Hurricane, a Prose Poem

Job.  It was an appropriate book for the weather because, after all, Job’s troubles had started with tornadoes striking the house where his sons and daughters were feasting, killing them all.  Hubert listened to the wind shake his house and thought about the book of Psalms, where King David had written:

He makes winds his messengers,

flames of fire his servants.”

He wondered what the wind had to tell him tonight. Probably nothing. Maybe, that it was time to go out in the storm and let God have his way. That painter on the coast had done it. Anderson. Walter Anderson. Rowed a boat out into the Gulf of Mexico, clear out to Horn Island, tied himself to a tree and howled into the throat of a  hurricane. He was dying too. Cancer. The storm didn’t get him though. The cancer did.

Everything was in order, he guessed. The will was signed, cattle records filed, pass book and insurance policies locked in the safe-deposit box. His lawyer knew where everything was, and Caleb wouldn’t have any trouble sorting out his affairs.  He’d already made the arrangements at the funeral home—everything paid for.

There were worse ways to go out than in a storm. God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind. Jesus calmed the waters. He would be with his cattle, and that’s where anybody who knew him would expect to find him. Out in the field with his cattle. That’s where Caleb would know to look.

He rolled another cigarette and thought about it, picked up his matches and lit it and took a deep drag. He coughed it out, eyes watering, and waited until he could take another pull.

When he finished the cigarette he ground it out in the ashtray and dropped the butt in a mason jar about half full of butts, insurance against a day with no makings.

He set the Bible on the table beside his chair and stood up to go.

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In Honor of Father’s Day

The following is a re-post  of a section from a Nonfiction piece titled “The Tools We Work With.” The essay itself was a part of the introduction to my dissertation, which explored the idea of creative writing as work. My father, Clarence Engel, certainly taught me the meaning and value of hard work.

 

When I was thirteen I took my first job outside my father’s supervision. A man hired me for two weeks to help gut a church sanctuary that he had contracted to remodel. My father’s jobs were slow and he could spare me. When I took the job, the way my parents treated me changed. My father bought a pair of lace up boots for me, where I had always worn tennis shoes to work before. My mother worried that I had enough sandwiches and coke money for lunch. She made my father talk to me about how to conduct myself on a real job. He said something like “Just do what they tell you.”

0409DemolishBrickWall16summary

The best part of the job was being paid to destroy. The man who hired me didn’t say ten complete sentences to me the whole two weeks. He wasn’t much bigger than me, and his silence and his close set eyes made me nervous. I started on a row of tall, frosted glass windows that had to be torn out and replaced with stained glass. I used a hammer and chisel, removing the brick around the sills one at a time. Mortar dust dried my throat and tasted of lime. I admired the straight lines of my work, the way the whole bricks stacked into a neat pile. When the man came to check on me, I stepped to one side to show him the layer of brick I had chipped out, the unbroken window glass. He picked up a sledge hammer from the floor, handed it to me and said, “That’s real pretty, but let’s see how hard you can swing this thing.” He pointed at the row of windows left in the sanctuary and I understood that on some jobs fast was better than pretty.

I began to notice weather while working for my father, something I had always taken for granted. We worked in attics where the summertime temperatures reached one-hundred and forty degrees, and in the cold and rain and mud where I layered my clothing to stay warm and dry. The weather gave each day, each job, a different set of problems to overcome, and intensified my sense of satisfaction as we loaded the tools and drove home in the pickup. Even now, when I drive through my home town and see the houses and businesses where I helped my father install a heating and cooling system, pour a foundation, or snake out a drain, I remember the weather better than the work.

Over the years my father mashed his fingers, crawled on his hands and knees under floors and across attics, burned himself with acetylene torches and acid, and was electrified once as he stood on a ladder and gripped a piece of conduit that wasn’t grounded properly. The electricity held his grip until someone thought to shut off the breaker. Another time, while trimming a section of air conditioning duct with tin snips, he ran a two inch sliver of jagged metal completely through his thumb. He wrapped a handkerchief around the thumb to catch the blood and drove to the doctor’s office. The doctor dabbed at the chunk of metal with alcohol, jerked it out with a pair of pliers, and wrapped his thumb in gauze. My father looked at his thumb as we were driving back to the job. “I should’ve done that myself,” he said. “It would have been free and it wouldn’t hurt any less.”

