The Apprentice

By James Brown

My father is spreading tar on the roof of a tract home during a rainstorm.  He’s sixty-seven years old.  I’m seventeen, and he’s teaching me how to patch a leak.  You have to isolate it first.  You have to find the cracks, usually several feet above where the water drips through the ceiling in the house, and then you clean them.  “Remove any loose gravel,” he tells me, “scrape out any debris.”  We’re thoroughly soaked, it’s freezing cold and I’m shivering, but still I listen.  Still I watch, paying close attention to how he smoothes the tar with a spatula, the same one we use for drywall, and then fans it out, above and below the cracks as well as into them.  In the distance I hear the rumble of thunder, and for a moment the dark sky brightens with lightening.

I want to learn the trade. 

My father is good at what he does.  I want to know what
he knows.  I want the knowledge of a lifetime pounding nails, building and remodeling homes.  Still, when more fortunate men are retired, he’s patching leaks in the middle of a storm.

“Be generous with this stuff,” he says.  “Better more than too little.”

It’s the winter of 1973, and I’m in my senior year of high school.  In a few months I have to make a decision about whether I should attend college or continue on with my father, learning the trades, from plumbing to carpentry.  When I know enough, I could take over his small business and expand it, because I am young.  Because I am strong and ambitious.  Though I like to think I’m smart, I’ve never done well in school, struggling for C’s and D’s in every subject except English and P.E.  My SAT scores are barely average, and I can’t see myself spending another four or five years sitting in a cramped desk in a cramped classroom, listening to some burned-out teacher.  

Another bolt of lightening brightens the sky.  It  strikes closer than the last, and the crack of thunder seems louder.

“Let’s get off this roof,” my father says.  “We’re done here.”

He reaches for the bucket of tar but I grab it first. It comes in a five-gallon can, like paint, and because it’s heavy I prefer to carry it.  My father climbs down the ladder and then steadies it for me.  The rungs are wet and slick.  With the rain in your eyes, and hauling this bucket, it would be easy to slip.  It would be easy to fall, and it’s a known fact that a young man’s bones heal better and faster than someone my father’s age.  This is  another reason why I don’t want to go to college.  I worry about him.  I worry that one day I won’t be there and he’ll lift something too heavy, lumber maybe, or drywall, and seriously damage his already injured back. 

Or worse, he could have a heart attack. 

He could have a stroke, and where would I be, kicking back in some warm and cozy classroom talking about books and stories.

In school I am listless.  Except for my creative writing class with Mrs. Bettencourt, where I’m able to write whatever I please, I am bored.  That I don’t yet understand all the rules of grammar doesn’t matter much to this teacher.  Of course she circles my misspellings in red pen, and corrects my most egregious errors, but she also makes all sorts of generous comments in the margins.  On one page she might remark on how the dialogue sounds authentic.  On another she may compliment me on the way I’ve described a young girl, say, or the light from a
street lamp on a foggy night.  
But Mrs. Bettencourt is only a substitute teacher, albeit a long-term one, and once, after class, she confides in me: Although it’s been a dream of hers to become a teacher, the pay is awfully low, jobs are scarce, and at the end of the semester she is returning to her position as  the manager of a bank.  “Practical concerns,” she says.  “Sometimes you just have to get real.”  And those words stay with me, reinforcing what I already know to be true.  Even my school counselor, back in my junior year, suggests I drop out of regular classes and attend the vocational center where I can learn a trade.  My father, however, refuses to sign the release form, and when I press him he gets angry. 

“How come?”

“Because I want you in school.”

“But vocational school is school.”

“No,” he says.  “No, not really.  You tell that son-of-a bitch counselor I said to stick it where the sun don’t

I think my father is wrong. 

I think, given my lousy grades, that he’s being unrealistic.  

At night, as the days toward summer drag on, I often find
myself unable to sleep.  I feel a great, unyielding pressure.  I
have to make a hard decision, and it needs to be the right one,
and I need to make it very soon.  Part of me wants to please my father who dropped out in the eleventh grade to work and help his father.  Part of me wants to break the cycle of the men in our family working the trades and be the first to attend college.  My older brother did it his own way by becoming an actor, and a successful one, too, right out of high school.  And I admire him for it.  But I also need to realize that I’m not nearly as smart and set my sights accordingly. 

I can pound a nail straight and true. 

I can throw a roll of ninety-pound roofing over one shoulder and climb a twenty-foot ladder with it.  I can carry two sheets of half-inch drywall by myself and tack them up in record time.  These are talents as real as any, and I’m no fool.  I know I have to focus.  I know I have to play to my strengths and that means recognizing my limitations.  That means conceding and setting my sights accordingly.  And the sooner I accept it, the sooner I can get on with the business of life.

