Pay Dirt

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October, 2002

The apartment consisted of one room; two if you count the bathroom. If it had been located in an up-and-coming neighborhood, or over a popular bar, or dressed up with hardwood floors and fancy appliances, people might have called it a “studio.” But it was far from being a hip, or cool, or modern bachelor pad that might warrant such a fancy name. Rather, Chris’ apartment was a small dry-walled cube decorated only with left over take out containers.

A normal sized person could barely fit in the bathroom, and the kitchen could only be described as an eye sore that destroyed all ambiance in the living room, or was it the bedroom? There were no any pictures hung, no lamps, no flowers, no knickknacks, no decorations of any kind. All four walls were painted flat white. There was a futon, a coffee table, and an old television on top of a cardboard box. The television antenna was made of tin foil and pieces of old clothes hangers. But Chris didn’t care. He didn’t mind the small size. The apartment was home. Besides, it’s all he could afford, and he wouldn’t be there long. His days in the place were numbered.

At 3:50am the clock screamed “BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP.” Chris was not a morning person. He cracked his eyes open and wondered how many times he’d already smacked the snooze button. Deciding the contraption had not had enough punishment yet, Chris reached his arm out and pounded on it once more.

The clock screamed again. Chris rolled over and squinted at the bright red digital numbers to check the time. “Shit”, he shouted, as he realized how long he’d overslept. This was Chris’ routine: pound on the alarm, oversleep, curse himself for getting up late. He jumped out of bed and darted to the bathroom to brush his teeth.

“Son-of-a,” he yelled as he kicked the coffee table with his right foot, jamming the leg of the table between his two smallest toes.

Five minutes was all Chris needed to get out of the apartment door and start driving to the park-and-ride. His boss, Willy was use to Chris’ routine. But that didn’t make Chris feel any better about it. Especially since Chris’ time with the big man was running out. He’d hoped to impress his boss before he was taken away.

Chris’ clothes were old and sloppy. It was difficult to find a spot unstained with dried paint, caulk, PVC glue, green pipe sealant, or remnants of a past lunch. His boots were the cheapest ones he could find at Walmart. They hurt his feet. His jeans were faded and the bottoms of them were frayed. He wore multiple layers to keep warm during the winter. He couldn’t care less about how he looked.

Driving in the vicinity of Chris was never boring. He cursed loudly out the window at slow drivers. He yelled pointlessly at traffic lights. He leaned on his horn if someone, even an old lady with a walker, tried to cross the street in front of him. It was a miracle he made it to the park-and-ride without killing someone.

Willy was always there, waiting in the far corner of the parking lot. Chris jerked his second hand BMW to a halt in the spot next to where Willy was standing. Willy stuck his head out of the driver’s window of his car and yelled, “It’s about damn time!” The greeting made Chris smile. He was going to miss it.

Willy was a tall, burly man in his mid-thirties. His look was as unchanging as the face of a mountain: a five o’clock shadow, short dark hair, strong chin and broad shoulders. Willy’s hands were huge, each finger was as thick as two average sized fingers. He wasn’t fit, but he was freakishly strong and had an ungodly high tolerance for pain. Chris had seen the brute injure himself on multiple occasions, but then continue working as if nothing had happened. These attributes combined with his heavy forehead made Willy a shoe-in for a role on television as a caveman.

Chris hopped out of his car, and grabbed his tools from the back seat. In his hurry, he flung his hammer under the car next to him. “Ugh” he mumbled to himself, as he laid down on the asphalt to retrieve it.

Willy stuck his head out of the window again. “This is no time for a nap. You can sleep in the car. Get up off the ground. And don’t forget that we’re doing groundwork today. You forgetting something?”

Chris turned around and walked back to his car. He fumbled in his pocket for his keys. He knew exactly what Willy wanted him to have. He struggled to get his trunk unlocked. The key had to go in just right or the car would refuse to open. In frustration, Chris whacked the lid with both hands and yelled, “Damn this car!”

