Pop hates the scabs, says they wouldn’t know a good thing if it slapped them with a sack of pussy.
Right in the their cock-smoking faces, says Pop.
It’s picket season and Pop is flying the giant rat. I ride shotgun to work the pump, keep coffee for the cowboys—make sure they get it how they take it.
It’s just the ignorance, Jim says. Jim is one of the cowboys; he sidearms Johnny Walker but knows how to pitch a wrench. If they only knew, he says, knocks back his Walker coffee, knuckles me for more.
No shitting, says Pop. It’s thanks to us they have a weekend.
I thought that was ‘cause of Jesus, I say.
Jackshit Jesus, Pop says. He’s still a scab carpenter, savior or no.
Jim looks wistful, says, If they only knew.
Just work the pump, says Pop. We gotta beat the pour.
The two-gate system nipped balls from the picket line. Union busters make it so open shops can cross gate two while trade guys mill around gate one, shredding paper signs and frothing on their steel-toes, aiming bullhorns like pistols. Most scabs sling Spanish curses through the chain-link; the brave ones sling food; the really brave ones don’t miss. The cowboys riddled with putos and cobbed corn.
But on pour day we get our balls back.
We put pressure to the polyvinyl rat until his eyes bulge thirty feet high, and the white collars cup their eyes against their office windows, face the whiskers. Sometimes the boys fit him with a bandanna, old bed sheets daisy-chained and dyed red, something like a setting tone, to hearken the beast days when life was cheaper and sidearms were literal. When the cock-smokers got hit with worse things than muff.
The good old days, Jim says now, makes a face like he’s been missing some.
I nod but keep cutting foam, and cast glances at Pop, who’s swilling scotch now, too, and flinging cigarette butts to the gutter, whipping the meeker boys—apprentices and newly vested journeymen—into bravehearts.
What do we want? he says. When do we want it?
The foam is for the cheese. The cheese is Pop’s brainchild. He has one every strike, wakes me up with a boot to the box spring and Eureka! on his lips. He used to wake Mom this way until she decided to do her waking elsewhere, left him a Dear John, said it was she not he; but when I’m scrubbing sheets free of tread stains or carving cheese wheels for a rubber rodent, I’m pretty sure it’s he. It may not trump the sanctity of marriage, but I get it.
Scabby needs a prop, Pop said. Get up and make a Jarlsberg.
Boot. Box spring. Eureka.
Kelly says Jarlsberg is Swiss cheese made by Norwegians. Kelly is Jim’s son; he rides shotgun, too, but doesn’t give a fuck about a bunch of shitkickers. You have no idea how many fucks I don’t give, Kelly would say. Our dads are like brothers because they’ve been threading steel for two decades, and perambulated drunk from the same pubs, sprayed their wives with chromosomes while the stars aligned. Swapped It’s A Boy cigars. They’re shareholders of an ethos: the world’s a feudal system; if you’re not vested then you carry tools and your chin is made for scraping. Kelly and I are brothers because our chromosomes made Ys and our chins match scrape for scrape. Plus we have no mothers. His didn’t bother with a Dear Anybody, just one day up and vanished.
It’s not that I miss her, he said once. She left before I could even barely read.
I told him he could barely read still—just to fill the silence.
Read this, he said, gave me his finger to browse.
So these days I let my brother do the filling. That’s the quid. The pro quo, he helps with the cheese.
I’ll make some holes, he says, burning burrows into the foam with his cigarette. He tracks his Zippo along the edges to prompt a little pigment. The Teamsters are going to shit, he says. They love weekends and hate scabs like your pop does.
Me, I don’t hate the scabs. I can see both sides of a thing. Mr. Morris, my guidance counselor, said it’s a sign of intelligence. Sitting in a dimpled-leather rolling chair, wearing an Einstein tee shirt, he stabbed blueberries with an oyster fork and narrowed down the future.
So you’re saying I’m intelligent, I said.
