Used to be, I carried a book-plan around in my head. How’d it get there? Well, our brains masticate experience --- chew it up, turn it over, re-work it. Turn it into paste, spread it on bread. An idea forms, a picture of Christ on toast. Sometimes an idea becomes a righteous cause. ‘This ought to be a book,’ you say.
So where did this idea come from?
Well, I was in residential carpentry back then.
Hammers and nail-guns shot spikes into the yellow pine. Whap, whap --- the sound of new housing construction. The air was filled with a fresh new-wood smell. We strapped our tools on, limbered our bodies up, set up the sawhorses and scaffolds, marked the 2x’s and cut them, ate wrapped sandwiches for lunch, then in the afternoon we might find ourselves in the Zone, where the body strikes at the speed of thought, and every move you make is like Bruce Lee at his best --- you zip along in clarity, conquering all. A red haze hangs over everything, your blood-soul fills the air like a genie. Finally, you swing down from the rafters, drop to the floor: the creaky sated slowness is starting to catch up with you. “Roll ‘em up!” goes the call. The air is cool, the sun hides in the West. You take a last sip from the big water-cooler.
Pine woods surrounded our trucks --- ragged remnants, half-bulldozed. Start your engines.
Stories were told, as we drove away, or sat on the bundled lumber: stories of people we’d worked with, stories --- everybody had one --- of terrible accidents, or girlfriends, or bosses who never paid. In those years of riot and plenty, when oil money rained down and work sprouted up everywhere, an army of men streamed in from everywhere to answer the call of the Paycheck; rootless, they might shift from offshore platform work to residential carpentry to downtown skyscraper construction: just guys who liked to put their bodies into the job, who liked being out in the wind and the sun, and had an affinity for tools. Job-hopping, it was like the Wild West. You could quit one job, find another, easy.
We worked in the country, we worked in the town.
One day, watching a cherry-picker that had levered too close to a transformer --- the men aboard panicking as the electricity arced and lightly fried them --- the man beside me reminisced about his uncle who had carried a metal rod and brushed against something he shouldn’t have --- the electricity blew a hole in his leg as it exited. He lost some fingers too. Then he told me about his workmate crossing from the pier to the ship on, of all things, a ladder --- a lurch, and down he went --- someone found his body half a mile down the channel. I myself had once been trapped in an attic, my foot on a pipe as my chest touched a power line that had lost its insulation --- the rattling voltage had paralyzed my muscles. But part of me was out of the immediate pathway of the current and using these muscles I pulled myself free. “Might have found you like a fried rat up there,” the boss chuckled.
Then there was the load of pipe come loose & dumped on the highway.
Or the guy who met a girl at a dance hall, took her home, and in two days, while he was at work, she called a moving van and stole all his furniture.
It seemed to me that these stories of the horrific and the comic might be collected and woven into a narrative. I would put three guys, a boss and two helpers, on a simple homebuilding job; craft the guys carefully, give them girlfriends or wives, have them tell their stories as they sit and eat or knock the nails in, tell the stories in a round-robin like the travelers in the Canterbury Tales, while the house gets built. Maybe at the end I could have someone fall off the roof and break his thigh --- the investor, hopefully.
To gather the material I’d use not only my own memories; I’d circulate among the residences where the old carpenters and oil-riggers still hung out --- chiefly AA houses --- and pay them for their tales, pay them based on how many lines their stories contributed. I knew that time was short, because these men’s work had been rendered obsolete by the downtown’s completion and by low-wage Mexican competition, and they were quickly disappearing. One of my old helpers recently died an alcoholic’s death, another one was taken by leukemia. What stories they had, you wouldn’t believe! Deranged practical jokes, digging up a Mexican graveyard, a mangled man’s last cigarette.
But that project along with others had to be left undone. Now it drifts out there in the ether, a ghost-project, my informants dead, the rest scattered --- what a tale the guy with the $200,000 settlement could have given us! He spent a year in Hawaii and then returned to work for me hanging sheetrock. He’d seen three of his workmates killed in a single accident --- a fifty-story fall --- and only escaped by the most unlikely of chances.
Across the street from me one day a man was driven into the earth by a load of corrugated metal that tipped and slid.
Another, dawdling his pneumatic gun, shot himself through the scrotum. Nailed to the wooden beam, he sat there grinning.
So the ghost-book never took flesh. Spectral and yearning, it whispers to me sometimes, haunts me. I could write a spook story about the netherworld of books that never got written, a limbo where they drag their rags about and try to impress each other with their now-gone prospects. A dark willow hangs over the river where the books congregate and sometimes catch sight of the king of them all: Ralph Ellison’s Sunraider tome, a lonely monarch who has too little in common with the rest but sits down for a moment nevertheless out of noblesse oblige, then moves on. Half of him rests in the world of men, half forever shambles through limbo.
And then there were the works of the Roman writers scraped clean from the parchment so the monks could copy the Bible. O mourn, people!
Oil-rigging accidents were the worst. Possibly the drilling companies preferred to hire men who had no families, maybe even were on the run, because no one would demand death benefits after the spinning chain took off half his head: just . . . send him back for a closed-casket burial.
But the broiling world of human need and financial necessity was always more pressing on me than hypothetical book-writing. I had discovered I was a natural parent --- good at it, liked doing it --- but creating a stable relationship that enabled me to exercise this talent was a problem. Life was a churning mess. Book-writing --- lonely and unremunerative --- was not a high priority, only a dream. Nevertheless, my typewriter was a frequent refuge. In the end, though, I left the world of construction. I keep my truck and tools and still fantasize a covert return. And when I meet another construction guy, his conversation might be tedious, but I know he is my brother. The feeling is there, right in the middle of my chest. We understand the same things. Fist bump, bro. Let’s go find a job.