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Torso in the Line
a short story by
Deric Cobb walked through Tribeca at five-thirty on a Wednesday evening. It was mid-December and the days had become cold, short and dark. He couldn’t remember the last time he had walked to work when the sun was visible. He made his way from the 1/9 subway station down Franklin Street.
The neighborhood was sparse. People were sparse, shops were sparse, restaurants were sparse. Once Franklin Street came to an end he had the choice of turning north or south to walk around the block before reaching the West Side Highway. He always chose to go around to North More Street. That way he’d come onto Pier 25 from the north rather than having to cut through the line of trucks and enter the site in the middle.
As he turned onto North More Street the view changed. He was leaving behind the close sheltered streets of southern Manhattan and was headed for the piers lining the Hudson River. There was nothing left to block the wind as it came across the water and nothing to stop the view so that for the first time he could see open sky ahead of him instead of buildings and streets.
Turning off of North More he headed south on the West Side Highway, crossing west while continuing south. This far down on the island the highway was just another road with traffic lights and intersections instead of the elevated freeway it became up by sixtieth street. Already he could hear the low rumbling of the trucks lined up, waiting to turn onto the pier and dump their loads before driving out of the site and back to Ground Zero to fill up before driving up to the pier again in a loop that had been endless since mid-September.
The line of trucks wasn’t moving and some of the truckers were out of their cabs, chatting with each other in the halogen glow of their headlights. Deric veered west and made his way towards the water, knowing that if the line was stopped that meant the shift was changing and he had better avoid small talk before he had a chance to check in.
He entered Pier 25. The site was a block and a half long, most of it open space comprised of mud and gravel tamped down to create a driving surface for the trucks to move over. Scattered around the edges of this were the signs of human existence that always made Deric compare this area to a small village instead of a construction site. The path of the trucks turned left off of the highway and made a U-turn so that they were facing south when they drove past the shacks built of oriented strand board that had been erected for the truck checkers. The trucks then continued south down a narrow lane past the row of turquoise porta-potties. The road was a single lane here but after the toilets the trucks reached the first pair of dockbuilders, and their respective shacks, and entered the main space of the site. Here the trucks were either unloaded by the first set of dockbuilders or waved on to the second set farther south, waiting by their own OSB shacks. Hovering over all of this were the machines that did the unloading: two barge cranes, three stories high, floating on the Hudson. They were separate from everything else, technically mobile once their lines were cast off and their spuds were lifted, but they had been sitting hunched over the site for so long that it was hard not to think of them as a permanent part of the pier.
Deric dodged all of this and hugged the water, walking past the floating miniature golf course that was closed for the winter and represented the last piece of real estate that wasn’t part of the site. He walked down the paved lane that ran by the water, sunk a few feet below the rest of the site, until he reached the trailer that was his office. The metal stairs rattled as he climbed into the trailer and stepped inside.
“Yeah, Greg, it’s me.”
Greg’s back was to the door as he finished arranging various stacks of paper on the desk at the rear of the trailer. “Whoo, boy, did you miss one hell of a shift. Two-hundred and fourteen trucks.”
“Sounds like you guys were busy.”
“Busy?” Greg’s back said as it continued to move back and forth across the desk. He picked up another pile of papers and rapped them down on the table to align them. “Man I was running around so much I don’t know if my feet stood together in the same spot once all day.”
Deric threw his bag in a corner and sat down in a chair, diverting his eyes from Greg’s back, which was making him nervous, to study the fake wood paneling that lined the walls.
“Okay,” Greg said, leaving the desk and retrieving a backpack and motorcycle helmet from another corner. “You’re all set here. You have an empty batch of barges so you should be good for at least another two hours. Other than that the 636 was giving Mike some problems braking the main line, I told your oiler to keep an eye on it.” He stopped in front of Deric, noticing him for the first time as he looked up from adjusting the chin straps on the helmet in his hands. “You all right?” he asked, rocking the helmet onto his head to check the fit.
“I poured orange juice on my cereal this morning,” Deric said, smiling as if he wasn’t sure if this was funny or scary.
Greg laughed. “Yup.” The helmet sank onto his head and seemed to be satisfactory. He pulled it off and paid no more attention to it, propping it under his arm. “The swing shift will do things like that to you.”
“So I’ve noticed.”
“Ah,” Greg said, taking one look around the office, “buck up, kid. It’s just a job.”
Deric debated mentioning that the orange juice incident in itself hadn’t been that worrisome, it was the fact that it had taken three spoonfuls of cereal before he had noticed something was wrong, and he also debated mentioning that this would never be just a job. Ever. But Greg was already headed towards the door.
“See you in twelve,” Greg said, and then the trailer door squeaked open and slammed shut. Deric listened to the metal stairs clanging as Greg stomped down them. Then he waited until he heard Greg’s motorcycle fire up, the roar echoing in the small sunken path before it escalated in volume as Greg accelerated and took off. Deric stood up and took one of the nicer chairs, wheeling himself to the desk to look over his paperwork for the night.
At ten o’clock Deric climbed the wooden stairs next to the laborers’ shack up to the main area of the site. He waited, eyes up, as the crane floating offshore swung the giant metal pan through the sky, the steel cables suspending it seeming to come out of nothing as they stretched up away from the light stands on the ground to disappear into the dark. The boom of the crane, containing its own lights, was visible as it made its long slow trip back from the water before stopping in place over the open site. The dockbuilders guided the operator in with hand signals until eventually the pan, large enough for a truck to back into, landed on the ground with a thump that was loud because of the weight involved but always seemed so gentle to Deric considering the physics at play and the skill employed to bring it down safely in one place. Once it was down he began to walk again, watching as the front team of dockbuilders waved two trucks through, signaling for one to line up with their pan and sending the other down to the south end of the site where the second crane, the second pan, and the second set of dockbuilders were waiting.
Deric made his way past the rear of the pan, easily taller than he was, around to the shoreward side. “Andy,” Deric said to the first dockbuilder. “Give me five more trucks, then we swap out.”