When I was seventeen years old my father was buried alive for thirty-five minutes. He was on his hands and knees at the bottom of a ten foot ditch, tapping a new drain into the city sewer line, when one side of the ditch sluffed off and buried him under seven feet of earth. The opening in the pipe and the air pocket his body made allowed him to breathe.

buried alive article 1 clarence engel

My older brother Gary was working for my father that day. Gary said the backhoe operator was afraid to dig with his bucket. “I’ll take his head off if I go too deep,” the man said. Gary called the man a son of a bitch and said, “My daddy will be dead anyway if you don’t crank that thing up.”

The backhoe took off three feet of earth while my brother went for help. Soon, ten men were digging with shovels and hands, getting in each other’s way. My father told me he could hear the digging. He said that he thought about his brothers and sisters, and about my mother and Gary and me. He was sure that his life had come to an end.  Gary told me that they first uncovered one of his hands, and he heard my father call out that he was still alive. Afterward, a reporter asked my father what he planned to do next and he said, “I’m going home and spend time with my sons.”

I still have the clipping from the front page of the newspaper. The headline reads: “Tupelo Man Prays For Second Chance While Buried Alive.” The picture shows my father sitting on a pile of dirt with the hole in the foreground, staring down the street with a faraway look, and Gary beside him, looking scared. When I came home from my own job that afternoon, my father met me on the driveway and hugged me, hard. He was crying, and dirty in a way that could only come from being buried. There was grit in his eyebrows and teeth and ears, pressed into his skin so that he still smelled of soil the next day. He was sore for days afterward, but otherwise unhurt.

 

My father didn’t talk much about the experience, but once he told me how long thirty-five minutes really is. I don’t remember any changes in my father’s relationship with Gary and me. We were close before the accident, and remained close afterward.  I didn’t understand how his death would have affected me that day because I didn’t experience the fear firsthand. I remember being embarrassed by his embrace, by the display of emotion. I wouldn’t understand what had happened for years to come.

Just after he bought the pickup, my father had a magnetic sign made for each door reading “Engel Repair Service” in red, with our telephone number and the type of work spelled out beneath in blue letters. Sometimes he talked about my brother and I going into business with him after we graduated from high school, but we both went to college instead.

Hubert, Waiting for the Hurricane, a scene from a novel in progress

lg-hurricane-katrina-ir-clouds-from-goes-on-29-aug-2005-869

Job.  It was an appropriate book for the weather because, after all, Job’s troubles had started with the tornados striking the house where his sons and daughters were feasting, killing them all.  Hubert listened to the wind shake his house and thought about the book of Psalms, where King David had written:

“He makes winds his messengers,

flames of fire his servants.”

Hubert wondered what the wind had to tell him tonight. Maybe nothing–a big storm like this hit the Mississippi coast every few years for as long as he could remember, a long time. Maybe, though, it was telling him that it was time to go out in the storm and let God have his way. That painter on the coast had done it. Anderson. Walter Anderson. Rowed a boat out into the Gulf of Mexico, clear out to Horn Island, tied himself to a tree and howled into the throat of a  hurricane. Anderson was dying too. Cancer. The storm didn’t get him though. The cancer did.

Everything was in order, he guessed. The will was signed, cattle records filed, pass book and insurance policies locked in the safe-deposit box. His lawyer knew where everything was, and Caleb wouldn’t have any trouble sorting out his affairs.  He’d already made the arrangements at the funeral home—everything paid for.

There were worse ways to go out than in a storm. God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind. Jesus calmed the waters. Hubert would be with his cattle, and that’s where anybody who knew him would expect to find him. Out in the field with his cattle. He rolled another cigarette and thought about it, had just about made up his mind when the shooting started down at the river. It was just far enough away, dimmed by the wind and the rain, that he thought it was firecrackers.

Hubert smashed out his cigarette and stood up, waiting for a moment for the dizziness to pass. When he could walk he pulled on his boots and headed out the door, pausing only long enough to pull on his rain coat and pick up the shotgun from the corner by the door.

