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The New Roof


ISSUE:  Autumn 1979

The whole operation had a grimy look about it—a flat-roofed old house which seemed to Roger hardly worth the trouble. But the Mexican had paid half the money in advance. The flimsy aluminum ladder wouldn’t reach to the parapet. They had to climb to the roof of a first-floor porch, pull the ladder up and place it again for the climb to the top. Steadying it on the metal porch roof, Jim Hoxey turned his bright blue eyes through one of the ladder squares into Roger’s brown ones.

“So you thought your first two days were tough, eh?”

“I didn’t say that,” Roger said.

“You didn’t say that, eh?”

“Did Terry say I said that?”

The impish face, with its broken purple vessels and its sunscars, reshaped itself to a frown.

“Naw,” Jim said, “it’s just with Terry comin’ in sick this is gonna be a helluva day. It was gonna be bad enough anyhow.” His eyes flicked up to scudding clouds.”Might rain before we get the drysheet down.”

Jim was 33 years old and looked 43—the result of work and weather and heavy drinking. Roger was just the opposite, already 41 but looking ten years younger. He glanced uneasily at his hands, long and white and soft, before pulling on brown jersey gloves like Mickey Mouse.

Then they went up and over the parapet, Roger feeling daggers in his calves as the flabby muscles stretched. Unlike the “pissant” jobs Jim had complained of the previous two days, this one was clean and simple—a barely-sloping expanse of brown gravel broken only by a closed hatch through which someone could climb up from the house below. But it was big. He saw Jim watching him again.

“So if you make out all right, you got the job, permanent, long as I got work, anyhow. Permanent as Terry, anyhow. More permanent, if that little turd don’t quit screwin’ around all night, comin’ in sick.”

While Jim hauled up shovels and the spud bar, the “nigger bar” as he called it, Roger waited shivering in the March wind. He wore only his 25-year-old Explorer Scout uniform— hadn’t wanted to sacrifice anything better to the tar. Watching him from the dormer window of the house across was a woman, fresh and attractive for someone getting middle-aged. She looked a lot like Nancy. What did she think of this ragged, dirty roofer, flapping in the gusts? But she caught his glance and drew back into shadows of the room behind. Jim slapped the cold shovel handle into Roger’s palm and raised the spud bar, slashing downward with the blade. It went through gravel, through old asphalt, through spongy layers of tarpaper to hit gravel again. “Sonofabitch”

He raised the bar and chopped—more paper and still more gravel, wet here from one of the countless leaks.

“Sonofabitch…” Jim whistled between chapped lips. “This mother has got four old roofs on it!”

Jim opened out the hole so Roger could get the shovel into it. Roger slipped the blade between the bottom layer of paper and bare planks of the roof. It struck up against nails. He withdrew the shovel and jammed it back, hitting at the nails. They pulled free, and a chunk of roof ripped out. It was the size of the shovel and about six inches thick.

“Lot of it,” Jim breathed.

They began dropping pieces of the old roof two stories into the truckbed. Through the rear window Roger could see Terry in the cab, head lolling as debris rocked the truck on its springs. He looked to be sleeping. Gradually Jim and Roger widened their opening. It was jarring work. Roger would swing the shovel against the crumbling edge, only to have it bring up sharp against hidden nails. That shook him up. Where the heel of his left hand bore on the shovel, he developed a blister.

The Mexican appeared on the ground below with a ladder of his own. He used it to reach the porch roof and came the rest of the way on Jim Hoxey’s, his gloomy face rising just above the parapet.

“Say, man,” he called, “I thought you gonna fix my roof. That boy down there is sick. Where is your help?”

“Right here he is, Mr. Tomas, wantcha to meet Roger Tompkin. Roger, this is Mr. Tomas. Roger’s my right hand man.”

Tomas and Roger nodded to one another across the openness of roof. Tomas said:

“Teevee say it gonna rain. You gonna get me covered up?”

“You betcha, Mr. Tomas. Gonna get this old roof off, get you a drysheet down. That’ll keep the rain out. Then all we got to do tomorrow is lay it up and flash it.”

Tomas turned his gaze on Roger again, and Jim Hoxey’s eyes followed. Roger saw wear and weather in both of those faces. He supposed they were bothered by the paleness of his own.

“He is your help, eh?” Tomas said.

“Yessir, Mr. Tomas, he’s a good man.”

