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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Preview of 'Reduction of Forces'

My construction/romance/murder novel. I spent twenty years researching this one. It features Renee Hollander from "Hurricane Regina".


Sixteen year-old Renee Hollander sat in a waiting room outside of a construction office, resume and references in hand. There were old magazines, empty styrofoam cups with dried coffee remnants in them, and a thick layer of dust over everything. She eyed the discarded monogoggles, hardhats, and various bits of fastener hardware with distaste.

It seemed like such a disorganized mess, and no way to build a hospital. But she knew men worked differently than women, and construction was a man's world.

Renee intended to change that.

The hand that was in the office with the superintendent, a welder, walked out and regarded her with curious interest.

"Hey, girl," he said. "You sellin' Girl Scout cookies or some shit?"

"Fuck off," Renee said.

The welder, Tokio according to the nametag sewn to his blue workshirt, raised his eyebrows at this, but said nothing in response, instead exiting the trailer, presumably to return to work.

Renee walked into the office.

"Yeah, waddya want?" the superintendent sneered. "You sellin' Girl Scout cookies or sumptin'?"

He laughed at his own wit.

"No, sir," she said respectfully. "I'd like a job."

The man laughed.

"I'd like a job, too," he said. "Why don't you get under my desk?"

"Sure," Renee said calmly. "But before I do, can I get representatives from OSHA and the Labor Board to come and watch?"

The color drained out of the man's face.

"I'm just kiddin', little darlin'," he said, shuffling papers on his desk. "What can you do?"

She handed him her resume' and letters of reference.

"I'm of legal working age, intelligent, strong, meticulous with an eye for detail. I'd say I'm easily suited to be a laborer, or a helper for a craftsman. An expeditor, if you need one of those."

The super sighed, defeated.

"I can give you sixteen dollars an hour to start. I need a pipefitter helper. Work starts tomorrow at six."

"Thank you, sir. You won't regret it."

Renee didn't go home, but instead went to the library, where she researched pipefitting in depth. She learned it was a study in level, plumb and square, with an emphasis on brains as well as brawn. After that, she went to the hardware store and spent her last one hundred and twenty-five dollars on levels, squares, a toolbox, and a four-pound maul.

Finally, she went home for dinner.

Her mom, Gladys, tried to get her to open up.

"How was your day, dear?" she asked her.

"Gotta job," Renee said. "I'm qutting school."

"Quitting school?" her mother asked, horrified. "You can't!"

"I can and I will. I already make double what you do, and almost what pop did before he died."

An uneasy silence befell the room. Gladys didn't like to speak of the circumstances of her father's death. Renee knew it was a construction accident, but that was all. Repeated pressings at her mother yielded no new information, only angry tears.

"You won't leave me, will you?" her mother asked, fear dominating her voice. "Please say you won't, Renee."

"No, ma. I'm not leaving."

Gladys's biggest fear was losing her daughter. But she had always assumed it would be to some boy, or man, even. This was an unexpected twist.

"Well, I suppose the extra money will be nice. Will you help with the bills?"

Renee's mother was perennially short of cash, leaving her in a constant state of worry.

"Of course, mom. I love you. I did it for you, in part."

"You're a good girl, Renee. Thank you."

"Do you love me, too?"

"Of course I do! What a silly thing to ask your own mother. If I ever don't say it, it's because it's a given. Mothers love their children. Even bad mothers love bad children. And you're a good child."

"Thank you, ma. You're a good mother."

"How sweet of you to say. Let's eat, okay? I made your favorite."

Fishsticks and macaroni weren't really her favorite foods, but she pretended they were. Her mother worked so hard.

After a dinner eaten mostly in silence, and quickly, Renee showered. The steaming water beat down on her young body, and as she soaped herself, her nipples grew erect. Instead of watching "Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island", she excused herself from her mother's presence and went to her room to masturbate furiously.

###

Twenty-two year old Alex Wright sat across from the piping superintendent, sweating hands clutching his rather sparse resume'. She sat on the phone, not acknowledging him, but engrossed in a conversation regarding a federal act that required her major components, pipe and fittings, be manufactured in the U.S.A.

"These fucking prices are outrageous!" she yelled into the phone.

