Review by Review by John MacLean
Gradually I came to realize that the process of saving the desert of the human heart and revegetating…
Eric Miles Williamson
Eric Miles Williamson's column Industrial Strength can be found every month with The Industrial Worker Book Review. He is the author of the novels Two-Up (Texas Review Press), East Bay Grease—a PEN/Hemingway finalist, and Welcome to Oakland, from which this story is an excerpt. He is the author of the short story collection, 14 Fictional Positions (Raw Dog Screaming Press), which was a PEN/Oakland winner, and the essay collections, Say it Hot and Oakland, Jack London and Me (both Texas Review Press). Called one of the "douze grands ecrivains du monde"---one of the twelve great writers of the world---by the French magazine Transfuge, he is on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. He still carries his union card and lives in the Rio Grande Valley, 15 miles from the drug wars of Mexico.
My first job was shoveling shit at the Mohawk station, Snookie the dog's. I didn't get my allowance, a buck a week, until I'd shoveled the Snookie Cookies. During the rainy season, I was all about following Snookie around with the shit-shovel in hand and waiting until he squatted. You ever tried shoveling rained-on shit off asphalt? It's damn near impossible, and the shit sticks to the shovel, and it gets down between the oiled gravel and you just shove the runny shit around the lot. Catch it fresh, and you can scoop it just like you'd scoop any other shit. The entire alley behind the Mohawk and Webb's Painting was a smear of dog food light brown shit, and when you walked across it, your feet slid like you were on grease. The dry season was better. Let the shit sit for a week, it just turns into white shitpowder, like chalk. You can sweep that shit with the push-broom right into the shovel in five minutes flat—a whole week's worth of Snookie Cookies—collect your buck from Pop and go buy 20 packs of baseball cards.
My next job, when I turned ten, was manning the islands, pumping gas and checking the air pressure in the tires and checking the oil and transmission fluid and radiator and wiper fluid and air filter and washing windshields and handling the cash and running the credit cards through the press, access to the till, trusted. I had my own blue shirt, button-up, nametag T-Bird, stitched in red, white background, red stitched circle around it, same as Pop and Joe and Steve Bolero. I was really good at my job. Once I even got a tip from a customer.
"Look, Pop," I said. "That guy gave me a dollar. A tip."
Pop was not impressed. At first he looked pissed. Then he looked sad. He lit a cigar and leaned back in his chair. Snookie curled around his feet. "I never got a tip," he said. He said, "Put the money in the till."
"Because you need to start paying back the money you steal."
"I don't steal."
"You think I can't add?" he said. "You don't get fifty packs of cards on a buck," he said. "The till."
"Has Joe noticed?" Joe owned the Mohawk.
"Joe can't count except on payday," Pop said. "I can. And I'm your father. And you're so fucking stupid that you got caught. If you're going to steal, don't get caught."
His face got serious. "Don't be sorry," he said. "Just stop getting caught, for fuck's sake. I'm not going to bail you out."
"The reason so many niggers are in jail is because they're so stupid they get caught. If you're going to steal, and everyone steals, steal like a Mexican."
"Mexicans go jail too," I said.
"Not as much," Pop said. "Not as much as the niggers."
Early on I figured out how cool and how awful jobs were. Jobs were cool because you got paid, that's why. There are other reasons why jobs were cool, but I couldn't think of them.
I could think of lots of reasons why jobs sucked, though. Someone telling you what to do, someone criticizing you after you've busted your ass and done your best and telling you that you, not the job, suck, you don't cut it, you're lucky you're not fired. I started mowing lawns, pushmower, as a side job from my regular job at the Mohawk. A buck a yard, front and back. Took me about three hours to do both yards, so I was making pretty good cash. Mrs. Couto brought me a pitcher of iced tea one time. Mr. Goulart, Tony Goulart's father who had a milk-route in San Francisco and one time took me on his route delivering wire racks of glass milk bottles to Chinese restaurants and old people's porches, he once gave me two bottles of chocolate milk while I was mowing his yard. But FatDaddy Walley, one of the only blue-eyed white guys in the neighborhood, and he had a daughter who though she'd hump all the teenagers wouldn't talk to any of us so stuck up a little bitch was she—what the fuck they were doing in our neighborhood we never figured out but what we suspected was that the fat fuck didn't care about his family so cheap was he and all he cared about was packing his fat bank account with the money he made owning his custom toilet seat factory—Walley's Designer Johns—Walley gave me my first lesson on how shitty bosses can and are likely to be, because that's how they end up bosses. What FatDaddy Walley did was when I asked him if I could mow his lawn he said yes, sure, you can mow my lawn, but I can only pay you seventy-five cents. A dollar is to steep. Front and back, seventy-five.
