by Eli Toast
I used to pour concrete foundations for homes out in Nampa, Idaho. A one-story culture rising from the agar of I-84; an open-air mega-church with monster trucks and weed-cracked parking lots staffed mostly with overweight freedom lovers swaddled in Looney Toon clothing, pious addicts on foolish errands, and soil working Mexicans. A modest Intermountain Northwest town, leveraged by usurers and strip mall layaways, with broad hissing avenues crusted by pawn shops, car title and payday loan joints, Carpet Barns, and auto parts stores; urban blight decked out in tacky signage. If Nampa were a plate of food it would be an indifferently cooked plate of chicken fried steak and eggs with a cigarette butt smoldering in the eggs.
And on the periphery, on huge plots of rammed and flattened earth, were guys like me who poured concrete foundations for all of the modest, nondescript homes for the not-so-wealthy people who come to live here.
I worked for one of my best friends, Ted, at an outfit called Galactic Concrete Construction. My other boss Mark, was a born again Christian who was forever persecuted by a compelling pornography addiction that ripped him in two. Raised by severe parents who believed in demons from hell and eternal damnation, he was certain porn punched his ticket to an eternity in the lake of fire. He was tangled in an insanely persecutorial double bind that made him weird, intense, and obsessed with saying the word “dildo.”
Then there was John, a general laborer like myself, a half Indian from Yuma who had lost his right index finger to a machine.
I was never any good at the work. On days when I was stoned, hung-over, and suffering from hemorrhoids I was almost worthless. Almost… I could still manage my primary duty of lifting things and moving them to different places. Occasionally, I got to use my hammer and sometimes I would smash my fingers with it. Often in the summer it was 100 degrees by 10:00 a.m., and for an inflamed sphincter that was bad news. At times I could think of nothing more than my swollen, aggravated, bound-tight-as-a-knot-on-a-balloon hemorrhoidal asshole. All of who I was, everything I had ever experienced, and everything I would become… swallowed in that needling singularity of anguish. I would put my head down and plod away in a miserable un-life emerging only for profanity and tobacco.
We all got hemorrhoids from time to time, although John would never admit it. Hemorrhoids in our line of work were about the worst thing a guy could have and still function. They’re not debilitating, but imagine if one morning you woke up and as you were getting ready for work you discovered you had a pulsing, hot sauce soaked cactus growing in your lower rectum. Mark claimed the best thing for hemorrhoids was Ambesol, the toothache medicine, and I believed him, though I’ve yet to try it.
Each day the erratic pop of nail guns being set loose on innocent lumber was constant. In the distance, backhoes and dozers dug holes and moved dirt, roiling thin clouds of khaki dust that loitered around us throughout the day. The sorry fuckers who framed houses were bony, impossibly sunburned men with violent, inky black tattoos, crawling over the skeletons of new homes, forcing lumber into involuntary positions, and full of vile dreams.
Occasionally Ted and I went over to John’s apartment after work to smoke weed and drink a few beers. John’s dim and swampy apartment was a two bedroom affair steeped in soiled clothing and broken toys. The massive television took up half the space in the living room, and, below it, on the floor, were Play Stations, Nintendos, DVD’s, and wires splayed out like the guts of a slashed television belly. The kitchen was a filthy display of fast food litter and dishes smeared with highly processed, low quality sauces. It smelled like cigarette ash, meth, wet skin, brackish carpet, and boldly organic compost.
John never seemed comfortable talking about hemorrhoids, or, masturbation, (both firmly in my wheelhouse) but he always wanted to talk about fucking his wife, whom we all hated. John’s wife Elaine (or whatever) would come around at lunchtime in a chronically fucked-up root beer-colored Ford Econo-Line packed with all six kids. The kids were filthy little buggers, but nothing was inherently wrong with any of them. Nevertheless they were totally doomed; doomed to a life of boring episodes in the Auto Parts stores, unable to find, or, unable to afford exactly what they need. Or worse. At least that’s what we all thought.
“Sometimes I wonder how people keep going like that,” Mark would wonder.
“Dudn’t know any better.”
John and his wife did quite a bit of meth. They weren’t stabbing babies yet, but they were basically always under its sway. These were the days when meth was everywhere, especially in a place like Nampa, Id.
The last time I went home I met John, by chance, at the Cactus Bar in Boise, a bar where I once witnessed a man getting raped in the men’s bathroom. (Seriously depressing story. It was Ted’s birthday and we were getting drunk, on, like, a Wednesday afternoon. I go to the bathroom and intrude on two guys engaged in anal sex. One of the dudes is so drunk he’s barely conscious [obviously he’s the one taking it up his keister]. Afterwards, that guy, the barely conscious one, manages to make his way back to the bar where he passes out and shits his pants. Eventually the police were called to take him away. The other dude sticks around like nothing happened, and at one point even offered to suck my dick. It’s likely he was high on meth as well.)
Anyway, John looked like shit. His teeth had become soap-soft and jagged like tiny black spires eroded by the winds of meth. He explained to me that he was broke and being evicted from the trailer he was living in. Came right out and fessed up to being broke. It takes balls to admit you’ve failed to manage a stable life. It’s like admitting something fundamentally embarrassing, like you can’t read, or tie your own shoes. When it’s confessed with no self-abasing shame, it comes across, at least to me, as kind of endearing. Small town America is famous for this kind of openness.
He had quit the concrete racket and was working as a street hot dog vendor (Gator Dogs) that sold sausages to late night drunks–keeping the coolers stocked, chopping onions, in charge of general tidiness and what not. Probably 45 years old, nice as could be, too. I suppose it’s a gradual wearing down of one’s expectations, a gradual acceptance of one’s lot. Surely there must be some hope involved, a belief that things will get better with time. But when it comes to meth addiction time isn’t on your side. If you’re at black tooth stage I’m afraid things are fairly un-do-overable.
I think about them, the meth addicts, the ones destined to be blown away by the shit, the gas huffers and glue sniffers, the Indians you see on COPS caught huffing gold spray paint behind blighted junipers in strip mall parking lots, beneath the stark “this is what you’ve become” high wattage bleach of sodium bulbs. Those who occupy the lowest rungs of society’s ladder, these are the people whom I look at and ask myself: how do they do it? Carry on, I mean. Don’t they feel as hard? Because if it were me, I’d… I don’t know… I don’t know what I’d do.
All this was in my 20’s. I’m older now and live halfway across the planet and the most difficult part of my job is the stairs. I still see Ted from time to time when I go home. These days Ted is a rancher in central Idaho. Last time I was there we rode horses and four-wheelers through his pastures. Neither of us have any idea what Mark is up to. I have no idea why, but I think he lives in Spokane with a god fearing wife whom he hides from when he can. Maybe he still pours concrete and has a medicine cabinet full of Ambesol. Who knows?