Living Without Leaving a Stain

Barnes & Noble
Flophouse Press

Other stories in the set: Hooky | Oxygen | Success


The kid might fall. That’s what crossed my mind while watching him pull his overalls over his crotch-tight jeans. It had been a nice morning until that thought mixed things up.

The contractor had prowled the neighborhood the previous evening in search of an inexpensive guy who wasn’t afraid of heights. He’d left the address of the job site at corners where guys who might be looking for work hang out, and a message on his ex-sister-in-law's answering machine because she always has guys around who work when they feel like it.

So nobody on the crew was too surprised when the Kid stepped out of the passenger seat of his fat girlfriend’s shiny little Samurai jeep with a pair of overalls beneath his arm. Contractors are experts at getting other people to do work; they profit from the sweat of others, but there is a moral thing about the right man for the right job.

Those were at least a fifty-five gallon drum full of thoughts. They filled so much of our heads that nobody put any wood into the burn-barrel. The fire died out, and Small thought it meant something bad would happen. The fire wasn’t supposed to go out until the sun came up over the top of the plumber’s three-story warehouse across the street. Small has always been superstitious. Everything is an omen with him, signifying (he loves that word) something bigger than itself. You know what a man is thinking after working alongside him for ten years. Really, it doesn’t take but five minutes to know a man.

The new comer kept his distance. He stood off by himself sneaking hungry glances at our coffees and muffins. Most new guys will step right up to the fire and join the demolition men in their chatter. We’re used to guys without funds; solvent guys with educations don’t show up at demo sites at sunrise.

That’s not the best way to start the morning. The Kid should have come alongside the fire and made inquires about the work, instead he put his overalls on as though he were saying he'd do anything as long as it didn’t make him dirty, but that didn’t mean he was thinking about walking a wobbly beam or even wondering why the regular guys weren’t doing it.

We’d been pulling the sheet metal skin off the building ( an erector set type structure) for a couple of weeks, So the structure was a little shaky like a skeleton. The Kid would feel that truss moving from one side of the center line to the other.

Small and I knew Sandy wasn’t going to rent a man lift which meant somebody had to walk the beam. Small wanted extra pay for dangerous duty which Sandy wasn’t going to spend. So everyone was kind of standing around the barrel-fire waiting to see what kind of man would risk his neck for a hundred bucks.

The Kid was stuffing the ends of his laces into the tops of his shiny black combat boots when Small stepped toward him. "Dude, you’d better put double knots on those laces. You don’t want them boots to slip when you’re up top."

"My name is Freddie," replied the Kid while stepping away from Small as though he were up to no-good.

Sandy could feel the pressure building. It was coming up at about the same speed as the sun. It's hard to get any momentum when your lead guy is wondering, out loud if your judgment is sound, but Sandy always had a plan, some little caveat to get him off the hook. He shouted in Dude’s direction. "Are you afraid of heights?" Contractors are always trying to ease the tension because they don’t want anything to interfere with the flow of dollars.

"No," the Kid answered as though he ‘d never been afraid of anything. "You payin’ a hundred to climb something?"

"I’m payin’ a hundred if you get it done fast."

You can tell if a man is a good carpenter by the condition of his tools and the calmness of his mien when he’s looking at the work, but you can’t tell if he’s afraid of heights. Its not something that shows. Sandy had given the Kid an opportunity to back down. Everybody had heard it. The weasel had cleared himself, soft of.

"Then why don’t you climb that ladder, shinny out on the beam (the one in the middle), open the little latch on the steel cable that’s hanging from the crane, and close the latch with the beam inside the circle. Can you handle that? If you can do that, then you can be a demo man, and we’ll let you do some of the easy work."

Contractors always play around with your expectations, leading you on with a special reward if you do something dangerous.

Small is part woman; he’s always looking out for people’s well being. He called out to Dude. Nobody wanted to get close to him. He had that push away kind of energy. "Dude, you can’t just go up there like you were going to the Bodega to buy condoms that beam is gonna sway left and right, a few inches to either side, but it's not gonna let go. So when you feel that sway don’t tighten up. You got to ride it like a wave. Don’t let that fear start making you think things that can’t happen. The beam ain’t goin’ nowheres, but I suggest you wear the safety harness. It shrinks the height. It makes it feel like you’re only a foot or two off the ground. "

"My name is Freddie. Mother fucker!"

Once you get used to being scared, then you can hang onto the thinking part of yourself. You’ve got to understand that the real reason you don’t look down is because the ground calls you. There’s something fascinating about leaning over. You’ve got to ignore that.

Well Mr. Hardhead made it clear he was ready to work, by taking a hair-net out of his pocket and pulling (fitting) it over his greasy black ponytail.

"This isn’t a beauty salon," bellowed Sandy, a man who has only nine fingers and two images in his head: the good image of dollars filling his pockets and the bad one of dollars flying out of his pockets. Its not too hard working for a man who is simple and eloquent. "Dude, my wife gets one of those put on while I’m out here makin’ the money to pay for it. So tie down your bonnet and get your ass up the ladder cause the pay just went down two dollars."

Some men have perfect pitch and others lack a fear of height. There brains aren’t wired that way. The death height connection doesn’t exist.