Perhaps she shouldn't care so much, the project being time and materials, but her costs were running four times what they ordinarily would. She had made it to the top of her profession in part by keeping costs down for her clients. The high cost of American-made components were part of her projections, in theory.

In reality, the big numbers were irking her. If she entrusted things to an assistant, she'd order them to reduce the figures by seventy-five percent, just to ease her mind. She decided to take it out on her newest applicant, instead.

"Call you back," she said into the receiver.

"What the fuck do you want?" she asked the already intimidated Alex. 

Renee Hollander was the biggest piping mogul in the world, and Grand Coulee II Dam project was an unprecedented endeavor. They were going to dam the Mississippi river.

Alex had done his research. Over a six year span, an enormous expanse of earth would be excavated, creating a giant flood plain. Hundreds of thousands of Dakotans and residents of Illinois lost their property to eminent domain, receiving only market value for their homes, at best.

The houses weren't torn down, but rather all utility services were disbanded. People were allowed to stay or leave as they desired, and so a new class of society developed, formed of people who refused to abandon their childhood homes, and people who moved in to live in relative peace and freedom without expenses.

It was a massive free zone, unpoliced, without electricity or running water. But the residents there were happy and resourceful, and didn't want to be flooded out of their homes.

Her words drew Alex from his reverie.

"Uh, I'd like a job, ma'am."

"A job, eh? What are your qualifications?"

"Well, I have a degree in construction management, I'm industrious-"

"Hold it right there, homey. A degree in construction management don't mean shit. But I'll hire you. Sixteen dollars an hour."

"Sixteen dollars? The going rate is twenty-six!"

Jobs, however, were extremely scarce.

"Sixteen bucks. Take it or leave it."

Alex exhaled roughly. 

"I'll take it," he said. "What's the position?"

She looked at him levelly. "You're my bitch."

His faced turned as red as an apple. Renee slid a packet of papers from her desk drawer.

"Sign these," she said.

It was a W-2 form, and a waiver releasing her company, Zen Construction, from all liability. He filled out the W-2, scrawled his name across them and slid them back to her.

"When do I start?" he asked meekly.

She glanced at the clock behind her. Renee never wore a watch, but had uncanny timing.

"It's one o'clock. I'll start your time at two. Let's go."

They rose to leave, and Alex said, "Don't I need a hardhat?"

"That's what the waiver is for. I have a deal with OSHA. Come on."

At the door, she paused and said, "Grab my belt-loop with your left hand."

He looked at her with confusion in his eyes.

"Grab...my...belt-loop," she said again.

Reluctantly, he did so. He might have been a college boy, but he knew what it signified. She was really serious about this bitch thing, he thought.

She led him into the current area of excavation. Great earth-moving machines, skip loaders, dump trucks and graders danced an intricate ballet, seemingly operated by remote control. In the midst of the chaos, there was a lone stick of pipe, a single elbow, a welding machine, and a little Asian man.

Alex watched the man drop his welding hood and tack a bead, joining the pipe and ninety. He then raised his head, flipped up his hood, and produced a level from his back pocket. He scrutinized the instrument, made no adjustment, dropped the hood back down, and tacked the other side.

"This is Cho," Renee said. "You're his helper. Just do what he tells you to do. I'll be back at six to pick you up."

Just like that, she was gone.

"Sir," Alex said, bowing deferentially. 

Cho was about to make a third tack when he was interrupted. He spoke to Alex with an uncharacteristic mid-western accident.

"Look here, charity case. Piping on this project doesn't even start for another three months, and it's largely prefabbed.  Realize you're just padding on the payroll, and keep your mouth shut."

"Then what are we doing here?" Alex asked, unable to contain his question.

"I'm making forty-eight dollars an hour, seventy-two after eight hours. You're ruining my concentration."

But Cho could see the desperation on his face and relented.

"Look, kid. We're here because the fedgoveral won't pay out four point six million per quarter if she doesn't have at least a skeleton crew on the payroll. The sun is shining, the air is clean. My advice? Try to do what I do."

"How can I help?"

"I don't work with most helpers. If you're a good boy, I'll let you work with me in the future. For now..."

"Yes?"

"See that shovel and wheelbarrow? Dig me a two-foot square hole where that stake is."

