“The Day Laborer” by Dan Reiter

01Sep11

The van rolled in about a half hour before daybreak. Old Eddie got out, his bones creaking, tipped his cap to the high beams, and limped off into the buildings’ shadows.

You could always rely on a Saturday to roll along slow and regular. A man could start fresh in the morning and keep on till quitting time; no one came around to bother him. A man could make his own pace and stick to it. Like pushing a lawnmower through tall grass. That’s what Saturday was—steady, straight lines. It was an honest day.

By Old Eddie’s reckoning, Saturday was about as far away from Monday as a man could be. And Monday was the worst day of all. Shit, on Monday they might start you on trash pickup, then pull you away to scrape concrete off a back porch, or hose down some entryway, it wouldn’t be half an hour before some garage flooded out, or a window broke, or a yard inlet got slopped over with stucco mud. By lunch break, Old Ed would have five or six tasks started, his tools laid out all the over the site, his boots cooked in mud, and all the while the trash piling up and overflowing the cans.

Old Eddie didn’t credit the Good Lord with a whole lot, but he did think it a mighty fine thing of Him to have invented Saturdays.

Old Eddie was sixty-two, which was ten years younger than the drywall man, and two shy of the electrician. But years don’t always determine a man’s age, and if Old Eddie hadn’t been the oldest man to work on the site, he’d been the slowest. Back last summer, when the Mexicans were still swarming, a favorite game of theirs had been to sneak up behind Old Ed and stake a sixteen foot 2×4 into the ground, then take bets on who would win the race to the dumpster—Old Eddie or the stick’s shadow. Every half hour or so, one of the masons would jump out to the road to update the odds. It was a fine diversion for a while, but the shadow had Old Eddie outclassed, and in two weeks time the takers on Ed’s side had all but abandoned him.

To judge him by build alone, that is, if you stripped Old Ed down to his underwear and stood him straight up in a hot lamp (and ignored his face), you might mistake him for a male model. His body was trim, taut, and dense with muscle. His skin glistened like an overripe plum. Through some trick of nature, Old Eddie had maintained the physique of a twenty-year-old defensive back. But he wore his blue jeans loose over his toned quads, and his bulging, glistening pectorals shrouded beneath a thready green sweater with a maroon stripe across the breast. To flesh out this disguise, Old Eddie walked with the jerky, indignant limp of a broken-down horse. Looking at him fully clothed, if you weren’t perceptive enough to note the tensile veins in the hands and neck, you might think he was a very sick or elderly man. His face, with its almost nonexistent nose, wide lips, and tall, brown, hairless forehead, bore a striking resemblance to a wetland gopher tortoise. This, along with Old Eddie’s shameful record against the shadow, led the masons to endow him with his nickname, La Tortuga.

Today he ranged through the muted light and climbed a mound of wet, unsodded earth where some weather-beaten lumber laid in a jumbled pile. He lit up a cigarette and stood studying the clouds, watching them heave and roil in the north. It had rained most of the night, and a menacing purple glow seethed in the sky, as if the dawn were giving birth to night. Rusty nails jutted at odd angles from the lumber. The ends of the posts appeared stained in the smoldering light, stained with what looked to be blood.

The wind shuddered through the oaks, scraped at the branches. The townhouse buildings were just coming into light, the eaves dripping and sparkling. Old Eddie squinted at his watch. It wasn’t seven o’clock yet, but he put on his gloves anyway. It didn’t hurt a man to start early on Saturday. Nothing much could hurt a man on Saturday. It was the best day of the week. So long as you didn’t count Sunday.

The wind flung aside some low clouds so that a shaft of pink sunlight broke through and gleamed on the long crescent-shaped scar on Old Eddie’s forearm when he raised the hammer. He hammered the nails out by their tips, slammed them back the way they came, eased the heads out with his claw; one by one he flicked the bloody spikes to the ground.

“Smell like rain,” he said.

“Father-in-law!” The falsetto voice came from the bottom of the swale. Marcial, the Mexican concrete finisher, stood down there, grinning like a child. “Mucho trabajo, Father-in-law?”

Old Eddie scowled. “Ain’t much of no trabajo left ’round here, long-hair.”

“Father-in-law, you want to see something? Peces?”

Old Eddie spat on the ground. “What? You sledge a stake through another plumbing pipe?”

Conyo, Father-in-law, you know peces?” Marcial wriggled his hands together. “Peces?”

