At twenty-six, at the embarrassing end of a series of attempts at channelling Kerouac, I was beyond broke, back in my home town, living in my aunt and uncle’s basement. Having courted and won a girl I had courted but never come close to winning in high school, I was now losing her via my pathetically dwindling prospects. One night she said, “I’m not saying I’m great or anything, but still I think I deserve better than this.”
That fall, my uncle called in a favor and soon I was on a roofing crew, one of three grunts riding from job to job in the freezing open back of a truck. My fellow-grunts, Leon and John, were the only black guys on the crew, and hence I was known as the Great White Hope. Once everyone had seen me work, I became the Great White Dope. Our job was to move the hot tar from a vat on the ground to the place on the roof where the real roofing was done. Leon had a thick Mississippi accent and no top teeth. He stayed on the ground, pulleying the smoking buckets up to us, muttering obscenities at passing grannies and schoolgirls. John was forty-two, gentle-voiced, and dignified, with a salt-and-pepper beard and his own roofing tools, which he brought to work every day, even though he was never allowed to do anything but lug tar. John had roofed all his adult life, and claimed to have virtuosoed his way into this job by appearing on the job site one day and outshingling the best white shingler.
“I guess I don’t remember that,” said Vic, our supervisor.
“I don’t think you were there that day maybe,” said John. “It was Lawrence hired me.”
Lawrence was dead now, a famous Fezziwiggian presence, mourned by all.
“You are so full of shit,” said Vic. “If you were so fast then, why are you so shitty now?”
“You roof like my mother,” said Gary, the owner’s brother.
“Maybe your mother roofs good,” John mumbled.
“She don’t,” said Gary. “But still she’s faster than you.”
All that fall, John grieved over the fact that he was not allowed to do the real and dignified work of a master roofer.
“It ain’t right,” he’d say to me. “I can do it. They need to give me a chance. I’m an older man. Got responsibilities. Can’t just keep carrying tar my whole life.”
In late November, talk turned to the yearly Christmas party. Drinks and food were on Warner, the owner. People got shitfaced. Also, there was gambling.
“Then we’re gonna see,” Vic said one day. “We’re gonna see if John here is a better gambler than he is a roofer.”
“You gotta hope,” said Gary.
“As a roofer, John, face it, you suck,” Vic said. “Nice guy, shit roofer.”
“Too fucking slow, John,” Gary said. “We keep giving you chances and you keep screwing it up.”
“But maybe why he’s a shit roofer is he’s a gambling man,” said Vic.
“What y’all are gonna find out is I’m a roofer and a gambler both,” said John.
“Excuse me saying it,” Vic said when John had gone down to help Leon load the cauldron. “But that is a prime example of nigger-think. He thinks he’s a roofer because he says he is. Thinks he can gamble because he says he can.”
“Has fourteen kids and lets the welfare pay,” said Gary.
One payday John asked could I give him a ride home. I gave him a ride, but, it turned out, not to his home. We drove deep into South Shore, past houses we’d roofed, then into an area too poor to roof, down a block of slumping two-flats.
“My friend’s place,” John said. “I’m gonna get you and your lady some Sherman Juice so you can have a little party.”
What was Sherman Juice? We’d started drinking at the shop and I was now too drunk to ask. In the kitchen, under duelling photos of M.L.K. and J.F.K., sat an ancient black woman in a rocking chair. A mad kid dashed around, humming at me: You devil, you white. John’s friend did not have any Sherman Juice but did have a Polaroid of his girlfriend going down on him. In the photo, taken from his P.O.V., we could see, in addition to his penis, his feet, in black socks. She was looking at the camera, smiling, sort of.
“Wow, is she pretty,” I said politely.
The friend and I sat there together, admiring her. Then John and I went somewhere else. Where we went was John’s wife’s apartment. They lived apart. Living apart, they got more money, and with more money they could buy a house sooner. In the apartment was a TV and fourteen kids around it. John named them, rapid-fire, with only a few stumbles.
“You really have fourteen kids,” I said.
“Yes, I do,” he said. “Every one mine. Right, baby?”
“I should hope so,” said his wife.
No chairs, no couch, newspapers on the windows. John and his wife cuddled on a blanket.
“When we get our real house, you come over,” John’s wife said. “Bring your lady.”
“Bring your lady, and we’ll all of us have dinner,” John said.
“I hope that day come soon,” said John’s wife.
“I hope it come damn soon,” John said. “I don’t like all this living separate from my babies.”
The kids giggled that he’d said “damn.” He went around kissing them all as I paced and lectured myself in the hallway, trying to sober up for the long drive home.
