They were the kind of coworkers who become funny in retrospect. Time has a way of turning tragedy into comedy. Though there was nothing tragic here. No one’s greatest virtue led to his downfall. It was more quiet than that, somewhere between time turning a pain in the ass into a modest chuckle and something more.
By the end of the summer, only three of us were left on the crew: Tweaker Bob, Aaron, and me. Tweaker Bob was the lead carpenter. In theory, we were supposed to do what he said, but he gave no instructions. He spent most of the day in the cab of his truck, flipping through three identical sets of blueprints for three identical tract houses in a row, all of which he was supposed to be working on. Now and then, a wave of inspiration would crash over Tweaker Bob and he’d jump out of his truck. I’m not embellishing here. He’d literally set his work boots onto the running board of his old Ford and launch himself out of the truck. He’d run to the bed, grab a saw and an extension chord, run to one of the houses, work furiously for ten or fifteen minutes, stop as suddenly as he started, and run back to his truck. He’d spend the next few hours there, studying the blueprints.
That wasn’t all Tweaker Bob did. Sometimes, he got in fights with total strangers in the Circle K parking lot. To hear Tweaker Bob tell it, the fight was always the stranger’s fault. It was always unavoidable. I didn’t point out to Tweaker Bob that fights in Circle K parking lots are almost always avoidable. In fact, most people avoid them for their entire lives. I didn’t tell Tweaker Bob what else I knew: if you encounter three assholes in a day, they’re probably not the assholes.
As you may have guessed, Tweaker Bob was not his birth name. The guy was six foot tall, weighed around 135 pounds, and had a teenager’s acne on his forty-year-old face. His teeth were beginning to rot from the outside in. He stayed awake for days at a time, then sometimes passed out in the cab of his truck in front of the job.
Bossman Bob was Tweaker Bob’s brother-in-law. He was somehow convinced that Tweaker Bob was not on crystal meth.
Seventeen years later, these guys are back on my mind. I’m teaching a British Lit class. The assigned reading for today includes a Wikipedia page on John Milton. We’re discussing the benefits and shortcomings of Wikipedia. None of this has anything to do with Tweaker Bob and Aaron. Their lives don’t translate into encyclopedic knowledge.
One of my students, whose name is also Aaron, asks, “Did you used to be a carpenter?”
This may seem like a non sequitur, but I know exactly what has happened. Someone pointed out to him that there is a Wikipedia page about me. He’s switched over from Milton to Carswell, and now he’s checking to see how valid the information is. Whenever students ask me about being a carpenter or ask me how to pronounce my wife’s name, I know they’ve looked me up on Wikipedia. It’s not really a problem. I’m not even creeped out when, before I can answer, six or seven other students say variations of, “Yes. Didn’t you know that?” despite the fact that I have told no one in this class that I used to be a carpenter. This has happened before. I calmly redirect the class back to Milton’s role in the English Civil War. For the third time that class period, I stifle the urge to make a joke about Milton’s official title under Cromwell: Secretary of Foreign Tongues.
A student named Aaron asking me about being a carpenter is not what caused Tweaker Bob and the other Aaron to rise to the surface of my thoughts. The nine dollars I found in the pocket of my jeans this morning did.
Now, the carpenter I worked with wasn’t really named Aaron. I changed his name for this story. Not to protect the carpenter Aaron. I’m not protecting anyone in the past here. Tweaker Bob’s name was really Bob and his brother-in-law, who was also our boss, was also named Bob. I’m really named Carswell. But I changed Aaron’s name because I didn’t want to call out my student, who really does share a name with my old coworker. So I thought about an equally white, middle-class-sounding name that would, hopefully, give you a sense of the ease and privilege the carpenter Aaron grew up in: that two story mini-mansion in east Flagstaff with multiple motorcycles in the garage and three expensive cars in the driveway, plus Aaron’s top-of-the-line Chevy Silverado 4X4. This work was a summer job for Aaron, something that his parents made him get to keep busy between semesters at Coconino Community College.
In some ways, Aaron was worse than Tweaker Bob. Violent and erratic as Tweaker Bob was, he usually stayed in his truck. The work he did when he left it was punch-list stuff, and he did a good job in his fifteen-minute flurries of activity. So he wasn’t helpful, but he wasn’t a problem. Aaron was a problem. Nearly everything he built had to be torn down and rebuilt correctly. Nearly ever cut he made was too short, and there’s no way to cut a board longer. I had to find ways to keep Aaron busy with jobs even he couldn’t fuck up. This was tough.
My favorite thing about Aaron: his tattoos. He’d made his own tattoo gun and started practicing on himself. He drew a Yosemite Sam on his left pectoral. The left half of Sam’s body was a full inch longer than the right half. You could only tell it was Yosemite Sam after Aaron told you so. He’d also made three attempts at the Tasmanian Devil. After drawing three blurred triangles—all of which Aaron claimed were the Tasmanian Devil’s tornado legs—Aaron gave up because it hurt too much.
Even though I’ve now moved comfortably into middle-class life, even though I have a job with a salary and a pension, even though I live in an actual house now with my own actual washing machine and dryer, even though I could easily afford to buy several pairs of jeans, I still have only three pairs and I still wear them six or seven times between washings. That nine dollars—a five and four ones—lingers in my right front pocket. I walk through the halls of the university where I work, hands in pockets, feeling the soft bills rubbing gently against my fingertips.
