Harmless

The drunk from downstairs is standing on the back porch when I get home from work.  He seems harmless, but I don’t much believe in harmless anymore.  He and his girlfriend moved in below me about a month ago.  At night I hear their voices coming up through the floor, sounding like wind through bare trees in winter… mixed with laugh tracks and gunfire from their TV.

He says his name is Buck.  A country nickname worn by a skinny guy in jeans, same as he wears his faded shirt and scuffed cowboy boots, like he was leaning on a corral gate instead of the back porch rail of this big house in town, turned into apartments now, with more closed doors than it had when it was young.

He offers me a drink from his forty ounce beer.  I say no thanks, my mouth tastes like sawdust and dirt and horse manure and I need to shower and brush my teeth.  He tells me he used to work on ranches but got run over by a flatbed truck and can’t work no more and gets disability.  I’d guess he is a little younger than me, maybe fifty, but looks at least twenty years older, frail and shrinking in on himself.  I pull out my smokes and offer him one.  I’ll give him that long.

I say something about my job, figuring he’ll use it to talk about himself and his former life before becoming a drunk, as though that life still exists and we are a couple of blue jean wearing western guys in work boots, leaning on the porch rail after a day’s labor, tired enough to be satisfied we earned our keep.

I’m not satisfied.  I know I should quit this job but I’m not sure I have the nerve to do it.  I need the money.  I drove in about six months ago, with my pickup truck and carpentry tools and enough of a stake in cash to start fresh if it didn’t take too long.  It took three months to find a job and by then I had seen enough to know this small town had fallen on hard times and hadn’t hit bottom yet.  Empty houses and boarded up store fronts scattered around town and most of the generation between twenty and forty gone missing, which ought to tell you something.  But I’d put my money down and now I was stuck with it.

It ought to be a pretty good job, building a big pole barn out in the foothills.  I drive over an hour to get there by daybreak, the last eight miles on a gravel road winding through the woods and meadows of eastern Oregon.  The pay is good by local standards, and there are plenty of sunny days.  But the boss has what you might call an anger management problem.  At least you might call it that if you didn’t spend ten hours a day four days a week waiting for him to lose his temper and start snarling–stomping around with his shoulders hunched up, clenching his arms like he means to tear the world apart with his bare hands, eat its heart and spit out the parts he doesn’t like.

I once worked with a guy who would throw stuff when he got mad, but he always threw it in a safe direction so nobody minded too much.  When the boss gets mad you feel like it is aimed at you personally, like as a member of the human race, he wants to destroy you so completely even god can’t put you back together again.  Even if whatever set him off has nothing to do with you and you just happen to be standing nearby.

The third or fourth day I worked for him he threatened to get his rifle out of his truck and shoot me.  I had just wasted about fifteen minutes doing something the wrong way and had to do it over, so I thought he had a right to be a little critical.  He was smiling when he said it and I almost believed it was just good old boy gun talk, just part of the noise you hear on some construction sites.  But it made me nervous all the same.  The bastard might be crazy enough to do it for all I knew.  You see all kinds of smiles on people’s faces.

I also figured he had never shot a man in his life which I have, in the war, maybe more than one, I’ll never know for sure.  I don’t like that kind of gun talk.  I think grown men ought to take death a little more seriously than that.  But I have to work with all kinds of people so I just try to tolerate it and mind my own business.

To be fair to him, he acknowledges it when I do good work in good time too.  But to balance things out right, he’d have to threaten me with immortality and to tell the truth, that would be even less tempting than the idea of being shot dead on a pretty hillside in what’s left of the wild wild west.

Normally I’d be more tolerant of a fellow like Buck too.  I wouldn’t begrudge him his memories of the old days when he worked for a living.  If cowboying was what gave him a sense of himself as a man, gave him some pride and dignity and the belief he could hold his own in a tough world, and it all came to an end under a flatbed truck, well… anybody could get run over by a flatbed truck if that’s what life decided was going to happen.  And you’d have to make up your own explanation for it because life wasn’t about to tell you why it did that.

He says he was born and raised here.  And even allowing for the booze he’s poured into himself, I suspect he wasn’t too bright to start with, and explanations were never his strong suit.  May be why he became a drunk, because he can’t explain what life did to him.  May be because it never stopped hurting, where life ran him over.  And maybe he earned his memories fair and square, even if some of them are lies and others have been polished up by repetition.  He collided with something bigger and harder than he was, but it left him still breathing.  And people picked him up and fixed him up as far as the cowboy repair budget would allow.  And maybe that sound of winter wind through the trees was Buck cursing them under his breath.  For saving him so he had to remember what he lost, had to make it seem more than it was, because it was all he was going to get.

