Your Sweat Becomes You
by Daniel Pinkerton
You take long lunches at Raul’s, where the verdant and viny made-in-LA Mexican music arrives from someplace overhead, someplace hidden and diminished, and an all-you-can-eat buffet line shimmers altar-like at the front of the restaurant, and of course the salt-rimmed margaritas: Phil has a bit of a problem, the way he tosses his back like shots, then retires to the parking lot, the work truck, climbing in back among the implements, lying parallel to the shovels and rakes, sleeping with his head propped on a bag of mulch, slumbering all afternoon, oblivious to the sun, while you build a retaining wall. You start to realize Raul’s isn’t such a great idea. Then Phil stays up all night moving his stuff from one crummy apartment to another in a fit of alcoholic industry and falls down a flight of stairs with a window unit on his shoulder. He arrives at work the following morning reeking of brewery, in Hawaiian shorts (not allowed) and a soiled, jury-rigged arm brace, and everyone begs him to leave before the boss sees him—he’s the crew chief, after all—but he won’t listen, and you feel bad when Phil gets fired, but liberated too. At least you can go back to Raul’s. Unfortunately neither you nor Bill nor Rob have any money.
You start taking long lunches at the city park where the high-school vixen guards the kiddy pool in her sleek Speedo one-piece while you play a distracted game of hackie with Bill, and Rob scavenges Fig Newtons and a few desiccated carrots from your lunch since he “forgot” his again. You don’t really mind Rob’s raccoonesque foraging, for the day is listless and open as a child’s face. The sun and the heat are things you’ve accounted for; you don’t mind taking your lunch outdoors instead of in conditioned air, though you spend your days sweating in the backyards of people busy water-skiing or vacationing or otherwise diverting themselves. You sweat through socks, boxers, shorts, company issue polo shirts, sweat until the sweat becomes an indelible part of you, and you let it run from your face without wiping it away.
Then Tom gets hired and you start taking long lunches in his mother’s basement, watching cartoons and MTV and listening to Tom’s twelve year old adopted brothers—from Honduras and Kenya—talk about finger-banging their junior high girlfriends. They are funny and alarming and almost make you wish for little adopted brothers from foreign countries, though you can’t really articulate this to anyone in the room, so you sit quietly as Rob goes upstairs to graze Tom’s refrigerator and cupboards, already a third adopted member of the family. What country is Rob from?
Rob. Borrower, without asking, of work truck on weekends and bummer of many cigarettes. Rider of a too-small BMX bike, which he chains behind Dumpster. Thirty year old living with mother. Self-proclaimed Satanist (though it’s doubtful), one of those who draws pentagrams on back of hand with ballpoint pen. One weekend Rob comes over to your apartment; you’re having a party and invited him, reluctantly, or maybe he overheard you were having a party and you felt compelled to invite him—alright, it’s not exactly your party but your roommate’s party, but your party too by proximity. Your roommate is a good-looking woman you’ve never slept with, nor even tried to, who’s training to become a radiologist. (Maybe why you never tried?). Her boring radiologist friends show up and proceed to get drunk in the most boring way imaginable, with a box of wine and some Kenny G garbage on the stereo. Then Rob shows up, six feet five, with a shaved head that makes him look taller—his head is kind of bullet-shaped—and he’s wearing a Day-Glo fanny pack, which typically you’d condemn, but since it’s pot-filled you let it slide, and the two of you sit on the balcony smoking and drinking beer, ridiculing your roommate and her radiologist friends just loudly enough for them to hear. What’re they going to do? Misinterpret your next x-ray? Later you walk into your roommate’s room and pee on a stack of her clean clothes. Honestly you were convinced it was the bathroom, which is right next door, after all. Your roommate, nervous now and hunting you down, opens the door mid-stream and yells, “What are you doing?” And you reply over your shoulder, naturally, “I’m peeing¾get out.” As in: duh.
Long lunches are the saving grace of landscaping. They make the day segmented and bearable, and your boss never comes to check up on you. His office—a small, windowless cell at the rear of Green Thumb’s Nursery and Garden Center—doesn’t seem overly inviting, and you wonder if maybe he’s going somewhere off-limits during the day, the strip club or bowling alley or grocery store. Darden. That’s his name—Darden James, though the landscapers have taken to calling him Darden Darden, like Baden-Baden or Pago Pago, for no particular reason, and you can tell it bugs him because his face tightens each time someone says it, though he smiles, and you get the feeling he was one of those people relentlessly tormented as a child who learned that passive indifference was the way to go. Passivity, to your mind, means he secretly wants to be messed with, so you and Bill scotch-tape a Playboy centerfold to the back of his door, which he closes only during client meetings. It must have been a shock the first time he glanced over a client’s shoulder and saw Miss July turned practically inside out, though he never said a word. You laugh about it in the break room as you and Bill tilt the soda machine and Cokes or Sprites or Diet Cokes come barreling out two and three at a time. Juvenile, you know, but anything to pass the time.
