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Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2007
You’re never really prepared for it, even though it‘s the most inevitable thing there is. Three in the morning, three in the afternoon. The klaxon sounds and you resist, just a little. If it’s three in the morning you just might resist a lot.

But seven month old Sammy doesn’t have resistance as part of his skill set.

Any more than his mommy has it in her to answer the call after another ten hour marathon at the House of Rib. So I reach for the pair of jeans slung near the bed, tug a sweatshirt on and plod my way to his end of the little house in the swamp.

Sammy cries for only one thing, we’ve found out. “Just like his Grandpa”, Ally has been known to murmur at odd times. “Only gets bitchy at dinner time.”

I suppose I could take that as insulting if it weren’t true. I haven’t missed many meals.

But I slide into that little bedroom that my grandson calls his own and grasp a foot, a rump or whatever part of him that is handy. Pull a pair of arms upward and slide a wriggling and apprehensive bundle of boy over the crib rail. And he does the same thing every time, crying or solemn or half asleep, doesn’t seem to make much difference. He’ll give a little gasp of surprise, look me dead in the eye and with a little explosive “Ah!“, grin like he just won the 3 am feeding lottery.

Which, of course, he has.

I swing him into a hug and we walk to the den and the large window there. It’s a small ritual with him and I, to take I the view of the backyard at irregular times of day. He nestles just under my nose and I smell the softness of baby hair, feel the padding of a diaper in the crook of my arm and the firm grip of a hand that is wound behind my head.

He always grants me these few minutes without complaint, and if I remember nothing for the rest of my life I hope to remember this, the stillness of the house with a silent boy in arms, staring at his world without comment, a puckered mouth wondering.

Warmth, it is. Sadness and warmth and ageless trust from blue eyes that so closely match my own. That search my face and prompt a pat from a searching paw, tapping my cheek with a smile and a reminder.

Bottle time, yes. Get on with it, Grandpa.

I ought to be writing something every day, there being so many days slipping by filled with little more than sitting with a small little man, or seeing my wife off to work, or reading everything possible online. February is harsh to the finish carpenter, even one gainfully employed by a company devoted to putting out the wood and fixtures. I go a week with nothing to do, then work a day or two, then another week passes. Not much different than last year at this time. Difference being, of course, that nobody employed me then.

I have a fear of losing that independence that comes with being out on your own. I don’t think I ever had a state of mind more calm and reasoned than when shut off from the madness that is corporate slavery.

But there’s a little madness that I toss right back at ‘em, or at least this group of straw bosses. I don’t think they’ve quite gotten a handle on me yet, even after nearly a year of the Outfoxed Experience. For example:

The phone rings on a Sunday night and it’s the Tall Dog, my very well meaning but wildly misdirected employer.

I pick up the phone and if exuberance were a corncob pipe we’d be looking at Popeye with full lungs and a bucket o’ spinach in his grip. “OUTFOXED GOOD BUDDY!”, I hear, and if there’s anything of a Sunday evening to kill my Sunday evening mood, it’s happy corporate bullshit. “I need ya to go up to the Navy base tomorrow and help good buddy Dave set the last of that stuff he’s been working on. Looks like he can get ‘er done in a week if YOU go. By golly, we can put that job to bed.”

He pauses, and I listen. His voice drops to a conspiratorial level. “Between you and me, I need Dave to pick up the pace a little. I kinda get the feeling he’s milking this job a little. And I‘m way over the labor time on it, for sure.”

Milking? No. Say it isn’t so, Tall Dog.

Now understand, all good-buddies and get-‘er-dones and put-to-beds aside, this job has been going on for a long time. Since last fall. The Navy demands that all civilian workers be paid hourly scale, which in good buddy Dave’s case is considerably more than what he makes on some non-Navy job. Lends itself to a certain, shall we say, concentrated pace on Dave’s part. Glaciers move faster. He doesn’t want the job to end. Died and gone to Your Tax Dollar at Work heaven.

For my part, the scaled wage is just barely more than I make anywhere else. And for the amount of total, upside down government malingering involved, it ain’t anywhere near worth it to me. I hate working those Navy jobs. Lots of screaming about OSHA. Two engineers for every mechanic. Two inspectors for every engineer. That utterly hopeless feeling of working on something that the cheapest and most inept contractors possible have slopped together and you’re the last man to get to the doorstep. Everybody munching on a government pie that no one in the private sector would set on their table.

As I stated, I do have my own little bit of madness prepared. Always.

I make the hour long drive to the base, suffer through vehicle inspection by 18 year olds in fatigues who seem blissfully unaware that I’ve got enough goo inside the work truck to cause all sorts of calamity, and it’s not going to be found by passing the big version of a dentists mirror underneath the chassis.