It was hard to see inside FatDaddy's house, he was so wide. But when he turned to the side I caught a glimpse. His daughter sat on the couch watching TV. One of her eyes was fucked up, just rolled around like a frog's. She was a teenager, and her face had so many pimples you couldn't tell she had pimples. Her skin was flaming red with a white crust from the pustules, and it was a face no one would want to touch. You wouldn't want her to leak on your hand. Everyone knew she'd do coke with anyone who had it, and anyone who had coke could fuck her. The trick was porking her without touching that face of hers.
Next to her and eating ice cream from a bucket and smoking cigarettes was Mama FatDaddy. She scooped a glob of ice cream with one hand, and before she finished gulping she brought her cigarette to her mouth. Her cigarette was stuck in a silver cigarette holder, and the way she held it let you know that somewhere in another universe she was a movie star. Not in this one, though. In this one she was as big and floppy as FatDaddy himself. Her face was always burnt red in the shape of a mustache and beard from where she waxed every morning. Sometimes the wax wouldn't get all the hairs and there'd be stray black wires pointing out like miniature pieces of rebar.
FatDaddy's walls were lined with his custom toilet seats used as picture frames. A zebra fur seat hung over his fireplace, Walley family portrait behind glass framed by the ring. They looked like yokels trying to pretend they weren't, fat toothless farmers and their horsey wives (a Jew in the mix, most likely, though FatDaddy was the kind of man who'd never admit it) wearing their home-sewn Sunday best, the babies wall-eyed and drooling. An Oakland A's toilet seat hung next to a Raiders seat, pictures of Elvis grinning. Two oversized toilet seats, one decorated with teddy bears the other with ducks and both big as car tires and made for asses like FatDaddy's, framed pictures of his zit-faced horse-nose daughter when she was a baby. It looked like she had zits even then. Actually, they were pretty cool toilet seats. I wished I had one.
For me, money was money, and I'd rather be making it than not making it, and so I shook his hand.
Shaking someone's hand in my neighborhood is not a thing lightly done, not when you're a grown up, and moreso not when you're a kid. When you're an adult, a handshake can be negated by a lawyer, or an ex-wife, or by having had too many to drink at Dick's. But when you're a kid, a handshake is your only currency, it's all you got, and in my neighborhood we remember every childhood handshake that was ever true, and we remember every one that ever was a lie, that was bullshit. We do not forget. Ever.
I shook FatDaddy Walley's chicken-fat slimy hand, and the four-hundred pound toad-face crushed my hand when he clasped it, to show me what a man he was. "It's a deal, then," he said. "Seventy-five cents for the yard, front and back." He smiled big. He'd made a deal. My hand hurt like fuck, but I wasn't about to let him know.
And a deal that fat fuck had made, too. The front yard, the yard people saw when they drove past his peeling paint dump, plaster Jesuses littered around the lot to show how God and all his soldiers protected him from the likes of us, one Jesus holding a Bible opened to the Ten Commandments, plaster Jesuses and birdbaths that had so much birdshit they looked like melted candles, his fancy yard's lawn wasn't that bad except for the maneuvering around the Jesuses and the birdshit birdbaths. That took some work, but that was part of the job. Fine. But when I finished FatDaddy Walley's front yard, after four hours, I tried to push open the side gate, and what I found out after trying to push open that gate let me know the difference between FatDaddy and me. Me? What you see is what you get. I wear jeans and tee shirts. I own one tie, and every motherfucker in the neighborhood has seen it, because it's the one I wear at funerals. Me? I'm the kid who shovels dogshit at the Mohawk station and lives in the trailer next to it. I'm the kid who empties the trailer's toilet tank once a week one bucket at a time into the station's women's room pot. I'm the kid who fills your tank and checks the air in your tires. I'm T-Bird Murphy. That's what I fucking am.
But not you, FatDaddy Walley. Check out your yard. Your yard, your front yard, the one people see, your plaster Jesii, your weeds, your fountain, your ornamental iron over the door and the windows. That ornamental iron might keep us from taking your television out, but what happens to you if your house catches fire and you can't get through your barred windows and doors?
Your back yard isn't what you want people to see. But it's what you are. When I pushed the redwood gate that led to your backyard, it wouldn't open. I pushed and pushed, tried jiggling the latch, but no go. I leaned into that gate with all my weight. Nothing.
Finally I knocked on FatDaddy's door and told him about the problem of the gate. He smiled. One of his teeth was green. He was eating a rack of spareribs, and juice lined the creases in his chins and dripped on his fancy button-up shirt, pink. "Can't get the gate open, little man?" he said. "How you going to do the job, how you going to get paid, you can't open the gate? You out of your league, boy?"
"I just can't figure out the trick," I said.
"There's no trick," FatDaddy Walley said. "It's a matter of playing in the big leagues. Boy."
He led me to the gate, yawned, bit off a strip of sparerib. "Ribs smell good?" he said.
I said yes.
"Pretty good ribs," he said. "Big league ribs."
FatDaddy ripped another strip with his teeth and then he threw the rest of the rack down in the flowerbed dirt. He smiled when I looked at them, those ribs in the dirt. He turned around and pushed his ass into the gate and bucked backward. One of the redwood boards cracked. The gate moved open.
