Working the Yard

Original writing by Mary Kate Murray
Published in Catch, Fall 2012

It happened eleven years ago on Take-Your-Kid-To-Work-Day at Little Flyer’s Construction Company. My dad and I woke up real early–like five o’clock; it was still dark. I was so excited I couldn’t sit. I literally bounced up and down in my chair while Dad tried to shovel Cheerios down my throat and stuff a baseball cap on my head. We were going downtown to my dad’s worksite at the top of an office building. It was a paper manufacturer or a stock building or something. I didn’t know how many stories it was, but it was downtown, so I knew it’d be really high, and at seven years old, I wanted to see the world.

Dad buckled me down in the passenger seat of the truck and drove. I pressed my face up against the window, waiting. Driving places was the hardest part of anything for me. I was an impatient little sucker–the annoying kid in those road trip movies who screams “Are we there yet?!” multiplied by ten. But that day, I didn’t fidget as much. I was quiet. I was pensive. I was going to the top of a building. That called for mental preparation.

We lived in Evanston, so staring out the window of a pick-up going 75 down the expressway, there was nothing too exciting to see. Just a bunch of billboards and a rail yard or two. We passed a huge, old building with graffitied walls and a towering chimney stained black at the top. A rancid odor crept through the cracked window. I scrunched up my nose, turned to my dad and asked him to shut it. “It stinks,” I said.

“It’s the old meat-packing plant.” Dad jerked his head in the direction of the building. “People used to bring cattle there to be slaughtered and sold. Be grateful. It probably smelled worse when it was up and running.” I looked at it again. Surrounded by a huge barbed-wire fence, the place looked more like a prison than a meat factory. I thought of the book Mrs. Shepherd read to us in history a few weeks before–I don’t know why we were learning about cattle trade in second grade, but we were–and pictured a bunch of cows all jammed behind that crazy fence, so close they were sniffing each other’s asses. That probably did smell a lot worse than the stale-smoke-and-rotting-steak stench hovering around the expressway, but they were just cows. It didn’t really matter whose asses they sniffed.

We came around a bend and the Chicago skyline rose into sight. I’d seen it once or twice before, but I was too young to remember. We didn’t go into the city often, and when we did, I was usually crammed into the back of Mom’s minivan with my three older cousins on a trip to some museum or another. I’d never gotten a full view of the city before, and I’m not gonna lie, I was amazed. Skyscrapers stood sleek against the pink and gold light; the Sears Tower (the only one I knew the name of) grazed the scarce clouds, windows glittering in the sunrise. All together the whole thing looked like some kind of black and silver Emerald City and I was more anxious to get there than Dorothy and the Scarecrow combined. When we got off the expressway, I had to sit sideways and strain my neck to see the tops of buildings. I looked straight up out the window until I was dizzy, and all I could think was the seven-year-old equivalent of “this is the shit.”

We twisted through the city streets. The things here were a lot faster than Evanston–more chaotic. There were people everywhere; signs and building seemed to jump out at you to get your attention. Every corner was different–loud, dirty, pulsing, electric–and I loved it. We weaved through traffic, only stopping when it was absolutely necessary. Dad finally slowed next to a tall, building with the words “Measureless Possibilities” painted in shiny gold letters on big tinted window next a huge revolving door. “That’s it,” said Dad. I could’ve broken the door handle with how hard I was squeezing it, eager to jump out of the car and go straight to the top. Luckily, my dad had the child lock activated.

We pulled into a dark parking garage and found a guy in a neon orange Little Flyer’s vest just like my dad’s. His nametag said Stan. He helped unload the construction stuff in the back of our truck while I rummaged frantically around the backseat for the spare hardhat I knew Dad kept there. I heard the two of them talking through the open door. “Sally and I fought again last night,” said Stan as he lifted a canvas bag out of the bed of the truck.

“Was it bad?” asked Dad.

“Bad enough,” Stan said.

“D’ya need a place to stay?”

“Nah, I’ll crash at Paul’s for a couple of days.”

The truck wiggled as they moved the last of the supplies from the tailgate.

“It’s hot as hell out there today,” said Stan. “Thermometer says 97. Do you think boss’ll let us off early?”