Good buddy Dave is there already, setting up saw tables. A good thing unless you consider that finish carpenters work inside, by and large. He’s setting up outside. It’s 18 degrees and a brisk breeze is blowing.

“Hiyah Outfoxed!” he exclaims. “Gonna give me a hand today, eh? Tall Dog said you might be stopping by! Boy this job is just one long time thing, you know? I reckon it ony ought to take us a couple of weeks to get ‘er done!”

“That so? Tall Dog seems to think a couple of days is more like it.”

Dave snorts, and a fine snorter he is too. “Oh no. No way. Why just let me show ye . . .“ and he all but takes me by the hand to show me his progress. “See? We got almost 40 pieces of stone left to put up, here. All gotta be cut to fit, gotta use the grinder on ‘em, glue ‘em to the wall. Can’t be rushing this stuff now. I know you’re fast, but this is ticklish. Besides, this is the main lobby, and . . .”

“It’s gotta look first class, yeah I figured that.” Dave irks me. Not by the fact that he isn’t much of a carpenter at 40 years of age (there was mention of grocery store management in his recent past) but that he’s basically cheating the Tall Dog out of any hope for profit on this gig. Which isn’t hard to do. The Dog is good natured and hates confrontation, even when it’s costing him plenty. Which is why, I suppose, that I’m there at all. To be the ramrod and the go between. Minister of the Gospel of Finish Construction. And if feathers are ruffled along the way, big fooking deal. I ain’t here to play nice.

“Here good buddy,” says Dave. “You go on inside and I’ll cut panels for you out here. They don’t want any dust or cutting inside. All you got to do is glue and set, and you can stay warm that way, right?”

“Works for me. Let’s see how we go.”

And Dave scurries inside into blessed heat, fussing with a tape measure and mumbling dimensions to himself. For five minutes he fusses while I watch impassively. He finally takes his leave with a cheery, “Okay, first panel coming right up!”

I walk the lobby, taking in all the other pieces of stone already set. The building is at the 99.9% finished state and is very quiet. A lone data cable guy pokes at control panel and fiddles. I get into the typical job conversation with him and he’s only too glad for the company. We discuss the history of the job, the dollars wasted, the inspectors from hell. All the usual. It’s only after ten minutes have passed that I do a slow pivot and peer down the hall looking for Dave.

“That Dave now, he’s a character ain’t he?” the data guy chuckles. “Been here so long you’d think they’d hang his picture out in that lobby. Guess we all gotta make a living somehow, right?” and he winks. “There’s dollars in that thar stone!”

“I reckon so”, I say and begin to take long strides toward the door just as Dave bursts through, clutching a poster sized chunk of stone and hopping from foot to foot. “Jesus it’s cold out there!”

“Where you been sport?”, I say calmly.

“Why, cutting this piece! I tell ye you wouldn’t believe how long it takes, this stuff is murder on a saw! And the dust, ohmigod . . .”

I heft the stone into place and it looks odd. “This things outta square by a quarter at least.” A quick feel along the cut edge nearly draws blood. “Good lord Dave, what the hell you using to chop this shit with, a chisel?”

Dave looks a little hurt. “Why no, it’s a diamond blade and my good saw . . .”

“Well let’s just go take a peek at your apparatus, shall we?”

He falls into line behind me and the process is begun, the wearying process that I beat myself over the head with on a weekly basis. The corporate drama, the Tool-Time from TV land training that passes for construction knowledge these days. The whinnying and whining. Let us begin.

Dave’s saw table is a wobbly affair and covered in dust, a saw cast casually aside. I pick it up for a look, and check out his meager assortment of tools.

“Where’s your framing square, Dave?”

“Don’t use one,” he said. “Tall Dog said it was all square from the factory and I should just measure it out.”

“He did, did he. Wellletsjustsee how square from the factory a piece of raw stone is.” It’s mere steps to the mighty work truck and a framing square is very available.

“Out a quarter both ways, my man. Makes it a little tough to hang forty pieces when the very first one’s out a quarter.” Dave is beginning to sputter. Just a smidgen. He looks on a little harder when I reach for my ancient coveralls, and is moved to speak when I draw out a seldom used, tiny skil saw that is permanently stained white.

“What’s that saw for?”

“Oh I reckon we’ll be needing this. Got a diamond blade on it and everything.”

“But I told you mine has . . .”

“Yeah, ye did. That nice big saw of yours that turns about half as fast as this little old wreck, right? And that might not be much of a problem but for one thing.”

Dave was brave, I’ll give him that. He drew himself up indignantly. “And what’s that?”

