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Men of the Earth – Part III

Men of the Earth III

“I may be retiring, but don’t kid yourself, kid,” Mr. Gore said. “I still know things about this place.”

Mr. Gore was never a man to shout or raise his voice, but you knew he was mad when he started ridiculing. In the last days of work on the Road Hogarth was using the tamping machine to flatten the stones into place evenly. It was the first time Hogarth used the machine and in his haste to show he knew what he was doing he’d ripped a rubber flap off the bottom.  Without that flap the tamper would leave ugly streak marks over the Road.

Hogarth had the thing flipped over and was working to reattach it, but he was so angry he couldn’t look anyone in the eye. His face and neck were totally red. It was our job to keep the Road clear of debris while the machine was on, but it was broken so all we could do was lean on our brooms and listen to Mr. Gore’s withering diatribe. Juan Carlos reached out to give Hogarth a pat on the shoulder.

“I swear to God, if you touch me- ” said Hogarth.

“Come on Julian,” said Mr. Gore. “Help me with the hose. Nothing’s going to get done with the bitch hot as it is.”

“I hope you were talking about the machine,” said Hogarth, still fumbling with the flap.

“And I hope you’re not trying to start something,” said Mr. Gore. He was actually mad now and spewing sunflower seeds in vehement fashion. “That’s what I fucking though. Fucking clown, you know you’re an embarrassment. Fuck. You know everyone’s pissed with you, right? All this shit we do during the week, fucking filler, waiting for Friday to finish this and you have to go and slow everything the fuck up. Watch your mouth from now on: damn punk.”

I was glad to get out of there. It was embarrassing, but more for Mr. Gore than Hogarth. It was a mistake, sure, but Mr. Gore blew up over the most mundane things. I would’ve been more surprised if the tamper hadn’t broken, it looked like it was from the seventies. Then again everything at Shenandoah looked like it was from the seventies.

“You know I’m rough on him because I like him,” said Mr. Gore.

“What?” I said.

“He doesn’t always get it right the first time, but he tries. He was just a temp guy when he started, like you. The boss wanted me to lay him off after the fall, but I said no. I like this kid.”

“There’s no doubt Hogarth’s a hard worker. Unmatched, even.”

“No doubt. But this is something new. This hot-headedness. I don’t know where it came from but he’s going to have to get over it. He doesn’t like being shouted at? He can suck it up. I did. My foster parents didn’t give a shit about me. I survived.”

“You’re an orphan?…Sorry. I didn’t mean-”

“No need. I made my peace long ago. Success story ward of the state, my friend. It wasn’t fun and games, but I got tough by it. Most kids today are spoiled rotten. I don’t mean you necessarily. You’re a fine worker actually, and there’ll be a place for you next summer if you like.”

“Wow, Mr. Gore…This is a lot to process.”

“That’s alright, you’ve got a year. Those other two and the Mexicans, I don’t know about them. I might not even notice if they disappeared. Hogarth had better watch himself, though. He’s learning a lot, but he’s getting over-confident. If he thinks he can keep going and never listen he better get a grip.”

I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to ask if Mr. Gore knew his birth parents, but I couldn’t think of a way to ask without sounding condescending, or prying, or naïve, but it was a question that remained with me.

 

-:-

“You’re not chickening out, now,” I said. Horacio looked apprehensive as we took the final few steps to the White Rabbit.

“Not at all,” said Horacio. “I’m actually quite excited, now that we are here. It was different at the bookstore in the shopping center. That one was arranged… I didn’t like it. It was too clean. You can see these owners want people to come here.”

I knew what Horacio meant. There were boxes filled with books lying all over the front, as if the owners didn’t care whether they were stolen. Sure, those books were only priced at ten cents, but Horacio was right: it was a signal to customers they were entering a good place.

When we walked in the owner half smiled, remembering me. Horacio and I lost each other between the shelves after a few minutes so I wandered. There was only one other person in the store, a girl camped out in one of my favourite chairs.

