I wrote the following piece of thinly veiled fiction almost twenty years ago. If I ever submitted it anywhere it was never accepted, and you’ll understand why when you read it. I considered rewriting this as a straight creative non-fiction piece for Why It Matters, as the events described happened at this very point in the ongoing narrative. Maybe somewhere down the road I’ll do that, but for right now I thought you might enjoy reading a piece that’s even more novice than what I regularly subject you to.
Note that the bits between father and son were heightened in a misguided effort at dramatic storytelling. If you’ve been reading WIM for a while you’ll quickly recognize the truth behind the lies. It took me a long time to realize that laying it down straight and simply makes for the best stories. Readers appreciate honesty, or at least mine do.
And speaking of honesty, everything in this story regarding Danny and his crew is true. Even twenty years ago I recognized that some tales need no embellishment.
Well, almost everything. I parodied a line from Steinbecks’s The Red Pony somewhere in this story. When you find it, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you something free and fun. Okay, here we go:
Oh you who are born of the blood of the gods, Trojan son of Anchises, easy is the descent to Hell; the door of dark Dis stands open day and night. But to retrace your steps and come out to the air above, that is work, that is labor!”
-Virgil, The Aeneid
My father rested the newspaper on his belly when I dropped the phone into its cradle. The television blared, its image reflected in the lenses of his glasses.
“You’re a roofer now?”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“I’d pay to see that,” he smirked.
I climbed the stairs to my old room. “Be the first thing you paid for.”
“You’re nineteen, college boy,” he muttered. “You’re not my burden to shoulder anymore.”
Paint chips littered the threshold of my room, shaken loose from the empty hinges. Adhesive tape and pushpins scarred the walls; loblolly pines cast pallid shadows through the bare window. They crept across the threadbare comforter and climbed the empty little shelf near the closet. I unclipped my duffel bag and shook the contents onto the closet floor, then laid down and let the distant echo of the TV lull me to sleep.
The next morning I pulled on a tee-shirt and Levi’s, threw on a pair of high tops, and rode to Kimbrell’s Hardware Store. Seven a.m. came and went, then seven-thirty. A rickety, white pickup truck pulled up at eight o’clock, heavy metal blaring through its open windows. “You John?” the driver asked.
“Get in.” The passenger door’s handle was missing. Danny stretched a beefy arm across the seat and opened the door from the inside. “Sorry I’m late. You know how it is.” His arms and face were deeply sun freckled and the first hints of crow’s feet formed around his brown eyes. A light moustache stained his upper lip, and his shoulder-length hair feathered perfectly down the center. He tapped his wedding ring on the steering wheel in time with the music. It was too early for drum solos. “You had breakfast yet?”
“I had a little something.”
Danny turned. “Damn, son, you’re skin and bones. We got to get some food in you. I take care of my crew.” I smiled.
We stopped at Randy’s Stop-N-Go just off Valley Falls Road, where the Holden’s Grocery used to be. Danny swiped a Penthouse from the newsstand and slid into a booth.
“How you doing, darlin’? What can I get y’all?”
“You know what I want, Miss Alice,” Danny sighed.
The waitress fluttered her baby blue eyelids and flashed a smoke-yellowed smile. “Quietin’ down, now. What do you want, hon?”
“Bring us a couple of ham biscuits and some coffee,” he winked. Danny rapped on the Formica table with his ring and opened his magazine. “Busy day today. Going to be a hot one.”
Danny flipped pages and drank his coffee. Occasionally he grunted and muttered “that’s what I’m talking about.” I grinned, mouth full of ham biscuit, imagining what we’d look like in an Edward Hopper painting. Around nine a.m. he tossed the magazine aside. “You about ready to get going, son?” he asked.
We took Valley Falls Road to a narrow dirt driveway, the old truck bumping and wheezing. The road ended at a small trailer park. I reached for the door handle. “Stay here,” Danny ordered, “I need to see a man about a horse.”
