Hot Tar Life

I waited with a dozen men in the alley behind a gym
till an oily red flatbed skidded up.

“Good morning Brian, where’s the boss?”

“Not here Roy, check out the truck, please.”

The red Ford had vise grips wired to the hood;
then the hot smell of antifreeze around a grimy motor —
two quarts down, no air filter.
I got in and sat in the filthy passenger seat
with my knees up to my chin because of trash on the floor.
The boss roared up in a single-seat car,
burdened with tools and rolls of tarpaper —
wild eyed, he got out, barking,

“That red Ford got oil? water? Let’s go,
let’s go — stop, stop, stop — tighten those studs,
ladders. Let’s go, Brian, move, tools, move.”

I stepped out for Leo, a tall thin man
stooped around bright suspicious eyes;
a mild speech impediment solved by hollering.

“Hi ya Roy, gotta smoke? You a farmer? good.
I been around, done some, seen some —
haven’t seen it all, seen some.”

Gray ponytailed hair down to his waist,
out of cigarettes, maybe a loud pain in the ass.

“Gotta smoke? Let’s go.”

I liked him.

Brian told me to ride with him; and I made an enemy
clearing roof trash and tools off the floor
when I got into the passenger seat.
Later, James, the huge black man, told me the seat was his.

Brian seemed nervous as we pulled a hot tar kettle
that appeared from the shed, followed by Raymond, Leo’s father,
in an old green Chevy one-ton with crooked white doors.
A cracked side mirror showed it hauling a load
of smiling men down the tree-covered alley.
And as they followed us around the corner,
a white door flew open to hit a pole —
a God dammit came from Raymond’s ravaged door.

Then we were a procession in sunshine
to the gas station for Celia’s coffee — all of it.

“Celia, this man’s Roy Ruth, he works for us.”

“Hello Mr. Ruth, seventy-six cents please.”

“Thank you, Celia.”

It took all of rush hour to get to the job,
where a myriad of commands backed the kettle down the drive.
Leo had his ways, and the kettle was still warm from the day before.
The propane burner was carefully lit by a man named Castro.
He managed the fire, loading solid kegs of cold tar
and got them boiling thin in half an hour.

The day became a small hot tar for most of the crew,
and later a tear-off for Camey, Brian, and myself;
the roof was already taken down a couple of layers.
Men unrolling tarpaper or hauling 90-pound buckets of tar
down the driveway and up splattered ladders to the roof.
Flood the paper surface with mopped boiling tar
as glue for heavy modified paper; strap the perimeter with metal;
nail that. A 140 degrees — hot tar roofing.
Men furiously working, hot, haul the trash off.

Leo left. Camey, Brian, and I left to the next job.
On the way, Brian gave me bread to eat, saying,

“I’ve got creative writing this morning.
Most of our jobs are hot tar,
but Camey and I will teach you to tear-off —
be careful, it’s Leo’s test.”

“What’s a tear-off?”

“Tear the old shingles down to the slats.
This one’s old, Roy, a four layer.”

We tore some off and slid it over the side into the truck.
Leo appeared, gave me cash to eat, took Brian to class,
leaving Camey with me —
a smart guy smiling at my tattered Spanish.

After lunch, John Joe Monroe replaced Brian.
He talked a lot and hated Mexicans.

“My wife’s Leo’s belly dance instructor.
I’m special, and my new tattoo’s infected. Got any grease?
Leo needs me to run the big jobs.
I’ve been in prison, ’n women like me.
I’m a carpenter, builder of anything.
Where’d you get that bike?”

“In the Devil’s Den, John Joe.”

Then Monroe mentioned riding those Indians and Beemers,
chased the niggers through the Poconos and Catskills,
lumberjacked there, fished off Florida; then last month
met his third wife at the Rainbow Gathering in New Mexico.

“She needs stability — I give it to her and our kids.
The father’s comin’ next week — he’s an asshole.”

John Joe Monroe was the dumbest fucker I ever met.

The rest of the crew arrived about three
and ripped off more of the roof, peeling shingles
or standing on the attic rafters
to shatter the shakes above with shovels.

