Your Sweat Becomes You
by Daniel Pinkerton
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.
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
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
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.
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.