Real Work

David Armand

     
   

When I was fifteen or sixteen, I moved out of my abusive home and away from my alcoholic father for several weeks, during which time I lived with friends, hitchhiking rides from school to various places where I was staying or to various jobs where I was working. For a couple of weeks during the Christmas break, I lived with a good friend’s older sister and her husband in their mobile home, which was squeezed into a crowded trailer park in Abita Springs, Louisiana. There were probably about forty trailers in rows of ten or twelve, each one no more than eight feet away from its neighbor. You could stand on the back porch, if you had one, and see right into the next person’s windows. People fought constantly, and their fights would often spill out into the grassless lots, which were strewn with rusty bikes and old children’s toys. A couple of abandoned cars provided refuge for the diapered babies who seemed to wander among the chaos like rats in a maze.

To pay my room and board there, I worked with my friend and his brother-in-law hanging drywall. We woke up in the mornings when it was still dark outside, tried to shake off our hangovers, and we walked out into the freezing cold and squeezed into the little pick-up truck that took us to our job. We stopped at Burger King or McDonald’s for coffee and then drove in silence, the country music low in the background as the tires rolled along the blacktop, the often-desolate landscape spooling out around us.

Nobody usually said much of anything that early in the morning, but once, Charles, our foreman, pointed out a trailer back in the woods as we were driving to the construction site where we were working that day. He told us when he was about fifteen or sixteen, he stayed in that trailer with an older woman—she was probably in her late twenties or early thirties at the time, he said—while the woman’s husband worked offshore on one of the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. He was expected to be gone for two weeks.

“But for some reason,” Charles said, “this dude came home early. Found me in his house with his old lady and beat the shit out of me. I’ll never forget that.”

My friend and I listened and watched the trailer that Charles was telling us about disappear into the woods as we drove farther and farther down the road.

“I tell you what, though,” Charles said, “I tried to fight him back, but I couldn’t make my damn hands into fists. You ever have that happen? When it’s too early in the morning or too cold outside and you can’t make a good fist?”

I tried to make a fist with my right hand to see what he was talking about, but my fingers—he was right—just wouldn’t close all the way.

“You always gotta be ready to fight,” he said. “Even if it’s in the morning, just grab you a bat or something, man.”

***

There was a sort of hierarchy that existed in that job: the newest person (me, in this case) was constantly picked on and ridiculed. I couldn’t do anything right. My measurements were always wrong, I climbed up the scaffolding wrong, I held my tools wrong, I was the one who dented the sheetrock when we carried it down a studded corridor, squeezing past the tufts of pink insulation pulled taut in places by the still-exposed wires and PVC pipes. It was constant, the criticism, but I couldn’t quit, couldn’t let them see they bothered me. In my case, even at fifteen years old, I was working to support myself and to have a place to live.

My hands hurt, my head hurt, I was tired, but still at the end of the day I was expected to go back to that trailer and keep up with everyone else in how much alcohol I consumed, how much pot I smoked, how much partying I did and crude jokes I told. And the next morning we would do it all over again. It was perseverance in the darkest sense. My other choice was to go back home and face my father, whom I knew had been looking for me. I was afraid of what he might do when he finally found me.

Then one night he did.

We had all been drinking, and he pulled up to the bald lot in front of the trailer and dumped all of my belongings into the yard. It had just rained so my clothes and books were soggy when I finally came outside to collect them. My dad never came inside or tried to talk to me. I was glad for that, at least.

My friend and his sister helped me to drag my clothes inside, and we stuffed everything into the dryer, even though they still had mud and dirt on them from being in the yard. The guitar my dad had tossed was broken, its neck dangling from the now-loose strings like a broken bone. We threw that away. The only other thing I had, besides my books, was an old IBM Selectric typewriter. It weighed twenty-five pounds, and it smelled strongly of the oil that I had used to lubricate the keys. Now it had water and clumps of grass inside of it, so I counted it as another loss and pitched it into the Dumpster along with my ruined guitar. I left the books out on the porch to dry.

I lived in that trailer for another week or so, hanging drywall every day, until the Christmas holidays were over and I had to go back to school. I went back home to live with my parents—I just couldn’t do it on my own anymore—and my dad actually seemed glad I had worked hard during the break. He didn’t say anything about me not being home for nearly a month as I went into my room with a couple of Walmart bags filled with my clothes and books. He never asked about the typewriter or guitar. Things like that, and what they were used for, had no purpose in his world.

***

Before I finally went to college, I floated by with a number of different jobs: dishwasher, caretaker in a park, and a stint in a factory belonging to Toland Enterprises, where I pressed designs onto flags, rugs, and mats for eight hours a day. I got that job during the first summer after I finished high school. By this time, my dad had lost his own job as an electrician. He had been drinking during his lunch breaks, missing whole days of work, showing up late. He had some serious jail time hanging over him for multiple DWIs, and I had to help out my family with the bills. It was the best I could do.

This was probably the hardest job I ever had. I worked from 4 P.M. until 12:30 in the morning.  It was in the middle of the summer, and the factory was cooled by large fans that only served to move stale, hot air around, never actually cooling anything off. The ink from the large presses made the air feel burnt and thick.  It hurt your throat and lungs.  Those hot machines burned your fingers and the dark ink stained your skin.

My job in that factory was to stand in front of one of those large metal presses and place blank pieces of fabric onto a brown, rubber-matted surface, and then hold down the wooden handle of the machine for about thirty seconds until an image was stamped onto the material. I used a stencil, and every so often, I had to replace the stencil with a new design.