Night Walking along Black Creek: A prose poem for Jim Harrison

Black_Creek_MS

Black Creek, Mississippi

Night Walking along Black Creek

For Jim Harrison

 

The year the coyotes were so bad the boy would sneak out of the house after bedtime and stand at the edge of the pasture, watching his father’s truck make long slow circuits of his cattle, counting the match-flares as he smoked his Camels and cradled his shotgun.

In the national forest, he walked the bluffs above Black Creek, navigating by feel and sense more than by sight. He shinnied tall thin saplings all the way to the top, until the tree trembled beneath his weight and the slightest lean would lower him to the ground, where he would release the tree and hear it spring back into the sky. Robert Frost called it “swinging.”

He practiced walking silently; surprised animals bedded down for the night–deer and bobcat, exploded at his feet and bounded away into the deeper shadows.

Along Black Creek, water flowed over a gravel shoal, punctuated by the slap of beaver tails and the bass drone of bullfrogs; snakes and muskrat rippled the water, swimming upstream.

Eddies of white foam sheltered behind sedimentary rocks and logs and cypress roots, while the clear smooth surface of the water became a deeper part of the night.

Everywhere the rich smell of rotting logs and leaves, dirt, swamp gas, animal musk, pine trees, and water. The soft whisper of hunting owls gliding overhead, tree-frogs ratcheting, the call of whip-or-wills and night hawk screams, the groan of trucks out on the highway, which couldn’t be heard during the day but whose sound carried better at night, and finally, as if in response to the whine of the truckers’ tires, the song of the coyotes gathering for the night.

coyote

 

The Tools We Work With, Part X

lineman's tools

My father retired on disability a couple of years before he died, though he never really stopped working. He had been diagnosed with Raynaud’s disease, which causes reduced circulation to the hands and feet. His fingers were swollen to twice the size of mine, and in cold weather the skin turned black. The bones of his fingertips deteriorated so badly that his fingernails curled over the ends of his blunt fingers and looked more like claws than anything else. He got to where he could no longer button his shirt easily, tie knots, or do any other fine work. Still, as long as he was able, he worked as the custodian at  his church, cleaned house, cooked, and tackled plumbing, electrical and other problems that arose around the house, just as he always had. A couple of years before he died, at Christmas, he told me that he was going to divide his tools between my brother and me because he can’t use them anymore.

I look at my hands every day for signs of change, wondering if the disease that disabled my father is running in my veins. After he retired he took a part-time job as the janitor at his church, work that he undertakes with all the energy and pride that he exhibited in running duct or digging a sewer line. It’s the same pride that I feel when I hold my novel in my hands, a loose manuscript that I keep in the box that once held the blank typing paper; the same pride I felt one night as I drove down a mountain and saw the lights of a town burning in the valley, and knew that the electricity flowed through wires that I had strung in the air.

The Tools We Work With, Part II

When I was thirteen I took my first job outside my father’s supervision. A man hired me for two weeks to help gut a church sanctuary that he had contracted to remodel. My father’s jobs were slow and he could spare me. When I took the job, the way my parents treated me changed. My father bought a pair of lace up boots for me, where I had always worn tennis shoes to work before. My mother worried that I had enough sandwiches and coke money for lunch. She made my father talk to me about how to conduct myself on a real job. He said something like “Just do what they tell you.”

0409DemolishBrickWall16summary

The best part of the job was being paid to destroy. The man who hired me didn’t say ten complete sentences to me the whole two weeks. He wasn’t much bigger than me, and his silence and his close set eyes made me nervous. I started on a row of tall, frosted glass windows that had to be torn out and replaced with stained glass. I used a hammer and chisel, removing the brick around the sills one at a time. Mortar dust dried my throat and tasted of lime. I admired the straight lines of my work, the way the whole bricks stacked into a neat pile. When the man came to check on me, I stepped to one side to show him the layer of brick I had chipped out, the unbroken window glass. He picked up a sledge hammer from the floor, handed it to me and said, “That’s real pretty, but let’s see how hard you can swing this thing.” He pointed at the row of windows left in the sanctuary and I understood that on some jobs fast was better than pretty.