Andy nodded. “You let everyone else know?”
Deric shook his head. “You’re the first.”
“I feel so important,” Andy said. A small joke that wasn’t very funny was always preferred on the site to no joke at all. “Hey, Donavan,” Andy shouted to the second dockbuilder who was standing up past the front of the pan by the cab of the truck. “Donavan!” he shouted again. Donavan wasn’t more than ten feet away, and with the pan down and the truck idling there was barely any background noise, but he still showed no signs of having heard Andy. Andy waved to Deric’s chest, where the microphone of his walkie-talkie was clipped to his jacket. Deric handed it over, the cord stretching out to Andy while the receiver stayed in Deric’s jacket pocket.
Andy pressed the button down on the mike and the receiver in Donavan’s pocket crackled, clearly audible over the short distance. “Donavan,” Andy said in a deep god-like voice. “Donavan please turn around.”
Donavan looked down at his pocket, then up, then finally realized what was going on and turned to face Andy and Deric. “You could have just shouted to me,” he yelled.
“I did,” Andy said into the mike. He started to hand the microphone back to Deric before he stopped and held it up to add, “Moron.”
Andy flipped the microphone back. “I got it from our end,” he said as he walked to the front of the pan. Deric waited a few moments to watch as the two dockbuilders bickered back and forth, both of them burly men, one once in the coast guard, one once in prison, their bodies made to look even more imposing with the layers of clothes and protective gear they wore, yet both of them having worked together so long they had reached a state of comfort that was like an old married couple who chatted by bickering.
They walked away from the pan as they talked and without looking back Donavan waved the truck in. Deric took this as his cue and walked around the rear of the pan again while the truck backed up into the open front. As he made his way back down the wooden stairs he could hear the single piston on the truck lifting its load to the maximum height. When Deric reached the railing at the water’s edge he looked back and saw the truck pull forward depositing an entire truck’s worth of debris into the pan.
Deric walked to where a section of the guard rail along the water had been removed to make way for the crane’s gangway and stepped up, walking quickly down towards the crane’s deck. Stepping aboard he made it three steps before the whole deck gave a lurch towards the pier and he turned to watch the giant pan lift into the air, cables pulling, the boom swinging as Tommy did his thing up in the crane’s operating booth.
Deric walked across the deck, dodging between the pieces of equipment and cable that were all around, and poked his head through the door into the roundhouse. The steel room was painted white and the lights inside sparkling off of the walls were enough to dazzle Deric’s eyes for a few moments. He blinked and let himself adjust until the lockers along the wall and the table in the center came into focus. In the far corner the oiler for this crane was sitting in an old chair watching a tiny television with a coat hanger antenna. “Harris!” Deric yelled over the noise of the crane’s engines one floor above them. “Harris!”
Harris turned and saw him in the doorway. He made as if to stand up but Deric waved him back down. In his late fifties, Harris was the oldest man on the night shift at this site, and was right up there in age with the oldest men from all the shifts. It was strange enough for Deric to watch someone older than his own father stay awake all night, shift after shift. He didn’t need Harris hopping up to his feet whenever he popped his head in.
“Anything on fire?” Deric asked.
“Anything about to explode?” Deric asked.
“Oh no, everything’s looking fine.”
“Anything good on TV?” Deric asked.
“Oh no, there’s nothing on.”
As an oiler Harris was in charge of maintenance and repair on board the crane. But as the night oiler on a crane that was running twenty four hours a day, when required maintenance was done during daylight where the visibility was better, Harris had little to do except the routine checking of fluid levels and some onboard housekeeping.
On top of that was the fact that Deric was the swing shift supervisor. He worked two days at a time on the day shift at Pier 25, then two days over on the east side at Pier 6, then two days on each night shift. Then he had one or two days off depending on whether he was swinging from day to night or night to day. There were ten days between his spells with each shift making it difficult if not impossible to get into any sort of routine with the men or the machines involved. The supervisors who were permanently affixed to their cranes and their sites were in charge of keeping things running smoothly. Even if news of a fraying cable or a slipping clutch were brought to Deric’s attention the odds of him still being on site when new parts came in and the necessary repairs were undertaken were slim.
He was a warm body put in place to make sure nothing catastrophic happened. Asking Harris if anything was on fire was only halfway a joke. It was something unforeseeable like an explosion that Deric was supposed to keep his eyes open for. Everything else got reported to the regular super.
Deric had been a truck checker at the beginning, the lowest rung on the work ladder. When things finally settled down enough for management to put a swing shift into place, the former swing super, Deric’s predecessor, had started showing up for work drunk. The night super at Pier 6 had pointed out that Deric had been through college and seemed sober enough. The old super was fired and after two days of training Deric, at twenty-two years old, found himself in charge.
Deric walked back outside and started making his way slowly around the base of the crane. The light from land made sure that he wasn’t in complete darkness just yet, but he moved slowly, wanting his eyes adjusted to the dark as much as possible before his next step. From the rear of the crane he watched, everything dipping and rocking slowly, as the crane pan swung out over the two rectangular barges tied up on the south side. The pan lowered, landing on one end of the closest barge, then tilted and swung back towards land, spreading the debris across the top. He waited until the boom moved out of sight behind the crane and he heard the soft thud, quieter now with distance, as the pan settled on land again.
“Tommy,” he spoke into his walkie-talkie. “596, Tommy, come back.”
“This’s Tommy,” a subdued voice crackled over his speaker.
“Tommy we’ve got either two or three left before we swap out. I lost count inside the roundhouse. Watch your dockbuilders; they’ll let you know when.”
“Those two knuckleheads?” Tommy was a soft spoken Irish guy who everybody liked. Using terms like knuckleheads or chowder heads was as far as he went towards joining in with the joshing and joking that everyone on site used to try and keep their nights feeling normal. “Those two giving you any trouble Deric?”
