What follows is an excerpt from Bud Smith’s memoir, Work, first published by Civil Coping Mechanisms Press in 2017.
I work heavy construction in New Jersey. But right now I’m at a diner in Ohio, waiting for the waitress to bring ketchup for my cheeseburger. My friend who teaches college in the South is at the end of a long formica table. He leans out around other friends and says to me, “Now what the fuck exactly is heavy construction?”
Now they all stop chewing, and look at me.
I say, “It’s like regular construction but ya know, it weighs more.”
Everybody nods and they go back to eating their grilled cheese sandwiches. Their burgers. Their fries. Their reubens.
He laughs, though, he says, “But wait… what would they call construction up there in outer space?”
I’ve been working at this oil refinery for five years now. Same place. Steady. The oil gets sucked out of the earth with these great big straws, and the oil gets spit into these great big ships. The ships come down the shining river and the ships spit the oil at the oil refinery. The ships come down the river sagging low below the water line. The ships leave riding high on the waves, light and empty, going back to the straws that are busy sucking more money out of the rocks.
Ambulances need gasoline. Fire trucks need gasoline. Garbage trucks need gasoline. Hearses do too.
The oil refinery makes the gasoline by boiling the oil in pencil-thin towers that stretch up into the clouds. The gasoline rushes through pipelines and out to the storage tanks that look like birthday cakes on the side of the highway. Tanker trucks pull up to the pumps and other pipelines push the fuel from the birthday cakes, and the truck drivers stand out in the sun chewing gum, waiting until their tankers are full. Then they ease their trucks out onto the highway heavier and slower.
The tanker trucks are bringing 91 octane to your mother. They are bringing 91 octane to your sister and your brother. They are bringing you gasoline so you can get to the job you don’t like. Or the job you do like.
Other things that are made here: plastic, diesel, jet fuel, sulphuric acid.
When I was a little kid, my family used to drive past the oil refinery in the family car and I thought that the refinery made clouds. The smokestacks pump plumes of gray exhaust up into the sky to make clouds. How nice.
Later, I would drive past the oil refinery with a date in my truck, headed to New York City, and I’d tell the date that the place looked like Gotham City. She might say it looked like The Land of Oz if it was scuzzy instead of emerald.
Later later, I got a job there and would drive my car out of NYC where I lived, commuting to New Jersey every work day before dawn. I’d park in a gravel lot, walk through a turnstile, put on a fireproof suit, work boots and a hard hat that had “work safe or die trying” written on it with magic marker.
My car got drunk and happy on gasoline. I made the gasoline. I pulled up to the gas pumps and handed the attendant my debit card and I told the attendant, “Hey, even though I made this gasoline, I still have to pay for it. Nothing in life is free.” The attendant stuck the handle into my car’s gas tank and I waited.
Before I made gasoline in the oil refinery, I worked in a nuclear power plant, a couple coal burner power plants and a chemical plant that primarily makes acid.
Not the cool acid that me and you would do on a Saturday night if we were bored. The kind of acid that melts people.
At my job, I weld—shielded arc, tig and mig. I also work with cranes, read blueprints, arc gouge, cut things apart with torches, jackhammer, wrench this, wrench that, disassemble/reassemble pieces of machinery as big as a house with heavy duty impact guns—most of the time I figure I’m just getting paid to either get burnt by molten metal, soaked with fuel, soaked with rain, or just generally covered in rust, dirt and grime.
We have to stay clean-shaven in case of a fire, and also to use full face respirators. The safety department comes around in the morning and checks out our faces to make sure we’re not growing big stupid Yosemite Sam mustaches or lumberjack beards.
I’m not complaining one bit about it. I work outside every day. There’s not really any inside work. So when it’s 100 degrees, I’m outside in that. When it’s 10 degrees I’m out in that too. When it’s that cold out the best thing you can do is wear insulated wool socks. When it’s that hot out there’s nothing you can do. Just drink more water, less beer.
I like not having a desk job. I like being outside. I like being able to have a snowball fight with ten of my coworkers on the rare day when we can get away with it.
I’ve never been to college. I don’t have any education past high school, but I write. I’m that weirdo that thinks that anybody can make art and everybody should make art. It doesn’t matter who you are, your life can be improved by making some kind of art. I’ve got no formal training, and I’m pretty much the only guy I know in person working heavy construction who reads books at all, but—I write.
The closest I’ve come to attending a college is NYU, when I went there with a crew to torch apart the ductwork system (big enough to walk through) in the nether regions of the building. The college was in session at the time, and I’d walk through the campus in my work clothes, looking at the kids who went there like they were creatures from another planet. They were looking at me the same way.
When I got hired to do the repairs at the college there was a meeting that I had to sit through where the people from the school threatened us about having any contact with the students. We weren’t supposed to talk to them. Or look at them.
While I was working there, one of my coworkers had his hand smashed with a sledgehammer and he ran through the building with blood spraying on the clean white floor. We all bleed the same.
I’m careful of my hands.
I do most of my writing on my cell phone. I type with my thumbs on my iPhone (that I’m not supposed to have at the oil refinery anyway because it’s not intrinsically safe and could cause an explosion) (but that’s just silly, we’re causing sparks all day by welding).
I’m writing this right now two hundred feet up in the air on top of a part of the oil refinery that makes polypropylene plastic. They take propane and TEAL and crack them together in a reactor to remove one particle from the propane, creating the plastic.
I climbed 215 steps to get here, there’s no elevator. Everything is steel grating, exposed to the elements. Platforms and catwalks, galvanized metal. Where I work often looks like a stage in Mortal Kombat. It looks like we’d be fighting on one piece of catwalk and you’d uppercut me and I’d go sailing up to the next elevation, blood gushing out of me.
If I look out across the skyline, I can see New York City. I’m 34, and have all my safety gear on. My hands are hidden inside big oven-mitt gloves. I’ve got fluorescent earplugs jammed in both ears even though I was born deaf in the left ear anyway. The safety glasses are tinted yellow. Everything looks like piss.