“What are you looking at,” I said. She was good to look at, if a bit young, but her confidence in attacking such an outrageously large book impressed me. Instead of answering me with words she held the cover up for me to see.

“Doghouse Roses?” I said. I didn’t know it.

“I heard it was really romantic,” she said. “I’ve been picking away at it all summer.”

“But are you liking it?”

“I have a boyfriend, you know.”

“Is he going to kick my ass?”

“… Not for no reason.”

“Then talk with me if you want; I don’t care about stuff like that.”

“You have a lot of questions…”

“I’m Julian.”

“I’ll give you three chances at my name. After that I’ll tell you.”

“What makes you think I want to play your game, anyway.”

“Why would you be here unless you wanted to play with me.”

“That’s right isn’t it. The world revolves around you.”

“In essence, you summed it up pretty well.”

“You can’t show me any mercy?”

“Sorry.”

“So your name… it’s not Brittany.”

“Sorry, no.”

“Damn…  I didn’t really think it was Brittany but I thought I’d give it a shot because there’s lots of girls named Brittany, you know.”

“A lot of them are airheads.”

“Fair point; I probably couldn’t find many Brittanys in a bookstore. By the way, what are you doing here. It’s Sunday night.”

“I don’t know exactly, it’s where I ended up.”

“Okay, that’s cool-”

“Well that’s good I have your approval.”

“That’s not what I meant. It’s just, there’s this place I know around the corner that has these killer milkshakes- ”

“Are you for real? Milkshakes? What are you from? Nineteen fifty? And we’ve been over this- ”

“That’s right, the boyfriend situation. Well, he’s a lucky man.”

“You’re right about that.”

“Your name’s not Alice by any chance.”

“No, but you are clever.”

“Thanks, but it doesn’t count for much.”

“More than you’d think.”

“Could you give me a second,” I’d spotted Horacio. I could tell from the way he was standing he was trying to get my attention while not looking like it.

“That’s a very pretty girl you have,” said Horacio.

“She’s something else,” I said. “But what’s going on man, you look lost.”

“Not at all lost my friend. I am very grateful for you bringing me here, but I did not realize that all the titles would be- ”

“English. I hadn’t thought of that either.”

“You could ask Pier. He could see if there’s anything written in Spanish,” said the girl. She’d come up while we weren’t looking.

It turned out the storeowner Pier was really a nice guy to deal with. Pier said there just might be some Spanish titles on the second floor and so he and Horacio went. The girl asked me how I knew him, meaning Horacio and I said we worked together. I said his name was Horacio and that he’d asked me if I knew any bookstores in town and I was happy for the excuse. I went on to say I was surprised, I hadn’t come down there as much as I’d wanted; it was like I missed summer.

“You work at Shenandoah.”

“How did you know that?”

“He had one of the trucker hats. You must know Joey.”

“I don’t think I know… Joey? Joe? Oh you mean Hogarth.”

“That’s what the guys call him?”

“Sawyer, that’s your name.”

“Wow… I can’t believe it.”

“So do I win the prize.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure, anything.” She really was too cute to refuse. She was wearing really loose clothing but the more I looked at her… She had her hair tied back and this really great skin that seemed to glow, and not like the glow some girls get from tanning booths. She just looked healthy, like she exercised or something.

“Tell me what you think of Joey.”

“Oh God,” I laughed. “Am I in some sort of trouble.”

“Everything you say is safe, confidential. I promise.”

“Will you swear.”

“Of course –”

“Pinky swear,” I held out my hand.

“Okay,” she said, laughing. Sawyer was suddenly shy.

“What do you want to know. You’ve known Hogarth longer than me. I can’t imagine what I’d know that you wouldn’t.”

“I just want your general impression.”

“My impression is he’s a good man. He’s taking a lot of stress, though. The boss is putting a lot of pressure on Hogarth and I think it’s starting to wear. But then again, he’s basically my boss so you won’t get me saying anything bad about him.”

“It’s okay, I’m his boss. Next question: have you noticed a change come over him.”