I came into town and put my money down.  I did that mostly to prove to myself I was choosing to go forward… to go toward something instead of away from something.  To go toward the rest of my life, whatever that turned out to be.  You might say I had been run down by a flatbed truck myself.  Different make and model than the one that got Buck, but it had my name on it just as sure.  And I never heard it coming anymore than he did, until I was down, wondering if I’d ever get up again.

I chose to believe I was going forward because you have to believe something.  At least I knew that much.  You will believe something.  By your own choice or by somebody else’s, if you won’t make a choice.  It’s just how things work.  You have a little bit of power to choose your actions, and that’s it.  Use it or lose it.  You have to step up if you want to have any say in things, any say at all.  You can’t play it safe because there’s no such thing as safe, just like there’s no such thing as harmless.

Buck acts like we’re buddies already, even though we just met a few minutes ago.  We have established back-porch blue-jean common ground and a mutual distrust of the people in charge, whoever they might be.  It never takes long to do that.  He wouldn’t have offered his beer bottle if I wasn’t his kind, and even though I refused it I gave a good enough excuse and made up for it by sharing my smokes.

People joke about the code of the west and maybe they should.  But even if it sounds lame, it’s how people try to get along.  It wasn’t made up by Hollywood cowboys.  It’s as old as the rocks sticking out of the ground up on the hill we’re looking at while we talk, with a hawk circling above them in the sunlight, got his eye on something.  You meet up and show your hands and offer gifts and try to sort out who’s strong and who’s weak and who’s clever and what you’re both after and try to seem comfortable with the situation by not staring watchfully at each other while you see what kind of deal you can make.

I guess I’m a little ahead.  Buck took the cigarette and I know he’s got his own.  I can see the shape of them in his shirt pocket.  And I have a job and I made new memories today, though he has no idea what they are.  Well, he has an idea about it, but he’s wrong.

Maybe the boss is growing a brain tumor or has an old head injury.  Maybe the son of a bitch needs a new one.  A few nights ago I imagined getting into a fight with him and beating him to death with my framing hammer.  I haven’t felt such a violent impulse for a long time and I don’t think I could take him anyway, for sure not without the hammer.  It left me sweating and shaking and crying in my bed, but I still got up and went to work the next morning.  In a way, I wish I could just meet him like that.  Just the two of us hating each other into oblivion and be done with it.

None of that is likely though.  His son joined our crew a few weeks ago and rides to work with me now.  He says his old man has always been like this, always had trouble keeping workers.  He says he wouldn’t work for him either, if he didn’t need the money.  He says it without any prompting or complaints from me.  I guess the situation is clear enough to him because he’s seen it all before.

The last time I killed another creature bigger than a bug was almost thirty years ago.  I broke the neck of a chicken named Chester and cooked him and ate him.  I named Chester after the character in Gunsmoke because he had a gimpy leg.  Chester the TV character had Marshall Dillon to look out for him.  Chester the real life chicken had me.

Chester spent his short life as an outcast, driven away from food because he was defective.  I fed him off by himself.  He came to recognize me and to expect this from me and even started answering to his name.  Every time I saw Chester he would be clucking nervously and watching the rest of the flock–hens and roosters alike–as though he expected attack at any next moment.  Watching with a kind of sideways look like he really didn’t want to know, didn’t want to see it coming, because when it came he would be defenseless against it anyhow.

Buck reminds me of Chester.  Buck doesn’t give a damn about me and I don’t give a damn about him.  We’re not friends.  I might feel a little pity for him if I didn’t know it would only make things worse.  Everything about Buck, the sound of his voice, the way he stands, the way his clothes don’t fit him because they’re too big for him now, makes me cringe.  He acts harmless because that’s all he’s got left.  That and more beer in the house.

Normally, I’d be willing to share his sadness just a little—if that’s what pity is–instead of faking it like I am now.  I might make a little more effort to lighten him up for a minute or two.  Shake his hand and nod and say yeah and chuckle at a joke if he made one.  He knows things won’t get any better, but he hasn’t turned mean.  I can respect him for that.  I know he doesn’t beat his woman, I would’ve heard it.  Some men in his shoes would.  I don’t know who she is or why she’s there and I don’t want to.  Good luck to ‘em.

By normally, I mean if it was better days for me.  I have had better days.  I’m faking it now because what I feel most is contempt.  But I also know that right now, deep down, I am scared I’m becoming like him, and the contempt is really for myself.  I know I didn’t refuse his beer because I’m worried about his spit.  I hate knowing these things, but I’m stuck with them too.

What happened that first time the boss said he’d shoot me was I heard this whiny voice in my head saying I really need this job and please don’t fire me and so forth.  Out loud, I admitted my mistake to him and said I fixed it and I told you when you hired me I was better at some things than at others, and so I generally carried it off all right.  But it shook me pretty bad because inside, I could feel myself taking a step back.