Between me and NYC there are countless smokestacks, highways that twist and double back on themselves, a dirty river with a tugboat chugging along, a zillion cars a minute zooming north or speeding south. I’m looking out at the armpit of America, and I am a character in a lousy Bruce Springsteen song.
Sometimes I meet people at literary events in the city who are surprised that I don’t have an MFA, that I’m not teaching kids at a little college somewhere and that’s the most bizarre thing. I wouldn’t know where to start with any of that. Sometimes people say things like, “It’s cool that you work a real job, working with your hands…”
The guys I work construction with all talk about working “real jobs” too, except they’re talking about “not working here.” It’s the polar opposite.
When I go to a party, people ask me about my coworkers, what they’re like. It’s like describing animals at a zoo, but I’m in the zoo too.
Power plants have an intercom system that is just a telephone that hangs on a column, house guys usually use it. But a guy I’ve worked with used to sell coke at work and would pick up the intercom and say “Sedermyer on three.” That meant that he was on the third floor and if you wanted to come there and look for him, you could buy. His name isn’t Sedermyer.
Oil refineries get school buses during the busy shutdown—hundreds of extra people come to man the job—and everyone gets bused in from the gate to a giant “circus tent” instead of a trailer. My friend Evan, who’s dead now, used to talk about his crowning achievement at the refinery being the blowjob he got from the bus driver. “Don’t tell anyone,” he said.
The guys I’ve worked with are storytellers, but the reports they give cannot be verified. Everybody repeats the stories amongst themselves. It’s a game of telephone on overdrive until before you know it you’re working with Paul Bunyan. They are a lot like poets, short-story humorists, novelists, and they don’t even know it.
Here’s the thing about working in nuclear power plants—you have to take a psych test to get in. They have to do an extensive background test. You go through a week of classes on “nuclear theory” which teach you about splitting atoms, fission, cloud chambers, control rods, core meltdown, radiation, isobars, etc.—you take all kinds of written tests about these things and if you pass, you get in. But it’s not just you (the guy going in to pull out the control rods in a radiation suit) taking the test, it’s everybody. It’s the forklift driver. It’s the janitor. It’s the person working in the cafeteria making the fried-fish sandwiches.
Everybody is equal in an industrial wasteland. We all have to get safety training certified.
One last thing, when my dad worked at this refinery back in the early ’80s, he had a carpool that drove up from the beach. They were working on this platform and someone had covered a hole in the grating with a piece of plywood.
The guy from his carpool fell thirty feet through the grating and broke his jaw. That was the end of the carpool.
Back in the day they went to the bar outside of the plant for lunch. Rumor has it, first thing you used to do when you got to the job was to take an oxyacetylene torch rig to the back fence and cut a section out so you could come and go as you please.
My dad was a garbage truck mechanic on the day shift. Mom worked night shift in a factory line that filled aerosol spray cans, deodorant tubes, perfume bottles. They were trying to save enough money to buy a home of their own. In the meantime we rented a house in a campground.
Just when there was any extra money at all, my brother or I would snap a bone doing something crazy in the campground.
When my brother and I complained about having to do something we didn’t want to do, dad reminded us that the job he worked so he could feed us involved him sometimes having to crawl under a garbage truck and heat up rusted parts with a blowtorch. Oh how the maggots fell on him. We’d do our homework then. We’d clean our rooms then. Whatever we could do to avoid a life of maggots.
My parents lived paycheck to paycheck. While mom was guiding the forklift driver over to a pallet of a zillion cans of hairspray, dad opened the oven and pushed in a baking sheet filled to max capacity with frozen store-brand fish sticks.
And times got worse for my mother and father. Campbell’s soup shrunk the size of their canned creamed corn. The store-brand frozen green beans with the almond slivers vanished from the freezer section. The toaster broke and we drove around from store to store searching for a replacement, but there were no good deals. Dad bought a toaster he didn’t like at a price he didn’t like and we had peanut butter and jelly for dinner while my mom stood at a conveyor belt, missing us and counting down the minutes to her cigarette break so she could call us from the payphone and say goodnight.
They did get their own house. I was fifteen when it finally happened. The night before my parents closed on their mortgage, vandals broke in and kicked holes in the walls, smashed holes in the ceiling, spray-painted illegible messages on the countertops, cabinets, doors, even some windows.
I found out later that the vandals were kids that went to the high school I was moving into. But there was never a confrontation. They were seniors and I was a freshman.
And just like we were moving into the house that’d been condemned for some years and recently pushed into government sale, these kids were being pushed out from their nighttime party spot by a family that would actually live in the unlivable house. I could almost sympathize with their destruction.
We weren’t all that upset about the damage anyway, my father had plans to tear down the buttercup wood paneling with horse drawn carriage and wheat motif, and neon spray paint that said “fuck off this place is haunted.” It would all be thrown into the trash when the dumpster was dropped off the roll off truck.
The government housing agency covered the vandalism. It seemed to us magic that my broke family had some money to fix up the collapsing house.
With my father, I’d sheetrock, sand, paint, re-insulate the walls, rewire the electrical, rip down cabinets. The first thing we had to do was demolish the front steps. They weren’t up to code. In order to get a Certificate of Occupancy, the concrete needed to be busted back down to the dirt and rebuilt the right way. My father would teach me how.
“We should get some nitroglycerin and blow them up,” I said, pointing at the front steps.
“No,” dad said. He reached way back and swung the sledgehammer, chips of stone shot out. The broken blocks were thrown into his pickup truck, taken to the dump. The following weekend, I learned how to mix cement. He showed me the right way to lay the new block. It wasn’t long before the steps into the house were looking good again. I was proud that I’d been able to help.
I mixed the cement in the wheelbarrow and passed him small scoops, he buttered the blocks and set them down into the mud, tapped on the side that was high, checked with a level to make sure they were perfect.
My father was up in the attic. I was at the base of the attic stairs passing him up the sheets of plywood we’d ripped so they’d fit up the hole in the ceiling.
