Yesterday after purchasing working clothes and tools, I returned to the job site before the day ended at the Teresa staging area and took another quick look around. I waited for the workers to call it a day and followed my mark to wherever it is he would go on Thursday nights. It turns out I was in luck. Apparently, these construction workers were also talented at consuming copious amounts of alcohol. The good news just kept on coming. I know men, especially men with pride, and they’re always the easiest to handle. I followed him to his watering hole. Him and his boys sat in that bar until the good looking women had left, and then continued to drink until the other women got to looking good.
I sat in the corner and had a few myself as I watched and listened. I learned that they were not local contractors. These guys were imported, hired specifically because they specialized in building temporary housing for military and government agencies during disaster relief scenarios. They made a killing, pun unintended, during Katrina in ‘05.
These men were a brotherhood, they knew each other well. Soon they’d know me too, at least the side of me that I let them know.
The next day was Friday. I woke up again, listening to the morning news as they broadcast some banality over how Hillary Clinton turned away from Bill’s Nafta Pact. I bet Bill was pretty pissed. She called it “a little timeout.” as she ensured that the pact was put on “hold” indefinitely. For personal reasons, I’m not a great fan of Bill. Suffice to say I think that much of what was still going on in Afghanistan was due to his lack of action in ‘01. Talk to guys in Langley that were involved in Enduring Freedom and they’ll wholeheartedly agree. That, however, is another story.
I spent most of the day going around town, getting a feel of the place. Indian Springs was a small town with a big airport. Probably due greatly to the fact that the airport was a United States Amy Air Forces training facility, and also perhaps due to the fact that fifty miles due north lay the infamous Groom Lake, Area 51. It turns out that the bar my friend the Foreman liked to frequent was perhaps one of the only bars not dominated by military personnel. Considering that I understand the mind set of most military men, having “civilians” in your drinking establishment could cause a bit of a ruckus.
I made my way back to the entrance of the staging area to wait for the Foreman to leave the job site. I wasn’t entirely sure of his routine yet, and didn’t want to be at the wrong bar. Sure enough, like clockwork, his truck pulled out of the valley and onto the 95 heading east. I followed.
We got into town and I careened into a drug store parking lot, only because it was walking distance from the bar, or in this case, running distance. As he continued to drive, I leaped over a fence and made my way through several business yards before reaching the bar with a bead of sweat rolling down my forehead and labored breaths sucking through my clenched teeth. I had to be sure I would be in the bar before he was. It was psychological thing. People tend to feel like they belong to a certain group when they join that group, but newcomers are always scrutinized before being accepted. This doesn’t happen out loud, it happens through the gazes you get when you enter a bar, through the way people perceive you as you order a drink. In the first five seconds, a person will have made a basic judgment of how they consider the new arrival. In a place like this, the sound of an opening door will make or break you without you even knowing it if you’re the one walking through the door. The way you walk, the way you look, the way your coat hangs from your shoulders. Everything is watched and picked at unconsciously from the patrons of the bar. I find it funny how most people don’t even actively participate in this decision. They simply let their instincts do the assessment and never think twice of it.
As I walked through the doors, and was eyed up, I noticed someone that the group had been talking to the night before. I had approximately ten seconds to be this mans friend. The way I was dressed, as a construction worker, had already won me some rapport. I walked over to the bar and ordered a drink, because if I didn’t I’d look skeptical at best. I ordered whiskey, because men like hard men. I asked for it on the rocks for the same reason, and then I walked to the pool table and watched my friends friend play. I smiled when he’d sink a ball, and frown when he’d miss. I nodded to him, only after he nodded to me, and once he sunk the eight ball and his opponent left the table, he extended his hand and said. “You play any?”
At that moment, the foreman entered the bar. Sure enough, both the foreman’s friend and myself turned at the creaking door and made our primal assessments. Having already known this man, he was assessing if his friend was well, if he looked frustrated or jovial. He was maybe assessing if it was a good, or bad time to ask a favor, or to make a proposition. I was making a different kind of assessment. On top of what his friend was eyeing up, I was looking for characteristics. I watched him walk to the bar. I noted the swagger in his step, the way he kept his shoulders back and his brow furrowed. I knew already that he was a man of pride, but the more I met him, the more it was reinforced. I turned and racked up the balls while the foreman’s friend went to greet him. He brought him to me, which was perfect. I set up the cue ball and backed away from the table, drink in hand.
“So who’s this guy?” The foreman asked, a smile on his face. I was already breaching the wall.
“I don’t know, just met ‘em, wants to play a game.” He said to the foreman.
I could have told them my name, but being eager breaks trust. I waited for them to ask.
“I never got your name earlier.” The friend said.
“I’m Jason Strattford.” I said, pulling the name from oblivion.
“Nice to meet you Jason.” Said the foreman as he reached out with an open hand.
