“You want I should bring you out a coke or lemonade or something?”
It was still early morning, but Joe was already working up a sweat at the top of the ladder, muscles and veins stuck out in his right arm, dragging the trowel in a smooth action across the adobe wall.
“No, gracias, I'm good.”
He didn't look down. His eyes stayed fixed straight ahead on the job. There was a bucket lashed to the top rung with a battered army belt and his left arm dipped into it. A hand the size of a shovel dredged up a blob of mortar and slapped it on hard with a soggy thwack. Then an unhurried movement to spread it evenly over the next section. The old wooden ladder creaked and swayed, but Joe worked in perfect balance, never reaching out to steady himself. Left hand dip, right hand spread.
“Well, OK, just give me a holler if you change your mind.”
Christie walked back into the coolness of the bar and started putting out the chairs and wiping down the tables. The sun outside was blinding, but the striplights were turned up full on account of the windows not having been cleaned for fifty years. Joe had asked if he should mask them out while he was working, but she'd figured another bit of crud wouldn't make a whole lot of difference. She could see him out front now through the open door. He'd used up all the mortar in the bucket and had come down to mix up another batch.
A truck pulled in and two men in safety vests and hard hats got out. One older, tall but podgy; the driver, younger and skinnier. They scraped their boots on the curb and headed for the bar.
Joe was shovelling rust-coloured earth from the pile in the back of his pick-up onto a tarp spread at the base of the wall. He added a spade or two of lime. Sprinkled some water from the hose that snaked out of the kitchen window and stirred the mix for a while. Then he fetched an old canvas bag out of the cab and dropped in a few handfuls of horsehair and worked it some more.
The two men took off their hard hats and stopped to watch.
“Hell, Martinez, you sure do things the hard way.” said the older man, “I'd just nail up some stucco mesh and then use regular Portland cement.”
Joe carried on stirring, stopping now and then to rub the mix between finger and thumb. Then he lifted up a spadeful from the middle and watched how it slumped back into the pile, not looking at them.
“It ain't the same” he said.
“Sure it is,” said the younger one. “Scratch coat and brown coat, nobody can tell the difference and it lasts ten times as long.”
Joe got another fistful of horsehair and shook it out slowly, standing straight and solemn, the fibres falling gently into the batch like it was a sacred rite.
“I can tell.” he said, still not looking up, “Anyway, these houses have been standing since the conquistadores. You think those cheap frame jobs you throw up are gonna be here in five hundred years time?”
“Still looks like a lotta hard work for nothing to me,”
“That's the way I like it.” said Joe.
“Dumbass,” said the young man. The two of them laughed and went inside. The older man sprawled into a chair with his legs stretched out in front of him. The other put his feet up on the table.
“Hey Christie, get us some coffee and huevos rancheros, willya.”
Christie was out back in the kitchen.
“That you Larry? I only just opened up. Food's gonna be a while. Coffee'll be ready soon, but I gotta clean the machine first,”
“Well, we'll take a couple of cold ones while we're waiting,”
“Kind of early, ain't it?”
“Depends what time you started work,” said Larry. “We been out since sun-up. Woulda still been there excepting the the drywall delivery's broke down on the highway.”
The young man glanced around the room.
“When did they last clean the freaking windows? Place is like a pigsty.”
Larry grinned. “I reckon that would be around nineteen and fifty-eight. They're kind of a local legend. Tourists come to see 'em. At least they did until the interstate got built.”
Christie came over with a tray.
“You can get your goddam boots off the furniture,” she snapped.
She put two Budweisers on the table and took a rusty opener to the tops. Larry waved a bottle in the direction of the younger man.
“ You know my nephew Ethan?”
Christie shook her head. “I don't believe so”
“Oh, I know you,” said Ethan, “My big brothers told me all about you..”
He rocked the chair back and sniggered. Larry glowered at him.
“I was just telling Ethan about how your Grandaddy used to clean the windows every Sunday.”
“So they say,” said Christie, “I never knew him.”
“I remember watching him when I was a kid,” said Larry, “He was real meticulous. Got every last flyspot and streak out. Man, they shone. Took hours over it. Said it got him out of going to church. Had his own secret formula - vinegar, lemon juice and a shot of bootleg mescal.”
Ethan took a long pull on the Bud. ““So why'd he stop?”