He was big and impatient and sweat a lot. When he stuck his head out over the attic stairs, I was busy dodging the sweat that fell down on me. It was like a video game. Dodge the acid falling from the roof of the cave. Now I’m used to getting someone else’s sweat on me. I’ve worked heavy construction for eleven years. Back then instead of fixing the attic so our family could store boxes, I wanted to be in my bedroom playing my guitar, or hanging out with my girlfriend, who was off somewhere doing something fun—swimming in a pool, driving to the beach.
The radio was playing up in the attic. It was distorted because of the heat, melting as it played.
My father was singing along as he hammered down the plywood up there. But then the singing stopped, and the radio lowered and his head stuck out of the hole and sweat rained down on me, “Hey Bud… you know this song?”
It was “Squeezebox” by The Who. I’d heard it before on the regular run-of-the-mill classic rock station.
“Yeah, I know the song…”
Momma’s got a squeezebox, daddy never sleeps at night … she goes in and out she goes in and out…
My father wiped the sweat from his brow and said, “Okay, what’s it about?”
Ah shit, I’d been waiting for this. The dreaded sex talk. Explain the birds and the bees.
“What’s it about…” I said, delaying.
“Yeah, what’s a squeezebox?”
I knew what a squeezebox was, I wasn’t going to be embarrassed to say it to him. It was nothing to be embarrassed about.
“A vagina,” I said proudly.
His eyes got wide and his mouth opened so big it looked like it was going to swallow his whole face.
“An accordion!” he said, laughing. “They’re singing about an accordion!”
And then the radio went back up full blast and I walked down the hallway to get another sheet of plywood.
The first winter in the new house was hard. The steps leading up to the front door were always slick with ice. My father dumped a bag of chemical ice melt on the steps and went out into the night to go and plow roads. Some storms he’d be gone seventeen hours, but the snow like that meant my mom couldn’t make it to work.
I liked to get up early in the morning and shovel the driveway. Once I finished our driveway, I went and shoveled other driveways in the neighborhood for cash. I was saving up to buy a car.
The snow was deep. I shoveled till I was frozen and up in my brother’s room I could see the blue TV light flickering. The video game he was playing.
I yelled up at his window, “Come out here and help me!”
The curtain moved to the side and I saw my brother’s hand. He flipped me the bird.
I threw my shovel to the side and marched up the concrete steps, almost wiping out on the ice and killing myself.
I pounded on my brother’s door, still yelling, “Yo! Get out here and help me shovel the driveway!”
The door opened in a flash. Here came my brother’s fist. It caught me square between the eyes. Knocked me onto the ground. He slammed the door.
I got up, bloody nose and all, broke the door down and attacked him. When we were done fighting, he was bloody like I was and I was back out on the driveway, shoveling by myself still.
That spring, the front steps were destroyed from the bags of ice melt my father had dumped on the steps.
We sledgehammered the disintegrated blocks out and replaced them with new blocks.
The following winter there was a rule: “Don’t pour ice melt on the steps. Just leave the steps alone, I don’t want to have to replace the blocks this spring.”
The snow came down. The ice grew thick on the steps. My girlfriend said she didn’t want to come over anymore. It was too dangerous to get inside the house. She said, “I’ll die going up those steps.”
I went to my father and begged him to salt the steps. To use the harsh chemical ice melt.
“Absolutely not. They stay how they are.”
It was December and I wouldn’t see my girlfriend until Easter if this kept up the way it was. We used to spend a lot of time screwing around in my room and my parents didn’t care. If I went over to her parent’s house, we had to watch Disney movies on the couch out in the living room.
I said, “Let me get a blowtorch and melt the ice off the steps.”
He said, “If you touch the steps, you won’t have to worry about your girlfriend not being able to come over because you’ll be in the cemetery, permanently.”
That night it snowed again. My father went out to plow the roads. I walked through the hip-deep snow to my friend’s house around the corner. He’d just bought a used truck. It was four-wheel-drive and we were excited to tool around in the snow, do donuts. The problem was the transmission exploded only an hour after we started driving it around. Red fluid in the white powder like blood and the gears of the Ford making the most horrible sounds you’d ever heard. It’d make any kid give up.
It wasn’t that late at night, maybe one in the morning when I walked into the house. Usually the TV was going in the living room by that time. My mom had worked night shift for so many years and she watched it on into the dawn. But this time the TV was off and there was an unnerving silence that had fallen across the house.
At the top of the stairs I saw a strange thing. A floating orange orb. It grew in intensity in the darkness. And then my mother’s voice, “Hey…”
She was smoking a cigarette on the couch.
“What’s going on?” I said.
“Your father was in an accident. He’s hurt really bad.”
I froze, I didn’t know what to think.
“Is he in the hospital?”
“No. No, he’s not in the hospital.”
“Then where is he?” I briefly thought at the morgue.
But she sighed and said, “He’s lying down in the bedroom. He hurt his back really bad.”
She hesitated to tell me.
“He fell down the front steps.”
I burst out laughing.
“It’s not funny!” she said. I caught my laugh and heard a little laugh slip from her own lips.
“Listen: go into the garage, get that stuff, dump some ice melt on the goddamn steps…”
I walked past her on the couch.
“Where are you going?”
I picked up the telephone on the wall.
I said, “I’m calling my girlfriend to come over.”
With the last of the renovation money that my parents got from the vandalism, my mom bought a new floor for the kitchen. Linoleum.
She was proud of the linoleum, and I think at the time it was the nicest thing she’d ever bought that wasn’t “necessary.”
I have a vague memory of my mom standing in the kitchen, holding a cup of steaming coffee in both hands, and smiling down at the floor—pink roses and gray blocks in a shiny white field.
One afternoon while my dad was at work and I was grocery shopping with my mom, fireworks went off upstairs inside the kitchen and blew a hole in the floor so severe that if you stepped into the hole, you’d probably fall from the second story, down into the ground floor where my bedroom was.
The legend goes that my brother was cooking oatmeal on the stove when one of his friends came running up the front steps.
The friend came into the house with an M-80, quarter stick of dynamite, and tried to convince my brother to come around the neighborhood with him and blow shit up. My brother refused and the friend got mad and threw the M-80 onto the kitchen stove, where it bounced off the pot of oatmeal and landed in the flames. The fuse began to burn and my brother panicked, picked the M-80 up and tried to throw it out the window.