This moment was crucial. Many may not be aware that a handshake is everything. People fail job interviews due to bad handshakes, and what was at stake here was far more than a job interview, even though that’s what I wanted this meeting to become. I took a step forward and leaned in slightly, thrusting my hand accurately into his and squeezing firmly. He squeezed back, and for a millisecond it was as if we were trying to see who could squeeze harder. I’m quite sure that he would win in that endeavor if we were to go down that road. As he released my hand he took his turn. “I’m Tom Fitzgerald, this is my friend Phil Clark. He’s our accountant.”
“So you’re in business together?” I asked, leading them innocently to divulge as much information as they could.
“Yeah, we do construction.” Phil said, as he broke, no balls were sunk. “Well, they do construction, I crunch numbers.”
“I figured you’d wear glasses in that kind of job.” I said jokingly, trying to ease the “business” tone that the conversation had taken. I took a shot for a high number ball but missed, and not on purpose.
Phil laughed again. “Contacts.” He said, then retracted. “Nah I’m just kidding, these puppies...” he pointed at his eyes. “...work 100%.” He sunk the 7.
“Good to know.” I replied, to not leave him hanging as he sunk 1, I was going to get schooled.
Fitzgerald took a sip of his rye and then asked “So what do you do?”
Bells went off in my head like I had won the lottery, but on the outside I was stone cold serious. “Actually, I’m into construction too, framing mostly. It’s a shame, when I was younger we did a lot more work, now it’s all pre-fabricated bullshit.”
“Hah, you think you’ve got it bad? We work in temporary housing, if you think a prefab is boring, you’d hate to do our job.” Phil spat out as he sunk 5.
I turned to him laughing. “Ever notice how the work gets easier but we bitch just as much as when it was hard?”
Both of them cracked up, and I thanked God, because honestly that was a horrible joke. I broke their laughter on purpose, to bring gravity to the situation. “Honestly though, I’m out of the job. Got laid off last week in Virginia because of a company deal, now I’m here because my cousin told me back in February that there was some big contract here that was short on guys.”
“That would be us.” Fitzgerald said, “We’re not exactly short on guys though, but we have one hell of a contract.”
I made my eyes widen. “Really?”
“Yeah, it’s huge.” Phil said as he finally missed a shot on 3.
“Well, if you need a guy, let me know.” I said, taking another shot and sinking twelve. “But for now.” I said, raising my glass of whiskey “Let’s get lit!”, downing the rest of it and walking over to the bar. The boys were laughing as I ordered another whiskey on the rocks. I’d have to be careful here. I didn’t want to get too drunk and lose myself in my web of lies. I had to be moderate, but make them think I was drinking as much or more than they were.
The rest of his crew showed up in the following hour. I lost the game against Phil, having only sunk two balls, I paid him the five dollars he said we had wagered the game on, even though we never made any such wager. At about midnight, I got some Pepsi and poured it into water with a drop of whiskey and drank the rest of my drinks that way. It still looked exactly like whiskey, smelt a bit too, but by then they weren’t scrutinizing and as long as it fit the bill I was clean and dry. When the bar got dull, someone asked if we should go jewelry shopping. For about the tenth of a second I was confused, but I realized what they meant by their glazed gazes. In the honest interest of looking like an ass for their pleasure I waited a few minutes and then blurted it out when the conversation had changed topics. “Oh you meant strippers!” I laughed, hanging myself off of one of them as if I could barely stand. “Jewelry shopping! Hah!”
In the following half hour we had made our way across the small town to the one and only strip joint available. Once we walked in, I didn’t feel so bad about having taken advantage of the young girl at the gas station, because she looked a whole lot better than the women dancing on stage. One of the guys found it hysterical to light a lighter under his quarters and then throw the hot change at the strippers. I have to admit that I found it quite funny as well. At the strip club I couldn’t get away with drinking fake booze because they were buying most of it for me. It turns out that they were having a blast and thought I was the life of the party. Something happened after this that sealed their favor for me indefinitely.
A group of army guys walked in. I knew they were army guys right away from the short hair, the way they walked, and the tattoos of blood types and winged swords. I didn’t let my construction comrades know just yet, as I thought maybe this could get interesting. We occupied about half of the small establishment. We were nine guys, and aside from an old native man in perverts row, we had the place to ourselves until the army guys showed up. They instinctively took up the other half of the skin joint and sat down. There were only four of them. It’s when they had sat down and everything was comfortable that I decided to stir the pot.
“Hey boys.” I said. “Imagine we had to cut our hair like that every day?” A reality I had lived for many years, oh if only they knew the truth I would have probably been bleeding in a gutter somewhere. But they didn’t. They turned their attention across the bar and half of them sneered to the point that I thought their noses would bleed.
“Bastards, we were having a good night until now.” One of them said.
“Yeah, I’m out of here, talk to you guys on Monday, nice to meet you Jason.” He shook my hand and made his way out of the strip joint, eyeing the army men the entire way out.
