When I got to Hadji's apartment, he'd nearly gassed himself dead. I knocked, let myself in, and told him to hurry up. "Come on," I said, hanging on his door. Normally Hadji took the steps two at a time when I'd honk for him. "Why so slow in the head this morning?" He was at the stove, fumbling with his teapot, and it was about then that I noticed the faint, sick-sweet odor of gas.
With a bleary voice (either from gas inhalation or because he hadn't had his coffee), he explained that his pilot light hadn't ignited the burner. "I put a pot of water on, sat back, waited for it to boil, and just about fell asleep again." He stood at the burner, holding the teapot just above it. "And then you honked, and here I am."
We burst out of the apartment, Hadji walking a little fumble-footed while I breathed through my jacket at the crook of my elbow. It was till about four-thirty in the morning, dark, and a little cold and dewy. We had to be at the job site at five, so we could knock off around one, thereby avoiding a few harsh hours of Arizona noon-time sun. We hopped into my little green Volvo, cranking the windows down while I pulled away. In order to pull the queasy gas smell from the threads of our clothes and from our hair, and despite the cold air that rushed through the car, I drove fast.
"That's the third time they were supposed to have fixed that stove," Hadji said. "The third time." He stared straight ahead. I could tell he wasn't in a good mood.
"You look pale," I said to him.
"Nothing like being gassed."
"Maybe they mistook you for a Jew," I said. "With that nose of yours." Hadji was actually some kind of Indian (North American, although his nickname stemmed from an India-Indian character from the cartoon Johnny Quest). "If they offer you blankets," I said to him, "don't take them."
After Hadji had rolled his window up and the air was still again, I lit up. Hadji surprised me once more: first he had been uncharacteristically late, and then he silently joined me for my morning smoke. I told him that if I had known he'd be joining me, I would have grabbed the bong from the trunk, which I kept disguised in a long, stretched-out athletic sock. Hadji sat motionless for some time with the little pipe in his hand, and I had to tell him to please hold it below the window. He said that he had hoped the smoke might dispel some of the heavy gas feeling in his gut.
"No," he said.
"Do you want to go to the hospital or something?"
We got to the site about fifteen minutes before five. Surrounding us were thirteen apartment buildings, each twenty-four units, in various stages of construction, from freshly painted stucco to skeletal framework to a hole in the ground. They formed a large square, the common area in the center to be the future parking lot. They were all darkened, crouching and spread out on the desert. I pulled the Volvo way out to the far side of the square, next to the building we had been working on, alongside Alfredo's silver Mazda pickup. He was crouched next to a fire he had built from scrap lumber in a hole that he had kicked into the sand.
"Hey," I said to Alfredo, "move this piece of shit," referring to his truck. He didn't answer, but stood up from his fire. He was the foreman of the crew: Alfredo, Hadji, a guy named Gary--who hadn't shown up yet, and myself. When Alfredo smiled you could see that his front teeth weren't square, but were all rounded.
During those fifteen minutes or so we would watch the sun swell up while Alfredo told us what he wanted covered that day. We were doing the lathe work, which consisted of tacking three-quarters-inch-thick styrofoam to the exterior framework, and then wrapping the building in chicken wire. It was preparation for the stucco. Hadji and I did foam, while Alfredo and Gary followed with the wire. In our belts, Hadji and I each carried tacks, blue marking chalk, a tape measure, a utility knife, and a hatchet-headed hammer.
Hadji got himself a cup of coffee from Alfredo's thermos. I noticed him pale again when he heard that we would be covering the high-up sections that couldn't be reached except from the roof. It was an eight-twelve pitch roof, which is about thirty four degrees steep. Not too tricky to walk on, but Hadji was still looking a little spin-headed.
"I smell death, man," he said while Alfredo was pulling the compressor from the truck bed. "I smell it coming from the sky." He eyed the narrow strip of roof around the building, which otherwise had an expansive, flat roof in the center.
"You've got that gas in you sinuses," I said.
Once we were up top, the blue mountains began to appear through the Phoenix valley haze. I stood on the flat section of the roof, which was covered over with tar paper. I could hear Hadji's hammer smacking away, but he was too far down the incline of the roof for me to see. Being from eastern South Dakota, mountains were still relatively new to me. I crouched to a section of tar paper, and with my blue chalk, I sketched a section of mountains as well as I could. I tried to pay close attention to proportion and detail, and just worked my way along.
