Joey and Doug. Those were the two guys that shoveled the mud. They did other things sometimes, but today, they were shoveling mud.
It was a simple task, assigned by the boss as he sat at that white round plastic table surrounded by folding chairs, glaring at the cigarettes dangling from working mouths around him because he quit after he settled down with a wife. It all comes down, in the end, to whether or not you can settle. He didn’t know his own luck.
Everyone else was arduously tearing the roof off that day, dropping loads of shingles to the grass below for the clean-up grunts to slap into wheelbarrows, heft into the dumpster, then circle back around and wait for more. The cycle of life, performed with the grace of a dirty habit, fast and hard, trash the old and start anew.
The boss just sat there on his phone at that table, always glaring, and only speaking to his men in meandering, forceful demands. He wore two rings on his hand. One a wedding band with lyrics from “Legs” engraved on it ‘cause they met at a ZZ Top concert at the casino, the other a bootleg of the New England Patriots’ ring from the 51st Super Bowl. They gleamed in the Sun.
Everything was typical that day except for Joey and Doug. They were distracted, obviously so, looking at the sky and walking around like zombies who’ve forgotten what organ it is that they like to eat. No one noticed, though, in the whirlwind of work. Except the boss. When people aren’t moving, he gives them something to do.
“Joey and Lil Dougie, hey, why don’t ya grab some shovels? You see that creek back there?” Both the men stared at him, hands on their hips, mirror images of each other, shirtless in their basketball shorts, twitching and shifting in the heat of the Sun. People were always pointing out how similar they looked, like Lil Dougie was aged thirty years in a barrel and they opened it and Joey popped out, aged to perfection, with the same crewcut, now grayed into submission. and the same hard squinting eyes dulled from youthful bright Sun to foggy Moon.
The boss pointed to the creek, rings a-glowing, and they craned their necks back in unison, grunted their approval. “It’s stuck up with mud. It’s like… makin a little island in the middle. By the weeping willow. Shovel that mud outta there so the water starts flowin again.”
Joey and Lil Dougie were both off, maybe because they felt how close they were to the Devil there on the ground, marinating uncomfortably in their thoughts, straining to concentrate on the boss’s words. Their feet could be grabbed any second by hands bursting forth from the dirt, and they would be dragged through the muddy Earth into a world of pain and suffering, if they weren’t careful.
Joey was worrying about his back and his knees because they started giving in around ten, only two hours after he got to work, for Christ’s sake. Years of labor, from grunt shit to wiring to gutters to roofing to trucking to cooking, left him with aches all over, aches attached to a year and an occupation, a web of memories that expressed itself in moans and sleepless nights.
Like a rocket blasting off, he didn’t have a chance to look behind himself and consider the consequences of his actions. before he was barreling back towards Earth, outta fuel, on a path to destruction.
Thinking hard as he could, eyes closed and brows furrowed, he couldn’t figure out a way of living that wouldn’t have taken the bend out of his knees and the spark from his mind. Most men his age he knew from the bar, where they sat and lubricated their achy joints and broken hearts with two-dollar pitchers of beer. All of them were creators, working men, who built the infrastructure and real estate, who shipped the world’s material and molded it too. They were all left devastated as a thank you.
And Lil Dougie, he kept himself straight, that’s for sure. Definitely no drinking. He was just desperate not to disappoint the boss. Worked so hard no one ever bothered to mess with him, even went to the gym after work, like some unstoppable force of nature, desperate in his struggle for survival, rippling with muscles that carried him upright through life’s endless shifting and contorting.
That day, he was dreading everything, paranoid and nauseous, like the Sun above was burning his skin on purpose, like the men in trucks that rumbled by were itching to run him down, like the boss could turn and all of a sudden fire him for holding the shovel wrong. Seemed like he couldn’t avoid it, the nausea and the feeling and the wondering. It was a constant.
The boss sent them both away with a grunt and a wave and answered a phone call.
“What’s up, sweetie?”
His wife was always calling him on the job. They were working on her house, a mansion in gaudy Midwest style, with soaring pillars of stone framing an oak front door, a heaving monstrous thing like a cabin jacked up on loads of steroids. They bought it after the boss expanded from doing roofs to doing roofs and gutters and snow plowing. Business was good. He reaped its rewards.
Joey and Lil Dougie took shovels from the trailer and walked the hundred yards to the creek, down a gravel pathway framed by trees into a wondrously large clearing. They saw the willow tree and empathized.
“You ever made a difference in this world, son?” said Joey. He stuck his shovel in the warm soft ground and surveyed the mud island with blank eyes.
“No,” said Doug.
“Well today you’re gonna shovel that pile of mud until a creek that’s been stuck up starts runnin again. That’s makin a difference in the world.”
Joey smiled. Lil Dougie was listening real close and holding his shovel, with arms stretched out, behind his neck. The Sun bounced off the water of the creek like licks of fire, like the trees in its reflection were burning to the ground.