I began to notice weather while working for my father, something I had always taken for granted. We worked in attics where the summertime temperatures reached one-hundred and forty degrees, and in the cold and rain and mud where I layered my clothing to stay warm and dry. The weather gave each day, each job, a different set of problems to overcome, and intensified my sense of satisfaction as we loaded the tools and drove home in the pickup. Even now, when I drive through my home town and see the houses and businesses where I helped my father install a heating and cooling system, pour a foundation, or snake out a drain, I remember the weather better than the work.

Over the years my father mashed his fingers, crawled on his hands and knees under floors and across attics, burned himself with acetylene torches and acid, and was electrified once as he stood on a ladder and gripped a piece of conduit that wasn’t grounded properly. The electricity held his grip until someone thought to shut off the breaker. Another time, while trimming a section of air conditioning duct with tin snips, he ran a two inch sliver of jagged metal completely through his thumb. He wrapped a handkerchief around the thumb to catch the blood and drove to the doctor’s office. The doctor dabbed at the chunk of metal with alcohol, jerked it out with a pair of pliers, and wrapped his thumb in gauze. My father looked at his thumb as we were driving back to the job. “I should’ve done that myself,” he said. “It would have been free and it wouldn’t hurt any less.”

When I was seventeen years old my father was buried alive for thirty-five minutes. He was on his hands and knees at the bottom of a ten foot ditch, tapping a new drain into the city sewer line, when one side of the ditch sluffed off and buried him under seven feet of earth. The opening in the pipe and the air pocket his body made allowed him to breathe.

buried alive article 1 clarence engel

My older brother Gary was working for my father that day. Gary said the backhoe operator was afraid to dig with his bucket. “I’ll take his head off if I go too deep,” the man said. Gary called the man a son of a bitch and said, “My daddy will be dead anyway if you don’t crank that thing up.”

The backhoe took off three feet of earth while my brother went for help. Soon, ten men were digging with shovels and hands, getting in each other’s way. My father told me he could hear the digging. He said that he thought about his brothers and sisters, and about my mother and Gary and me. He was sure that his life had come to an end.  Gary told me that they first uncovered one of his hands, and he heard my father call out that he was still alive. Afterward, a reporter asked my father what he planned to do next and he said, “I’m going home and spend time with my sons.”

I still have the clipping from the front page of the newspaper. The headline reads: “Tupelo Man Prays For Second Chance While Buried Alive.” The picture shows my father sitting on a pile of dirt with the hole in the foreground, staring down the street with a faraway look, and Gary beside him, looking scared. When I came home from my own job that afternoon, my father met me on the driveway and hugged me, hard. He was crying, and dirty in a way that could only come from being buried. There was grit in his eyebrows and teeth and ears, pressed into his skin so that he still smelled of soil the next day. He was sore for days afterward, but otherwise unhurt.

buried alive article 2 clarence engel

My father didn’t talk much about the experience, but once he told me how long thirty-five minutes really is. I don’t remember any changes in my father’s relationship with Gary and me. We were close before the accident, and remained close afterward.  I didn’t understand how his death would have affected me that day because I didn’t experience the fear firsthand. I remember being embarrassed by his embrace, by the display of emotion. I wouldn’t understand what had happened for years to come.

Just after he bought the pickup, my father had a magnetic sign made for each door reading “Engel Repair Service” in red, with our telephone number and the type of work spelled out beneath in blue letters. Sometimes he talked about my brother and I going into business with him after we graduated from high school, but we both went to college instead.

The Tools We Work With, Part I

“The Tools We Work With,” Part I

An essay originally published as the introduction to my dissertation, High Range Driving, and published in Cream City Review19.2, 1996

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I drove across a picket line with my father one Sunday afternoon when I was seven years old.  He was the maintenance foreman for DayBrite, a company that manufactured fluorescent light fixtures.  The people on strike carried signs with angry messages and blocked the gate, but they didn’t seem mad, or even particularly interested in their protest.  Men spoke to my father through the car window as they cleared a lane for us.  I knew some of them from the yearly Christmas party my father threw for his department.