I was responsible for making things like American flags, oversized sunflowers with a tiny gray kitten poking out from between the bright green stems, a “Welcome” sign, and one that said, “Life is Better at The Lake.” I wondered who bought these things, and I would fantasize about the kind of life one must have in order to appreciate something like this.  

The machine became hotter over the course of my shift. It radiated heat, and steam emanated from its sides each time I pressed the lid down. The thing seemed alive, angry. A couple of times I burned my fingers on it. I envied the man whose job it was to use a forklift to move empty boxes into a trash compactor that was as big as a Dumpster. I thought if I stayed here long enough, though, I could do his job. Anything would be better than standing in front of this machine all evening and into the night.

***

We had a thirty minute, unpaid lunch break, but we weren't allowed to leave the premises to eat. I never planned ahead enough to bring my own food, so after I clocked out, I sat in the wainscoted break room and ate peanuts from a vending machine. I drank water because it was free. I drank cold, stale coffee from a Styrofoam cup while some of the other workers slept with their heads resting on their arms on the long picnic table in the middle of the break room.

One night I was working next to an older man named Ted. You had to keep count of how much you produced. If your numbers didn't increase or you didn't meet a certain quota each night, you were let go. So Ted was trying to help me get my quota up on this particular night.

He told me about how he had three daughters and how his wife had left them all one day. Just packed up and left. He said he was working this night job to keep up with all of the bills. He worked as a mechanic during the day.

“When do you sleep?” I asked him.

He looked at me and laughed. “I don’t,” he said.

I thought about my dad at home, not working, lying on the sofa with a Budweiser in his lap, a cigarette burning in the ashtray on the coffee table. Watching movies. I told myself I wanted to be like this man here: enduring, strong, steadfast. Ted was a father who would do anything for his kids.

But not all of the workers in the plant were like Ted. Some were temporary employees placed here by a temping agency, others were just drifting from job to job. People walked out mid-shift every day. They just left. They got into their cars, and they pulled away.  The foreman never told these employees anything, he was so accustomed to this happening.

Once this guy Curtis walked out to the parking lot during his lunch break and started ambling around his car. I had stepped out of one of the large bay doors for a cigarette and could see him standing there, then milling around a bit. He was looking back at the warehouse and I could tell he was thinking about leaving. I think I was the only person watching him. After a minute or two, he just got in his car and started it up. A couple of people laughed, maybe one or two even clapped for him, and then he pulled out into the gravel road in his dirty white Honda Civic. It was dusk by then. I could see his taillights coming together into a single point of light as he went down the road. The dust cloud his wheels kicked up behind him turned red before settling back down over the long weeds in the ditch.

            I left that evening, and each one after it, feeling exhausted and numb. Then I woke up one afternoon and decided I wasn’t going to go in that day, nor any day after. I had to find something else.

No one from that place ever called to see where I was, to ask if I was coming back or not. I simply received a check in the mail for the hours I had put in. I knew I had done nothing for them that couldn’t be done as well or better by someone else.

***

A couple of years later I got a job as a draftsman. It was in an air-conditioned office and I was able to sit the whole time while I worked up mechanical and electrical designs using an AutoCAD program: I got this job only because my grandfather was the president of the company, an engineering firm he had run since before I was born, and he was willing to pay me to learn. I was given the job if I promised I would go back to school while I worked there, which I eventually did, earning two degrees in English and Creative Writing.

Now I am a teacher and the author of five books. I still can’t believe it. All of them contain a biographical sketch on the back flap which lists my work as a drywall hanger, a factory worker, and a draftsman. To me, it is important to remember this, that writing is a human endeavor, and that people who have once done real work can also make books. Faulkner worked in a boiler room at Ole Miss. Larry Brown was a firefighter. Stephen King worked in an industrial laundry. 

Writing is nothing mystical, nothing done by an elusive force. It is just another form of work, one that requires patience and perseverance and diligence, one that requires the endurance of pain and real experience. My hope is perhaps someone will read about me on the back of one of my books and realize, as I did a while back, that there is not always a clear path from one point of being to another. It is a tenuous strand of events, a tightrope walk that requires the utmost faith in the power of simple kinesis.

It is important to me that I worked hard, and at various things, before all of these books could be made. It is important that I still hold those values of perseverance and hope and diligence no matter what I do in my life. It is important we all work for something bigger than ourselves, and that it is our work, in whatever form it may take, that ultimately keeps us alive and even immortal. It is important there is meaning and hope to be found in those sometimes dark and awful places where we toil away and suffer Adam’s eternal curse.

 

     
   
  return to nonfiction
 

David Armand was born and raised in Louisiana. He has worked as a drywall hanger, a draftsman, and as a press operator in a flag printing factory. He now teaches at Southeastern Louisiana University, where he also serves as associate editor for Louisiana Literature Press. In 2010, he won the George Garrett Fiction Prize for his first novel, The Pugilist's Wife, which was published by Texas Review Press. His second novel, Harlow, was published by Texas Review Press in 2013. David's third novel, The Gorge, is forthcoming this fall from Southeast Missouri State University Press. He has a chapbook, The Deep Woods, coming out later this year from Blue Horse Press; and his memoir, My Mother's House, is forthcoming Spring 2016 from Texas Review Press. David lives with his wife and two children and is working on his sixth book, The Lord's Acre.