“Cause you’ve got to watch those two.” From experience Deric knew Tommy was enjoying himself on the radio, getting a chance to be one of the guys when normally he was stuck three stories up in the operator’s room, both hands and both feet busy all day as he clutched, braked, cabled in, boomed down.
“What did he say about us?” Donavan’s voice came over the radio.
Deric stopped listening to the radio banter as he walked to the edge of the deck and stepped onto the twenty foot barge tied alongside. The walkway around the outside was two feet wide along the sides compared to the five feet of deck space provided at either end. This barge was full so it was sitting low in the water, a foot higher than the crane, making the trip aboard an easy one. A wall ran around the hold on the deck surface so that the top of the barge was chest high as Deric stood on board. He took hold of the safety chain that ran around the hold and leaned out, checking the rows of numbers painted down the side at each corner indicating just how low the barge was sitting in the water. He eyeballed the numbers as he walked, always keeping one hand on the safety chain, to make sure his estimates hadn’t been entirely off. Everything seemed in order and as the crane barge dipped, the debris barge followed along for the ride and Deric quickened his pace, knowing he had to be out of the way of the pan when it came back again.
He hurried around to the rear deck and continued following the wall, nothing to his right now but the Hudson River. In front of him was the spare barge, sitting empty and much higher in the water.
He increased the speed of his walk and with a jump he planted his hands on the deck of the higher barge, then planted a foot on the wall of the lower barge, kicking himself up until he was lying on his back on the empty barge. He rolled over and walked to the corner farthest from the crane just as the pan landed again with a crunch and another load of debris was spread across the top of the pile. He had been much closer to the pan at various times on the job, and it was possible to do so and still be safe, he just didn’t like it very much.
Deric turned around and looked over the thirty foot gap of dark water that now separated him from the southern crane. With silent motion the second pan drifted across his line of sight on its way to the rear of that crane where two more barges, one empty, one filling, waited.
Deric unhooked his microphone. “Alberta. Alberta, come in.”
“This is Alberta,” his speaker crackled.
“Alberta we’re going to be swapping out on the 596 after a few more pans. You copy?”
“Yup, copy that. We’ll be over after warming up.”
Deric stood on the corner of the empty barge. He had lost track of how many pans were left and had nothing to do but wait. His hands did an unconscious dance over his body, slapping at pockets, making sure he had everything he needed.
The pan made one last drop before settling onto the barge. The dockbuilders were coming down the gangway and as Deric turned over his shoulder he saw the running lights of the tugboat Alberta floating over the water.
Deric sat down and pushed off, hopping down onto the lower barge. He made one try at looking down into the water between the two barges before the hull of the empty vessel knocked into his hardhat. The currents were pushing everything north and there was no room between the two. Deric braced a leg against the higher barge and pushed as hard as he could. Slowly, very slowly, the empty barge began to move and with his free hands he took a tape measure and a flashlight out of his pockets. With one last shove he gained a half a foot of space, then he hopped down to the deck and with two quick pulls he shot five feet of tape down the side of the barge. The numbers painted on the hull were good enough for estimates, but he was required to measure the depth to the inch.
The empty barge began to float back in and Deric braced his foot against it as he peered over the side to where the end of the tape measure was sitting on top of the water. He held the flashlight as steady as possible as the wake from the tugboat began to rock everything all over the place. In theory it was possible to measure the side of a barge with a tape measure. But that was under perfect conditions. There were never perfect conditions. He had to settle for watching the tape measure dip in and out of the water and try to estimate at what point the amount it sank in was equal to the amount it came out, indicating that without the waves, that would be the water line. He got his measurement and walked towards land between the two barges, the looming wall of steel on his right coming in as the currents pressed everything together again, the empty barge clanging into the lower barge with a hollow metal thump as Deric turned sideways to walk, falling into the water no longer a worry with the hull of the empty barge pressing in on him close enough to make walking difficult. He reached the second corner and went through the routine again, lifting both legs up to push against the empty barge, his back braced against the wall that ran the rim of the hold.
Again he slipped the tape measure down and holding his flashlight in his mouth took his reading. Reeling in the tape measure he gripped the tape between two gloved fingers, wiping the water off of it, soaking his hand. Two tape measures had broken on him in the middle of readings, snapped in half, corroded from river water that had collected inside.
Deric regained his footing then bent down, his knees sighing, and placed the tape measure on the deck. It would have been easier to place it on top of the railing right next to him, but he had also lost one tape measure into the hold. Likewise, his pen was always replaced between the band of his hard hat and his head when even a small break was needed. He had lost track of how many pens had rolled either into holds or into the water from what had at first seemed like secure positions.
He took his notebook out. With gloved fingers he fumbled with the pages until he found a blank space. He drew a quick rectangle and then wrote down his measurements for each corner on one side. Then he jotted the barge number down above that. He reached a hand up and gripped his glove at the wrist between his teeth and tore it off. With his bare wet hand he folded the page down, marking the spot for later.
He cupped his hand at his chest and spat his glove into it, then gathered up everything else and made his way around the barge to see the crane receding away.
“Enjoy the ride,” Donavan shouted, holding a thick rope in his hands. One end of the rope was secured to a pylon on the crane barge; the other end had been holding the barge Deric was currently standing on in place. The lines were three inches thick and Deric never thought about touching them anymore. In the beginning his first instincts had been to lend a hand, but handling lines was a job protected by the dockbuilders union and he had been yelled at enough times to realize it wasn’t worth touching the lines. That and he had heard plenty of horror stories about lines being fouled or old lines popping when the strain became too great and causing serious damage to people’s legs. There was a lot of mass in motion when barges were involved.
Deric watched the water between him and Donovan grow for a few seconds. He gave a two fingered tap to Donavan on the brim of his hardhat, then turned and looked at the running lights of the Alberta, now spilling over the riverside end of the full barge where it had been secured, it’s engines the only thing controlling both the full and empty vessels.