“Ran off with a woman from the pueblo, the old dog” said Larry, “Christie's grandma said screw it, them windows can stay dirty. He can come crawling back on his hands and knees and lick the damn things clean. Haven't been touched since. Ain't that right?”
“I guess,” said Christie, “Momma said Grandma made us swear to keep 'em like that until the sonofabitch begged forgiveness at her graveside.”
Of course, the sonofabitch never came back. The grime and insects had mounted up, layer upon layer, decade upon decade until a single shaft of light could barely squeeze through. Years after the old man was dead and buried, Christie had asked if she could clean them now, but her mother had said God, no, it'd be bad for business.
“You hear from your folks ?” Larry asked, “How they liking it out there?”
“Got a postcard once,” said Christie, “They like it fine. They say it's cooler in the summer.”
Her parents had called it a day after the freeway finally killed the passing trade. Mother had decided they could retire on Dad's pension from the plant. She'd told Christie, you can have your inheritance now, maybe you can make something of this place, it might straighten you out. Anyway, she'd said, your father and me sure as hell don't want to keep paying the bills. They signed the bar over to Christie and left the keys on the counter just before they drove off to the coast.
Ethan drained his beer and belched. “Lucky them.”
Christie heard the machine bubbling and headed back to the kitchen,
“Where you boys working today?” she asked over her shoulder.
“New subdivision north of the interstate, “ said Larry, “Gonna be a hundred and forty houses when it's done. We got a few foundations left to lay, but the carpenters are getting the frames up on the rest and we start roofing next week. Another three or four months and the first families'll be moving in.”
“Yeah,” said Ethan, “About the same time Martinez is gonna be finishing your wall.”
“You got that right,” said Larry, grinning.
Christie brought the coffee.
“I got the eggs on. Be five minutes or so.“
“I'll take another beer,” said Ethan, “It's too damn hot for coffee. Too damn hot to work.”
“It don't stop Joe,” said Christie.
“Well he's a damn fool,” sneered Ethan.
“I wouldn't badmouth him,” said Christie, “He was in the military. Gulf War.”
“That so? Which one?” said Ethan.
“Both of them.”
Christie went and leaned out of the door and called up to Joe.
“I'm making huevos rancheros, you want some?”
Joe rested the wooden trowel on the edge of the bucket and gazed critically at his handiwork.
“OK. Be down in a minute. I'm nearly done on the front anyway.”
Christie shaded her eyes with her hand and stood for a moment, relishing a gentle puff of wind on her face. A heat haze hung over the cars roaring along the overpass at the end of the block, dissolving the shape of the hills behind into a shimmering umber curtain. She thought she caught a faint smell of gasoline fumes, but then realised the eggs were burning and rushed back to the stove, cursing.
Larry and Ethan laughed out loud.
“I hope you got a fire extinguisher out there, girl! ” hollered Larry.
“Yeah, and don't be giving me no burnt salsa neither! ” shouted Ethan, “Cook some fresh.”
By the time Christie brought the huevos rancheros out, Joe was sitting at the corner table, his back to the others.
“What I don't get, “ Larry was saying, “Is why any sane man would go to the trouble of driving all the way up there and spend all day digging a truckload of dirt and sifting all the stones and shit out when you can get bags of genuine clay plaster ready-mixed to go. “
Joe shifted round in his seat and ran his fingers along the surface of the adobe.
“This was built with the same red earth. It's a natural bond. It belongs here. That's just how it is.”
Christie laid the plates down and went and sat next to him.
“Sounds kinda spiritual when you put it like that. How come you got into this line of work, anyway?”
“One time in Iraq,” said Joe, “we were in this village we'd just taken. I can't even remember the name. But every building was blown to hell. And I saw a man mixing up mud mortar and plugging all the shell holes in his house. Probably took a million bucks of ordnance to put 'em there and here's this little old guy patching it up the same way they done for thousands of years. Like them Babylonians and Hittites and whoever else. Just dirt and water and sweat. Same way my grandmother and all the women in the pueblo used to replaster the houses every summer. And I thought, yeah, that's what I should be doing. Something... “ he waved his fork around, trying to think of the right word.
“Traditional?” said Christie.
“More than that,” said Joe, “Something...connected. With the land, with my family. You know? I liked the idea of a trade so old it's Biblical.”