As long as it didn’t snow, we could roof. Every morning, I woke at four, checked for snow. If there was no snow, I called in. If someone skillless and slow might be useful that day, Warner told me to come in. I rose, put on all five of my shirts (I had no coat), and drove down in my Nova, de-icing the windshield as I went, via reaching out the window and hacking with a putty knife I kept for that purpose.
From the roofs, the city looked medieval, beautiful. I wrote poems in my head, poems that fizzled out under the weight of their own bloat: O Chicago, giver and taker of life, city of bald men in pool halls, also men of hair, men who have hair, hairy men, etc., etc. __On the roofs, we found weird things: a dead rat, a bike tire, somebody’s dragon-headed pool floatie, all frozen stiff.
Mid-December then, and still no snow. Strange Chicago crèches appeared in front yards: Baby Jesus, freed from the manger, leaned against a Santa sleigh half his height. He was crouching, as if about to jump; he wore just a diaper. Single strings of colored lights lay across bushes, as if someone had hatefully thrown them there. We patched the roof of a Jamaican immigrant whose apartment had nothing in it but hundreds of rags, spread across the floor and hanging from interior clotheslines. Nobody asked why. As we left, she offered us three Diet Rite colas.
Then it was the Christmas party. The way we knew it was festive was the garage had been cleared of dog shit. It had also been cleared of the dog, a constantly barking mutt who even bit Warner. He bit Warner, he bit the shovel head Warner thrust at him, sometimes we came in and found him resolutely gnawing the leg of the worktable with a fine sustained rage. Tonight, festively, the dog was locked in the cab of a truck. Now and then, he would hurl himself against the windshield, and somebody, festively, would fling at the windshield a plastic fork or a hamburger bun. The other components of the festivity were a plate of cold cuts on the table where normally the gutters were pre-bent, a garbage can full of iced beer, and a cardboard box holding some dice.
We ate, we drank, the checks were distributed, we waddled drunkenly across South Chicago Avenue to the Currency Exchange to cash the checks, after which the gambling began. I didn’t know a thing about gambling and didn’t want to. I rolled my four fresh hundreds and put them in the front pocket of my tar-stiff jeans, occasionally patting the pocket to make sure they were still real.
Finally, in terms of money, I got it: money forestalled disgrace. I thought of my aunt, who worked three jobs and whom I had not yet paid a dime for food, and of my girlfriend, who now paid whenever we went out, which was never, because my five shirts were too stained with tar.
“You ain’t gambling, Leon?” said Vic.
Leon said something nobody understood, and disappeared out the door.
“I suspect Leon is pussy-bound,” said Gary.
“Smart man,” said Vic.
John did gambler things with his shirtsleeves, spat on his hands, hopped around on one foot, blew on the dice. Then he laid his four hundreds out near the craps box and gave them a lecture: They were to go forth and multiply. They were to find others of their kind and come scampering back.
Vic had gone to the bank that morning. He showed us his roll. It held maybe three thousand dollars. His wife didn’t dare say shit about it. Who earned it, him or her? “I do,” he answered himself.
The gambling began. One by one, the guys lost what they felt they could lose and drifted back to stand against the worktable and diddle with the soldering irons. Soon only John was left. Why was John left? Vic kept taunting. A whole autumn of such taunts now did their work. All belittled men dream of huge redemption. Here was John, dreaming. In response to John’s dreaming, Vic and Gary began to speak with mock-professorial diction.
“Look at this, kindly look at this,” Vic shouted. “John is not, after all, any more a gambler than he is a ergo roofer. That is, he is a equally sucky gambler as he is a suckass roofer.”
“Are you saying,” said Gary, “that his gambling, in terms of how much does it suck, sucks exactly as much as does suck his roofing?”
“Perzackly, yup, that is just what I am saying, doctor,” Vic burped.
John burned. They were going to see. They were going to see that the long years of wrongs done him had created a tremendous backlog of owed good luck, which was going to surge forward now, holy and personal.
And see they did. Soon John was down to his last hundred, and then he broke it, and then he was down to his last twenty. Then Vic cackled, and John threw his sole remaining five at Vic’s chest. Vic caught it, kissed it, added it to his tremendous wad.
A light went on in my head and has stayed on ever since: It was all about capital. Vic could lose and lose and never really lose. Once John dipped below four hundred, he was dead. He was dead now.
Which was when Warner came in and passed out the bonus checks.