Every day they station this poor kid, Mark, on the blacktop by the nursery to load bags of potting soil and mulch into old people’s cars, and it must be 110 degrees in that parking lot. The kid tries to take shelter in the narrow overhang of the tool-shed roof, but there’s no shade from two o’clock on, and his fair skin turns the color of raw salmon. You take pity on Mark—he’s a clever little lad—and buy beer for him and his friends on the weekends. Sean, on the other hand, is a different story: semi-retarded, so they give him the cushy jobs of watering the plants at the rear of the nursery, well-shaded by the hundred-year oaks in the backyards of neighboring houses that overhang the nursery fence. Sometimes Bill hides Sean’s bike, and it takes him awhile to find it. Bill claims he’s teaching Sean a lesson about locking up his bike. You never do this, though merely from laziness, not sympathy.
Sometimes after work you head over to Murphy’s, next door, otherwise known as The West End Office because that’s where the supervisors conduct the majority of their business. Late at night people dance on the bar; it’s tradition. It turns out Rob, though a total mooch, is great at darts, and you come to respect him a little more. Jim Peterson is the nursery manager, and the hours he keeps at The West End Office are more regular than at Green Thumb. He looks like how Terry Bradshaw would if Terry Bradshaw had been courting alcoholism and chain-smoking for the past thirty-five years. For some reason you’ve been recruited to drive Peterson to the grocery store since (thank God) his license was long ago revoked, and he, clearly not a believer in carts, emerges from the Safeway with sacks riding up both arms, a case of beer straddling the divide, neck muscles straining, and he pays you five bucks to give him a lift to his trailer, its tiny yard landscaped like the palace at Versailles. Hmm. Where’d he get all those trees and plants, the crabapple, the birch, the barberries? Better not ask. Picturing him there on his narrow deck, pieced together with scrap lumber, his shirt off, drinking Bud heavy and belching, you vow: never again.
Peterson puts the fear of God into you. Too loud, too abrasive, his face a red jangle of capillaries from sunburn, windburn, booze; a master of the forklift. You are a forklift novice. One day, flush with bravery, you volunteer to load a Bradford pear tree your crew needs for a job, and halfway into the nursery you take a too-sharp turn and wedge the forklift tongs beneath a pair of landscaping timbers, swamping the thing, its back tires floating unhindered. You’re sweating and cursing; if Peterson is called to the scene you’ll be made to feel like a jackass and an imbecile and a nitwit, all this by a beet-faced piece of trailer trash, something you’d prefer not to happen, so you half-walk, half-run to find Bill, who’s loading the truck, and he manages to uncork the forklift before Peterson saunters by.
The garden center has a single sad parrot, apparently not for sale. Unofficially the parrot is Peterson’s, for he’s the one who walks around with it on his shoulder, proud as a pirate. In the morning, before the store opens, he takes it out and lets it hop along the eaves as it flaps impotently with its clipped wings. You come across Peterson’s keys laying around and put them in the parrot’s cage and the parrot stashes them under newspaper, eats them, who knows? At least Peterson can’t find them and has to request a new set, a major embarrassment.
You hate physical labor, but you also hate the guys who sit in offices all day. You feel stronger than them, hardened, and let on like this is the only real work, but the truth is that you’d trade with them in a second. Every morning you count the hours until lunch. The mornings start too early, seven thirty, so you load the truck and then everyone heads over to Tom’s place and crashes for awhile, napping, eating breakfast, watching TV. Darden Darden will never know; he’s off strip clubbing. More likely, he’s getting his back waxed or his oil changed. When you finally head out to do a bit of work before noon, the only thing that keeps you going is the fact that the heat is still way up in the atmosphere and hasn’t settled down over everything yet. You can still breathe, your shirt isn’t soaked yet, and the talk radio on the little transistor has you and the rest of the guys laughing. You’re trying to dig. You spend half your life digging holes, and the developers in the suburbs have stumbled onto this brilliant idea of scraping off the topsoil and selling it to farmers and replacing it with a gray clay that bakes in the sun and hardens into pottery. The best way to cut through it is to soak the ground with a hose and then dig up the mud, but that’s a heavy, messy process, and you don’t always feel right about dropping a tree or a plant into that morass, dousing the roots with Miracle Grow, and then leaving it. It can’t grow in that stuff, right?
