Clayton Mitchell was nervous. The borrowed five were to be on the job at 7 a.m. sharp. It was now 7:15 and he had a pumper truck already waiting at the swimming pool access gate. Attached to it was a 4-inch-thick coupling hose winding across the gravel base between the two main pools to the wooden forms at the far end where Clayton stood.
Off in the distance, came the faint yet discernible whine of a concrete mixer truck. Beyond the asphalt parking lot, up the hill past a row of 2-story garden apartments, the massive cab nosed around the corner, the diesel engine gasping and groaning to the shift of gears. As it parked in front of the pumper truck, another of the steel monsters clanged into view.
Where were those five men? And what’s with the once clear sky that had turned a dull ominous gray-black? He had seen that sky many times over the years and it almost always meant rain, a steady pit-in-your-gut kind of rain that turned good concrete men weak in the knees.
Clayton wondered why he ever took this job as concrete foreman for Dudley and Sons Enterprises. Dudley senior had passed a few years back, and the two sons Raymond and Butch were a couple of bull-shitting good old boys who were constantly a dollar short and a day late: backhoes and dump trucks never getting to the job on time, paychecks often late, just one thing after another. And now with Memorial Day less than a week away, he needed to get this deck poured and finished.
The borrowed five men were concrete finishers from Clayton’s old company, McKay Concrete. He had run a crew of laborers and finishers for Dennis McKay and had gotten much support from his former boss. Dennis took care of ordering concrete, arranging for heavy equipment, and he brought paychecks by the jobsite every Friday. Clayton and his crew excavated and replaced old concrete driveways, steps, and patios for home owners and swimming pool decks, sidewalks, and curbing for apartment complexes. They also poured basements and garages for new home builders.
But when Dudley Sr. had come to him, he made an offer Clayton couldn’t refuse. The extra income would help with bills and such and get the wife off his back about fixing things up around the house. Old man Dudley would place all the orders for equipment and concrete, and Clayton would run a crew of ten Mexicans who did manual labor, set forms, and finished concrete. It all sounded so damn good.
Over by the chain-link fence behind Clayton, Andres, his top man, and the rest of Clayton’s crew, his Amigos, were slipping rubber slush boots over their tattered work boots. At first Clayton wasn’t keen about working with these short brown men with strange names who spoke broken english. But he came to appreciate their work ethic and willingness to take on any job. They were mostly related and had a pecking order with Andres at the top, whom Clayton let do the hiring and firing. Andres had his favorites, like letting his cousins Pedro and Jose run jackhammers breaking out old concrete—they considered it a macho job—while the rest of the crew separated the broken chunks of concrete with wire cutters and hand-loaded it on the bucket of a Bobcat operated by Andres’s son, Fusto, who then loaded it on the dump truck that Andres’s nephew drove. The Amigos were good concrete workers but finishing this monstrous 8000-square-foot swimming pool deck, with deck drains to boot, took skills they didn’t possess. He needed those five finishers and he needed that sky to clear up.
Clayton dismissed the first rain drop as his imagination. He often tried to will them away. As the rain increased to a steady drizzle, he was damn glad he had a dry 4-inch gravel base that could absorb the moisture.
Uncle Roy To The Rescue
At 7:30 the borrowed five finally showed up. Clayton’s uncle, Roy Harris, drove up with four other finishers in his dinged and dented former C&P utility van—a faded lime relic from another time. Roy was 83-years-old and had forgotten more about concrete than most folks ever knew. He had worked for McKay Concrete for more than 20 years and told Clayton that moving over to Dudley and Sons was a mistake. “The old man, he ain’t in no kinda good condition, Clay. Once he goes those damn-fool white boys will run your black ass ragged.” And Roy was so right. Old man Dudley died Clayton’s first year, and it went downhill after that. Nothing happened on schedule, and now Clayton was arranging for equipment and concrete orders and sometimes he had to scramble, for the Dudley Brothers weren’t paying bills on time and companies often refused service. Then Clayton would call Raymond. “Oh, we’ll get that paid right away, Clay, don’t you fret none.” Clayton soon learned that Raymond’s idea of right away and Dennis McKay’s were two entirely different things.
