The summer I was eighteen, I helped get a man killed during a renovation job. I’d just graduated from high school, and in the months before college, I worked for my father at the Carolina Research University in the South Carolina piedmont. I’d grown up in Issaqueena, a foothills railroad town halfway between Atlanta and Charlotte, but like a lot of folks I was raised to leave. By the end of the nineteenth century, cotton plantations had killed the soil, turned it to red clay, and weave rooms took over the field as the place for poor men to sweat blood. Those old mill towns had scattered across the upstate by the early twentieth century, but that industry’s on its way out now, the mills closing their doors and boarding up their windows. My father was our family’s first to find work outside the textile industry, and I was the first to go to college, leaving those old Carolina mills for good.

    In 1986, my father had been landscaping at the university for seven years, ever since the power plant downsized and laid off nine hundred employees. My mother worked for the bank, but I didn’t have a job when I graduated from high school. Since the university hired summer laborers, my father pulled a few strings to get me onto his tractor crew, despite my mother’s objections. She thought his job was dangerous and just knew I would get hurt, but I took the job anyway, working with my father to mow the university’s perimeter fields, hundreds of acres the agricultural school hadn’t taken over yet. My father told me that some guys did this work until they died, that I needed to keep moving forward. He wanted the job to teach me a lesson, but I was having a blast. I’d never driven a tractor before, and learning to control that clunky old machine on the slopes of Watertank Hill was a good way to spend a summer.

    But July heat broiled those fields and turned the grass the color of coleslaw. Nothing grew. Our crew laid low in a cluster of hemlocks behind the chicken houses at the north end of campus until the end of the month, when my father’s boss told us to work with J. P.’s crew and renovate one of the architecture buildings.

    This was a Tuesday. We usually worked seven to three, but J.P. had his crew on six-thirty to two-thirty, so the four of us on my father’s crew came in early. Men idled around the lumberyard, sipped Maxwell House and fired up cigarettes. Tim and I pulled out the cards and started shuffling, aiming for a quick game of rummy while they all filled out paperwork. Tim was a little older than me, from over in Seneca, and I’m ashamed now that I can’t remember exactly how he looked. I remember he had white gums and yellowed teeth. A vertical scar in his upper lip. One eye bigger than the other, like he was always mid-wink. There was a blankness to him, like where most people have thoughts they don’t say, a running narrative in their heads, his mind was quiet. Though he wasn’t a summer laborer, some of the older guys looked at him the way they looked at me—some dumb kid who hadn’t been around.

    J. P. stood by the door, looked toward the dawn-pink sky, and said, We got a lot of work to do today. It’s going to be a hot one.

    We usually took our time getting out on the job, but he was quick to move us out. He turned back to us and shook his head. He was small and wiry, and wore a University Facilities hat over curly thin hair. We didn’t like J. P. Maybe he wasn’t a bad guy at heart, but he sure as shit wasn’t fun to work for. His crew did all the heavy moving—rocks, dirt, office supplies, you name it. One of the guys said he swirled his tongue to the left whenever he kissed up to the boss, and that’s how he got crews transferred over to help him out whenever he asked, and it got him that end-of-year bonus, something no one on my father’s crew ever got.

    We shuffled out of our chairs and went out the backdoor to the smoking ramp. It wasn’t even light outside. The sky was just getting pink, an arc of blue around it like an eye opening up. It was cool enough for a jacket, but not cold. No reason not to start work, even though I dreaded killing this stillness by starting our equipment.

    My father was already outside, smoking by one of the trucks. He could be antisocial, though he seemed glad I tried to hang out with the guys. He did a good job of keeping work and family separate, so when I was on the job he was my supervisor, not my father. He opened the door of the F-150 and got in. Tim and I got in on the passenger side, Tim in the middle.

    Three trucks, carrying eight guys, caravanned down to the end of Stadium, turned left onto Perimeter, and then right onto University. I sat in the passenger seat with my arm out the window, eyes closed. The cool air slid over my skin, and it smelled of pines and coffee. We didn’t talk. My father held a cigarette out the window, Best Value brand, Ingles’s version of a Marlboro. My mother never let him smoke at home, but on the job he went through three packs a day. I don’t know how we made it through the evenings and weekends without smoking, because back at work he’d always have one in hand. I’d started to smoke myself, though only if I was out with friends. I never lit up at work.

