BY THOMAS GADA
My wife's sister called a few days ago to set up a get together for this weekend. They only live an hour away, so I don't mind.
"Brian said to wear work clothes, Jim," Gerry tells me shortly after getting off the phone.
"Work clothes?" I reply. My first thought is to wear khakis and a button-down shirt. Then, I think of Brian and his blue-collar roots and I quickly realize what he had meant. Brian has never asked something like this of me before. I can't imagine the two of us working together on anything.
When Saturday arrives, we drive over to Brian and Jackie's house. It's early spring, so I'm wearing jeans and my old college sweat shirt.
Before we get out of the car, I see Brian come up from around back of his house. It's a nice place. Bigger than you'd expect for a guy who works at a machine shop. It's a cape-style house, right on the lake.
Brian's wearing Dickie overalls and boots up to his knees. He's covered in mud up to his mid-thighs.
"Christ," I mutter to myself. "Would you look at him, Ger?"
"Be nice," she tells me and kisses my cheek. "Brian's a big bear."
"He's a big something," I say, looking at the house once more. It's easily as big as my place, maybe bigger. "What do they pay a machinist these days?" I ask her. She doesn't answer. She gets out and greets her brother-in-law, pointing and laughing at the thick mud that is caked on him.
"So what's the plan, Brian?" I ask as we round the back of the house. At that moment, I see something that shocks me; the sprawling and once-beautiful lake is no more. In its place is a giant chocolate-brown mud hole. A pond-size body of water in the center is all the liquid that remains.
"What the hell is this?" I ask motioning toward the former lake.
"They drained the lake," Brian answers, laughing at my reaction to the sight. "Rebuilding the damn."
"They'd been talking about it for years," he answers and shrugs. "Didn't think they'd ever get to it," he says rubbing his bearded chin with the back of a gloved hand. "It's supposed to be done by midsummer."
As we close in on the lake I see some tools and wood lying about near the shoreline. That's when the incredible smell of long-dead fish and stagnant water hits me, making me want to turn around and head back to my car.
There is a figure standing knee-deep in the muck, examining two posts of wood protruding from the brownness.
"So, what are we doing?" I ask Brian, hiding my discomfort toward the smell.
"Roj and I have been planning on building a dock for a while now."
Roj is his long-time friend Rodger who lives across the lake. It would take about three minutes for Rodger to get in his truck and drive over to Brian's, but he always uses his boat to cross the lake--a process that eats up approximately 15 minutes.
"Hey Jim," Rodger says from ten feet out in the muck. He begins making his way back shore. His tall, thin frame helps him take the necessary giant, exaggerated steps through the thick mud. He is wearing hunting clothes, even though he's not hunting. "I didn't know you were gonna be helping."
"Let's get started," Brian says.
The stench is unbelievable, but I begin to get used to it.
"See those?" Brian says pointing at two beams sticking out of the dark muck.
"Roj and I did that last weekend. We dug a few feet down, inserted the foundation with the concrete and all, and left it to dry. We inspected it today," he motions toward his mud-covered clothing. "Seemed good and sturdy."
I nod again.
"Normally, the foundation alone would be a huge job, but with the lake drained and all, we had a golden opportunity to get this work done quickly. Now all we have to do is throw the frame on there, and we're all set."
"Once the dock is done," Rodger adds, "I'll have someplace to park when I come over," he says laughing and pointing toward the green grass of Brian's lawn where he usually pulls his boat ashore.
"We'll get started framing--that's really a two-man job," Brian tells me. "Once we finish that up, you can help us hammer the boards on."
"What should I do in the meantime," I ask. "Just stand around and watch?"
"Could you go grab us a couple more beers from the basement?" Brian asks. "The downstairs door is unlocked."
I feel like I should say something, object in some way. I am certainly capable of helping. But perhaps it really is only a two-person job. A third person might get in the way--any third person, not just me.
"Grab one for yourself, too, Jim" Brian says as I'm walking back up the hill toward the house.
A while later, when the frame is finally in place, Brian hands a hammer to me. "Don't hurt your fingers," he says, chuckling pulling it away at the last second before relinquishing it. Rodger has a laugh, too. My first reaction is to throw the hammer as far into the brown muck of the lake as I can. Picturing it landing head down, with the handle sticking straight up in the air, is satisfying.
"I precut the boards this morning, so we just have to nail them in place," Brian says as he balances his way along the frame out to the far end over the muck. "I'll start out here and work my way in. Roj, you start in the middle. Jim, you stick to the beginning. I want to keep you over land."
"Whatever you say, Brian," I answer, squeezing the wooden handle and forcing a smile.
I begin pounding the nails with my hammer. The hardest part is getting them started. I hold them in place while attempting my initial strikes, but then after I let go, they tend to lean and go in on crazy angles. I'm constantly tapping their sides in an effort to straighten their path. Brian and Rodger don't seem to be having the same problem. They strike the nails a minimum amount of time; their path is straight and true.
"So, Jim" Rodger says after a few minutes, "what do you do again?"
"I'm a marketing manager at a public relations company," I tell him, swelling up slightly with pride. I've worked hard over the years, and I feel that my position reflects that. I might not be good at building a dock, but I'm good at what I do; they have to respect that.