There are open doors, he said.
Not that many doors.
Before Einstein it was turtlenecks and blue jeans, Steve Jobs couture. Same litmus, though. All seniors take it, this door-closing test. Passed around during free period, the blackened bubbles are read by a computer that decides tomorrow. Congratulations Mr. So and So, of the world’s many things, you are suited for, like, three.
Someone has to drive the bus, Mr. Morris would say. A lucky few get to own it. He looked at me then lanced a wayward berry. No, not that lucky.
My computer said option one: philosopher.
I didn’t know option ones still existed.
They’re certainly an endangered species, Morris said. But option two requires a special drivers license.
Who the fuck is Mr. Morris? Jim says now. Tell him my paycheck could cut his check a check.
Jim’s a dying breed of option one.
How does that work exactly? I say. I mean, who does the signing? Or the cashing even?
This does, Jim says, gives me the finger. You got it?
Got it, I say.
Outside the picket line a migrant woman with a pushcart offers mango and the chance to pay for it—a straw basket, a shallow pool of copper and grubby ones, but I know she keeps cash in a nest of adipose tissue, due south. She knows I know it, makes a face she brought from home, a country still in its beast days.
Don’t try it, it says.
I’ll only try the mango, I say.
She pares the skin and sprinkles the fruit with lemon, some chili powder. Mango on a stick like a cool-orange bonsai. She pumps quarters from her waist and wants to know why a rat.
The rubber rat banks back and forth with the breeze, its handkerchief playing at a large red windsock.
Because they’re ignorant, I say, gesturing my mango stick the gesture of either stupid or crazy. A set of barrel rolls about the lobes. Stupid. Crazy. Either way, I gesture.
Oh, no, she says. Ratas are cleber. You take my words for it.
If you take her words for it, Pushcart will tell you she kept them as pets. The ratas. As a kid. Taught them peanut tricks: shell-shucking, peanut butter from a spoon, the palm.
That is cleber, I say.
What’s clever? says Kelly.
Rats, tricks, legumes.
What about cheese?
No, Pushcart says. They donnat eat the sheeze.
Take her words for it, I say.
What about her mangoes? he says, gestures a palmfull of chestfruit.
She’s back on the quarter pump.
Paring knife, lemon, chili.
Pop remembers Jim’s good days. They joined the UA in the same year, when unionism was synonymous with lion’s share, and selective hiring kept the lions white. Training was hands-on. The slow-moving apprentice a target for screwed elbows, threaded nipples; it’s how Jim learned to pitch his wrench, put enough English on it to unhat an apprentice without turning his lights all the way out. The good old boys are all the same: an entire generation of men who speak with their hands and wear blue collars like millstones—yoked masons and silent rebar twisters. Men who pass rough hands on to their XY progeny. Kelly has rough hands so he drew a penis on his Scantron, a few darkened bubbles for seminal fluid. Mr. Morris says our friendship has a shelf life. Kelly’s doors lead to places where they’ll stuff a swab in his mouth, smear ink on his phalanges, store DNA twists for the subsequent trial, the discovery. Places where they take your shoelaces just in case. He’s looking for a corroborating witness, Mr. Morris said. Someone to lie with a hand on King James.
If Kelly had fucks to give he’d probably be a Morris, too. Only to subvert the system, he’d say. All those little minds molded in my image. Can’t you imagine?
I say I can’t, even though I can. So help me God, the little minds say.
But since he’s fuck-deficient Kelly spends most days trying to subvert the future. I’m playing at his alibi—at least until our expiration date.
Now the cheese is finished. Scabby the rat holds it to his chest and waits for the cement truck rumble.
Pop wants to know what’s taking them so fucking long.
What’s taking them so fucking long? he says.
Teamsters are tough—not crazy tough like the beam-walkers, or leather boot tough like the laborers, back-breakers with brine-soaked skin, but they maintain their strength in numbers. And they never cross a picket line. The union busters add a second gate; we stand in front of it; and the Teamsters park their rigs and let the concrete churn until the general contractor says Uncle. They always do, usually before the dirt cakes the mud flaps.
