Thursday, June 16, 2016

Precarious Configuration

Bailey was never thrilled to come home from work and find me playing video games in my underwear, but this last time was the worst I'd seen. With a hint of despair in her voice, she asked me how my search for a new job was going, and I had to admit to her that I'd forgotten that was what I was supposed to be doing during the day. In my defense, it really hadn't felt like two years since I'd been laid off. Bailey helpfully reminded me of the full extent of my forced sabbatical later that night when she took us out to dinner for our anniversary.

"Surely it hasn't been that long," I said, my voice muffled from the last bite of the chocolate volcano cake.

"Don't you remember?" she said as she signed the bill. "It was on the morning of our third anniversary."

"And this is...?"

"Our fifth. And it's our last if you don't start looking again."

I knew she was just kidding about that last anniversary remark, but Bailey's point was loud and clear. My days as a stay-at-home dad were over (not much a shock, considering we didn't have any kids). I held the door for Bailey and made sure to not get sex wrong later that night.

My first stop the next morning was the mattress factory where I used to work. Maureen, now one of those managers that has an office overlooking the assembly floor, informed me that the factory still didn't need my services.

"That's weird," I said to her as I looked down at the horde of employees. "It looks like more people work here now than before I left."

Maureen changed the subject to the Cardinals' chances of getting into the playoffs and I decided to not think too much about the extra workers manning my old post at the memory foam station. As I left, Maureen promised to let me know if anything opened up.

"Thanks, that's awesome," I said. "I'll just wait to hear back from you before I look elsewhere."

"No, you should still look elsewhere," she said, a bit too intensely.

The trip to my old job left me a bit deflated; Maureen's advice to keep looking had stung a bit. I shook it off, knowing that she only had my best interest at heart. The months that we had worked at the factory together had forged a lifelong friendship. And she likely had Bailey's best interest at heart as well, their being sisters and all.

I drove around town for a while after that, doing my best to concentrate on the type of job I might want. My thoughts kept zeroing in on the idea of ice cream, though I wasn't sure if I wanted to break into the ice cream business or if I just wanted a double-scoop of mint chocolate chip. After some careful consideration, I pulled off to the side of the road to ask Waze to find me an ice cream shoppe. As the application loaded, I looked up and saw the thing that I had been searching for, right there on the corner of Cornish and Doublet.

It was a construction site, one of those bustling assemblies of man and machine hinged in service to some magnificent new structure. I sat there in my car and thought, I could do that. There were dozens of strapping roughneck types swinging hammers, digging ditches, and wheeling wheelbarrows around. They were wearing casual clothes and most of them appeared to be in good spirits, if not exactly cheerful.

The longer that I watched, the more I recognized a crude semblance of a hierarchy. The foundation diggers seemed to be competing with the wheelbarrow operators for lowest rung on the ladder. Above them, hammer and saw tradesmen crafted elegant pieces to the whole. Though their thumbs were under constant threat of an accidental smashing or severing, these tool wielders were obviously more skilled than the others, and likely better paid.

But then I noticed someone off to the side of the manual labor flow and saw my future. He was a gentleman that was just kind of watching over all of the other workers. He'd offer passive requests to the laborers here and there, but nothing too urgent. He certainly did not physically exert himself in the least. This was something I could definitely do.

Waze instructed me to turn left in 1000 feet to begin a quest to a nearby ice cream shoppe. Instead, I discontinued the app and began to devise a plan.

I really wanted that supervisor job, but I knew better than to go up and ask the supervisor for it. He'd surely be as protective of the position as I'd be once it was mine. I began scanning the signs that were posted around the site for a phone number or company name, anything that might aid me in finding the supervisor's boss.

I had my answer after about another hour of watching. A heavyset man wearing a bright green tie and carrying a clipboard approached the supervisor and said a few words to him. My new rival nodded to Green Tie, before relaying some instructions to one of the hammer guys. Green Tie was obviously the boss; I recognized the chutzpah. He checked off a few items on his clipboard and then went into a trailer sitting on the far side of the site. The side of the trailer had "El Dorado Building Company" in large, bold type with a phone number plainly visible underneath. I somehow hadn't noticed it earlier.