The screen was down and the M-80 bounced onto the kitchen floor and my brother and his friend stood there in a panic, hands on their heads, running in place and yelling.
They bolted out of the kitchen as the M-80 went off. They tripped over each other and fell down the wooden steps that led to the screen door. After ripping the screen door off the hinges, they tumbled down the concrete steps.
The unnamed neighbor didn’t wait around too long, he sprang up and ran back home.
My brother was sitting on the front steps when we pulled up with the groceries. His head in his hands. Black smoke billowing out of the house behind him.
When it’s going good, I write on my coffee breaks and lunch breaks. First I eat, then I write. Or I eat while I write, so I get ketchup or vinegar or coffee all over my phone.
Break time at the oil refinery more often than not involves a walk across the parking lot, to the edge of the barbed wire fence, to get in the line with everybody else to buy a crappy sandwich, slice of pizza, or other assorted mystery stew from the back of the steaming, gleaming—shining in the sun even if there is no sun to be seen—silver lunch truck.
Carlos runs the lunch truck. He’s the only one in street clothes. Always in sweaters or button-up shirts. Dress pants. Nice shoes. Everyone else is lined up in fuel-soaked work boots, white hard hats covered in thick grime, we’re all wearing orange or navy blue fire retardant coveralls over blue jeans and t-shirts we should have thrown out five years ago.
In the morning Carlos picks up the food from a catering service in the Ironbound. He serves the food to order, assembling breakfast sandwiches from piles of precooked bacon and eggs (fried or scrambled), potatoes, pork roll, sometimes fried chicken, always two kinds of cheese and he’ll ask you every time, “Yellow or white.” I usually say, “Hey man, they’re the same kind of cheese, one just has yellow dye and the other is bleached.”
“No they’re not,” he says.
“Just give me whatever cheese you have more of, then. I’ll help you out with inventory.”
The line at breakfast time stretches way back. Even if someone is just trying to buy a chocolate milk or a muffin or something, they have to stand in the entire line and wait. I mean, they can try to cut, to go around the other side of the truck and sneak attack Carlos the two bucks for the blueberry muffin and the coffee, but the rest of the people in line will scream at him or her about it. For some people, the only joy they have is screaming at cutters in the lunch truck line on a rainy day. I imagine them at home too, hollering at their children, hollering at the dog, hollering at whoever has the misfortune of calling their cell phone. I don’t care. I really don’t. Feel free, cut the line, pay for your blueberry muffin and keep on rolling along.
Here’s what I usually order:
For breakfast, a styrofoam clamshell platter filled with scrambled eggs and either pork roll or bacon. For some reason Carlos gives you almost half a pound of bacon with your eggs. I don’t know why. I say, “Carlos, the street value on bacon is through the roof, why are you throwing it at us like it’s free?”
My conclusion is that Carlos either steals this bacon or it’s not really bacon. It’s some kind of chemical engineered marvel. Some synthetic hybrid pulp with bacon flavoring.
For lunch, I usually buy a turkey and cheese sandwich. But for a while I was buying a salad off the lunch truck, until I realized how sad that it was to be buying a salad off a lunch truck in an industrial wasteland.
Hard-boiled eggs are one of the safest bets you can eat for lunch off the lunch truck. How can you fuck up a hard-boiled egg? I guess you could totally forget to boil the egg. Which has happened. Go to crack it and get egg yolk all over your knee. And sometimes I buy peanuts. Just a sack of peanuts, still in their shell and then I can joke around with someone and say, “Oh look at this bullshit. They literally pay me in peanuts around here.”
I worked with a guy last year who’d traveled from out by Pittsburgh to work some overtime at this plant. We were doing a big demo job, cranes and torches and watch where you stand because you might get crushed. Pittsburgh wasn’t much help, was just drunk all the time, living in the run-down motel across the highway for a few weeks. Most of the time we kept him on the ground as the fire watch. Wear a bright reflective vest and stand there with a charged fire hose in case we catch on fire. One day, driving back to the trailer for break, he said to me, “Carlos has a pretty good gig here with that truck. He’s pulling in big loot.”
“Oh, yeah, you think?”
“$750,000 a year easy. Profit.”
I looked at Pittsburgh, all crosseyed and coughing, and thought about life. Thought about how delusional some people can be. If you could make $750,000 a year selling egg sandwiches and hot dogs and Coca-Colas, why weren’t we all doing it? I said, “If he was making that kind of money, his truck wouldn’t be rotted out and falling apart. It’d be gold plated.”
“Maybe,” Pittsburgh said. “Maybe.”
But there is a guy, Davey, who I worked with years ago who has opened up a hot dog cart on the side of the road as something to do with his retirement. You can see him leaning out the window, facing out at the town, happy as a clam. Maybe this world is unlimited and you never know when you’re going to wake up retired and suddenly running a hot dog cart of your own.
And because depending on the lunch truck is soul crushing and an overall shitty experience, we worker punks briefly had a crockpot and cooked hot dogs in it, but it became such a production. Someone had to get the buns. Someone else had to get the sauerkraut. Someone else had to bring in the mustard and the ketchup. Never mind the onions. See, that’s the thing, if you try and get food cooking in the trailer, everyone has to pitch in and bring ingredients but someone always forgets. Someone always ruins the crockpot party. It doesn’t matter if it’s chili or beef stew or chicken soup. Ruined by the crowd. So, back to the lunch truck you go, reluctantly. Appreciating Carlos even more.
On Friday, people sometimes get the fish sandwich. They’re either repentant Catholics or they are just excited for any kind of variety, any kind of variation. Sometimes this place feels like prison. You can’t leave the gates and go anywhere to get a good lunch. There’s nothing around worth rushing out for, and damn, bringing your own food every day sounds like a beautiful way to live your life, but it’s the last thing on my mind every night when I finally collapse into bed.
