In college, I’d sometimes earn money by doing odd jobs for an alumnus who lived in town.
One of my best friends was a fraternity guy and he played the middle man – so when work needed to be done, we’d get a phone call to be out there early on a Saturday morning. It would already be hot and our pores were stinging by nine o’clock.
This alumni had hands the size of catcher’s mitts and in the wrong lighting might’ve looked like a black bear walking across his manicured grass. He was very particular about his things and he was very good at throwing parties. Every year, he’d have a few get-togethers at his house and make sure the entire street shut down so his guests could park. He’d string lights above the road between houses and have students in golf carts pick up the folks who had to park far away.
He had little tolerance for people like me with complete ineptitude in the arena of machinery and fixin’ things. To this day, when I see him he reminds me of how terrible of a weed-eater I am – shame I’ll harbor for the rest of my life.
After working in the sun for eight or ten hours driving fence posts into the ground or figuring out how to get ceiling fans screwed into the trees on his back patio, he’d make sure to feed us. The place was Jack’s Just a Beer Joint and that’s about all you could get. We’d all line up to the bar like ten year old kids on a soccer team and he’d order for us. Lunch only lasted thirty minutes or so and then we’d have to get back to work – his neighbor was having issues with cats getting in through her window with the A/C unit.
One of the most coveted assignments opened up after lunch when he came out looking for two guys to load his truck with a couple of lawn mowers, a weed eater and drive a mile or two up to the San Marcos Cemetery where his parents and grandparents were buried.
My friend and I would do our best to get this job because it got us out of the heat for a moment. We’d scoot into his old truck, turn the radio on to KVET, roll the windows down and drive as slow as we possibly could down Old Ranch Road 12. One afternoon, I was occupied over by the garden, missed the truck to the grave site and was tasked with rolling under the garage to dig out a dead possum family.
When you turn into the cemetery, you enter the gate under low hanging oaks and wind your way up to the left where you park behind the grave that slopes down the hill. Logs are squared around the three downhill sides to keep the earth in. I remember one Saturday specifically – we’d just started mowing when a funeral rolled in, so we had to stop and wait. We baked in the sun while a funeral was held down the hill inside the elbow of the drainage creek. For a half hour, we stood next to our lawn mowers like dead horses in the silence of relatives we never knew.
It was that summer while we drug dead animals out from underneath houses, chased cats, built fences and climbed up into attics with electrical wires looped through our belt buckles that we figured out something new – something like the understanding of what it is to work next to someone, to find purpose in silent toil and quiet struggle.
And whatever knowledge we would gain in those moments of quiet – where the work between us was enough communication – was never mentioned. We would sit at a dirty bar and eat a cheeseburger with the world roiling around inside of us and, by osmosis, learn some lesson about hard work and brotherhood.