[Issue 8 / February 2014]
Val got a call at six that morning. A construction company she worked for now and then needed people now. She pulled on her insulated overalls, steel-toed boots, and ran a brush through her almost grown-out perm to go out into the cold blackness. When her teenage girls were little, they didn’t understand why mommy had to go to work when it was still night.
It had been a year since Val had been fired, or laid-off, which everyone kept telling her was the proper term. She didn’t give a rat’s ass what the proper term was—the result was still the same. Since the company went under along with her, there was no severance. She couldn’t take unemployment because the little work she did get made her ineligible. So when work came, she didn’t ask what it was. Val was relieved to be lacing up her boots instead of heading to a hellhole temp office or checking the classifieds.
When she pulled up at the garage, the headlights of several dump trucks cut through the dark and exhaust. The trucks had to be warmed up in the ten-degree morning. If most people had to define a smell that went with cold mornings, they would’ve said coffee—hers was diesel. When she stepped out of her Topaz, the sweet diesel smell overpowered. She inhaled like it was coffee.
It was already seven and she hoped for a ride to the jobsite with someone else. Instead, two guys approached her.
“You driving, Val.”
It wasn’t a question. They all got in and after the usual amount of cranks, three, the car started. She turned to the twenty-something kid who now occupied her passenger seat.
“What the hell, Jake? Shouldn’t the regulars have to drive us peons?” she said.
“It ain’t like your car hasn’t seen a jobsite or two in its twenty years. You ever consider painting over the rust or, I don’t know, washing it?”
She shrugged. “You can put nail polish on a crack whore but at the end of the day, she’s still a crack whore.”
“Lighten up, Val. Maybe you’ll be a regular next week. Me and Chad,” he gestured to his quiet buddy in the back seat, “we’re heading out.”
“Where you headed to?”
“North Dakota. The oilrigs up there are starting at twenty-five bucks an hour. You should go.”
Their lane merged into another and she got stuck behind a dump. This one must’ve already made its run to the quarry based on the gravel it shot at her windshield. “Yeah, I’ll just move my girls into a trailer in the frozen middle of nowhere. Teenagers love that.”
Dawn broke through the low clouds as they pulled up to the site. She had hoped to operate the backhoe or the grader, but they handed her a sign for the day. When you’re a temp, you’re a grunt. They were installing a utility line and someone had to keep traffic going around. She looked longingly at the backhoe. The moron operating it couldn’t make a grade within a foot. She could always make it within an inch.
By noon she checked her watch every few minutes or so, willing time to move faster as another stream of cars went by. The backhoe engine cut and a scream filled the emptiness, ripping across the dust and diesels. Val dropped her sign, running before the scream stopped. At the bottom of a six-foot trench, a man, no more than a kid, was pinned by the backhoe’s teeth. He hung against the side of the trench, held up by the bucket.
“Pull back, pull back,” Val yelled to the operator as he climbed down.
The driver jumped back in, started the engine, and jerked the lever back, closing the bucket and dropping its prisoner. He sat there stunned, muttering, “I didn’t see him, I didn’t see him.”
Val jumped into the trench, bringing a slide of topsoil with her. She heard a guy yelling instructions to 911. She took off her flannel jacket and pressed it to the boy‘s chest. The white foam he coughed up dammed his choking gasps for breath. Steam wafted from the wound. His wide fearful eyes stared at her, begging. She placed a hand on his forehead, pushing back his sweat-stained hair.
“It’s going to be okay, just keep breathing, all right.” Other workers jumped in the hole but Val didn’t turn.
“Look at me and try to breathe with me.”
She took long calm breaths and wiped the foam from his mouth. He never took his eyes off hers and the wild panic receded, but so did any awareness. By the time the EMTs jumped into the hole and she surrendered her spot, he was gone.
She followed behind the stretcher as they loaded it and sped off.
“Just keep breathing, just keep breathing,” she said, even as the ambulance disappeared. Behind her the boss screamed at the operator, jabbing a shovel into the ground like he was breaking up some dirt clod. She found out later it was the operator’s iPod. The injured boy had jumped into the trench when the operator was looking the other way and never heard the boy’s scream.
Jake called that night. The boy had died before the ambulance made it to the hospital, he said.
“Tell me when the funeral is,” Val said.
“Why? You didn’t know him.”
She tried to block out the image of his pleading eyes as the life had seeped out of him.
“Just let me know when it is.”
She learned his name the day of the funeral: Mateo. She and a few other workers sat on the back row. She itched in an almost-new dress that she’d bought ten years ago for a cousin’s wedding.
The boy’s mother, in more tears than words, spoke about how hard a worker her son had been, how he tried to take care of his family. A lot of the words were in Spanish but Val knew enough to get her meaning. The boy had just turned fifteen, same age as her youngest daughter. As the funeral ended and they stood, the boy’s mother stayed seated, her shoulders hunched, Val wished she knew her well enough to put an arm around her.
Val’s feet dragged on her way to the car at the cemetery. She was tired, an old kind of tired, the kind that doesn’t go away after a few nights’ sleep. She went home, feeling like a trespasser for being home during the day. If she didn’t have work, she usually split her time between the temp office, workforce, and the library. Not for the first time, she wondered how much longer she could go on living this life. She was old for a construction worker and she was a woman. Even if the economy turned around tomorrow, it would be difficult to find another job.
There would be no job next week as the company closed down. Workforce would be investigating, not just the accident, but also the fact that the kid was illegal and underage. Half the jobs she did were paid under the table. It might not be exactly honest but with a lot of companies folding, it was easier to cut out the government. Competition was fierce for the few jobs left; no one talked when things weren’t up to code.
