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Construction News Chapter One July 6, 2006

Posted by jeanne in construction news, Rough Draft.

Construction News Chapter One

‘Wait. Slow down. I’m fixing to drop it.’ This was whispered loudly in the dark, the hiss rising above the noise of tennis shoes crunching thru the kudzu.

‘Don’t drop it.’

‘It’s heavy. It’s slippery. I thought I felt him move.’

“You say that every time. Don’t drop it.’ They continued to crunch thru a kudzu-infested ex industrial back lot. In the dark. There was no way to see if they were stepping on broken concrete, into holes, or on twisted rebar. It was a faith walk, like going barefoot over coals.

‘Where is it?

They stopped to peer into the darkness. ‘Over here.’

‘Are you sure?’

This was answered by silence. A police car sped by with his lights on but no siren. It was way after peoples’ bedtime, and the cop could speed by if he wanted to.

There was a light thud, as the body dropped to the ground, a grunt and a dragging sound as sheet metal was lifted aside. Then the sound of a shovel hitting dirt.

Pock scree pock scree. It was almost deep enough. Just a couple more inches deep and a little bigger around.

Then they made stuffing a body in a hole noises for awhile. Then they said some words over the grave. They weren’t nice words. Then they went home.

A new food source communed with the worms.

That night, the old man and the old lady made love. The howling outside roused them in the night and they reached for each other with passion. It never ocurred to them to ask why they suddenly got horny for each other. At their age, you don’t question these things.

The old lady woke with a smile on her face, and reached for the old man. But he was already dressed and out walking the dog. Oh well. She lay there looking out the window at the huge old pecans in her back yard. She listened to the birds and the whine of a table saw. Then she got up and put on the same clothes she’d worn the day before, and wandered to the kitchen to make herself some coffee. Stumbled is more like it. These days her feet hurt when she got out of bed in the morning, as if she’d been clenching them all night. Maybe she was dreaming she was a bird.

The old man came back. The screen door slammed, the dog came bounding into the kitchen to nose her feet and whack her with his big fluffy tail, the old man came clumping into the kitchen at a deliberate pace, appearing out of the shadowy hall like a ghost, his white beard and thin scruffy hair shining out like a haze around him. He bent over the back of her neck and nuzzled.

Altman reheated his coffee in the microwave. ”Remember that piano Thing One tried to sell us for a hundred dollars a couple of days ago?’ he leaned on the counter waiting for the bell. ‘And I tried to tell him it would cost four times that to get it to play? Well, I passed a piano below the apartments this morning with the dog.’ The dog looked up hopefully but Altman ignored him. The bell went off.

Velha looked up hopefully. ‘Ivory and ebony?’

‘Plastic.’ She shrugged and had more coffee. They sipped in silence.

It was a comfortable kitchen. The whole family were artisans, and the kitchen was custom built after long dinnertime discussions where drawings were waved and tape measures were whipped out. Shelves so Dad could get stuff down for Mom, counters Mom could work at comfortably, seating for the whole family, and friends, and animals, and plants. Capacious pantry space. Storage. And room for dad’s art and thingies. Years after the kids were gone to their own homes, there was still enough room for them all.

‘How are the animals?’ she asked. One was sick.

‘Daisy was still pretty sore looking when I passed by with the dog. She wouldn’t let me get near her yesterday. I’ll spend more time with her this morning. 

There was a sound at the door, and the dog went insane trying to kill someone thru the screen.

It was Thing Two. There were two homeless guys in the neighborhood. Everybody called them Cat in the Hat names; hardly anybody knew their real names. And they fit the characters. Thing One was originallly froom New York, an addict and conman of a certain audacious stamp, Thing Two was from deepest Geotgia, and had different social pathologies, but the effect on third parties was often the same.

Thing Two hardly ever showed up at their door. Only when he wanted to borrow money. And he always paid it back, so Altman usually gave him what he had, crumpled dollars from his wallet. He only wanted to borrow money when he was in a bad way.