I’m trying to distract myself with writing projects. I’ve been walking over to the machine shop, and walking past all the welding rigs, and the chain hoists hanging from the steel beam ceiling; I duck around the gang boxes full of grease-stinking tools and go to sit in a back corner by the wood saws, where the carpenters cut planks to build us scaffolding. Over by the wood saws, it’s good-stinking. And it reminds me of when I was twenty and had a job at a sawmill out in the western part of the state, it was the hardest and cruelest job I ever had. You can be nostalgic for anything, I think. Even for your own suffering.
I like eating my lunch in the back of the machine shop, next to the lumber, because it’s quiet and I can eat and write. There’s less distraction. There’s less yelling and joking than in the trailer where I usually sit. I’m able to squeeze in a half hour of typing with my thumbs on my iPhone, eating a lousy fish sandwich with tartar sauce and one of two kinds of cheese, yellow or white but they’re the same cheese, one has yellow dye, the other is just bleached.
Writing isn’t a precious thing and I’m not in eternal search of keeping what I do holy or built up out of shimmering gems. I don’t eat my lunch off a gold-plated lunch truck. The great American novel doesn’t know it’s the great American novel until it’s been out almost a hundred years and the woman or man who wrote it is dead. Who cares about the great American novel while we’re in the golden age of TV?
Art isn’t something you should protect from yourself. Just run towards it full sprint and embrace how ridiculous your ideas are, how unguarded, how close to something a child might think up, lying on their back in a field overgrown with weeds. The sights and sounds of the rotating world revealing itself to you, or not.
Take a sip of black gas station quality coffee, take a bite of fish sandwich, write down the adventures of the day. Every day adds up. Every lunch break is something more than a lunch break.
We should bring our own food from home. It’d taste better than the lunch truck. My friend who did four years in a prison in New Mexico says the prison food was a little better than this and it was free.
But at least Carlos has dessert. I’m told, in prison you only get dessert if you don’t ensue a riot. Carlos has cookies and donuts and tubs of weird jello, cups of flan, packages of Little Debbie and Hostess, Snickers bars and chocolate wafers. Sugar to placate the big stupid kids I work with here behind the barbed wire. You can get cigarettes from Carlos, too, of course. But I don’t smoke, never have. One of the only things I have going for me.
I’ve got nostalgic lunch truck memories. When I was a kid, my dad had a friend named George, and George was married to a woman named Cricket. They came by this house we lived in that had a dirt lot behind the property where our two mutts ran through the weeds and my brother and I chased them, yelling in the summer sun.
George drove a lunch truck and George was broke. His hair was a mess and he didn’t make ¾ of a million dollars a year. But when he came by the house to hang out with my father, and my brother and I saw the silver lunch truck pull into the dirt road driveway, we cheered and ran towards it.
We were always allowed to pick one thing off the silver truck, the side opening up like gleaming wings.
Most of the time we got a frozen Snickers bar each, because it took longer to eat it and we’d enjoy it longer, sitting under the shade of a twisted tree, where one day I remember looking up into the branches and seeing one of my He-Man action figures, a villain called Moss Man, that I’d lost for over a year. Seeing it there, I laughed. “How the heck did that get up there?”
My brother ducked his head of curly red hair, and smirked.
Inside the house, I heard Cricket and my mother laughing at the kitchen table, the din of coffee spoons, the radio being tuned.
We have safety meetings every Monday and Friday after lunch. Statistically, most accidents happen right after lunch, so the idea is to talk about it before it happens, as if talking is a kind of protective spell, a hex against fiery death, or crushing death, or the whirring blades of amputation, or decapitation.
Every accident is preventable, will be said during the hex, and it will be believed too.
Everyone gathers in a circle in the machine shop, or out in the gravel lot, somewhere quietest, and the safety man stands in the center. It’s not always the same safety man, and the style of the meetings changes depending on the speaker. Sometimes it’s almost like listening to an old-timesy sermon. Other times it’s like a pep talk from a battle-worn coach. Other times it’s like listening to nothing, or just listening to the wind, the man standing there reading something off a piece of paper but you can’t hear him because the world is too loud and people are too quiet in it to overpower nature: organic or inorganic. So, just sign your name on the sheet that says you were there at the meeting and when you go back out into the plant, please don’t get yourself killed, or most important of all, don’t get anyone else killed.
When I first started doing work in these plants, a guy who was just about to retire said to me, “Kid, this place is like prison. You don’t have to do anything, you just have to put in your time to get out.”
At today’s meeting the safety man is smooth, calm, but even so, he speaks of horrors. He says to the crowd, “How many of you want to go home today with the disfigured face of a monster? Raise your hand.”
Nobody raises their hand.
“How many of you want to go home today with shattered bones in your chest and waking up for the rest of your life coughing blood and wheezing in the dark dark night?”
No hands raised for that either.
“Okay now how many of you want to go home today missing a finger? Okay two fingers. Wait, how many want to go home today missing both your hands, so you just have two stumps hanging there at the end of your wrists? Raise your hands if you want that to be you.”
“Jesus Christ,” someone says over by the drill press.
The safety man continues on, he says, “You came in the gate perfectly healthy and for you to go out of the gate today any other way is unacceptable. Think about your family. How would your family feel if you came home different than you left them?”
He answers his own question, “They’d come here to this place, break down the gate and descend on my office like the villagers attacking Frankenstein’s castle. Your family would have torches in their hands and they’d be screaming and they’d rip me apart limb by limb and I’d deserve it because I’m responsible for you! I’m responsible for your safety, but you know what, you’re responsible for my safety too. We are all Dr. Frankenstein and we are all his monster, too. Let’s keep our families happy.”
At this point in the safety meeting, I begin to do what I always do, I look around and count the mustaches. One in four people working heavy construction have a mustache. I’m not sure why, but they do.
The safety man says, “I’ve got a homework assignment for you all.”
He says, “Today on your drive home from work, I want you to look around at the beautiful world. I want you to take a good look at it, as it flashes by you on the highway, 75 miles per hour screaming by your window. Take your eyes off the road and look up at the sun, how blessed we all are to live where we live under these circumstances, just the right distance from that miraculous star.”
