When I walked into the trailer for coffee break, my boss was sitting in my chair.
“Bad news. Emergency job. They want us to leave now, come back at 7 tonight. Stay till it’s done.”
“Yeah, I know.” He rubbed his head in frustration. “The bullshit we endure.”
I sat down in a chair at the other table, popped one oil soaked work boot off, put on a clean New Balance sneaker in its place.
Then my boss said those famous words, “It is what it is.”
Ten minutes later I was in street clothes and walking passed the lunch truck and the guard shack, badging out and pushing through the turnstiles of the refinery. My car was parked a quarter mile away in a gravel lot full of pickup trucks and cars plastered with stickers for union halls; stickers for bands – either Slayer or Metallica, as if you could only pick one; stickers of the stock car numbers for some famous NASCAR drivers in big cartoon block letters looking like the logo for Tide or Clorox or the gas stations we sold the gasoline we made here.
I had a cup of coffee in my hand even though I’m supposed to be sleeping in a motel or the lot, or even crazier commuting back to my own bed in the middle of the day. But I’m in New Jersey and would have to get to NYC … traffic is jammed going through the tunnels and over the bridges. I wouldn’t get home until after eleven, and then when I do get to 173rd street, there would be alternate side street sweeping until 1:30 in the afternoon anyway. Double park the car and babysit it so it doesn’t get ticketed and towed away. I’m better off staying in this toxic waste town.
In my car, I put on the radio from habit, but the radio was broken. Only garbled static that might actually be useful as white noise for a nap. I leave it on.
For a little while I sit there like I can catch some sleep if I don’t think too hard about it, but it doesn’t work. The sun is in my eyes. I watch for planes landing in the little private air strip behind the plant. Every once in a while there’s helicopters that takes off too. The helicopters always look like they are going to crash, and I don’t watch just because of that, but I can’t help but watch, just in case. This morning there is no activity, it’s like someone hit pause on the remote control. So I put my car in gear and roll down the gravel hill, out onto the streets that lead everywhere and nowhere.
There’s houses around the oil refinery. They’re beat up and packed close together, but the neighborhood is a ghost town. Everyone is working somewhere except me. I don’t even see a mailman or a garbage truck. I feel like a disembodied spirit driving around in a car that stinks like beef jerky. Brakes wobbily. Radio broken. Driver side window motor needs to be replaced, so whatever you do, don’t push the button to roll the window down, it might rain on Wednesday they say.
I go to the plaza with the liquor store in it, but I don’t go in the liquor store and buy a six pack of beer even though I’m on night shift now and technically it’s not nine-thirty am (to me), it’s more like five-thirty pm (to me), and a few beers and parking under the shade of the elm street by the clothing donation dumpster would be my best bet for catching some z’s.
I drive to the far side of the plaza and I park by the grocery store. For a little while I write on my phone, working on a new novel, and then I turn the car off and the broken radio is silent and there is the sound of nothing. I am in north Jersey, industrial wasteland of America, but right now I might as well be parked beside a glade. There’s the sound of tweeting birds sitting on top of the cart corral and I wonder how these birds could be so stupid. They can fly anywhere. But they chose to hang out in a parking lot next to an oil refinery on a beautifully sunny day.
Oh yeah, shame on me, too.
Inside the grocery store the produce section looks like it its not dead, like it’ll just carry on like that forever, waxy and bright. I toss perfect red and green peppers in the cart. I throw salad packages in the cart that I know will just rot in the fridge. Then it’s a stroll back to the fish section, to look at the exotic creatures of the sea packed on ice. And to look at the butchered cows and pigs in the next section. It’s funny that you don’t eat cow, you eat beef, and you don’t eat pig, you eat pork. Or you don’t eat meat at all and beef and pork aren’t make believe words for cow and pig. We have all kinds of funny names we call the things we do to stay alive, to make ourselves feel better. I don’t want to go on night shift. I don’t want to not see my wife. I don’t want to miss a concert I have tickets for tomorrow night. But, I have to. I have a job. If I didn’t have a job I couldn’t afford to even breathe air. Hopefully it is what they say, hopefully it’s just one night shift. There’s a chance it could turn into more. “IT IS WHAT IT IS” the store manager says over the intercom. There are no sales this week. I don’t have a stove at work, so I buy canned tuna in water, not oil. And I buy beef jerky and almonds and canned lentil soup. By the yogurt I text my wife, “Got sent to night shift. Damn.”
“Sorry babe! What can I do?!”
“Pray for me!” I write. But I don’t think either of us knows how to pray.
The checkout lines are empty and the cashier says nothing I say nothing to the cashier. We might as well not even be there.
After that, I drove over to the Dunkin’ Donuts and started ripping my own broken radio out, like if I could just look at the wires, I’d receive some cosmic knowledge of how to fix the goddamn broken radio.
A squad car pulled up and two cops got out of the squad car. They walked passed me, glancing at me ripping the radio out but said nothing.
When they came out of the Dunkin’ Donuts, I had the radio on the seat, disconnected, wires a nest of color.
One cop walked to the side of my car and said, “This is your car right? That’s your radio?”
“It doesn’t work,” I said.
“As long as you’re not stealing it.”
“The opposite,” I said, “Throwing it in the garbage.” I carried the radio over to the trash and tossed it in while they watched. Then I looked across the highway to the other plaza, wasn’t there a stereo store over there? I squint.