"That's how we do things in the big leagues," he said.
I saw the problem with the gate. Problem was the weeds were taller than me. And not just regular weeds, foxtails and dandelions, no. These were serious weeds. Thorned blackberry bushes, sticker bushes, vines. The yard was a primordial tangle, four feet tall and buzzing with yellow-jackets and bumble bees, feeding. It was the kind of thing you see growing against the warehouses, lining the railroad tracks. It was the kind of thing you could see from the BART train's elevated lines in the nigger neighborhoods. The yard didn't need a lawnmower. Not even a bulldozer. That yard needed fire.
FatDaddy's teeth glowed red with barbecued crud. He laughed. Juice sprayed. I ducked but he still got some in my hair. He laughed again. "You look," he said, and he laughed and then he coughed so hard he laughed. He bent over a little, and juice spilled out of his mouth and he choked and then he laughed and he choked again. "You look surprised!" he said, and he just kept laughing.
He said, "Welcome to the big leagues! Seventy-five cents for the job," he said. "And the job's half done!"
He was right. I'd made a deal, and I was going to follow up on my end, do the job. I'd shaken hands, I'd made a deal, and a deal was a deal. But I'd learned a lesson, too. Watch out for the fuckers. I'd been treated pretty shitty in my time already. I was in fifth grade, after all, and I'd seen shit already that even I knew wasn't shit like normal shit, but was special shit that only I had borne witness to. I'd seen Hell's Angels gut Black Panthers. I'd seen Hell's Angels beat the fuck out of a cop who'd come to break up a party at our house, beat him into burger and haul the mess off in the back of a pickup truck. I'd seen Hell's Angels beat the fuck out of each other, for fuck's sake. I'd seen some harsh in my time. My mother took me to the Berkeley riots so I could experience the expression of the people. Pop took me to James Jones' church in San Francisco where I got to see naked pregnant ladies giving blowjobs while The Doors played on the PA and a movie screen showed slides of someone swirling ink and oil around on glass. I wasn't all the way innocent. I'd seen what knives could do, and I'd hidden in my bedroom closet during fights and heard gunshot and the consequent scuffle and shuffle and removal. I'd had the shit beat out of me by some badass hungover motherfuckers, and I'd been violated in every way a boy can be violated, but I'd never, never before been betrayed. This was something new. This was something fucked up. This was something I had to think about.
I'd learned a lesson. Watch out for the fuckers. But in order to watch out for the fuckers, you got to know how to pick them out, how to spot a fucker in a crowd. It's not always that easy. Fuckers are some of the best around at disguising their fuckerness. That's part of what makes them fuckers. I'd been conned by a fucker, and I took stock. It wasn't going to happen again. Some ways to spot them, that's what I needed. I made some.
Twenty-nine aspects of Fuckers, Qualities of and How to Identify
If they're fat, if they don't work as hard as the rest of us, they're probably a fucker.
If they're fat and they wear nice clothes, have a nice car, or live in a house they don't rent, they're probably serious fuckers.
Fuckers don't have breakfast at Dick's, and when they have drinks after work, they drink alone.
Fuckers have British last names.
Fuckers make you check the air in their tires. They make you wash their back windshields.
Fuckers don't watch football, usually, but if they do, they don't root for the Raiders.
If you're a fucker, your wife has the kids and you don't pay child support.
When a fucker buys groceries, he doesn't even make an attempt to bag.
Fuckers don't eat linguisca. They eat steak. They eat steak at breakfast, steak and eggs. They eat steak at lunch, Philly. They eat steak at dinner, steak and lobster. They like cows a whole fucking lot.
It's part of their genetic makeup.
When you've finally spotted a car in the junkyard the same year as yours, the same model, with all the same options, the same color with the same interior, a fucker will have spotted the same car and instead of inspecting the car for which parts he wants, he'll wobble back when you're not looking to the office and buy the whole fucking car, just to be sure you don't get a single fucking part you need. He'll junk his leftover parts, leave them for the monthly hard-trash pick-up just to spite you.
Never raid a fucker's trash. A fucker will tell everyone in the neighborhood he saw you at his curb raiding his garbage.
Fuckers file taxes using the long form.
Fuckers wear cowboy hats and don't ride horses or tractors.
Fuckers don't make their kids work.
Fuckers let their kids be fuckers.
They encourage them to be fuckers.
Have kids who are fuckers.
Are glad they have fucker kids.
To be a fucker, you have to believe in God.
Fuckers don't think God is a fucker.
God is the ultimate fucker.
The haircut of a fucker: over ten dollars and done by a woman.
When fuckers fuck women over, they think they're doing something really fucking funny.
When fuckers fuck men over, they think they're doing something really fucking funny.
In my neighborhood, fuckers may fuck, but eventually they get fucked.
Eventually they get fucked like they never imagined a person could be fucked.