Thing Two was hangdog. His skin sagged off him, and his kinky gray hair made him look like a detention camp survuvor. The bones of his face could barely hold his huge, staring eyes. He looked like jekyll or frankenstein.

He stared at his tennis shoes and the scruffy pants he’d slept in, or rather, had not slept in. He smelled of night sweats, beer and piss. It humiliated the last shred of his pride any time he had to go to someone’s door to ask for money, and here he was doing it again. He was the lowest scum on earth. You could see that he meant it. Thing Two suffered the tortures of the damned on a daily basis.

Altman was willing to lend him money as long as he continued to pay him back. That made the deal self limiting. With a beer in his hand, he could be productive and get some work done, and get a paycheck, and he always seemed happier. He was so very miserable when he was ragged.

Like he was then, sitting on the front porch, his dishevelled head in his grimy hands, everything even his shirt the same gray color. Heavy dark lines in several layers around his eyes. Velha brought him water and some fruit from the bowl. He ate it while she watched to see he didn’t leave half of it behind something. He was telling the old man about how the universe is infinite, and that meant his existence meant nothing. A moan escaped him.

He looked as if he was going to go right home and commit suicide. He’d been in and out of institutions, according to his buddy Thing One. Altman was taking it all very calmly, as if it was completely normal to be in this kind of a fix if you were on Thing Two’s path.

The old lady went back to the kitchen, reheated her coffee, and headed for her computer.

Hours later they broke for lunch and a walk around the neighborhood with the dog. They noticed a black Ford truck parked on the street along the west side of their block, Side Street. The truck was sitting at the edge of the soon-to-be-ex vacant lot, parked  in the shade across from the only house on the next block of abandoned industrial buildings. The old man remembered passing the truck when he was out with the dog around 7:30.

The windows were down, so they slowed as they passed the truck. They spotted an elbow, and then someone flicked their cigarette out the window and looked down to see them passing.

‘Oh, hey, sorry,’ the guy started apologizing, and got out of the truck. ‘I was on the phone. I didn’t. Sorry.’

The old man waved it away. He liked the look of the guy. He belonged in Grant Park. Something bohemian about him. Maybe it was the biker tattoos or the double earring holes. The old man sniffed the air and introduced himself.

The guy shook his hand. ‘George Forman,’ he said. ‘I’m in charge of this project here.’ He was a big construction kind of guy, with a clean tshirt and new work boots. His cab was his office, a laptop sat open on some email. He towered over them, like Hulk Hogan in jeans.

‘Wow,’ the old woman said, ‘they’re really going ahead with it.’

They stood and looked out over a vacant industrial lot that filled the northwest corner of their block. An abandoned store, an abandoned warehouse, a shipping container left in back years ago. 3.8? Acres of kudzu. ‘Full of rats,’ he nodded solemly at the old couple.

They looked concerned. He wondered if he ought to be discussing this. Area residents could be skittish. ‘We’ve already had the city out here about it,’ he added hastily, in case they were imagining a stream of rats heading out of the weeds toward their houses.

He needn’t have worried. They were in fact thinking that their animals might appreciate a rat hunt. The old man was already hearing little rat screams in his head.

‘Yep,’ he continued, ‘came out here and poisoned them last week. Sure you didn’t see any rats in your back yards?’ he asked only partly as a joke. The couple exchanged disappointed glances.

‘Yeah, nothing to worry about, because they’re all dead by now. We’ll just clear them out with the rest of it.’ He waved expansively. He liked the old couple. He could tell that they weren’t as excitable as some residents he’d met in his day and a half vigil. A day and a half waiting for his entrance package to arrive. That’s one bulldozer, and a couple of dumptruck loads of gravel. A long time hanging out in the shade, away from the office. Waiting.

His phone rang, and he climbed back into the truck after it. He waved as they moved on.

‘He’s nice, I like him,’ Velha said as they got to the end of the block.

Altman tugged the dog away from a discarded pork rib. ‘Too bad about the rats.’

