The Gatorade opened in my lunch box and soaked my tuna sandwich. I had nothing else to eat and I was hungry. I ate the sandwich. I tried to think of it as a bold epicurean experiment, but it’s hard to enjoy your food when every bite makes you want to barf. It was winter and I had been quietly enduring a hangover while digging a trench for a gas line. I tried not to be a pussy about hard work, even glorified it at times, but some days you felt every shovelful. I was gassed out and running on soul fumes. The fact that my lunch sucked just beat it in harder.
The concrete guys were dining inside their trucks, running the heaters. I ate my Gatorade on the side of a dirt hill. I could see all of Santa Fe below me. A stiff wind was blowing up the slope. The sky opened up in a yawning chasm of melancholy, trying to suck me in. I pulled myself out. I wasn’t in the mood to feel sorry for myself. Maybe later.
Lunchtime in the world of construction, takes on an almost sacred importance. You want to stop working and you’re starving. During lunch you get to stop working and eat. That’s a significant improvement. But a lot of times, if you were a bum laborer with a drinking problem, lunch wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. I used to count off the minutes in my head waiting for noon, and when it came, I’d look at my lunch and think “I was waiting for this?”
If I had the money, I tried to make lunch good. If you had some apples, chunks of cheese, hard-boiled eggs, bananas, and salami to go with your primary sandwich you could feel okay about lunch. Wash it down with some soda, bottled water, coffee, or maybe a stray beer from last night, and you actually began to revive. However, a dead car battery, a traffic ticket, a trip to the clinic, and you were back to a candy bar and a drink from the hose. When it came down to budgeting any remaining funds between drinking or eating, the choice was clear.
My buddy Marko and I used to pool our money and buy ground beef, refried beans, onions and potatoes. We’d cook it up in a pot and then slap the slop into tortillas and roll them up. We’d make twenty of them so we could have two each, Monday through Friday. That was lunch. The first couple of days they were okay, but by Wednesday they had congealed into a grey clot wrapped in soggy dough. We doused them with hoarded Taco Bell hot sauce, which made them swallowable. After a while they became nothing more than a delivery platform for the hot sauce. We called them “Plug-aritos,” because that’s all they were, plugs to stopper up the hunger hole. Taste and texture were not a factor at that point. Volume was king. Clogability.
I finished drinking my tuna sandwich. I was still hungry. A Plug-arito would’ve been good. I lit a cigarette and watched the clouds move for a while. I found myself wishing the boss hadn’t pulled Marko off to another job. Not just for help with the trench. It was better to have someone to talk to. It helped to have another miserable face looking back at you. You could pretend you were both in Stalingrad and it was the end.
The night before, my friend Samantha had invited me to her office Christmas party. She worked for a tour company and they were having dinner at Anthony’s On the Delta. Fancy. The owner joined us at dinner. He was a great host. He made sure nobody wanted for anything. Salmon, crab, steak, and chicken dishes kept coming, and I kept cramming. My bottles of beer kept coming too. The people at the table were in a good mood, and I felt a tad merry as well. Yeah, that was good. It was very different. Very different from now.
I watched a fat guy walk to the Porta-John. He had a newspaper. Ok, I thought, that’s off-limits, for sure. The honey pumper that came around to empty the shitter was days late. It was getting intense in there. I was always pissing all over my shoes because I couldn’t bring myself to look down and see the horror. Now big boy was going to make his contribution. Fuck that. I couldn’t risk losing the food I fought so hard to get down. I couldn’t imagine bringing a paper in with me and just sitting there catching up on the headlines.
The sun ducked behind some clouds. It got colder. I decided to make a hand fire. I gathered some cardboard and pine cones. I pulled my gloves off and lit it. It felt nice to toast up the finger bones. I looked at my watch. I had seven more minutes to enjoy this. I went to my hotel room in Mexico.
There was a brunette opening a bottle of beer for me. Her teeth easily snap the cap off. She hands the beer to me and takes off her bikini top. She throws it off the balcony and it sails like a gull, out beyond the sand and into the surf. She begins to dance and grind to the music coming from the variety show on the TV. “A la cama, a la cama, a la cama con Porcel!” The farmacia cough syrup starts to ooze into the base of my skull and I glow with warmth and joyous goodwill toward mankind. It’s balmy and breezy. She’s wearing strappy high heels. The sink and bathtub are filled with ice and beer. She says she feels like being a bad girl.
Truck doors started to slam. It was time to get back to work. I stomped the fire out. I put my gloves back on and walked back to the trench. I was about to pick up my pick and shovel, but stopped. I just stood there looking down at my tools. I couldn’t pick them up. I hit a wall. I could not move. Strange. Then I felt a wave of despair rise up in me. Oh shit. Tsunami. There wasn’t any fighting this one. Everything suddenly looked sad. Everything around me looked like it knew it was going to die, and was severely bummed out about it. I hardly expected that having to eat a fish-flavored sports drink sandwich would bring on a trance of Universal Sorrow. It seemed an excessive reaction, even for me.
I climbed down into the trench so the other workers wouldn’t see me if I started to cry. That would be murder. I laid down on my back. I remember how good it felt being surrounded by dirt that didn’t give a fuck if I drank too much and screwed up my life. I closed my eyes and just gave up. I pretended I didn’t exist.
I heard a Ranchera come on over a distant boombox, and a power saw start up.
After a while, I felt better. I got up and climbed out, and picked up my pick and shovel. I could see a little red Honda Civic driving up the hill. It was Marko. The boss had wanted him to finish out the day helping me. I was really happy to see his stupid face. I called him a spoiled Liberace lap-dog. He said I looked like someone who made love to the dead.
“I am the dead, but I have risen.”
I told him about the Tuna and Gatorade sandwich and he laughed. He still had an extra piece of chicken and said I could have it. He reached into his lunch box and handed it to me. It was a cold drumstick wrapped in greasy wax paper. It might as well have been Lobster Thermador.
“I have some hot coffee in my Thermos, dude. Do you want some?” he asked.
“How is it still hot?”
“It’s in a Thermos, you stupid fuck. That’s what they do. They keep drinks hot.”
He poured me a small cup. Sure as shit, there was steam coming off of it. I’ll be damned. I somehow thought that only happened on TV.
“I’m going to get one those things. How much are they?”
“Twenty five bucks for a decent one.”
“Don’t buy one now,” he said, “Christmas is coming.” He jumped into the trench with his shovel.
As far as I was concerned it was already here. I finished my chicken and coffee and climbed down with him.