"How deep?"

"Good question! A two cubic-foot hole, then."

"Yes, sir," Alex said with enthusiasm.

Alex, who had lifted little more than a spoon or a pen in his past four years of bookwork, struck the earth with the shovel, and received a shock that he felt all the the way up to his teeth. The densely-packed dirt was nearly as hard as rock. No sooner had he removed the stake to dig than a man walked angrily up to him, a look of consternation on his face.

"What the fuck did you move that stake for?" he demanded of Alex.

"My boss told me to."

"The fuck-"

In a flash, Cho was there, hand on his shoulder.

"Easy, pard. It's a little character building exercise.  I need a hold to form up this pipe. It's four feet long, and I only have two pipe jacks."

Alex watched realization dawn across the face of the man. Walt, he would later learn the head of the civil department's name was. 

"Okay, then, Cho-Cho. As long as he's with you."

Without another word, he left, presumably to check the status of his other stakes. Realizing he was only estimating, Alex went to Cho, who wordlessly handed him a Craftsman twenty-foot tape measure. Despite his discipline in college, math really wasn't his forte. Nevertheless, he understood what a two cubic-foot hole entailed. He used the shovel's edge to draw the outlines, allowing four inches of play on the inside, so he didn't go over two feet.

Then he set his teeth and went to work. The sun was beating down on him, and sweat drenched his long-sleeved shirt. The hardpan dirt did not yield to him easily. After an hour's hard digging, he was still several inches short of his target.

Cho walked over to him.

"Dollar waitin' on a dime," he said.

"What does that mean?" Alex asked, perturbed.

"It means I'm being held up by a peon," Cho said sternly. "Move."

He took the shovel from his hands, and in five minutes, had the hole completed. It was rough and jagged, the depth uneven, but more or less two feet deep and wide. He handed the shovel back to Alex.

"It's just a hole," he told him, shrugging his shoulders.

Cho walked over to the pipe, the ninety now fully welded to it, and calmly kicked it over. It fell with a resounding thud, barely heard over the earth-moving equipment that encircled them.

"Let's go get a drink," Cho said. "You've earned it."

He followed him to Renee's trailer, which now seemed a hundred miles away. The cool, still air inside was now like an alien environment. They drank from paper cups, imbibing water from an orange Igloo cooler. Water, which Alex has always taken for granted, even somewhat disdained, now tasted like ambrosia.

Renee was on the phone, yelling, and as they left the relative comfort of the trailer they heard her saying, "No, fuck you!", and they laughed together.


Chapter Two

Young Renee's first day on the job was a study of opposites. She dressed down, Levi's and a flannel workshirt, no make-up, her hair drawn in a tight ponytail. Even so, the men fell all over her. 

She was given the job of firewatch, which upset her to no end. She wanted to learn to be a pipe fitter. Instead, she sat on a bucket and watched the men work all day, knowing full well that the only chance of fire was from the cigarettes and weed the men smoked, carelessly tossing their butts and roaches over the edge of the scaffolds they worked from.

In retaliation, he did nothing to prevent any fires that day, laughing as some plastic sheeting actually caught fire once, and a few concerned scaffold builders moved in to stamp out the rising flames. 

Renee decided that day that she liked the construction game. 

###

"Move that pipe and jackstands so the ninety looks down into the center of the hole you dug," Cho said.

Alex decided he wasn't being sarcastic, but he knew he didn't really dig much of the hole himself. He carried the jackstands gingerly. one at a time, positioning them so that the pipe would rest comfortably in place, and the ninety would more or less be centered where Cho wanted it. But when he tried to lift the pipe, twenty feet of schedule forty carbon steel, he found he couldn't manage to lift it.

 Cho watched him struggle for a bit, and then disgustedly told him to get out of the way. He easily lifted one end of the pipe, moved it closer to the jacks, then the other, until it was positioned next to them. Then he pointedly looked at Alex, lifted one end of the pipe with one hand, and placed it easily on the jackstands. He repeated the process on the other end, and then bowed slightly to Alex.

"Lesson one," he said. "You have to be smarter than the pipe."

Alex felt flushed, and foolish.


"I like you, kid. I think you have potential. I'll let you be my 'prentice."

Now he felt strangely pleased.

