“Where the hell are they,” Hogarth growled. He was referring to the conspicuous absence of Amadeus and Lee, on that day of all days. It could’ve also been the heat getting to him. It was a scorcher and everyone was feeling the effects. But I and everyone else knew it was more. That day was Hogarth’s day to make an impression.
“So hang on,” I’d said. “Mr. Freeman still isn’t happy with us?”
“You’re putting words in my mouth,” Mr. Gore had said. “I didn’t say that, and neither did Mr. Freeman. Mr. Freeman has been carefully observing you the last few days and he thinks you’ve been doing a decent enough job. But that’s the trouble: doing decent, or even exceptionally isn’t going to cut it today. We’ve got some company big shots for a lunch today and later on I’m going to be touring them around. You’ve got to think of your work today as a kind of performance. It can’t just ‘be’ hard; it’s got to look hard. When I come around it should look like a work site off Mike Holmes or something. There should be a lot of manly gruffness and there should be sweat dripping from all your brows, but I don’t want any of that shitty language. There should be tools laying around, and there should be the dust we’ve all come to know and love. But not too much, these executives aren’t interested in dirt. Y’all understand?”
We looked at one another. It was totally ridiculous, but we knew what we were being asked. Summer was almost over, and there’d lately been a push on getting the Wall complete. This meeting Mr. Gore was talking about must’ve been why the company was so intent on finishing. I figured that was why the Mexicans had been told to discontinue their picking in the fields. It made sense in a way, us temp guys and the Mexicans would be gone soon and Shenandoah wouldn’t have the man power to finish after that, but it was taking a toll on the harvest. A few of the fruit fields smelled like rot.
“That’s good,” Mr. Gore had said, glancing at Hogarth over his sunglasses. “We’re depending on you to help us out here. Futures with the company are riding a lot on today.”
“Absolutely,” Hogarth had said. His eyes looked dead, as if there were nothing behind them. “You raised many good points.”
“I know I did, Hoagy,” Mr. Gore had said. “Alright everybody, Hogarth is in charge today, so listen to him.”
“Hey, does anyone know where Ammo and Lee went?” I’d said. “I haven’t seen them in a while.”
“I’ve got Ammo’s cell phone,” Juan Carlos had said.
“Get your house in order, Hogarth,” Mr. Gore had said, taking care to splat a few sunflower seeds directly at Hogarth’s feet. “This is your show.”
Mr. Gore seemed at ease, now he’d offloaded responsibility for success on Hogarth’s shoulders. For the first time I felt sorry for Hogarth. He looked terrible, with enormous bags under his eyes from not sleeping. He was losing weight, too. For a moment, and only a moment I thought my new opinion of Hogarth might have more to do with guilt than anything he had or could’ve done or deserved. I pushed that thought from my head, however, and decided to remain in pitying him.
“There’s them,” said old Demetrius, pointing. He was right, in the distance two long clouds of dust had appeared, one significantly ahead of the other. I’d seen them a while earlier, but hadn’t wanted to say, lest evoke the wrath of Hogarth if I was wrong. Lee’s triumph was cut short when he saw us all standing in a half ring, waiting.
“It wasn’t my idea, it was Ammo,” Lee spluttered as Ammo’s rig pulled up. “It was him; not me, it was his idea –”
“If I hear another word from either of you the rest of the day you’re fired,” said Hogarth. “This is a very important day and you will not fuck it up for me. Understand?”
Lee and Ammo said nothing.
Although Hogarth’s threats had been directed toward the two, the group as a whole understood and for much of the morning we worked in almost complete silence. The regular life and hustle were gone, evaporated in the heat.
And it was hot, unnaturally so. We didn’t have to fake sweat on our brows and after a while just the thought of manual labour made me exhausted. What was more, the section of Wall we were working on was close to a row of greenhouses. This meant we could only operate one of the lifts at a time, through the narrow channel between the greenhouses and the Wall. The sunlight must’ve collected in that special greenhouse glass, it was that hot. The work was slower because of this, requiring close attention.
It took long enough, but after a while it was time for break. We were grateful, looking forward to cleaning our hands and freshwater. Then Hogarth got a call.
“Yes Sir, no Sir,” said Hogarth. It was clear he was talking with Mr. Gore. “You’re bringing them when? Now? Okay… No, of course I won’t send them for break, but Sir… But Sir it’s sweltering out here, some of them might pass out…Well, if you think that’s a solution. Of course…”
“Am I hallucinating or did I just hear that?” Ammo said.
“Firstly, I remember telling you to shut up,” said Hogarth as he hung up. “Second, who’s twenty-two and feels like going for a drive. The truck’s only insured for twenty-two and over.”
All of us looked frightened, except Juan Carlos who wore his familiar groggy eyed, comfortably unshatterable personality, and so it was he Hogarth zeroed in on.
“You,” said Hogarth. “What’s your name again?”
“After all this time –” Juan Carlos said
“It doesn’t matter,” said Hogarth. “Here, take the keys. Around the other side of the complex there should be tanks full with water. Throw a couple of them in back and do it quick. Understand?”
