I sat in the pickup, annoyed at the bumps in the gravel road, annoyed at how late the day was, annoyed at the carpentry dust coating every square inch of the cab, and annoyed at the incessant braying of Rush Limbaugh on the AM station.
"It's good to know politics at a young age," Jack, my boss, said.
"But why is he always yelling?"
I guess that was a fair question. And I did like silence. That's what working with a roofin' tomahawk does to you.
Jack would always lean over the toolbox on Friday, glaring down suspiciously at an unsigned check with my name on it. I'd try not to peer over his shoulder as he meticulously counted over the hours on his grimy calculator. It'd be about five-thirty, usually, sun still beating down, that fine dust from the gravel trucks coming off the highway next the Bridgeport bank. Jack would always ask me after presenting a check, without fail- "Well, son, you wanna fight for it?"
"No sir, I done fought enough today." He'd of killed me anyhow, whether I was sixteen or not.
I'd be sitting in the football field lights that night, watching his grandkids play for the local team. Always Jack's treat- he wanted company, I realize now. I'd be thinking while he yelled at the O-line to protect his boy about how much I'd put in the bank, and I'd clutch that bank deposit slip tightly inside a denim pocket.
I'd get home, dropped off again, and I'd lope over to the barn to rinse my face and use pumice soap to mask the smell of cigarettes before going in. Luis and John would give me a handful of Marlboro 100s in the morning- "It keeps the motherfuckin' mosquitos away, puffin' on em." I never learned to inhale tobacco until after my eighteenth birthday.
I'd walk away from the big plastic tub sink, still soaked, and climb into my car, parked next to the tractor. It, too, was coated in dust by now, waiting on one damn kid to put enough roofing money in his savings account. I paid three hundred dollars for that car, and I was getting closer every month to paying my Latino friends in Fort Worth to build me a motor for it. I could taste it. I'd sit behind the wheel, adjust the mirror, and pretend I was shifting gears. Nevermind the fact it was an automatic, I suppose a roofin' hand is a restless one.
And good that it was. It'd be about six o'clock the next morning, while it was still cool, that I'd walk out of an old Allsup's with a bag full of Gatorade bottles and a bootheel coming undone. There'd be conversation, Jack asking me about seminary, about my girlfriend ("She's too old for you, son. Date that girl, Red."), and football. Always football. By then I'd be ready for a day of silence. Or, well, quiet- not counting the sound of a roofin' tomahawk.
A roofin' tomahawk is a teacher, in the most indirect of ways. A roofin' tomahawk demands a steady hand, it demands a steady pace, and it demands, eventually, a steady mind. I reckon I had to learn one way or the other.
Jack, keeping in course with his belief in cheap labor, also wasn't a big spender on tools. That's where the roofin' tomahawk comes in. Most contractors will tell you the easiest, smoothest, and best way of applying felt and shingle to someone's home is with a nailgun. They are absolutely correct in this premise. I, however, in a town containing a Baptist church, a Church of Christ, and a gas station, also worked for a man who believed in using about that many tools. And so, well, that's how I learned roofing, among other things.
Luis and John would show up at my roofing site after Jack would drop me off from the lumber yard. They'd back in an once-white Chevrolet flatbed and start offloading shingle pallets or roofing felt on the ground. I'd set up a ladder after we finished and start hauling them up, learning over time to place them in intervals across the rooftop. Remodeling a house, you never quite know without going into the attic where the rafters and joists are to support that kind of weight, and it's awfully expensive to cave in someone's cathedral ceiling. It wasn't until later that I learned you could ask the owner if you could look in the attic. They didn't mind, once they realized I was a white roofer. I don't know much else to say about that.
I'd get the damn shingle pallets on the roof. My tools were already there; Jack would stick around long enough to make sure I wasn't lollygagging. I'd take my orange Lufkin tape measure, the one my father bought me, and I'd start marking measurements with a big flat pencil. There'd be that small eruption of blue powder, especially in the dry summer, of the chalk snapping a course along the roof, helping the shingles lay out square. And then I'd kneel on that felt, at the altar of silence, and start sinking three nails into every one.
That silence, those morning hours of clarity, well, you learn to not let it drive you mad. I'd think of the garden, or lunch, or [name redacted] being at college. I'd think of how to finish high school, sneak my way through math and science and fucking Texas history unobtrusively. I hated math. I'd just finished Algebra II and convinced my parents to let me out of Advanced. My father compensated, he thought, by teaching me to draw cabinets on AutoCad. I'd smile and nod at the diagrams on his ThinkPad, and hope he'd want to switch to Sierra's golf simulator. Both our characters were modeled to look like Red Green Show characters. And day by day that shingle would seemingly lay itself down.
I'd awake from thought around one o'clock in Jack's living room, CNN on, eating fried chicken and biscuits. The ice in the foam cup of Dr. Pepper would already be near melted. The grocery store deli had shit for food, hell, me and Jack would complain about it daily once we'd thrown the white boxes in the garbage and walked back to his rusty carport. But it was close, gas was almost two dollars a gallon, and there was a roofin' tomahawk to swing. I'd hope I had brought enough Gatorade.
"Pelagius wasn't a heretic like those damned Baptist books say, son." Jack would always start with something like this. He was like a bull with only one red cape on the horizon.
"On my tests he is," I'd retort. Jack was certain of salvation by free will, and I knew of nothing but Calvinism. It's hard to argue with ex-Catholic monk, even if he was so awful he was tossed out of the monastery. It's even harder when you don't know what the fuck you're talking about.
I would almost gleefully ascend the ladder back to the roof. Some days I wouldn't. Shingle can get far too pliable in the Texas summer sun to be walking on, and some days I'd go home early. Going home early doesn't help a teenager put a motor in his car, though.
That following Friday, I was in the football stands, holding my golden ticket to freedom. I'd called her once we got where there was phone reception to let her know me and my father would be towing my car to White Settlement to get a rebuilt motor put in. I'd already written the name of the shop on the first check in a teenager's checkbook. Dale Hansen was at midfield, had even come in on a helicopter to give the graduation speech. Jack was brooding at the speech. I think now that Hansen was very drunk. It didn't matter. I was sure that freedom wasn't in one of the diplomas he began to pass down, or in a classroom of men discussing St. Jude, but it was behind a red ribbon cut down with a roofin' tomahawk.