“I can’t say for certain, I haven’t known him long.”

“Please…”

“Like I said, you probably notice this stuff more than me. But it’s been disappointing, sure, to watch him over the summer. The first week I was at Shenandoah was great; it was just a laugh, everyone having a great time. His attitude towards work and me and the other guys, it’s gone sour.”

Neither of us said anything for a minute but I could tell she wanted to.

“What is it,” I said.

“It’s just I was hoping you were going to say anything else. I think it’s my fault. What’s happening with Joey, I think it started with me.”

“That can’t be. You shouldn’t think like that.”

“You can’t tell him I said that.”

“It’s fine.”

“But it sounds weird, doesn’t it? Like I’m paranoid?”

“It really doesn’t. Something’s obviously been bothering you, so I know it’s not in your head. And you need to get this stuff off your chest anyway. I’m more surprised you can’t talk about this stuff with anyone else.”

“That’s how it is, though. I couldn’t tell my friends because they’re friends with Joey too and I’d be afraid anything I said might come back to him.”

“But that’s fascinating.”

“What?”

“I’ve had moments like this too. Moments where I’ve revealed my secrets to total strangers when no one else would listen. There’s a safety in that, the knowledge you’re likely never to see this person again.”

“I never thought about that… but it is something I’ve done,” Sawyer’s eyes were smiling. “You really think we’ll never see each other again?”

“I don’t know, that depends,” I said. “Where is he now.”

“At the job,” Sawyer said.

“On Sunday night? When he should be with you.”

“I know, but he does care about Shenandoah. He’s probably fixing the machines or getting ready for tomorrow. But that’s why I asked. I thought you might’ve noticed something. He wasn’t like this before, I mean taking any opportunity to be at the shop. Only since the start of the summer.”

“That’s a real situation. Have you tried talking with him.”

“That’s why I think it’s my fault. I said to him I haven’t seen enough of you lately and he just looked at me with this face. He said what do you mean by that and I said well it’s just you’ve been at the office a lot and I like you and I don’t want to lose you. I said all of those things like a joke, but when it came out it didn’t sound that way, I think he thought I was criticizing him. It’s good you reminded me, he said, I almost forgot something. Where are you going, I said and he said he would just be a minute but it was hours. Things haven’t been the same since.”

“You mean icy.”

“Kind of… I wouldn’t use that word. It’s just he’s never around. He’s always at the shop, saying he needs to get this or that done. And there’s never time for me. It wasn’t even this bad when we first started. I think he was a bit weirded out because he was three years older and I was thirteen. Honestly, initially I felt a bit off as well but I tried not to show it and things got better. We just kept spending time together and after a while people stopped caring about our business. Now it’s a burden keeping the whole thing going.”

“It’s really too bad. I know Hogarth, and I know he’s a good guy, and I’ve known you for a little while now and I think you’re a sweet enough person. I don’t think either of you deserve this. But hey, know this: whatever it is that’s bothering him, it isn’t you. It’s something that’s existed inside him a long time now that’s been trying to escape and can’t. I can’t know what it is and I don’t think you can either, even if you want to. He might not know. It’s something he needs to figure out himself.”

“I really hope we see each other again.”

“I’ll be back in the city in a month.”

“What’s one of your secrets, Julian.”

“My secrets.”

“I’m almost a stranger. You can tell me.”

“Okay, well… Not a lot of people know this about me, but I’m a bit of a ladies man.”

“Come on. A real secret.”

At that moment the sounds of clamping boots came from the stairway and we both shut up.

“You boys find anything?” I said.

“It took some digging, but,” said Pier, and Horacio held out an old book with a bunch of Spanish words that were gibberish to me, but I knew the picture.

“That’s Don Quixote,” I said. “That edition looks at least fifty years old. It’s got to be expensive, are you sure you want to shell out that much on a book?”

“I have always wanted a chance to read it, and now I can,” said Horacio. “There is no price too high for the man of la Mancha.”

