Ceres, Scaffolding – John Larson

Cementhead was driving Gonzalez and me to pick up scaffolding from the other site. Cementhead was the boss’s old gofer (as in “go here fer this/go there fer that”). And Gonzalez and I were Cementhead’s gofers, which meant I spent a lot of time in the truck with them, listening to them talk. This time we were on Van Buren street, under the train tracks, listening to Gonzalez talk about one of his many side chicks.

Gonzalez was 23. A year younger than me. He was handsome and charismatic. He wore his hair gelled—up and then to the side. He talked with us a lot about the girls he was seeing. It was entertaining because these women were always dumping him, trying to lock him down and have his kids, finding out about one another and breaking into his apartment and throwing his TV out the window, and so on. He would come into work grinning, wearing the same clothes he had the day before, and we all knew he was about to tell us some new story.

Gonzalez was pointing out the bar his recent fling worked at, complaining that he couldn’t go back there because yesterday she found out he was also having sex with her best friend.

“We didn’t have any kind of agreement,” he said, grinning. “She wasn’t responding to my texts so I texted someone else, who happened to be her best friend, and she did respond. Sorry, but take it up with her, not me.”

“Here’s how this works, Gonzalez,” Cementhead said. “If two broads are friends and you fuck one of them against the wishes of the other, she has a choice: blame the other broad and lose her friend or blame you and lose a dumbass she barely knows. You follow? It’s not about right and wrong. They’re going to blame you and stay friends 99 times out of a 100.”

Cementhead was in his mid 60’s. I had heard he retired a few years ago only to come back after two months. He simply found he had nothing better to do than come to work. He was about 100 pounds overweight, had a gray mustache, and a red face marked in the way of someone who’s spent most of his life fuming. They both mostly ignored me when they have these conversations. I didn’t mind. It’s okay to just be coworkers. I didn’t feel the obligation to be friends.

“I was wrong, Cementhead. I get it now.” Gonzalez put his hands up. “I’m just going to be wrong no matter what, because I’m the guy, so why bother? ”

“Quit feeling sorry for yourself. It’s not about right or wrong. It’s about cause and effect,” Cementhead said.

“Here’s the effect.” Gonzalez said. “I can’t go back to that bar tonight.”

“Go to Skyride,” Cementhead said.

“Have a history with one of their bartenders too,” Gonzalez said.

“Ale House.”

Gonzalez just grinned.

“Find a steady broad or I promise you that dick is going to rot off one of these days,” Cementhead said.

“How about there?” Gonzalez asked as we drove by a bar. “Ceres. The fuck does that mean, do you say it like Siri’s?”

It was an interesting looking bar with white columns painted on both sides of the door. A statue of its namesake stood above it. I knew that Ceres was the Roman goddess of grain and harvest, but I didn’t think they really cared about that so I didn’t chime in.

“All I know is don’t go there,” Cementhead said. “They give you a cocktail and it’s all alcohol.”

“That’s supposed to make me not go?” Gonzalez said. “It’s Thirsty Thursday, Cementhead.”

“You remember when they found the chief of police stopped at a green light slumped over his steering wheel?” Cementhead asked. “He was coming from Ceres. They found him drunker than an Indian and he lost his job.”

Gonzalez then asked if the drunk Indian thing was real or just from the movies.

That’s when Cementhead nodded and confirmed that the drunk Indian thing was very real.

He said that he and Bill and Paulie, two other carpenters we worked with, all drove up to Canada every year to fish. On the way, they usually stopped in Minnesota to play cards at a reservation casino.

“A place not far from, get a load of this name, Squaw Lake.”

Gonzalez laughed.

“One time, this was about four or five years ago, Paulie gets a hot hand in blackjack. So we stay a little longer than we should playing cards, having drinks. And by the time we hit the road it’s already dark. And once you get away from the casino and onto these little reservation highways up toward the border it gets really dark.