He says, “Then take a look out your driver’s side window and look into the forest on the side of the highway. Look at the leaves in the trees. Look closely for deer you’d love to shoot with your rifle, look at them jumping fantastically through the brush of whatever is left of nature…”
I’m still scanning the crowd, looking at the faces of the people at this meeting. Some of them are grinning now, but some of them are always grinning. My coworker next to me elbows me in the side and he leans in and says, “Is he telling us to wreck our cars?”
“I think so,” I say. It’s no big deal for me, I’m really good at wrecking my car. I do it all the time.
The safety man says, “Think about how much you take for granted in your every day passing. Think about how glorious a naked lady looks. Okay. Now, picture that naked lady. Nice, right? Hubba hubba. Now just picture blood and then forever darkness, because you’ve gotten metal shaving in your eyes today and you’re permanently blinded. Or, picture that you go out to work after this meeting and you open a valve and get sprayed in the face with a caustic chemical and your eyeballs are melted out of your skull. Did I get your attention?”
That coworker is elbowing me again, he says, “Yo, if I got blinded, I wouldn’t have to come back to this shithole anymore, that’s a positive.”
Someone else overhears what we are saying and leans over and says, “Hey fuckers, it’s no joke.”
And it’s not. I want to continue to see the sunrise. I want to see what’s left of nature. I want to see beauty and my family. I want to see naked ladies. Hubba hubba.
The safety man concludes the meeting by saying, “Okay, now it’s not the big things that bite us in the ass. It’s the little things that bite us in the ass. Can you please give yourselves a round of applause for working safe and possibly being around long enough to dance with your daughters on their wedding days, or in the case of some of you that don’t have children, your hypothetical daughters on their hypothetical wedding days.”
We clap, because we all want to survive, whatever, forever. And we want to be paid to do it.
For one million safe work man hours, they bought us pizza. For two million safe work man hours we get pizza and breadsticks.
For three million safe work man hours, we get pizza, breadsticks and many majestic varieties of American soda. One of the pizzas has pepperoni on it.
I remember the first safety meeting I attended. The job was at a coal-fired power plant named Duck Island and there was this great big oak tree next to our trailers where chickens roamed. Someone years before had come there as a temporary hand, just as I’d been hired on, only this person had released a bunch of roosters and hens there, just set them loose. Here was this great big humming power plant, with the coal in giant mountains of black powder and buckets scooping the coal up onto a conveyor belt that dragged the coal into the giant furnace, where it burnt in the fire of Hades and made steam that spun a turbine that made everyone’s light switches work so they could read their kids bedtime stories or watch their baseball team lose to your baseball team. And the chickens ate the bugs in the grass. And the power plant went Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! And the pollution kissed the sky and the sky said thank you by making more beautiful toxic waste sunsets than ever before so people could be in love and say, “The earth is dying, we better hurry up and live real quick.”
We were all called together under the oak tree and the chickens went running when they saw us because someone might be drunk and someone might kill a chicken and rip the feathers off, cook the thing on the barbecue grill next to the porto-john.
The first safety man I ever dealt with, stood there under the oak tree on Duck Island, and he was in the center like he was the general of some great war that had just been lost. But here he was going to give us the details of how the war had been lost.
He shouted over the noise of the plant hundreds of feet behind him, “Good afternoon! Or really I shouldn’t say good afternoon! There has been an unfortunate incident!”
By the tone of his voice, and his head hung low, and the way the oak tree looked with its leaves turned blood red for autumn, I thought the next words out of the safety man’s mouth were going to be, “Someone has died.”
But he didn’t say that. Instead he said, “In Texas, a man was using a pocket knife to open a box and he suffered lacerations to the pointer finger on his left hand.”
The wind picked up and I pulled the hood from my sweatshirt over my head and then I put my hard hat back over that and cranked down the knob on the back so it’d stay put.
At the next safety meeting, we do talk about a fatality in the construction industry. Two people were killed by lightning strikes in Venezuela. Lightning hit the structure and sent enough electric through the men to stop their hearts.
But heavy rain, and lightning too, does set down on our job site. The foreman comes out of the trailer and up onto the steel structure and he says, “Alright, everybody stop what you’re doing. Let’s go.”
We stream down the stairs, the rain slapping us. Taking two, three, four stairs at a time, sliding down the railings with our work gloves on, and boots slapping the grating, and calling each other pussies, and losers, and asswipes, and assholes, and loads, stiffs, dipshits, and fuckers. The thunder rumbling even louder than the hell of the unit we are leaving, and so earplugs ripped out and thrown onto the ground. The midday sky above is momentarily dark, shaded under gray clouds sometimes tinged with green or even purple—but then the same dark sky is suddenly full of white light. Lightning hitting something along the banks of the river. So laugh and hustle through the rain towards the trailer. Push each other, literally. Be cruel and continue to not give a shit about anything in the world, your life included, but get off the steel, because you’re not expected to work in a lightning storm. The wind picks up and the rain comes down harder. The chickens are long gone from the oak tree. They seek shelter too beneath the cars in the lot, the supervisor’s trailer, the trees on the wood line. And there are no ducks on Duck Island. Open the door of the trailer, pull off your wet shirts and say, “What the fuck is this life!” and put on a dry shirt, sit down and let the storm pass. Decks of cards come out. Magazines flop open. Boots are put up on empty chairs. Eyes are closed. The rain and wind beat against the trailer. All is well for a little while. The tree shakes. The unit hums. We hope it gets worse and worse and worse so we never have to go out there again.
The sky above the field was green and ugly, was rumbling. I caught a second wind of hope, even though I was twelve and otherwise hopeless. The little league game might be called for lightning.
The fatass coach was making me play catcher, because I was a big goon and it was harder for the ump to see if the ball was a strike or not and I didn’t like that. I didn’t like the gear. I didn’t like the weird crouch stance I had to be in behind home plate. I wanted to quit the little league team, but I was too young to realize that I could just quit anything. I think I was waiting for WWIII to break out so all of Earth would die in nuclear fire so I didn’t have to be catcher on the little league team.
The field was overcome with goose shit. The ice cream truck kept playing “Pop Goes the Weasel” next to the overflowing dumpster. But I was looking up at the sky and the sky was purple and green and any second now there’d be an electric zigzag slicing the sky. I was smiling. I couldn’t wait for the game to be called.
