SMOKE AT THE END OF THE WORLD
Dustin M Hoffman
We smoked the houses out before they even existed. We smoked when they dug foundation, smoked when they poured concrete. We inhaled when they tossed up the studs and struts and cripples, held it in when the crane dropped the prefabbed A-frame rafters, and we exhaled, finally, only, when the last nail landed. We smoked from rough plumb to toilet seat, circuit box to light switch, sheetrock to primer to topcoat of eggshell candlewick white.
We smoked until they caught us dropping ash onto the brand-new carpet. That was the first sign, and we should've read the tobacco leaves that leaked from our flicked butts congregating the street curbs. Not that knowing would've stopped anything. But at least we could've quit hoping, could've packed up and cut out.
In September all was normal, all of us clutching a tool handle or a ladder rung or a roll of insulation, while our teeth clenched a cigarette butt. By October, as Michigan began its cold cruelties, there was Mark, the newly hired construction manager, standing on the freshly set bone-white driveway wearing a white polo, fists against his hips and chest puffed, blond as a Hitler Youth. He said, "Hello, fellas. Grand to meet you, fellas. We'll be slamming out so many houses as we move this subdivision from phase 2 to phase 3, and then we'll tackle a thousand more of these mothers together until the lumber yard runs out of two-by-fours and we retire fat and rich."
Nobody nodded to Mark. We kept on working and smoking and maybe dreaming a little about this new concept of ever having enough money to stop working.
Then his smile dropped when he broke the news: "But, fellas, sorry to say, no more smoking in the houses. At least not after the carpet's down. Homeowners want it smelling fresh, and so do the bosses, our bosses the builders."
We consented, minimally, by some of us flicking our butts out the window. Sure, we supposed we could imagine how some wouldn't want their babies crawling through brand-new berber that smelled like second-hand contractor smoke. We tolerated the decree, save for the carpet crew, who, later that evening, filled Mark the Construction Manager's shiny white Silverado to the brim with piss-soaked padding scraps. It was a sight to see, him opening his cab door to a deluge of blue pad springing forth. The rest of us still smoked most the time, and most the time was what mattered most.
Few weeks later, Mark sneaked a secret meeting with the housepainters to ask why their touchups weren't blending. Perfect is impossible if you know how to look at a wall, they told him. "But couldn't it be the smoking," Mark asked, "the tar tinting the paint just enough to mismatch the paint?" And, yeah, there'd been that old guy's house stacked with books and bedbugs and cockroaches and he sat chain-smoking on his leather armchair like the king of pestilence while they painted around him. The walls had gone from white to brown. But that had been thirteen years of exhaling smoke. Couple days of smoking in these new houses—no issue.
"See, but maybe," Mark said. "I just want to help you boys do your job better. I'm here for you," he said. And then, poof, no more smoking after primer.
Our doom should've been clear as the window pane that Mark inspected with the tip of his index finger. Just outside the window, the excavator boys and their yellow backhoes were missing. No exhaust. No new foundation holes. Just the same trees spilling their dead-red leaves. Our crews dropped from six days per week to seven. We were so relieved to finally have a day to drink our pay, to fuck our wives and boyfriends, maybe even go to church if one could find time for god.
Too comfortable to notice what we should've feared: one day less need for us. But six twelve-hour days still filled the gutters and curbs and front lawns with cigarette butts. So many that Mark hired his high-school cousin to sweep the street, a black-haired boy forever bent at our butts, from sun up to dusk, just like us. Inevitably, he started smoking, too, and he'd be puffing and broom-pushing and every twenty minutes spitting his own butt into the shuffling pile. When Mark rolled up in that white Silverado and spotted his cousin-boy smoking, he slapped the smoke out of his mouth. Mark marched into the nearest house, his face creased and ruddy. A wormy vein under his right eye pulsed. He promised us the next one caught smoking in a house after sheetrock was hung wouldn't see another contract.
We couldn't resist goading him, asked him about the insulation, about how maybe that pink fluffy fiberglass might absorb the smoke, too, stink up the house from inside.
"Goddamn right," he said. "No smoking after insulation either."
Might even be seeping into the copper and the PVC, we joked, into the dark knots in the pine studs.
Which meant no smoking once frame went up.
What if it all started at the concrete, the very foundation corrupted from the start? we asked.