"Lift this pipe for me," Cho said.

Alex did so, and Cho slid the jackstand back five feet. Then he pulled out a black tube of rubber and unrolled it, wrapping it around the pipe.

"Can I have my tape back?" Cho asked him.

Alex handed him his tape, and he made a small mark with a flat piece of white chalk, four feet from the end of the pipe.

"Soapstone," Cho said. "Pipe wrap."

Then he positioned the wrap's edge on the mark he had made, pulling both ends taut until the leading edge was aligned with it to his satisfaction. Finally, he drew the soapstone around the pipe wrap at the four foot mark.

"Go to the trailer and get the torch," he told Alex, with no further instruction.

Alex trudged off the seemingly incalculable distance in search of something resembling a torch. After twenty minutes of nosing around the pipeyard in vain, he went into the office and asked Renee if she knew where the torch was. She was of course on the phone, cursing.

She put her hand over the mouthpiece and said, "In the backroom, sweetie. Torch, hose, and gauges. Connect them to the bottles outside."

Them she went back to yelling and cursing into the phone.

###

Renee's second day was much like the first, initially. But she firewatched for a welder-fitter-helper combo, so she got to observe the process firsthand. The welder sat around most of the day, the fitter barked orders to the beleaguered helper, and the helper did his best to make things come together.

I could do that, she thought. The fitter seemed to be there mainly to supply tools and experience. The welder welded, but only almost after the fact. Ninety percent of it seemed be in the preparation. Aside from fetching power tools as needed, he seemed to spend most of his time grinding. Since they were working on the ground, she paid a lot of attention to the details of what he was doing. 

The fitter pulled some measurements, relayed a number to the helper, and went back to bullshitting with the welder. The helper marked the pipe, then disappeared for twenty minutes. He came back with a bandsaw that was too small for the six-inch pipe they needed to cut, so it took what felt like forever.

Renee couldn't hold her tongue any longer. She approached the welder and fitter, interrupting their conversation about sports.

"Why don't you have the helper get all the tools first thing in the morning?" she asked him. "And a wide-mouth bandsaw instead of that crummy Porter Cable one?"

The fitter considered this for a moment, and then said, "Why don't you suck my dick?"

He and the welder laughed uproariously at this display of verve. Renee walked off, red-faced. Twenty minutes later, the fitter and welder were summarily fired. Both they and their tools were brought to the front gate. 

The foreman came by.

"I'm really sorry about that, Ms. Hollander. I can assure you that it won't happen again."

He turned to the helper. James was his name,

"You're the fitter now, kid. I hope you know your shit."

"I don't work without blueprints," he told told the foreman squarely.

He grew angry for a moment, then realized James was a true pipefitter, and was pleased.

Then James said, "How much is my raise?"

Caught off guard for a moment, the foreman, Bobby, stumbled with the words and caught himself before he gave away the store.

"Three bucks," he said.

"That piece of shit who just left was making six dollars more than me, and I did all the work."

"Alright, asshole. Four bucks. Take it or leave it."

James ignored him and went back to work.

"You're his helper now," the foreman told Renee. "Try not to let him get hurt or start any fires."

Then he whispered to her, "Five dollar raise."

###

Alex wheeled the cart, with its heavy oxygen and acetylene bottles, back to Cho, who was waiting impatiently.

"What took so long, kid?"

"I didn't know what a torch was," Alex admitted.

"You're kidding me," Cho said.

"No, sir," Alex said. "Renee had to help me."

Alex had a real honesty problem.

"You have a real honesty problem, don't you?" 

"Is it a problem, sir? I have the ability to lie. I just prefer not to."

"Don't get all Herman Melville on me, sonny," Cho said.

Alex was stunned.  The elderly Asian pipefitter had just referenced what is largely considered the first American existentialist novel, Bartleby the Scrivner.

"Don't look so shocked, boy. Do you think because I work construction, I'm uneducated?"

"No, it's just, I-" Alex stammered.

"Let me put it this way. I know what you know, and then some. For example, what do you make an hour?"

"Sixteen," he admitted.

"You're fucking joking," Cho said.

It was, Alex would later recall, the only time he ever heard him utter a vulgarity. 

"No, sir. That's all she offered me."