FatDaddy stuck his hand out again, to reaffirm the handshake, and I put my hand into his sauce-clot mitt, and he crushed it again, squeezed so hard I thought he'd broken bones, and he might have. Three of my fingers were purple for months after that handshake. They're crooked even today from that oath. Fucker.
I went home and told Pop.
"You made your bed," he said. "Lie in it."
I went to the back of the trailer and sat on my bed. I sat there a long time. My brothers fell asleep before me. Pop was on his kitchen-table foldout bed watching the news. He got up and stood. The trailer rocked. He opened the refrigerator. He handed me an open beer and sat down on the edge of my bed. "He's a fucker," Pop said. "And you're not the first one he's fucked."
I took a swig.
"You don't like the deal he made with you?" Pop said.
I shook my head no.
"Why not?" Pop said. "Why the fuck don't you like the deal? You made it, didn't you?"
I told Pop why I didn't like the deal. I didn't like it because I'd been deceived. I didn't like it because FatDaddy Walley had betrayed me. He lived in the neighborhood—wasn't he one of us? Didn't FatDaddy Walley understand that none of us wanted to live there, in shithole Oakland, and that for some reason he was living there too, for some reason he, FatDaddy, was such a fuckup that he'd landed on our turf?
I didn't like what FatDaddy had done to me because he was rich and lived in a house and had a yard and I was only trying to do an honest day's work for an honest day's pay and he'd fucked me, the fucker. He had the money to do me right, and he didn't.
"Let people know."
"Let people know," Pop said. "You got friends. Use them."
I swigged again. "Who," I said.
"Everyone in the neighborhood, everyone in the town who pulls up to the pump. You tell every motherfucker you ever come in contact with," Pop said. "Tell them all."
"What do I say?"
"You say the truth," Pop said. "Try it for once. See what happens."
So that's what I did. I'd be pumping gas and a customer would say, "Hey hey, T-Bird, how they hanging?" and I'd say, "Not good," and I'd put on the face like I'd been beaten and bitch-slapped and tossed in the dumpster with the Snookie cookies. "What?" they'd say. "Whassup?"
"FatDaddy," I'd say. "He conned me. Seventy-five cents," and I'd tell them the story.
I told the story to everyone, and not only that, I told the story to everyone who counted in the neighborhood. When Joe and Frank Camozzi of Camozzi Carpets needed fleet work done on tires, I told them the tale of FatDaddy Walley. When the Yandell Trucking Company guys fueled up, hey, FatDaddy Walley took me for a ride. The Concrete Wall Sawing men, all ex-marines running jackhammers and blowing C-40 and taking down buildings, when they came in I told them of the FatDaddy Walley adolescent labor rape. Frank Carlito needed five inner-tubes so his kids could ride the Sacramento River and I told him about my summer of bushwacking and mowing. Sometimes Pop would help out. "Hey, you know what that fuck Walley did to my boy? My boy who was making a buck a yard, a yard a day? He fucked my boy is what. His yard is nigger, twelve feet high and nothing but vine and empties. My boy's been mowing and chopping and sawing and bee-stung for a month now, lost thirty bucks or maybe more while he's doing FatDaddy's yard instead of moving on to other yards. FatDaddy Walley is a nigger, and a nigger fucked my boy, right up the ass, the nigger. What you think of that? You think that's right? You think that needs to go unnoticed? You think this isn't something the neighborhood needs to look after, to settle?"
And Pop meant it as a question, too. He wanted them to answer, and he wanted them to answer, "Kill." He wanted them to answer, "Kill the fucker," but in Oakland-speak. He wanted them to say, "No problema."
And a whole hell of a lot of them did. They said no problema without saying a word, Oakland style, a bit lower lip, a nod, a slow close of the eyes, a stone stare.
Pop told some shit to the men, and he broke the line and talked to the women too, told all of them and every one. When someone's wife would pull up at the pump, Mama Fernandez who might have been related to all of us, or Mrs. Flynn who worked for the phone company and who was probably mother to the rest of us, when one of them would pull in, Mama Fernandez who ran the firehouse dispatcher and Mrs. Flynn whose sons, all eleven of them, represented the most terrifying posse in Oakland other than the unnamed nigger posses that couldn't be identified because they didn't have fathers but were instead born of virgin nigger birth, their mothers fucked by angels of God, usually whitey shitbags if we tell the truth which we usually don't in matters like this, Mrs. Flynn with her eleven sons and still more beautiful than any woman alive even though she had the eleven kid fat, her face shimmering like a moon hubcap in the lights of a gas station canopy, brilliant, Mrs. Flynn whose sons kept killing themselves when they were just on the verge of getting out of the neighborhood, one son a concert pianist who offed himself the morning of his first San Francisco solo concert with the symphony, another son bullet in the head before the California Demolition Derby Championship with his '56 Chevy Mauler Special, Mrs. Flynn long-suffering and tough as rebar and who knew how to take care of a drunken man, Pop told Mrs. Flynn. And telling Mrs. Flynn had some repercussions.