Like I said, everyone else on the crew had quit but Aaron, Tweaker Bob, and me. Aaron wouldn’t quit because he didn’t know enough to know things were fucked. There wasn’t a question of Tweaker Bob quitting. He was the reason the rest of the crew fled, and he couldn’t flee from himself. I needed one more week. After one more week, I’d have enough money to float by until the next semester started. Once that happened, I could go back to being a graduate assistant—the lowest form of teacher in a university, but an easier job than building tract houses for Bossman Bob and his tweaker brother-in-law. Only thing was, we were way behind schedule on these three tract houses. Someone had to get fired. I had a feeling it was gonna be me.
Here was Bossman Bob’s problem with me: I was a college boy. Worse than that, a graduate student. At least Aaron had the decency to be a community college student, and one who was years into working on a degree that he’d obviously never get. But I was taking post-graduate classes and teaching undergraduate ones. How could I be a carpenter, too?
As far as Bossman Bob was concerned, I couldn’t. Everything had to be my fault.
Lunch time that Friday came and went, and it was still just me, Aaron, and Tweaker Bob on the job. Aaron had smoked a little weed during lunch. When the break ended, he joined Tweaker Bob in the cab of the truck. I strapped on my tool belt and got to work. I’d stacked plywood and two-by-sixes against the garage eave. I brought my saw up to the half-finished roof and built the valley connecting the roof to the garage. I made all my own cuts while standing between the trusses. It was a precarious way of working and things moved slowly by necessity, but I liked having the time to work alone. I was in my early twenties then and had already spent nearly a decade working construction during summers and school breaks and even for a couple of years after getting my bachelor’s degree. Framing houses was comfortable for me, fulfilling.
The wind howled across the northern Arizona prairie. I kept one eye on the road to the west. As long as Bossman Bob’s truck didn’t come rolling up this way, I’d get my week. If I could just make it to two o’clock, Tweaker Bob would fold up the blueprints, holler out that he was going to pick up our paychecks, and split. I’d be safe.
Only Bossman Bob did show up. He brought his whole other crew with him. They spread out across the three houses, seven strong, working to finish these suckers off.
Aaron and Tweaker Bob teamed up on some living room walls. They were suddenly a tornado of activity. Bossman Bob sent two carpenters up to finish my work in the valley. He had me to build interior walls. All simple and easy. Everyone worked in teams of two but me. No one said anything to me. I could feel the target on my forehead. I kept an eye out for daylight. If we could just stretch this sucker to sunset. Every extra hour I could clock in before that bomb dropped would mean another nine dollars of groceries to get me through the summer’s end.
Saws whirred and hammers pounded until seven-thirty that evening. The houses weren’t finished by then, but they were close. While everyone else rolled up extension cords and packed away tools, Bossman Bob said to me, “We have to talk.”
“What’s up?” I asked, though I knew.
“Well.” Bossman Bob looked west across the prairie at the fading evening sun. “I’m gonna have to let you go.” He started to explain why, but I didn’t stick around to listen. No point in that.
Now, I can see why it’s tough for someone to imagine I was a carpenter once. When I was young and tan and blond and carrying around over two hundred pounds of muscle from a heavy-lifting job and fat from lunches of Circle K hotdogs, it was easy to tell what I did for a living. Now, I’ve dropped at least thirty of those extra pounds. I iron my work shirts. I eat a lot of vegetables. Unless you catch a glimpse of the scars on the backs of my hands or the sunspots lingering on my skin, it’s hard to tell I was anything but a guy who got paid to talk about John Milton’s role in the English Civil War.
A week after getting fired, I went back to the jobsite to get my final paycheck. Bossman Bob met me at his truck and gave me the check. It was nine dollars short. I needed that nine dollars. I had two weeks left before the start of classes, three weeks before my first grad assistant pay came in, and only about thirty-five dollars left over. Rent and bills were paid. I could get by. Money had been this tight before. I knew how to eat on twelve bucks a week. Still, nine dollars meant something.
In the week that I’d been gone, Tweaker Bob and Aaron had done no work. Bossman Bob was starting to see his mistake in firing me—the last guy who was actually working on the crew. He wanted me to explain the situation. I said, “This check is nine dollars short.” Bossman Bob asked more questions. I tapped his checkbook. “Nine dollars.”
Bob wrote the check, but he wouldn’t stop grilling me. I wasn’t about to say anything to get Tweaker Bob and Aaron fired. I had nothing against them. They weren’t to blame. I was. I could’ve defended myself before I got canned. I could’ve called Bossman Bob up weeks earlier and explained the situation and tried to get on a different crew or something. I could’ve done more than just working silently and waiting for the axe to fall. So I didn’t blame anyone but myself. I made my mistakes and took the consequences and that was that, as far as I was concerned.
But I needed that nine-dollar check. It was under Bossman Bob’s hand and he wasn’t giving it up. Finally, I feinted a punch toward Bossman Bob. I had no intention of hitting him. I just didn’t know what else to do. Bob flinched, lifting his hand off the check. I grabbed it and headed toward my truck.
I was in the driver’s seat with the engine running before Bossman Bob recovered and started yelling at me. Part of me wanted to turn off the ignition, to get out and do what every working class man in America dreams of: fight my boss. The rest of me knew, though, that I needed to get to the bank before he changed his mind about these checks.
Back here in the present tense, I know I can keep that nine dollars in my jeans indefinitely. Maybe not the same nine dollars in the same pair of jeans, but a never-ending nine dollars forever in excess of anything I need. It can serve as a talisman against a time when, if I’d found an extra nine dollars in my jeans, I’d have to spend it. If not on food or some other necessity, I’d have buy beer or weed or something to help me escape the world where nine dollars meant so much to me.
Now, that money can be a gift to the young carpenter living inside me. Others may need Wikipedia to see him. I always know he’s there.
Author’s note: This is the third chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote. It originally ran in Razorcake #66. For more information about the collection, read this post.