The Alberta’s engines picked up in pitch, turning from a low roar into a higher whine and the island of metal he stood on began to pull away from shore as well as pulling away from the crane.
Once the pair of barges had been backed out enough to have some space to maneuver, he saw one of the Alberta’s deckhands spring on board and untie the tugboat. Now nothing was controlling Deric’s island. The Alberta’s engines roared again and it raced around to the opposite corner.
Deric could tell that the deckhand was new. Rather than reboard the Alberta for its short trip he had opted to walk directly across the barges. Deric chuckled as the deckhand, his figure now just a shadow cast from the lights on shore, stopped at the wall the empty barge presented to him. The deckhand stared up for a few seconds, then noticed Deric watching him from the far end. As quickly as possible he made his way between the two barges and Deric could hear the sound of his jacket brushing against both walls as he tried to hurry.
“How do I get up there?” he asked when he got closer to Deric. He was a young man, maybe in his teens, with a rural mid-western accent that made him seem lost out on the Hudson.
“You climb,” Deric answered.
The deckhand looked at the wall around the hold and then up to where the deck of the empty barge was above his head.
“Yeah.” Deric turned to his left and saw the Alberta coming into position. “Come on, spider your way up. One foot at a time.”
The deck hand raised a foot and tried to start working his way up, but he was concentrating too heavily on the deck above him, his target, rather than the wall next him, his first step. He managed to make some headway and when he made it far enough to begin scrabbling at the deck Deric grabbed a foot and shoved. There was some more noise above him, then he saw the deckhand staring down at him. “Thanks.”
The deck was awash in light where the Alberta was in place, waiting. Over the speaker mounted above the cabin the captain’s voice started barking orders at the deckhand.
Deric listened and watched the deckhand move from the tugboat to the barge, trying to get his lines secure faster than he was able, causing him to slip up, and causing him to get things done slower. The part of Deric that was floating in the Hudson River with a barge full of tower waiting to get his readings done and get back to land sided with the loudspeaker. The part of Deric that had been in similar situations ever since he had been dumped into this job sided with the deckhand. The part of Deric that was getting cold cupped his hands into fists and blew warm air on them.
The tug was eventually tied off and then the engines whined again and the entire ensemble swung around in a half-circle. Then things settled down as the Alberta began to push them back towards the 596. With no more jolts to come Deric went ahead and took his last two readings on the open side of the barge, then clambered aboard the higher vessel for the short trip back.
“Hey, how’s it going Deric?” the loudspeaker called to him.
He recognized Jackson’s voice. The tugboat guys lived on board and were on a schedule that Deric had yet to figure out. He never knew who he was going to get. Jackson he liked, although the first time Deric had met him, Jackson had shook his hand while wobbling back and forth on his feet so much Deric became worried that Jackson was drunk and that he would be fired and Deric would suddenly find himself working on a tug boat. It turned out Jackson had broken his back in an accident. It had healed enough to work, but most of the time Jackson was constantly rearranging his body to find a different position that made his back more comfortable.
It was Jackson who had taught Deric the various forms of sunset, telling him all about Civil twilight, Nautical twilight and Astronomical twilight, the terms for the varying amount of light that still existed in the sky after official sunset during which visibility was good enough for certain nautical procedures to take place.
Deric smiled over his shoulder and gave another two fingered salute on the tip of his hardhat, directing it somewhere towards the the tugboat cabin.
The two barges, now turned around so the empty pan was next to the crane, slipped into place. Donavan tossed the end loop of one line up to the leading cleat, landing it in one throw, prompting applause from Andy. The Alberta’s engines died down. Momentum and the dockbuilders would do the rest.
“You keeping warm, Deric?” the loudspeaker asked.
“So far,” Deric spoke to the mike clipped to his collar.
“So far, that’s right. From what we’re hearing it’s going to get cold tonight.”
“Thanks, Jackson, we have our own weather reports on land, you know.”
“Yeah? What’d they say?”
“They say anyone who gets to stay inside a nice warm cabin when we swap out at three this morning is much better off than someone who has to stand on deck.”
The loudspeaker laughed.
The fact that he was having a conversation about the weather using two different types of communication devices never struck Deric as odd. Deric had his own cell phone, a site phone for the pier, a site phone for all of Ground Zero, the walkie-talkie, and his normal speaking voice. He never noticed anymore what he was using to talk to anyone, just so long as they could hear him and he could hear them back.
Deric got a wave from Donavan and turned to actually face the Alberta. “We’re all set here. What do you want to do with the full?”
“How’s the 636 coming along?”
“Slow? We’re not running slow. You send us the trucks we’ll unload them,” the walkie-talkie chirped. Deric recognized Armando, the operator on the 636.
“Sorry, Armand. Jackson, the 636 is not running slow, they’re running just as fast as I could possibly want, it’s the trucks that’ve been light.”
“Damned straight,” Armando said.
“So,” this from the Alberta again, “you got a guess as to when they’ll fill up?”
“Not a very good one. How are we on empties?”
“We’ve got two behind the 636.”
“They’ve got plenty.”
“It’s up to you then. You know how everything’s sitting on the water. You can either get this full out of here, bring back one empty, then swap two empties in when we pull this one out and spin the 636, or you can pull two fulls out of here and swap in one empty and maybe have to stash them somewhere if the 636 isn’t quite ready yet. I guess you’re spinning the 636 either way.”
“Yeah, let’s do that. Everything where it’s at for now. I’ll tow three fulls later.”
“No, it’s Jackson.”
Deric laughed. “Right.”
He looked down at the crane and walked along the edge until he was standing over a piece of deck without any equipment or cleats or lines. He sat down, his legs hanging over the edge and jumped the five feet down to the deck.
Then he followed the dockbuilders up the gangway and went to the trailer to write up his paperwork.
