Stephenson Muret

 

Overlord & Sons

 

I’m lying on the floor with a black man. Troy. Everyone I work with calls him Troy, but he insists I call him Rahim.

“How we doin’, Shawn?”

“We’re doin’.”

I feel uncertain calling him a name I know he reserves only for white men—even though I’m a white man. So I use no name at all. Every time we talk this disconnect hangs between us, this distance. Customarily I address people by name in conversation. But I can’t say Troy. And I feel like a stooge calling him Rahim. Besides, when I do indulge this whim of his, or maybe this philosophy of his, the other black guys snicker. I’m used to their mild ostracism by now, but that doesn’t mean I want to prompt it. So we just converse without his name. He calls me Shawn. With authority. And I call him nothing. Troy in my head. Rahim in my head.

We’re lying on the floor, like I said, scooting along on our left shoulders, the ram board hard beneath us.

“Better than just doin’, Shawn,” he replies. “We’re gettin’ it in.”

Metal boxes tower around us. Maybe seven feet tall, their casings look as dense as armor and dump truck heavy. Routinely you encounter less imposing versions of these boxes behind businesses, or even along sidewalks. Always they are painted flat forest green. Always they sport arrangements of orange and black stickers, one of which warns of “high voltage.” And always they hum. These monster specimens that surround Troy and me though, do not hum. They are still dead.

“Okay.”

“We’re gettin’ it in,” he repeats.

“Okay.”

I just go along when the black guys throw unfamiliar phrases like this at me, or words. After a few exposures, I usually feel out their meaning from context. This is easier than always begging explanation. But for some reason, Troy won’t let me just go along today. As we lie there, as we scoot, he’s making me participate.

“You know what that means?”

His steel-toe work boots flutter in my face. Dried mud is caked into the question mark pattern of their soles. I crane sidewise to see all his weight on his left arm, to see Troy pressing the floor with his right hand, to see him gesturing commandingly with the visor of his hardhat.

“Gimme more,” he orders.

I rip off a foot-length of adhesive tape and stretch upward.

“Just get me a whole roll,” he counsels.

“Yeah. Better.”

So I scrunch to a kneel, rise, and clomp toward our supplies for the second roll of blue tape. As I move I lift and set my boots carefully across the new floor, even gingerly. Beyond the doorless doorway, two dusty men stride by with a section of aluminum duct riding their shoulders. Another in a matching orange hardhat trails them, swinging a saws-all. The three toss Honduran profanities backward and forward as ironic, sing-songy cracks. I wonder if their outfit is hiring. I need a steady job. I need it as much for the feeling of belonging as the paycheck. I’m carrying back Troy’s own roll of tape then, guessing at the cost of the floor beneath my steps. Fifteen thousand easy. I’m almost tip-toeing in my steel-toe boots. We’re taping down ram board to protect this costly surface from the work boots and toolkits of the electricians due to scramble in here as soon as we finish. The electrical contractor keeps checking on us anxiously. Mr. Overlord himself. The big-hat.

Troy says, “Everyone lives for someone, Shawn. You gotta choose. Some people don’t realize they live for someone else, so they go on living blindly. You gotta be aware. If you don’t choose, other people choose for you. They try to make you live for them. If you don’t watch out, that will happen.”

He stops flattening the floor cover and looks at me. He’s looking to see if I am listening. I am listening.

I answer, “My mother used to say something like that. She was talking about God, though. Always trying to keep me and my sister from falling into a life of sex, drugs, and Justin Beiber.”

He shrugs a shoulder.

I shrug back.

“Decent enough,” he states.

“People do their best.”

“We’re gettin’ it in,” Troy repeats and then turns anew to our task. He strips a length of tape with grinning pride. “That big-hat needs to stop checking on us, though. I don’t like being pushed.”

I elbow over to the other side of the aisle between the mammoth green boxes and tape now along a parallel kick panel. I’m lying on my right side and scooting and fixing the ram board tight and putting Troy’s words together with other things he’s told me. Things about New York. Things about extradition from Virginia. Things about finding Islam in prison. He says before Islam his mind was not his own; that the orienting of his thoughts went on without his conscious permission. He says he realized one day that everything he cared about had been imposed upon his psyche by a culture he disagreed with; by a culture, in fact, which had oppressed him. He became a Muslim, he told me, to take back his mind. He insists every man should reject the religion of his childhood. Only that way, he says, can you know you have decided to be who you are. And I’m right-arming along and securing the ram board to the floor and recalling Troy telling me how as soon as he can speak Arabic well enough he’s never speaking English again. And I’m realizing for the first time that Troy probably sees me as the embodiment of this culture he’s turned his back on. And that that’s why I can’t call him Troy. And I’m thinking now Troy is something of a philosopher, actually. And then, for an instant, I doubt everything I’ve ever known or done. Finally, I respond to his complaint.

