Lately, I've been taking my lunch breaks with a guy whose real name is Clarence Dooley but everybody calls Backhoe. Or Backdoorhoe. Or Crackhoe. Depending how the foreman's treating us that day. If it's a good day, he's Backhoe. If Derek's being a prick about everything...
Bottom line is, I'm an apprentice so I do what I'm told. And Derek made it clear from word one that Backhoe's my problem, not his, for the duration of his work release program.
Derek thinks it's some kind of punishment. But he doesn't give me the time of day to begin with, so it's nice to have some actual human interaction for a change.
Even if it's with a guy who got locked up for throwing a cinder block through the front of a Potbelly, after the cashier told him she wouldn't take his Iraqi Dinars.
Backhoe and I are eating McNuggets on the Madison Street bridge again, our asses planted on turned-over milk crates, watching the Chicago River do jack shit but flow. It's early-June, so it's perfect. Nice breeze, not too hot. Tons of Party Boats.
"Comes one now. Y'all make some noise!"
Backhoe stands up and wedges his pinky and index fingers between his lips, whistles. The Party Boat below is stocked with important-looking people, the types that wear polo shirts and pantsuits and sunglasses you can't buy at Walgreens. They all look up.
"S'what I'm talkin' 'bout!"
Backhoe keeps clapping, even as the Party Boat passes underneath us and heads north up the river. We hear a guy with a megaphone explain to the important-looking people that on Black Monday, way back in '87 or some shit, businessmen were jumping out of the same office buildings they were looking at now because the stock market crashed real bad.
Backhoe scowls, sits back down. He dunks another McNugget the same way he always does: one half honey, one half ketchup.
"Best lock them shits up. Folks be linin' up 'round the block to jump, these days."
Backhoe got his name his first day on the job. He showed up with some Department of Corrections asshole, who explained to us what the hell Backhoe was doing there in the first place. He told us not to worry, that Backhoe had been rehabilitated, that he wouldn't fuck around. He promised. What that dipshit didn't realize is that Derek and the rest of the higher-ups are at least a hundred times crazier than any Stateville motherfucker. At least. Only difference is that they have Union cards, pensions.
Anyway, once the DOC knob was done running his mouth and back in his Tahoe, Backhoe (excuse me, Clarence) told Derek he had first dibs on the backhoe, that he wasn't interested in hammering nails or sawing two-by-fours or digging post holes or any of that shit.
Derek just laughed, asked Backhoe if he'd be interested in sucking his dick. Then he lit a Newport and told Backhoe that he wouldn't be getting near a goddamn level, let alone any pieces of heavy machinery. Then he told Backhoe to get the fuck out of his face and start taking coffee orders, told him to make it quick because the Paki that runs Glenda's takes his morning prayers soon.
I thought Backhoe would lose it on him, brain him with a sledgehammer or throw him into a concrete mixer. But he didn't. He just went around with a pen and pad of paper, came up with his own code for Small Black and Large Cream Two Splendas and such like he was Hammurabi or some shit. Then he took off in a dead sprint toward Glenda's, his White Sox hat slipping off his head and falling to the dirt.
Ten minutes later, we saw Backhoe busting out of Glenda's with two cardboard holders on each forearm, sixteen coffees in all. We watched as his crazy ass tried to cross Dearborn in the middle of the street, weave in and out of rush hour traffic and balance that shit at the same time. You could see he was shaking and we knew a stiff breeze was all it'd take to fuck him up. When he dropped an arm's worth of shit all over the pavement, we lost it.
Marquez took credit for the handle, but it was a team effort. No one's called him Clarence since.
It's overcast so there aren't many Party Boats on the river today. The few that have passed by have empty decks, save a few old tourists in bright ponchos who can't seem to keep their mouths shut while they gawk at all the skyscrapers.
Backhoe's restless, keeps drumming his fingers on the side of his crate.
"Storm comin'. Liable to get struck down dead on that got-damn scaffoldin'."
Backhoe tells me he's considering splitting, wants to call up a buddy in Indiana and get the fuck out of Chicago, out of the country.
"Ever been down Argentina way? Get yourself a got-damn alpaca, few looms? You set."
I remind him of all the pop-ins the DOC cocksucker makes at the site, tell him he won't make it out of Cook County, much less paint Buenos Aires red on blanket money. Besides, I tell him. You'll need a passport to get through Customs.
Backhoe smiles and stands, flicks the ass-end of a petrified fry over the bridge's railing and into the river. Then he takes something out of the back pocket of his Rustlers, hands it to me. It's a Canadian passport. It's his picture, but his name is Reggie Slocumb, M.D. It even has his astrological sign. Sagittarius.