Pop is relying on that Teamster muscle, that trouser swell of balls.
He’s down to a tank top now. Jim beside him, a lit cigarette dangling. They’ve got white-knuckle grips on the fence, their eyes framed by the links. Okay, Jose, says Pop. I see you you little rat. The rats stare back, flexing their wifebeater tans and spitting between their boots. Everybody hating everybody, and everybody pissing in the dirt, trying to spot measure the distance.
All I do is pray for rain.
Or a stiff wind, blow the piss back at them.
One of the meek hooks me at the elbow. You’re the big man’s son, he says. Little big man. He points to the back of Pop’s back. What’s he really like?
Mostly really like this, I say.
I spend a lot of mornings working on brainchildren, skipping class—doubling down on option two, adding color to my collar. Kelly skips too but bones up his reading. We sit around the bedroom cracking schoolbook spines. Kelly likes to break the backs.
Who’re you going to read to when I’m not around? I said once, projecting indifference.
I don’t even know what that means, he said, projecting the same. Besides, when are you not around?
Fuck off, I said. I’ve got doors. Horizons.
I like the hardbacks best, he said, dislocating one.
Later he brought his other books, read aloud the stuff that wasn’t assigned in school. Real life shit, he said. The suffer-long-and-die-longer stuff.
Did you know that tuberculosis ravaged the cradle of civilization, like, four thousand years ago? he said. The Egyptians and Greeks, their children, all manner of Fertile Crescent critter wiped out.
Then there was the plague, the black one, one in three pockets posied.
Have you seen what an Agent Orange baby looks like? he said. Look, I brought pictures.
All those inflated skulls and pop-out peepers I can’t unsee.
Those were somebody’s good old days, I said, trying to blink away plague.
Not his, he said, flashed Vietcong critter.
Those Betty Davis eyes.
Other philosophers take note: the weekend thing, it really was Jesus, or at least his followers, disciples of disciples—the blue-collared sons of Abraham wanting to keep holy the holy day. Then it was Orthodox Jews observing Shabbos. We get hammered on Rolling Rock and lip gristle from ribs because our savior—in his wisdom—makes allowances. Thank him, even if the jackshit hammered cogs without a collective bargaining agreement.
He’s also a statutory rapist, Kelly says, sitting on the curb like a dustbowl farmer, overall’d and waiting for action. God is the world’s first registered sex offender, he says. I won’t even mention the whole sex-with-the-mom thing.
At least he had a mom, I say.
Touché, Kelly says, chomps mango and spits.
The picket line is thick with drink. The boys have ditched the bullhorns for hand tools. Pop handed them out. Jim showed them how to brandish.
Pop looks like Patton in Carhartt work pants. He hands each of the cowboys a wrench: monkey wrench, pipe wrench, hammer wrench, all the wrenches. He says to them, Ask not what your union can do for you…
I think: God needs to report now.
The general contractor cancelled the pour. Rescheduled i,t really. Sometime between the second gate and the Jarlsberg, the clever rat made the picket line obsolete. Now he wants to negotiate with a scattershot gaggle of disgraced cowhands, drunk, looking to nip the horn. He comes out the trailer, hat in hand, a white flag look on his face. Another peanut trick.
Unless you’re coming to tell me you’re shit-canning the vatos, you’re wasting your fucking time, says Pop.
The general’s wasting his fucking time. There actually seems to be more vatos, a multitude of vatos, a vato plethora scheming on our flank. I scan the crowd, wondering which one of them is their Pop. Their Jim and Kelly.
Which one of them is relegated to the props?