Before leaving for work each day or night, Deric checked the weather. For his day shifts this sometimes affected what he wore. For the night shift it never mattered; winter was winter. So, every night, he put on a pair of boxers. Then a one piece cotton union suit. Then a pair of thermal long johns and a thermal top. Then a pair of silk sock liners, then a pair of wool socks. It was important to put them on after the long johns so that they’d make a tight seal around his calves and nothing would slip out of place later on. Then a flannel shirt and a pair of flannel lined jeans. Then a pair of overalls with quilted lining inside. Then his jacket which, in addition to being full winter gear, also contained floatation padding that was U.S. Coast Guard approved for work on the water which let him board the various barges without having to slip a lifejacket on over his entire wardrobe. The jacket also had reflector strips so if he was going to work near traffic he wouldn’t have to wear an additional reflective vest. Then water-proof, winter-proof boots. Then a wool hat and gloves.
“You cold?” Carlos asked him after they had swapped out the 636 at two in the morning and were making their way back towards land.
“I’m freezing,” Deric answered, flexing his toes in his boots trying to find feeling again.
“It’s always worse on the water,” Carlos said, turning around to climb down the ladder first.
The 636, unlike the 596, had a barge for steel moored to its rear at all times in front of its two debris barges. Depending on what sort of shift it was going to be, the 636 swapped its pan out for a grapple and unloaded steel instead of debris. The steel barge was massive compared to the debris barges, which were large enough on their own to hold seven hundred tons. There was no jumping onto a steel barge. It was a good twelve foot climb to the deck, then some very interesting acrobatics out on the waterside to get down to the debris barge.
“You’ll warm up once we get back on land, yeah?” Carlos had a Portuguese lilt in his voice making him end most things he said with a word that should have made his sentence into a question, but with the tone of voice that kept it neutral. Deric never knew when he was supposed to answer or reply.
“Yeah,” Deric said. “Yes.” Carlos began to drop below the deck, his boots clanging on the footholds. “You know you really should have a partner out there.”
“What do you want me to do?” Carlos answered as he dropped out of sight.
Deric waited until he was clear, then turned around and began to back down the ladder himself. Once he was close enough to the crane barge to not have to shout he resumed talking to Carlos over his shoulder.
“It’s not fair to you, really.”
“Hey, Mike says that if you’ll let him know when we’re swapping out, he’ll be here.”
This time Carlos waited until Deric jumped the last few feet onto the deck before saying, “You know?”
“If Mike wants to be here for the swap outs he should stay at his post and not wander off to the strip club,” Deric answered, stuffing his hands in his pockets as the wind, blocked some by the steel barge, still managed to kick up a nice gust while they walked up the gangway.
“Well what’re you going to do,” Carlos said as they walked up the wooden steps and onto the dirt. “Hey, I heard they might put us on the day shift.”
“Does that seem right to you?”
“The day shift’s the day shift. Don’t matter to me how I get there. The guy’s uncle’s high up in the union, that’s just fine with me, you know?”
“Yeah. Maybe. I don’t know. All I know is I just have five more hours then I’m off this shift and won’t be back for two weeks.” They stopped outside of the dockbuilders’ OSB shack. There was a Plexiglas window built in that looked over the unloading zone at the 636 looming over the water. “Donavan,” Deric said into his radio.
“Donavan the 636 is all set. You can run trucks down.”
Deric watched as Donavan…or Andy, it was hard to tell at this distance, waved another truck out of the line and sent it bouncing down the dirt towards where he was standing.
“All right, stay warm,” Deric said as he left the brightness of the light stand and walked along the West Side Highway back north.
“Sure thing. You too, yeah?” he heard Carlos answer.
Deric stopped between the two cranes on the side of the road. He glanced north at the line of trucks. It was a light night, they were barely ten deep. On heavy days the line would run all the way down the street, past the 636 shack, all the way south to Ground Zero.
Deric turned and looked south. A truck was coming up the road through the darkness. Only it wasn’t really darkness. There is no such thing as darkness on a New York City street. But compared to the bright lights set up all over the site it looked like darkness. And behind the truck there was the pedestrian bridge, then behind that the darkness disappeared entirely. What was glowing down there made the lights at Pier 25 look like a roadside diner that was closed for cleaning.
Six city blocks lit up brighter than daylight each night, every night. The glow was bright enough so that if you stood on the right avenue you could see it fifteen blocks or twenty blocks away, glowing way off on the street horizon, a pure white counterpoint to the colorful glow of Times Square in midtown.
Deric had been to Ground Zero towards the beginning when he was just a truck checker to get his security tags. Before that, in the real early days, things had been too crazy for a truck checker from Pier 6 to get in. Or things had been just crazy enough for a truck checker from Pier 6 to get in, depending on how you looked at it.
His first day on the job Deric had navigated the streets of Manhattan’s Financial District, a feat hard enough in itself, and walked past a corner bank where marines were sleeping on the lobby floor. An armed guard had stopped him and asked for two forms of ID before letting him walk down the street where the Pier 6 crane was set up. The confusion had only increased after that since it was his first day and nobody knew who he was. Back then you spent the night checking trucks with the police, the Port Authority, and the FBI, and nobody was quite sure which copy of which piece of paperwork from the trucks went where. Deric usually deferred to the FBI.
It was a little after that when Deric was brought to Ground Zero for his security tags which nobody bothered to inspect anymore. It had still been a pile back then, not the excavated hole it was now.
Someone had asked him once what it looked like. “Hell,” Deric had responded. He wasn’t being poetic or clever or using hyperbole. From as far back as he could remember every description of hell he had encountered revolved around a few basic concepts: a sense of scale that was difficult to comprehend; massive amounts of fire; countless people slaving away for eternity. That summed it up perfectly.
The piles of twisted steel were so large that you would see some motion on one of them and assume it was a person working, until you looked closer and realized that it was a bulldozer and not a person moving along.
The fires were still burning deep inside the piles. There was one section where every I-beam that was removed prompted a tongue of flame to shoot out as a new avenue of escape for the heat was opened up. Over on pier six steel beams sometimes showed up in the beginning that the crane operator would lift off of the truck and dip into the East River, holding them under water while they bubbled and steamed, to cool them off before putting them aboard the barge.