The Mexican considered that a moment, then backed down the ladder. So the roofers started at it again. Roger was taller than Jim and heavier. Feeling the smaller man plunge beside him, he saw how little that mattered. Jim thrust and thrust at the edge of the hole, steadily widening it. Roger tried to keep up. The one blister broke, moistening his glove, and another bubbled where his right index finger crooked around the shovel’s neck. Near the hatch opening old tar had glued the material tight to the planks. He threw himself against the shovel, slashing at the bottom layer. One big chunk came free. He stood up panting, feeling suddenly tight and sick in his belly. Even in the cold he had been sweating a little. Now it broke out all over his body. Still bent to the shovel, Jim was looking at him.

“You okay?”

“Yeah. I better sit down.”

He sat on the front parapet, breathing deeply, trying to get air. The clouds were very low. He felt their raw breath as they dragged tattered bottoms like dingy fiberglass across above him. He would say that for the billing desk at the Journal-Herald, it had been cozy, tucked as it was into a basement corner with a big window just at sidewalk level. Even in winter, when dirty snow rose halfway up the glass, sun would fall in to warm his back. He had enjoyed it for twelve years, first expanding—bringing in a worktable for the space behind his swivel chair and a big electric typewriter. Later shrinking, because he felt it coming for a long time, from the day he first heard the talk of computers. If he had stayed on—they suggested it—as classified ad taker at a much-reduced salary, he might have worked it out to keep the old desk. And he would be there today, watching these cold clouds through the metal windowframe, listening to the dry chatter of typewriters instead of the angry clashing of Jim’s shovel against the resisting roof. Shakily, he took up his own shovel and joined his boss in the hole.

“Feelin better?”

“Uhhuh.”

Jim pressed one hand into the small of his own back and pushed himself creakily upright.

“Too tired for nookie tonight, just tell the old lady to roll over, eh?”

Jim came up beside Roger; they worked together. Behind them now lay a wide expanse of yellowpine planks, cut from some forest 80 years ago but looking mostly as fresh as the day they were laid. It was a better house than he’d thought. Covering one knothole was the flattened steel lid of a Standard Oil axlegrease can—picture of a wagon wheel on top. It wasn’t even rusty.

“Gettin’ her done, son,” Jim sang out. “We just get this ole roof off by noon, then all we got to do is get that drysheet down before dark.”

Jim sent him down to check the asphalt pot. The propane burner seemed a little high, so Roger turned the screw inward. Liquid tar bubbled in the cauldron, 600 degrees, Jim had told him: “Respect it but don’t be ‘feared of it.” The level was far down. Terry had never troubled himself to fill it. The boy had hauled one load of debris to the dump, that was all for the day so far. Now he sat in the truck, eyes closed, his ghost-white face pressed out of shape where it pushed against the windowglass.

Ripping the paper cover off a solid keg of asphalt, Roger raised it in both arms and slid it easily—as Jim had taught him—into the melted stuff. He opened another and started in with it. The keg tore out of his hands, splashing violently. He threw himself backwards and for an instant thought he had escaped that hissing shower. Then he felt heat on his right boot. The toe was shinier with asphalt than it had ever been with polish.

“Ow! Oh! Oh!”

A spot of fire, like the end of a cigarette, burned at his instep. The stuff had come through a gap in one seam. He couldn’t get it out. He tore at bootlaces, which stubbornly resisted. Roger rose and plunged the booted foot into a water bucket filled from a downspout. Heat vanished, but pain swelled in the flesh. Jim was staring down from the parapet.

“Burn yourself?”

“Yeah, a little.”

“You okay?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s the way. Run for water.”

The head pulled out of sight behind the bricks. Roger didn’t take off the boot to inspect his burn. He waited until the pain reached a peak, maybe two minutes, knowing it would subside. Then he went back up the ladder. He made it through until noon, hoping they would stop then to eat and rest. But a full third of the old roof remained to be cleared. Jim wanted it off before they ate. About 12:30 the clouds began spitting rain. Tomas’s shiny black head soon rose above the parapet, “You guys gonna ruin my house.” “Gettin’ leaks down there?” Jim said. “Leakin’ on my kids’ bed.”

Jim’s eyes whipped upward to the clouds, holding there with a dreamy blue intensity.

“That’s all right,” he said, “because it’s gonna stop.”

Tomas came over the parapet carrying his own shovel. He began helping. Jim had said the Mexican was some kind of jackleg carpenter. Short but incredibly strong, he made Roger run to keep up. The rain stopped, and by 1 o’clock the planks were clear.

Lying full length on the moist boards, Roger watched the cloudblanket slide horizon to horizon across the sky. By now he had worked out aches of the day before, but he had new ones. The burn ate at his foot. He felt liquid and disorganized, looking up at the world as though from a well bottom. He decided he would rather not eat than go down to get his lunch. Then Jim appeared beside him and set the new lunchbox on his chest. He made no move to open it, just lay staring into his boss’s dirty face.

“You look like a black man,” Roger said.