“I ain’t got one fucking clue what you saying, long-hair.” Old Eddie had worked the most part of his life alongside these Mexican boys, but he was still lucky to understand half of what came out of their mouths. They was damn good workers, though. Hell, he reckoned ain’t no big project would ever get built without them. But when it came to making sense, Mexicans was just plain fucked. Still, Old Eddie kept a special place in his heart for Marcial and the flat crew. Like any Mexican gang, they started early and worked late, humped till their backs broke, but the difference with Marcial and the flat crew was that they cleaned up after themselves. To Old Ed, that was the sign of the good ones. The fucking masons, now, they were enough to throw a man off Mexicans for good. At least a dog had the sense to go off a ways before he took a piss, but them mosquitoes just up and emptied out right where they worked and went on living and eating and working in the smell of it. No, Old Eddie couldn’t abide the masons. He had mixed feelings about the Mexican worker. Once in a while you’d come across a great one, someone like Pump Man, who could beat the hell out of any five-man team with a two-inch concrete hose and not spill a drop of mud, but for every professional like Pump Man there were ten spindly masons, a hundred pounds of spattered mortar, and twenty plates of beans and dried tortillas dumped in the muck for the crows and rats and palmetto roaches to pick through.

If you wanted to get a big job done, you needed a Mexican crew. Old Eddie didn’t try and deny it. There was just too many of them, and every one showed up ready to work. Old Eddie didn’t try and understand where they came from either, it seemed to him Mexico was one big old labor pool, only everyone got paid in cash, and the work vans was more crammed up. But men was men, he knew that. Mexican, black, whatever. Some good, some bad.

Marcial’s little black eyes sparkled. He waggled his hands again, rousing a toothless laugh out of Old Eddie.

“What the fuck you talking about, long-hair?”

“Come!” Marcial cried. “Father-in-law, come! I show you!”

Old Eddie laid down his hammer and followed Marcial along the chain link fence. Rainwater had grooved the sloped soil and polished it like clay. Tiny rivers flowed down in veined rivulets. They arrived at a puddle of brown standing water at the bottom of the gulch.

Mira,” Marcial said.

“What?” Old Eddie bent over the puddle. Something wriggled beneath the surface. He drew back. “What the fuck?”

Peces!”

Old Eddie leaned over the puddle again, cautiously. Two tails were stirring up the water. “Shit, I thought it was a snake. Look like a couple a catfish in there.”

Peces, Father-in-law!”

“I ain’t your father-in-law.” Old Eddie thrust out his jaw. “Now how in the hell catfish gonna get in a mud puddle? You put ’em in there?”

“No,” Marcial laughed. “You put them in, Father-in-law!”

One of the fish slickered out of the puddle, kicked up the bank, and began to dry heave in the mud. Old Eddie wrinkled up his face, had the idea to boot the thing back in the puddle, but he let it be. The one in the puddle looked like it was drowning in chocolate syrup.

Son enigmas,” Marcial said. His elf-face grew solemn as he kicked the struggling fish back into the water.

“That’s it.” Old Eddie nodded. “Might as well let ’em enemas go out together.”

* * *

The plumber was a jovial giant, a curly-headed Pole by the name of Wojchekowski. He sported a Santa Claus beard, chain-smoked, and liked to invent tall tales. This idea of two catfish in a mud puddle tickled him. “I bet they got sucked up in a tornado,” he said as he pulled a bent cigarette from his front shirt pocket and lit it. “I heard about that happening. Twister plucks ‘em right up, they swim around in the clouds for a while, then down they come with the rain.”

“That seems sort of far-fetched,” the general contractor said. He was a shy, dark haired boy who looked too young to be in charge of a project this size.

“Well I suppose so,” the plumber said, taking a happy puff. “Could be a bird picked ’em out of a creek, didn’t like the taste, dropped ’em.”

The puddle frothed up and both catfish skittered out of the water. The men watched them squirm down the bank to writhe out their death throes in a dryer part of the gulley.

“Little guys look about tuckered,” the plumber said. “Maybe I should scoop ‘em into a bucket and toss ‘em in the pond.”

Marcial tapped Old Eddie on the wrist. “Peces, Father-in-law.”

One of the catfish slipped under the chain link fence and disappeared in the tall grass on the other side. The other one flipped over, its eyes bulging, its white belly exposed.

* * *

When the men came out from the lee of the building, they snapped their hands to their hats. A cold wind was wrapping the site, sweeping the oak leaves in crinkling waves over the asphalt. “Soon that plumber will be bragging how he caught a trout in a raindrop,” the general contractor said.

“Give it a week and it’ll be a whale,” said Old Eddie.

A styrofoam plate fluttered around a building corner, sailed toward them. Old Ed rose on his toes and snatched it from midair.

“Nice grab.”