I say, “They’re in a hurry.”

“I don’t like being pushed.”

“I feel you. Besides, we’re laying this stuff down pretty fast, I think. We’re moving.”

“We’re gettin’ it in, Shawn. You know what that means?”

Then, over our talking, a sharp commanding growl intrudes: “Hey! You guys! How’s it comin’!?”

Troy stops taping, freezes. His musing about living for oneself had defused his flinty resentment. But it’s back; I can feel it. I look up. It’s the big-hat, of course. Calvert Overlord. He’s one of those blocky lifers who could rewire the Empire State Building in like two hours. Super-pro. Taskmaster. He’s edgy because his crew is supposed to be off this site in a few days, but they still have to test the transformers outside and to fire up whatever these big damn metal boxes are in this room. I’ve heard dudes razzing him to go hot already. Lots of pressure on those chiefs. Especially on a huge data center job like this. Grunts mooning about waiting for him to finish his work so they can finish theirs. Tens of thousands of penalty dollars at stake for each day he overworks his deadline. And here he is stalled by a couple of temp agency flunkies sprawling across some ram board and jawing. The guy’s first rate, though. I would kill to get on with his company as a helper. Something about taking shit from a hardass makes you feel like a part of something. Like on the high school football team. Anyway, Troy freezes. This gives me a jittery dread so I answer the white man quickly before Troy can snap back.

I say, placatingly, “We’re on it, sir. We’re laying this stuff down as fast as we can. We know you need to get in here as fast as possible.”

Overlord doesn’t answer. He doesn’t even nod. From his unchanged expression, I’m not even sure he heard me. He just marches away. Five or six other yellow-hatted electricians stride by the door before I think to kneel again. I hoped to impress that man. That’s why I stood up. I’d give anything to join that outfit. Maybe by showing intimidation I helped my chances. But maybe I should have been more defiant. You can’t know. It’s all a gamble.

Troy is steaming, shaking his head. “I’m not working any faster,” he mutters.

“The building’s going hot today,” I say. “Everyone’s stressed out. You see McElroy? Sweating when we got here. Days like this can derail a whole career. I bet they got a dozen guys like us on this site right now just to speed things up. Seems to me you’d keep the guys who don’t know anything away from a place like this when you’re turning on the juice and it’s dangerous.”

“They don’t care.”

“No, they don’t. Maybe that’s why they got us here. We’re expendable. They throw the switch, and one of us gets electrocuted, and it’s not their problem, it’s the agency’s. Except for the forms they gotta fill out, I guess.”

“I ain’t gettin’ electrocuted.”

“Me neither. They can just wait.”

“Besides, we’re gettin’ it in. We’re laying this shit quick.”

“Yes, we are. That’s half the floor now. Superman couldn’t lay it down faster.”

But we work on them hurriedly, and I’m taping down the edge of the ram board and pondering vaguely the value of the floor. But also I’m feeling my hankering for steady employment. But also I’m realizing I’ve never actually doubted my religion at all; that, in fact, I’ve never really questioned my culture at all either. I suppose Troy would consider me less a man for that. He is admirably strong. Enviably. And his strength rarely comes across as anger, like now. Usually the strength you feel from him is not so reactive. It’s more like a sure footing. A place where he stands squarely. A kind of solidity. You get the feeling that even by taking Troy’s life you could not take his strength. I guess that’s the self-knowledge he’s talking about. He really knows what he believes. Or, rather, he has come to really own his belief. It is something he has chosen, not something he has been given. A man thing, not a child thing. Maybe I’m not strong like Troy because I don’t need to be. My culture dotes on white men like me. It protects me. Makes me feel safe. But it does none of this for Troy. I have no reason to rebel against my culture, I guess, to seek out some alternate worldview. I guess I’m the lucky one. But if I’m the lucky one, why do I envy Troy’s strength?