“You look like a dead one. You gonna make it?”

“I dunno.”

Roger rose to sit cross-legged beside Jim and open the box. Written with red feltpen across the napkin on top were the words, “I love you.” Roger wadded it and hid it in his breast pocket. The box contained one little thermos of chicken soup and another of hot tea. There was a tuna salad sandwich and corn chips and a little bag of relishes—peeled carrots, celery, green olives. Munching his one coarse sandwich, Jim eyed the steaming soup.

“You got a good woman.”

Roger didn’t say anything, just sat there, feeling the warmth of the soup creep outward through his flesh.I love you. So damn desperate. Since he lost the job, she had come very close to him—close as when they were young, only different. He saw how much she wanted to help. There was really no way she could—just do the housework and get the girls to school and sit there tense at the kitchen table, watching out the window. She would be there now. That thought hurt him. She stayed in too much. Both of them stayed in too much. They always had.

Jim rubbed his scaly hands together, making a little whirring sound.

“Well now, we just hoist that dry sheet up and lay it and we be all finished.”

“How come you say that?”

“Say what?”

“All the time you say, “Just one more thing to do and then we’re finished.”“

“When do I say that?”

“All the time. Like you were gonna be finished with everything, never have to get up on a roof again. But you’re gonna be up here tomorrow, gonna be somewhere else Monday. Somewhere different the day after.”

“Well, hell,” Jim said, “every job is like that.”

The answer seemed so apt it left Roger vaguely disturbed. He sat quiet for a moment and, to cover his uneasiness, asked another question.

“Where’s Terry?”

Jim looked at the planks.

“He took one bite a’lunch down there and got to pukin’. I paid him off and sent him home. He just won’t quit stayin’ out. He’s gonna have to get in some other line a’work.”

They rested a moment longer, then began to unroll the drysheet and cut and nail. Jim’s left hand was a little miracle. Palming a prickly knot of nails, it fed them forward along incurved fingertips until one by one they fell heads up into place between the extended index and second fingers, a hammer blow sinking each nail—whap, whap, whap—down the strip of paper.

“That’s really somethin’,” Roger said.

“Watch me, you learn it.”

Roger tried, but he couldn’t make his fingers crawl properly like a caterpillar’s legs. So he handled the nails in the old slow fashion, falling far behind the boss. Jim didn’t seem to mind.

“How come you to answer my ad?” he shouted over the hammering.

“I needed work.”

“Couldn’t get no desk job?”

“Huh uh. One place wanted a file clerk, but they don’t want to pay anything. I got a family.”

Jim Hoxey kept hammering, resupplying the hopper of his palm from a nail apron.

“Naw, shit, nobody wants to handle this hot tar. Nobody wants to get dirty. But just get used to it, it ain’t bad work.” He paused, and his black face opened gleaming white in a confidential grin.”You take somethin’ nobody wants to do, there’s gotta be profit in it.”

Roger didn’t answer. The work alone was more than he could handle. With the steady squatting, bending, hammering, his foot began hurting fiercely. He couldn’t think of his other aches. They were hefting a roll of drysheet, one man on either end, when Jim saw it in his face.

“Roger, take a rest.”

He shuffled away and lay down on the bare planks. He wasn’t winded, but his breath came quick and shallow. Blood throbbed behind his eyes. He was glad Nancy couldn’t see him now. The cloudlayer was beginning to break up, great clefts and crevasses rising through it into regions washed by sun. The snarl of a chainsaw came to him, muted by distance—treetrimmers somewhere. He closed his eyes and soon fell into a blankness. Then, instantly, Jim was leaning far down over him, holding Roger’s gloved hand in one of his own.

“Coffee,” he said. “Hot stuff.” He pulled Roger up to sitting and thrust the mug into his hand.”Tomas brought up a whole pot.”

Gouts of steam rose from the mug and fled away. The coffee was strong and black. It made a warm pathway down the middle of him. He saw Jim had finished three more laps of drysheet. Wind tore at Roger’s hair, dove in at the buttonless collar to balloon his shirt. It was from the south now and not so cold. Before it sailed clouds, crisply individual, snowy on their peaks but churning darkly below. Thunder sputtered on the horizon. Jim looked off in that direction, beyond the steeple crowning a hill to the southwest.

“Gonna rain like a mother,” he said.

Still, he didn’t hurry his coffee. They finished and resumed work together. Roger would open the paper wrapper and unroll drysheet, kicking the spool along with one foot. Jim would cut it and turn the roll for the next lap. And they would nail toward one another across the roof, Roger sometimes covering as much as a third of the distance before meeting his boss. Once Jim said: “Lay it straight, son. Don’t want no fish-mouths. They’ll pop on you after awhile and leak.”