I stop pounding a nail for a moment so that I can tap it on the side to correct its course. Brian and Rodger catch this, and I see them exchange glances.
They are quiet for a moment. Then Brian adds, "But what do you do?" He acts as though he's uncovering a huge conspiracy--the fact that I don't actually work.
"I just told you. I'm a marketing manager."
"I heard you," Brian says. "But what the hell does a marketing manager do, anyway?"
"I mean," Brian continues, "I'm a machinist, so I fabricate engine parts all day. Roj works for the phone company; he climbs the poles. What does a marketing manager do?"
My cheeks get hot as the blood start to rise to the surface of my face; I'm helpless against it. But I don't want them to see me get mad. I struggle to keep my voice steady, casual.
"I'm in charge of a team of marketers. I check the budgets, review the paperwork, delegate and oversee assignments. Managerial type of stuff." How dare they question me? I'm a professional. I make this country work. I'm still at my desk at 6:30, while they're sitting on a barstool at 5:15 drinking beer.
"So what you're saying," Brian says, "is that you don't do a thing, you push the work off to other people."
Rodger again laughs.
I accidentally smash a nail that I had just started. My misguided hammer dents the perfect wood terribly. "Trust me," I say, my tone stern, "I work very hard. Very long hours."
"Long hours don't make for hard work, necessarily," Rodger says. "You should try climbing those damn poles during an ice storm--which is when the lines always go down--that's hard work."
How did this happen? I ask myself. I want to tell them that anyone could do their work. I envy the stress-free nature of their manual lives, but that is all that I envy. The rest of it is awful, hard, and disgusting. I want to say a lot, but all I can muster is "My job is pretty tough. Trust me."
My simple response seems to disappoint them. I tell myself that I am the bigger man for not getting into it with them, but my shaking hands and burning ears tell me otherwise.
Brian seems to sense my anger--the fact that I'm truly mad, not joking around. "Jimmy, take a breather," he says. "You're hammering like a damn mad man."
He is right. In my rage I've been pounding nails hard and recklessly.
"Go grab us a few more beers," he says. "You need a break."
I walk up to the house, my anger somewhat suppressed due to the fact that it was acknowledged. As I rummage through the basement fridge, I reassure myself that I am the bigger man, that I do not need to feel guilty for being above them and their blue-collar mentality.
I reassure myself that I am not intimidated.
I grab an armful of cans. It suddenly occurs to me how much I hate beer from a can. It tastes better from a bottle.
As I walk through the grassy backyard toward the worksite, I see it. Brian has pulled up the boards that I labored to put in place. The cold nails are protruding in a haphazard fashion from the undersides of the planks. All of my work gone.
"Brian!" I yell half way down the yard. He looks up. There is no guilt in his eyes, no understanding. "What the hell are you doing?" I ask. The anger again swells inside of me, flowing into my limbs and brain. My knees feel weak and my thoughts slightly detached. It feels like I'm watching a movie. "God-damn hick," I add loud enough so that he can hear me.
Brian immediately stands up. Brian's a big bear, my wife had said when we arrived. She was right. He is well over 6'. I'd guess 6'4. And he's thick. I barely make it up to his shoulders.
"What did you say?" he asks, still holding his hammer. I can sense Rodger staring at us from the side.
"Why the hell did you do that?" I ask him, dropping the armload of cans that I was carrying and motioning toward the dock.
"Easy," he shouts as the cans bounce and roll over the ground.
"Why did you tear up the boards?"
"They were all uneven. I want my dock perfect." I'm amazed at how quickly his eyes turn from indifference to anger. I have second thoughts about challenging him.
"One-upmanship," I say, my voice a bit softer than it was a moment earlier.
"What?" he asks incredulously.
"You heard me," I say. "You're always trying to outdo me." I start apologetically picking up the beer I had dropped.
"Roj, you hear this?" he asks.
"I hear it, but I don't believe it."
"One-up-whatever" he says stepping a bit closer to me. I put my full hands up to ward him off. "I don't need to try to outdo you. You screw up enough yourself." He slaps my hands and the beer I had recollected again hit the ground with a thud and a bounce. His strike is forceful and brutish.
I should react; I should shove back. I want to, but I'm paralyzed with the threat of confrontation. Instead I raise my hands in the air, turn, and walk away. I try to give the impression that I am the better man, instead of the impression of fear.
"Do you believe this shit?" I hear Brian say to Roj as I walk away. "Good fucking riddance."
Walking back to the car, I open the side door to the house. "Gerry," I shout. "Gerry, we have to go. Now." I continue to the car, get in and lay on the horn for a few seconds.
A few minutes later, Gerry comes shuffling out, surprised and slightly disheveled from gathering herself together so quickly.
"What?" she asks as she gets in the car. "Honey, what's wrong?"
"What's wrong?" I shout. The anger in my voice causes her to jump. "I'll tell you what's wrong," I say turning so that my face is close to hers. "We are never coming here again."
"But, what happen--" she starts.
"Shut the fuck up," I cut her off before she finishes. She should know better than to push me when I'm angry. "We're never seeing them again," I say as we back out of the driveway.
She doesn't have much to say after that. I notice a blister developing on my hand from hammering. I try to push it from my mind and focus on a presentation that I have to give at work on Monday.
Originally published in version 4.2 of 42Opus.