Juan Carlos did understand and almost before Hogarth was finished Juan Carlos had whipped the door open, threw his paper bag inside and was gone in a cloud of dust and flying gravel. I was jealous of him for the air conditioning.
“What about the rest of us,” said Lee.
“That was Mr. Gore on the phone,” said Hogarth. “He told me not to let anyone away until he and the bigs have a chance to see the place.”
“When’s that going to be,” said Lee.
“I remember telling you to shut up…They’ll be here soon enough,” said Hogarth glancing at the high tower.
But they weren’t. Juan Carlos returned with the water truck having taken his time. We filled our canteens and resumed work at a deteriorating pace and still there was no sign of them.
“It’s lunchtime, right?” Ammo said.
“Sure,” Hogarth said.
“I’m going,” Ammo said, turning his back. “Well I’m going.”
“What the hell’s the matter with you,” said Hogarth. “Look at Julian, or the Mexicans for Christ’s sake. I don’t see them complaining. Juan Reyes went to get the water when I asked him. You and Lee are the worst workers and the only ones I ever hear complaints from.”
“Well I’m hungry, and I’m getting dizzy out here,” said Ammo. “I’m going inside.”
“Leave now and you’re fired,” said Hogarth. That stopped Ammo; that stopped us all. “I’m sorry it had to get this ugly but I can’t have your shit, not today. You won’t ruin this for me. Now get in line. Give it a few minutes more and I’ll buy you all a round of beers later tonight. They’ll be here.”
From the way he spoke it was clear Hogarth was convinced of the truth behind his every word, but we knew he was deluded. Someone should’ve talked him down, but it wasn’t going to be me and so for the sake of things being made easy, the work continued.
“What the hell is he doing?” Hogarth shouted, referring to old Demetrius who’d waved his hand at the latest cinderblock and refused to lay it in place. It was necessary for at least one man to be on top of the Wall at all times to unhook the chains for the next block, and just then it was Demetrius’ turn.
“Yeah that’s enough,” said old Demetrius. “I’m coming down.”
Hogarth looked like he was about to set into a rage, but we saw this and Amadeus stopped him.
“Let him come down if he’s exhausted,” said Amadeus. “There’s no point if someone’s going to get hurt.”
“He’s faking,” said Hogarth, he was almost laughing. But it wasn’t funny. Horacio and Juan Carlos had to support old Demetrius so he wouldn’t fall climbing down. He was that dizzy. That shut Hogarth up for a second. Horacio and Juan Carlos were talking in Spanish.
“Let’s get him in the shade,” said Amadeus. “Find him some water, somebody.”
“Julian,” Hogarth spoke loudly. “You’re up top.”
I had no idea what it meant at the time. I thought Demetrius was just a tired old man and that was why he’d gotten dizzy and almost fallen, that a young man like me would handle it better. But it was hot up there, hotter closer to the sun. It was exhausting work, putting those stones in place. After four or five I was spent.
Another element I hadn’t counted on was the noise from the machines. The continuous rattle and grind from the forklifts was loud and intense and fearsome. The noise had me on an edge perpetually, and was tiring in that way too. I could tell enormous sweat stains were appearing around my arm pits and the hollow of my back. I found myself looking straight up. There was not one cloud in that great blue sky.
“Julian,” Juan Carlos shouted over the din. “Paying attention? We don’t want to lose you.”
I smiled down to him, not answering with words. Lee’s forklift moved the stone into position.
“Holy shit,” I heard Amadeus say.
I saw it all as it was happening, but too slow. I remember the sound of metal bending and breaking, I remember sparks. Then I was on the ground.
“Say something… Man,” said Juan Carlos, pinching me in many places. Horacio was looking on with concern.
“Something,” I said.
“Holy shit,” said Amadeus. “He’s alive. I can’t believe it.”
“Missing any teeth,” said Lee.
“Seriously, are you all right,” said Juan Carlos. “I think you must be the luckiest man alive. That rock could’ve crushed you… You must’ve flown nearly a hundred feet.”
“He’s still in one piece,” said Hogarth. Hogarth was using a calming tone of voice but his face had fear on it. “How are you feeling?”
“You know,” I said. I was contemplating getting up, and then thought better of it. “I don’t actually know.”
“Oh shit, inside his leg,” said Amadeus, turning white. “Shit, I don’t want to look. It’s soaked through already.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I can’t feel it.”
“Damn,” said Hogarth, running fingers through his hair. Amadeus had moved on and was in the process of puking up air. “What are we going to do.”
“You’ve got a cell phone,” said Lee. “Call a God-damned ambulance.”
“Right…” said Hogarth.
“It’s going to be all right, things will be good again soon,” said Juan Carlos. “We are going away from here and I’m going to take you somewhere safe.”
“All this; it’s nothing,” I said.
“That’s right,” said Juan Carlos. “Nothing.”
“You can’t move him like that,” said Lee. “It could be a spinal.”