    The truck wheezed up the steep hill. A cemetery was hidden at the top, among a thicket of water oaks, and poison ivy crept all over the trees. Absurd as it was, the university had put this cemetery here, close to the stadium so the souls of rich fans could hear the roar of the crowd.

    You’ll need to look out for yourselves today, my father said.

    What do you mean?

    He took a drag on the cigarette, then flicked the butt out the window and glanced over at us. His long face was coated in a thin layer of stubble, and his combed back shaggy white hair had wings flipping out at the ends.

    It’s going to be a long day, and J. P. isn’t going to look over your shoulders and say when it’s time for a water break. You boys get hot, take a break.

    He shook out another cigarette, crumpled the pack, and threw it on the dashboard.

    J. P.’s not that bad, Tim said. I had to work with him the day they moved office supplies into Adams Hall.

    Wait ’til you’ve been here a few years. You’ll learn.

    I was only at that job three months, but one thing I still miss is three guys sitting across the bench of an old pickup, our knees and legs grazing. I’d heard stories about men in my father’s generation bonding in Vietnam, but I never went to war, so male intimacy’s always been a taboo for me. I work in a sterile office now. Our cubicles aren’t big, but they close us off from each other, just like in high school when my friends and I would leave one seat between us in a movie theater. I dated one woman in college and married her. She, like me, was a fragile thing, so I guess we were a good match, but I nonetheless feel I’ve missed out on something about human interaction.


The architecture building was tall and made from red brick, like most of the buildings on this campus. Someone in the administration had decided it was time to renovate this area, and we were supposed to clear out the old furniture, then strip away the drywall and insulation. When we got to the drywall, we’d have to wear masks because of the asbestos, and J. P. was right about it being hot. July was the worst month to work landscaping. The air was bone-dry and still, but if it happened to rain, the water would evaporate the moment it landed on the dust and the air would be thick with humidity.

    We broke into two groups. My father, Tim, Lonnie, and I spent the morning hauling trash out of the second floor, while the other crew worked on moving old furniture from the ground floor. We formed an assembly line, Tim and I in the building, grabbing trash pieces and throwing them out a giant window down to Lonnie and my father.

    We worked in a large classroom, easily twenty-five by fifty feet. Dozens of folded tables leaned on one of the walls, wooden chairs piled up next to them, strips of plywood and drywall, and a few big pieces of furniture—two filing cabinets, a bookshelf, and a large oak desk that I was sure we’d never get out of the building. I was lanky and small, could barely lift a fifty-pound fertilizer bag. Everything, the furniture and the gray tile floor, was covered in dust.

    It was slow work. We started with the chairs, each grabbing one and then chucking them out together. They plowed into the brick patio below and splintered into several pieces, and the noise echoed through the courtyard. My father and Lonnie stood to the side, and they scurried in and grabbed the biggest pieces and carried them over to the dump truck. Tim and I were careful not to throw something on them, but I expected it to happen.

    I used to worry about my father, especially when I was younger and he’d recently been laid off and had taken a new job driving a tractor. I’d overhear my mother yelling about how he was going to lose an arm, and him yelling that it was only temporary and that at least, goddammit, it was steady work. At the beginning of the summer, I watched him carefully to be sure he was staying safe. I could see him, years from now, old and alone and in a field somewhere on the edge of campus, the summer heat baking down on him. He mows too fast on the side of a hill and the tractor rolls. He isn’t fastened in and leaps for freedom, but the machine pins him and he dies slowly from something awful, a collapsed lung or a shattered rib imbedded in his heart. My mother in Florida with another man, she doesn’t find out for a week that he’s been killed.

    The rhythms of the work took over, and seeing my father firsthand—and doing the same job—made the danger seem remote, like cancer or a plane crash. Today, however, watching the furniture fall and shatter, I measured in my head how close those flying pieces came to my father. Ten feet. Twelve. Nine.

    When we got to the folded desks, we heaved each out the window by placing one end on the sill and sliding it through. The walls in the room were white and scuffed with black smudge. The inside, lit only by the morning sun, smelled of plaster filtered in from the hall.

    Hey, Lonnie called up. Watch out now.

    You got to move faster, old man, Tim said, his voice a raspy, country lilt.

