Shoveling Snow on Oil Tanks
The man flicked the ash off the end of his cigarette, its red tip a glowing pinprick in the pre-dawn dark. The residents in the building behind him were quiet now, finally asleep, sedated, staring at a television, staring into the dark. He waited outside the warmth of the building’s entryway, access to which required the staff member seated at the reception desk to push a button to unlock the bolted door.
He wore ill-fitting sneakers, and his feet were cold. He wished he still had his leather work boots that laced to mid-shin and kept his feet warm even in February. How long had it been since he’d owned a decent pair of shoes, shoes that he had picked out and bought with money he’d earned? Eight years? Ten? He lost track of time easily. It eroded like the embankment that he had climbed daily to reach the cluster of tents huddled in the scrub brush between the railroad tracks and the highway. Pieces of time and clods of dirt dislodged, slipped loose, rolled away unnoticed.
He hadn’t camped out for three winters running; he had left the encampment the winter after his tent-mate Peter had cut a hole in the top of their tent to ventilate smoke. After that, Brent decided he’d had enough of living with drunks and nuts, and so he’d found a little-watched sailboat and moved into that. Had it been a year, or two, since Irish had bashed in Peter’s skull with a backpack full of booze and left him dead on the tracks? Brent would have to check the obituary tacked to his wall. Not that it really mattered.
He heard the soft rumble of an engine and looked to the end of Florence Street, saw the white van—the one shelter staff used on the coldest nights to bring people in off the streets—bouncing down the ice-rutted road toward him. He thought of the red VW bus that he’d loved to bomb around town in, strangers giving him the thumbs up and shouting “Hey, Z” because his long hair and long beard made him look like Billy Gibbons—guitarist and lead vocalist for ZZ Top. He’d loved that van; he’d used it to take his family on camping trips for years, and he’d been shocked to find it torched one night in the parking lot of the local pool hall.
The white van crunched to a halt, and Brent moved from the curb to the rear door on unsteady legs, easing himself into the first row of seats behind the driver, wincing with the pain of a fractured femur that he’d left to heal without help from a doctor. The driver, clutching a coffee mug the size of a 40-ounce Schlitz, looked young enough to be in high school but had probably just graduated from college; Brent didn’t judge age well, hadn’t seen his children grow up, and so couldn’t use them as a gauge for comparison.
From behind his ever-present dark sunglasses, Brent watched the young man slide his eyes to the rear view mirror to take the measure of his first passenger. Brent wondered what the kid had studied in school, grunted a single derisive half-laugh over the notion of a hotshot college graduate getting paid minimum wage to spend his days driving day laborers around the city.
Brent heard the young man clear his throat, a weak, tentative gesture that Brent guessed was a prelude to awkward conversation. Brent’s throat ached for want of a drink and his hands twitched in his lap, anxious to hold a cigarette. He had no patience for making small talk, and so he turned in his seat and pretended to be engrossed by the passing sights. In truth, his thoughts were lost to remembering a winter day from a different lifetime, a morning when he’d shoveled his driveway then played in the snow with his children. His face shifted from a neutral canvas to stone etched with fury, his right cheek glistening with a tear track that disappeared into red whiskers.
He had lost count of exactly how many years he’d lacked a permanent address. Depends if you counted crashing out in basements and spare bedrooms (usually little more than an oversized closet with a soiled mattress thrown on the floor) for several months as permanent.
He’d learned fast that one has to put aside dignity and expectations of privacy and physical safety when drifting along and camping out. It didn’t help that several years ago he’d started walking like a stroke victim, or someone with palsy, sometimes stiff, sometimes dragging, always embarrassing. The doctor had said he had noro, neropa—neuropathy. That was it, neuropathy—something about too much alcohol messing up the connection between his brain and his legs. It was his legs more than anything else—more than being stabbed in the back while sleeping under Casco Bay Bridge, more than the prospect of having a permanent address where his children could contact him—that had forced him off the streets and into a room at Logan Place.
But having a room didn’t keep him from needing to go out at least once a week on a beer run. He used a cane when he had to, learning the hard way that a strong wind could topple him when he was carrying a full backpack. He used to take the bus, but that was before his legs got so bad. Once he was no longer able to control his gait, the bus drivers had taken to eyeing him with more than the usual dose of hostility and suspicion. A few months back he’d actually been kicked off the bus.