Roy parked in front of the two concrete trucks and ambled in his bowlegged, cocksure gait toward his nephew, his whole body seemingly alive with a constant pulse of energy. His deep-set dark eyes, alert and darting about, had a wild untamed look as if ready for come-what-may. He was a fire plug of a man with a massive head crowned by a thick burr of white hair that was in direct contrast to his spade-black face, an unlined face, well-preserved, though with an old-age quality of a wise man, as if he had seen many things in this life. Uncle Roy was old, old school—still had a wooden darby—and had been making himself a living with his gnarled, calloused hands since he was 12 years old. Nothing about this job or any other concrete job was new or unusual to Roy Harris—he had seen it all.
As he approached Clayton, Roy’s head turned in increments as he inspected the jobsite, his sharp eyes missing nothing: 6x6x10 wire mesh covered the gravel base and was tied together and attached to the ladders and life guard chairs with grounding wire, the coping stones covered with a layer of plastic sheeting to protect them from wet concrete, rigid plastic expansion joints every 40 feet, and grade pegs in the large expanses and between the deck drains between the two main pools.
Roy nodded his approval and grunted, “Un huh.” He looked up at Clayton and reached in his denim shirt pocket—above which was scrolled in white, McKay Concrete and below that, Roy—and removed a packet of chewing tobacco. “Clayton, how you be, boy?” He broke off a chunk and stuffed it in his mouth.
Clayton looked over Roy’s shoulder and saw the other four finishers with Roy’s son, Levi, leading the way. “You late, Roy.”
“Got lost, nephew.” Roy poked the plug of tobacco with his index finger between his cheek and gum. Now what you aim to do?” He squinted up at the gray sky spitting out a smattering of drizzly raindrops and stuck out his palm.
Clayton exchanged hellos with the other finishers, all carrying canvas satchels holding their finishing tools: point and finishing trowel, hand float, edger, and jointer. All but one were men he had grown up with down in southern Maryland: besides Levi, there was Big Al Jefferies, Levi’s half brother; Gary Jarman, a second cousin of Clayton’s; and the only outsider, Aubrey “Soup” Taylor, a loosed-boned raggedy scruff of 60 or more who could still hold his own. The sight of them held Clayton for a moment. Damn, if he didn’t miss working with these good men.
“If this sky would cooperate, Roy, we can get this thing laid out.”
Roy gave a patch of white stubble on his chin a thoughtful scratch as he studied the sky. “I believe it’ll blow out of here. Plus the air is cool, we have time, nephew.”
And old Roy was right as usual. By 8 a.m. the rain had stopped and the dark clouds drifted away, leaving a dull leaden gray but dry sky. As Clayton twirled his index finger in a circular motion toward the first concrete truck, he saw in his mind’s eye the work ahead: The Amigos spreading and placing the concrete oozing from the pumper hose; he and Levi then screeding with a straight edge; Soup and Roy bull floating after them; then after a time Gary and Big Al and some of his crew hand-floating and cutting joints from kneeboards; and then the trowel machines. Eggbeaters, Roy called them. Yes, he saw it clear as if it had already happened.
Down to Work
As the drum of the concrete truck rattled and whined, spinning the concrete mixture of cement, sand, stone, and water, the men turned inside themselves: The Mexicans leaned on the handle of their come-alongs, the finishers with arms folded or hands on hips—a working man’s quiet time before the storm of work ahead. At the rear of the truck, the drivers adjusted one handle—stopping the drum—and then another that released the concrete down the chute and into the hopper of the pumper truck and into the hose that snaked to life as the concrete flowed through it to the far end of the pool deck where Andres held the nozzle.
The concrete plopped out in piles of thick paste. Soup hollered, “Need more water.” He always wanted more water and years ago the name “Soup” had stuck. Clayton placed his two forefingers in his mouth and whistled in a loud shriek. The driver looked over at Clayton who jerked his thumb toward his mouth and then raised his big hand, his long, sinewy fingers separated wide apart and hollered. “Five slump.” Once again the rumble of the concrete mixer churned its contents.
Phoosh, phoosh, went the long straight-edged blades of the come-alongs into the thick mound of concrete. Pedro, Jose, and Fusto slid their hands down the wooden handles and pulled back, spreading the heavy concrete paste. Tight concrete made everything harder, but Clayton realized the fine line between too much water, which would weaken the finished slab, and enough to keep the concrete strong and not break down his crew. He learned long ago that working with tight concrete would break down the strongest of men and increase the chances the concrete would harden before the finishing process had been completed. In 25 years he had never let a finishing job get away.