“What are you looking for?”
“Best Buy or something.”
“No luck, you’d have to go down by the mall.”
The cops climbed in their car and drove off. I got back in my car and went back to writing on my phone until three o’clock. Then my phone was dead and I needed to charge it so I drove back tot the oil refinery where I had a phone charger. Where I had a stack of paperback books to read. Where I had plastic forks and spoons to eat my lunch out of the can. Oh, also, I have a can opener there or in the case that someone stole the can opener (which they often do) I have a pocket knife hidden. I’ll just cut the can open like this is World War II.
Here’s what happens at night shift:
If you thought the world seemed empty in the middle of the day, then damn, the world almost totally vanishes in an oil refinery in the dead of night.
The flare stacks are three hundred feet up in the sky, burning off waste fuel in a flash of heat and light, waste product that the plant can’t immediately use, dumping it when there is a problem with a unit. The flare stacks belch out fire, thrown another fifty feet up into the sky. We call them overtime candles. When they’re burning big time, we know we’ll have something to fix.
That night shift the flare stacks lit up the refinery in strange light. Whooshes of fire making a sound like a war drum. We parked the work truck at the base of the steel steps and climbed to the top, dropping welding lead off the side, dropping extension cords and torch hoses. We had to cut a wall out, get inside, cut out the guts of the furnace and weld new guts in. There are no stars that hang over us or there could be stars but the light pollution is so severe you’d never know. Standing on top of the unit where we will be working, I can see all the all the way to NYC. I can see the Freedom Tower, and up the island of Manhatten to midtown and the Empire State Building. If I follow the lights north, I can almost figure out where I live but not quite because I can’t see the GWB. At 7pm The cars move like glowing product on a conveyor belt. At 8pm The cars move like glowing product on a conveyor belt. At 9pm The cars move like glowing product on a conveyor belt. And so on. It’s not till 2am when you can finally look at the waves of traffic and discern a human element in that motion, a drifting within the lanes.
The night cools down. The hum of the machinery means more. Each blast of steam, the sigh of a metallic chuthulu. After ten pm, when I would usually be lying down to go to sleep, things get a little rawer. Walk around on the catwalks, and everything looking like Nightmare on Elm Street, where Freddie Krueger would be. Power plants, refineries, factories, mills … any place with steel grating and fire bursting up in the distance, becomes a backdrop for a horror film. Put down what you’re doing and tell the other guys in the crew, Vic and Joe, “Okay, I’ll be back in a few, I’m going to take a piss …” and then walk from the job, through the darkness, like a character in an 80s slasher film who will never be seen again by his friends. How come nobody ever made that movie? Guys in a work crew slowly getting butchered by a killer in an oil refinery. You could even make the killer have some kind of love for the earth. Make it about environmental revenge.
Halfway to the port-o-john, I realize what the fire bursting up in the distance looks like—Mordor from Lord of the Rings—place where the orcs thrive. I’m just a stupid Hobbit in workbooks and hardhat, looking up at the sky to see if the moon is gonna make it out from behind that wall of clouds. It’s supposed to be a full moon, but it’s hidden away, and that’s a shame. When I get in the port-o-john it’s too dark to see the graffiti on the walls, all the cartoon cocks, the misspelled words, the distorted sharpie naked ladies drawn by guys who can barely spell their own names right, the slogans scrawled out all sloppy, something written just above the plastic urinal, “WANNA HERE A GOOD JOKE? OK LOOK DOWN JOKE IS IN YOU’RE HANDS” except there’s not enough light to see the slogan or the urinal or the joke of yourself, so you unzip and you listen closely to see if you’re aiming right.
Work through the night, cutting and grinding, and then sparks thrown thrown through the purple darkness and the black darkness and then sometime near five am, again the purple darkness. Weld through the night.
At 3am, climb back into the work truck and drive through the oil refinery, back to the trailer. Put on a pot of coffee, eat your tuna fish out of the can and then close your eyes and try to sleep but you still can’t sleep.
Vic begins to snore. He weighs close to 400 pounds and he is leaning back in a folded metal chair, head against a locker. Joe is in the chair next to him, head down on the table. I’m fully awake but wishing I was asleep. The first night shift is always strange. The second night of night shift you’ll be exhausted. Do it for five or six shifts and you begin to feel okay. It takes about 11 shifts for it to feel normal.
Vic snores so loud, he wakes himself up. I see it all happen. He wakes himself up and he looks over at Joe with his head down and says, “Can you believe this motherfucker?” He thinks Joe was snoring. He jabs Joe in the ribs, “Quiet down.” Then he goes back to sleep. Three minutes later, he Vic is snoring again.
I write on my phone for while but I can’t concentrate because I’m neither here nor there. I’m tired but I’m not. I’m not very good at doing anything creative when I’m on overtime. When my routine is all jacked up. I try to write anyway, what I do get typed out, I leave on my notepad of my iPhone with everything else and I’ll look at it again on the computer when I am rested and not delirious and when I don’t reek like jet fuel. At 3:40, I wake Vic and Joe back up, we have work that has to be done and if it doesn’t get done by 7am or 8am or 9am or 10am or even by the following night, we could still be there, still be doing the work. We are on night shift, but we were the day shift, and there is no one coming to relieve us.