I got out of my car and walked through the construction site, past the men that I would soon be supervising. I did my best to walk and behave as though I belonged there, though I overheard several of them commenting to each other that they had seen me "creepily staring at them" from my car. Also, I was likely betrayed somewhat by my cargo shorts and Backstreet Boys t-shirt, which I sometimes wore because I liked their music.

I let myself into the El Dorado trailer, which was kind of a makeshift office, and introduced myself to Green Tie, whose actual name I eventually wrestled from him.

"Fine, it's Barry," he said, a bit irate. "Now will you tell me what you want?"

Offering a fist bump, I told Barry my name and that I was interested in the supervisor position. I estimated that I was more than qualified to watch over the guys that were digging and wheel-barrowing things.

"Maybe not the hammer and saw people," I explained. "Not just yet. But with time I could learn."

Barry was clearly a man that didn't like to rush into important decisions. He looked me over for a moment and then rubbed his chin.

"You're a real go-getter, huh?" he asked me.

"I sure am," I said, deciding Barry needn't know about my habit of playing video games in my underwear.

"That's good," he said. "It's quite a commodity on these jobs. Why don't you come back here tomorrow morning, say 7 o'clock? I think we can find you something to do."

I reminded Barry that I was really only interested in the supervisor position and that I'd be perfect for any of El Dorado's other sites if this one was already plenty supervised. He assured me that the workers at all of their sites appreciated a foreman that spent a little time getting his own hands dirty before throwing dirt onto theirs. There wasn't a mattress factory equivalent to this idiom, so I nodded and told him that I'd be happy to try out a few of the other jobs for a short while.

"That's good to hear. Of course, you'll need work boots," he said, pointing to my sandals. "For insurance reasons, you see."

"Could I borrow a pair from one of the other guys?" I asked, hoping I wasn't also inadvertently asking for some strain of foot fungus.

"Sorry," Barry said. "It's our one rule. You gotta wear boots and you gotta bring your own."

Before I could remark that this sounded like two rules or some sort of compound rule, Barry suprised me by finally returning my fist bump. He then politely asked me to get the hell out of his office trailer. Walking back to my car, I proudly strode past the other construction workers. I didn't need to act like I belonged anymore, because now I did. I got into my car and drove to the nearest mall, where I ate ice cream and spent several hours shopping for a sturdy pair of boots.

Bailey came home from work that night and saw my new work boots sitting by the front door. I had accidentally left the sales receipt on the table where we put our keys and cellphones, and she gasped when she saw the total cost. During my years of between-employment, Bailey and I had agreed to some basic rules about major purchases, most of which I had broken when I bought my new work boots.

"You spent two hundred and thirty six dollars on boots?" she asked. I quickly paused my game and began to put my pants back on.

"Well, I have this new job," I told her. "I'm going to be a foreman. A foreman is kind of like a supervisor for-"

"Yeah, I know what a foreman is," she said, cutting me off. "Why did you need to spend two hundred and thirty six dollars? I could have gotten you work boots for sixty bucks. Maybe less."

I knew which ones she was talking about. Those so-called work boots didn't have steel loops or circumflex technology in the soles, though I doubted Bailey cared about such features. I explained to her that among people that did manual labor all day, boots were a status symbol. They were a way of setting myself apart from the non-foremen, as I wouldn't be the wearing the ties or carrying the clipboards that management did to set themselves apart. I also told her that impressive boots would serve as a good talking point during lulls in conversation, which was almost as important as the other reasons I had given her.

"Well, at least you found a job," she said. "I'm proud of you."

"You're not upset that I didn't think to look for a construction job sooner?" I asked her. Bailey smiled and changed the conversation to a TV show that we had been binge-watching, and I forgot to circle back for a follow-up on the job question. It was a line of questions better left untouched anyway, as I had forgotten to ask Barry what the job paid before I accepted it.

The next day, I promptly arrived back at the corner of Cornish and Doublet at 8 a.m. sharp, forgetting that Barry had asked me to be there at 7. The workers' glances at my footwear informed me that I had made a smart purchase. I let myself into the El Dorado trailer and was several lines into my tardiness apology when I realized that Barry had been replaced.

"I'm not a replacement," Barry's replacement said, after I had referred to him as such a fourth time. "Managers are called to different sites for a number of reasons. However, Barry told me all about you and what you hope to offer the EDBC. My name is Danny."