“No drunks on my bus,” the driver had said, and Brent had looked at this man confused, hit full in the face by the stale musk rolling off the mounds of flesh that sat belted into the throne of the driver’s seat, meaty hands gripping the steering wheel with an air of almost comical authority.
“I ain’t drunk,” Brent growled. The driver had blocked the aisle with an arm the size of Brent’s thighs, and Brent had turned and moved down the bus steps without a word. He’d sent an arc of spit onto the bus door as it closed, an effort that had sent him into a coughing spasm that left him banging on his chest.
Today he had a ride to the job site, so he didn’t need to worry about catching a bus. The company that hired out day laborers had agreed to take men from Logan Place whenever possible and had agreed to send a van over to pick them up, since none of the residents had motorized transportation of their own. A few had bicycles, but most had only their feet, which were exhausted from years of walking the streets.
Twenty minutes after Brent had been picked up by his college-graduate chauffeur, the van was full and had carried them across Casco Bay Bridge to the peninsula in South Portland, where five round barrels the size of small houses stored oil. Today they’d be shoveling snow off these oil tanks. Shovels had been provided, but nothing else.
Brent worked on a barrel with Jorge, an El Salvadorian who spoke and shoveled steadily and deliberately, stopping only occasionally to unscrew a thermos and gulp down some coffee. Typical of most migrant workers who ended up taking meals at Portland’s Preble Street Homeless Shelter, Jorge had raked blueberries downeast during the summer, picked apples in central Maine in the fall, then hitched to western Maine where he’d made wreaths through the holidays.
Brent’s only surprise was that the man hadn’t gone home to see his wife and kids—most of the migrant workers with families climbed onto a bus heading south at the end of wreath season. Brent had spoken little in the past hour, and Jorge had stopped trying to make conversation and had fallen to singing softly, songs with words Brent didn’t understand but with a tenor of sadness that was unmistakable.
“Why don’t you go home to see your family?” Brent asked, pausing in his shoveling to pull a handkerchief from the back pocket of his blue jeans.
“Not this year,” Jorge said with a shrug. “Not enough money to get there and back again. Besides, it would only upset mis hijos to see me go.”
Brent noted the tenderness that crept into Jorge’s voice when he spoke of his sons and felt a flicker of compassion for a father missing his children. He considered asking Jorge something more about the boys—their names or ages maybe, but Jorge had turned away and was bringing his shovel down hard into a bank of snow and ice that looked unlikely to be moved without aid of a pick-ax.
“Besides,” Jorge said, turning briefly to look over his shoulder, “in another few months I have to be in Georgia to pick peaches, so it would be a waste of time and money to go. I’ll see them next winter. I promised them I’d be home next Christmas.”
The men grunted with the exertion of pounding away at the ice-encrusted snow; neither wore gloves, and their fingers were red and throbbing. For an hour they continued without talking. Brent was the first to toss his shovel aside. He pulled his arms out of the sleeves of his jacket, like a turtle pulling its head into its shell, to warm them against his torso.
The jacket was a Carhartt and was two sizes too big, taken from Al’s room shortly after he’d died. Al had known he would die sooner rather than later, and he had told Brent that when the time came Brent should take whatever he wanted—the cat, the spud-juice, his clothes, whatever. Al was a crippled ’Nam vet with a strong taste for vodka and women, and Brent didn’t know which habit was most directly responsible for Al’s death.
Brent drank beer, not vodka—that shit would kill you easy—and he took only the coat, leaving the cat for Charlotte, the woman who lived across the hall from Brent, the woman who was certain that Sammy Davis, Jr. was her father and that the government, at Davis’s direction, had brainwashed her and covered her real face with a permanent, undetectably false face—the one she presented to the world. Charlotte belonged at Spring Harbor, no question, but she wasn’t violent or suicidal, and Spring Harbor couldn’t use their limited space for the likes of her. The cat would keep her company, which would keep her out of Brent’s room, which she often wandered into looking for items to relocate to her own room.
Standing on the oil tank with Jorge, Brent had tucked his hands into his armpits, and now he could feel the painful tingling of blood circulating through his fingers.
