Tenderfoot

Work

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Work by Simon Donnes

He was washing trucks in the rain. The depot had many names and he did many things there and all of them he called work. Aeroplane fuel came there, in fourty four gallon drums, slops from all over the state. This management of drums was his staple, but today it was the trucks. They all had names; Dorothy, Myrtle, Florence, Mavis. Refuellers, they stood like old workhorses, some of them in the shed and some outside. The boy dragged the pressure cleaner around to the truck cab. It was a pistol-gripped nozzle attached to an air compressor. With all the attachments on it felt like a rifle. He wore oversized wet weather gear and the throat guard of his raincoat brushed against his upper lip. The coat was padded and warm and fluorescent yellow with fine black stripes and a hood. The soapy water bucket was almost empty so he shot the pressure cleaner at it. It made a lot of bubbles but not much else.

He was due for his break but did not feel like it and the truck did not look any cleaner but he needed to piss. The shed had the humid intensity of a crowded machine shop and the boy slunk past the towers of stacked drums and the half disassembled trucks and made his way to the bathroom, peeling off his overcoat and his gloves. After he was done he washed his hands and the water running over the uncovered skin felt very good.  It had been raining for days, the sky was a standard issue grey and there was no hope of an end and it changed only between hard, steady downpour and a more moderate drizzle.  The shed was cold with all the metal and concrete and the trapped moisture made the boy’s skin clammy. He stood sipping a bottle of water under the shelter and the reprieve broke and the downpour began again.

A call came from further inside that he was to unload five drums from the Sumo, a smaller vehicle that did not count as a real truck. He donned his coat and went out into the rain. He lifted the rear gate and clambered onto the tray. He was bulky in the borrowed overcoat and the side mirrors did not recognise him. The boy tossed the drums behind him; they were unwieldy things but he had quickly grown adept at handling them. He asked where they should be put and was told around the back. Three of them worked there and though neither were his boss the boy was still delegated to because of his age. There was some odd camaraderie and sometimes they would laugh and joke but they mostly left each other alone.

The boy went back inside for the drum trolley. Next to the work bench it stood, bright red and new, a metal pole on rubber wheels. It clamped onto drums and he could drag them one at a time through the mud around the back. The rain made it worse.

The first drum clamped into position and trailed behind him, floating and displaced. The bitumen was cheap and uneven and was spotted with limestone patches and loose grey gravel. Around the side of the shed there was a narrow pass between the corrugated wall and one of the trucks. It was laden with a single large puddle in a natural dip in the red dirt. The dirt had not yet mixed with the rain and the water was clear and little shoots of green weeds poked through around the puddle, blades of wild grass only an inch high.

There was no other way through so the boy stepped over the puddle into the greenery and dragged the trolley behind him. Its thick treaded wheels displaced the water easily and left deep tracks in the dirt beneath the water. The red dust hung in suspension, lines of bright plumage on a dying bird. The back of the property was a field with drums lying forgotten, resting on their sides. The weeds looked to grow wild and free here but were kept in check with an edge trimmer every week. Rotting wooden pallets and old tires were strewn about and empty chip packets blew in off the highway.

The boy hoisted the first drum on top of two others that lay side by side in the weeds and a hollow clang of contact rang out through the clearing. The rain made everything an effort, but at least with drums there was a progression, there was a goal and now he had one done.

Back through the narrow pass he walked, yellow overcoat, red trolley. There was no way to move with it delicately, and his thick steel caps forced his gait proud and strong. He hooked the second drum on and made the journey back. The fledgling shoots of wild grass by the puddle were still there, slightly muddied and creased but determined. He had no choice but to cross them again, the ground was soft and it gave underfoot as he stepped over the water. He dragged the trolley behind him and the wake cascaded through it and it became muddier.

As he hoisted the second drum atop the others a tremendous boom came from the rear fence. Behind the property there was a steelworks yard where girders were cut and stored and the workers often dropped them onto the concrete. There were two chain link fences that separated the properties and there was a gully between them where both sides sprayed weedkiller. Coming back the boy saw less of the wild grass standing tall at his ankles than before.

The boy was halfway to his goal and pressed on as the wind picked up and the rain was blown down harder. Again the puddle and grass and the gravel came before him and again he crossed it and felt it broken under his foot and wheel. The drum trolley would not release the drum; the newer models were stiff and it had swollen in the cold. The boy raised his leg and kicked the cargo free and it fell on its side. Bending to lift it he moved the pocket of warm air caught beneath his overcoat up into his face. The coat did not stop all the rain and the humid air and the wet hair and the zip pressing into his neck was enough, and he threw down the trolley and stomped his foot and ripped the hood from his face. It would be no good, he would need to finish the job eventually and if he didn’t take the trolley now he would just need another trip later. He pulled his hood back on and scratched at where it pressed at his face and neck and took the trolley back around the front for another drum.

A low grumble joined the white noise of the rain. One of the others had started the truck which stood parallel to the shed, the one the boy had to fit past. The trucks had air brakes and so needed to be idled for a time so as to build pressure. All the while it was gushing out plumes of black smoke from the chimney-like exhaust and the fumes spread fast and hung in the wet air. The fumes gave the boy headaches but he had pills for that and took one and pushed past the growling machine and the shed and lifted the fourth drum into place.  

He went back for the last drum and again there was no way to avoid treading on the grass and leaving footprints in the mud and kicking up dirt under the surface of the puddle. The tracks in the mud were all mixed up now but you could still see a mirror image in the sheen; boy in yellow overcoat with a backdrop of grey sky.

He hoisted the final drum into place and dragged the trolley through the wild grass and the puddle past the truck and it drove away with a lurch and a roar, off of the property and out into the world. It lumbered with a steady, low movement devoid of grace and it left wide, flat tracks in the mud and gravel filled holes of the bitumen. He went back to the puddle and the shoots of green and they were destroyed, the grass had lost its life and the puddle was a single brown note without shimmer and the gravel and dirt was now mud tracked with many tire treads and boot prints. He did not feel accomplished so he put the drum trolley inside and went back to washing the truck and the rain did not let up.


Author statement

Work is about discontent, and explores the sacrifices and changes within the self that the workplace, whatever its form, requires as prerequisite of continued employment.  More broadly it's about destruction and despair seen with such frequency that it becomes mundane. It doesn't necessarily have much to say about this transformation but wades into the puddle to splash around a little anyway. I intentionally limited myself to describing literal action as much as possible with minimal internal monologue or conflict being spelt out, in order to break from a rut / style that I was struggling with.