Falling On High
“Tony! I need the hammer!” – “What?!” Tony yelled back, as he poured another bucket of hot tar on the smoldering flat roof. The hammer!” Mike shouted, from the other side of the remodeled two- story home. “It’s on the edge, by the gutter!”
Tony looked behind him and saw the tool lying on its side. He put down the tar-bucket and grabbed the compression hammer. “Lazy jerk,” he exclaimed quietly, coughing up a mouthful of mucous and spitting into the top of a nearby magnolia tree.
He walked over the roof’s crest and saw Mike holding a pile of shingles with his knees and a pack of nails in his hand. “Idiot,” he thought. “Why didn’t he get it before he started?”
Tony handed Mike the hot-handled hammer.
“Thanks man,” Mike said, his long sun-bleached ponytail sticking to his shirtless, tanned, muscle-infested chest.
With his cheeks ablaze, Tony nodded imperceptibly and turned back towards the bubbling tar. “Stupid kid,” he hissed.
Tony Mendoza, creeping up on fifty-three years of age, had been a roofer for over three decades. A short, quick-tempered shot of a man, Tony was unable and unwilling to acknowledge his graying sideburns and an aching back that felt like it was carrying a hundred-pound bag of cement.
Because of the skyrocketing demand for new housing and a shortage of skilled labor, contractors were scrambling for help.
Tony had been informed by George, the foreman, to break in the new guys slowly. “Show them the ropes,” George had insisted.
“I’m running out of rope with this guy,” he’d told George that morning. “Might as well be up there by myself.”
“Give him a chance,” George had replied. “Remember when you started out with my dad? You didn’t know a beam from a chimney.”
Tony had grinned, in spite of his agitation, muttered some silent obscenities and climbed back up the ladder with another bucket of tar. He retrieved his blue-rimmed cap from his back pocket, slipped it on his balding head and let his eyes drift across the rooftops and swimming pools.
The heat from the scorching Tucson sun raised his body’s thermostat to fever pitch, as memories drifted before him like a mirage.
George’s dad, Lesley “Jake” Simpson, a full-blooded Cherokee, had started Simpson’s Roofing in the seventies. He and Tony were both raised in Arizona and had been stationed with the armed forces in Germany.
“When I’m done serving Uncle Sam,” Jake had droned daily, “I’m going to start up a roofing business. Doesn’t look like it now, but I got a feeling a lot of people will be moving to Arizona and they’re going to need a roof over their heads.”
Tony had listened to Jake’s dreams, while they were bundled in heavy wool coats, gazing out on a snow covered military compound in Stuttgart.
“Jake,” Tony recalled fondly. “He was an upright guy.”
He remembered the incident in a Stuttgart bar when he and Jake, who was the size of an adult grizzly, had gotten into it with some drunken German bigots who’d called Tony a “brown monkey”.
Tony, who’d had a few too many drinks, knocked the beer out of one of his blond-haired antagonist’s hands and punched another in the face. Before he realized he’d bitten off more than he could chew, he felt fists and boots slamming into his mouth and side. He kept swinging hopelessly as he hit the ground. Fearing for his life, he rolled up and protected his head from the next blow. He heard thuds and shouts and looked up in time to see Jake throwing two men out the door and another lying on the floor yelling that his leg was broken.
He felt a hand under his arm and was suddenly standing. Jake whispered, “Come on Sitting Bull. Let’s split before these cowboys call for reinforcements.”
Not sure how they made it back to the barracks that night in one piece, Tony never forgot Jake’s kindness and considered himself forever in his debt.
After they’d been discharged, Jake had taken his savings, obtained a loan and started the business he’d talked about. Tony was his first employee. It had been slow going at first. A few men, mostly vets, all working on a house or two, then taking a couple of months off and holing up with what little they’d made.
Times had changed. Now they were backed up for months on end with contract after contract. More people had moved to Tucson than Jake had ever imagined.