“Take a breath and slow down,” Willy called. “But hurry your ass up. We’ve got to go.”

Chris breathed. Then he tried the key again. He felt it click into place. The trunk swung open and maneuvered the shovel out of the car. With the tool in hand, he walked back to Willy’s truck and threw everything into the bed. Climbing into the cab Chris asked, “Why do I need to bring a shovel, if you already have three in the bed of your truck?”

Willy put the truck in gear and began to drive out of the parking lot. “Because those are my shovels. Not your shovels. Every good construction worker should have his own tools.”

Chris should have known. He had heard Willy’s rants before about how a construction worker should buy at least one tool per paycheck until he had everything that he needed.

The only thing Willy talked about more than tools was the Marines. Willy had hoped to spend his life in the Corps, but he had been discharged after a year for a back injury. Chris thought at that moment about telling Willy what his plans were. He glanced over at the big man and felt a pain of sorrow.

Chris didn’t know if Willy understood, but the man was more than Chris’ boss. He was the first adult who’d given Chris a real chance. Chris started to speak, but Willy turned up the talk radio so he could catch up on his daily dose of politics. Chris sighed and decided he’d tell Willy everything during lunch. “Lunch was a better time to talk,” he thought. Rolling over in his seat, he pulled his sweatshirt hood over his head, leaned against the door, and began his napping routine.

Today’s job site was two hours away. They would be installing the waste line for a new military recruiting office. It was a big project that would take seven months to finish. As he drifted off Chris wondered who Willy would find to take his place.

At five-minutes-to-six Willy punched Chris in the arm. “Wake up!” he yelled in Chris’ ear, causing Chris to lurch in a panic. This sent Willy into an uproar of laughter.

Chris zipped up his jacket and forced himself out of the warm truck and into the cold, crisp air. It was December and still dark outside. A voice came from the trench in the ground they had dug out yesterday, “Hey there feller.”

Chris walked around the corner of the truck and saw Carl’s head poking out of the ditch. No one knew how old Carl was, but they all assumed he was old. His back was hunched, his teeth were all yellowish-grey, and his hair was mostly white. He smoked three packs of unfiltered cigarettes per day and could barely finish a sentence without coughing. He was also an alcoholic and was infamous for disappearing for long periods of time. Willy kept him on the crew because Carl knew everything there was about plumbing. He was their go to guy for pipe work.

“The wind ain’t as bad down here,” Carl said with a laugh and a cough.

Walking down the slope, into the ditch, Chris saw the old man was right. “You weren’t kidding, old-timer,” Chris said.

“Enough chit-chat,” Willy called from the top of the ditch. He tossed the four shovels in and descended into the ditch next to his guys. “Let’s get to digging.”

They worked in silence for the rest of the morning. Twelve-thirty found the three men sitting in a small circle on cinder blocks, as they took their lunch break. Carl magically ate a sandwich and calmly smoked a cigarette at the same time.

In contrast, Willy ate like it was the first meal he’d had in a month. He shoved mounds of chips and bites of sandwiches down his throat. It was like watching trash go down a disposal.

Chris smiled at the two men. “This is a good time,” he thought. “I should tell them now.”

He’d said the same thing to himself every day for the past three weeks. This time he was sure it was going to work. He opened his mouth, but the words didn’t come. It was going to be hard to leave them. They were the closest thing he had to family.

“Good afternoon gentlemen,” a strong voice said from behind Chris. Chris turned around and saw the Marine from the recruitment office. He looked commanding in his dress blue uniform. The Marine wore a white circular dress cap with the short, shiny black bill. His khaki shirt was tucked in tight. Even the creases on his shirt had been meticulously ironed. His blue dress pants were the same. They had red stripes that ran vertically down the outside, center of the pants. The cuffs sat perfectly on the top of his impeccably shiny black shoes. His belt buckle was aligned with the zipper of the pants and the center buttoned flap of his shirt. The belt buckle, the insignia on the front of his cap, and his medals were all spotlessly shined and glistened in the sunlight. He wasn’t the most muscular guy, but he was definitely in shape, with very little body fat. To Chris, the recruiter seemed perfect. Nothing was out of place. He was like a superhero.