Injuries are minor—a scrape, a cut, a puncture wound—and are worn like badges of honor. One afternoon, end of the day, you and Bill are lifting the sod cutter down from the truck. Laying sod is a hot, dirty business and you’re ready for nothing more than a shower and a beer, and maybe not concentrating as you should be, because you lose your handle on the sod cutter and it falls, striking your kneecap. You thought it was dumb, that expression about seeing stars, until you see them at five in the afternoon, like an eclipse: everything darkens, falls away, and you’re out in space. That’s all you see, the blackness of it, the pin-prick flashes of light. With unanticipated calmness you imagine you’ve sheered your kneecap off. In that split-second of not-knowing, you are already thinking about medical insurance (the lack thereof) and reconstructive surgery, but when you finally look down, the knee is where it has always been, and even the bruise goes away, anti-climactically, after a week or so. That evening, at least, you get your can of beer and take it into the tub with you, resting it on the ledge, and it is the single best can of beer ever conceived—manna, nectar of the gods, et cetera—and you feel the strains of work flaking from you like dried mud chipping from the skin.
You think about the things you get away with as a Green Thumb landscaper: taping centerfolds to your boss’s door. Sleeping on the job. Smoking in the work truck. Taking long lunches.
More things you get away with: playing baseball with a rock and a shovel and cracking a client’s window. Driving the work truck, drunk, though you can’t drive a stick. Stopping in the middle of a job for a couple twelve-packs, filling the water cooler with beer and proceeding to get shit-faced. Here’s how that one works. Each of you walk out to the truck in turn, shotgun a beer, and return to work on the rear terrace of some suburbanite homestead. Eventually this leads to you standing in the middle of the street, angrily hurling a cigarette lighter at the concrete because you can’t figure out how to work it, and it explodes, a shard of plastic imbedding itself in Tom’s leg. Tom, a summer hire, plays college football during the school year and you worry momentarily for your life.
Something else you get away with: climbing the nursery fence one night, drunk, and stealing plants, which you load into Bill’s pick-up. It doesn’t occur to you that this is larceny, that it’s ten or eleven PM and all four lanes are full on Merle Hay Road, any number of a hundred drivers could call the cops and turn you in, but you must look so blatant that no one thinks anything of it, guys hopping a fence and handing plants over the chain-link like a bucket brigade. You end up selling yours to your future father-in-law.
How does it end? With a whimper. The summer itself starts drawing to a close. You figure out that you never much liked uniforms, which tend to turn you into someone else’s chattel, and start looking around for a better life, one without chronic lower back pain. Tom returns to school to play right tackle while his adopted brothers presumably finger-bang their way through the ninth grade. Phil finds work installing sprinkler systems. Darden Darden goes on being Darden Darden, oblivious, absent half the time. After working numerous summers for him, you realize you know nothing about the man. Is he married? With children? Where does he live? In the end, you must console yourself with the knowledge that he drives a Chevy Blazer and that he has in his possession a lovely fold-out of Miss July.
In one of your last shining moments as an employee of Green Thumb Nursery and Garden Center, Rob—good old Rob—claims a mysterious “injury.” You’re laying a truckload of sod on a sloping back lawn, you’ve been pushing freighted wheelbarrows up and down the hill, and it’s Elvis’s birthday so his songs have been playing all day. “In the Ghetto” comes on. It must strike a chord with Rob, because he goes to the truck and turns the song up until it’s blaring, distorting on the shitty factory stereo, a diversion, it seems, because as you’re looking over at the truck, Rob and his mysterious injury have already climbed a tree in the back yard, like the Biblical Zacchaeus, and he’s perched up there, not so much singing the words as belting them out, as you and Bill cart load after load of sod down the hill, dumping it, unfurling it and parting the strips with spades, and you realize that this is what happens if you stay here too long, at this job, this life—you end up having a meltdown like Phil or Rob. The bottom edge of the property is lined with trees, and you keep eyeing them, just past the chain-link, like a caged animal pacing back and forth, seeking a way out.
Daniel Pinkerton is in the MFA program at Penn State University. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Terminus, Redivider, Indiana Review, and Minnesota Review, while reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in American Literary Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Chattahoochee Review, and Pleiades. His fiction has appeared in Quarterly West, and he is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and an AWP Intro Journals award.