Warner was the owner, the big man. Tonight he was wearing a tie. Afternoons he drove from site to site in his Lincoln, cranking out estimates, listening to opera, because, he said, though it was fag music, it floated his boat.
John took his check, made for the door. I followed him out.
“You’re doing right,” I said. “Go on home.”
“Ain’t going home,” John said, and numb-footed across South Chicago again.
“No, no, no,” I mumbled, vividly drunk, suddenly alive. What had happened to me? Christ, where was I? Whither my promise, my easy season of victories, my field of dominant, my dominant field of my boyhood, boyhood playful triumph?
It was so cold my little mustache had frozen.
Our bonuses matched: three hundred each.
The man at the Currency Exchange looked at us either sadly or suspiciously, I couldn’t tell which. When I doubled back to ask, he reached for something under the counter.
“Go home, man,” I said to John out on the street. “You at least got your bonus, right?”
“Can’t, can’t,” John huffed. “Got to get all that back. No way that man’s taking my Christmas money for my babies.”
“You’re not going to get it back, John,” I said.
“Ain’t I, though,” he said.
The same law that had broken him the first time broke him again. Vic took it and took it.
“Vic, Vic,” I said, so drunk I was unsure I was actually speaking.
“What am I supposed to do?” Vic said, glaring at me. “He’s a man, right? He wants to play. Ain’t nobody forcing him.”
“Ain’t nobody forcing me,” John said.
Vic had a fat round face and little black glasses. He was Polish but looked kamikaze. His cheeks were red and his glasses were fogged, it seemed to me, from the gross extent of his trickery.
“You want to quit, John?” Vic said. “Great White Dope here thinks I’m hustling you. Maybe you should quit. So what if you suck as a gambler? Just walk away, right?”
“Nobody hustling nobody here,” said John.
“See, Dope?” Vic said to me. “John’s a man.”
“I am that,” said John.
Soon John was wadding and throwing his last ten.
“Fair’s fair,” he gasped, and lurched out.
I followed. Should I offer him mine? If I offered him mine, he might take it. So I offered him a portion of mine in a way that simultaneously offered and made it clear I was not offering. He said he didn’t want none of mine. He had to get home. His babies were waiting. He didn’t know what his wife would say, or what he would say to her.
“I’ll have to just tell her, I guess,” he said. “Just up and say it, get it over with: Baby, they ain’t no Christmas. And don’t give me no lip about it.”
He wiped his face top to bottom, the saddest gesture I’d ever seen.
Then he walked off into the side-blowing snow.
I was sad yet happy. I was drunk. I was deeply, deeply glad I wasn’t him.
Back inside, Vic was protesting, though nobody was asking him to.
“A man’s a man,” he was saying. “You play, you lose, you accept it. John’s a man. He knows that. He gets that. I admire that.”
“He’s gonna have a shit Christmas, though,” somebody said.
“These people live for shit Christmases,” Vic said. “They run right directly toward shit Christmases. It’s all they know. It’s in their blood.” Then he put his wad back in his pocket.
The craps box was cast aside, and the roofers bent to their drinks. Somebody hauled over a length of gutter and a few of them went at it with tin snips, proving some point or other.
I stumbled out to my Nova, putty-knifed myself a sight-hole, drove home.
There comes that phase in life when, tired of losing, you decide to stop losing, then continue losing. Then you decide to really stop losing, and continue losing. The losing goes on and on so long you begin to watch with curiosity, wondering how low you can go.
All that winter, once a week or so, I’d been stopping at a pay phone off Stony Island to call the Field Museum, where a kind woman had once praised my qualifications.
“Anything yet?” I’d say.
“Not yet,” she’d say. Once, she said, “We need a security guard, ha-ha, but that, of course, is way beneath your level.”
“Oh, ha-ha, right,” I said.
But I was thinking, Could I work my way up? Could I, in my security-guard uniform, befriend a doddering curator, impress him with my knowledge of fossils, my work ethic, my quiet respect for science?
“Keep calling, though,” she said.
“Oh, I will,” I said.
And I did, until finally it got too embarrassing, and I stopped.
Early spring, I fled town, leaving my aunt unrepaid, my girlfriend convinced, forever, I suppose, that this snivelling lesser me was the real one.
I went somewhere else and started over, pulled head out of ass, made a better life. And I wouldn’t go back to that roofing me or that roofing time for anything in the world.
But sometimes I imagine myself standing at that pay phone, in my tar-hardened clothes.
“This is so great,” the Field Museum woman is saying. “Come down, come down, we finally have something suitable for you. I’m so happy to finally be able to tell you this.”
“I’ll be right there,” I say.
