Errant

by on May 7, 2015

Take it from me, when you’re on the lam like some rube in witness-protection—except from your dumbass choices instead of the mob—and you find yourself out on a nameless ribbon of blacktop in the middle of the night, unsure even of what state you’re even in, you’re gonna wish you’d spent more than five bucks on a pawnshop boombox of dubious provenance. Especially when the tell-tales in the dash light up like a Christmas tree, the open hole where your car stereo used to be is venting hot air into the cabin, and there’s nothing but the feeble cones of your jaundiced headlights stirring the darkness in front of you. Because when that Pawnshop POS eats your last mix-tape and you’re left with nothing but a gutful of anxiety and the static-lashed spectrum of AM radio on the dial, you’ll know what you should have done with the extra cash instead of splurging on Camel Wides.

I was pretty sure I was still in Montana, but only my watch and the gas gauge told me so. If my calculations were correct, I had just enough fuel to coast into a parking space in front of the dorm at my new job in Yellowstone and immediately begin singing for my supper. The only actual certainty was that I was southbound and down on Highway 89, I had a quarter-tank of gas, a pack-and-a-half of smokes, six dollars cash—assuming two bucks of assorted change in the seat cushions—and exactly that much was right with the world.

In the debit column was everything about my hooptie. The window didn’t actually roll up, but was wedged with a matchbook between the frame and glass, the speedometer was inaccurate to different degrees depending on what gear you were in, and the driver’s side door was held shut with a rope. Don’t even get me started on the calamities the heads-up display was screaming about. I should’ve put those last couple bucks in the tank back in Livingston, but I thought I might want something to eat besides roadkill.

I’m on a road with a number for a name and no speed limit that feels like it’s being created from nothingness just beyond the reach of my headlights. There’s no one ahead, and no one behind, so I’m hoping for a gas station or rest area to appear before my bleary eyes forget to open after a blink; with no music to combat the numbing road noise, my head begins to seem like a bowling ball rolling around atop a tired post. So I paw at the Pawnshop POS on the bench next to me to toggle it over to the radio.

There’s no sense pretending that FM exists out here in these Martian badlands of sage, scrub, and igneous peaks; that wavelength is just too short to even attempt the vastness. Without looking I can tell the difference between the polite, muted white-noise of the FM band and the insistent buzzing of AM static like a swarm of something angry. So I begin to scroll the tuning knob indiscriminately, sifting for anything from the dark. Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette, Dr. Demento… Anyone. Anyone at all.

Drowsing in and out of highway hypnosis I strain to decrypt an otherwise silent message, somehow embedded in the air itself using technology invented in the 1870’s. For God’s sake they didn’t have ballpoint pens, but this they could do. I’m practiced at this patient crawl through the increments of the potentiometer from all the nights I spent trolling the barren airwaves with the crystal-radio kit my vaguely anarchistic uncle helped me build as a kid.

Then, as now, I was up past my bedtime with nothing but all the time in the world to strain for a voice in the darkness of mere being.  Didn’t matter if it was sleepy public-radio monologues, Waylon Jennings, or madmen crying out in the wilderness of local-access radio. There is an exquisite loneliness inherent in a single voice arising from the emptiness, at once furtive and confidential, like a guttering flame pressing back against the void. With radio, neither the speaker nor the listener can know one another, or whether or not they are alone in this world as they connect in some uncreated space of charged particles.

My head drops and I catch the faintest wisp of dream, ephemeral as smoke, before my chin hits my chest and wakes me. I snap back up with an electrochemical jolt of purest panic, and for a second it’s the road that’s moving under my seemingly stationary vehicle. I shake a cigarette loose from the dwindling supply and chase the tip with my Zippo, willing the nicotine to work some buzzing magic on my head as I blink away the flame’s after-image from my dark-adapted eyes. The dial bottoms out at one end and I start back the other way, patiently searching.

Each blink is a gamble and the white-noise is beginning to sound dangerously like a lullaby when a voice emerges from the static, as real as a passenger suddenly with me. It was an ancient baritone, grown tired from decades of whispering through an AM megaphone about perpetually falling skies. His seditious murmurs are those of an agitator, stalking the edges of a crowd, gently inciting, fomenting. Art Bell. The Hobo-Laureate of the airwaves, whose voice distinguishes itself from the fuzz of interference by virtue of its madness alone.

Soon I’ve sucked down four smokes back to back and I’m wide awake like a kid listening to ghost-stories around a campfire, except it’s grown-ups telling them to each other with a straight face. Time seems to dilate until I see my own dim campfire-glow ahead that resolves into a pair of sodium-vapor lights attending an empty parking lot. I pull into the oasis of the Emigrant Peak rest area: picnic tables, restrooms and an inexplicable little chapel.

I drag the POS into the bed of the truck and pull the canopy shut behind me, wrapping up against the April chill in a nest of sleeping bags and allowing conspiratorial whispers to lull me to sleep. In the morning the station is pure static once more. The serendipitous dance of the Van Allen Belt that arced an errant signal off the Stratosphere to find me has passed.

I offer the only genuflection of my life at the bust of St. Christopher and hit the road. Turns out I’m a half-hour from the dorm, and arrive with almost an eighth of a tank. Almost.