Pop had them all on the case, Joey Medieros the carpenter who'd finally finished doing his time for accidentally killing a wife with a nail-gun, Big-Bob Jones who'd made the papers when his ex left him and he'd dumped fifty ISOs into the bay, all their cargo sunk to the bottom and Big-Bob laughing when they hauled him away not to jail but to the loony-bin where he got to fuck the loony girls, all of them. Flann O'Shaunessey, the precinct's Fire Chief, one of the semi-regulars at Dick's and who Pop had gone to Oakland High with back in the days, Mr. O'Shaunessey came into the Mohawk station and Pop pulled from the filing cabinet a bottle of Jameson's he'd bought special to share. That bottle went empty and Pop had to break into the storage room fridge for the Oly. Before O'Shaunessey got into his red Fire-Chief Impala, he handed me a beer. "It's the last one," he said, "and you need to be the one to drink it." He started his engine, but he didn't put his car in gear until he saw me polish that can off.
Pop called the Corollo family to duty, seven brothers always strong and beautiful and evil to the right people, who'd take care of any business they thought needed just treatment. The Corollo brothers were serious people, Joe most of all, Joe whose face was expressionless wax and though Italian his hair blond and eyes pale blue. Joe never said much, never more than a yes or a no, but somehow everyone wanted his opinion about matters of import. Someone would unravel their tale, their problem, their dilemma, and after a longwind hour of spilling would look to Joe and he'd just say, "Yes," and the seeker of counsel would nod and do according to Joe's bidding. You didn't want to mess with the Corollo brothers, no fucking way. One of them, the eighth brother, had been killed by a crew of Mexicans, dragged. The crew was all minors, and when they got out of juvy, one at a time when they turned eighteen, they didn't come back to the neighborhood, didn't disappear like what usually happens in our neighborhood when we wait for fuckers to get out of juvy. What they did was appear, one body part at a time, all around town, a finger—middle—on the steps of City Hall, a tongue on the porch of a Chinese fish market, eyeballs in a bucket of bait at the pier. One of the Mexicans' mothers found toes with her morning milk delivery. One of the fathers found a shriveled bloodless dick in his lunchbox next to his twin-pack of Twinkies at work at the docks. Parts were abundant. It's really creepy when you think about it, how many parts of a person you can spread around a town. Lungs, testicles, noses, bones, carefully brain-scooped sawed-up skulls, toes, ankles. Each of the Mexicans was scalped, and each of the scalps ended up in fancy-schmancy shops specializing in shit for trendy people who worshipped ancient cultures, turquoise, skin drums and stretched animal hides imitating some kind of divine talisman and drums made from logs, as if the niggers and the Indians and the Pacific Islanders were some kinds of Bachs and Mozarts and goddamn fucking Mahlers. The scalps were works of art, according to Joseph Pappas the cop. He said that he'd get a call every time one of the Mexicans was let out of juvy, and the call wouldn't be that something was stolen, but that something had mysteriously appeared in the shop, some work of art, a hair-piece of some sort dried and stretched across a hubcap. "They're really quite original, actually. But we'd really prefer to deal with an agent than with the artist directly, especially in this fashion. It's a bit like, like extortion? We can't sell something on commission unless we know who we're selling it for. You know, whoever is making these is an artist of the first order, tapped into the primal instincts of man, into our purest soul." Pappas would say, "You got that right, lady." When ears were found they were always nailed to the wall of Club 17, the Mexican salsa and merengue nightclub, ears hanging from the wall bloody and listening.
When the main man of the town, Mr. Brown, pulled up to the pump, Pop whispered. He whispered a long time, and then he called me to Mr. Brown's car window. "This is the boy," Pop said. "My son. FatDaddy Walley did that to this boy, this boy my son." Mr. Brown shook my hand. I tried to pull my hand away, but Brown held my hand close. "My shake counts," he said. And I believed him. And in retrospect, I was right to do so. We all suspected Jerry would be mayor of Oakland someday, even though he was white. Nut-case Brown. He was rich but he drove a four-cylinder rice-banger and he wasn't afraid to come into Dick's once in a while and tip one with the likes of us. When Daddy Borges pulled up at the pump, Daddy Safeway Manager Borges who could cut you a break anytime if he was checking the groceries, mis-add your bill and give you a steak or two blocks of fancy cheese, Pop let Daddy Borges know the score on FatDaddy Walley.
FatDaddy Walley was not someone to be envied.