Except for George, who’d grown up on rooftops with his dad, all the originals had left or passed on. Jake had died in 94 from cancer and handed everything over to George. Fred “Fingers” Johnson, called it quits and moved to California to work in an oil refinery. Hank “Honk” Perez had moved to Flagstaff and gone into plumbing with his brother. And Barry Mendelson had immigrated to Israel and helped build a Jewish settlement in something called the Gaza.
Tony had a family, sort of. He’d wed Jamie Herrera in 76. They’d met at a cousin’s birthday celebration and he’d dogged her for four months until she gave in and agreed to marry. She wasn’t any “Jennifer Lopez” he’d say; but she was a good mother to their kids and they’d had some fun times.
They divorced in 88 after she’d gone on and on about him not “communicating” and “spending time with her and the kids.” He’d made an ill attempt or two at listening and speaking his mind, but it never seemed to be enough. No matter what he said or did it was the wrong thing. Hell, he’d even gone with her to a shrink, but the guy was such a pansy he wouldn’t have trusted him with a quarter, let alone his feelings. And to top it off, the guy had charged almost a days pay for fifty minutes of nonsense.
His kids, Fresia and Alberto, were grown and on their own. He had three grandchildren. He visited them all at Christmas, Thanksgiving and other holidays. His children and their families had moved out of state long ago, leaving him alone with no friends and no relations. He sent them money but they rarely called. He wasn’t one to gab on the phone.
“Hey! Tony! Can you give me a hand?”
Tony put down the leveler, straightened and heard his knees crack, as he trudged once again up to the peak and looked over. Mike was on the edge of the roof trying to hammer in a piece of plywood that appeared warped.
“Can you hold that side down?” Mike asked.
Tony slowly worked his way to the edge and looked more closely. “You can’t use this,” he said, as Mike reached for a nail.
“Why not?” Mike questioned. “If you just hold that end I can get it to stay down.”
Tony shook his head. “It’s warped.”
“Just a little,” Mike insisted, flicking his hair behind his broad shoulders.
“Just a little?” Tony shouted, trying to calm his surging rage. He lifted up the piece of plywood, put it on its end and pointed. “It’s as warped as a politician! You can’t put this kind of crap on a roof.”
“I can do it,” Mike puffed up.
“That’s not the point, damn it!” Tony yelled. “You can’t use junk like that and be proud of your work.”
Mike shrugged. “Hey. It’s just a job.”
Tony felt his ears burn. He thought about grabbing the hammer and hitting Mike up side the head but remembered what George had said. He stood. His knees shook. It’s not just a job to me,” he said. “I’ll cut you another piece.” He growled, taking the warped plywood towards the ladder leaning against the front of the house.
As Tony placed his foot on the aluminum rung, holding the plywood in one hand and placing his other on the roof, the ladder slid sideways and crashed to the ground. The warped plywood followed, as Tony hung onto the gutter by his fingertips.
“Help! Mike! Help!”
He heard footsteps running on the rough gravely shingles and saw Mike’s young face peer over the side.
“Hold on,” he instructed. “I got ya.”
Mike grabbed Tony by the forearm, dug his heels into an exposed rafter nearby and pulled Tony up with a swift burst of youthful invincibility.
Tony crawled to his knees and looked away, hoping Mike hadn’t seen the terror in his eyes, but knowing he had.
Instead of saying thank you, Tony exploded with shame. “You stupid . . .” His voice trailed off as he got his bearings. “Number one rule,” he continued, “always, always make sure the ladder’s secure.”
“I just saved your butt,” Mike sneered, starting to walk away. Tony got up and followed.
“It shouldn’t have happened!” Tony yelled. “That ladder wasn’t secure!”
Mike waved Tony off and shrugged his shoulders. Tony grabbed Mike by the arm and turned him around. “Listen, you . . .”
“Don’t touch me old man,” Mike said sharply.
Tony pushed Mike on the chest. “Not too old to take you out.”