The new batch of concrete flowed out, as ordered, in a five slump, just right—not too thick and not too wet. Soup leaned on a bull float attached to two aluminum poles, a rolled cigarette dangling from his mouth, one eye shut against the smoke and croaked in his raspy voice. “Need more water, Clay.”
“No more water, Soup.” Clayton turned to his men as they continued placing the concrete with their come-alongs while another of the Amigos reattached chairs to the wire mesh. The chairs were little plastic stands that kept the wire raised to keep it in the middle of the slab and provide the greatest level of reinforcement. The Amigos were like worker bees, their wiry brown arms pulling and leveling the concrete, their low-to-the-ground stature an advantage in this aspect of the job.
Clayton and Levi, each gripping a handle attached to an 8-foot aluminum straight edge, screeded the placed concrete. Soup and Big Al stood on the coping stones of the two main pools facing across from each other and smoothed the screeded surface with bull floats—each covering a 3-foot swath—while the workers continued behind the straight edge, spreading and placing the continually flowing concrete that oozed out of the heavy hose that Andres held tight at his side. Every 10 feet Clayton would signal for the pumper truck operator to hold up, and two men would uncouple a section of hose and lug it back to the truck, before work resumed. This was the part that Clayton liked best, men working in harmony with talk at a minimum, the metallic sound of Levi or him tapping the end of the straight edge with the handle of their point trowel to indicate repeat. They expertly filled any depressions with a quick splash of concrete from their point trowels and ran the straight edge over the surface again. It was a thing of beauty as Clayton, a big, agile cat of a man, and Levi, a bit shorter and stouter than his cousin worked in perfect harmony together, light on their feet, their long arms guiding the straight edge in effortless strokes.
They were working their way down between the two main pools, striking off between the deck drains and the grade pegs in between them, the end result leaving a bowl effect with the drains at the bottom: “Cuz, it ain’t nothing but an ice cream cone,” Levi said as they finished the last of the deck drains. Clayton appreciated Levi at the other end of the straight edge, for not only was he his best friend, but one of the few finishers who could keep up with him.
After the tenth and last concrete truck emptied its load, Clayton had just enough concrete to strike off over the wooden form at the access gate—the ending point. He had half a wheelbarrow of concrete left over.
While the last of the bull floating was done, Andres and Fusto worked around the grass perimeter of the concrete slab edging along the wooden forms while Soup and Big Al along with two sets of workers cut the joints, kneeling on kneeboards, each man on the opposite side of an 8-foot 2x4, running their jointers along the edge, the nosing cutting 1-inch deep grooves. Four more men followed them hand-floating out the depressions the 2x4 and kneeboards left in the still-drying concrete.
When the concrete had set-up enough, Uncle Roy and Levi pulled up the rear, running trowel machines over the first poured section. They gripped the wide handles as the six trowel blades swished-slapped over the surface, bringing paste to the top for a protective seal. From the coping stones, Pedro and Jose followed the machines, lightly brushing the surface with horse-hair finishing brooms attached to bull float poles, leaving very fine raised ridges for traction. They stretched the brooms over 10 feet in a pass then moved down and repeated the process.
When the finishing broom made its last pass and the job was complete, Clayton looked out at his finished product: 8000 square feet of concrete pool deck glistening silvery-gray: the joints straight and true, the pitch from the coping stones to the deck drains between the two pools on the money; the pitch from the outer sides of the pools to the wooden forms at ¼ inch per foot—no puddles on this job.
Clayton felt the tension in his shoulders and neck relax. It had been a long day. The sun was sliding down a pale blue sky with thin wispy clouds lollygagging along. Below the sun, the horizon glittered faint purple. That sky that was now so gentle and calm had put the fear of God in Clayton earlier in the day. He heard the crank of a small car engine and then another, and saw two subcompacts crammed with his crew of Amigos putter off.
Over at Roy’s van, the finishers were in various stages of wiping the dirt and dust off themselves with work rags, changing out of their work boots to sneakers, and slipping out of their denim work shirts into clean shirts. Never bring your work or the scent of it home with you.
Clayton went to his pickup and changed. From his toolbox he removed a jar of mechanics hand cleaner and washed his face and arms. His wife always commented that he looked cleaner coming home than when he left.