In May, when the weather is clear and warm, I help my father pour a concrete driveway.  The old one is nothing more than gravel and potholes, and because the owner is getting ready to sell, retire and move out of state, he wants to improve the property so that he can get top dollar.  Ordinarily my father doesn’t do this sort of work, but the man is a friend, a mechanic by trade, and they’ve agreed to an even swap.  We pour him a driveway, he rebuilds the engine of my father’s truck, a beat-up old Chevy with over 170,000 miles on it.  Dollar for dollar, the friend is getting the better deal, but this is typical of my father.  He always gives the customer a break.  He always bids too low and we end up working for little more than time and material.  There are occasions when we barely break even.
“We’re lucky to have a job,” he says.  “I’m getting up there, you know, and in this business people don’t want to hire an old man.”

I don’t like when he talks this way. 

I don’t like to think about him growing older, slowing down, and I especially resent the occasional client who appears to pity him.  Because I’m there, too, his right hand man.  If there’s heavy lifting, I can do it.  He’s the brains.  I’m the muscle. 

We make a good team, and when it comes to concrete, he
definitely needs help.  He builds and secures the forms while I’m in school, but I have to take off the next day.  It’s a tricky situation.  Concrete is finicky, and you certainly wouldn’t pour it in the winter with the threat of rain.  On the other hand, if it’s too hot out, it’ll dry too quickly and crack.  Ideally you pour in moderate temperatures, and that’s what we do.  The cement truck arrives in the morning, dumps its load, and leaves us to the hard labor of spreading it out with shovels across the entire driveway.  After that you use a tamper to sink the rocks.  Then you have to smooth it all out with a spade, so there’s no dips for water to collect.  I could go on, but the point is this: it’s a back-breaking job, and you need to do it quickly and efficiently before the cement sets.  If you don’t, the whole thing is ruined. 

So we work hard.

So we work fast, and by mid-afternoon we’ve knocked it out.  But the hurried pace comes at a cost.  We both end up unusually drained.  The muscles in my shoulders and arms ache, and the lime from the cement, where it seeped through my gloves, has burned the softer skin on the back of my hands. 

In the truck now, heading home, I look over at my father.  He’s beat too.  I can tell by the red rings around his eyes and how his arms hang heavy on the steering wheel.

“How’s your back,” I say.

“A little sore,” he says.  “But it’s okay.”

In a couple of days I’ll be fully recovered, even stronger
for the experience, but it’ll be a week or better for my father.
I’ve seen it before.  He’ll drink a little heavier.  He’ll sleep a little longer.  He’ll end the next few days a little earlier.  But he knows what he can and can’t take, and it’s not the child’s place to admonish the parent.  I’d like to think that if he had money enough he wouldn’t be doing this anymore, only I know better.  I know my father, and poor or not, he’ll be hanging drywall, patching roofs and pounding nails until he can’t hold a hammer.

In the high school I attend, on the poor side of San Jose, most of us do not go on to college.  It’s largely a dis-advantaged and minority population and nearly half of us drop out before our junior year.  Others stumble valiantly on to graduate, but few of us care to take our education further.  I have classmates who boast that they’ve never read a book cover to cover.

Many of us go into the trades.  Many of us start with low
paying jobs and work our way up.  In my circle of friends, I don’t personally know of anyone who made it through junior college, let alone earned a bachelor’s degree.  Still others choose the dark path.  I know of several former classmates who’ve done long stretches of hard time.     

Blame it on the parents.  Blame it on the environment, the system, the schools or the teachers. 

All I’m trying to say is that I’m not alone in my uncertainty.  Like my friends and classmates, I have little faith in myself.  Like my friends and classmates, I am troubled.  I am confused, and in the days to come I look to my older brother for advice.

I write Barry a long letter confessing my dilemma, my ambivalence, and with it I enclose a short story I wrote in Mrs. Bettencourt’s class.  It’s not the first time I’ve sent him my work.  For years he’s encouraged me to read and write, and I like to please him.  This one is about the last day in the life of an eighty-seven year old man whose only real contact with the outside world is a monthly visit from the county social worker.  I have him sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of his rundown house.  I have him drinking a glass of red wine.  The whole story takes place in his head, and he dies quietly, as easily as closing his eyes, while he waits for the social worker to arrive.  It’s depressing stuff but somehow, for some reason that’s the sort of material that most interests me.

My brother phones me about a week after I send the letter.

“College isn’t for everybody,” he says, “and there’s nothing wrong with being a carpenter like Dad.  Either way, it’s a tough call, but whatever you do, I’d hate to see you quit
writing.  That story you sent me,” he says, “it’s really good.”

