After two years, we finally completed the project at the low-income housing development Southlawn. Shackleford had taught me well, and I set forms quickly and efficiently. But installing the window wells, I got into a bad habit of jumping down into the hole instead of using the ladder. One time I hit a stone and turned my ankle so badly I lay screaming at the bottom on my back. Shackleford jumped in after me, grabbed my foot, and started yanking. “What the fuck you doing?” I shouted. “I got to set the bone,” he said. “It’s not broken,” I shouted, “I just turned it!” He let me go and in fifteen-twenty minutes I walked it off. But there was too much room in my two-year-old Red Wings. No matter how tight I laced them, I turned my ankle just about every other week after that. I conditioned myself to drop when I felt it going out of joint.
The old man would show up about mid-day. Then he’d come back after lunch to help with pours. Shackleford and I split into two three-man crews. In this way, we could replace the sidewalk, sunken because it had been installed on top of what had once been a marsh, at two or three weekly of the many apartment buildings. In the summertime, I watched the daughters of the residents sunbathe in the Commons between the buildings and the parking lot. Shackleford laughed at me, “You wouldn’t even know what to do,” he ho-ho-ho’d. “Maybe,” I said. I laughed back at him, “But I’d like the chance to figure it out.” “Then go talk to them. Go on. Chicken.” “We’re too busy,” I told him. “Besides, look at me. Be like talking to a clown or some shit.” I was covered with form oil, and dirt from the wells, from being in the ditch. I looked like a goddam coal miner from a black lung tv commercial, a preface to some law office 800 number. “They’ve probably got boyfriends,” he said, bailing me out.
Three quarters of the way through, the development corporation hired a new project manager. He argued with my father daily, constantly threatening fines if we didn’t meet certain deadlines. But Pop preserved a copy of the original contract in his safe deposit box. There were no stipulations, no deadlines no objectives no due dates. No one fined us. However, in the summer of 77, with the job complete, they stiffed us out of 10 grand. Despite that Pop’s bid had been about $80,000 lower than the next lowest bidder – they’d even approached him and offered him the opportunity to resubmit or drop out and he’d refused – the new project manager claimed the extras we’d billed had never been approved, not by him certainly, not even by his predecessor. They had not, in fact. It was a handshake, nothing on paper. And we had no idea where the previous project manager disappeared. He was just gone, replaced like the sidewalks and window wells.
Of course, the new guy’s bonus was based, as it always is, on expenditures. That was the last time we worked for Milwaukee City Planning Commission. We stuck to private developers, homeowners, manufacturers, prevalent here at that time, rental companies, entities we could sue if a contract was breached if we got stiffed. Pop still did work on a handshake, but only after at least a couple jobs completed and compensated, paid for by the man or the entity he now trusted. Many years later, I found the old stamp in the garage with the year and the name of the company: Putzi Inc. 1977, City of Milwaukee Public Works. It weighed about ten pounds, brass because brass hosed off easily with a white metal handle that screwed into the top of it ending in a loop. The damn thing had cost us $500 and we used it just two years. I remembered how I used to love pressing it down into the wet concrete and peeling it off. For a while I kept it, drug it with me from one to another apartment. Then it might have wound up with my brother, after his short stint as my roommate, I don’t remember. When he ditched his apartment, midnight, near the DePaul campus, dropping out of law school, he might have left it there, maybe ten bucks worth of scrap for the landlord, before he fled Illinois with the lease broken. That night I knew I had a taillight out with Packer plates, I was a target, a rival. But maybe they were just too lazy or full of donuts, or they could see how broke we were from the condition of the vehicle; black, rusted side panels, an old Dodge three on the tree with nothing to identify us, not even “Free Candy” painted on the sides in high gloss eggshell. We headed north on I-94, digging in our pockets for tolls, decelerating for troopers, stopping at the Mickie D’s drive-through on highway 50 for coffee and hot apple pies. When we got home, I said to him, “You should have stuck it out.” “I couldn’t,” he pleaded, “Goddam teachers. Always ask the same shit. Never let you do what you want.” “That’s teachers, man,” I said, “What do you expect? Conform or quit, that’s what they tell you.” “Goddam right,” he said, “Go ahead, call me quitter.” “Quitter,” I said. He never got back out of Pop’s house, slept in the spare bedroom in the attic, tried his hand at gambling with no luck. When I cleaned out his room afterward I found Freud, Dostoyevsky, half a dozen Dickens, Anna Karenina, and a copy of Hustler. It took me ten years to read his favorite, Owen Meany, had to hide from my wife for twenty minutes at the end bawling my ass off.