Later, as they came together nailing and paused, he glanced up and asked: “You much of a bookkeeper?”

“Not much of one. I can keep books.” Wondering what that was about.

The square of a yellowpine shrank to a rectangle, the rectangle to a narrow strip between the south parapet and the advancing drysheeet. Roger was keeping up now; he wasn’t dizzy anymore. He rolled out the final lap. Jim cut it into the corner. They stood up from their nailing to see elms at the end of the block boil in the first blast of stormwind.

“Shit,” Jim breathed, “I wanted to get some asphalt up here.”

The storm hit them with a single blast of rain and hail, as though from a shotgun, then withheld the second barrel. The old house hung in a yellow twilight, its rain-varnished roof freckled with hailstones.

“Maybe we can still do it.”

Jim banged his way down the two ladders and hoisted asphalt up, four buckets. Together they mopped it onto the weaker laps and sealed the drysheet against brick at the edges. The storm fell on them before they could use the last bucket.

“It’s gonna set up,” Jim shouted. “Pour it out.”

He tipped the bucket and spilled asphalt in a glossy wave across the roof. Steam boiled up around him. This time there was no hail. Rain beat warm on his head and back, as though from a summer shower. But it fell in gray sheets. Jim stood with hunched shoulders, black water draining from his chin.

“Sonofabitch!” Jim yelled.

The world went dazzling white, every raindrop frozen glittering in midair as with a million strobelights. Roger crouched and held his head as the electric hiss was followed by the boom.

“Whoooooooooeeeeee!”

“Get the hell offa here,” Jim said.

They clattered and skidded down the ladders to the shelter of the first-floor porch. There they watched a little river grow in the gutter at the curb, overflow onto the sidewalk and wash up into the unkempt yard. Each time the thunder boomed there was a little freshening of the downpour, but gradually it lessened. Dirty water still ran out of Jim’s drenched hair to drip from his nose and chin.

“Naw,” he said, looking off into the rain, “my ole lady cost me four hunner’ dollars last month alone. Guy sold me twenty square of bad shingles. I told her not to pay him, but she forgot. Ain’t no gettin’ it back now.”

“Tie a string on her finger,” Roger said.

“Spank her damn ass, that’s what she needs. But I got to get me a bookkeeper. She can’t do it.”

Roger didn’t say anything. After a minute Jim said:

“Naw, I was thinkin’ like a triple threat, somebody who could estimate like me and work on a roof and maybe do the bookkeepin’, too. I ain’t had nothin’ but trouble, tryin’ to keep decent help.”

He fished a soggy pack of cigarettes from the breast pocket of his overalls and managed to start one with his lighter. Through swirling smoke the blue eyes shone soberly on Roger.

“If I gave you some more money, would you stay on permanent? Maybe do my bookkeepin’?”

Roger looked at the street, where water still swirled along the curb.

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe after awhile we’d talk about partnership, if you had anything to throw in.”

“I dunno,” Roger said.

“Somethin’ to think about.”

A brown-skinned little boy appeared in the lighted front window. Catching Roger’s glance, he smiled and fled back through the house. A moment later Tomas came out.

“You guys still here? I thought you gone already. You know, the roof don’t leak. Maybe one place.”

Tomas had a half-empty pint bottle. Roger didn’t usually drink hard liquor. He took a swallow when the bottle came around and felt his gullet light up warmly all the way. Jim swallowed and wiped his mouth.

“Ain’t even got the roof on yet,” he said. “That’s just the drysheet.”

“Damn good anyway. We been drownin’ in this ole house. We were gonna sell out and move, but we start lookin’ around prices.”

“This is a good ole house,” Roger said.

He swigged again when the bottle passed a second time. Tomas had a big head start on them. He was hilariously good humored. They drank and backslapped and kidded as the rain eased off.

“Too bad I had to send Terry home,” Jim said. “This is the only part of the roofin’ business he liked.”

After awhile Tomas went inside and Jim left with the truck, intending to dump the rest of the roof debris on his way home.

Roger climbed the two ladders again, rungs hurting his sore foot, and went over the parapet. It didn’t hurt to walk on the flat roof. The black lid of sky had raised a little in the west, letting sunset through in a hot line along a horizon jagged with housepeaks. It shone golden in raindrops falling, in water beaded on the rooftops.

He saw how drysheet caught the continuing drizzle at the upper edge and fed it down the slope to a scupper that went through the parapet, an ankle-thick stream gushing cleanly into a single downspout there. Before, much of the water had soaked into the sponge of that old roof and dripped down on the Tomas family for days afterward. This was quite an improvement. It surprised him, how good that made him feel.

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