“Shit, youngster.”

They passed the mustard-colored façade of building 19, with the low stone accents still damp from the night’s rain. The clouds were smothering the blueness out of the east, spreading outward like black smoke. And now came the first droplets of cold rain on the men’s arms.

A bolt of lightning exploded a hundred yards away. Old Eddie’s knee buckled, and for an instant he was back in the nightmare sawgrass of Moc Hoa, his arm bloodied to shit, the mortar fire rattling his bones, his backpack slicing into his shoulders. Then the double-flash was gone, filled in by sheets of gray wind.

“What happened?” the general contractor said. “You trip on something?”

“Nah, youngster, I ain’t trip. Sometimes my right knee quit working when it about to rain. It’s sort of my, how you call it? My clue to go inside.”

The men climbed the trailer steps, stamped out their boots, and removed their hats as they came inside. The general contractor wiped his hands on a towel, ran his fingers through his curly hair, poured some coffee into two old yellow mugs. “You take it black, right?”

“Mm-hm.”

“How about a donut? The granite guy brought them in this morning.”

“What’s this?” Old Eddie took a white powdered from the box. “You trying to soften me up for something?”

The general contractor pulled out a folding chair, sat down. “I guess this job’s about done, Ed.”

“I know it. I was just waiting for you to say it.”

“I could still use you this week and next.”

“That’s good,” Old Eddie said. “That’s real good. Gimme some time to tie up my loose ends.”

The rain pulsed on the windowpanes. “Looks like another good one about to come through,” the general contractor said.

“Sho’ does,” Old Eddie agreed.

Beyond the windows, the sky flickered white, hesitated, flickered again. A delayed thunderclap rolled up and shook the walls. “That one be about three miles away,” Old Eddie said. “You can tell by counting the seconds.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Mm-hm. Learned that in ‘Nam.”

“I didn’t know you were in ‘Nam, Ed.”

“Shit. Sixty-eight. Only time in my life I was gone from Tampa.”

“You got drafted?”

“Naw, man, naw. I was just stupid as shit, that’s all.” Ed took a bite of the donut, wiped the whiteness off his lips with the back of his hand. “Those days I was living at home, doing much of nothing. Couldn’t make it playing football. My old man lent me his car one night to go to a party. Wasn’t long before some dumbass mothafuckas started fighting and some fool got hit in the head with a bottle. I took off as fast as I could. Down the road another car come and sideswipe me. Banged Pop’s car all to shit. Hmph,” Old Eddie smiled, shook his head ruefully. “I thought my old man was gonna kill me when he saw it. But he just stood there, all calm-like, and he say, ‘Ed, you go to bed. And get dressed up nice in the morning, we going somewhere.’ Next day, he drove me to the draft office. Six weeks later, they tossed my ass on a plane to Saigon. Artillery. I seen some shit, man. I seen some shit.”

“Jesus. I can’t imagine.”

“I seen what napalm do to a man’s skin, make it all patchy, curled up and crispy and orange. Me and my old man didn’t get along much after that.”

The general contractor put his hat on, walked over to the window. “I’m sorry, Ed.”

“I seen some shit.”

The rain was in full downpour mode now, the whole of the site grayed out.

“Fucking rain,” the general contractor said. “Those banks are gonna be washed to hell.”

“Too bad you ain’t get the sod in time.”

“Now they’ll need to dry out. Maybe we can rake them out together on Tuesday.”

Old Eddie smiled, took a sip of his coffee. “All right, youngster.”

“Well, Ed, I guess you can call the van and head on home if you want.”

“I think I’ll wait it out, if you don’t mind.”

“Me too,” the general contractor said. “If I don’t put in a full day, I get restless. Can’t sleep at night.”

“Ain’t no good going home. A man need to work.”

“Hell, I can’t sleep anyway,” the general contractor said. “Most of the night I lay there and make myself crazy thinking about the baby in her belly.”

“This gonna be your first?”

“Far as I know.”

“Yeah, man. That’ll do you. Every man gotta go through it sometime. When he don’t know who he is, or where he be going. Some find out, the rest just keep looking. Those be the mothafuckas get in trouble.” Old Eddie finished off his donut, took a meditative sip of his coffee. “You’ll be all right, man. You taking it the right way.”

“I wish I had another job coming up,” the general contractor said.

“Ain’t no one starting nothing new. Everyone scared, I guess.”

The general contractor looked meaningfully into the slitted eyes of the old laborer. “It’ll turn around soon, Ed. I’ve got your number.”