"Come on," Cho said angrily. 

They walked back to Renee's office trailer and barged in. She was on the phone, naturally. Cho looked her in the eyes and disconnected her. Alex expected her to be angry, outraged, even. But she folded her arms across her chest and listened.

"Sixteen dollars?" was all Cho said.

"What? I was fucking with him. I expected him to blink. He didn't blink. Look."

She turned her ledger toward him. 

"See? Twenty-eight dollars an hour."

Satisfied, but still angry, Cho said, "Don't mess with my helper," and walked out, Alex in tow.

"He's still my bitch!" Renee called out to them, laughing. 

She resumed her work on the phone, trying to source cheaper materials. 

###

Alex began trying to connect the pressure gauges to the oxy-acetylene rig, and had to admit his ignorance once again. One of the gauges wouldn't screw on. Cho let him struggle for a while, then stepped in and said, "Forget what you know about 'Righty-Tighty'."

Alex turned the brass bonnet counterclockwise and it screwed right on.

"Reverse threaded," Cho said. "See the marks here? That indicates a reverse threaded coupling. Don't over-tighten because brass is a soft metal and you'll ruin the threads. Then you'll have to tighten them more each time. But get a good seal on each."

Alex tightened them both down with a crescent wrench, and then Cho opened the acetylene valve.

"Watch," he said.

He produced a lighter and lit it near the connector. A small blue flame leapt to the brass and hovered there. Alex panicked and cringed. Cho jokingly swatted him and said, "Relax."

As he did so, Cho said, "The oxygen is just as dangerous. It won't ignite. On its own, but if you spray the gauges with WD-40, then they'll explode when the oil atomizes and mixes with the pure oxygen."

"Have you ever seen a bottle explode?" Alex asked breathlessly.

"Nope," Cho said. "Not on my watch. But I've seen pictures. These tanks are milled from a single disc of steel that's stretched into a bottle shape and then threaded at the top. It eliminates any other possible point of failure. But," he continued, "I have seen what happens if a bottle falls over and the gauges break off."

"Really? What?"

"They turn into torpedoes. A kid knocked one over once, and the gauges hit a fab table. That bottle took off in the opposite direction and went through six walls before it stopped. It traveled over a thousand feet. We actually measured the distance, we were so awestruck."

Alex took the lesson to heart.

"That's why you ordinarily tie bottles down to a column or something, or rack them in a cart like this one."

Cho kicked the bottles over and Alex felt his heart leap out of his chest momentarily.

"See?" Cho said calmly. "The design of the cart prevents such an accident. Um, I don't recommend you teach your own helper using such radical methods."

###

Renee was determined to live up to her new role as fitter-helper. She approached James, who was attacking the end of the freshly-cut pipe with an angle grinder.

"Can I help, sir?" she asked him.

"No," he said tersely. "Stay back ten feet unless you have the same P.P.E. on as I have."

"Personal protective equipment," she laughed. "What a joke."

He dropped the grinder and threw his faceshield on the ground. 

"Let me tell you somethin'," he said. "My first helper job, I was clueless like you. All they gave me was a fuckin' pair of safety glasses. I didn't even know to keep my hair covered. I used that piece of shit grinder all day like a good monkey. 

"When I got home to my wife and kids, I was so tired, I took a nap, something I ordinarily never did. When I woke up, I felt like I had sand in my eyes. So I did what you would normally do, I rubbed them. Twenty minutes later, I was crawlin' around on the carpet bawlin' like a fuckin' baby. Scratched corneas. Your eyes are precious. Protect them at all costs."

Finished with his lecture, James put his faceshield back on and picked up his grinder again, resuming his work. Renee went and found monogoggles and a faceshield of her own and rejoined him.

"Thank you," she said when he had stopped grinding in order to rotate the piece of pipe he was working on.

"No problem," he said.

Now protected to James's satisfaction, she was free to put her face close to where he was working and observe more closely. He playfully shot sparks in her face, and she marveled at the display of orange-red lights rapidly flying at her and falling away. It was like being in the middle of a fireworks display.

"Can I help?" she asked again over the din of the grinder.

He stopped what he was doing.

"No."

"Aww, why not?"

His face grew stern and serious again.