My father had talked about the strike and I vaguely realized that something was wrong at DayBrite, but I didn’t know that crossing picket lines could have been dangerous somewhere else in the world, like Peoria or Detroit, or about how weak unions were in the South.  What interested me was that the mechanics who worked for my father used electric golf carts to carry their tools when they repaired machinery, and on Sundays, when my father went in to look over his paperwork and plan the week ahead,  I learned to drive in the  aisles of the plant.  For me, DayBrite and the world of my father’s work was more magical than DisneyLand.

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The cement floors were black from years of forklift tires and there was a constant low rumble like a furnace, the hiss of compressed air, and the smell of hydraulic oil.  We’d walk past the time cards and time clock, cross a grate full of a yellow liquid that I pretended was acid, and on to the plant floor–a five acre wilderness of tractor-sized hydraulic presses, piles of metal sheet,  and rows of conveyor assembly lines.  The walls of the maintenance department were lined with radiator hoses and belts, welder’s hoods, racks of steel pipe, calandar girls in bikinis who demonstrated the use of electric drills and pipe wrenches, and tools of all sorts–some that I knew how to use, and others more interesting because I could only imagine.

Ausstellung/ Verlorene Orte/ Axel Hansmann

My father would pick out the golf cart with the best charge, tell me to be careful, and I’d make my  rounds.  In the paint department bare metal fixtures hung from an overhead conveyor that ran all weekend.  The parts looked like the scattered bones of a skeleton, waiting to be sprayed with enamel paint and baked in the furnace.  I’d stop by the breakroom and check the vending machines for change.  The tables were littered with coffee cups, dirty napkins, dominoes and decks of cards.  Feral cats skulked along the aisles of the warehouse.

In 1970, when I was nine years old, my parents bought a newly constructed house in a suburb with unfinished streets.  The back fence, shaded by a six deep row of pine trees, marked the city limits.  Beyond the fence cattle grazed.  My mother worked as a secretary all day, and after cooking supper, she put in a full evening dusting and vacuuming.  My father came home from work dirty and tired.  The upholstery of his little Peugeot sedan smelled pleasantly of oil and grime.  Because of his dirty clothes he napped on the floor rather than the couch before starting in on projects around the house.  I helped him cover our sand lot with squares of sod, and then we burned off the honeysuckle under the pines, and built a shop in the back yard.

70s+Ranch

Not long after we bought the house, DayBrite fired my father.  He came home one afternoon, earlier than usual, and told us that he’d been called into the office and given a check with two weeks severance pay, been told to clean out his desk and locker.  “I’m not surprised,” he said.  “I’ve got a lot of sorry tails on my crew who lay out and drink and I tried to cover up for them.  I thought I was doing them a favor.”

My mother was afraid we might lose the house, and I’m sure she thought about her childhood.  She was the youngest of seven children who my grandmother raised through the Depression, alone, after my grandfather died in a farming accident; they lived in a house when my grandmother and the older children could find work, and in a canvas tent the rest of the time.

My father once told me that leaving DayBrite was the best thing that ever happened to him.  He put together a handful of tools and bought a new Chevrolet pickup, called friends who worked for electrical and plumbing supply houses, and found enough work to get by on.  Starting a new business from scratch was tough for my parents, but I was so caught up in the excitement of buying a pickup from the Chevrolet dealership and riding out on service calls with my father, that I didn’t notice.  I learned how to run copper tubing and cast iron plumbing, electrical wire, and air conditioning duct.  We poured concrete foundations and I learned the proper drainage grade for sewer lines.  My father paid me well.  I bought my first rifle with a telescopic sight, books and records, and even worked out a short-lived savings plan for a 1973 Chevy Nova that I spotted on the showroom floor when we were supposed to be looking at pickups.  It was yellow with a black interior, and I planned to pay cash when I received my driver’s license in 1976.

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I’ve always considered myself lucky to have spent so much time with my father as I grew up.  I knew more about how he earned a living than most kids my age, and even more, I was a part of his work.  My father attacked each job with a tireless energy.  He consumed whole cigarettes, blinking away the tears that the smoke brought to his eyes as he ran electric drills and cutting torches.  “Work” was not a place he disappeared to for eight hours each day; it was something he shared with my brother and I, and wrapped himself in most of his waking hours.