    Lonnie flipped him the bird, turned around, and walked away toward my father and the dump truck. My father stood by, a burning cigarette dangling from his mouth. The stale air away from the hall had the bitter and sweet smell of old wood and sawdust and mold.


We lunched at the lumberyard, and I dealt out a game of spades with Tim and Lonnie against me and my father. I put the cards facedown, one for each of us, clockwise. We played spades every day, and I was getting good.

    What’s shaking, Ray? Tim asked. Ray was on the trash crew and sat watching our game. He was a big man, red-faced and bald.

    Shit. This damn kid parked his car behind me, right when I was about to back out from the dumpster.

    We began to put our cards in order, and Ray pulled a sandwich out of his bag and angled his chair so he could see my cards.

    You know, he went on. You’d think he’d hear those goddamn beeps and think, Hey, this is a bad place to be, but I had to yell at him to get his car out of the way if he didn’t want it smashed up. The motherfucker looked at me like I’d asked for a blowjob.

    My father said, The kid’s parents will probably sue you for sexual harassment.

    Oh shit, son, Ray said to me. You better watch those cards.

    He won’t make it, Tim said.

    My father saved the round by taking the last trick with the ten of spades.

    Oh ho, Tim said. You almost got caught there at the end.

    I appreciate your helping my partner, my father said.

    Lonnie nodded, his mouth full of sandwich. He usually didn’t talk much during lunch. Just sat back and played cards. Flecks of food flicked in and out of his mustache.

    Tim dealt out the next round, and my father unwrapped his burger. Some of the guys brought their own lunched, but my father and I picked up something from Burger King or Hardee’s three days a week. My mother was not the type of woman to pack our lunches, and neither of us was motivated to cook for ourselves.

    How’s that new burger from Hardee’s? Ray asked.

    Tastes like shit, my father said. But it’s slick enough that it slides right down.

    Goddamn, Ray said. Then to me, You got to talk to your mother about your old man. Does she let him eat that shit at home?

    Hell no, she doesn’t, my father said. I have to load up when I’m out of the house.

    He looked to me, lowered his chin, and said over his glasses, Don’t tell your mother.

    He said it like he was joking, but I knew he wasn’t. My mother didn’t like him at this job, and she would later give up and leave him, but for now he was still trying to make things work. Another round went by, and then Ray balled up his sandwich bag and turned to me.

    You must be getting to be a short-timer around here. How long you got left?

    School starts the third week of August, so maybe another two weeks. You looking to get your space back at the card table?
    You know it.

    My father shuffled the cards and started to deal them out.

    Tim said, You going to bring back some college girls for us?

    Shit, he ain’t ever coming back, Ray said. He’s going to be living a life of luxury, beer and pussy and shit. You think he’s going to come back here?

    My father finished dealing, and we picked up our cards.

    I’ll come back, I said, though I didn’t believe it. College was supposed to change everything about my life—I’d find a social circle, a girlfriend, get laid all the time, and wouldn’t ever be lonely.

    For the first time, Lonnie spoke up, said, Don’t listen to these clowns. You need to get educated. Get out and lay low. Don’t get caught up in women and drugs.

    Shit, Lonnie, what are you trying to do to him? He needs to get drunk and laid, isn’t that right?

    My father smiled, the same smile he used when the guys gave him a hard time about his old lady keeping him on a tight leash.

    Tim said, Man, I might have to go to college myself.

    Yeah, maybe you ought to go and leave Mark here. He’s a better card player than you are.

    J. P. scuttled by without looking at us, and stepped out the door onto the smoking ramp. My father put his cards down and wrapped up the scraps from his burger, his sign for us to go. We stepped out onto the ramp, and I sat idle on the rail while the guys lit up, sucking in the hot afternoon air, the dry heat blasting their throats.


Back at the architecture building, only the big furniture remained—two filing cabinets, the bookshelf, and a big oak desk—before we’d start on the drywall. Management wanted to save these pieces, so we couldn’t throw them out the windows. We broke out the dollies to wheel them out one at a time.

    J. P. and his crew had moving to do, so they didn’t come back with us. The ride over this time wasn’t as nice. My father and I followed behind Lonnie and Tim. The air that blew in from the windows made me dizzy.   

    When we turned onto University and started up the hill toward the cemetery, my father said, I hope you’ve been paying attention to these guys this summer.