The crews working weren’t on anything close to a set schedule and exhaustion was a way of life. One of the site supervisors had worked four straight days at the outset before a doctor ordered him home with some sleeping pills. He said he drove home that night seeing visions of firemen darting in front of his car the whole way.
Deric turned the collar up on his jacket and walked north. He walked past the line of trucks, saying “Hi” to a few drivers, banging on their doors in greeting. He closed his hands into fists and blew on them each in turn, trying to warm them up, watching his breath in the cold night air. He rounded the U-turn at the far northern end of the site and came across one of his truck checkers, a gangly thin man climbing down from the runner of a truck, a clipboard in one hand and the trucker’s ticket in the other.
The man scribbled on the ticket and handed it back to the trucker through the open window, then made a notation on his clipboard.
“Sullivan,” Deric shouted. Ten trucks lined up and idling could make a lot of noise. “How we doing?”
“Oh, hello there, Deric,” Sullivan said, his head nodding furiously as he spoke, as if agreeing ferverently with whatever Deric said was part of his job description. Sullivan turned back to the truck idling next to him. “Okay!” he shouted up, the strange importance of directing traffic causing him to put on a show of absolute power. “You can go in now!” He waved the truck in, giving superfluous hand signals for direction, as if he were worried that without his guidance the trucker might double-clutch, hit the gas pedal hard, and go flying off the dirt and into the water.
“What do we have?” Deric asked once the truck was gone. The truck checkers held an odd role on the site. They were the ones in charge of the numbers for each shift and there was no other way to take stock of the night than to get those numbers. The operators radioed to their dockbuilders to go and get updates, the laborers dropped by to check how things were going, Deric always swung by a few times a night to get the all-important concrete actual number that would give this shift some sense of reality and distinguish it from all the other shifts.
“That was, hang on,” Sullivan consulted his clipboard. His head began bobbing again as he read. “Yeah, that was number eighty-two.”
“Eighty-two? That can’t be right.” Deric started doing math in his head, trying to figure out how far into the shift they were and how much was left and how many trucks they might be expected to unload that night until his eyelids began to sag and the numbers degraded into sleepy soup in his head. “We’ll be lucky to clear a hundred by the end of the night. They did over two-hundred today.”
“Yes, sir,” Sullivan said, looking down at his clipboard again. “Yes. Eighty-two. That’s correct.” He waved another truck forward and processed the ticket. “See, what I think the problem is, sir, is that the trucks haven’t been coming non-stop.”
“I think you have something there, Sullivan.”
“Well, I think if we…if we were to,” and Sullivan stopped talking, his hands motioning around the street, at the trucks and the U-turn, as if moving things in a slightly different direction would increase the overall number of loads that came through each shift.
“Don’t worry about it, Sullivan,” Deric said, clapping him on the shoulder. “Just get me the numbers in the morning.”
“Of course, sir,” Sullivan said, then he moved off to the next truck in the line.
Deric walked towards the checker’s shack. The checkers were nesters by habit; either that or the checkers had more time on their hands than the rest of the crew. Considering one man could easily do the job but two were assigned since there were two cranes operating, it was most likely the latter. Deric looked through the plastic window to the inside. There was a space heater, milk cartons for tables, two chairs, plastic sheeting stapled up for insulation, and Hugo, the other checker sound asleep in one of the chairs, his face pressed against the wall, all within six square feet at most.
Back in the beginning one of the checkers would wander around the site every night scavenging for wood and they’d have a little bonfire by their station in an empty oilcan. It was quaint and comfortable and the truckers waiting on line during a swap out would gather around and talk over the popping wood. Eventually somebody realized that an uncontrolled fire inside of an empty oil drum wasn’t such a great idea and the fires were put to an end. But it had been nice while it lasted.
Deric turned away, letting Hugo sleep, and cut in front of an idling truck to start walking towards the trailer. He heard an engine behind him, recognizing the higher hum of the 4×4 over the rattling trucks.
He made his way down the gravel slope to the paved path along the water just in time to wave down Leon. With a big smile Leon patted the empty seat next to him with one of his large black hands, and before Deric sat down the green 4X4 roared forward toppling Deric backwards into the seat.
The 4X4 could barely go thirty miles an hour, but with no windshield it was enough to make the wind whistle hard across Deric’s body and the cold air made his eyes water. Leon stopped in front of the trailer with a full on brake that caused the tires to screech across the pavement.
The 4X4 was supposed to be used by supervisors only, but Leon, the laborer on the 596, had been sent off on so many little runs for various things that he eventually stole a set of keys rather than sign out the official set from the trailer every time someone asked him to do something.
Nobody cared, least of all Deric. He hated the 4X4. At first he had wanted to be excited about it, Leon certainly had fun driving it around. But the third or fourth time Deric had taken it out on the city streets he had wound up lost and ended up in the Battery Park Underpass going thirty miles an hour with a tractor-trailer roaring up behind him, the Jake brake on the truck humming like a bass guitar, amplified by the tunnel walls so loud that Deric was sure he was going to be crushed. He made it out of the tunnel with a line of traffic behind him, pulled off onto the Pier 6 site and never drove the 4X4 again.
Leon got out of the 4X4 and Deric followed him to the laborers’ shack.
“Where the hell have you been, man?” Deric asked. “I’ve been dying here.”
Leon waved him off with a smile and stepped through the door, setting a few paper sacks onto the bench as Deric followed him inside. “Hey,” Leon said, “you send me out to get this stuff it takes some time.” Leon’s voice was authentic southern drawl mixed in with street patter.
“Whatever, just gimme.”
“Okay then,” Leon turned to the paper sacks, “you had the number one, right? No pickles.”
“No pickles. That’s me.”
“You don’t like pickles?” Leon asked, handing over two of the paper bags.