Troy is holding open the roll of ram board as I cut off another section with my blade when we hear the boom. The concussion reverbs through the unfinished building, swinging the temporary yellow light fixtures. I feel the shock in my sternum and ears and for a long few seconds squat blankly, mentally groping for my limbs and my breath. I look at Troy. He is just finishing his own systems check. We widen our eyes at each other. Both of us sniff for gas. Through Troy’s safety glasses I see tiny red veins snaking through the whites of his eyes.

I say, “What the fuck!”

He says, “Motherfuckers!”

We turn toward the doorless doorway and catch several yellow hardhats hoofing rapidly down the corridor. The regular underhum of construction chatter has risen by an octave. And its many voices clip unusually as the roaring and beeping of lifts and screw guns die into a silent collective gauging of the event. Less than a minute later, though, we hear a joshing tone return to the voices and the machinery thrum back into use. This means no one is hurt too bad.

Nervously, we look around at our towering metal boxes.

“This stuff ain’t hot yet, Rahim. We’re okay.”

“I’m not comin’ back here tomorrow,” he fumes. “I’m tellin’ the agency I’ll even pick up trash somewhere before comin’ here. This place can keep its extra two dollars an hour.”

I stand silent. I gaze down at the fresh cutting of floor protection. Occasionally in the past weeks I’ve done temp work with Overlord & Sons. Sometimes I’ve sensed the foreman marking me. That big-hat is a fucker, but his foreman might very well hire me on. That’s why I started taking these jobs. I knew I could get on with some contractor eventually. As long as you show up sober every morning, and don’t overplay your break time or lunch, and keep moving, you make yourself a viable candidate when they’re needing hands. The work humiliates a little but meanwhile it hefts you out of unemployment. Plenty of guys find some place to fit in this way. And this outfit would be steady pay. You see them on lots of different job sites.

Troy says, “I’m not living for those motherfuckers. I’m living for myself. Not dyin’ for ’em. No way.”

I squirm, kneeling again. I mumble, half-inwardly, “Yeah…well… by this time next week, you know, all of this around us will be long hot and proven safe.”

Troy tenses. I see irritation roll through his squared shoulders. I lie down on my right side as he speaks.

“Look at all these big goddamn green boxes in this room, Shawn. Look. How many are wired wrong? They check and double check ’em before they give ’em the jolt and then they still explode. You wanna live for those sonsabitches that bad? Work for some plumbers or something. You end up with shit all over you maybe, but you can wash that off. How you plan to reattach your arms?”

We resume affixing the ram board. But we scoot along more slowly now, eyeing the mysterious metal boxes that we don’t understand but somehow know are full of death. I’m telling myself Troy exaggerates, that risks like these are managed every day and that you never hear about electricians dismembering themselves. The transformers outside were cordoned off, in fact. I saw them. Professionals recognize the dangers. They adjust to them. And look at this floor. Some kind of high-tech glaze designed to last 200 years, I bet. It’s so futuristic I’m afraid to even walk on it. Surely, they can get the power right, too. At some point, you have to trust people, or you just paralyze yourself. But Troy is grinding along with taut, muscular motions, in a fierce silence. Just look at how he can sneer at them! And I’m recalling my mother grooming me for the godly life, teaching me The Beatles are agents of Satan. And I’m thinking about Troy living for himself through Islam, and about how I’ve never really lived for anyone or anything. Then I am blinking up into a blocky male face that I knew once to be white, but which now I comprehend as red, as bright pinkish red. I hear a human screech. A screech like that of lunatic pigs being whipped over a high cliff. The screech says,

“What! The Fuck! Are you two! Bozos! Doing!?”

I flinch. I’m looking up at the big-hat. Overlord. I’m upside down. I’m lying on the floor. I hear Troy blurt, “What did I teach you, Shawn?” And for some reason I splice the two ideas Troy has been expounding, weld them to one. And then an insight gels in me. Because lying on my back between these two men, I realize I face a choice. And this time, suddenly, I want to actually make a choice. So I meet the white man’s rabid gaze, and painfully I dig for the courage to make my choice.

Quietly I answer, but not without some hope for myself. I say, “We’re gettin’ it in.”

 

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stephenson-muretStephenson Muret lives and writes in southern California. His plays, stories, essays and poems have appeared in scores of publications, touching virtually all genres.

 

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