She had no retirement. The companies she worked for weren’t the 401K-types. Keeping her girls fed and housed had always been more important than retirement. Her oldest daughter, Kris, would graduate in the spring, and she hadn’t shown any more interest in classes than Val had at her age. She hadn’t pushed them too hard, hoping Cs and Bs were enough.
Val figured they would get by just as she had always done. But now after watching another teenager be buried for supporting his family, she wanted more for them. She wanted them to have a good job that didn’t suck you dry and then drop you. She didn’t want them to lose everything because some man changed his mind.
She sat at the kitchen table, bills spread out in front of her when her daughters came home that afternoon. She startled them.
“Mom, why are you in a dress?” Kris asked.
“The funeral was today for that boy I told you about.”
“Oh, yeah,” said the youngest, Katie, as she made a beeline past Val and to the fridge. She rummaged through it until she found some Mountain Dew and chip dip and settled on the couch to watch the Dish. They were good kids and, contrary to what they looked like now, they weren’t lazy. Katie had a part-time job and Kris worked fulltime. They helped with the bills without whining, mostly.
“What about homework?” Val asked.
Kris looked surprised at her mom. “Don’t have any.”
“You’re in high school; how can you not have homework?”
“Because all we did today in English was watch Ironman and write a paper on how people can change?”
“What? Why, was today special?” Val said.
“Do you ever read a book?”
“Sometimes, if there’s a book that goes along with the movie. Then we have to write a paper on what the differences are and why.”
“What the hell, Kris. Do any of your classes require you to think?”
“Chill, Mom. We’re seniors. All the teachers care about are butts in the seats when they take roll. They don’t want to have to flunk anyone and be stuck with us again. I think they figure it’s too late for us to learn anything anyhow. Plus, I only got a few classes before work release.” She turned back to the TV. “Hey, can we argue about school later? I just want fifteen minutes to relax before I have to go to work.”
Kris worked afternoons and evenings as a cashier in a grocery store, and Val knew what it was to only have a few minutes to yourself before everyone wanted you, so she dropped it. No wonder her daughters called school worthless. Kris knew she had to get her degree so she was just biding time.
Then what? Val wondered.
Kris had a boyfriend who wanted more of a commitment, and Val dreaded the day they would either announce she was pregnant or engaged—or both. She had a few months before her daughter turned eighteen.
That night Val waited in the kitchen for Kris to get home from her shift at midnight. She had on only the stove light, relishing the calm of darkness. She loved this kitchen because it was hers. Three years ago after a lifetime of saving, she’d finally bought a house—not rented—bought. She and the girls spent days painting each room a different a color after years of being told they couldn’t. Now they were faced with the truth that the house wasn’t really theirs and wasn’t really worth what they had paid for it after the housing bubble crashed.
Kris’s key turned in the door. She didn’t notice Val until she locked the door behind her.
“Mom, why are you sitting in the dark?”
Val pushed out the chair next to her with a foot. “What happened to those classes you wanted to take?”
Kris sat and laid her head across her arms on the table. “Classes? Oh, you mean the dental assisting.”
“Will they still let you take them?”
Kris lifted her head. “They’re not the problem. Remember, it’s ten Saturdays. The store won’t let me off for that and nobody else is hiring.”
Val leaned forward. “But they said you could probably get a job when it was over and a better paying job.”
“Yeah, probably. In the meantime we’ve got a mortgage.” Kris released an overly exaggerated yawn.
Val closed her eyes and pictured the boy, Mateo, crushed against the side of the hole. “You shouldn’t have to worry about a mortgage.”
“Yeah, well.” She shrugged. “Can I go to bed now?”
Val nodded. “Sure, if you give your old mother a kiss first.”
Kris rolled her eyes but obliged, if only on the forehead.
It took three phone calls the next morning for Val to track down Jake. And another two calls to track down the guy who hired Jake. But before he would call her back, she had to fax over her resume, references and licenses. One day later, she got a call. After asking about her experience, the boss on the other end asked her the question she heard at each interview.
“So, you’re a woman. You going to be okay working with mostly men?”
“Yeah. It’s other women that scare me.”
“You take this job, you realize you’re going to be living in a trailer with other women?” He sounded concerned.
She cringed at her lame attempt to be funny. “Sorry, bad joke. But yeah, I’m fine with that.” She crossed her fingers.
“The job pays twenty-five an hour. You sign a contract for six months, and if you fulfill your contract you receive another five grand. That includes living expenses. We pay overtime, which a lot of guys get since there’s nothing else to do up here. Most try to work fourteen days on and four days off so they can go see their family. You got kids?”
She nodded before she realized he couldn’t see her through the phone. “Two daughters. Think there’s a chance of them coming to stay?”
“Wouldn’t count on it. A few of the guys have brought up families, but they had to buy RVs to live in. The hotels stay full and there’s no housing. Look, you’ve got the qualifications. If your references check out, you’ve got a job in one week. Take a day and decide.”
Val clenched the phone a long time after he’d hung up. Six months would be enough to catch them up, and maybe then there’d be work. But six months was forever for a teenager. She could close her eyes and picture her daughters five years down the road, always struggling, still behind. It felt like deciding between money or a mother. Six months could mean so much either way. Val had family to help with the girls but would they? Something had to change, and she picked up the phone.
Val still sat at the table, phone in front of her when the girls came home from school.
“We need to talk.
Melissa Dymock is an editor by day, a writer by night, and a ski instructor/triathlete by weekend. All of that makes her sound way more awesome than she is, but that’s the point. Most of her stories include some outdoor element since that’s where her best ideas come from. Follow her adventures at weekendwomanwarrior.com.