And I mowed. I chopped. I swathed. I cut and I ripped and tore and yanked and tore and tugged and bled. I leaked more blood into FatDaddy Walley's yard than I had in my body. Every day I worked on that yard of his, sun-up sun-down. My mower, push, I sharpened blades and one hour of push and it'd be done for again, dull as dick. I'd shove into the briar, and the blades, spinning, would jam. Alto, motherfucker. Every shove I'd have to untangle. And with every shove bugs from some other fancy designer continent would get pissed off and fly in my face, green and shiny roaches, golden gnats, grasshoppers as big as my fist and in every weird not Oakland color you can imagine, pink and shit like that, purple. And while I mowed, while I sweated 10-30, FatDaddy Walley, who didn't seem to have any job other than watching me and getting his money's worth, watched. He watched, and he liked it. He watched me, seventy-five cent little loser white-trash shit that I was, and he'd sit on his back porch drinking gin and sweating and bits of lawn and weed and thorn ground into lawnmower dust crusting the crevices of his chins. He'd sit there smiling and drinking cool iced drinks and telling me, "Hey, there," he'd say. "You missed a spot. There."
For some reason, things started going wrong around the Walley house. I always started work at seven in the morning, and each morning FatDaddy Walley would hear me on the pushmower and he'd open the back door and stand there in his boxer shorts that he must've had to buy at some kind of fatass specialty shop or had made for him. He'd stand there picking his ass, really rooting around like he was ripping something from his insides and drinking a cup of coffee. Sometimes Mama FatDaddy would join him and she'd watch me, too. She'd stand there in a tee-shirt that was supposed to be a nightshirt but because she was so fat didn't even cover her baggy white panties. She'd stand there eating ice cream and smoking and farting, and you could hear those farts, and, worse, you could smell them, awful beef and pork farts that smelled like the animals weren't yet dead when she ate them and hadn't yet died, smelled like they were still dying, and you could actually smell the pig, smell the cow, as if somehow the whole animal she'd consumed, and the smell of a Mama FatDaddy Walley fart was the smell of a refrigerator in the backyard that's been there for three months and you've just opened it up, summer, and someone left eight pounds of bologna and burger and bratwurst and when you open that door you're hit with the black and green fog of moldering death. That's what a Mama FatDaddy fart smelled like, and that's the smell I began work to every day, death and rot. You know what I'm talking about. And if you don't, you're one lucky motherfucker. I'd tell you to hang out with Mama FatDaddy Walley sometime, morning, but these days we don't know where the family FatDaddy Walley is.
Mornings at seven I'd begin work on my only job, my seventy-five cent lawn job pushmower going to make a living as a hardworking Oakland boy what I'm going to do. I'd be a-mowing and the sweat started quick, and then something would happen. One morning a pipe burst and FatDaddy heard it go and his toilet overflowed, the gigantic FatDaddy-sized shit he'd taken before coming to watch me work spread out over carpet and his hardwood floor and flavored with pork scent piss.
He looked at me and yelled. "Where's the main?"
"The fucking main. Where's the water main in these shitty little houses?"
"I wouldn't know," I said. "Sir." I said, "I don't live in a house. We get our water from the gas station. Through a hose."
Shit oozed. It rolled slow across the floor like lava from a shit-volcano. FatDaddy got on the phone and called Jay Ellis, the neighborhood plumber. About a week before, Ellis had fixed the float on FatDaddy's tank. Ellis was famous because whenever he showed up on a toilet job, before he even talked to anyone he'd just march into the bathroom and barehanded stick his fist into the toilet and feel around. Pop once asked him about his method. "Two reasons," said Ellis. "Reason one—the homeowner is usually so sicked out that they go away and let me do my job without standing over me like a foreman. Reason two—you can find things with your fingers that you can't find with a tool." Ellis winked at Pop. Pop said, "Reason three—you're a sick fuck and you like the feel of shit between you fingers." Ellis permanently smelled like shit, and he tried always to cover it up with Old Spice, but all that happened was that he smelled like Old Spice and shit. To this day, I still can't smell Old Spice without a whiff of shitstink somehow wafting into my nose. I smell Old Spice, I smell shit, and I think of Jay Ellis. Ellis showed up on the scene and said, "Hey hey, T-Bird. What you got here. Still at work on that lawn job of yours?"
FatDaddy said, "I'm the one paying for you to fix my plumbing. You talk to me, plumber. Shit boy."
"You're the toilet seat guy!" Ellis said. "I've unplugged a lot of your toilets. My favorite was the Nixon. And do I have an idea for you. What you need to do is make decals to stick to the bottom of the can. Targets. Imagine, politicians, ex-wives, ex-husbands, the Kansas City Chiefs logo, the republican elephant, the democrat donkey, a Mexican flag, Martin Luther King, a plain old bull's eye—what the hell. After the Nixon I liked the Confederate flag theme. I've been meaning to buy one of those." Ellis started whistling Dixie and doing a little dance. "You have a hell of a business going there."
"You're fucking A," FatDaddy said. "I own it. I make the money. Apes make the toilet seats. Need a job?"
Ellis walked into the bathroom, FatDaddy following, their feet slopping around in the curd, and Ellis did his toilet-fisting trick, the water splashing onto the bathroom walls and onto FatDaddy's chest when Ellis' fist hit the light brown pool. FatDaddy gagged and slopped out of the room. "Hey you, you little shit," he said.
I looked at him.