Thing One was waiting for them on their front porch. He had some business to talk over with Altman. He sat tapping his feet on a rocker, looking very impatient. He was always energetic and zippy and it annoyed the old lady. Same cadaverous build as the other homeless guy, same grimy skin and stubbly cheeks.

Velha couldn’t wait to escape to the back room, but he caught her and asked for a glass of cold water, and the way he said cold meant he wanted a tray of ice cubes in a big plastic drink cup they had at the top of the shelves. She noticed the slight – he treated her like a waitress, always leaving a mess, gladly taking more than he was given and complaining about the quality of the service. Velha begrudged Thing One.

One obvious difference between Thing One and Thing Two was the look in their eyes. Thing One was shifty, Thing Two was miserable. And their outlooks on life. Thing One was still trying to get a free ride. Thing Two was buried by guilt and responsibility. They were both sorry fucks. But the old lady felt compassion for one and none at all for the other.

The old man came back to tell her how it all worked out with Thing One, who’d been out front pattering like an old fashioned taxi driver, trying to argue him out of more money for a job he’d only half completed and that needed redoing. He didn’t seemed phased by the issues. He had to have money now.  So the old man had gone back to the bedroom and fetched the change bowl he filled from his pockets every night, and gave that to him.

The old lady looked at him with horror. ‘But there’s thirty dollars in quarters in that bowl.’

He looked sly. ‘Not any more. Thing Two went thru the bowl this morning.’ He shrugged toward the street. ‘He’s lucky if he got three bucks out of it.’

That evening there was a meeting of neighbors. The developer of the project was coming around to tell them all what was going to happen. Everyone was collected on the old couple’s front porch waiting for him to show up, taking big gulps of Miz Koppel’s renowned sweet tea and scooping up oatmeal cookies. It was almost festive. But it lacked two things. The first was that altho some of these people had lived next door to each other for upwards of a decade, most of them barely knew each other to wave to. The second was that their hearts weren’t in the right places. Like they were assembled for blood or something.

Not everybody was there. The college students at the corner of the block didn’t come out of their lair until after dark, and couldn’t care less about how construction would affect their neighborhood. Velha only knew the one guy’s name because Maggie down the street’s daughter Star was living with him. Gordon. He was tall. He said Ma’m.

The family next door was represented by the mom, whose name the old lady kept forgetting. Nancy, or something. Mary. Something. She was nice. She smiled and agreed with everybody. The family next door  lived next to the nice gay couple who were continuously renovating their house, starting before dawn seven days a week. Then there was Maggie, an aging hippie with the courage of her convictions except when it came to men. Velha and Maggie liked each other, but always seemed too busy to do more than stop and talk once in a while. Today it was smalltalk. The weather. The jobs.

Joe DeVeloepr was late to the meeting on purpose. He knew damned well the neighbors didn’t know each other and would have to get over the introductions. He wanted them feeling comfortable so he could make his entrance with smiles. He praised the tea the loudest of them all. And then he got down to business.

‘The first thing you got to know about a project as big as this,’ he began, ‘is that it’s going to make a big difference in your daily lives for a good couple of months.’ He started to explain the construction process, trying to introduce them to the major disruptions they could expect from commercial development.’

He gazed out on a sea of bland faces. ‘I’ll keep it simple, and leave out the technical details,’ he decided. ‘Here, let’s look at the drawings.’ He unrolled the site maps and everybody bent forward to find their property. He continued to explain the changes that would undoubtedly shatter their little worlds, but they weren’t listening. They were completely absorbed in gazing at the outline of their house, and the straight lines of their chain link fences. The old lady looked fondly at the circles depicting the pecan trees at the back of her yard.

The nice gay guy from the middle of the block was tapping the plans. He tapped the alley, running between the houses and the planned multi-use development. The developer saw his question, and headed him off.

