the shadows. My brother’s seat always looked better. While my knees were jammed against my chest or my feet crossed in the gravel, he sat comfortably on a stack of 2x4s. I loved Wendy’s, the chicken sandwich on the job, the sound of the wrapper, the delicious crunch of breaded meat and juicy tomatoes, mayo pasted lettuce, greasy, salty fries, the Sprite that burned your throat. The fries were especially good. Father could and frequently would tell you all the chemical compounds that your body wasn’t going to digest, but I didn’t care. It was delicious, and I was hungry. If some bit of food or other fell into the gravel you picked it up and ate it anyway. Food spilled on the job isn’t the same as food spilled on the lunchroom table of your grade school, it’s clean—dirt, gravel, and woodchip clean.
When the troweling commenced, I worked it with the same motivation and achieved much the same results. Then Father would tell me to let it go. Give it some time. I hated that. I wanted a finished job. I knew what it looked like, but it wasn’t happening. I broke more than one of my father’s tools over the years when things didn’t go my way. He never said a word.
Concrete has many stages. It takes patience. I don’t know that I have ever learned it. I would do well to remember Father’s words when I am staring at a blank page or struggling over sentence structure. Perhaps I just need to let it go. Give it some time.
IMAGE CREDIT: budujesz.info