“It’ll be okay,” said Pier. “I’ll find some way of getting our friend a discount.”

“You’re going home after this,” I said to Horacio.

“Of course,” said Horacio. “I will be too tired to start tomorrow.”

“What about you,” I said to Sawyer. She’d been biting her lip through the whole exchange, watching. “How late does Hoagy get back?”

“I don’t know,” said Sawyer. “Never, probably.”

“That’s good,” I said. “I’m just asking because I remember owing you a few secrets.”

“And a milkshake or something like that,” she said, headed for the door.

“Milkshakes,’” I said, “So yeah, I’m taking off,” I said to Horacio but I realized he looked scared and that I was the one who’d scared him.

“Of course,” said Horacio. I hated the way he wouldn’t look me in the eye. All he had to do was bike home.

“See you tomorrow,” I said and left him then. I couldn’t keep Sawyer waiting.

 

-:-

“They’re serious?” Hogarth said in reference to the Wall. “This is something they want?”

We were gathered together the Friday after we finished the Road. Mr. Gore sounded conflicted as he told us about the Wall, as if he himself had no confidence or understanding of what it meant. Some chief executives in Oklahoma had decided it would be better for business if there were a great Wall to separate customers from the fields.

“Apparently this is something Freeman’s been thinking about for years,” said Gore. “I’d never heard of it, though.”

The two looked apprehensive at the prospect of the Wall, but I couldn’t understand that. To me the idea was the same as the Road: the mundane stacking of bricks next to one another, except this time vertically.

Within an hour of the meeting the flatback arrived with the first shipment of stone. These were enormous cinderblocks: as long as a man if he lay down. The crowbar rings peeking out the tops were necessary because the cinderblocks were too large to move with manpower alone, and so we developed a system to carry them by chains attached to forklifts. The forklifts would lift while we on the ground guided the individual blocks into place with our hands.

It might sound dangerous to someone who hasn’t worked at Shenandoah before, but it was necessary. There was a chance one of the stones might fall and crush us, but if we didn’t stop the stones from swaying there was potential for stones to crash into one another, even toppling the entire Wall. That couldn’t happen, the company would’ve been angry. So we resolved to work with deliberateness and avoid accidents.

“What are those men doing, standing around over there,” said a man I didn’t recognize. He was wearing a clean pressed pair of dress pants, a peach coloured dress shirt and his shoes were pointy and polished. He looked like he’d come from the nineteen seventies. Mr. Gore looked nervous as he spat more seeds.

“Did you hear me, Leslie,” said that man, louder. “I said, what are those men doing standing around.”

“Leslie?” I whispered.

“You’re smiling,” said Juan Carlos, taking a swig. “There’s something funny in that.”

“It’s a girl’s name,” I said. I knew I was smiling, but I couldn’t help it at that point.

“You know I’m only laughing because you are,” said Juan Carlos.

“You there,” said the man from the seventies. He was looking straight at us and I pointed to my chest.

“Yes you,” he said, beckoning. “Come…”

“You don’t know me. We’ve never been introduced, but do you see that tower there?”

“That one?” I said pointing to the main complex.

“Yes, that one,” said that man. “From time to time I’ve taken to watching you work out here on my Road. You see, I’m Mr. Freeman, I own Shenandoah. What are your names?”

“I’m Julian, Mr. Freeman,” I said. I don’t know why, but for a moment I was starstruck by Mr. Freeman. He just had that effect. It was that or I was having trouble finding a personality in him to relate with. “I’m Julian and this is, um… This is- ”

“Juan Carlos,” said Juan Carlos.

“I see,” said Mr. Freeman, shaking our hands.

I was surprised by that; that someone high up in the company as him would make such a gesture. Our hands were filthy from the dust. Occasionally when stones for the Wall didn’t fit together exact Hogarth had to bring out the saw to force them together, causing the dust to fly around. At that point the dust was so familiar it felt wrong not to be inhaling the stuff.