Insults are exchanged, allusions to butt-fucking, throat-fucking, fist-fucking, the entire fucking spectrum. The general promises to return with the law, that he’ll have you assholes in cages. I visualize the metaphor, a drunk tank full of belligerent sphincters blowing shit over a phone call, their confiscated shoelaces. The assholes boo, belt him with soda cans that crack their heads on the shale and spin. Some of the little assholes roar and drag their wrenches across the fence like prison cups.
Finally, Kelly says, some action. Looks like we won’t have a choice.
How about inaction, I say.
As a choice?
That sounds a lot like faggotry, says Kelly. Or a lot like Morris. Probably both.
Fuck off, I say. Read this.
Pop waves me over, tucks me into his armpit. Have a bit to cure what ails you, he says, giving me the Johnny treatment.
I’m not ailing, I say, taking it
It’ll put hair on your chest, he says, spilling some on the hair on his chest. Your balls, too.
We don’t have any balls.
Pop says give it a minute.
It may be the alcohol or whatever, but the cowboys are hugging. Slapping baseball slaps to the ass cheeks.
It’s probably the alcohol.
Pop takes me by the chin. Why didn’t you throw anything?
He’s not even a scab, Pop.
He hired them, says Pop.
They’re cheap help, I say.
Birds of a feather.
Nobody wants to trowel pavement, Pop.
He made his bed.
He has to lay down sometime. Pop gestures like that time is now. Do the right thing here and help tip the gate. From the bottom up.
No, not like that, Jackshit.
Kelly and I stand together and watch them tip the gate. The scabs on the other side tipping back. Everybody still hating everybody, and trying to heave the posts from their concrete beds.
This is like one big rumble in a movie about rumbling, says Kelly.
One of the cowboys catches a finishing trowel to the forehead and goes down. His apprentice falls with him. The cowboys return with a volley of monkey wrenches. With this, the first exchange across the bow, the gate finally gives and the cowboys spill over. The scabs spill on the spill.
When people really fight, it can look a lot like fucking if you stand back far enough, with all the grunting and pulling and the mishmash of blooming flesh, the tears.
Kelly and I aren’t that far back so it looks a lot like rape.
The No means No kind.
I think this is it, I say.
I think I’m done with this.
Striking, pickets, the union. Cheese.
You’re on strike from striking?
Boycotting the boycott.
What about your pop? Kelly says.
I think I’m boycotting him, too.
Are you going to your Mom’s?
I look at the dog pile of tradesmen and scabs. I see Jim surfing the pile, scalping scalps, trying to bring back the asbestos days.
I see Pop and he sees me. He says, We’re winning!
Are you going to finish school?
The general has a pile driver pinned beneath the bulk of him, one of the soda throwers. Take this you bitch, he screams, giving some of this to you, bitch.
I’m going to look for fewer options, I say.
Fewer than two?
I show him my hands, make claws. These are endangered, I say.
I’m not sure what that even means, Kelly says.
It means I’m crossing that picket.
I pick a battered hardhat from the dirt, fix it on my head. I walk toward all the scabs and sparkies and wharfies, the tin-knockers and turd-herders, toward all the solder-splashers, the men who put wrenches to steel and use bare flesh to holdback, toward that pile of wifeless November nobodies. Show them the stuff that decides tomorrow.
I picture my mother watching me walk towards the line from wherever it is she watches things, maybe with the white-collars, her hands cupping glass, making fog with her nostrils. Kelly’s mom is with her. I’ll show them the way to fix a thing is to walk towards it. Show them the other side of a thing.
Kelly should walk with me. You don’t need too many fucks to subvert the system, be a philosopher too. I can loan him a few.
I turn around to tell him this, but the cruisers are already pulling up, blue and reds flashing, bullhorn feedback. Guns.
Alright you assholes, freeze.
The assholes do.
Daniel Riddle Rodriguez‘s real name is Daniel Riddle Rodriguez. He is a part-time student, full-time construction worker and father from San Lorenzo, California, where he lives with his son. Previous publications include Danse Macabre, and Monkeybicycle. He is thrilled to be here.