While we’re taking lunch with the painters, my son Ramon tells Big Dave his job is easier than ours. Something you don’t say to any working man and certainly not to Big Dave. When I was a twenty-three-year-old dumbshit like Ramon, I sat down with
my crew at a Denny’s for an 8:00 p.m. Moons over My Hammy, after a ten-hour day of framing. A scraggly-bearded Mexican bussed our table, and I told him not to strain himself carrying dishes for real working men. My crew laughed through two more coffee refills and three more cigarettes that we smothered in our empty mugs. That Mexican ambushed me in the parking lot, busted one of my teeth. I landed a jab on his right eye, kicked his gut when he fell. I got in my truck and drove home, and that guy went back to work.
But he was small. Big Dave is not. And now Ramon is so worked up he can’t hit a shiner with his nail set, keeps slipping and pounding deeper holes into the baseboard. It’d be painful to listen to him cracking through the wood, except it’s particle board. All sawdust and glue mitered together to look like nice houses instead of the cookie-cutter junk that fills the subdivision. I haven’t sunk a nail through the grain of oak or cherry in over a year. Sometimes I imagine all the good trees have been used up.
“Maybe,” Ramon says to the baseboard, “Big Dave won’t come back to the sub if it’s raining.”
“That could be.” I look through my window trim at gray clouds rolling over the fresh shingles across the street.
“Maybe Big Dave’s so big he’s scared of storms. So big he gets hit by lightning.”
Thunder rattles the panes. Instead of lightning Big Dave jumps in front of the window. A thin layer of glass separates our faces. He’s painting trim outside while we put it together inside. Big Dave and me stare at the same wall on our respective sides, would be shaking hands if not for the sheetrock and studs and siding between us.
Ramon is right about Big Dave being big. Big Dave’s arms are so wide they split shirt sleeves, we guess, because we’ve never seen him wear sleeves. I feel my trim shake against the pressure of his mashing brushstrokes. Big Dave’s so big he can’t find a pair of pants that fit him, flashing ass crack when he bends to jam his four-inch barn-brush into the cutting pot. And Big Dave’s so tough he chews a bent nail to help him quit smoking. I see it through the window, flickering between his lips. The flicker disappears, and since I don’t see him spit the nail out, I’m pretty sure he swallowed it, has a stomach
like a porcupine.
“I’ll just stay out of sight.” Ramon doesn’t look our way. I hear him rip another hole through the base. “Give him time to cool down and deal with it tomorrow.”
“What will you do tomorrow?” I watch Big Dave bite off a few bent bristles from his brush.
There’s always tomorrow, another house, another quarter-acre plot, another slippery tentacle of cookie-cutters made of plastic and glue and vinyl, so little metal and wood like the old days, when I was doing renovations and Ramon’s mama Joni was changing his diapers. Ramon used to chew up the handles on my tools. Ramon’s mama didn’t like that, and I didn’t like his spit rusting up my good hammer. Joni punched me one night, drove my jagged tooth through my lip, after I slapped a Stanley measuring tape out of Ramon’s mouth. I didn’t last much longer as a father after that night.
Now Ramon has got two kids he never sees, two grandkids as imaginary to me as pink ivory wood. Judge wouldn’t even dare an every-other-weekend situation. He has child support to pay, a background that’ll never check out clean since he got busted
with a one-cook two liter for meth snuggled into his kid’s empty car seat. Then there’re the bullshit anger management classes for biting that cop’s neck after they cuffed him. That’s what Joni told me the newspaper said the next day, but they exaggerate. Ramon has always been small, was a quiet and shy kid when I had him on my weekends. Now construction is the only job he can get, and I’m the only dope that would hire him. I needed someone reliable, someone I could count on for every day, and he has proven to be a decent nail bender for the last three weeks. And Ramon needs me, this job, his last
Ramon rises from the corner and stretches his back. Big Dave spots him through the window and stabs the butt of his brush against the pane. He gives Ramon the finger, but Ramon doesn’t see it, and I’m the one who has to face that giant finger pressed against the glass.
“You shouldn’t have talked shit about the painters,” I say.
Telling Ramon what he shouldn’t have done today is as useless as when I told him last week that he shouldn’t mix making babies and making meth. I apologize to Ramon for that one by nailing my window casing home, filling the silent room with the roar of the compressor that drowns out Big Dave’s knocking. Once the compressor dies out, Big Dave has disappeared. The window shows nothing but gray clouds bunched together like knuckles.
“That stupid asshole just swings his brush around out there,” Ramon says. “You gotta agree they got the easiest job in the sub. Anyone can push paint.”
The front door handle rattles and then the door booms, someone kicking outside.
“Why’d you lock the front door?” I say.
“Let’s keep working. Maybe he’ll just piss off.”
Locked doors are for homeowners. Seven to seven, these doors are open to anyone lugging a tool. So I open up, and Big Dave fills the threshold, hands full of rollers and brushes, sandpaper strips curling out his pockets, gallon cans hanging from each pinkie. His eyebrows look like they’re trying to collide, creases in his forehead small rodents could hide inside.
“Should have known it was the Smiley crew,” Big Dave says. “Locking up so you can take naps in the closets?”
And, yes, I named my business Smiley Carpentry because that’s my name and it sounds friendly. Smiley guys are the type of guys you let in your house, maybe even leave them a spare key. But, no, I’ve never napped in a closet, and every one of my guys I caught sleeping in a closet got sent home permanently to sleep in his own bed. That’s the good thing about Ramon. He never sleeps, out late every night and still can swing hammer for fourteen hours. Even when he’s in bed, he growl-snores all night through my paper-thin apartment walls. I don’t let myself worry. Smiley Carpentry will work out for him, and he’ll have his own place and real sleep soon.
Big Dave stomps toward Ramon, and Ramon shrinks back to the base, smacking away, pretending he didn’t notice anyone come in. Big Dave plunks his paint cans behind Ramon, and Ramon flinches each time one drops on the OSB. We pop nails and buzz trim all day. He should be plenty used to loud noises.
“Hey, Dave,” Ramon says when he finally pivots around to face him. “I was just setting the shiners for you.”
“Should I thank you for doing your job?”
Ramon laughs and I shoot a few more nails home, make sure to leave the heads gleaming. “We’ll be out of here in a few hours,” I tell Big Dave. “And then you can get to painting.”
“That’s all right.” He digs his canine into a can of nail filler and cracks it open. “I don’t mind getting chummy with the hardest working guys in the sub.”
“I never said we worked the hardest,” Ramon says, but gets cut off when Big Dave starts whistling. I think it’s a Rush song. We need to buy a radio. A silent house is a tryout for the amateur talent show. Big Dave whistles through a whole set list, not unlike what I’m sure is playing in the other houses: more Rush, Steve Miller Band, AC/DC. He hits the high notes so loud I expect the contact cement to curdle and the laminate on the counters to curl. I pop out twice as many nails as the trim needs, just so the compressor kicks on more often. I cut each board twice, three times, four. Big Dave whistles through the compressor rumble, syncs his notes with the saw’s whine, as if I’m his backup.
Ramon sings along. Quiet and falsetto. Ramon is trying to make nice. My sir, you might not work as hard as a Smiley, but your whistling is infectious.
I finally head upstairs and leave the love birds to jam it out. I’m only up there an hour before I hear Ramon yelling. He has a high and light singing voice, but he roars like someone punched nails through his spine. Now I know why his neighbors in his wife’s apartment complex phoned the cops. It must’ve sounded like a bear loosed in Ramon’s unit when they called in those domestics. I never believed he really had it in him. My skinny kid. Even a small Smiley T-shirt looks too big on him.