‘I know you all have heard some talk about some perks, just for putting up with us.’ He looked modest. He had everybody’s attention now. The only reason they were sitting on the old couple’s front porch was because yes they damn well had heard about perks.. but they had also heard that the project was going to start any old time now for the last five years. ‘Well, what we’re proposing is this. We need a letter from each of you,’ he nodded down the line, ‘saying you don’t mind us building our modest project in behind your back yards. A good neighbor letter.’ This was because otherwise they wouldn’t get the final permits, but he neglected to tell them that.

He paused and drank off two inches of tea. His face was red and swollen, but this ws because he’d put on  button down shirt with a tie, and the pressure caused his head to swell. ‘Once the project’s out of the starting gate, we’re planning to lay you down a slab,’ he ticked the back of the property lines with a finger, ‘Free of charge, and then,’ he saw faces brightening. ‘We’re going to build you all garages,’ He sat back and mopped his brow. He could feel mosquitos digging into the back of his neck, but he didn’t want to look nervous or go slapping or itching.

The neighbors oohed and ahed. The mom of the family next door rubbed her hands.

‘Yup. Up to ten thousand dollars,’ he said, then pointed at the plan and directed their attention to the reconstruction of the alley. The neighbors envisioned illegal granny houses, extra storage space. The old lady thought of a greenhouse. The old man thought of his collection.

‘So don’t forget the letters,’ he finished, rolling up the plans. ‘We need them for tree removal and other things.’ The old lady looked up at this, then looked at her husband. He nodded back at her; he was on top of it. Not our trees.

‘Did anybody ask about the lake?’ she asked.

There was a chorus of complaints about the way it’d always been out back, the lake that built up during the spring rains and stayed, the rumors of a spring, the kudzu, the mosquitos.

Joe DeVeloepr had heard the details before. Of course the whole point of the development was an excuse to take care of the chronic drainage problem. The old lady was pretty sure he said that. Or something close.

She didn’t care about the perks. She’d already read the future and figured they would get nothing but headaches from the whole business. She was not in favor of the project. She was apparantly the only one who was not. Everybody else acted like they couldn’t wait for the ground to start shaking, and she dreaded it. They complained about the water that collected in the alley, they complained about the mosquitos, they complained about the kudzu. But she liked it that way. She liked a vacant lot between her house and the busy road. Nothing wrong with a few rats and homeless tents.

Everybody filed off the porch after the developer left, moving down the block and peeling off toward their front doors. The old lady was glad to see them go. They left a bunch of dirty glasses. She was not happy.

They had a quiet dinner, and then took the dog for a walk thru the neighborhood. ‘He said construction would start tomorrow,’ the old man observed. They walked on in silence. The dog pulled at his leash and peed on everything in sight.

‘Well, I’m excited about the change,’ he continued. ‘It’s been derelict for the last twenty years at least, since the kids were grown. It’ll be good to see new faces, have people coming in and out, maybe shopping at a grocery we could walk to.’

They turned a corner and the dog started dragging the old man up the hill. All to go over to a huge oak tree and pee all over it. The old woman began getting annoyed at the dog’s persistence. If he were a female dog, she would squat, pee, and that would be about it. He was portioning out tiny droplets of pee over vast numbers of things. It must take incredible bladder control. Maybe she should try it.

The old lady sagged. ‘I was planning on harvesting the kudzu this year, a big crop. Kudzu wine. Cures alcoholism. I was going to try it on Thing Two.’ She started to cry weakly. These days frustration really got to her, and she lost heart over the smallest things.

The old man put his hand around hers, and they walked along behind the dog, who put his forty-five pounds as far from the end of the leash as he could and pulled.

Velha had enough. ‘Please give me the leash,’ she demanded. A jerk was the dog’s warning that Mom had the leash now and Puppy had better behave. And so he did. Miracles never cease. They walked the rest of the way home hand in hand, the dog in fear of his life, right at their heels.



1. David LeVack - November 3, 2006

I have only had two books that tantalized me, I read the first page and if Im not grabbed, I stop. Those were HOCUS POCUS by Kurt Vonnegut, and EAST OF EDEN by John Steinbeck. Your prose is punchy.

2. constructionews - November 11, 2006

so, okay, are you still reading?

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