I stared through the cracked windshield, waiting. This wasn’t a trailer park – it was a notch cut into the woods where three dented old single-wides rested, their tin white underpinnings stained red with Carolina clay. Kudzu yanked on power poles and scruffy pine trees; tore at an upended Westinghouse refrigerator; pulled at the trailers’ hand railings. The woods were so still, so silent. I imagined the kudzu creeping through my open window and carrying me away.
Danny emerged from the trailer eating a thin slice of dry bread, his shirt untucked. A wisp of pot smoke trailed behind him. “That’s what I’m talking about,” he said with a wink. “We need to get to the site. It’s going to be a hot one today. Lot to do. Long day.” He turned up the radio.
We arrived at the house at ten o’clock. The only vehicle parked on the street was a yellow Datsun pickup with two disheveled men sitting on the tailgate, smoking cigarettes. This was the rest of Danny’s crew: Wayne, a weathered, wiry kid about my age; and Virgil, who must have been twice that. Virgil flashed a big smile and waved a bent hand. Wayne jumped from the tailgate and ground his cigarette with his heel.
The house was an enormous, white brick colonial with Doric columns like grinning teeth and a hemline embroidered with azaleas and sweetspire. A latticed wisteria vine shaded the porch’s southern exposure. Its curious white flowers shimmied up the drainpipe and weaved between the roof’s gnarled shingles.
“Come on, boys, we got a lot to do,” Danny said. “Get those ladders around back.” He tossed me a flat-nosed shovel.
The ladders bobbed and swayed as we climbed them, shovels on our shoulders. I squinted at the thirty foot drop into the sweetspire and crawled onto the roof. Danny glanced quickly at the brittle, curled surface shimmering in the late morning heat and walked back to the ladder. “Get to it,” he said. “I’m going to take care of some business. If you boys hear any cars, you stay on the backside of the house.”
Virgil handed Wayne a shovel and they began popping the shingles loose. I picked a spot and did the same, the nails squeaking beneath my shovel. Asphalt broke loose from the shingles when we jammed the shovels underneath and pried them loose. They skittered down the roof and tumbled off of the edge like a rockslide. The work was monotonous but meditative, rhythmic. Shove. Pop. Step. Shove. Pop. Step. We worked quietly, no small talk. The shovel grew heavier, and my hands began to burn. Shove. Pop. Step.
Danny’s voice startled me. “Not bad,” he said, “half a side in an hour.” A dusting of loosened asphalt clung to my sweaty forearms and coated the rooftop like a floured pan. Danny stripped a section of black roofing paper and examined the plywood sheathing beneath. “Look at this. They let this bastard leak so long it rotted a hole. Dumb ass city slickers too stupid to come in out the rain.” Virgil and Wayne laughed. I pretended to laugh, too. “I got to go to the lumber yard and get a patch.”
When Danny returned at noon, the backside of the house was deshingled almost to the peak. “Come on down, boys. Lunch time,” he yelled from the yard. We shimmied down the ladders and jumped over mounds of fallen shingles, my feet squishy in my canvas sneakers. The shingles lay broken on the patio, in the grass, the sweetspire, wherever they happened to fall. Azaleas drooped beneath their weight. Danny climbed back into his truck. “I’ll be back in about an hour. Got to see a man about a horse.” He winked and pulled away, rapping his ring on the steering wheel.
Virgil pulled a cooler out of the Datsun and unloaded a couple of Cokes and ham sandwiches. He handed one to Wayne. “Where’s you lunch, son?” he asked me. With his leathery skin and crazy quilt smile I assumed that he would be hard to understand, like one of the Hortons from over on the Mill Hill. But instead he spoke as clearly as Deacon Calhoun at New Pisgah Baptist.
“I thought we’d be going somewhere,” I replied.
They laughed. “You going to eat good tonight, then.” Virgil waved his sandwich toward the house. “I’d imagine they won’t mind if you get a drink out of the hose.”