“Hey, gunny! Semper Fi!” Willy said loudly and with pride, as he stood up, saluted the recruiter.

“I’m Gunnery Sergeant O’Neil,” the recruiter said, shaking Willy’s hand. I know you guys just started the job, but I wanted to stop by, see how things were going. We appreciate the work you’re doing.”

The Marine was a mystery to Chris. He was confused by how someone could look so intense but relaxed, confident but nice, busy but pristine – all at once. It struck Chris why Sergeant O’Neil had come. Chris cursed himself under his breath for procrastinating.

“Somebody’s gotta do it,” Willy said, with his goofy laugh.

“That’s a fancy uniform you’ve got there,” Carl said, as he hacked. “Sure beats the shit you’re wearing,” the old man said whacking Chris in the leg. Turning back to the Marine Carl added with a hack, “How much did all those fancy medals cost ya?” Chris was confused.

“I thought the government gave those to him?” Chris said. “You’ve got to buy that stuff yourself?”

Carl, Willy, and the Marine laughed. Willy lovingly rubbed the teen’s head. “No, no, no,” Carl started, but was interrupted by a coughing fit. Willy picked up where Carl left off. “He didn’t buy them. He earned them.”

“Those things can be expensive,” Carl said, recovering. He took a long drag of his cigarette and continued. “My brother was in Nam. Came back with a whole bunch of those shiny metals, but left his mind and soul overseas.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” the marine recruiter said sadly. With a smile he did exactly what Chris hoped he wouldn’t. “Mine didn’t cost that much,” he said. Then nodding to Chris he added, “I have no doubt you’ll earn a set just like this one. You ready to ship out?”

Willy and Carl looked at Chris in shock. “What’s he talking about?” Willy said.

“You know how when we started the job I went in to the bathroom,” Chris said staring at his feet. “Yep,” Carl said puffing on his cigarette.

“You were gone for an hour. Willy and I thought you were in there jerking off or something.”

“I was enlisting,” Chris said, choking back tears, afraid they’d be angry, they’d yell at him, they’d feel abandon, they’d tell him it was a big mistake.

“You were what?” Willy said astounded.

The words poured from Chris in a rapid fire of emotion. “I wanted to tell you but I was nervous you’d be upset and all since you gave me this great job. It’s not that I don’t like it. I love working for you and everything, but you’re always talking about your time in the Corps and stuff and so I thought, I need something like that too, you know? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love working with you and everything and I’m really thankful, it’s just, it feels right you know.” The dam burst and tears leaked from his eyes. He waited, looking at the ground, sad he hurt this man who’d given him so much.

“How long do we have until you ship out?” Willy said.

“Two days,” the recruiter replied for Chris.

“Well what in the hell are we doing in this hole,” Willy yelled, smacking Chris on the back. “We should be celebrating! Let’s go get a real lunch. Beer’s on me!”

“Beer!” Carl cheered, jumping up from his seat.

“None for you,” Willy said pointing at the old man.

“Well shit,” Carl said, sitting back down.

Willy wrapped his massive arms around the teen and lifted him up off the ground in a huge hug. “I’m so proud of you,” he whispered in Chris’ ear. A wave of acceptance and joy came over Chris. Willy put Chris down on the ground and looked up at the marine. “You’re more than welcome to join us Gunny,” the big man said.

“Thank you, sir. But I’ll have to say no. I’ve still got work to do today,” Sergeant O’Neil said with a smile. Then nodding to Chris again he said, “I’ll see you in two days. Don’t be late.”

“Oh he won’t be,” Willy said, smacking Chris on the back again. “Now let’s get out of here. We’ve got partying to get to. Our little Chris is joining the Corps.”

Climbing into the truck Chris said, “Hey Willy, you know I’m only nineteen right?”

“Yep,” Willy said as he started the truck. “But don’t tell the waitress that or no beer for you either.”

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