by Joel Smith
Treiber knows that in a construction zone things are under construction. From underneath his hardhat he knows this. But the clear gel to clean his hands after finishing up in the Pot-o-Gold, the clear gel he rubs on his nape to cool his neck on hot days, there is no more of it, and it is his job to head over to the supply trailer and gut the dispenser like the roadside opossum he found as a child outwardly frozen and stiff as wet leather, but inwardly filled with sacs and fluid.
Because Treiber does his job always, he unhooks the hand sanitizer and then refills it. This takes him to lunch. All the others eat on top of the stage on top of the scaffolding, because that is the only place to escape the exhaust on such a busy corner. Or so Treiber thinks.
We are building dorms, he reminds himself, never having set foot in one. The word echoes in his head, unfamiliar, dripping water in a sealed off cave. He never did learn to read and now he can't hear.
Treiber sits on the curb to eat. Next to him is a shaded bus stop, the very same stop where the driver once yelled at him for scaring away riders.
What are you doing? she said.
I'm on-site, Treiber said. Having a sit, Treiber said.
Like I can't see for myself, she said.
The corner dorms are going up and out, so close to the street that soon the bus stop will have to move. But what if they put them too close together? Will the next stop have to move? And the next? And the next? And the last?
As long as Treiber's been in this line of work, which he can't remember for how long exactly, he's understood that everyone loves corner lots. To him, they're just the most exposed. Vulnerable to a pinch on both sides, like that habit he has of twisting the plastic beads of the twin shoots of his white beard in between two fingers. It doesn't matter which ones. The thumb is key though. If he were a body part, Treiber sometimes thinks, he would be the thumb, the nail his hardhat, the wrinkled knuckle his neck.
Lunch for Treiber comes in a wax paper bag: five slices of salami and two heels of bread. He prefers the ends and buys them from the bakery outlet, wholesale. He puts the ends facing the middle so they hold together under all the miracle whip.
After, his joints are stiff from sitting so he walks away from his corner, to the grass where Campus starts. He's never done this before, but today he has time, and eventually all things must come to a head. Mostly, he waits by his corner with a STOP/SLOW sign in one hand, waving people across with the other. So many young people out in the heat, their tank tops all white with neon block letters.
When there's action, Treiber stands in the street and tries not to get in the way. The cement trucks and Caterpillars roll in, going where they want to. They get their orders from someone high up, someone with a two-way radio. Once, as a joke, Treiber grabbed Vasquez's and swore he caught the Sups talking about him, how he'd become all high ability. What luck, to find out such a thing. Who could doubt they'd vouch for him now, now that he's all high ability?
When there isn't action, Treiber feeds the pigeons the crusts of his crusts of Roman Meal bread. Then he smokes a cigarette or two. He no longer rolls his own. It's not the shakes, more like a lack of circulation. In a few weeks, it will be too hot for pigeons. And the lizards don't care for bread, at least not Roman Meal.
Despite the numbness, Treiber can feel the fresh sod underfoot, even through his thick, brown soles. He looks far into Campus. Grass like this is rare enough here. Not on Campus though, with its tall brick buildings and palm trees and metal benches and pebble ashtrays cemented to the ground. Treiber steps forward. He stands on terry cloth now, but the dead nerves in his feet can't tell it from grass. Something knocks on one of his steel toes.
"Ew, get off my towel," a girl says.
She holds her sandal like a weapon. The girl has friends who—all in a row—turn onto their stomachs. Their swimsuits are every-colored, like the xylophone he broke as a child. Slotted spoons make the best mallets. Their thighs are orange, pink, and brown.
"Should I call Campus police?" one of them asks, as she takes something small out of her top. Is it a two-way radio? Treiber would like to know. He doesn't want trouble, not any more. He stands there heavy stone-faced, and waits for the fire to burn itself out.
If Treiber weighed nothing he'd take off his boots and jump along the girls cheek to cheek to cheek. He remembers when all there were were one pieces, and then two pieces. He wonders if he lives long enough, will he see three pieces? That would be the end of that. There are only three bits he can think of. Even if so much has changed, no way that could, even with all the evolution and hormones in milk. Treiber removes his hardhat and holds it against his stomach, his hair all matted down against his scalp.
"What a rat's nest," another girl says.
Treiber casts his eyes downward. But that is where the girls are. Much safer to look back up to his corner, to the construction site. There, on the flat stage on top of the scaffolding, all the others are standing, watching him, watching the girls. So that is why they spend their lunches there. Exhaust has nothing to do with it.
"Yo Treebeard, get the digits," Vasquez says, but Treiber doesn't hear him. Treiber works on the ground, where no one can tell him what to do or what his name is.