There was a time I never stepped back.  It wouldn’t even enter my mind to do it.  There was a line where if you pushed past it I pushed back and that line was always right in front of me wherever I stood and it seemed like it was somehow visible to other people because when they got up to it they stopped.  That made me feel strong, and fearless in a certain way.  Not that I was never afraid, but that it didn’t make any difference if I was or not.

In those days the voice in my head would have been saying well I’m sorry you think this is a killing offense but if you do then go get your gun and we’ll see what happens or would you rather get some work done.  I wouldn’t have said it out loud because I wouldn’t have to.  It wouldn’t even matter what words I actually said.  I’d just know I would stand my ground and he’d know it too, even if he was half crazy.

That would have been soldier talk, a soldier way of looking at things.  Take a teenage boy who is rebellious and half wild and fed up with the limited world he knows and eager to get out and see the bigger one.  Toss him in that part of the world where people are running around murdering each other and that’s how he starts to think about things.  He knows that death is always nearby.  Always.  And you have to act in spite of that fact.  If he walks away from it on his own two feet he has learned something, but not as much as he thinks.  He knows some things are more important than whether you live or die.  But he doesn’t know what they are.

It was the natural thing to do, what I did to Chester.  I raised some chickens and got eggs steady and had too many roosters and it was time to cull the flock and it only made sense to take Chester first.  I didn’t even have to bring any food.  I just stepped in the chicken yard and called his name and he walked right up to me.  I wrung his neck and cooked him and ate him.  I can still feel the betrayal of it.  I feel silly saying that but that’s how it was.  A damn chicken.

I just wasn’t the same after that, though I didn’t know it for quite a while.  A flatbed truck slipped off its brake and began a long slow roll down to the place we would meet.  I don’t picture Chester behind the wheel or anything like that.  I’m not that far gone.  But I guess I think it was inevitable.  Fate, karma, the relentless and merciful justice of god.  Something.

Once in a while you hear a story about somebody doing the right thing and paying the price for it.  It sounds courageous and admirable and all.  Sometimes it sounds simple too, though it probably wasn’t–knowing what the right thing was.  Not that knowing what it is makes it any easier to do.  You can’t get ready for that.  You can’t know ahead of time what the right thing is going to be, and you can’t depend on somebody else to tell you what it is, though there’s no shortage of people who’ll try.  Mostly, you just have to take your best guess.

This ought to be a pretty good job.  The young couple who bought all these acres down a gravel road are decent people.  They aren’t afraid to get dirty or do some hard work and they get along with their horses.  They don’t act superior or seem to be pretending too much about that either.  I don’t know where they got the money, somewhere in the big city I hear, doing big city things.  No doubt it’s the kind of fantasy only money makes possible–raising horses out here in what’s left of the wild wild west.  But it could be a meth lab, or a psycho survivalist camp, or some demented guru and his followers.  I like this better.

It’s the biggest building I ever worked on.  It will have stables and tack rooms and feed storage and a place to park equipment and a big indoor horse arena.  We’re building massive roof trusses here on the site, and raising them up to the poles with a big fork lift.  There are four of us now–the boss, his son, me, and Jake–barely twenty and learning the trade. We work with power tools and tall ladders and heavy lumber and machinery, stuff that can maim or kill you in the blink of an eye.  The last thing you need on a dangerous job is to be always on the lookout for the boss to drop out of the sky like a mythical beast, breathing fire and scorching the earth around him.

He’s making me crazy.  I’ve gotten hurt four times in the last few weeks because of it.  Not seriously yet, but it’s not a good trend.  I’m thinking if things go on like this, it’s only a matter of time.  When I look at Buck and hear about his accident, I know that might be what’s in store for me if I don’t get out of here.  I knew it already.  I’ve been thinking about it all week, which doesn’t help my concentration any.  If I don’t get away from this angry man he won’t have to destroy me, I’ll do it myself.

I wish I could handle it better, not let it bother me the way it does, not give him so much power over me.  I know I am in kind of rough shape, not at my most confident, not currently living in those better days I mentioned.  But he doesn’t have to know that.  None of his business.

Like I said, the first time he threatened to shoot me I was shook.  I was a little ashamed about taking that step back, inside myself.  I determined I was going to do better than that.  Work things out with the boss like, you’re the builder and pay my wages and I’m a competent carpenter who’s worth the money.  We’re both damaged goods but this is a job not a daytime talk show slash encounter group so let’s just get it done.

