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Look at the sidewalk, subway walls around you. Concrete. Sidewalk, subway anywhere. Look at the driveway, the foundation of the house, apartment complex, officeplex. Flat. Grey. Brutal. A man did that, men. 

Keeping it hard since 1999. 

Waited for mud till the truck showed up. Poured some, shoveled some, raked some, watched it start to set. Then there’s the finisher, master of the screed. Trowels it till it’s done, till it’s smooth & level. Till it's flat as fuck. 

One used to say I’d be his wife. Said I’d be nana to his grandbabies if I could just be good & wait. Concrete life, he’d say. I’d say abstract, but he would know. Twenty-five years from Reno to Fargo, dirt bikes & pussy all the way. It was the wheelies & woods that got me. And since he’s like the grave. Won’t say a fucking thing about me, not to you.

Everybody’s dead, baby. Except for me. I promise you. That’s what he’d say. And maybe he’s right.

I didn’t like him at first. Seemed like a motherfucker. Girls-dripping-off-him-type, but rough. Scared me & pissed me off, how he looked me up & down. That force, that asshole face, eyes like daggers daring me to see what would happen if I didn’t. Right off, he hated me too. Parliament butts tucked in his pockets, walking ashtray & just fucking ripped. Pouring mud all season long, bouncing me off the walls, hands like boxing gloves, chip on his shoulder, couple ex-wives, couple kids, already grown. Come along to fuck up my life. Just like I fucked up his. 

Gutted, is what he said, never felt anything so dagger-like. 

I’d had it covered up to then – the fuck-up. Got myself into something that eventually I couldn't seem to take. Smart or not, sometimes you’re the kind of girl men like to break. For a while he tried not to. Tried to pour it, rake it, watch it set, screed & trowel it, make it level, make it straight & smooth. Says it's me & maybe it is. Ass-over-tea-kettle picking a fight, asking for it, it’s him who’d never leave a mark. Either way, you’ve got to give it to him: fatherhood. God knows when the test was positive he sat down her parents, his. 

Sir, I intend to marry her, he said. 

She was seventeen. He’s eighteen, but still. 

I can picture it, eyebrows too big for his face, that boyish eagerness morphing then & there into a hard man’s gaze. Extra syllable in that word, intend, indicating his seriousness, showing the Colonel how it was gonna fuckn be. And sure enough, got a job at the county after graduation. Groundskeeper to the courthouse. Worked the boiler, the confiscated materials storage room. Guess how that went? 

Good gig until he got arrested for assault & brought to his own place of employment. Old timers shaking their heads, the one who’d got him the job, knew him from church before they got plumbing inside. He was still just a kid, sobbing in the courthouse jail all night for his good job, his baby boy, for his girl. When he’d gotten the gig he’d gotten benefits, 40 hours a week, the whole bit, so everybody thought he’d be alright. He’d work & she’d finish high school, make a life. 

I guess he is, I guess he did. 

That’s the year 2000 & you can’t say that between the two of us, he didn’t have the greater responsibility, fortitude, grit. Supporting a family, keeping it together no matter what anybody in town said. Fuck ‘em. And where was I? Driving 100 miles an hour with the top down, all the way to Virginia Beach, all the way to Normal, Illinois? Popping pills & skipping class again? Planning what kind of special little party game I was gonna be? I picked the story kind. 

Not that he gave a shit once the sparkle wore off, just words anyway, just a story, that ain’t life. Took me everything to get one from him, a story I mean. The man won’t say a fucking thing till he’s six deep. That’s when the talking starts. Call it yelling where I’m from but what do I know I’m just a college girl, city girl, baby girl, puppy, fuckn bitch. 

Stop thinking with yer fuckn mouth. 

Maybe I will & maybe I won’t. Either way, the story goes like this:
On a pour it's like you're the platoon leader & you’re going to battle at 3pm on a Tuesday & we’re not losing anybody, that’s why we’re here, nobody’s gonna get shot in the head, not Jimmy, not Charlie, not Travis fuckn Tarberg, nobody’s gonna fuckn die. Boom, one hour. Worked it. Concrete truck backed up by a 20-foot-wall like a fighter jet to your face. The whole factor being the heat. Easily 110, 120 in the hole. Concrete dry instantly. We had 3 trucks, full-loaded, 90 degrees up top means the mud’s already setting-up before it gets there – soon as it hits it’s done. I’m there watching the boys shoveling, raking, yelling at em, not thinking about a fuckn thing but that. Not even you till I had to run around up in that fuckn warehouse of yours looking for his vibrator cause mine went ahead & quit. Came back, screeded it & troweled it up to the end putting zip ties at the corners cause the boys didn’t pound the fuckn stakes right like I said, in the fuckn corners. It’s a battle baby but it came out straight just like always. We did the damn thing. 