"Done deal. Forty-fuckin'-love. Advantage me."
Backhoe plays air tennis, swings his invisible racket real smooth through the humidity. Then he makes a visor with his flat hand, shields his eyes and watches his imaginary ball soar through the air and plunk down in the water, yards upstream.
Derek's been riding Backhoe's ass all day, keeps telling him he's the laziest motherfucker he's laid eyes on in twenty years. Which is a total exaggeration, considering Derek's all of thirty-two.
Of course, he's right. Backhoe takes more breaks than all of us combined, stops working every twenty minutes or so to whip stones into the foundation. But it's not like it matters. Derek hasn't thrown too much work his way to begin with, figuring the DOC tool's going to show up any day now and say Thanks, We're all done here. Ship Backhoe back down to Joliet to finish his bid. Still, he could stand to help out more and I tell him as much. He's not buying.
"Shit, here I am thinkin' we kin. Turn out to be some kinda worldbeater."
Backhoe grabs his crotch, spits on his hands and rubs them together like in the cartoons. Then he grabs the heaviest sheet-metal mallet he can find, starts swinging it over his head.
"You want work? You lookin' at the Hammer-a-Got-Damn-Thor."
Once he's built up enough momentum he lets the mallet fly. It crashes through some drywall Jerry and McNamara just laid, leaves a jagged scar in the sheet. The entire site grinds to a halt, stares. I figure Backhoe has ten, fifteen seconds left to live.
"That ain't countin' 'gainst my breaks, neither."
Backhoe takes a seat on a cooler, scratches his neck.
"Manual labor shit gon' land me in a early-ass grave."
Backhoe tells me Friday's his last day, that the DOC Tahoe will be waiting for him at three-thirty p.m. sharp. Back to Gen Pop for six more months, seven tops. We come up on the McDonald's but tells me to keep walking, that he has a surprise for me.
"Won't be needin' no Value Meal where we goin'."
We duck into a CVS, where Backhoe buys a sixer of Modelo. He cracks one open the second we're out of the store, kills about half of it in one monster gulp. Then we walk about a block up Madison, past Union Station. Backhoe stops in the middle of the sidewalk, points at a sign for Chicago Water Taxi.
"All aboard, motherfucker."
I try to tell him that this is a dumb fucking idea, that I'd much rather be using my hour lunch to eat than dicking around on some boat, but he's already slipped the cashier a twenty for our fare. We board a craft named The Lil' Bandit, shake the hand of a guy who introduces himself as Cap'n Larry. He looks like he just woke up and his phony nautical gear is wrinkled and stained with mustard. When we leave the dock, an Eddie Money song about paradise gets piped through the speakers built into the sides our yellow plastic seats.
"Next stop, Chinatown!"
Backhoe tosses his empty Modelo overboard and rips two new ones off the plastic ring, hands one to me. I think twice about it, knowing Derek's going to lose his shit if he smells alcohol on me, but I say fuck it and crack one open. Backhoe slaps me on the back, grins.
"Now we doin' work! Hoo!"
The sun is beating down on us, warms us like a towel right out of the dryer. It's nice, like I imagine San Diego to be. I decide I like this side of Chicago, this side that's like San Diego. There's mist and Party Boats and girls and no one gives a shit about Derek or getting their certification or going back to Stateville. There's just these Modelos and this boat and this river and some nice-ass weather and that's enough.
"S'where I bid your ass adieu."
The Lil' Bandit is already pulling into port on Eighteenth Street, the end of the line. Backhoe shakes my hand and gives me the leftover Modelos, insists that I find them good homes. I tell him I will. I watch as he hops up out of the boat and onto the dock, tipping his White Sox cap to Cap'n Larry on the way out. I see him race up the stairs to the street and I know he won't be at the site come Friday, has no intention of taking any ride down I-55 with some DOC sonofabitch.
It hits me that I'm in fucking Chinatown, alone, with about ten minutes left on my break. I'll be late getting back, for sure. Docked an hour's pay, maybe even written up. I don't sweat it. I just watch tourists board The Lil' Bandit, ready to hear stories about Frank Lloyd Wright and Curly Humphreys and Scottie Pippen. I think about Backhoe (excuse me, Reggie Slocumb, M.D.) on that alpaca farm, shaving wool off the side of some poor, fidgety beast. Living his dream.
About the Writer
Thomas Mundt is the author of one short story collection, You Have Until Noon to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe (Lady Lazarus Press, 2011), and the father of one human boy, Henry (2011). Teambuilding opportunities and risk management advice can be found on his site: www.dontdissthewizard.blogspot.com.