 


Lawrence Elliott is a journeyman carpenter of seventeen years. He enjoys playing the guitar and creative writing. He blogs about autobiographical oddities at Scratched in the Sand.

Burn Job

by on Jan 28, 2015

Some days in the life of a carpenter feel like any other; a thin slice from a continuum of work carried out by a fraternity of craftsmen dating back to the pyramids and stretching out into the space age. All in all, an honorable way to make a living.

And then there are the days I walk into a burn job.

There is something deeply objectionable—obscene even—about a home consumed by fire. Whatever the reason—an overtaxed extension cord, a somnolent smoker, or a forgotten project boiling dry on the stove—fire is an elemental force that teaches us of our impermanence. The amount of time it takes for a guttering teardrop of flame at the end of a match to become a life-consuming pyre can be measured in an eternity of seconds counting down with complete indifference to our existence.

The first time you walk into the remains of a life destroyed by fire is a moment you never forget. It reveals to you that you’ve never truly known what it means to say that something is destroyed, but the appalling, indiscriminate obliteration of a fire will teach you. There’s this visceral, involuntary revulsion that rises up in you from some ancient racial memory passing down through eons of ancestors, all running for their lives through fields of flame and heather.

Even to those that make a life of it, a burn job is a bludgeon to every human sense, no matter how many times your footfalls land in that ashen world. The stench can fill an entire block, and when you step into it, the sooty campfire smell instantly fills up your olfactory pallet to saturation, blotting out everything else. The fire may as well have happened in your mouth.

The whole thing is a frieze of chaos: clothing, carpet, and children’s toys melted into a single, indistinguishable mass, cooled together into frozen magma flows. All the synthetic fibers, the man-made substances—the end-state of unthinkably ancient bones—meld into piles of amalgamated slag, forever one. Overhead light bulbs ooze into grasping tendrils like soot covered icicles. Television screens flow and slump in molten surrender to unthinkable heat. DVD’s, beer bottles, remote controls, couch upholstery, X-Boxes, all fused into surrealist sculptures that must be chiseled apart with pick-axes and pry bars.

Even the things that don’t burn are covered in an ephemeral film of the finest ash, shellacked in oily resins whose chemical makeup is a list of compounds never intended by nature. Everywhere lay heaps of the burnt-edged confetti of photos, junk mail, novels, college degrees; the documentation of an entire life reduced to tattered remnants, unrecognizable even to those that lived it. A testament to the transformative power of fire.

And then there’s us. The strangers that come into the smoking ruins of what you’ve got to show for your life. We gather up a hundred thousand dollars worth of clothing, appliances, knick-knacks, electronics, books, dishes, cutlery, musical instruments, fitness equipment, computers—everything you worked irretrievable hours to amass—and we throw it all into endlessly revolving dumpsters. We find the pot stash, the porn stash, and the dildos; every secret is revealed as we disassemble your life one piece at a time. What took four months to construct will take us a week to dispense with, one bite-sized piece at a time. We’ll take hammers, crow bars, saws, jackhammers, even the occasional chain hooked to the bumper of a truck, and reverse-engineer the process of creation, finishing what the fire started. All the while punching the clock, whistling a work-a-day tune.

“St. Peter don’tcha call me, ‘cause I can’t go…”

This process of deconstruction is unbelievably taxing because it all happens by the brute power of sinew, bone and sledgehammer, and then every scrap of it is transported to the inexhaustible dumpsters manually, by trundling laborers blackened head to toe by soot and ash. As the ringing of tireless blows resounds through the house and the cacophony of collapse goes on and on, a blizzard of ash swirls continuously through the air. Only our respirators stand between us and the black-lung heartache, as even a single step through this wasteland wafts up micro-flurries of carcinogens from a thick sediment of plaster dust, fiberglass and asbestos piled and drifting across the floor. Each blink of our eyes is like a windshield wiper clearing the scrim of soot from the gelled surface continually; the little wrinkles, nooks, and wattles of our faces become etched depositories of the blackness.

All the while you can only pray that nobody died in this one, because it’s creepy enough to live and work in the world of Old Man Fire without dancing with the ghosts of the ones who almost made it, or those that never saw it coming. Nobody ever asks because that workaday tune can seem a lot like whistling your way past the graveyard otherwise. It’s said that the world once ended by water and will one day end again, this time by fire. Some days I find that easy to believe.

What can I say? It’s a living. A weird, disturbing, brutal living. Still, I can’t count how many times I’ve handed a shiny brass set of keys to a homeowner at the completion of their job and actually had them say, “The fire may be the best thing that ever happened to this place. It went from an old wreck to a modern palace overnight!” And really, that’s the payoff. When you take what feels like the single lowest, most irredeemable moment of someone’s life and turn it into something new and hand the keys—that precious metal—back to them.

Of course some things are irreplaceable; I can’t give back a wedding dress, kids’ finger paintings on the fridge, or family heirlooms. But that’s life. It isn’t a boutique, or a wish granting factory. It gives and it takes away. The best you can hope for is decent insurance.

 


Lawrence Elliott is a journeyman carpenter of seventeen years. He enjoys playing the guitar and creative writing. He blogs about autobiographical oddities at Scratched in the Sand.