“You call me, Robert. I work for you any day. Just keep me away from that mothafucka foreman you used to keep out here. He got me pinned wrong, man. Ordering a piss test at the labor pool. Fuck that. I done changed my ways a long time ago. I don’t do no drugs.” Old Eddie hung his head. “I’m an alcoholic. Hell, I admit it. I take a six pack after work every day, but I don’t do no drugs, Robert. And those Fridays I was missing last year was because I had to finish up my meetings with my parole officer. All that fuckin’ mess is over with, now.”

“I know it, Eddie. You’ve been solid on this job, all the way to the beginning. And you’re the best forklift operator I know. Here, Ed.” The general contractor stood up, took a folded check from his back pocket, handed it over to Old Eddie. “It’s a bonus.”

Old Eddie opened the check, sat looking at it for a while. Slowly, he stood to his feet. His eyes were moist. He spread his mouth open, revealing the pinks of his upper gums. “Thank you, Robert! Thank you Robert, and thank you, Lord!”

“The foreman was against it,” the general contractor said. “He’d rather have given you a ten-dollar gift card to Publix.”

“Shit.” Old Eddie wiped his eyes and wrapped the general contractor up in his arms. They hugged with open palms. Old Eddie’s back was smooth and hard as river stone.

“I had to make sure about them zeroes!” Old Eddie said.

“Well, I want you to know how much I appreciate you, man.”

“I’m gonna get a car, man. Fuck this labor pool shit.”

“You get it, Pops.” The general contractor smiled, held Old Eddie at arm’s length. “And take yourself a week off. You’re gonna need some rest before the next project.”

* * *

Spring thunderstorms in Tampa are cruel, sneaky as a slap in the face, and just as fleeting. The Mexicans call them the mucho agua storms, the rednecks “belly washers.” Waves of gray sweep in to shred at sky and earth, fill the low places with water. When they are done pouring out, the clouds whisk off to the east, the rain eases to pulses, then patters, and the black wool of the sky frays into a silvery haze, which in turn rends apart to bare the glowing sharpened edges of white-blue cloud, and behind that, shifting scraps of blue sky.

“I need a favor, Ed,” the general contractor said. He opened the window and wiped the dripping sash with a paper towel. “The EPC wants me to remove some nuisance vegetation from the wetland buffer zone. Something called a Peruvian primrose.” He smiled, raised a finger, disappeared into the trailer bathroom, then came out with a 21″ black-handled machete. “The guy said to chop it back so it doesn’t hang over the grass.”

Old Eddie eyed the knife, stood to his feet. “Now just what kind of rose you want me to chop down?”

“You’ll know it when you see it. It’s a little yellow flower that grows out of the bramble.” The general contractor handed over the blade. Eddie clenched the rubber grip, felt the old familiar weight in his palm.

In the same way the first shaft of a sunrise can tempt open the petals of a flower, a machete can open up a man’s spirit and set him to blissful occupation. Eddie worked without gloves, lopping off the sparkling green and yellow tufts with steady, pendular swings of the arm. It was Saturday, cool and fresh. The sky was yawning.

A sand crane popped out of the bush and hobbled down the swale. The bird’s wing was snapped. Gangly, black-tipped feathers dragged pathetically along the grass.

“What, you get hit by a car?”

The crane stopped, retracted its long gray neck, cocked its eye at Old Eddie.

“What?”

The bird spooked, tried to flap its wings, nearly toppling over, then hopped to regain its balance, and limped off in the direction of the road.

“You going the wrong way!” Old Eddie called after it.

The wind eased into late morning, and the sun heated the wetlands so that certain smells were allowed to waft up from the brush—pine sap and wild ginger, roasted arrowroot, oak musk, boar scent, moss, pepper, buckthorn, honeysuckle, fish rot, algae, dank cypress bark. Old Eddie hacked steadily into the thickening tangle, and pretty soon he slipped off into a dream-like state. Drawn ever deeper into the sawgrass, he drifted away from the buildings, down into the marshes. The branches clambered about him. He fought his way after the trail of the yellow wildflowers.

Now, as the cool, foul water seeped over his bootlaces to drench his socks, Old Eddie had the nagging thought that he might be going in too deep. But he kept on anyway, sweating, unable to stop, driven to madness by the shimmering blade and the flowers. A thrumming sound pulsed in his ears—was it his own heartbeat? He worked rhythmically, merging with the mud and the plants, a wild man carving his way through the thicket. Alligators scuttled into the deeper gulleys, toads huddled low, crows gathered in the high branches to watch the strange dance between man and bush.

At one point, Old Eddie ventured a look behind him and saw that he had gone too far, but he turned and gouged on anyway, cutting ever deeper into the thicket.