Then it’s a few weeks later, after first payday, and I pull up to my girlfriend’s house, wearing clean clothes. All day long, I have been, say, writing about the brontosaurus. I have certainly, at this point, learned a lot about brontosauri. In fact, I have been selected to go to a Brontosaurus Conference in, say, Miami, Florida. We go out to dinner. My aunt meets us there. I have by now repaid her for all the food she fed me those many months. Also, I’ve bought her a new dress, just to be nice. The dinner is excellent. I pay. After dinner, the three of us sit there laughing, laughing about the fact that I, an assistant curator at the famous Field Museum, was once a joke of a roofer who worked with jerks, jerks who didn’t like me, and who cheated a nice man out of his Christmas. ♦
Originally published December 23, 2009
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On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree. Such a thoughtful gift, she knows how much I love fruit. She also knows my building’s pretty strict about pets so the bird threw me a little. But he is a cute little guy.
On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me, two turtle doves. Wow, she’s really into the avian theme this year. Um, thank you? I guess I’ll just put them in the kitchen with the partridge in the pear tree, which suddenly seems a lot bigger than it did yesterday.
Days 3 & 4
On the third and fourth days of Christmas, she gave me three French hens and four calling birds. Funny, I don’t remember telling her my dream was to one day open a chapter of the Audubon Society. Jesus. You know what would have been nice? Some birdseed. I’m out of saltines and things are starting to get weird in here.
On the fifth day of Christmas, she gave me five golden rings. See, now that’s a nice gift. A nice, practical gift. A little on the feminine side, but I’ll take it.
Six geese a-laying. Hmm, that’s so weird because I was just telling someone that I could use some MOREFUCKINGBIRDS. Do you have any idea how much shit six geese generate in a single day? Literally, pounds. Pounds of green, grassy turds. And in case you’re curious, all six of them have been a-laying since they got here. There are no less than seventy-five enormous eggs in my apartment right now. And as a side note, I just tried to make an omelet out of one of them and almost ralphed. Very gamy.
Guess what I signed for this morning when the UPS guy rang my doorbell? Seven swans a-swimming. True story. So… no more baths for me, I guess. Thanks for that. These are terrible gifts! Terrible, confusing gifts. Do you know how big a fucking swan is? Or how mean those bastards are? Oh, and guess who swans don’t get along with? Geese, turtle doves, French hens, calling birds, and partridges. Glad you did your homework there. There’s more bird-on-bird violence going on right now than I care to mention.
I’d like to give you the benefit of the doubt on this one in case you ordered these eight maids a-milking online and there was some confusion, but just to clarify, there are eight middle-aged women wearing bonnets in my apartment right now. And they each brought a cow. Do you understand what I’m saying to you? They’re all here, in my STUDIO apartment, and judging by the size of their suitcases, they aren’t leaving anytime soon.
Big day today. Not only did I receive the unexpected gift of nine ladies dancing, I also got a nice little note from my landlord. He covered all kinds of stuff, but in a nutshell it was about excessive dancing, illegal livestock, unnatural amounts of bird feces, and me not living here anymore. Big day.
Ten lords a-fucking-leaping! Yes they are. Ten leotarded assholes are literally jumping around my apartment screaming “Wheeeeee!” every time their feet leave the goddamned ground! WHY?? Why are you doing this to me? You’re sick! I loved you so much and you destroyed it. You destroyed everything. Tensions in here are escalating faster than I could have imagined. The maids and dancers appear to have laid territorial claims in opposite corners of the apartment. They are not the same civilized ladies who arrived here a short time ago. They bear a darkness now. One of them stole my golden rings and I know just the one who did it. I’m waiting until nightfall and I will reclaim them through any means necessary. I’m beginning to fear something isn’t right with the birds, they’re watching me… conspiring… it’s just a matter of time.
Days 11 & 12
These final days have come and gone in a bewildering fog. I remember drummers. Pipers. Lots of them. I haven’t slept or washed my body in quite some time. Food is scarce… the fighting, fierce. I killed a lord today! Snatched him right out of the air and killed him with my bare hands. Now he doesn’t leap anymore. I used his leotard as a net to trap one of the swans. She was delicious. Didn’t even cook the old gal. Ha! I made everyone gather around and watch—that’s what you do when you want to send a message. A very important message! This is my castle! Do you all hear me? Do you see what I’ve done? What I am capable of!! No more eye contact with the king, do you understand? Or I will end you! I will end you all right here and now!! Now one of you fetch me a goddamned pear. The king needs something sweet.
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