I’m just fucking with you. That’s not the one he said I could tell. 

That story starts the night he spent in the courthouse jail, got fired in the morning & in the afternoon sold his dad his only dirtbike. 1982 Honda XR 250R for 800 bucks so he could turn around & buy a 1980 Honda Civic when the divorce went through. In court the Colonel threw the book at him, everyone knew he would. She was his only daughter. So he lost custody, packed up the Civic & left. Reno, Tahoe. Country boy, wood tick out in California, Nevada. Rode dirtbike. Skied. Worked the chairlift. Found a crew.  

I don’t know who introduced him to Drew, mean-looking dealer who flew in from Louisville. Chosen by what gang or boss I don’t remember anymore, but he always came out on top. You could see it in his eyes, he’d never die. Too young & blond with a complicated buzzcut. Designer everything. Lean & stronger than you’d think. Drew asked the boys how to dress Cali, bought a whole new wardrobe when he landed, shedding his skin like a snake. Wouldn’t wear the same shirt twice. Something in him, you did what Drew said & what Drew said was he’d be on lookout. He was the cleanest-looking of them at the time & he’d grown up hunting, knew how to watch. Kept his mouth shut, lying through his teeth if it was good for you. Or for me. 

They started by Tahoe, three of them counting cards, him acting drunk as hell, watching the dealer, security. When that went alright these two professionals, old guys, one white one Black, drove from Louisville too, in a rented van with a slot machine they’d scored in the back & they sat in the apartment with the shades drawn for weeks, to practice. Rough dudes. Grizzled, the way the tattoos faded out – the one of the topless girl on his shoulder, the one of the crucifix up the front of his neck, the D.O.B & date-of-death, of somebody. 

When they had the slot machine down, they rented a couple Lincoln Towncars & started with The Golden Nugget. Blackjack & the slots. Then they headed south. He never did tell me how much they made. 

I always picture it like a movie with the panoramic shot of the highway & the desert everywhere like he’d never seen. Little sketchy caravan from above. Cut to a closeup of the woodtick scared shitless, no getting out now. That’s what happens to men. He knew Drew would shoot him if he tried to leave – the way he’d turn from the dealer’s table to stare him in the eyes, infinite casino lights glinting off like a knife. 

So he stuck it out & kept his head down best he could for the situation, proving he knew how to watch without being seen & at night he was always down for the blunts & Hennesey. And the girls. But he tried to keep it under wraps in case Drew took a liking to him & said he’d better stick around. He thought he was going to make it out alright, but when they got to Tahoe again Drew said they’d make one more stop, the cherry on top, The Golden Nugget once again. 

He got a bad feeling right away, enough to where he almost said. But thought better of it & didn’t. So there he was, leaning on the Golden Nugget bar like chump, Jack & Coke sweating in his hand, nervous as hell, on patrol. And sure enough, security swarmed him from behind. 

Cocaine, muscle cars & gin kinda boys. Boys who liked to lift heavy. Took him to a windowless room & smacked him around a little. Fluorescent lights, grey walls, beige table, all of it. Back then we still thought it meant something. 

Didn’t let him talk to anybody. Drew, the old-timers, no one. Told him they’d all confessed, didn’t he know? management had them on camera, knew he’d been dragged into it by those assholes who called themselves his friends. Sweating balls thinking about his baby boy, about the girl he thought he’d never get back, not until now. 

They told him everybody was in the Douglas County jail so if he’d just admit to what he did they’d make a deal with management and with the police – he was a good kid, they could see. It went on for five hours. Good cop, bad cop, black eye, everything. His baby boy, his girl, Drew on his mind. Rock-and-a-hard-place, you got to fight to survive, no way out but through. 

Held his nerve. All night. 

I don’t gamble, I came to drink, I don’t fuckn know what you’re talking about, I don’t fuckn know what you mean. Looking those boys in the eye – deny, deny, deny. Wouldn’t say a fucking thing till dawn when they finally had to let him go. Liar, they said, cheat. Just shoved him out the steel-clad door alone, into that flat grey light.

image: Kate Holford