"No fucking smoking anywhere," Mark shouted and stormed out of the house and into his truck and down the subdivision road.
We reverted to our natural wild state of smoking and worse. We ashed in the new carpets, floated butts in the toilets, ground them in the garbage disposals. We stashed butts atop doorjambs and between studs and inside circuit boxes. We challenged Mark's black-haired cousin-boy to a smoke off to see who could suck down a Camel Wide Filter fastest, and he beat a mason and a roofer before a painter set the subdivision record with a fifty-four-second smoke. Mark's cousin boy went pale from all the nicotine, slept it off in a dumpster full of carpet scraps.
For the next few days, as the early snow flurries began, Mark's truck idled by on patrol, but he didn't stop. And no one told us where our next contracts would take us now that this sub was nearly complete. Every hour of continued silence punched us in the lungs.
After a week went by with no Mark, all we had left were finished houses full of carpet and most of us leaning against our wheel wells waiting. Inside, no one smoked, as if our goodwill gesture might conjure Mark with a fistful of contracts. Pristine houses surrounded us, ready for market, built on spec. For the last four years, families herded in before a realtor could even show them. Our new job was waiting and smoking our terror against the snow. The ground would freeze soon, and no more digging would happen. Somewhere, we prayed, awaited a hundred holes for us.
Finally, Mark's Silverado showed and slowed to a stop. He blew a plume of smoke out his window. He was suckling a fat cigar. "Congratulations," he said. "You've finished. You've built a house for every single person in America. In fact, maybe you've built two for each."
Someone flicked a butt at his chrome rims. Mark puffed, and his cigar cherry was splitting down the side.
"So, thanks for fucking me over, boys, by building all the houses Michigan will ever need," Mark said. "What the fuck am I going to do with a construction management degree and no more construction." Then Mark puked out his window. It was red and laced with bright noodles, probably spaghetti or all his viscera.
"Biggest assholes in America, you boys with your hammers and brushes," he said. "And we'll all remember who's to blame."
Mark gunned it, peeling rubber against the fresh blacktop. Only the burnt smell lingered with us as we waited another week for Mark to deliver another contract. The builders ignored our calls. The black-haired cousin-boy kept sweeping though, sweeping and waving. Paid by whom, we had no clue. The trade of cleaning up our mess was the last one left, and we hated him.
December hit and Christmas loomed, and we smoked outside the spec houses no one was buying. We smoked when the realtor showed up in her red skirt and green blazer to check on the houses and Windex her FOR SALE sign. She ignored our collective exhales when no one showed for the first open house or the seventh.
We smoked while the first FORECLOSURE sign went up. We smoked and watched that first family pack every possession into brown boxes and stash them in a U-Haul. A man in a wrinkled suit scraped PETERSONS off the mailbox. Then the Gomez family left. The Piazzas hugged each other in the yard and cried, and we smoked and smoked. FORECLOSURE signs lined the street, every house we built now homes for ghosts.
We broke into the bank-owned homes that we'd built. Mark's head would've exploded. We smoked inside each one. Whether saying goodbye or saying fuck you, it was a thing to do better than waiting for work that wouldn't come. Better than listening to the news talk about bubbles and subprimes and bailouts that wouldn't bail us out.
After we couldn't buy Christmas presents, after we missed our own first mortgage payments, Mark's cousin still swept. Black-haired cousin-boy remained long after Mark's truck had swerved away. He looked to us with his pleading five-gallon bucket full of our cigarette butts. His work would last as long as we smoked, and we'd smoke for forever. We flicked still-flaming cherries at the cousin-boy, the orange embers fireworking against his body. He tried to swat them off with his broom, but we were too many. We flicked into his arms and hands and face and hair. He shouted, and we lit more. We circled him, lighting and smoking and flicking, the cousin-boy cursing us to hell, until one of us landed a butt into the neckline of his shirt. He wailed like a wild baby, swatted at an invisible burning. And then his black T-shirt began to dissolve. Not in flames. It was just a dark burning that consumed cotton. He slapped at the bright hole of his pale chest, and our own bared lungs felt the new cold with him.
This story is inspired by my decade of working construction right up to the recession back in 2008. I helped build a lot of homes that went into foreclosure. And now I can help you build your own invisible floating bookshelf. I promise it's so easy even a housepainter can do it. Just click [here].