“Probably not.”

I found the hardhat under an old sweatshirt, strapped it on my head, and climbed out of the truck. Dad shrugged. I slammed the truck door, the sound of the bang and click echoing off the walls of the parking garage. We were off.

We took some stairs up into what looked like a hotel lobby except everyone was wearing suits and carrying around big, brown briefcases. Then we crammed into an elevator with a bunch of other people, which was hard because my dad and his friend had huge tool bags and buckets of something that looked like wet cement. I was holding an armful of small tools and the elevator moved so fast, I could hardly stand without bumping into somebody. Anytime I would accidently hit someone, I’d apologize immediately, nervous about how important-looking business people in their important-looking suits would react to a small boy jabbing them with a screwdriver. They would just shift their weight, though, eyes stoic, and ignore me, as if there wasn’t anything unusual about a kid in a hardhat riding the elevator.

By the time we got to the top floor, we were the only ones left on the elevator, and I didn’t understand how so many people had fit in the thing at once. It was almost too small for just three of us. As we walked through the building, I peered through windows and doors into spacious offices with lush cream carpets and shiny desks. Phones rang, but no one rushed to answer them. Everything was moving, but slowly. Any tension was masked by the smell of coffee, paper, and ink. A man and woman in blazers peered at us from beside a water cooler. The woman made a face at me. She either thought I was cute or horribly out of place. Other than that, no one glanced at the guys in the neon vests.

At the end of the hall was a heavy steel door labeled “To Roof.” Stan opened it, and we set off up a narrow flight of stairs. With every step I got more excited. This was it. This was my dream. I was going to the top of a building. The top of a skyscraper. Where I could see the entire city–the cars, the trains, the people, the lake, the sky, everything. The entire world was just beyond the door. Measureless possibilities. Just a few steps more and I could see it; just a few more steps and I could breathe; just three, two, one…

The door swung open and a rush of sunlight flooded the stairwell. We stepped out onto the roof and for a moment–one shining moment–I felt like I really was on top of the world. Then a wave of sticky heat kicked everything to shit.

Dad pointed me vaguely in the direction of the “Safety Corner”: a lone table with a smiley woman in denim surrounded by a couple of kids about my age coloring pictures of cranes and bulldozers. I dropped my screwdrivers on the table and Dad jostled past me to talk to a man who must’ve been the project manager or something because he was wearing a tie and somehow looked a lot less hot than everyone else. Stan looked at him with worried eyes and quickly slipped away without him seeing.

Of course, I didn’t want to hang out in the Safety Corner when there was a world to see up here, so when the denim woman wasn’t looking, I ducked under the table and into the crowd of workers. Then, I was alone in the middle of the roof, surrounded by bodies. Bodies everywhere, constantly in motion. Men and women in orange neon vests hammering, lifting, drilling–I didn’t even know what they were doing, but they never stopped. Why were so many of them packed on this roof? What needed to be fixed? I could hardly see past them, and for the scarce moments that I could, there were only buildings. No sky, no city, no measureless possibilities; just glass and steel.

My dad was still talking to the manager so I carefully pushed my way through the crowd, past a scaffold and a complicated-looking rig of metal beams, closer to the edge. The wind up there was so strong it probably would’ve picked me up and blown me away if my hardhat wasn’t weighing me down. Through a gap between two buildings I caught a glimpse of Lake Michigan–blue and beautiful, but my view was blocked by Stan. He looked different in the bright sunlight–more defined. More troubled. He had a mustache and glasses and reminded me a lot of my next-door neighbor, the one with the plastic flamingos in his window and the collection of overgrown Algerian plants in his backyard. He had this look in his eyes–a wild, terrified glow. He paced back and forth in the small space allotted to him, and every time he passed the barely visible lake, he paused and stared for a moment before going back to pacing. As I watched him, I realized he was the only person not working. The only one who seemed truly bothered by the heat–the heat that I could already feel slamming against my skin in powerful waves, boring down through me, settling somewhere deep inside my muscles. All the other workers (including my dad who had joined in on lifting more metal beams onto the scaffold) sweated in resignation. This guy looked how I felt. Like he wanted to tear off his clothes.