Clayton turned to walk over to Roy’s van, when he saw a long blue van approaching. On the side was the McKay Concrete logo of building blocks on top of each other along with the phone number and company name. Dennis McKay was driving with his right hand man and best friend Tom riding shotgun. They were a pair of good men: easy-going, gentle-soul Tom, and in-charge but affable Dennis. Like Clayton, Dennis was over 6 feet tall, but broader in the shoulders, thicker in the chest, and strong in his day. He was over 60 and didn’t work dog-hard anymore, mostly supervising his crews. Tom was shorter and sturdily built; his main job was driving a dump truck, hauling excavated concrete to the dump, and returning with gravel when needed. On the job, Tom helped out setting forms and finishing concrete. Clayton hadn’t seen them in almost a year.
“Boss ... Tom.” Clayton said as they approached.
They shook hands. “Good to see you, Clay.” Dennis had one eye on the finished pool deck. “Damn, if you didn’t lay that out proper.” He nodded as if to confirm his words. “Look at that, Dunham.”
Tom slowly nodded his head, a thin agreeable smile spreading his face. These two men enjoyed working in each other’s company. “Those joints are true, Clayton.”
Dennis squinted and motioned with his chin over toward the deck drains then looked over his shoulder toward Roy’s van. “Hey Levi, ain’t nothing but an ice cream cone.”
Levi looked over with cold beer in hand and shouted. “That’s right, Denny.”
Dennis kept his gaze on Roy’s van. “Hey Soup, you talk Clayton into a seven slump?”
Soup looked up from rolling a cigarette and twisted his face into mock disgust. “Damn, Boss, old Clayton don’t believe in water in his concrete.” He lit his cigarette with an old silvery flint lighter and took a satisfying drag. “You’d think there was a water shortage.”
The other finishers broke up in a wave of choppy laughter.
Dennis turned back to Clayton. “Some things never change.”
“What brings you by, Boss?” Clayton called Dennis boss out of respect for the man. He had never addressed either of the Dudley brothers by anything other than their first name.
“Well…” Dennis rubbed the back of his neck, his eyes lingering for a moment back at the finished pool deck. “I hear you’re not too happy in your present situation.”
“What you got in mind, Boss?”
“You coming home, Clay.” Dennis looked over to Tom at his side. “Right, Dunham?” Clayton always enjoyed the way Dennis played off Tom, somehow softening his bluntness off onto Tom’s gentle demeanor.
“Yeah.” Tom nodded his head as if trying to convince himself and maybe Clayton too.
A silence fell over them for a moment or two before Dennis said, “Signed a contract with a builder to pour the basements and garages for more than 100 homes. Need a good man to run it for me.”
Clayton looked over toward Roy’s van, and he saw old fox Roy and Levi acting like they were just enjoying a cold one after work, but Clayton knew better. He had sensed their interest even though they didn’t show it. They were trying too damn hard not to look over as if something were up. And he knew how Dennis’s mind worked. They were all in on this. Levi had probably mentioned to Dennis that Clayton wasn’t real happy with the Dudley brothers. And Roy had been working on Clayton awhile now that there was more to life than money. “Don’t do you no damn good, dead and buried, nephew.” And Dennis, who was a bottom line man, saw an opportunity to make some money and get Clayton back.
Clayton felt an urge in his throat to burst out. “Yeah, let’s do it.” But he held back. He was playing poker with Dennis McKay, and he held the best hand and they both knew it. “Well, Boss, I’m making right good money and got some good men on my crew I’d hate to lose.”
Dennis dropped his gaze on Tom, who was wiser in some ways than his boss. “What you think, Dunham?”
Tom who was non-committal on just about everything said, “We need Clayton and his good men.”
“Un huh.” Dennis nodded his chin in agreement. “All right, Clay, how about I take on your best five men plus my borrowed five.” Dennis looked at Dunham, who nodded his head ever so slightly, and then back at Clayton. “And pay you 75 percent of your current salary.” Dennis settled his gaze on the pool deck, double checking Clayton’s masterpiece. “And pay you 10 percent commission on net profit.”
Clayton raised his chin and rubbed it with his thumb and forefinger, liking the sound of this. He also realized it was smart on Dennis’s part. He would cover the commission with the money Clayton would save in not wasting gravel and concrete. He looked over at Roy’s van and the borrowed five and realized they were a down payment on better things ahead.
“Hey, Cousin Levi,” Clayton shouted through a widening grin. “What’s your new foreman gotta do around here to get a cold beer?”