Excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.
Falling on High – Part 1
“Tony! I need the hammer!”
“What?!” Tony yelled back, as he poured another bucket of hot tar on the smoldering flat roof.
The hammer!” Mike shouted, from the other side of the remodeled two-story home. “It’s on the edge, by the gutter!”
Tony looked behind him and saw the tool lying on its side. He put down the tar-bucket and grabbed the compression hammer. “Lazy jerk,” he exclaimed quietly, coughing up a mouthful of mucous and spitting into the top of a nearby magnolia tree.
He walked over the roof’s crest and saw Mike holding a pile of shingles with his knees and a pack of nails in his hand. “Idiot,” he thought. “Why didn’t he get it before he started?”
Tony handed Mike the hot-handled hammer.
“Thanks man,” Mike said, his long sun-bleached ponytail sticking to his shirtless, tanned, muscle-infested chest.
With his cheeks ablaze, Tony nodded imperceptibly and turned back towards the bubbling tar. “Stupid kid,” he hissed.
Tony Mendoza, creeping up on fifty-three years of age, had been a roofer for over three decades. A short, quick-tempered shot of a man, Tony was unable and unwilling to acknowledge his graying sideburns and an aching back that felt like it was carrying a hundred-pound bag of cement.
Because of the skyrocketing demand for new housing and a shortage of skilled labor, contractors were scrambling for help.
Tony had been informed by George, the foreman, to break in the new guys slowly. “Show them the ropes,” George had insisted.
“I’m running out of rope with this guy,” he’d told George that morning. “Might as well be up there by myself.”
“Give him a chance,” George had replied. “Remember when you started out with my dad? You didn’t know a beam from a chimney.”
Tony had grinned, in spite of his agitation, muttered some silent obscenities and climbed back up the ladder with another bucket of tar. He retrieved his blue-rimmed cap from his back pocket, slipped it on his balding head and let his eyes drift across the rooftops and swimming pools.
The heat from the scorching Tucson sun raised his body’s thermostat to fever pitch, as memories drifted before him like a mirage.
George’s dad, Lesley “Jake” Simpson, a full-blooded Cherokee, had started Simpson’s Roofing in the seventies. He and Tony were both raised in Arizona and had been stationed with the armed forces in Germany.
“When I’m done serving Uncle Sam,” Jake had droned daily, “I’m going to start up a roofing business. Doesn’t look like it now, but I got a feeling a lot of people will be moving to Arizona and they’re going to need a roof over their heads.”
Tony had listened to Jake’s dreams, while they were bundled in heavy wool coats, gazing out on a snow covered military compound in Stuttgart.
“Jake,” Tony recalled fondly. “He was an upright guy.”
He remembered the incident in a Stuttgart bar when he and Jake, who was the size of an adult grizzly, had gotten into it with some drunken German bigots who’d called Tony a “brown monkey”.
Tony, who’d had a few too many drinks, knocked the beer out of one of his blond-haired antagonist’s hands and punched another in the face. Before he realized he’d bitten off more than he could chew, he felt fists and boots slamming into his mouth and side. He kept swinging hopelessly as he hit the ground. Fearing for his life, he rolled up and protected his head from the next blow. He heard thuds and shouts and looked up in time to see Jake throwing two men out the door and another lying on the floor yelling that his leg was broken.
He felt a hand under his arm and was suddenly standing. Jake whispered, “Come on Sitting Bull. Let’s split before these cowboys call for reinforcements.”
Not sure how they made it back to the barracks that night in one piece, Tony never forgot Jake’s kindness and considered himself forever in his debt.
After they’d been discharged, Jake had taken his savings, obtained a loan and started the business he’d talked about. Tony was his first employee. It had been slow going at first. A few men, mostly vets, all working on a house or two, then taking a couple of months off and holing up with what little they’d made.
Times had changed. Now they were backed up for months on end with contract after contract. More people had moved to Tucson than Jake had ever imagined.
Except for George, who’d grown up on rooftops with his dad, all the originals had left or passed on. Jake had died in 94 from cancer and handed everything over to George. Fred “Fingers” Johnson, called it quits and moved to California to work in an oil refinery. Hank “Honk” Perez had moved to Flagstaff and gone into plumbing with his brother. And Barry Mendelson had immigrated to Israel and helped build a Jewish settlement in something called the Gaza.
Tony had a family, sort of. He’d wed Jamie Herrera in 76. They’d met at a cousin’s birthday celebration and he’d dogged her for four months until she gave in and agreed to marry. She wasn’t any “Jennifer Lopez” he’d say; but she was a good mother to their kids and they’d had some fun times.
They divorced in 88 after she’d gone on and on about him not “communicating” and “spending time with her and the kids.” He’d made an ill attempt or two at listening and speaking his mind, but it never seemed to be enough. No matter what he said or did it was the wrong thing. Hell, he’d even gone with her to a shrink, but the guy was such a pansy he wouldn’t have trusted him with a quarter, let alone his feelings. And to top it off, the guy had charged almost a days pay for fifty minutes of nonsense.
His kids, Fresia and Alberto, were grown and on their own. He had three grandchildren. He visited them all at Christmas, Thanksgiving and other holidays. His children and their families had moved out of state long ago, leaving him alone with no friends and no relations. He sent them money but they rarely called. He wasn’t one to gab on the phone.