So I worked on that, patiently and every day, over the next several weeks, mostly by just showing up on time and doing my work.  I thought I made some good progress.  I listened to his rants without comment.  I turned my back on him and walked away a time or two–and went back to work.  He stopped getting in my face.  It was like that code of the west thing again–hard to explain–mostly happening deep inside yourself, inside your very idea of yourself.  But the eventual outcome is that a line gets drawn somewhere and you both know where it is.

I couldn’t quite convince myself the line was where it used to be.  I felt like I had negotiated this line, and that I never did that in the old days.  Back then it just was where it was.  I felt like I was faking it, but faking it pretty well.  I’d say to myself, if I was still my old self, here’s what I’d do, and then I’d do that.

But I did feel like I had recovered a little ground.  Doing an honest day’s work and having the pay for it in your pocket helps.  See that building rise up out of the dirt and know you had a hand in it.  Not a thing wrong with that.  Swaggering around with your boots kicking up dust, your toolbelt on and your framing hammer hanging where your sixgun would be in a Sam Peckinpah western… you can get to feeling pretty good about yourself and your place in the world.

Anyway, things went better for a while.  Instead of stacks of lumber and components and string lines and holes in the ground, we had a perimeter of poles standing.  The boss talked his son into coming to work for him because we really needed four guys to set those big roof trusses.  We had a lot left that needed to get done before winter set in, and he needed the money.

I picked him up at 4:30 in the morning and he liked to talk.  Between him and Jake I heard plenty of tales about the boss.  A history of being short-handed because people would quit on him.  Two wives who left him before he found one who could put up with him.  He was a good builder, no question.  A guy you could respect a little bit, even if you could never imagine being his friend.  He probably didn’t have a real friend in the world, but then none of us has very many.  Maybe his third wife, but who knows what really went on there.

One way you can tell a good builder is that they know things take time.  You can work steady and be efficient but you can’t hurry things, it won’t come to anything good.  You’ll make a mistake, waste material, damage equipment, hurt yourself or somebody else.  You have to plan out everything you do and set up to do it safely.  And you have to come back tomorrow and do it all again.  A good boss will not say a word to you for taking half an hour to set up a task, or taking the time to straighten up the lumber pile or the tangle of power cords, or stopping to have a snack when you’re hungry.  It’s one of the reasons I like this kind of work.  In a way, you are your own boss, responsible for yourself and your own product, no matter who you work for.

Sometimes the boss is a boss like that, and it seems real enough.  Other times he becomes the worst kind of bully–trying to threaten and intimidate and humiliate–looking for your weak spot and attacking it.  He knows your sense of yourself is everybody’s greatest weakness.  And like every bully, he knows some people are more vulnerable than others and he just naturally goes for the weakest one.

His son has long since come to some kind of understanding with him about this.  And I figured I must have faked it well enough, because he wasn’t going after me much anymore either.  I was pleased about that at first.  According to his son and Jake, I’ve already lasted longer than most.  And like I said, I mostly did that by keeping my mouth shut and just doing my work.  I refused to engage him in this war he wages against the world.

But now he goes for Jake.  Sly son of a bitch.  He comes up when Jake and I are working on something together.  Sometimes he isn’t even mad.  And he starts poking away at Jake like, hey I’m just kidding the youngster here and it’s all in good manly fun and he’ll be smiling again like he did at me that first time and he makes me a witness to it.  And I stand there doing nothing, saying nothing.  Just waiting for it to be over and for him to be satisfied and go away and leave us in peace.

At first I thought it meant I was no longer a target, which was a relief.  Same as I tried to believe it was just good old boy gun talk the first time, I tried to believe it was just harmless teasing with Jake.  You know, the older guy letting the younger one know he has been places and seen things and done things and you’ve still got a lot to learn boy.  And sometimes he just yells at him.

I like Jake.  He’s a funny and smart young guy and he’s no slacker.  He could be in college, but he wants to experience life and make his own way in the world.  Have some adventures.  Check the place out.  He reminds me of myself at that age.  Sometimes we look at each other and something passes between us.  It doesn’t look like some code of the west bargaining.  It looks like friendship.

I thought I was no longer a target and I was relieved, but I don’t believe it now.  The boss has just attacked from the flank.  Sly son of a bitch.  Proven to us all I will collaborate–sacrifice Jake to appease him—saying nothing, doing nothing.  It happened again today and a look passed between me and Jake that just kicked me in the chest—disappointment, understanding, forgiveness, and some hurt–you can’t not be hurt by betrayal.

Buck is rambling on but I’m not really listening.  I’d pity the man in my shoes too, if it wasn’t me.  Nothing seems simple.  Nothing seems harmless.  I don’t want to fight.  I can’t save anyone.  I know I have to quit this job, but I don’t know what will become of me, here in this town fallen on hard times.  Guess I’ll find out.

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