“Where’s my Coke?”
“It’s in the bag.”
“They put the Coke in a bag?”
“Yeah. You don’t like pickles?”
“They have to make it fresh if you ask for something specific.”
Leon thought about this, his lower lip curling over as he found sense in the statement. “That’s not bad.”
“Yeah,” Deric said, but he wasn’t fully paying attention anymore. He was looking around the laborers’ shack at the hundred or so pictures of naked women Leon had hung up on all the walls. “This is quite a collection.”
“Oh yeah,” Leon said, pulling a few French fries out of his bag and munching on them while he looked around. “These are all my girlfriends.”
“You certainly have a nice eye for variety.” The pictures weren’t themed in any sense except that all the women were naked, be they white, black, Asian, Hispanic, anything. “It’s like a pornographic UN.”
Leon laughed a deep laugh. “Don’t make no difference, my man.” He threw an arm around Deric’s shoulder. “Black…white…they’re all pink on the inside.” He slapped Deric on the back and returned to his fries.
Deric looked at him and said the only thing he could think of to say to a man whose personally philosophy matched up perfectly with his own personal world. “You’re a wise man, Leon.”
“That’s what I’ve been saying,” Leon said, hunting through his bag for more French fries.
“Janus doesn’t care?” Janus was the day laborer who shared the shack. Deric took another look around the walls and then looked at the radio on the corner of the bench. During his free time Janus sat in here and listened to Gospel on the radio, shouting Amen whenever he was prompted.
“No, Janus and I are good,” Leon answered.
“Right,” Deric said. “Well, thanks for the grub.” Then he walked back to the trailer to eat and get some paperwork done.
A few hours later the sky was pale with the coming sun. The shift was almost over. One of Deric’s cell phones rang. Deric was sitting in the trailer and he leaned back in his chair and threw his feet up on the desk. The pockets of his overalls were designed to be used while someone was standing up, not sitting down, and it helped to straighten his legs out to reach inside. His hand was in one of his chest pockets when the phone in the other pocket rang. He drew both of them out and sat for one ring, staring at first one phone, then the other. Then his radio crackled to life and Deric was moving out the door, trying to answer both phones at once while clipping his walkie-talkie microphone to his jacket.
Deric was standing next to the empty pan of the 536, staring out over the stars above the Hudson River even as the streets behind him to the east began to fill with early sunlight.
“I don’t understand,” Donavan said behind him.
“If you figure it out, let me know,” Deric said.
“They just missed it?” Andy asked, standing next to Donavan.
“I guess. It’s just one guy in a tower down by where the trucks start driving up the highway.”
“Well, what about everyone else who looked through this stuff?” Andy asked.
“Hey, they missed it. If they missed it, they missed it,” Donavan answered.
“Well put, Donavan,” Deric said as Donavan came to stand next to him. Andy joined them and all three men stared north down the dirt road, watching as the truck came around the U-turn and started driving towards them.
“So what did he see?” Andy asked.
“He wasn’t sure he saw anything,” Deric said. “He just thinks he saw something.”
“What did he think he saw?”
Deric watched as two cars pulled up by the row of porta-potties, their flashing red lights reflecting off the hood of the approaching truck.
“A torso.” Deric walked to the rear of the pan and spotted Leon standing on the wooden stairs by his shack. “Leon,” he shouted, “we’re going to need some extra hard hats.”
Leon turned and walked towards the trailer. The truck drew closer and four Port Authority Policemen stepped out of the cars and began to walk towards Deric and Andy and Donavan.
“So what are we doing?”
“We’re just taking a second look.”
“And if we find something?”
“Then they take over,” Donavan said, staring at the Policemen as they walked across the dirt, their feet wobbly in street shoes.
“Deric,” Tommy said over the radio from up in the crane, “what do you want me to do?”
Deric puffed his cheeks up with air and slowly blew it out through pursed lips. “I have no idea,” he said without keying his microphone. “Donavan, how do we do this?”
Donavan reached a hand up, scratching his upper lip, no joking around now. “I’ll hop up and try to get a look in the trailer when it gets up here. But odds are we’re just going to have to dump it and see what we can see.”
“Okay, it’s your truck.”
The truck rolled slowly past them, the rubber tires crackling and growling over half-frozen dirt. It turned in and then backed up until the trailer straightened out with the cab and everything was lined up with the opening of the pan.
Donavan walked to the side of the trailer and climbed up the rungs on the side. His large frame moving slowly up the side, a groan or two of old age escaping from his lips before his body cleared the top and, with one hand gripping the edge, he leaned over to look into the debris. After a few seconds he shook his head and climbed down.
“Well?” Deric asked.
“Just like I thought, unless it was resting right on top I’m not going to see anything like that. We have to dump it.” He took his work gloves out of his pocket and began pulling them on, waving the truck backwards as he did so. “Andy, go grab the loader.”
Andy walked off to where the orange machine was sitting by the street and Donavan unlatched the trailer door. “Watch yourself,” he said softly as the door swung open, the hinges on the side of the trailer squeaking. Deric stepped back as Donavan walked the door open, pushing it around the rear of the truck until it swung around completely and lay flat on the side of the trailer. He latched the safety catch in place and stepped back, waving the truck backwards again.
The pan jumped as the rear tires rolled over its lip and then the truck stopped, the center piston whirred to life and the trailer began to rise. When it was fully raised the truck drove forward and the debris, molded into one long rectangle, slid out into the pan.
“All right, let’s see what we’ve got.”
Donavan walked to the opening of the pan with Deric behind him. The loader arrived and waited patiently a few yards away as Andy returned and followed Deric into the opening. The truck stopped, farther ahead of the loader, and the driver got out and stood on his running board, trying to see what was happening.
The Port Authority Policemen were waiting on one side of the pan and Leon appeared on the other.
Deric took one step onto the steel floor of the pan before Donavan turned back to look at him. “You have work gloves?” Donavan asked.
“Back in the trailer.”