"Look, I don't know what your game is, Ms.-"

"Renee."
"Ms. Renee. But in my opinion, helpers suck, and they don't."

"Don't what?"

"Don't help."

"That's silly," she said. "Helpers have to help. It's axiomatic."

"In my experience, helpers that actually help you are as rare as hen's teeth. If you place your trust in them, they usually let you down."

"But you were a helper an hour ago!"

"And I was a good one. But a good helper is a fitter. And you have a ways to go before you're a pipefitter."

"Will you teach me?"

He considered this for a moment.

"If you're serious."

"I am," she said earnestly.

"Then be here everyday, rain or shine. Come early. Ask questions. A good helper learns, assists, and, honestly, does most of the work. The fitter takes responsibility and teaches. And sometimes, learns. But don't think you're gonna walk onto my job site and shake your ass for a free pass."

"No sir, I won't."

"You are pretty sexy, though," James added.

"I know," she said, smiling.

###

As soon as she walked in the door, Renee's mother was doting on her, taking her coat, hugging her. She even attempted to wipe her nose. 

"Mom, stop," Renee said. "I'm a grown woman."

"Not to your mom, you're not. You'll always, always be my little girl."

Renee rolled her eyes at her.

"Your face is going to get stuck like that someday," her mother said.

Renee rolled her eyes harder and stuck her tongue out.

"What's for dinner?"

"I made your favorite. Chicken and dumplings."

"Mom, last night you said macaroni and fish sticks were my favorite."

"You have to admit, I make a hell of a macaroni."

"My point is, you can't decide what my favorite food is. I'm-"

"A grown woman. I know. But you're not a woman just because you have a job."

"Okay, I'm a young adult with a job. So how do you define womanhood, mom?"

"Well, married with kids, I guess."
"So if I never marry or have kids, I'll never be a woman?"

"No," he mom said, "I guess not."

"That's preposterous, mom. I might not ever do either, just to prove a point."

"I meant I guess those things don't make someone a woman, after all."

"Oh, okay. Let's eat, I'm starving."

When they walked into the kitchen, Renee saw a dirty dishtowel on the kitchen table."

"Ooh, poop or chocolate!" Renee said, snatching it up and licking it.

"Renee-"

"Fuck!" she said, running to the sink.

"Poop. Mitzi had a little accident. I dropped it on the table when I heard you at the door."

"Thanth a lot!" Renee said with her tongue under the running water.

"See, Renee? You're still a kid. Grown women," she said, making finger quotes in the air, "don't play games like 'Ooh, floor candy!' or 'Poop or chocolate?'"

"Lesson learned," Renee said. "I've lost my taste for that game."

"Tuesday already, Renee?"

"It's always Pun Tuesday with me, mom. But you'd probably know what day it is more often if you ever left the house."

Her mom served up bowls of soup.

"More," Renee said. "I really have an appetite since I started my job."

"You don't want to get fat," her mother said.

"No, I don't," Renee said. "But if I want to, I will. I'm not getting married anyway, remember?"

This time, her mother rolled her eyes.

"When the soaps go off, I know it's the weekend."

They lived off of her father's death benefits and social security fund, but it was a tight budget. Her mother generally left the house twice a week. Once on Saturdays for groceries, and again for church on Sunday. Renee avoided both, if she could help it.

She still had to pop into the market during the week, occasionally, but had reduced her church visits to Easter and Christmas, which her mother absolutely insisted upon.

"That's not healthy," Renee said. "You need a job or a boyfriend. Or both."

"Renee, I could never remarry."

"Why not?"

"I love your father too much."

"Ma, he's dead. It's okay. Seriously."

"No man will ever compare favorably to your father. So why bother?"

"How about sex?"

"Renee Audrey Hollander, don't you dare go there!"

"For real, mom. If you ask me, that's when girls become women. You're a woman. You need sex."

"Some of them are still girls, Renee. Some of them stay girls."

"We're talking about you, not me, or some theoretical case study."

"Not at the table, please," her mom said, closing the subject. "Besides, I'd lose my food stamps and health benefits."

"You don't need them anymore. I make plenty."

Her mother said nothing.

"Maybe when I'm ready."

"You need to live a little," Renee said, putting her plate in the sink.