“Bill’s driving on this black road, underneath these big tall trees. Every once in a while there’s a little building buried back in them. A bar or a shop. But mostly just woods. Bill’s not flooring it—you know Bill, he’s a good guy—but we’re behind on time so he’s probably going 65 miles an hour when the car goes Ba-BOOM Ba-BOOM, in a split second. He almost flew off the fucking road.

“But Bill pulls over to check the car and there’s some blood, unfortunately, but the car is all right. We don’t even think to check what we hit. We didn’t see anything in the lights, so we figure it’s a deer someone else hit and didn’t clear off the road. The car is all right so we’re about to just get back on the road when Paulie says I don’t think that was a deer you hit, Bill. And when we walk back a couple hundred feet with our flashlight, sure enough it’s a man. An Indian. Dead on the ground.”

“Holy shit,” Gonzalez said.

“Bill especially is spooked at first because he has some alcohol in him. Not much, but he just ran over a man so he’s shaken up. I tell him to calm down because, you know why? He was probably already dead. Think about it. He didn’t walk into the highway, we would have seen him, he was lying flat on the highway. That calms him down enough where he lets us call the cops. But right before we get through to them an officer pulls up and asks us if we need a lift. We say no but we point out the Indian in the road and explain everything very calmly about how this Indian must have been already dead because why else would someone be lying in the road.

“Now this is where the story gets relevant. The officer holds up his hand to stop us in the middle of our explanation. He just hangs his head and says he knows what happened. Around here on the reservation, he says, an Indian will get so drunk that the Indian bartender will kick him out. Now he’s outside, it’s the middle of nowhere, he can’t drive home and he’s not walking home. Well, in that situation, he just lays on the ground to sleep it off. But if it’s winter or fall, he gets cold. So he finds someplace warm to lie down. Warmest place around might be a road some cars were just driving over. He doesn’t think about that, though, he just knows it’s warmer than the dirt of the woods. If he lies there long enough, eventually another car will come along and that will be that.”

For a moment that felt as long as a bad year, Gonzalez and I both sat in silence.

“So what happened to Bill and you guys?” Gonzalez finally asked.

“The officer just told us to go on to Canada, and be more careful driving around there in the future. He said he’d take care of it. Say he found the body making his rounds.”

Gonzalez laughed. “Jesus H. Christ.”

They were talking more about the fishing trip and Canada when suddenly Cementhead slammed on the brakes. Some tools fell from the seat to the floor.

“Alright back there?” He asked me.

“All good,” I said, though the jigsaw blade had cut through my jeans as it fell, and I now had a superficial but painful cut down my shin.

Gonzalez reached across the center console and laid on the horn. Cementhead shoved him.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he asked.

“There’s a fucking crackhead in the street,” Gonzalez said.

“I see that. But I don’t go putting my hands all over your gay little bike, do I?”

Gonzalez drove a purple Kawasaki Ninja he repoed from one of his dad’s tenants. When we left work sometimes he would peel out and speed across the bridge if there were enough people around to watch. He said he was working on learning to wheelie, and one day he’d show us.

I looked out the window to see what was holding up traffic. It was a barefoot man in basketball shorts and a t-shirt with the neck so loose it hung midway down his abdomen. He had stepped into the middle of the street. He was shaking and his teeth were chattering even though it was a sunny August day. He didn’t seem to notice where he was standing and made no move to get out of the street.

Cementhead laid on the horn now, yelling at the man to move it. This had the opposite of its intended effect, and he began to shuffle toward our truck. Cementhead’s fist was bouncing off the steering wheel as he struck it. He was yelling and gesticulating for the man to get the fuck out of the way, but he didn’t, instead he stumbled forward and braced himself on the hood of the truck. Then the man pressed his hands to the window, leaned over and peered inside as if to see if there were anyone there. For the first time we could see his eyes. He had found us and held our gaze, somehow, all at once. That was when Cementhead hit the gas, turning away from the man as we sped off. The truck lurched as it went over the curb and onto the sidewalk and then again when we returned to the street. Behind us, the man was lying on the pavement, slowly rolling over onto his back. Cars that had been stopped behind us began to proceed around him in an orderly way.