"Yes, you. Aren't you supposed to be mowing my yard? I'm paying you good money to mow my yard, and you're just standing around with your finger up your ass. You're as bad as the apes at the plant. You're probably related to them, aren't you. Inbred Catholics. Get to work."
The briar patch awaited. It was a month into the job, and I'd cleared about a quarter of the yard. Summer jobs sucked.
Ellis came outside and crawled under the house. When he came out, he was covered with cobwebs. He looked at me and smiled. Then he winked. He told FatDaddy the pipes were rotted and that he was lucky it was only the toilet and not something worse.
"Worse?" FatDaddy said.
Ellis said, "It can always be worse."
"Just fix it."
"Will do," Ellis said. "You'll need to take out that carpet and get someone in here with a wet-vac or else the wood will buckle and you'll lose your floor. I recommend Camozzi Carpets. They do insurance jobs. And you should probably call your adjuster."
When Camozzi Bill showed up in his white van he'd brought Dan the Dope Man, the biggest stoner in the neighborhood, wild curly red hair and standing about eight feet tall, sunglasses always. I'd told Dan the Dope man about FatDaddy's deal with me when I was filling the Camozzi truck.
FatDaddy sat stewing on the back porch, watching me work while the Camozzi men rolled up the shit-sopped carpet and lugged it into the back of their truck. When they plugged the wet-vac in and flipped the switch, something exploded beneath the house and everything electric went dead.
FatDaddy said, "What the fuck."
"Can't vac the place without power," Dan the Dope Man said.
"Fix the power, then," FatDaddy said.
"Don't mess with electric," Camozzi Bill said. Dan the Dope Man nodded and he smiled. He wore those sunglasses, but I could tell he was looking at me with that smile. Dan said, "Probably best to call Gutierrez. He's the best electrician in town, and he works cheap. No green card. If he doesn't do a good job, you can just call la migra."
"Call him. Goddamn it, call the wetback. Shit. Who built this crap-for-house?"
Camozzi Bill said, "That would be Mr. Williams."
Bill's last name was Williams. His father was the contractor, and anyone who counted in the neighborhood would have known at least that, if nothing else. The Williams family built the community center, the Elks Lodge, most of the houses in a twelve block radius, and Old Bob's Harley Davidson dealership. They built the park.
"Someone needs to tell Mr. Williams he builds shitty houses."
"I'll make sure he gets the message," Bill said.
"You do that. Now call that beaner and get him over here to fix my electricity so you can vacuum up that lake of shit."
"Will do," Bill said. "Sir."
Bill and Dan the Dope Man lit smokes and Bill said, "Take a break, kid."
"I can't." I was sweating like a baker.
"I'll mow," said Camozzi Bill, and he took the mower and cracked it into the berry bushes.
Dan the Dope man took his leathers from his back pocket and bent over and started yanking bushes at the roots, throwing tangles of vine and thorn on the porch at FatDaddy's feet.
"That's the boy's work," FatDaddy said. "I'm paying him, not you."
"Nothing for us to do," Bill said. "And we're on the clock, by the way. You want us to go? We can go, sir, but I'd advise against cutting us off. Floor's more expensive than our time."
"Thieves," FatDaddy said.
Gutierrez showed up and went under the house. He came back with a fistfull of wires melted together and scorched.
"The wiring it's fine," Gutierrez said. "No problema with the wiring of this house. The problem is this, Senor, Senor Walley. You have too many bugs. The bugs, the termites and the other bugses eat through the wires and the wood and I think you have a big problema, my friend."
Things got rough on FatDaddy Walley, and no one could quite figure out why. We racked our brains and none of us could make any sense of it. It was as if some biblical curse had been visited on the poor son of a bitch. It was like everything that could go wrong for him did go wrong. The bugs? Termite infested, his house. And then a plague of ants after the carpet was reinstalled, almost as if the Camozzis had treated the carpet with sugared water, which, of course, was such a mean trick that no one would hardly ever do such a thing. The house's wiring turned out to be much worse than initially anticipated by Gutierrez. It seemed like every time FatDaddy flipped a light switch, something shorted or caught fire. FatDaddy had to buy a new fire extinguisher every week. His phone bill included calls to Cambodia that he swore he didn't make but that he had to pay for because when they called the Cambodia number to verify, the guy who answered the phone said he'd talked with Mr. Walley often, that Walley was always calling, actually, that their conversations were about designer toilet seat design. He racked up thirty-three traffic tickets in a six day stretch, getting pulled over every time he put his car in gear and sometimes getting tickets when he wasn't even driving. He got a ticket for parking within five feet of his own driveway. Unsafe lane change. Failure to signal. Chickenshit tickets galore. At restaurants his food always tasted like someone had pissed on it. One time he bit into a sandwich and the deli worker had accidentally used gobs of killer Chinese mustard instead of a thin spread of American yellow. Somehow his mail stopped coming, and when he tried to track it down, he found it'd been forwarded, and not just forwarded, but forwarded first to another address in Oakland, then to Sacramento, to North Highlands, Elverta, Rio Linda, to San Leandro, then re-forwarded to San Lorenzo, then to Hayward, to Boulder Colorado, seven consecutive addresses in Houston, Cypress Texas, two different addresses in New York City, Queens, Freeland Washington on Whidbey Island, Boulder Creek California, Salem Oregon, back to Houston, to Knob Noster Missouri. He went for a haircut and ended up having to get a crew-cut, so screwed-up a job Joannie did, and she was really sorry about it and promised to do a better job the next time he came in. Joannie would have her mother, Mama Hernandez herself and in the flesh, do the job, and do it right.