“You got a smoke?” Brent called to Jorge, who had moved out of sight. Brent could see a stream of yellow arching into the air, steam rising from the heat of the man’s piss.
Jorge said nothing until he’d zipped up and come back around the platform to where Brent stood stomping his feet.
“It’s fucking cold up here, man,” Jorge said, rubbing the palm of one hand in a slow circle over his bright red nose, then pulling his other hand out of his jacket pocket and rubbing his cheeks, also glowing red with the cold.
Brent said nothing, figuring a statement of the obvious didn’t call for a response and no longer being interested in Jorge other than to bum a cigarette from him. He didn’t know if Jorge hadn’t heard him or was ignoring him. He had enough pride not to ask again; he’d take dignity where he could find it, and he had never been one for begging.
He looked across the bay, to the line of office buildings on Commercial Street, buildings where men and women wearing suits and carrying briefcases, some looking frantic, some looking arrogant, scurried in and out all day. He’d heard that his oldest daughter worked in a law firm in Portland’s Old Port, wondered if she was inside of one of those brick monsters even now. Wondered if she’d want to see him.
Oversized wreaths, probably as wide as he could stretch his arms, hung from each building, red bows uniformly cheery—something the city had done in late November to lure shoppers away from the mall and down into the brick store fronts.
As if from a great distance away, Brent heard somebody call his name, and he turned his head to see Jorge extending a cigarette toward him.
“You want?” Jorge asked, waving the cigarette in the air like a conductor wielding a ludicrously small baton.
Brent looked directly at Jorge, noticing the small icicles that had formed on the man’s moustache.
“Thanks, man,” Brent said, pushing his arms back through his sleeves and taking the cigarette. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a book of matches his girlfriend had stolen from the Holiday Inn where she cleaned rooms on the weekends. He thought of Barbara and wondered where she was today. She’d been kicked out of Logan Place last night for throwing a beer can at another resident’s head—not the first time she’d pulled a stunt like that.
Staff had given her 24 hours to pack and get out but she’d left immediately, stopping only to retrieve the dented beer can from the far side of the room. She’d roared out into the night and zigzagged down the street into the blackness, screaming over her shoulder that Jane, the head staffer, could go fuck herself and bark at the moon.
Brent figured Barbara had really blown it—probably wouldn’t be allowed to move back in this time. He’d miss her cooking and the sex and maybe even the fighting. And he’d miss the loot she brought to him. She kept him supplied with matches and the used soaps and shampoos that she took from the guest rooms. Sometimes she scored half-full bottles from the mini-bars of rooms she cleaned, and occasionally she pocketed items left behind by careless guests—eyeglasses, electric shavers, an unopened bottle of wine. Just last week she’d found a pair of men’s silk pajamas—gray, and size medium, wrapped in the bed sheets, and when she’d presented them to Brent she couldn’t stop herself from detailing the trouble she’d gone to in bringing the pajamas into a respectable condition.
“I just locked the door of the room I was cleaning and scrubbed the pajama bottoms out in the sink. Looked like whoever wore them things creamed in ‘em before he thought to take ‘em off. It wasn’t nothing my Clorox and some scalding hot water couldn’t fix though.”
“No shit,” Brent had said, sitting in the recliner that he and Barbara had found in a dumpster that summer and wheeled back to her room using two shopping carts and some cleverly tied rope.
Brent didn’t keep a regular sleep schedule, and he certainly did not change into pajamas before he went to bed, but he didn’t want Barbara to think he didn’t appreciate her effort. Still, he’d thrown the pajamas under Barbara’s bed while she washed their supper dishes, and they’d both forgotten about them entirely.
He had a drawer full of matchbooks from the Holiday Inn, and he wished now that he had brought an extra book with him, since he’d already gone through five matches trying to light the cigarette Jorge had given him. Finally one caught and held a flame, and he cupped a cracked and calloused hand around the trembling flame and sucked on his cigarette until he was certain it was lit.
He’d had to buy the cheapest brand of rolling papers the last time he’d gone to Joe’s Smoke Shop, and he was disappointed with their quality; they didn’t roll well, didn’t hold together along the seam he moistened with his tongue, didn’t burn well. With the money he earned from today’s job he could buy a carton of smokes and a case of cheap beer.
