Charlie, the horse farmer from down the road, was also a bricklayer and occasionally needed an assistant. So, building chimneys and laying bricks was my first job. Since I was home-schooled, I was available whenever work came up. At five dollars an hour in the late nineties, I felt like I was making CEO bank. I could pull fifty bucks on a long day. Of course, my wages were tax-free, and, now that I look back on it, Charlies’ jobs and the life lessons he gave me probably were too.
He seemed to think of himself as a good ol’ boy trying to make it in spite of everything. On his property was a huge horse barn, part of which he had converted into a home. The rest of the barn and a considerable amount of grazing land was for his horses. He bred them and knew them well. He could lecture on the famous horse lineages, different breeds, and riding techniques. And he could lasso like my Padrino. Horses were his passion and brickwork was something to get by.
The Concrete Fox
Wily, he liked to charge his work for the job. As he explained to me, there were no hours and you could finish quick. He seemed to deeply resent anyone attempting to control his time, a character-trait I admired. Once, he told me, the concrete under a house’s front stairs had fallen out. He bid ‘by the job’ but the homeowner’s insisted on having him work by the hour.
“So, you know what?” he lowered his voice even though we were the only two people in the truck, “I got myself a little radio and crawled under those stairs with a hammer and chisel, and every time I heard footsteps, I’d turn the radio off and hammer the chisel against the bottom of the stairs so it sounded like I was working.” He had an internal sense of fairness as he did this only until the hours equaled the quote he had initially given the couple.
What I remember most about Charlie, is that we didn’t get much work done. He’d come by the house around 8 or 9 AM. My mom would cook a big breakfast, make coffee, and invite Charlie to sit down with us. Then we would all listen to Charlie tell stories like the one above. Tales about his glory days when he did more horse-riding than brick-laying. During those hours I wondered why my mom would make such a big breakfast when she knew Charlie was coming over. I thought it was just generosity at first, but I don’t think she had many people to talk to. So Charlie’s arrival at the house was an event for us all.
When we did finish breakfast and shift towards the truck, we were only in the initial pre-work phases. The next phase involved riding in a black, dual-wheel F-350—his pride and joy. He would chain-smoke and give me life lessons in his grating voice about the women he had been with and all he’d lost to them. Then it was time to stop for a pack of “smokes” at a rundown gas station. Everyone knew his name, and the attendant would let him fill his sixty-four oz coffee mug up for free after we got gas. After a little chatting, it was back to the truck, smokes, and life lessons, until we arrived at the job.
Even arriving did not mean starting to work. We had to talk around the site and plan the day for a while. Then it might be lunch time, so we would either sit and eat or take an excursion to a restaurant where someone Charlie knew worked.
The Business Man
He would change once he’d started working. Scratching out equations for cement driveways and calculating material and labor costs. He would go from lounging has-been to small business owner with briskness. Suddenly, I was running around moving bricks and mixing mortar while he laid with a speed and perfectionism unrivaled by the most professional-appearing companies. We’d do blistering work until we had accomplished whatever it was he wanted to in that day.
Then—you guessed it—back to chain smoking in the truck and giving me life lessons as we headed home. Sometimes he’d even come in and sit for a while more to talk with my parents about the history of the families that lived around us. That’s how we learned that a neighbor had used gathered a bunch of wet hay into a barn. That may seem alright, but wet hay creates a chemical reaction that causes it to catch fire. In their laziness, the wet hay burnt down their farm.
When I was younger, I couldn’t figure Charlie out. He seemed like a cowboy who also did farmwork and bricklaying. Always willing to talk (at length) with what seemed like anyone. He was friendly, even charismatic with his confidence. He seemed prepared. A man who could relax because he had it all figured out—but it was a facade.
Charlie wanted to be a big-time horse trainer, but the skill that got his bread was bricklaying. Charlie wanted to be a cowboy, independent and rough, but he had three kids and their mother in a converted part of a very large barn. Charlie wanted a rhinestone life, but was tethered to rural Ohio by his responsibilities.
In retrospect, even though he appeared to move slowly, I think Charlie was always running. With gas and coffee and cigarettes as his fuel. He was running from work when he sat and swapped stories over a long cold breakfast; running when he stopped for smokes, gas, and discussion with the attendant. When we got to the work site, he was running from brick laying until he had no more excuses and ran as fast as he could through the job. He was running when he spent another two hours at my house talking with my parents. Charlie lived his life hard. It must have been grueling to run in place for so long.
When I worked with Charlie, I guessed he was in his early forties. The last time I saw him, he had constructed a round breaking ring and had a new scheme to breed, break, and sell his own horses. The schemes and the years were wearing, but the cigarettes and coffee were the same. Now, when I drive by, there are always different pieces of equipment in his yard, construction material, or horse trailers. I wonder if he ever found a way to stop running.