“Then get out of here.”
Deric backed up to the dirt again and watched as Andy and Donavan took a few ginger steps in the ever shifting pile of dirt, rebar, shattered computers, ashes and god knew what else.
Donavan and Andy came back out and they waved the loader in, the machine’s shovel dipping in to rearrange everything and try to churn it up so they could look over what was on the bottom of the pile. The dockbuilders entered again.
“What’s going on down there, Deric, eh?” Carlos said over the radio. Deric took his cell phone out of his pocket and looked at the time.
“You guys aren’t getting anymore trucks today,” Deric radioed back. “Go ahead and leave everything for the day crew.”
“Ugh,” Donavan said, as he took a step back from the front of the pile and got more solid footing on the metal pan. “Something was in there, that’s for certain. You can smell it.”
Deric stepped up and looked into the pan.
“That’s a smell that never leaves you,” Donavan said, his head turned away towards the pan opening for fresh air.
Deric continued to stare and then he smelled it. A whiff of thick air that wafted out of the pile in front of him and filled his nose with a smell so sweet it was bitter, like too much cinnamon poured over rotted meat, and he turned away out of reflex. He noticed the crew from the 636 was standing next to the trucker, all of them tilting their necks slightly as if a different angle would let them see something more. When he looked the other way he saw that Harris, the oiler, was now standing next to Leon.
The dockbuilders came out of the pan and the loader moved in again, scraping its shovel over the debris. The dockbuilders went back in.
Deric watched as the trucks began to back up in the now stopped line along the street. Most of the drivers stepping out of their cabs, gathering in groups of twos and threes as they stretched their legs.
Deric saw Hugo walking hurriedly down the dirt road towards him. “Sullivan said I had to bring this to you,” he said when he reached Deric. Hugo handed him the sheets for the shift.
“Thanks, Hugo,” Deric said as one of the dockbuilders banged against something in the pan behind him and swore.
“Our relief’s here early,” Hugo said. “Can we go?”
“Yeah, that’s fine, Hugo. You can take off.”
Hugo stayed where he was and looked at the scene surrounding the pan. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing. You can go.”
But Hugo stayed where he was.
The dockbuilders left the pan and the loader made another pass. The dockbuilders returned.
Nautical Twilight was waning, the sun was rising fast and the buildings of Manhattan in the west were beginning to be backlit while Jersey City across the Hudson was no longer just defined by the lights on the skyscrapers.
Donavan and Andy came out of the pan again and chatted with the Port Authority policemen while Deric watched the trucks begin to stack up further and further down the street, the end of the line passing the south end of the site. Some buildup was normal when the pier switched shifts, they had to pause loading at some point, but it wasn’t normal to leave a line that long waiting. The truckers were congregating in larger groups, most of them gravitating towards the stretch of road that ran adjacent to the 536 pan as they tried to see what was going on.
Donavan and Andy came over.
“I don’t know,” Donavan said.
“Something was in there,” Andy said. “Smells too strong.”
“Something was definitely in there at some point,” Donavan said, “but I don’t know if it’s still there.”
“We could search through there all day and not find anything and still not be sure.”
“We’ve been through it pretty well.”
“So what do you think?” Deric asked.
“I think it’s clean.” Donavan said.
“I’m not sure.” Andy said.
“How long have we been doing this?” Donavan asked.
“Maybe half an hour?” Deric guessed.
“That long?” Andy asked, and his voice showed some doubt now as to whether there was actually anything in the pan.
“I think that’s enough,” Deric said.
“Yeah,” Andy said.
“I don’t know,” Donavan said. “I mean, something was in there, after all.”
The three men stopped talking and only stared into the debris, each one slowly drifting away into their own thoughts for the moment as everyone else on the site watched them, conversations drawing to a halt, nobody talking.
“Okay,” Deric said finally, breaking the silence. “That’s enough. Back everyone away.”
The three of them walked around the pan talking and pushing back the various groups that had gathered. Then Deric radioed Tommy and the pan lifted off of the frozen mud, everyone watching as it swung through the sky in full daylight before spreading the load of debris into the waiting barge out on the water. Tommy returned the pan to the ground with his usual gentle thump, then radioed that he was done for the day.
Everyone began to disperse. The policemen got back into their cars and drove away; the trucker did the same after getting back into his cab. Hugo, Harris, Leon, Donavan, Andy, the crew from the 636, everyone from the site drifted away as the day crew began to arrive to relieve them for the next twelve hours before they had to come back that night and do it all over again. Deric heard the roar of a motorcycle engine coming down the path by the trailer and he began walking, the sheets from the day under his arm, to meet Greg and fill him in, finish up his paperwork, and then take off himself.
Twenty minutes later Deric descended down the stairs of the 1/9 subway station. His duffle bag was slung over his shoulder, his hard hat clipped to the strap, his overalls and some other clothes stuffed inside, no longer needed now that he was off the water and the sun was rising. He slid his card and walked through the turnstile, went to his track and waited, got on his train when it arrived. The train was partly filled with people going to work, but it was still too early in the morning for any real crowds. He found a seat and sat down. Deric leaned back, his security tags rattling against the outside of his shirt, and fell into a half-doze staring out the window across from him. He had more than twelve hours off; it was time for him to swing shifts so he had a day and a night to adjust to a daytime schedule before showing up for work in twenty-four hours. He blinked himself into a more alert state and shifted in his seat. He would buy a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich from the deli on his corner and a six-pack of beer; he always got a kick out of the looks he received buying beer at seven in the morning. Then he would go home, shower, sit and eat and watch cartoons trying to stay awake as long as possible so he could sleep during the night and be somewhat fresh in the daytime when he had to report to Pier 6. He hated his swing days and knew his brain would be even mushier than normal the next shift. Then after four days he would swing back to the night shift. Then four more days then back to the day. Then again. Then again, then again, then again. It was grueling but there were worse things than being tired all the time and he would get through it. It was, after all, only a job.