Mike turned and tried to walk away, but Tony grabbed him again by the shoulder.
Tony felt the wind leave his body as he crumbled to the roof, his gut contracting with pain from Mike’s sudden blow.
“I said, ‘don’t touch me’,” Mike leaned over and whispered.
Lying sideways, Tony watched Mike grab his Hawaiian shirt, go to the tar- covered roof and disappear down the back ladder.
Tony gasped and caught his breath. He put his hand on his stinging cheek and felt a bloody abrasion from landing on the shingles. He heard a door slam an engine rev and saw the top of Mike’s truck as it drove off.
“Stupid kid,” he said out loud. “Try to show him the ropes and look what you get.”
Curled up on top of the house, the sun sinking in the Tucson sky; Tony thought about Jake. Drops fell on his cheeks. It wasn’t sweat and it wasn’t rain; it was a foreign substance Tony had heard of called tears. Jake was the last person on earth he’d ever considered a true friend. Now he had nobody.
He sat up slowly, his back throbbing like a gigantic toothache and wiped his nose on his forearm. Out of nowhere his ex-wife’s parting words pounded in his head. “I actually feel for you. You’re the sorriest, loneliest man I’ve ever known. I don’t see how anyone could stand living with you!”
By the time his feet touched the ground night had descended. Walking gingerly to his truck Tony paused and looked up at the first stars out alone in the night. “Ah hell,” he whispered. “Maybe I was too hard on the guy.” It was then and there, in the silence, that he decided to find Mike first thing in the morning.
Tony saw Mike talking with George through the office window when he pulled up early the next day, just after sunrise. George was grinning and Mike didn’t seem too upset about anything. “What’s so funny?” Tony wondered, as he headed towards the front door.
George saw him first. He didn’t stop grinning. Mike, on the other hand, stopped talking and silently looked out the window as Tony closed the door behind him.
“Heard you had a little ‘disagreement’,” says George.
“Yeah,” Tony replied quickly, before he lost his nerve. “That’s why I’m here and not out working yet. I was wondering if I could talk to you a minute Mike . . . privately like.”
George tried to square up Tony’s intentions, then glanced at Mike. “OK with me. How about you?” he asked Mike.
Mike glanced sideways at Tony, who didn’t seem angry or pissed off and said, “Sure. Why not?”
“I’ll be right here if you need me,” George said to both men as Mike followed Tony out the door.
Tony wasn’t sure what he was going to say or how; he just knew that for some reason he didn’t want anyone else in this world to hate him. If there was some way to set the record straight and start over, he was going to give it his best shot.
Mike turned and leaned against the side of the corrugated building. He folded his arms, making his biceps more menacing than normal and kicked at the dirt with the toe of his work boot.
“Listen Mike.” Tony moved a little closer. He wasn’t sure what to do with his hands so he tucked them in his front pockets. “I’ve never told anybody this before and I don’t know why I’m telling you now, but if its worth anything, I’m sorry for the way I acted up there.”
Mike stopped kicking at the dirt and looked at Tony out of the corner of his eye. Tony took up where Mike left off by looking down at the ground and kicking at the dirt.
It seemed to George, who had quietly stepped outside and was watching carefully; that there was nothing to worry about. “At least nobody’s thrown a punch,” he observed.
Mike didn’t know Tony from a hole in the ground and had no idea what a monumental and life-changing event it was for this man to apologize. But he could see that the old man was serious and he wasn’t one to hold grudges.
It took Tony a minute to raise his eyes and see Mike’s outstretched hand. Surprising himself, Tony smiled and gripped the offered hand with both of his own. “Thank you son,” Tony said, sending another shock wave through his system. He never even called his own boy “son”. “If there’s anything you need up their today, just give a holler.”
“You got it,” Mike agreed.
As the two men started walking back towards the office laughing and playfully punching one another in the arm, George looked up at the sky and said, “Dad. Now I’ve seen everything.”