The roofing crew was setting up on the building next to ours and were already far enough along that they'd be on top of us by mid-day. They were a brash, loud group of six guys, who all looked identical to me: their jeans, their chests, their gloves and their hands right through their gloves were black from tar. They were all so hoarse from yelling over equipment noise and working with 1800 degree molten tar fumes that their vocal chords wouldn't vibrate unless they did yell. And then it sounded like there was some fleshy piece of organ loose inside of them, vibrating and getting in the way of things.
A week or so earlier I heard them talking to Hadji, offering him a job that actually paid something. The first guy said that he thought he'd offer, since Hadji was a fellow Indian, and the second guy said that he didn't figure Hadji wanted to be working with a bunch of white guys, anyway. Their voices cracked; only half of what they said was voiced, and the rest was air. I don't know what Hadji said at the time, but once in a while since then, one of them would call over to Hadji, telling him he should join the tribe. Hadji would either ignore them or he'd stop working for a few seconds and squint in their direction.
About an hour before lunch the roofers began a bout of hoarse shouting about something, which wasn't unusual, except that crews on the ground, from the building we were on and from others, began yelling about something too. Compressors were shut off; they chugged down and then quit except for a few in the farther off buildings. One of the roofers cried down to the guy in the truck that he should shut off the conveyor that was bringing up buckets of tar. A few guys on the ground were running off behind one of the south buildings, and others followed. The roofers were all gathered, still shouting, at the south edge of their building, one of them kneeling to get a closer look down. When it became clear that a procession was filing behind building 18962, Hadji and I got down and went around back, where five minutes before a trench had collapsed and buried the guy in it who had been laying wire.
A few guys were down digging with their hands, and another dug frantically with a shovel. "Put that down!" someone yelled at him. "You dumb, ignorant son of a bitch, you're going to lop his stinking head off!" There were about twenty of us surrounding them. A rescue vehicle and two cops pulled up. The last of the compressors died off, most of the shouting stopped, and a radio from one or two buildings over could be heard. "Jesus," a guy said behind us. "I wish they'd stop playing this frickin' song."
It took about thirty or forty minutes to get the guy out of the trench, digging only with hands and cardboard flaps for shovels. When they'd gotten him out, he looked as if he had sand packed in his ears, his nose, his eyes, and his mouth. He was dead. Sand poured from his pant cuffs and out of his shirt. His hair rained sand.
The rescue crew was no longer in a hurry, and they milled around with the cops and the rest of us for a while until we were all told to pack up for the day and call it quits. "Son of a bitch," one guy said, but most everyone else was pleased. It was already getting to be a scorcher. "What in the hell for?" he said. "You going to look for clues?"
On the way back, Hadji sat beside me in the Volvo and made displeased noises with his mouth. "I can't shake the taste," he said.
"The dead guy?"
"The gas. It's still in my mouth. Pull over when you can. I gotta get something to drink."
At the Seven Eleven I got a Slurpee and sat outside on the curb waiting for Hadji. He came out with a Slurpee, a pack of Wrigley's Spearmint, and a box of cough drops. He figured that since Alfredo's coffee hadn't washed the taste away, that he might have to attack from a few different angles.
"Ugh," he sat down and put his stuff on the curb next to him. "It's a taste like," he said, and then he though about it. "It's a taste like I don't know what."
For some reason, I kept thinking that he was talking about the dead guy. Probably because that was all I was thinking about. I kept wanting to tell Hadji that it was a taste like sand. He might not have been thinking about him at all, though. Hadji was a full-timer, whereas I was only working over the summer between spring and fall quarters at Arizona State. Depending which group of guys you sat with during lunch, you heard about all sorts of accidents involving all sorts of power equipment, and who knows what you get used to.
"You should've done a dance or a ceremony for that guy," I said to Hadji.
"Why didn't you?" he asked.
"Me? I'm not an Indian," I said.
"Neither am I." Hadji held his drink between his knees while he unwrapped a cough drop.
"No? All right, what they hell are you, then?"
Hadji set his Slurpee down and stood up at the edge of the curb. He spread his arms out like a crucified Jesus or a story-telling fisherman or a safe-slide-into-home umpire, and he slowly modeled a complete circle for me. "Take a look," he said. "Do you see?" He dropped his arms and scooped up his things on the curb. He turned to the car.
"What's the hurry?" I asked him.
He got into his side of the car and left the door open. "I've gotta get my stove fixed."
This magazine is produced by the Write Place and is funded through a St. Cloud State University (St. Cloud, Minnesota) Cultural Diversity Committee allocation. Contributors retain all rights to their work.