Leo saw me fading in the heat — gave me yellow pills …
a minute later yellow sweat streamed from my forearms.
At five, the truck was full, tarped, and tied;
and the crew enjoyed the ride to the alley,
where it was payday.

“Brian, I don’t want any tools,
anything overnight in these trucks.”

After the men were paid,
Leo had me drive the trash to the dump —
a slow, humid hour out of town through the gate.
Austin’s refuse drew scavenger birds and swarming flies
as yellow crawlers and sheepfeet packed down the limestone dirt.
The wasting mounds were a moon ruin over plastic sheets,
layered and buried underground to trap the poisons.
The sign said to unload trash by hand
till their skiploader could find the chain and pull out the rest —
it did, and I found my way back though heavy traffic to the alley.

Almost dark when Leo hollered from the trees,

“Roy, there’s work tomorrow, need cash now?”

“Nah, I need a place to stay.”
“Are your chakras and path clean?”

“Not anymore.”

“Well, you can pitch a tent in my backyard.”

It wasn’t too far from the gym,
so I parked the Buffalo in his driveway.
Leo’s yard had limestone walls under tough oak trees.
We spread out a roofing tarp in the weeds, set the tent up,
and put a plaid bag inside with a Punjabi pillow for my head.
My rent became a case of Guinness every month,
and I read with a two-stage camp light
and ashed into a Drum can.

I rode to the Asphalt Café the following morning:
an iron counter with motel ashtrays on scarred tables;
there was also the usual monthly art on dirty walls
around a grimy nation of squares for a floor.
After buying an endless refill from the Hindu barista,
I found a dog-eared critique by Garry Wills
on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural,
and spent all day reading that —
which explained the pair of political poems
as what the war became and Lincoln’s explanation why.

My next few months
were chaotic mornings loading trucks, before entering
a badly designed entrance off of the 42nd Street —
merging blind into I-35 with shattered mirrors
on an overloaded truck.

Our first really big job was the Comic Book Store;
most were old warehouses converted to bars and clubs.

But sometimes we had payroll delays;
Leo’s crew were unusually patient as he hesitated —
a month, then five weeks,
while we got a sheepish forty dollars here and there.

Leo finally arrived with $22,000 in a shopping bag,
counted out on Raymond’s filthy hood —
scrawled notes, payroll memories, whatever …
everybody paid.

After work, I sink-bathed most evenings in the café
and read a thousand pages a week.
Brian’s borrowed library card got me into Boorstin,
anthropology, and desert Gods; Korea, Bukowski,
some crime trash, and twentieth-century general history.

By December, I’d made a barista friend
named Eleanor, an oil painter who’d flown her dog
into Austin for nine hundred dollars — Ito on downers.

Ito died in a farewell room at the veterinary hospital.
I never knew her.

Then Eleanor wasn’t around after New Year’s.
Intelligent Moe said she’d been at home
stretching canvas over frames.
Weeks of painting before a progression evolved;
another month till they were hung in the Asphalt Café:
twenty-eight retrievers in four parallel rows,
her paintings ran left to right across
the south wall —
starting as real and changing to surreal
in a smoke-filled room — while I wrote by the best middle dogs.

After several months in the Austin mass,
all I had was motorcycles and tractors in the same patterns.

The next morning got spent writing cowboys, women, Bob Wills,
and oompah-pah at a chicken dance that was a waste of time.

So I wrote about a café dog
named after a starstruck L.A. judge.

Ito was a homely brown dog
with nice eyebrows and black lips.
She usually slept by the front door
and shed several dustpans of hair every week.
Ito also had bad teeth, an unpleasant stench;
and yes, her anal glands were especially expressive,
so you had to listen to her working on that all night.

But after developing a cough last year
from congestive heart failure and lung cancer,
it was time to put her down.

So Ito got bathed and walked around the block —
she cost $30 for shots
and $105 through the oven.
Their invoice said that Ito weighed
46 pounds going in,

60 ounces coming out …