“Okay,” he said in response. That weeping willow tree was distracting him. It hunched forward just like Joey’s spine, its tendrils creeping over the water like they were thirsty. “Should we get digging?”
If one thing kept his mind on track, it was the boss’s orders, repeated over and over, until the task was done and the chaos of freedom returned.
Down to the edge of the creek, feet in the water, water in the socks, to an island of mud and rock, they were both soaked up to their knees. Lil Dougie made first contact, pushing in with all his might and retrieving a hefty chunk of dirt to toss onto dry land. Before Joey could even unstick his shovel from the bottom of the creek, Doug had already dug back in. He was a machine struggling to push beyond its capabilities, he shuddered with his work while his veins popped underneath sweat soaked skin.
“You work quick,” Joey told Doug. He slid his shovel into the mud. “Don’t mind me. I’ll be goin a little bit slower’n you, but we’ll find a nice rhythm.” And that’s what they did, with the younger tossing five hunks of mud each time the older finished tossing three, a polyrhythm as natural as the patter of rain on stone.
They made conversation. The island eroded. Joey picked Dougie’s brain for a topic that interested him, tried the weather and sports, work and politics, but finally settled on strife. Young ones perked up at the chance to sing their pain.
“What’s a boy like you doing here? You’re too young.”
“Yeah, well, damn, I feel old, sitting out here with a bunch of divorced ex-convicts shovelin dirt,” said Lil Dougie. He saw the older man’s reflection shivering in the water. “Feel like my dad, like I’m 42 and depressed.”
“That’s what I mean. You feel old up here right now,” Joey pointed at his skull. “And if you do this shit long enough, you’ll start to feel old all over.” He started waving his hands around his body, outlining the paths of his pain, creek flowing beneath him, birds chirping, “Sweet-sweet-sweet,” in the sky above.
Dougie laughed and pried a basketball-sized boulder loose with his shovel, sent it flying behind him.
“You’re actin like I don’t know that,” he said and looked up from the creek to flash a smile. His teeth were straight as the shovel in his hands.
“What you don’t know,” said Joey, creakily swiveling his hips to swing some dirt leftward. “What you don’t know is how it really feels. You’ll only know that when parts of you start to slip away. First it’s a knee or somethin, achy for a few weeks, dull throb for a few months, and then it settles in: the pain you’ll feel right there, that spot, for the rest of your life. And more come after that.”
“Well, I’ll be livin well before that happens. And I won’t ever have to come back to this shit. I got plans. With my girlfriend. We’re movin away soon as we can,” said Dougie.
Joey laughed now, a deep guffaw that put red shame in Doug’s cheeks. “I moved away, too. Then, I did it again. And again. And again, you know. Good luck with that.”
They looked each other in the eye, leaning on their shovels over the ruins of the mud island. It separated them. Dougie felt a fury in his stomach and unleashed it suddenly on his work, attacking what was left for him to attack. The mud island prayed to God.
Dougie began to further outpace Joey.
“She’s got us a job with her uncle doing landscpaing, but we’re both shitfuck poor right now. So here I am, savin us up money diggin holes and tossin shingles,” he talked with his head down, muscles working. Joey just watched. “We’ll be outta here this time next year.”
“I just want you to know, once you start movin, it gets harder to settle down, and movin is tiresome when you have nothin to come back to,” said Joey.
“What are you sayin?” asked Lil Dougie. He was working on one last pillar of mud the size of a trash can lid. The water glided past his ankles now. Joey had trudged onto dry land to sit with his shovel across his knees.
“I think you seem like a hard worker. Like nothing’s ever gonna slow you down. That means you gotta think about slowin yourself down at some point. People like us, workers, used to fight for our rights, go out on the picket line, that sorta thing. Gave you something to care about. But now, it can seem like there’s nothin to fight for except yourself, maybe a wife and a kid. So you fight and fight for years until you realize you’ve been beating your own damn body to death.”
Joey was looking at the Sun now, up high above the weeping willow, talking to anything and everything, God included.
Lil Dougie couldn’t tell if he should be annoyed or grateful. He just listened and tried to keep his face blank. The heat brought his nausea into focus, so he decided the job was done and joined Joey on the grass by the creek. They were both transfixed by the effectiveness of their work, by the thing that they had destroyed, by the movement and energy they had brought into existence, the creek that would now flow on and on.
One of the trucks rumbling by turned on its blinker and pulled into the driveway. The boss’s wife was there with fast food for lunch. Lil Dougie couldn’t decide whether he should go eat or stay and try to smooth out the lumpy piles of dirt they’d thrown in the grass beside the creek. He could fashion them into a coastline, create a muddy beach for the boss’s kids to stomp through. They could look for toads or salamanders. Catch them and hold them for ransom.
It would be nice.
Joey watched Doug look back and forth, from the mess of mud to the open door of the boss’s truck, and back and forth again, and again.