“That’s it,” said Hogarth, gesturing, still on the phone. “Juan… Whatever your name is, Juan Gomez… Go to the main complex. Let them know what’s going on.”
“I will return for you, I promise,” said Juan Carlos, squeezing the pendant into my hand. “God watch over you.”
“And also with you,” I said. I noticed he left the brown bag as well.
“Don’t!” Hogarth shouted. We all saw it at the same second: a crowd of suits with Mr. Gore at the lead. “Damn… Don’t take the truck, it’s not insured…” Hogarth was still on the phone.
“Why?” Juan Carlos said. “What does it –”
“Dammit, do as I say,” said Hogarth. “I shouldn’t have to explain this to goddam mud… just take one of the forklifts.”
“Honestly guys,” I said. “I think I might be okay.”
“No,” said Amadeus, stopping Juan Carlos dead on the stepladder. “Not that one –”
“Shut up all of you, just shut the fuck up,” a vein had appeared at the side of Hogarth’s throat and his face and neck were entirely red. “Listen to me God damn, I’m the one who’s had emergency training, you haven’t had any kind of emergency training, I know what to do in these situations. Now all of you will listen to me or I’m going to have you all fired or deported, whichever is easier for me. Now you will listen to me.”
Everyone looked unsure, but Juan Carlos nevertheless fired up the rig and sped off.
“What do we have here, Joseph?” Mr. Gore said as he arrived. Immediately Hogarth was around shaking hands.
“Well we’ve had a bit of excitement this afternoon,” said Hogarth. “Some malfunctioning equipment has caused an injury, relatively minor –”
“An injury, is it?” Mr. Gore remarked.
We all heard it first; a metallic snapping and cracking. Then we looked. One of the back wheels and part of the axle flew out from under Juan Carlos’s forklift. All we could do was watch as it slowly leaned to one side, suddenly flipping over and colliding with the edge of a greenhouse, which seem to ripple with impact before exploding into millions upon millions of glass pieces.
“You don’t look so good, buddy,” I said. Somehow I’d gotten to my feet and was first on the scene, along with Horacio. I was ignoring everything else. To look at Juan Carlos from the chest up he might’ve seemed all right, but his stomach and bowels were opened up pretty good. The pool of dark blood collected around him and was growing. Juan Carlos turned his head to look me in the face and I heard glass crunching.
“I’ve seen worse,” said Juan Carlos. The bastard was still smiling. I knew he would never stop.
“Of course you have,” I said. Horacio was kneeling beside Juan Carlos now and they were speaking Spanish.
“Keep them away,” Horacio said, uncapping his canteen for Juan Carlos.
But Mr. Gore and some of the guys had already formed a line to keep people at a distance. They were talking, too, but what they were saying made as much sense to me as Spanish. They were trying to keep the crowd of suits back, but all were craning their necks, trying to glimpse what they hoped not to see. Something in me satisfied their desire however, and all took a step back and one of the woman suits screamed. My reflection in a large, jagged piece of glass surprised even me: my skin was pasty white and blood from a massive head wound was still dripping down one side of my face and had clumped a patch of my hair together.
There was nothing for me to do and so I started walking. Things were moving fast, I needed space. I sat down on the rock, which had been cleaved in two, where all this had begun. The late afternoon sky was changing, the shadows grown longer. It was getting dark, and I was cold.
“Has anyone seen Hogarth?” Mr. Gore was shouting. “Damn that little punk.”
“I thought I saw him…” Lee said. “I thought I saw him…”
“He gone,” said old Demetrius.
The suits were all on their cell phones simultaneously talking a million miles an hour to everyone except who was there. I almost laughed, but decided against it. It wasn’t a joke. Whatever they were on the phone about must’ve been more important.
“All he had to do was stay,” Mr. Gore was still shouting and his hands were shaking so badly he had to get Amadeus to light the cigarette he’d bummed off somebody.
“Our friend,” said Horacio sitting next to me. I had no idea how long it’d been. The ambulance had shown up, but they’d taken their time. There was no need to hurry.
“Is he gone?” I said. Horacio nodded. For a while we didn’t say anything.
“How are you feeling?” Horacio said.
“That’s right, we haven’t talked in a while. What have you been up to?” I said. Horacio was quiet for another minute.
“I finished my book, last night.”
“Oh yeah, Don Quixote. What did you think of it?”
“I liked it, yeah, a lot. It was really a funny book. I was disappointed by the ending, though.”
“I suppose it was the way he died like that, so suddenly. It seemed out of place with the rest of the book, so rushed. I expected something more from him. I felt like I had been cheated to caring for someone who never had a chance.”
I looked at the pendant I still held in my hand and couldn’t make out the details, it had grown too dark. But it was there, I knew, and it gave me comfort. I noticed, then, that Horacio’s hands were stained darker than usual. I figured it was from the dried blood, but there was no knowing. It could’ve been from the dust.
“Sometimes that’s how it is, though. With life I mean.”
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.