“I guess,” said Christie.
Ethan smirked. “You talking about the oldest profession, there? I can tell you what that is and it sure ain't plastering. Still, Christie'd know all about that, wouldn't ya, Christie.”
Joe put his knife and fork down.
Larry snatched the beer bottle out of Ethan's hand.
“You just don't know when to stop running your mouth, do you son?”
He turned to Joe and Christie.
“Don't take no notice, Christie, he don't mean nothing. Just a stupid kid.” He reached in his back pocket and put a twenty down. “We better be getting back now. Keep the change. Gimme the keys, Ethan, I'm drivin'.”
Ethan didn't move. He put his feet back on the table.
“I think I'll stay awhile. I want to finish this discussion on what the oldest profession is. What did you call it, Joe? The biblical trade? Yeah, that's it.”
Christie clenched her fists and jumped up, started to take a step forward, but then she stopped and shook her head. “The hell with it.” she muttered, and turned and walked out.
Joe pushed his chair back and stood up slowly.
“Way I see it,” Ethan went on, “is there's always been whores. We read the Bible in Sunday School and if I remember right, there's harlots and harlotry all the way through it, but I sure as hell don't recall no plasterers. So I'm saying that your Biblical trade is whoring and everybody round here knows Christie used to practise it. Hell, she was doing the boys four at a time behind the K-Mart before she left High School.” He tilted back again and sniggered .
Larry swore and made a grab for Ethan but Joe batted him aside like he was swatting a fly. He kicked the chair away and Ethan crashed to the floor. Joe leaned over and, wrapping one of his big hands around the boy's throat, lifted him up effortlessly and slammed him against the wall. Ethan wanted to scream obscenities and threats, but he was gasping for breath as Joe tightened his grip.
“You want to know what the real Biblical trade is?” whispered Joe, his mouth next to Ethan's ear. “It's killing. Before there was carpenters or potters or blacksmiths or any other damn occupation, there was killers and there was death, because that's what mankind had the need and desire for. I learned that trade and I learned it good. You want me to show you?”
Larry looked on anxiously. A hoarse gurgling sound escaped from Ethan's lips.
“Hey, come on now, Joe, you made your point.”
The huge fingers relaxed and Ethan crumpled like a rag doll, choking and sobbing. Larry rushed over and picked him up. He got Ethan's left arm over his shoulder and started to drag him out of the bar. Before they even got to the door, Joe was back at his table and calmly eating eggs as though nothing had happened. After a while he heard Larry's truck leave. He finished his coffee and walked out into the sunlight, squinting for a minute until his eyes re-adjusted to the glare. Christie was leaning against the neon sign that hadn't worked since Nixon, smoking a cigarette. She offered the pack to Joe.
“You didn't have to do that,” she said.
Joe took one and lit up. “I know.”
Christie blew out smoke and sighed. She stared into the distance.
“You seen some sights, Joe. I ain't never been out of these hills.”
“That's not a bad thing,” said Joe, “If everybody's jetting off someplace all the time, just taking pictures and moving on, then the whole world's nothing more than a giant departure lounge. You need people to live in a place for a long time to give it soul. To give it strength."
“Maybe,” said Christie, “but I don't think there's ever been much soul in this town.”
“The only place I went apart from the Army,” said Joe, “was the summer I left high school. Took a trip to Spain. Figured at least I could speak the language. And you know what? The Spanish they spoke in Madrid wasn't anything like the Spanish I knew. They couldn't understand a damn word I was saying. Or maybe they didn't want to. Looked at me like I was some kind of retard.”
“So what did you do?”
“I stayed one night and got the next plane home.”
He ground the cigarette butt out underfoot and went back to the mixing. Christie watched him climb the ladder with the bucket and start work again. A slow, continuous rhythm, like a tree swaying in the breeze. Like he'd always been there. Like the red dirt hills.
She went back inside and hunted around in the shelves under the bar. At the back, she found a dusty old bottle of mescal and set it on the counter in triumph. Tomorrow, she was going to clean those damn windows.
I came to creative writing late in life, only starting seriously after I retired. Many of my stories, like Red Dirt, have been inspired by trips around the American Southwest, especially the small towns of New Mexico and Arizona, and the people I met there.