But everything made sense as Mr. Freeman continued talking and took a precisely folded handkerchief from his breast pocket to wipe his hands, completing each action without missing a beat.

“As I was saying, I’m Mr. Freeman; I own Shenandoah and I like getting to know my workers. Especially when they do a good job, and I’ve been watching you and I think you and the others did an outstanding job on my Road. I think your team is outstanding, but I’ve noticed the work on my Wall has slowed in comparison. My associate, Mr. Leslie Gore, whom you know I’m sure very well by now, hasn’t given me a satisfactory explanation for this and I was wondering if either of you could shed some light on the situation.”

“Well what do you mean, Mr. Freeman,” I said.

“What I mean is, I don’t understand why I have six or seven men standing around when they could be working.” There was something strange about Mr. Freeman. Had it been anyone else, they would’ve allowed the emotion simmering underneath to slip in by now, but Mr. Freeman wasn’t doing that. There were no emotions coming from him whatsoever, he was simply laying it out like a rational argument.

“Well, Mr. Freeman,” I said. “Hogarth needs us for the stones. I mean, we could go and do other tasks, but then we wouldn’t be ready when he needs us.”

“Hogarth’s the one who runs the forklift.”

“Yes sir, he is.”

“And he’s the only one running a forklift,” Mr. Freeman stroked his chin.

“Yes.”

“It seems to me that things would progress faster if there were two forklifts running. What do you think of my observation, Juan Carlos.”

“I think that you are right, Mr. Freeman,” said Juan Carlos, feeling for his pendant. “But in my opinion, if that is what you are asking, I think it would be unsafe. The stones are very heavy, accidents may be caused.”

“Serious injuries haven’t occurred at this location in a thousand days,” said Mr. Freeman. “That’s almost three years, and it’s as long as I’ve been owner. I know how to push my workers; I know because I’m the owner. Your concerns are noted, but I have to balance profit otherwise I can’t manage the company. You understand of course.”

“Of course Sir, but understanding does not change- ”

“Leslie,” said Mr. Freeman, shouting. “Two men, round-the-clock on two forklifts. See?” Mr. Freeman slapped Mr. Gore on the back, hard. “It’s the simplest solutions that are sometimes hardest to see.”

The blow to his back caused Mr. Gore’s sunglasses to slant sideways on his face.

“That’s the spirit,” said Mr. Freeman, hitting Mr. Gore on the back again and causing a singular sunflower seed to come flying out of his mouth. “Sometimes it helps to have a second pair of eyes.”

“Yep,” Mr. Gore spoke for the first time in a while.

“Let them know,” said Mr. Freeman, turning his back on the scene and heading toward the tower. For a moment I could hear Mr. Freeman’s pointy shoes clacking over new paving stones.

“Hogarth!” Mr. Gore shouted, finally.

“Yeah,” Hogarth shouted back, poking his head from the cab. Hogarth must’ve had incredible hearing, I observed, for though Mr. Gore was loud when he yelled, the din put out by the machine was louder.

“Take one of the Mexicans, set him up with unit two,” Mr. Gore was still yelling as he fixed the position of his glasses. “You two are going at the same time from now on, picking up and unloading stones continuous.”

“You can’t be serious,” said Hogarth, killing the motor and hopping down.

“Damn you, Hogarth,” said Mr. Gore. “Don’t you question, do what I say.”

Hogarth stopped dead. He looked stunned.

“Yes sir,” he muttered, even though Mr. Gore had already turned his back.

“Dammit,” Mr. Gore shouted at nothing as he walked on, “Do you hear me, Hogarth,” Mr. Gore roared from afar. “Get them back to work.” Mr. Gore’s shouts sounded like broken speakers, having exceeded their output. Like he wasn’t connected to his voice any more.

“Demetrio,” said Hogarth. “Better get on that thing.”

 

-:-

 

© – Neil McKenzie-Sutter 2013. Click here to view more of Neil’s work or to contact him.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

Read Part I of ‘Men of the Earth’ here.

And Part II.

And Part IV.