So this dude I’ve been working alongside, landscaping and whatnot, he looks a lot like me: buzz cut that’s starting to grow out, blond beard and mustache, blue eyes, maybe just shy of six feet, 160 or so pounds. Three weeks we’ve been working together, talking and talking and talking.
DRIVING THE TRUCK
I’d like to get another twenty on me, but summer is hard. In November I’ll gain it back. But then with all the snow, shit, gonna lose it.
Last January he plowed five eighteen-hour days in a row, followed by a month of shoveling roofs, meaning rope and harness, eight feet deep plus plenty of ice.
Raised in Connecticut, this dude: Thirty-four years old and counting.
First got busted for weed in high school.
SPADES IN THE DIRT
I had like the option of tons of community service or a weekend in New Hampshire at a rehab facility. It was crazy. All these heroin addicts and crackheads, and they’re going: What? You here for weed?
In Denver about a decade back, when things were rougher, twice the cops stopped to give him a ride, shuttle him to a safer ’hood. Nah, I’m good, he’d tell them, and they’d reply, You got a gun? And he’d say, Nah. And they’d say, Then you ain’t good. So he’d take a quick ride.
Hasn’t spoken, this dude, with his dad in sixteen years.
My mom, damn it, she bought a 2017 Mercedes for $89,000. And flying to Colorado for her granddaughter’s first birthday is too expensive? Fuck it, then. I’ve been back four times in the last six years. She’s never been out once. I’m not going back.
His daughter is two, his son eight. The son has trouble at school, always getting bullied.
Not married, this dude, but sleeping on the baby-momma’s couch these days.
RIPPING OUT A JUNKY CULVERT
We’re kind of dating again.
In Denver, another time, it was six guys versus one, an old-fashioned jumping that started with running mouths. He swung the first punch, and held his own until a roundhouse kick from a steel-toe boot caught him in the ribs. They had his face to the curb with a knee, his arm twisted around the back.
Captain of the football team, this dude.
Hoping to sell his snowboard, bindings, and boots this weekend. Hoping to make $150, anything to help with the child support, car payments, and GIA fees.
I was up and running and there was someone chasing me. How could I know it wasn’t one of them? I turned and full-on punched this cop directly in the face. But oh, there were three more cops after him, so I got jumped all over again. The six other guys got away, and the cops took me in. First two days it was the city jail, seven of us in a cell meant for two, twenty-three hours of lockdown. And they kept it super cold, never turned the lights off.
The other day, coming back from Target, his son went crazy, almost in tears, insisting that he needed weights. Only after much discussion did the story come out: the kids at recess had been making fun of his muscles.
Doesn’t think people under eighteen should be allowed to play contact football, this dude.
LAYING POND LINER IN A HUGE HOLE
How fucked is it that a third-grader has to worry about the size of his biceps? He’s like a sensitive kid, you know? Put it this way: for his birthday he asked for a sewing machine. He likes to make costumes and stuff. He doesn’t like the cold.
In his late twenties, working for a kayak manufacturer in North Carolina, he got busted in Kansas, en route from the Rockies, with three pounds, but somehow dodged the bullet and nothing came of it.
Until recently, he was mailing pounds to Connecticut, anything to help get him into school, GIA, the Gemological Institute of America.
Insists he loves his daughter too much to mail anything these days.
RAIN FALLING ON THE DRIVEWAY
But man, it would be great to make that money again: $800 profit per pound, $2,400 for the three. A resealable gallon paint can, a cardboard box, a visit to the post office, and there you go.
He rises at 3 AM on the couch, studies gemstones until around seven, helps get the kids to school, gets himself to work at eight, finishes around five, cooks dinner, cleans, does the laundry, then puts the kids to bed.
Banged his knee something wicked, this dude, when he tripped backwards over a pallet and into a rack of irrigation PVC.
Often, he falls asleep while reading to the girl, wakes a few hours later, has trouble falling back to sleep.
OPENING A CAN OF RUBBER CEMENT
Because I’m on the couch. And last night, fuck, my knee ballooned up and was just killing me. The couch didn’t help that, no sir.
The gemstones come in stone sets, that’s what he calls them: eighty stones in the mail, each identified and assessed before he mails them back to Carlsbad, California.
This dude, he was out there for a month last spring, doing his lab requirements. Made himself thirty chicken burritos, froze them, and that was lunch for the entire stay.
I’ve always had an interest in gemstones, and then I found out about the scholarship. I’m on track to finish the three-year program in under two. But I gotta figure out a job in the field, which won’t be easy. And meantime, the books and equipment and shit cost a lot.
If he loses a stone set the school charges him $3,000. He doesn’t have $3,000 available, so gets stressed when the USPS screws things up.
Actually, he doesn’t have $1,500 available.
Actually, he doesn’t even have $100 available.
AFTER MOVING THE TRACTOR
I’ve got the first line for my book: Did I ever tell you about the time I was wanted for murder?
This dude was a chef at a golf course in Summit County, had big dreads and looked just like some murderer from Arizona who was supposedly hiding out in Colorado. The cops followed him for a week before raiding his apartment just as he was about to get with a girl.
Hitching to Idaho Springs, he caught a ride with a trucker who kept talking about how he likes to have three-ways with his wife and another man.
INSTALLING A BLOW-OFF VALVE
He wanted me to smoke meth with him.
Two egg sandwiches for breakfast.
Leftover chili with cornbread for lunch.
LEANING ON A ROCK BAR
If you had to choose, what would you rather have, sherbet or frozen yogurt? I’d go for sherbet. It reminds me of my grandparents.
Weirdest job: digging a grave.
My son loves dogs more than anything. Dogs are his big thing. That’s his big thing.
In the bank account to get him through another week: seventeen bucks.
Fuck, man. I just don’t know.
This dude, he looks a lot like me: buzz cut that’s starting to grow out, blond beard and mustache, blue eyes, maybe just shy of six feet, 160 or so pounds.
Let’s move that boulder first, then we’ll tackle the other, then we’ll deal with this annoying small stuff.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: We were working for a landscaping company. He was a foreman who worked there full-time. I was a writer who picked up a month-long gig to help pay the bills. It’s totally common, totally routine—two dudes laboring and talking, chatting to pass the time—but dang, it’s beautiful and powerful. Back at my desk, pecking at my laptop, the question was how to convey the depth and complexity of another person, and the subtle, banal, awesome, dirt-beneath-the-fingernails process by which a layered character is revealed and also, if possible, hint at the idea that we are all that guy (“he looks a lot like me”). I don’t care about the reader understanding what kind of projects we were doing, or why, or any of that. I really only care about the reader understanding that two dudes are working together and talking and that a biography can unfold through this shared experience and that a little snapshot of America—our country and our time—can be glimpsed.