I moved closer to him, thinking I might be able to see more of the lake behind him, when it hit me. Car exhaust and something else, something animal. Jolted, I sputtered and coughed. Where was the smell coming from? We were dozens of stories up in the air, surrounded by skyscrapers. The exhaust? Sure, it could’ve risen from the streets, but the other smell? Christ. It smelled like the back of the Polish butcher shop my mom took me to sometimes–the one with all the dead things hanging from the ceiling and the old man who handed out slices of slightly molding cheese for free. (At least, that’s what I thought, until years later when I recognized the smell again in the high school boys’ locker room: the unmistakable odor of overworked human bodies bound together in the same small, sweaty space.) I coughed again and Stan must’ve heard me because he snapped his eyes at me real fast like I’d caught him doing something he wasn’t supposed to. He opened his mouth, and I was sure I was caught. He was going to tell me to go back to the kids’ table with the crayons and coloring sheets and I wasn’t going to get to see the lake. Just then the project manager emerged from the stairwell we walked through earlier with a big smile on his face, looking refreshed and thoroughly air-conditioned. Stan blanched. The boss climbed up on top of the scaffold, took a long swig from a bottle of water, and yelled like a Vietnam drill sergeant. His voice drove straight to my ears through the rush of the wind. Nothing was going right. Everything sucked. And it was everyone’s fault but his. He was so loud, and yelled for so long that I thought I was doing my job wrong.

Stan stood next to me, listening, and I could practically see the glow in his eyes slide out through his pupils, like the manager’s words were sucking the life out of him. When it finally stopped, the manager got down off the scaffold, went back inside, and everyone except me and Stan continued to work as if it didn’t smell like a zoo, as if it wasn’t a million and six degrees, as if they could move two feet without running into each other and they hadn’t just been screamed at for fifteen minutes straight. They could’ve at least acted like they cared, but they were just workers. It didn’t really matter if they cared.

After that, I was done. My mouth was dry, my face was starting to burn in the sun, and I couldn’t see anything I had expected to see. I looked around and saw nothing remarkable, only closed windows and metal. I couldn’t even find my dad in the sea of workers. “Dad?” I called. I stood on my toes and searched for him, but he had disappeared among the hardhats and neon vests. “Dad?” I called again, and my voice was swept away in the rush of the wind. “Dad?!” I yelled. I shouldn’t have been upset. I shoudn’t’ve cried. I was living my dream on top of a skyscraper, but it had turned into a nightmare. I was alone and sweaty and all I wanted to do was go home.

Stan started pacing again, but this time his stance was different. That frantic glow was gone, and replaced with something else. Something I couldn’t recognize. He stood like all the rest of them–sweaty and defeated. He put on his red hardhat, and when he reached the gap with the view of the lake, he didn’t stop in front of it. Instead, he turned and without missing a beat walked straight off the building. Straight off the fucking building. One moment he was there. The next he wasn’t. So I did what any terrified, overheated seven-year-old would do. I screamed.

On the way home it was dark. My throat was raw. My eyes were swollen. I think I had sunburn on my cheeks. My dad drove silently, and I just sat there, numb. I’m told that the afternoon was filled with journalists and police reports, but I don’t remember any of it. All I remember was the moment after he jumped. I saw it: Lake Michigan in all its sparkling glory. It was cool, smooth, and gorgeous, and I wanted to jump, too. I wanted to be there, in the lake, away from that roof. Away from the city, the stink, the sweat. Away from everything that was bound to happen to me. But I couldn’t follow him. I had to stay. If I hadn’t stayed–if I hadn’t screamed…no one on that roof would’ve known. He was just one man. Up there, it didn’t really matter where he went as long as there were others working. If I hadn’t screamed, no one would’ve noticed him go.

Now, every time I drive past the meatpacking plant on my way to Newgate Vocational School downtown, even though the lingering stench of cow intestines and human suffering still hangs in the air, I can barely smell it. Maybe I’m distracted in the mornings. Maybe the lake winds blow it in a different direction. Maybe the city has finally sent someone in to start cleaning up the place. Or maybe I’m just getting used to the stink.

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