The Kid scurried up the first two sections of the ladder as though he were moving for an invisible camera, staring for an imaginary audience, but he didn’t stay in the movie business for long.

On the third section, the Kid had his first contact with flex, the up down version of sway. That third section of any ladder has a little more give. It was the flex that got Dude out of the cinema. He was going up the ladder like he thought it might jump out from underneath him which didn’t mean he was afraid of heights it just meant he’d never been on a ladder.

Sandy had on his sly smile. He knew the thinking part of the Kid was shrinking. Dude was taking orders from his fear. That’s how Contractors work. Sandy figured the Kid a little shook up might be in the mood for some advice. "Dude, you’ve got to climb onto the beam."

If I were the contractor, I’d have fired Dude on the spot , and thrown Smalls some of that dangerous -duty –double- time-money. He’d have had the job done before the crane operator saw him sliding down the cable. But Sandy and Small had this thing about how much he was worth. They were at a three hundred dollar a day standoff. Small was good, but it wasn’t his business, and three hundred a day is a fortune for a demo guy. They’re mostly offal. Now I’m not as good as Small. I can’t drive a crew, but I’d have walked the truss just to ease the tension.

Sandy’s mood was changing. His subtraction face was starting to show. "Dude," he shouted, "If you spend much more time up there you’re going to come down owing me money. So stop sunning yourself. Climb another two rungs up the ladder and then you’ll be even with the beam."

"Tell one of the guys to hold the bottom of the ladder."

"I’ve got it."

Small shook his head. It was always bad with him when people do something foolish to get the work done. Sandy knew that the ladder wasn’t going to slip. Dude would more then likely fall looking back to see if somebody was holding the foot of the ladder. That's how most people fall. It’s the weight of their heads that pull them off.

As Dude started moving, Sandy turned around to let everyone get another look at his sly smile. He’s capable of getting a twelve-dollar an hour guy to do the work of a fifty-dollar an hour man, He’s good at that, getting a man motivated, working with what is on hand, but things weren’t going his way. When something is wrong like it had been since the Kid showed up, the situation doesn’t just fix right up. The feeling lingers. It just doesn’t go away because the contractor wishes it so.

Dude moved at Sandy’s command, but he didn’t do as expected; he didn’t climb another two rungs instead he hoisted himself onto the beam with an awkward motion that caused his comb to fall from the back pocket of his overalls.

Dude realized how far up was while watching his comb go down. The wall ended at thirty-eight feet and the roof peaked another thirty feet above that. When Dude realized his destination was six stories above ground (the structure had been something like a medium sized airplane hanger of about fifteen thousand square feet), he laid down on that beam, wrapped his legs wrapped around it, and fished a little brown idol out from beneath his overalls. It looked sort of like a squatting kangaroo. The wind was blowing his words around so you couldn’t make out all that he was saying, but for sure the idols name was Mojo and Dude wanted advice. He’d had it with Sandy. I could just about hear the Kid saying to Mojo. Get up and walk. This mother fucker must be outta his mind. That beam is only three inches wide.

Nobody interrupted the Kid’s prayer. Sandy tapped his foot, but kept his mouth shut . There’s something profound about a man praying. I’m not talking about a few Hail Marys. I mean real passionate stuff.

But Dude asked for more then a god can give. Everybody except the hardheads know its best to test the soup before gulping down a spoonful and burning your throat. They are so stubborn it makes them stupid. Hardheads don’t take advice. You can tell the type; they’re always answering a question with a question.

The second Dude finished praying, Sandy put his hands to his mouth trumpet style and shouted: "You lying sack of garbage. You told me you weren’t afraid of heights. Now you’re laying on the god damn beam like it’s a bitch. Its twelve inches wide, and I’m payin’ a hundred to the man who walks it."

"Bring that crane over and let me ride the wrecking ball."

"It can’t be done. Union forbids it."

Dude tried to signal the crane operator; he even hollered some, but the operator was waiting for a hand signal from Sandy.

That should have been Dude’s last effort. Everyone expected him to quit. So when Dude started worming his way along the beam, we took notice. There’s always something heroic about struggling against fear. The Kid wasn’t giving in. He pulled himself along by hauling his midsection a foot or so above the top and then stretching himself flat. You don’t have to like a man to respect him.

Half way to his destination, or approximately thirty-five feet from the point at which he left the ladder, and thirty-five feet from the wire cable dangling above the middle of the beam, or about three stories above the ground, Dude encountered a cross member that lay perpendicular to his path. It couldn’t be squirmed over or crawled around.

Dude turned pure panty white. It happened in a flash. The color change first and then he lost control of his bladder. The liquid came down way too fast to be sweat.

Small dropped a handful of earth on the Kid’s comb when Sandy looked at him.

Dude had for certain crossed the shadow–line. He couldn’t argue the fear down. He couldn’t even contact the part of himself that could say wait a second the beam isn’t three inches wide and covered with grease. Nothing is as scary as the things a man imagines, not even death.

When Dude clasped his hands together, and began a second round of consultations with his Stone Age idol, Sandy interrupted. "Dude, I’ll pay you the full hundred just to stay where you are until the Fire Dept. arrives. I’m calling them right now."

"Keep your money, you pinky-missing mother fucker, This is between me and the beam."