In an alley behind an Austin gym,
Leo is a tall, spare man with graying hair to his waist —
a grizzled beard, strong eyes, and good hands.
The old psychic belly dancer is possibly Austin’s poorest roofer —
a Kansan, his mother died when he was ten.
Leo attended Kansas State, majored in pussy, served in Vietnam.
Acting upright in a business of grime,
he converts the risk of the street into cover.
His father, Raymond, hauls the trash and tracks our hours.
Rafael’s the jefé with a hot tar mop,
leading the Spanish/English speaking crew
after eighteen years on the mop — he almost never speaks to Leo.
The tar paper and nails
are mostly put down in the heat
by Baroul, Castro, Smiley, Camey, and Rico,
Dr. Brian, Uwe, and Steve. And there is one more man
on the hoist that everyone must adjust to:
Leo’s night watchman,
tracking the homeless up and down the alley;
James is a damaged black man
living in a shanty on the roof of the gym —
maybe a prison man, maybe not.
The hot tar life is for the people outside of things.
Our comedy begins at first light,
starting awful trucks parked behind the gym;
opening sheds, pulling tools from them; loading trucks —
a simple thing complicated by our intelligence.
Leo interferes and changes much of what is done
by the gang of men untangling extension cords
or straining, shouldering rolls of modified paper.
In the truck, room is made
for John Joe Monroe if he shows.
Raymond watches; Leo shouts;
Spanish humor; starters grind; the sun rises more;
trucks start or they don’t; trees smile if trees do.
Mornings are best.
We head down the alley,
a dirty soap river speckled with tar pieces
and shingle fragments,
populated on its banks by homeless men.
Broken gas gauges on the trucks
suggest a stop up the street
at the gas station for Celia’s coffee.
Dirty men unpiling from dirty trucks,
waiting in line with pristine secretaries for coffee.
Dr. Brian studies physics and takes creative writing.
Young Steve wants to be a writer,
though his typewriter doesn’t return.
Uwe, the German, has an interest in
Hispanic women and makes fine shoes.
Pouring the rest of the crew’s coffee,
Celia ignores John Joe Monroe’s language as racist,
sexist, Harley truck beer nonsense at its best —
mindless babble the rest of the time.
On the drive to the roof,
Leo’s junk engines run on loosened coil wires,
and starters hang by their threads.
We arrive; more unpiling and shouting,
backing and filling; work starts, and Leo leaves for collections
exhausted — from starting James on the hoist.
James violently exercises the rope.
Rafael’s crew enjoy the work, their humor gathers stamina.
On hot tar roofs, I’m the mule carrying hot tar buckets
hoisted from the kettle by James to Rafael on the mop.
Castro runs the kettle, and the tar releases sulfur
as it boils in the squat, evil-looking furnace on wheels,
sheathed with overflow from countless jobs.
And there’s a stench of heated hanging tar.
Its seething roil will take your face,
demanding a protocol in its care.
A deliberate haul and declaration,
so people know where the hot tar is.
A seven-foot pole mop holds fifty pounds of tar,
resting in a heavy cart that Rafael wheels about the roof —
lifting the mop against five hundred degrees
of plastic resistance;
lifting and sealing over and again;
taking years off his life for hot tar money —
a soldier of hot tar.
Rafael’s crew is smooth —
moving mechanically raises our risk; tar requires rhythm.
Baroul does all the little things well, using the kindest tone.
Rico rolls the paper and cuts it for the geography —
always moving so as not to scorch his feet.
Smiley does the metal perimeter,
anchoring the roof profusely.
Camey smears plastic, entombing the fixtures
while his face heals — injured in a fall through a roof —
his bones’ knitting helped by last night’s beer.
The kettle burned Castro’s hands
when he slipped loading a keg of tar;
working carefully now, his hands swathed;
next week he visits his young daughters in Tampico.
Work moves on in three-foot bands,
back and forth, often triple layers of paper and tar.
Unseen from below — a nameless succession of roofs,
tar stench, and heat cooled slightly by humor.
The work is its own — remove,
haul away, restore, seal … heat all week.
Return evenings to the narrow alley,
which is hard to maneuver in,
as the entire crew manhandles the kettle
into its shed — settling into its berth against the gym —
a pain in the ass as we unload everything:
stuffing, pushing, twisting ladders;
abusing tools, equipment, ourselves.
Light shines brightest then.
With greasy ledgers spread open about an office in the alley
on the trunk lid of a dead, brown Cadillac.
We turn from the hot tar life to Raymond
enthroned on an upside-down garbage can —
piles of cash for each man on the trunk lid,
weighted with cold tar pieces.
Look at the hours and the draws; pay the man his money;
pay for the tearing, the hauling, and the hot dance with the mop.
Leo hands out the money, and we leave till Monday.
The alley is quiet except for tired homeless men …