Pieces of that day, together with phrases or words from a novel or a poem I remember, still snag within me, meshing, blending, trying to turn what we did in that last hour into something greater than it was. As if the work somehow made small legends of us in some way at a small public golf course near Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Late that afternoon Rick told the six of us to go clear the snow that had slid off the clubhouse roof and piled up on the back deck. “Pitch it over the railing,” he said and went back inside.
It was mid-November. We were already tired from chipping off all the ice from the parking lot sidewalks. The temperature was starting to drop back down to freezing, but we were sweating under too many clothes. We filed around to the back and saw the last task for the day.
Rick had lied, sort of. It wasn’t snow anymore. It had melted and re-frozen a couple times: a loaf of pure ice risen three feet high and twelve feet across, twenty feet long.
It couldn’t be done. Not the whole thing before dark. Not without better tools. But Rick was our boss for the day and he knew we needed the money. If we refused to do it, he might talk shit about us to the temp agency.
Getting our initial curses out, we started chopping hard but carefully with the metal edge of our plastic shovels. Grunting and lunging, we pitched and flailed inside a man-made hailstorm, swearing each time the deck creaked under the immense, unsafe weight of six people and all that ice.
When one of us got tired the others chimed in, urging each other on in a cycle of exhaustion and energy. No way. C’mon. Hell no. I’m done. C’mon. C’mon.
Something in me reshapes it, remembering five strangers’ bodies connected by the work as if it amounted to magic, some small eternal greatness redeeming our lives, no matter how bad they may’ve gotten. I can only imagine what happened to them. We never hung out again. Tan boots with brown pads around the ankle. Puffs of breath that reeked of smoke. Slipping and sweating, our curses echoed down through the boards as we battled through it, picking apart the frozen body of the white whale until it lay recreated ten feet below, a smothered pyramid next to the golf cart maintenance shed.
Rick came back at dark. He was tan, with one gold earring, hair blond on top, brown on the sides. “Good job. That was fast. You’re a good crew.” As he handed us each a time slip I could smell the beer already on his breath and knew he’d been inside watching us as he had a draft alone at the clubhouse bar.
Taking turns sharing a pen, we slowly wrote our names and work hours on the three-ply time slips. Our hands were clawed and cramped. We gave Rick the top copy and kept the other two. The temp agency would pay us in a week.
The other five guys were older than me, all with kids, some with wives and felonies and parole. I was a lonely law-abider just out of college trying not to get kicked out of my tiny apartment. Seven-fifty an hour, minus taxes, for diapers, weed, rent, vodka, car payments, meth, vet bills, cigarettes, whatever we needed. Later. Later. See ya. Take care. Yep. See ya.
It was just a day job, I tell myself when I remember it again and want to feel good about it. A day of work, decades ago. Another boss who didn’t care. Too much work for too little pay. Five strangers. A pile of snow in the moonlight behind the clubhouse with a single, black, whale’s eye staring up from the middle of it.
Matthew Jakubowski is a writer, parent, and office worker based in Philadelphia. His writing has appeared recently in Barrelhouse, 3:AM Magazine, Spelk, and Lunate. He co-hosts a reading series for local writers in West Philly.