Now the fire, the fire was a bad thing. The family FatDaddy was sleeping—around three in the afternoon they took family naps—and I was mowing. In Oakland it doesn't rain between May and October, and when it's hot you can hear the weeds crackle and snap when the oxygen in the plants' cells explodes. Stand in a field in California summer and it's like you're in a bowl of Rice Krispies, as if billions of microscopic firecrackers are exploding, as if the earth is burning itself alive. And you don't just hear the fire, you can feel it, you can feel the heat, feel it torch. FatDaddy Walley's yard sang with fire. That it would catch was inevitable. It wasn't my fault. The mower did it. I got a running start on a bad patch of weeds and the blade hit a rock, part of a buried granite fountain. The blades made a spark, the spark caught the weeds, and before I knew it the yard was afire, and the house caught, and I tried to let the family FatDaddy Walley know their house was on fire, really I did, but they were sleeping too hard and I couldn't wake them up by yelling and the doors were locked so I couldn't get in and they didn't hear me knocking and I knocked as hard as I could but I had to get out of there or else I'd have been burned alive.
"That's how it happened," Mr. O'Shaunessey said. "Right?"
I said, "Right. Right," I said. "That's what happened."
FatDaddy stood there in his shorts, rolls of blubber white and jiggling as he shook his fist at me. The Sanchez brothers, firemen, held him back. "Arson!" FatDaddy yelled. "The little Mick white-trash piece of shit burned my house down. I'm pressing charges. You're out of your league, boys." Fat Daddy laughed, and his laugh was kind of spooky. "Do you know who I am? Do you?"
"I believe everyone here knows who you are," said O'Shaunessey. "And yes, perhaps, Mr. Walley, we are out of our league. Have you ever considered that there could be more than one league? That the league you're now playing in is not your league, but ours?"
"Do you know who I am?"
"I don't claim to know much," O'Shaunessey said. "But I do know who you are. Do you know who I am? I am the Fire Chief," O'Shaunessey said. "Mower blades set off the blaze. Your yard was a fire hazard. That is my official and legal forensic opinion."
"He hasn't paid me yet," I said. "There's nothing left for me to mow. My job's done. He owes me seventy-five cents."
Everyone looked at him with eyes that said, Pay the boy.
"Fuck you!" Fat Daddy said. "Fuck you!"
Mama FatDaddy joined in. "Yeah, fuck you. Do you know who my husband is? Fuck you all."
It wasn't a very dignified thing for them to say, not for people of their position and social standing.
"Fuck you!" FatDaddy said. "You're all in it together! Micks, WOPS, wetbacks, niggers, chinks, hairdressers, niggers, Portugees, niggers and niggers and goddamn niggers, all of you. Fuck you! You're all a bunch of Mick WOP wetback niggers. All of you. Niggers."
Somehow FatDaddy tripped, and he lay face down in the burnt and now hose-watered lawn. When he stood up, he dripped black char sludge, his face slick. The char smelled good. It made the factory stink go away. Oakland could smell a whole lot of a fucking better if something was always always burning, instead of only burning once in a while.
Everyone was still looking at him hard. Pay the boy.
FatDaddy walked into his charred house. He sifted through the smoking cinders and found his pair of pants and lifted them like he was hoisting a burned up tent. Coins dropped into the ashes and black sludge. He threw some change at me. I leaned to get the quarters, and O'Shaunessey said, "No, son. Mr. Walley will hand you your pay."
FatDaddy just stood there. "Pay the boy," O'Shaunessey said.
FatDaddy looked at O'Shaunessey, and then you could see FatDaddy look around at everyone else. There were probably a hundred of us now, and FatDaddy first tried to look at people's eyes, but pretty soon he was just looking at something on the ground in front of each of us. Without looking up he trudged through the slosh and cinder toward me. He stooped. He picked up the coins and counted out three quarters. He handed them to me.
"Thank you Mr. Walley," I said.
I didn't want to, but I smiled at him. It was one of those smiles I get when I'm really happy or I'm really guilty or when someone thinks I'm guilty and I'm not or there's something I want to say but I can't get up the balls to say it.
I tried to stop smiling but I couldn't.
Even now, when I think about FatDaddy, I try not to smile, but I can't help myself, and my face hurts from smiling.
I feel really bad about this.
* * *
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