Two hours later, around lunchtime, Old Eddie had carved a meandering, hundred-yard path through the cypress dome, extending from the northwest corner of the site all the way to the far south end. When he surfaced from the wetlands, his sweater torn, his face and hands bloodied, the whites of his eyes were showing. He felt inhabited by some ancient spirit, gazing in madness at the bright façades of the townhouses as if for the first time. In this burning state, Old Eddie saw an image floating before him, it was the face of the old Indian concrete truck driver with the long black braid, the one who had told him the buildings would all sink into the mud some day.

Old Eddie limped toward the trailer, trying to hum away the visions he was having—visions of vines interlaced over the roofs, windows shattered by yellow wildflowers, and catfish flopping about in the black, fetid water that was creeping up and flooding the building foundations. He paced his strides, took a good while coming down the road. Eventually, his jaw slackened, his eyes calmed again, and his heartbeat slowed to a steady drum.

When he came in sight of the retention pond, he froze in place, struck by another holy vision.

It was Pump Man, standing in a golden light at the pond’s edge. The Mexican’s face seemed much younger, somehow, smoother, wooden, as he stood meditating over the water. Old Eddie wanted to ask him what the hell he was doing here, and why he was holding a bucket, but he was hypnotized, lulled into a trance by the stark honesty of the man’s stillness. So Old Ed stood there watching, and Pump Man remained still as a sculpture, in noble profile against the sun.

Why was Pump Man here on a Saturday, holding a bucket of water with three tilapia swimming inside? It was a mystery, even to Pump Man himself. The concrete had been poured out over two months ago. Pump Man had no business on this site. Probably it had to do with his mother’s death in Guadalajara, three nights before. But Pump Man wasn’t one to contemplate his actions. He simply bent over the pond and poured the fish in. They were embarazado, and soon the retention pond would be teeming with baby peces.

As Old Eddie watched this ritual, he felt an electric tingle, some animalistic memory, or a telepathic bond he could not translate. He was on the verge of a momentous revelation, though he did not know it. He saw in his mind the gasping catfish swimming off into the tall grass, and the other flipping over onto its back. A vague dread, an uncertainty, passed over him like a cloud. But before he could grasp its meaning, the lunch cart bumped through the front gates and bleated its horn. Old Ed remembered the check in his pocket now, and he walked on, a bit taller, his heart bumping cheerfully in his old chest—at perfect peace with the world on this Saturday.


Dan Reiter works with his hands. “The Day Laborer” is an excerpted chapter from his upcoming novel, The Project, which explores the lives of construction workers during the boom times at the beginning of the century.


To read Dan Reiter’s comments on Jared Yates Sexton’s “The Right Men for the Job,” click here.

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Notes from Denis J. Underwood, Online Managing Editor
The rich descriptions in this excerpted chapter drew me in from the start. A sense of place, one where dread lurks just below the surface, is firmly established. The banter between the workers and the exploration of their cultural eccentricities bring to life an exotic locale and a unique slice of Americana. Here, there’s constant encroachment. Man toils to control nature and nature strives to take back what has been lost. How much time does Old Eddie have left? He’s lived a hard life. He’s wounded, like the crane. But he’s resilient and perseveres. There’s rebirth, rejuvenation, not only in Old Eddie, but in the way nature reasserts itself on the job site.  I was thoroughly relieved to make it out of the swamp with Old Eddie. To see him happy.


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Comments on this story by  Ewing Eugene Baldwin, author of “Watchers”
Old Eddie is a cog in a wheel of progress, for which there is no antidote. He focuses on his piece of the world, where nature and man-made materials clash. He observes a broken-winged sandhill crane and passes on the chance to capture it and get it help. Unemotionally, he sees oddities–catfish in puddles, rituals of foreigners–and labors in the seam of a strange and incompatible fabric of plants and concrete and plastic, where color blooms in manmade ditches and animals with million year lineages are now reduced to living along the margins of “progress.”

Old Eddie senses the menace and uneasiness in this world, but he cannot afford sentiment or to dwell on environmental consequences. Who would fix his broken wing? He is brother to the crane, to the catfish. In the menace is a living, modest to be sure, a living nevertheless. Eddie is one of those marginal creatures, no expectations except to get through that day, the next day and apply practical meaning to future days.

We don’t see the Old Eddies and the Mexican workers; we drive blindly by, after the destruction and reconstruction, or stop to avail ourselves of the services in each new structure. We don’t walk behind the buildings and observe the netherworld. We avoid the neighborhoods of the laborers.

“The Day Laborer” skillfully takes us to a place as foreign and menacing as a third world country.




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