“You put the fucking blade on backwards there, good buddy.”

I swear, and it was a cold day, but I saw all the remaining blood run out of good buddy Dave’s face, and if his teeth hadn’t already been chattering I suspect his mouth would have come unhinged. “Backwards?”

“Yup. Tell ye what, I’ll give this cutting stuff a try and you go warm up the glue inside.” Dave tottered, considered and fled. I shrugged into Carhardts and slipped on gloves. “Oh and by the way, you’ll want to get a lot more glue ready than you got in there right now.”

Now I was nice. I only barked out something about “Goddam Kids” once. It was so cold the stone itself seemed warm, and I got into a pace of cutting a stone panel every two minutes and running it inside. From the looks of the job, and from what I knew, that was probably only 50 times faster than what had been going on since last fall. Dave was being oh so very casual about the whole affair but I could see the stress from having to keep up with cheerful me (“Come on, dammit. Get that bloody panel on the wall so I can measure the next one”) was beginning to wear on him.

It was nearing noontime and Dave sauntered outside where I stood in a cloud of stone dust behind a screaming saw. “Just about lunchtime, Outfoxed. I usually go over to the base mess hall, let me tell you they got a great cheap lunch over there. Five bucks for the pork chops on Monday, with potatoes and everything!”

I peered at him through the dust. “Got the menu memorized, eh? That’s nice.” I lined up the next stone panel and flicked a pencil line off the square. “I ought to have just about all these panels cut for you by the time you get back.”

“You mean you don’t wanna have lunch over there?”

“I mean I don’t do lunch. Makes me sleepy, it does. Cuts into my departure time, too. But you go right ahead, I imagine you worked up an appetite in that nice warm lobby by now.” (Okay, so maybe I wasn’t so nice. But I did say it with a smile, after all.)

“Uh, well maybe I better hang for another hour and get some more glue . . .”

“Aw hell Dave. Don’t let me spoil your routine, man. Go get you some pork chops for heavens sake.”

He went. He wasn’t at all sure about it because he wasn‘t at all sure about me, but routine is a powerful mistress. Turns out Dave’s routine was an hour lunch and he returned to find me dusting off, putting tools in the truck and doffing coveralls. He didn’t look at all happy.

“Got ‘em all cut, huh? Gee, guess we can go ahead and glue the rest of the wall then.”

“Naw. Not we. I’m about all done here.”

Dave stared. “But I thought you were gonna be here ‘til this was done?”

“Like, two weeks from now, you mean? I don’t reckon I’ve got that kind of time to invest in this joint. Shouldn’t take a man but about a good half day to glue those up, in any case. Then all you got to do is clean up and pack out, right?” I wasn’t sure just yet, but it looked like Dave was beginning to get the sense that he had, well, been had.

I tossed the last of it in the truck and hopped in. I’m never one for long goodbyes. “Yep, shouldn’t take but a few good hours, get this thing all wrapped up good buddy. Y’all take care,” and the large nose of the truck turned south and was gone.

The Watering Hole was cool and dark but it seemed like the warmest place around after standing outside in sub-zero temperatures all morning. It took the Tall Dog nearly to the end of the second longneck to jingle me on the cell phone, which is just about one longneck more than I’d figured.

“Outfoxed, where are you?”

“Just on my way home there, Dog. How are you doing?”

“Well gosh, I don’t know. Dave’s called me twice from the job and said you’d left him.”

“Yup, I did. Wonder why he’s calling you when he’s got all that work laid out in front of him? Told him he had just a few hours left to go on that job.”

“Well yeah but . . .”

“Hate to jump in on him when he’s been working so hard over there. Seems like he’s got everything under control, you know?”

“But if you, I mean I didn‘t mean for you to . . .”

“And you know, I didn’t want to spend a whole lot of time there, what with you losing all that labor time, like you said. No need for me to be milking that scaled wage now, is there? Got to be damned expensive for you.” I tapped the empty bottle on the bartop and a smiling lass was a half step ahead of me. No scaled wage needed for this one.

I suppose the Tall Dog chattered on for a while. Somewhat pointlessly, of course. Something about jobsite experience and tools and all that happy sort of thing that he dearly loves to praise me for. I had him backed into a corner of his own making, I’d long since deduced that the blind had been leading the blind and that, yet again, they still didn’t quite know what to do with me.

I’m sure of one thing.

They will let me do whatever needs doing. Whether it costs me money for not working absurd hours on the inane never enters their mind. Not usually, anyway. Not unless I thrust the madness back at ‘em.

Crusty old madmen are getting hard to find, after all. And they’re damned hard to employ.

I sure wouldn’t want to have to deal with the likes of me.

Not just yet.

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