    What do you mean?

    They joke and have a good time, but it’s no kind of work for a young man.

    It’s not that bad.

    He flicked his cigarette out the window and looked at me, eyes narrowed. His tanned face had dark lines, gray stubble around his lips and cheeks. The white hairs frightened me, these signs of age on someone who I remembered as young and slim and tough.

    It’s hard work. There’s some benefits, I’ve got that going for me, but I wouldn’t do it if I had the choice.

    Because of Mom. I know.

    Your mother doesn’t like me doing it, but it’s more than that. These guys will be doing this work until they die. They won’t ever get out. Hell, I may never get out.

    We sat at the stop sign for a moment, and then he turned right onto Ridgecrest and pulled into a space behind the architecture building. A spiral metal sculpture rested in front of the building, something the students had designed once to act as a sentry.

    I followed him into the building, where Lonnie and Tim were already waiting.

    You and Tim are the strong young men, my father said. Why don’t you two see if you can get this desk, and me and Lonnie will start on the cabinets?

    You’re getting old, Tim said.

    I’m not far from dying.

    We all laughed, but I had a knot in my chest. Maybe they all knew my father was being serious, and laughing was the easiest way to deal with it. It beat crying, that’s for sure, though perhaps some days they all felt like crying. My father tried to be a good supervisor. He knew that nothing was worse than working for someone who let you do all the grunt work and who sat by and smoked. If his crew was hauling dirt, he was out there with a shovel. If they were cutting sod, he was out there loading pieces into the trailer. He worked hard and stressed safety, and so far his crew had been lucky. Heatstroke or a case of poison ivy was the extent of their trouble. I don’t know if he was arthritic, but he was old, and conversations like the one on the ride over let me know that he was thinking in terms of life and death in more ways than an offhand joke could let on.

    He and Lonnie loaded the first cabinet on the dolly and wheeled it to the elevator. Tim and I stood by the desk, a four-foot by eight-foot monster built from thick slabs of wood, stained dark brown, the surface scarred from chipped varnish and years of student carvings.

    Oof, Tim said.

    No shit.

    We each had a side. The wood was worn smooth, so it was hard to get a solid grip. We lifted, the desk as heavy as I’d feared. We shuffled with penguin steps out of the corner, and I walked backwards. Light from the still-open window angled in, and dust floated thick in the sunbeam. The desk banged on the doorway as we twisted into the hall and toward the elevator. Veins stood out in Tim’s neck and his face was as red as a chili pepper in August. At the elevator, I stopped, and we lowered the desk, both of us panting.

    Shit, Tim said. You know there’s no way we’re going to get this thing down in there.

    Yeah.

    It’s only one flight.

    A long flight.

    We hoisted the desk off the ground again and seesawed down the hall until we reached the stairs. The stairwell was dim, lit only by cobweb-covered yellow lights, the walls and floor a musky brown brick. The exit was twenty stairs down, with a mid-floor landing that would make a rough turn.

    You want to switch? Tim asked. The bottom will be the heavy end.

    You mind?

    I was grateful for the offer. Tim crossed over and said, Ready?

    I guess.

    We lifted, and Tim stepped down into the stairwell. We made it down the first few stairs okay, and then I stood at the top of the first step. I couldn’t see much of him, just the bulk of the desk with an arm and the top of his head. His forehead was bright red. He stumbled and the desk banged down a step.

    You all right?

    Yeah. His voice was strained. I stepped onto the first stair. He must have been near the landing when the desk shifted in my hands, then boomed against the stairs. The noise echoed, and there was a moment when the desk seemed to lay floating over the stairs before gravity took over, and the slick wood fell out of my hands. Cannon fire sounded as the desk slid down each subsequent stair, tipped on its end, and twisted to the side.

    I jumped down, four stairs at a time, around the desk to the mid-floor landing. Tim lay upside down, pinned to the stairs with his head on the landing, the corner of the desk digging into his throat. Cocked at an angle, his face was plum-colored, his hair slick and matted and sticking out. His right arm dangled out of the desk two stairs up, and the bulk of that monster rose up and towered over us and blocked the light, like the east end of the dorm high-rises in late afternoon.