My father and I are clearing a blocked sewer line.  Over the last week temperatures have reached record highs, and today promises to be no different.  By ten in the morning it’s already in the 80’s, and I’m not halfway through the first part of the job.  I’m sweating.  Flies buzz around my head.  Some even bite.  This scene is set in the front yard of a house in Los Gatos, an upper middle class suburb of San Jose, and I am digging a hole in the lawn.

Typically sewer lines are laid four feet beneath the ground.  In older homes, this line is four inches in diameter and made of terra cotta.  It comes in six foot lengths, each section joined at the flanged end and sealed with cement.   But sometimes that seal cracks, it begins to leak, and if there are any trees in the near vicinity their roots, in search of water, will grow into the line and plug it up.  That’s the case here, and while my father is inside the house replacing the damaged floor in the bathroom, he puts me to work shoveling.  We’ve already isolated the point of the blockage by running a plumber’s snake through the line, marking where it hangs up, then pulling it out and measuring the length.  Give or take a foot or two, it’s a fair estimate.  The ground, however, is full of rocks, and they make the digging hard, frustrating and tedious.  Every couple of minutes I’ll hit a big one and have to stop, throw down the shovel and shimmy it loose with a tire iron.  Then, as the hole grows deeper, I have less room to maneuver, and I scrape my elbows against the sides.  I scrape my knuckles, too, and my left shoulder.  Finally, bruised and exhausted and a little bloody for it all, I uncover the sewer line.  It has to be two, maybe three in the afternoon.  The temperature is in the low hundreds, and the humidity makes it even worse.

I look up from the hole. 

My father is standing above me.  He hands me down a cold chisel and a ball-peen hammer.

“See that flange there?”

“Yeah,” I say.

“An inch or so below it,” he says.  “I want you to chip me out a hole about the size of a Kennedy half-dollar.”

I wipe the sweat from my brow with the back of my arm and set to work.  Again it’s a tedious process, though of a different sort.  Instead of pure muscle and stamina, this requires a certain skill.  If you’re careless, if you hit the chisel too hard, you could easily crack the entire pipe.  So you have to work slowly, literally chipping away at it, a sliver at a time.  My father tells me these things, calmly guiding my every move.  He is a good, patient teacher. 

What he does not tell me, however, is what to expect when I chip out the last sliver.  In a matter of seconds, through that opening only the size of a Kennedy half-dollar, I am suddenly knee-deep in foul smelling shit and urine.  Flecks of toilet paper float on the surface.  

“Son of a bitch,” I say.

Naturally I gag. 

Naturally I try to scramble out of the hole, but I don’t get far. 

“Not so quick,” my father says.  He hands me a key-hole saw with its long, narrow blade meant for use in tight places.  “Now I want you to reach on down there and cut out that root clogging the line.  You want to learn the trades, plumbing’s a part of it, and this is a part of plumbing.  Let me know when you’re
done,” he says.  “I’m just about finished inside.”

Reaching down there, all the way up to my shoulder in lukewarm shit, my face only inches away from it as I work, I’m astonished I don’t lose my lunch.  Afterwards, saturated from the neck down in sewage, my father has me stand in the middle of the lawn and sprays me off with the garden hose.  A couple of teenagers watch from across the street.  One is laughing.

On the ride home I am angry.  My back aches from the hard
digging.  I’m sopping wet.  I literally stink like shit and all
I want to do is get back to the house and take a long hot shower.  Of course my father senses my anger and tries to make it good. 

“For what it’s worth,” he says, “I’m paying you double-time today.  How about we stop off somewhere and get a coke?” 

But I don’t answer him.  I don’t say a word, and when he reaches over to pat my shoulder I pull away.  Although I know it’s not plausible, I feel as if he’s set me up.  The timing is just too perfect.  Somehow he planned for this sewer to back up so that I could have the wonderful opportunity of unclogging it.  At seventeen I resent him for giving me the job, for tipping the scales toward college.  At seventeen I resent him for not warning me of what to expect, and it’s only later, years later, that I understand how little it had to do with sewer lines and ditches.

I see us now.

I see the father and the apprentice seated in that old pick-up truck with the windows rolled down because of the smell.
Because of the heat.  The boy is sullen.  The boy is angry, but in time, when he has his own sons and the father has passed on, he’ll know the importance of believing in the child until the child learns to believe in himself.

James Brown is the author of the novels Lucky Town, Final Performance, Hot Wire, The Second Story Theatre, and a memoir, The Los Angeles Diaries, which is under a film option with writer and producer Art Monterastelli. His short stories and creative non-fiction have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Esquire, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, and Ploughshares. He is also the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Creative Writing and The Nelson Algren Award in Short Fiction. Currently Director of the M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing at California State University at San Bernardino, he lives with his family in the mountains of Lake Arrowhead, California, about sixty miles from where he grew up in Los Angeles.

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