“There’s no running water.”
He points. At the water, as if to say, there it is.
“It’s trickling out.”
“Just press harder.”
“I did. It’s not coming out. Not where it’s useable.”
“We don’t have sinks here.”
“Aren’t we supposed to?”
“How about the buildings nearby?”
It’s the pandemic. Everything’s closed. Not here though, not where we’re standing. This is open. We’re building low-income housing. In one of the most expensive areas of Los Angeles that, truth be told, I have a feeling won’t be low-income. Or if it is, it’ll be “low-income” in quotes. Maybe low-income for California, sort of.
He pulls me over. To an emptier space. The beeps and engines and yelling a little more distant. Construction’s everywhere. The chaos of it. I’m the Safety Assistant. Whatever that means. He’s the Safety Manager. Whatever that means. It’s COVID-19. Whatever that means. COVID-19 everywhere. Los Angeles is being hammered by it.
He lowers his voice, tough to hear him over the saws, says, “Look at these guys.”
I look at these guys.
“Do they look rich to you?”
I’m not rich either, that’s for sure.
No one on this site is.
Maybe the Safety Manager is. If anyone is, it’d be him. But his teeth look like they need columns and beams and meshes. He looks like he definitely did not come from money. But he’s broken through. Gotten a big job. Finally. And I get the feeling he wants me to shut up. To assist. And not to rebound or score points or, especially, block shots.
“You know how many unemployed there are right now?” he says.
“More than twenty.”
“Yeah.” He looks out at the sand in the air, at the front loaders and dump trucks. At the crane that looks a bit like the sort of crucifixes that megachurches have, where they’re so massive that you just gaze at them in awe, the sky seeming small. “They’re lucky to have jobs.” He says this in a way where the implication is that I’m lucky to have a job.
“It’s just that none of them are wearing masks.”
“Masks that protect you from the virus,” I say, pronouncing the words precisely.
“And where would you find those masks?” he says, over-pronouncing the words, visibly angry.
“Can’t we order some?”
“Everybody on the globe is ordering some,” he says.
I look at a man strapped to a chain, standing on a beam. If he fell and the strap broke, he’d fall to his death. The man looks anywhere from twenty to sixty. Age is impossible to guess when the skin has been owned by the sun, little melanomas everywhere, where I honestly couldn’t even guess his race, let alone age.
I take a deep breath through my mask.
“It’s just that, on the news—”
“The news,” he says, disgusted with the word.
“They’re saying that—I can’t remember—forty percent of deaths are African-Americans. Twenty something percent Hispanics. I mean—”
He cuts me off. “I give them masks. Every single person you’re looking at, I gave them a mask. What they do with it is up to them. If they don’t wear it, this is America. They have that right. One guy, he told me, his wife is pregnant. So he gave his mask to his wife. Fine. Do that. Do whatever you want. Sell it. I don’t care. I just know I gave every single one of these guys a mask. You got one. Look what you’re doing. You’re wearing it, right? Why?”
“To protect myself.”
“You know it’s not an N95?”
“How long you had it? Two weeks now? The same mask. You sweating into it?”
I don’t even nod. I just look at him. No mask on his face. He’s about one foot from me. Talking straight at me.
“You know that sweat makes the mask ineffective? You know how much moisture is in your breath? That builds up. So that the mask becomes useless. You can wear it, sure, but it’s useless. You’d need a new mask. And you’d need to not move. And not be in the sun. You’d have to sit there in the shade and put on a new mask every few hours. Can we do that?” He looks at the guys pouring concrete. It comes out of a monstrous straw. Guys in boots, buried in the sludge.
I watch a guy come out of one of the outhouses, shit all over on the floor, stepped on a hundred times. He goes over to the water, presses down to trickle some out. I watch him wash his hands. He basically puts a little bit of water on, no soap, rubs his hands around for about three seconds, and then heads back out, straight to where all the bodies are, all the sound is, deafening the closer you get.
Ron Riekki’s books include U.P. (Ghost Road Press), Posttraumatic (Hoot ‘n’ Waddle), My Ancestors are Reindeer Herders and I Am Melting in Extinction (Loyola University Maryland’s Apprentice House Press), and i have been warned not to write about this (Main Street Rag).