The coach, all sweaty and stupid, came lumbering over. “Hey! Why aren’t you in your gear!? Let’s go!”
I pulled the chest pad on. Put my metal mask on. Walked as slow as possible around the fence towards motherfucking home plate. And wouldn’t you know it, the sun came back out, my hopeful storm clouds dissolved.
I couldn’t hit. I didn’t want a single, or a double, or a triple, I only wanted a home run. I wanted to see it sail over the fence. When I watched baseball on TV, it was the same. I was only interested in homers, knocked clear out of the stadium, smacking the hoods of cars, fucking them up.
I wanted a couple things from my life. I wanted to draw cartoons and get paid a million dollars. I wanted to be best friends with Metallica. I wanted to crush a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth to win the World Series and have it destroy a brand new Mercedes, triple parked sideways outside Yankee Stadium, make the car explode in flame and shrapnel from the impact with that game-winning ball. And since I couldn’t hit for shit, I knew my life would never be complete. No matter the other things.
We still were renting the house in the campground and we didn’t have a yard. But since the campground was “closed down” for the season, there was free rein to do whatever you wanted on whatever dirt road you liked. There were no other kids after Labor Day. I was bored and it’d finally stopped raining. My dad was at the junkyard working his second job. I woke my mom up. She’d fallen asleep reading a thick horror novel. A shelf in her room was filled with bowling and softball trophies.
I walked with her down the dirt road. She was carrying a plastic bag from Wawa loaded with fluorescent softballs. She pitched in a league too, and because I’d been striking out a lot, and bitching about it, she agreed to teach me how to hit. There was a trick, she said. I was letting my Louisville Slugger drag behind me, through puddles and mud, pretending it was a club and that we were on a march through prehistoric jungle to kill brontosaurs.
We passed the station where the RVs dumped their sewage. Then we cut through empty campsites. No tents, music, coolers, laughing, yelling, life. Nothing but the rim of a tire and a picnic table with vacationer’s names carved into it, wet and rotting.
We crossed another dirt road. The general store had a sign on the door that said, “See You in Spring ’93.” There was a cabin farther down the hill from the store. Smoke was coming out of the chimney even though no one was supposed to be living there.
She set up so that when she pitched, the balls would hit the concrete block wall behind the communal bathroom complex, with the pay showers and the toilets and sinks. If I got a hit, the balls would fly into the cleared field where the campground had bulldozed the trees to make room for a volleyball court to be finished next year.
“Keep your eye on the ball,” she said.
“And when you swing, don’t swing like a madman, swing to connect. If anything, swing easy. This isn’t home-run derby. You’re trying to get on base.”
“There aren’t any bases.”
She threw the ball and I swung in an uppercut and missed and the ball slapped the concrete wall in the same spot where kids smashed toads. The next season, my friends Richie and Paulie would come down from North Jersey and the Bronx to stay in their RV campers with their families, and we’d figure out that it was possible to climb up on top of the bathroom complex and look down through the skylight to watch girls take showers. But I didn’t know about that yet, nor would I have cared. My focus was on the payphones in the basement of the general store. I liked to make crank phone calls to free 1-800 numbers, harassing random businesses with nonsense high-pitched voices. I liked to spend my pocket money on Street Fighter 2 and Mrs. Pac-Man.
I picked the softball off the ground and tossed it to Mom.
She caught it and said, “Watch the ball. Connect. I know you can do this.”
She was patient and kind. But I swung again and missed.
She said, “Don’t swing like that. Swing like you’re slicing down the horizon instead of up towards the sun.”
“Alright,” I said.
“Forget what you know, and focus. Nothing matters and it’s all a game. Everything is just a dumb game.”
It was loving advice. Advice I’ve always known to be true after that.
My mom got into her pitching stance. I settled in on my back leg and relaxed. Ready to try. To get better. Here came the pitch and I saw it as in slow motion. I saw every lace on the ball. I saw every dimple on the leather. I mean, it wasn’t hard anyway, it was a pink fluorescent softball half as big as a watermelon.
I reached way back with the bat like it was the only happiness in the world and the world was complete now. I swung with hips and shoulders and my wrists rolled and elbows extended, locked—and there was the horizon, and I reached for it with the Louisville Slugger.
This time I did hit the ball.
And it was a missile cracked off the bat and headed straight at her teeth. She spun at the last second and the ball struck the side of her head and she dropped to the ground without a sound.
I stood there with the bat. She didn’t move.
“Mom? You okay?”
There was no response.
A crow went ah-ah-ah-ah in a sap slick pine tree.
“Mom! Are you dead?”
She still wasn’t moving. The earth moved though. And the invisible stars up there moved too. I looked behind me for some kind of help but the campground was vacant and there was no one to help me.
I said, “Mom! Mom!”
And the smoke drifted by from the chimney behind the general store and I said, “Shit! I killed my mom.”
But still, I didn’t want to get too close in case she jumped up to attack me in a blind rage.
But the longer I waited and the longer she still hadn’t moved, I knew the truth. I’d hit her in the temple and she was dead. I’d seen enough action movies to know, if you hit someone in the temple, that’s it for them. They’re dead.
I dropped the bat and ran around the front of the general store. The payphone was inside the store but the door was locked and I’d have to smash the window to get inside. I looked around for a rock big enough but there wasn’t anything but some pebbles in the sugar sand. Then I saw the smoke from the chimney of the cabin again and I ran over to the cabin and I pounded on the door with both fists.
There was yelling inside. After a minute the door flew open and there was a shirtless man with a wild gray beard and hateful eyes and I backed away in a panic and yelled, “Never mind! Sorry!”
The man called at me, “What!?”
But I ran. I ran. Instead of running home and calling the paramedics I ran back behind the general store to get my bat to smash out the window to climb in and use the payphone. But there was my mom, and she was starting to sit up.
“You’re alive!” I shouted.
She puked into the grass.
She mumbled something incoherent and rubbed the side of her head. She bent over and puked again. Sobbed sharply.