My plan was going well, or not well depending on how you see the outcome. I was surprised at how strong the animosity was between the two groups. I hadn’t realized that there had been previous events.
“Why’d he leave?” I asked.
“I’m going too.” another guy said.
“What’s going on?” I asked again.
Fitzgerald leaned to me, not taking his eyes off the men across the room. “There’s been problems with the army and us a few times now. The only ones we get along with are the ones at our job site. That’s only because they leave us the hell alone.”
The boys across the room hadn’t stopped eyeing us up either, one of them pulled out a cell phone, and ten minutes later three more guys showed up.
“Ah, come on. They can’t touch us.” I said to him. “Hey prissy!” I yelled across the room. “You sure you’re in the right place, there are naked girls here you know. Might offend your senses.”
The guys were laughing, and that was good. That was good because if the guys that were still here were laughing, it’s because they weren’t afraid to fight... or that they were too drunk to know the difference. In any case, it continued. They spat something back, but I couldn’t hear it over the music and the tattered frame of a naked girl spinning on a pole before me. Throughout the night, the bickering got worse. At one point a beer bottle was thrown across the room, and the bouncers hauled one of the army guys out. Soon enough they all left, and we enjoyed the last hour and a half I peace. “Alright boys, it’s time to get going.” said the bouncer as he herded us like intoxicated cattle out the door. At this point, intoxicated was an understatement. I don’t think I had been that drunk since I left the army myself.
We were walking to the hotel where the government had put Fitzgerald and his men up, and had made it about a block before we were confronted. There were only three of us at this point: Fitzgerald, a guy named Mike or Mac or Micky, I couldn’t remember and then there was Phil; 100% eyes Phil. Ahead of us on the street, there were six men. One of them had some kind of rod or pipe. This was looking bad. I picked up a rock.
Fitzgerald walked up. “Come on guys.” He said, “You want to fight, let’s do this fair, one on one.”
For all the time Fitzgerald has been dealing with army guys, he hasn’t gotten to know them too well. Strength in numbers, there’s no such thing as fairness on the battlefield. I walked closely behind him as he made his way to them. I was stumbling, but wasn’t as drunk as I was making myself look.
The man with the pipe came up to Fitzgerald leisurely. “One on one eh?” He said.
“Yeah” Fitzgerald replied, putting his arms up as if ready to fight this armed man. “One on one, You got that?” He said, turning around and pointing at me. “Don’t interfere.”
As Fitzgerald was turned to me, the pipe guy lifted for a swing.
I pointed to him “Look out!” Just as Fitzgerald turned, the pipe was about to come down. I threw the rock I had picked up and it bounced off the mans fingers. I was aiming for his head.
He yelled as he dropped the pipe, his hand retracting to his pelvic area as he winced and buckled in two like a wounded ape.
Fitzgerald wasn’t done with him, as his fist came down over the man’s head. I hadn’t noticed someone to my left until I heard his foot steps, I turned in time to see a man racing toward me with fist in air. I dropped underneath the punch and grabbed on to the scruff of his jacket as his momentum pushed him further past me. I held on and, once behind him, yanked back to watch his feet fly up from under him. As soon as he was airborne I let go of the jacket and his back plummeted to the asphalt. I heard the sickening crack of ribs and that familiar sound of the air rushing out of lungs as the wind was knocked out of him.
I was hit in the back and winced, sucking in a painful gasp as I turned around. I parried a punch and took one to the face as I backed up, trying to get a bead on my opponent. This guy was fast, and probably sober. My eyes were watering from the last hit to my face and I had a hard time seeing. I could see a blurred leading right foot step forward and the twisting of his toe on the asphalt so I put up my left arm and sure enough, his fist smashed into my bicep. The block gave me enough time to straighten out my head and get back into the fight. I had to dominate to win and so far I wasn’t doing very good. I could see more clearly now as he threw a jab and I tapped it away. I was done backing up. I planted my feet and he nearly walked in to me. I used the close distance to my advantage and fed an elbow to his unprotected head. He stumbled back. I walked toward him slowly and now it was his turn to back away, probably still dazed from the elbow. Before I could get in closer, we heard the sirens of a squad car as it’s lights came on and it careened toward us. I grabbed on to Fitzgerald and moved him back toward Phil and the other guy.
“Time to leave boys.”
We went through a few yards, and narrowly escaped being cut off by the patrol car on the other side. We had made it across the main drag, but the cops hadn’t expected us to move so quickly and were searching the yards with their spotlights. It didn’t take us long to get to the hotel where we all went up to Fitzgeralds suite.
“You do this every Friday?” I said. Sitting on a couch with blood running down my right brow.
“Hah.” Fitzgerald said, with a bloody lip that I don’t remember seeing him get. “That was fucking fun.”
“Phil, you alright?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“And you? Tim, Tom... what’s your name again?”
“I’m fine, and my name’s Jack.”
I laughed, damn I was way off.
What a night.