“Fucking crackhead,” Cementhead said. He rolled down his window to adjust his side mirror which had been bent in a collision with the man. He rolled up the window and turned on the radio. We drove the rest of the way just listening to commercials.

The next day, I loaded up the scaffolding to return to the other building. I loaded them myself because Gonzalez was a no-call, no-show. Cementhead was there, but he wouldn’t help me. He explained he had one heart attack already behind him, and he wasn’t in a hurry to have another. So I loaded up in more than twice the time it would usually take and when I finished he nodded and said that we were already late. I sat in the front and he sped off.

In the truck, Cementhead got a call from the boss, which he put on the stereo Bluetooth.

“Jonathan,” the boss said, that was Cementhead’s real name. I’d never heard anyone call Cementhead by his real name before.

“What is it Boss?” he asked.

“I got a call from Gonzalez’s dad at the hospital,” he said. “Kid fell on that damn bike.”

“He alright?” Cementhead asked brusquely.

“I didn’t get all the details… But no,” he said, taking a long time to answer. “I don’t think he is.”

Cementhead was quiet for a moment. Then he thanked the boss for letting him know, and hung up.

The nice thing about the work is the repetitive nature of it, how it allows your critical faculties to rest, and frees them to think idly. We finished unloading the scaffolding in silence. I unloaded everything once again: the picks first, then the rails, the bars, the supports, the feet, the jacks, the wheels, the pins—I did it all slowly and methodically. I was thinking about Gonzalez, hooked up to machines inside one of the university hospitals. About how Cementhead chose to return to work after retiring. I imagined him reflecting on himself honestly and making a decision. I thought about how the boss keeps Cementhead around despite him having long outlived his usefulness. I thought about the crackhead, Cementhead’s bent mirror, and how he opened the window to straighten it out as we drove off. I saw Indians crawling onto a warm black highway under a slab of moon.

When I finished unloading his truck, Cementhead began to express to me some of his theses on life and how it ought to be lived. He went on and on, trying to explain to me, it seemed, everything he had learned in his life.

Something else about Cementhead is that he has no kids, no wife. For eight hours a day he has Gonzalez and me. Now he just has me, and I never say a word. I wanted to listen to what he said closely, but I was distracted by the idea that once you imagine someone’s demise it has already happened, just as when you leave work Friday and make the mistake of imagining yourself Sunday night, setting your alarm and lying down to sleep, your weekend has already ended. I saw Gonzalez yesterday, leaving Ceres on his bike. I saw Cementhead today. I see myself.

Then all that Cementhead has been saying condenses. Life is painful. But never more than you can handle, he assures me. Though sometimes it feels like much, much more.

And I feel like I should say something back. I remember that Jacques Derrida wrote we should always be preparing to eulogize our friends. What do we do for everybody else?

Cementhead is standing there, his red face a wasteland of spent emotion.

“You aren’t much of a talker, are you?” he asks me.

“No,” I say. “I’m sorry.”

And I am sorry. I wish I had more to say. It’s just that there’s so much to listen to, and so much more to think about. Maybe it’s better to get along in silence, preparing. For what? Preparing, maybe, to write this. At this moment I know I want to write about what Cementhead is saying to me, it has the right gravity. I can’t tell him that. I know it’s no consolation for him, though it is for me.

“You alright?” he asks.

I’m about to say I’m fine, but I see that he’s pointing at my leg. I look down and there’s blood dripping over my boot. I have reopened the cut from yesterday.

“Let’s take you back to the lock-up, get that cleaned and wrapped,” he says to me curtly. “Then you can go home. We’ll do this tomorrow.”

In the truck with Cementhead I feel safe. Looking out the window now the world seems docile and manageable, even though I know it is not. My mind wanders. I imagine myself leaving work, packing my tools, boarding the bus, whiling away another afternoon alone in my apartment, setting my alarm, going to sleep. I imagine it all and suddenly I’m there doing it. Over and over again. Trying to find an ending.