This was the year my face turned red and my legs felt like they were breaking. This was the year the words in the books and songs on the radio started making bigger sense. This was the year I was successfully able to quit baseball.
Mom was at the kitchen table with an ice pack pressed against the side of her head. I said, “I’m real sorry.”
She said, “Nothing to be sorry about.”
She said her ear was ringing. I told her that I couldn’t hear out of my left ear, and never could.
“Yeah,” I said. “It doesn’t work. Never has.”
“You’re deaf?” She looked at me with hurt. “But you have to take a hearing test every year… How did I not know this?”
Then I told her how easy it was to pass the hearing test. First of all, the school nurse was so old, she barely knew she was still alive. She was kind, but she wasn’t too smart. When she put those big honking headphones on you, like a helicopter pilot, you were supposed to raise a hand when you heard a tone, a bing, a bleep, a bong in either ear. Hear it in your left ear, raise your left hand. When you hear it in your right ear, raise your right hand. So this is how you pass the hearing test even if one of your ears is completely broken. When you hear the tone in your right ear, raise your right hand. When you don’t hear the tone in your right ear, when you hear nothing, zilch, nada—raise your left hand.
“Why wouldn’t you tell anybody?” She was angry now.
“Because I thought if I told anybody, they would cut my head open with a saw.”
“Okay, that’s a good reason,” she said.
I asked, “I don’t want to get my head cut open. Is it alright if I just keep my head how it is and nobody goes sawing into it?”
“It’s fine,” she said. She pressed the ice pack against her temple again and I kept watching, in case she got unconscious again. If she became unconscious I was supposed to call an ambulance even though we didn’t have the money for an ambulance. Being alive costs a lot of money. I remember a few years before, when she was doing the dishes and somehow cut her wrist open on a glass that broke beneath the soapy water. Blood cascading down her arm, as she steered the station wagon through town, treating red lights like stop signs—look both ways and keep motoring towards the hospital. My brother and me were in the back seat, crying crying crying. Snot running down our faces. Eyes red. Tears falling like fat rain. “Don’t die mom! Please don’t die!”
The dish towel red around mom’s wrist and mom yelling, “I’m not going to die! Stop saying that!”
This is what it is like to be a mother.
This is what it’s like to be a son.
I’m not going to die stop saying that.
We were welding diamond plate on the catwalks. A hundred feet up. Fixing the platforms around the pollution control tower that pumped two solid streams of white vapor into the blue sky. These streams of vapor were the ones I thought made clouds when I was seven, eight, nine.
But now I was a supposed adult, and I knew the oil refinery didn’t manufacture clouds. I was working to make the platforms safe, so the Environmental Protection Agency could come up to the top and put their equipment in the stream of exhaust and do their annual test of the exhaust.
There was a loud and constant hum, but through it I could hear someone screaming below.
I lifted my welding shield and yelled over to Mike, who was crouched down and welding, “Do you hear that asshole down there?”
He stopped welding and the blinding light of arc flash stopped. He popped his welding hood up. “Yeah, I hear that fucker.”
The yelling was our foreman down on the ground. He was screaming up to us at the top of his lungs. Mike looked at his wristwatch, it wasn’t lunchtime yet.
“What does he want?”
I stood up and walked across the catwalk and looked down to the base of the scrubber tower. There was the foreman waving his arms in an X.
He yelled again and I pointed to my ear that did work, like, I can’t understand what you are saying, so just shut up.
Mike had walked down the catwalk and he was standing at my side, leaning on the bright yellow handrail, looking straight down too. The man in the stones was jumping up and down now, yelling even louder.
“I can’t figure out what his deal is.”
Then our foreman pointed at something. Just across the road was a crude oil unit, usually tar black as far as the eye could see. Well now, there wasn’t much that was tar black about it because there was a wall of fire rising seventy-five feet up. A black plume of smoke was swirling into the blue summer sky.
Mike and I grabbed our welding gear and ran down the stairs as quick as we could without tripping over our own feet and tumbling down like my brother and his friend had done that time with the firecracker in the house.
The foreman had the truck running when we got to it.
There were two ways to drive, away from the fire, or through the fire. For some reason, he gunned the truck and we sped toward the wall of flames. Orange and white licking everything it could. Roiling and roaring.
It was behind us in just a few seconds and the road ahead led past other units that looked perfectly normal. Beyond these normally functioning units, was our change trailers up by the turnstiles, where our car keys and lunch boxes were.
The general alarm hadn’t gone off, but we passed the fire department zipping down the main drag of the plant. I didn’t envy those guys and what they’d have to do to get the fire out. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw the firefighters park the truck and begin to pull the hoses from the side of the truck. The task looked impossible. But it would all be under control within twenty minutes. Once we were up front at our trailer, we watched the plume of black smoke shrink smaller and smaller, you could see the cloud clearly from the smoke pen. We listened on the radio for reports. We found out that someone had been taken away in an ambulance. Burnt up in the fire. The safety man shook his head. But looming in the distance the plume of smoke had dissipated completely. The sky was blue again. His phone started ringing. His ringtone was Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.” He answered and talked briefly to someone from the plant, saying, “Affirmative” about ten times. After the call he looked at us, and said, “That’s the all clear. You guys are all safe to go back to work now.”
We said to him, “You have the all clear to suck our nuts.”
By Bud Smith, excerpted from Work, copyright © 2017 by Bud Smith. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Bud Smith lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, where he works heavy construction. He is the author of the forthcoming novel Teenager (Tyrant Books) in addition to several novels, short story and poetry collections and the memoir Work (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2017), which is excerpted here. Smith frequently describes himself reading and writing short stories on his cell phone during his lunch breaks. “I hope it inspires them to think that their own life is worthy of examining and plopping down into a book,” Smith has said of the effect his stories might have on readers. “Because that’s what I want to read. I want to read about the person who takes the bus an hour and a half to their job, wherever it is, because I am sure that in the right hands, that hour and a half bus trip is just as good as Gilgamesh’s foolish quest sprinting through the tunnel through the Twin Mountains, and over the Water of Death, and so on, to fail at saving his buddy from his permanent place in the rumored underworld.”
Art credit: Anthony Adcock