    Oh shit, oh shit, I said, and I pushed my weight into the desk, but it wouldn’t budge. It felt lodged under something. I called for my father and then squatted and took Tim’s hand. Hey! I yelled again, my voice hoarse.

    My father and Lonnie ran up the stairs. The landing was so cramped that none of us had any room to move.

    Jesus Christ, Lonnie said.

    He stepped over Tim’s head and got on the top set of stairs beside me, elbowed me out of the way.

    It wouldn’t fit in the elevator, so we tried to move it down the stairs, and Tim was on the bottom and I was on the top and then it slipped I don’t know what happened it just slipped—

    Hey.

    I stopped and looked at my father.

    We need to move this desk.

    We all lifted at the desk, and got it shifted, but Tim wheezed and gurgled. My father squatted and lifted his head, put it on his knees. Later, when I was a student reading war novels in an American literature class, I would think about this moment, and my father as a soldier in Vietnam, and wonder if he’d ever had to hold a dying soldier’s head in his lap the way he held Tim’s head now. It was such a natural move for him to make. No matter what he did in the future, and no matter what my mother would say about him, I would always remember this moment and know that my father had tried his best.

    Tim coughed, and blood trickled out of his mouth onto his lips. My father stroked his hair, and Lonnie and I stood by, helpless and cramped, the desk killing our friend and coworker, yet unable to do anything about it.


They gave our crew the rest of the week off, after we answered questions and filled out paperwork. My father went back the next week, but I couldn’t do it. I was finished with landscaping. I sat around at home for the next few weeks, eating chocolate ice cream and watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island. Then I left for college without saying goodbye to any of the guys at the lumberyard, and I haven’t seen them since, not Lonnie or J. P. or Ray. Only my father. He and I got close that summer, and we stayed close while I was at college. Things went south between him and my mother, and I saw less of them both. My mother lives in Delaware with her family. I see her once in a while, but she has her own life now. My father still lives in Issaqueena, though he no longer works landscaping. He came across a better job as a supervisor in the Milliken plant down in Anderson, so he moved back to the textile industry, where his family came from. I still see him several times a year, but it’s all surface details now. We talk about the weather and our jobs. He doesn’t have any more advice about life, and what can I tell him?

    That night, after Tim was pronounced dead and our crew went through our bureaucratic hopscotch, my father drove us home to my mother. The three of us sat in the living room that evening, not speaking, my parents on the couch, at opposite ends, with me in between them. My mother rubbed her hand on my back, and my father brought me a Heineken, my first. The beer was cold and bitter, but I drank it anyway. My parents stood up for bed, and my mother paused in the doorway to the living room, watching me as I sat silently in front of the couch.

    Is there anything I can do? she asked, but I told her, No, nothing at all.

    At four in the morning, I woke up and got out of bed. The house was quiet and dim, and shadows played along the halls. The rooms shined in various shades of gray, lit up by moonlight that streamed through the cracks in the blinds. The bathroom, windowless, was pitch black until I turned on the light and the brightness stung my eyes.

    Instead of returning to bed, I went down the hall to the dining room and sat at the table. The curtains on our sliding glass door were parted, and I could see our backyard, white in the moonlight. A line of maple trees, weathered and cracked, fenced our yard off from the neighbors. I didn’t know if I was up for the day or if I should go back to bed. I knew I wasn’t going back to work, but I was already on the morning shift and would wake up before dawn anyway. Birds chirruped outside, and the bluish night glowed in through the blinds and cast strange shadows in the room. I felt the same calmness that I’d felt yesterday morning, riding to the jobsite. I still wake up that early, on occasion, and ease out from beside my wife and go downstairs to the living room. I’ll always love this time before the world gets started, the stillness of twilight.

    That summer morning, years ago, my father crept up behind me in the dining room and asked, Can’t sleep?

    He came into the room, sat beside me at the table, leaving the lights off, and said, I like getting up early, but this is a bit much.

    It’s peaceful.

    It is that.

    I felt like maybe we should be thinking about Tim, about how life wasn’t fair to take someone so young, but I couldn’t do it. All I could think of was my own self, how time makes you responsible for things you don’t want any part of. My father stood.

    I’ll leave you be, he said.




Jon Sealy grew up in upstate South Carolina and holds an MFA from Purdue. This is his first published story.











Back to Freight Stories No. 3

 

Jon Sealy

Renovation