A breeze had started blowing in off the ocean, and the thin strands of Brent’s blond hair and the tips of his matted red beard blew sideways, like the telltales on a sail.
“It’s George, you said?” Brent refused to use the correct pronunciation of the man’s name, figuring he was in the U.S. now and should act like it. But the nicotine had sent a surge of happiness through him, and he suddenly felt friendly, garrulous even.
Jorge was busy lighting his own cigarette, and he didn’t look up or respond. Brent took Jorge’s silence as a personal insult.
“Where you from, son?” Brent asked, guessing the man was close in age to his own son, somewhere in his early thirties. Still, he did not use the word with any sort of affection; if anything, it was a challenge. Anger rose up in him almost constantly, and if not anger then sorrow, and since he didn’t have the means to drown either of those feelings out just then they were leaking out of him, toxic bilge.
“Jorge,” the man replied, not looking at Brent. “From Central America. Yo soy El Salvadorian.” Brent stared hard at the man from behind his dark glasses, unimpressed that Jorge had reverted to his thickest accent, as if his foreignness gave him permission to be a dick.
“I am from El Salvador,” he repeated slowly, as if Brent were a half-wit and couldn’t understand him. Brent decided he would ignore this.
“My youngest daughter is from there,” Brent said casually, as if he’d just told Jorge that on Wednesdays the shelter served corned beef casserole and whole wheat dinner rolls, which in fact it did.
“De verdad?” Brent watched Jorge’s eyebrows shoot up in surprise.
Brent pulled the cigarette from his mouth and wiped the back of his hand across his moustache and down the length of his beard, pulling loose the icicles that clung there. His beard had been a permanent fixture on his face since he’d lost his job with the railroad and no longer had to shave. The lay-off had been nearly simultaneous with the finalization of his daughter’s adoption paperwork. What a piece of shit luck that had been.
Brent looked at the short man whose jet-black hair and dark brown eyes reminded him of his daughter. She would be in her twenties now, and he could not imagine how she might look; he only saw her as the little girl she was when he’d left.
“Serious as a heart attack,” he said. “I’ve got pictures of her at my house,” he said, referring to his efficiency apartment where he stayed rent-free and took meals in the community room whenever he got hungry enough to need more than beer in his stomach.
Jorge said nothing. Brent took a long drag on his cigarette and then flicked it over the guard rail and watched it spin through the air, its burning tip extinguished long before it landed in a snow drift.
The men spent the afternoon working in silence, and when the van arrived at 3:30 to pick them up, they climbed in and sat in separate rows. Brent paid no attention as the van made its rounds, picking up laborers and then dropping them off, three at a city bus stop and the rest, including Jorge, at Preble Street Homeless Shelter.
Jorge climbed out last and before he slid the door shut he called in to Brent, “Hey, take care of that El Salvadorian daughter of yours. Anything that comes out of that country is a gift from God.”
Brent started to tell the man to go fuck himself, that he didn’t need anyone telling him how to take care of his kids, but the van door slid shut with a thud and his words trailed off mid-sentence. The driver kept his eyes fixed on the dashboard.
Back in his room, Brent looked at the calendar he’d tacked to the wall near his bed. It was Friday, a bad night to try to reach his children. He thought about waiting for Sunday, the day he usually called them, but he knew that this Sunday the Patriots were playing at 4:00 and he didn’t want to miss what was supposed to be a close game against the Colts.
He found one of the calling cards his oldest daughter had sent to him and slid it into his pocket for safekeeping. His children smiled at him from pictures taped to the refrigerator, and when he opened the door to pull out a beer, their faces slipped past him in a blur.
Finding no beer in the fridge, he rummaged behind the trash bag of empties that he’d shoved under the sink, looking for the six-pack of Guinness that a friend had recently given him in exchange for being allowed to crash on Brent’s floor for a few weeks.
Brent had planned to trade the beer for something more to his taste, but now he would have to chew his way through it. The thick ale was warm but he didn’t care; he drank his beer cold or warm, fizzy or flat—he didn’t even taste it anymore. Didn’t even like it. Just needed it, was all.
“One beer” he promised the children who smiled at him from the refrigerator door.
“Only one,” he mumbled, making his way on unsteady legs to the edge of his bed, where he lowered his aching body onto the mattress.