I turned on the water and took a long drink. The azalea beside the spigot threatened to snap under the weight of the fallen shingles. I removed them delicately, like a trauma nurse removing broken glass, then pulled some from the sweetspire. Wayne lit a cigarette and leaned back on his elbows in the bed of the truck, his baseball cap pulled over his eyes. Virgil stared quietly at the woods beside the house, smoke curling from the cigarette wedged between his crooked fingers. I wished that I smoked. Smokers always have something to do.
I started a shingle pile just on the edge of the woods, where the thick grass ended and the untended forest began. It started out like a woodpile, but as I moved closer to the house I lost interest in carrying neat stacks across the lawn. Then I made a game of it, tossing the flatter pieces like Frisbees: ten points for a leaner, twenty if it landed clean on the pile, and fifty if it landed on top. Virgil drifted up beside me.
“You’re a hard worker, ain’t you boy?”
“Danny likes hard workers. The way you work you’ll probably only have to do one job before he starts paying you. He’s a good man, Danny,” Virgil said.
“What do you mean, before he starts paying me?”
“Son, you can’t expect him to pay you until he knows he can trust you. How’s he supposed to know whether or not he can count on you?” A hiss of smoke escaped the corner of Virgil’s mouth. “I’m his best worker and even I had to do three jobs before he started paying me. He says I’m going to be foreman soon. But you got to slow down, son. There’s plenty more work to do.”
“You got that right,” I said awkwardly.
“I mean, Danny ain’t here right now. There’s nobody to impress.” I followed him back to the truck and joined him on the tailgate. We sat together, watching the pine trees sway in the afternoon breeze.
Danny pulled up around two o’clock. “All right, boys, we got a lot to do,” he announced as he stepped out of his pickup. He strapped on his tool belt, grabbed the plywood out of the truck bed, and we headed back to the ladders. My legs shook as I climbed back onto the roof. Danny kneeled and pried the rotten sheathing away from the joists. I wobbled up to the peak, to the shove-pop-step business of the day, but my sneakers would no longer grip the grainy surface of the deshingled roof. I sat down. I lay down. But still I slid toward the sweetspire thirty feet below. Every inch of surface area pressed against the roof, but I was no match for the sandy roofing paper. As I slid past Danny, I held out my hand. He continued prying at the rotted boards.
“You hit the ground, you don’t work for me,” he shrugged.
Inches before my heels hit the rain gutter I stopped sliding. I crawled back up the roof, past Danny. “Don’t you have more sense than to wear tennis shoes on a roofing job?” he smiled. I could hear Virgil and Wayne laughing on the other side of the house.
“You could’ve held out your hand,” I snapped.
“What, so you could drag me down with you? I don’t have no insurance, don’t have no permits. You want it to be your fault I go out of business?”
That evening when Danny dropped me off in front of Kimbrell’s Hardware Store he idled for a moment, wedding ring tapping against the steering wheel. “You’re a pretty good worker, boy. I’d like to see you become a regular. We work hard, but I take care of my crew,” he said.
“I appreciate that,” I said, easing out of the truck, “but I don’t think this is the best fit for me.”
“Like I’m saying, it won’t take a worker like you long to earn your stripes. I might even make you foreman someday.” Danny turned up the radio and threw the battered truck into gear. “Anyway, you change your mind I’ll be here at seven in the morning,” he yelled.
It was eight o’clock when I walked into the house. The television dimly outlined my father lazing in his recliner.
“What happened – you get fired?”
“I’d pay to see that. I told you those fellas wouldn’t put up with a mama’s boy who can’t pull his weight.”
My stomach growled. “Yes sir.”
“Back home one day and you get fired. This ain’t a hotel, college boy. You’re not my burden – ”
I slowly climbed the stairs to my old bedroom, the faint glow of the television flickering in the stairwell like cool flames. The loblolly pines cast their shadows across the packed duffel resting in the center of the bed. I rolled the bag onto the floor and collapsed, legs twitching against the worn comforter. I laid there, imagining myself climbing like wisteria, higher and higher; climbing until my father’s roof lay beneath me like a shingle crumbling in the sweetspire. I pictured his lights dimming as kudzu crept quietly through open windows and carried the house away. Someday he would need me. Someday I would bear him on these aching shoulders.