Off my look, Danny explained that EDBC meant the El Dorado Building Company. I had encountered my first bit of industry jargon in the world of construction. He then escorted me out the trailer office to meet my new supervisor.

"Well, he's technically my supervisor now, but I'll be taking over soon enough," I told Danny as we walked past some of the other EDBC guys.

"Yep, that's what Barry told me you'd say," Danny replied.

The foreman was introduced to me as Monty, but I couldn't think of him as anything except my professional rival, one that I hoped to replace in a way that Danny had apparently not replaced Barry.

"Take good care of him, Monty," Danny said as he left us and went back to the EDBC trailer.

Monty smiled at me for a long time. He appeared to be even friendlier than Barry or Danny. I was secretly thankful to end up in such a courtesy line of work, even though I hoped to ruin Monty professionally by the end of my first week. I decided that I would try to do it in such a way as to not prevent Monty from ever working in construction again, which was somewhat my original plan.

"Well, let's see," Monty said, sizing me up a bit. I stood tall and jutted out my chest. "Hmm, I can't decide if you'd be better at digging or choosing the songs that the other guys listen to while they work. Which would you prefer?"

I hadn't realized that song chooser was an available position. I had assumed that the music that played at the site was coming from a radio set to a rock station. Music selector seemed like even a sweeter job than being foreman. I'll call myself the Atmosphere Coordinator, I thought. Excited by the prospect, I told Monty that I had excellent taste in music and would very much enjoy giving the song chooser job a try.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Monty said, and then he smiled a bit. "I guess what I'm describing is a disc jockey, and we don't have disc jockeys around here."

"I'm sorry?" I leaned in a bit, which was a mistake.

"I said, we don't have deejays here, you idiot!" Monty picked up a nearby shovel and flung it at my feet. "Pick that up!" He was yelling at me. "Pick that up, moron!"

I quickly snatched up the shovel and held it like an umbrella, my shoulders raised to my ears. A few of the other workers were now gathered around us and smiling at these proceedings. I felt a little foolish when Monty revealed the punchline of his joke - and the yelling was unnerving to say the least - but I knew that hazing the new guy on the job was a time-tested tradition. Back at the mattress factory, Maureen would routinely spit at new employees and smear dog poo on the back of their heads. In hindsight, that seemed a little harsh too.

"Hey, anybody want a new pair of boots?" Monty said. Like the song chooser job, this also seemed too generous an offer to be true. However, once I noticed where everybody else was looking, I realized Monty was talking about my new pair of work boots. I tried to protest as two men dropped their tools, pulled me to the ground, and held me down as Monty tried to pull off my recently-purchased footwear. The boots held fast to my feet though, so Monty had to spend a full two minutes undoing the knots and unlacing the top five loop sets.

He tossed the boots into the crowd and flung another shovel at my feet. There didn't seem to be any shortage of shovels at the construction site.

"Now march your ass to the dig zone and start digging, maggot!" he screamed. A few other guys repeated some of the names that Monty had called me, adding "scum sack" and "no boots" to the list. My socks became filthy as I trudged toward the group of men that were digging the foundation. They looked at me with contempt and I realized that the lowest place in the hierarchy of construction work was the new guy with no shoes on his feet. Soon after, I also realized how difficult it was to push a shovel into the earth while wearing just socks.

Later that night, I told Bailey everything that had happened to me. We were sitting on the couch and finishing a spaghetti dinner. She told me that I should quit, but also to really try and get the work boots back. I told her that it had taken me two years to get the construction job and I wasn't about to quit it on my second day.

"It didn't take you two years," she said. "It took you less than a day. It's not like you were looking before then. You don't even know what else is out there."

"It doesn't matter what else is out there," I said. "I'm not good at anything."

Bailey sat back and thought for a moment. "Well, you're a pretty good husband. Usually. And I don't know if you're any good at video games, but you seem to like playing them." I nodded and she continued. "And you look halfway decent in your underwear. There. Maybe look for something in that field." She laughed and flung a throw pillow at my head, causing a meatball to roll from my plate onto the floor. This caused her to laugh even more and then, for a third time that night, Bailey made me tell her about how I had tried to call the cops on Monty during my lunch break earlier that day.

Then we watched TV, and then it was bedtime.

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