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- ABOUT LAKELAND
The Room on the Other Side
"Sonovabitch," Mike says, his words fading into the throbbing machine shop like a voice falling away into a canyon. He cradles a twelve-volt fan motor in one arm and draws a long-handled hammer just above his ear with the other. A fluorescent light anchored to a low air duct flickers above his broad frame and cants light across his shoulders and hunched back. He has the wide-knuckled hands of a boxer. He is trying to get inside, any way possible, to repair the wiring, to salvage the motor. The hammer comes down.
It is spring of my first year at the University of Iowa, 1997, and Mike is one of the maintenance men on campus. The previous autumn, when I told the woman who hired students at the facility services office that I had grown up on a farm, she tossed a set of keys across her desk and said, "Good. So you've done most of this before." That day she sent me to work for Mike Ryan on the first floor of Van Allen Hall, the Physics and Astronomy building. My job, she told me, was to assist Mike, to fetch his tools, to follow him through the building on his rounds to classrooms or offices and pay attention so that if he was ever gone I could take his place. As I walked through campus, I fingered the keys clipped and hanging from my belt and thought of the work I had done on my father's farm—heaving a sledge to break old concrete, sliding on my back under trucks and implements and tractors to change oil or tighten bolts, opening metal breaker boxes with my father to trace humming wires through buildings.
Mike is a man like my father—a part-time farmer who has lived and worked his half-century within a dozen miles of where he was born—a fact that made me like him immediately. On the first day, we shook hands—a farmer and a farm kid—and I recognized the gray hair that crowded and massed at his temples, the same as my father's. His hand enveloping mine, maybe he saw a father and a son, crouched at the knees inspecting, together, a splintered split fence rail. From the beginning we dig in like trenchmen, knowing only the surface of the other's life but trusting in the familiarity of its roots.
Mike's office/ break room/ shop is filled by two truck-sized air handlers that pull air from the outside, filter it, then push it through large ducts seven floors to the top. If I close my eyes I can imagine myself in a laundry mat with hundreds of dryers tumbling and clanking a hundred pairs of jeans in their chambers. The walls and ceilings, formed concrete as thick as a man, buffer the squeal and kick of machines ignited from throwing their breaker handles open after pumping grease through motor zerks. In Mike's shop, the voices of men and machines crowd into the shadowed corners where hot and warped motor belts have been ripped from pulleys and dumped and piled up. He and I bring classroom chairs, thermostats, window screens, and fan motors here to repair—an ocean of air rolling just above our heads. Students on the other side of the wall in classrooms hear us as only faint whispers.
"Give me the biggest damn screwdriver you can find," Mike says, nodding toward his leather tool pouch near me on the table. I haul out the screwdriver and several others come with it. They spill and roll on their handles.
"I'm gonna peel this thing apart," he says, and he jams the tip of the screwdriver into a crease of the motor's casing and brings the hammer down with enough force to push everything through the table. He squints and purses his thin lips into a tight O. Mike's hair, white and gray flecks in a head of brown, looks as if bits of insulation from hot water pipes hanging above us have been shaken free by the slamming hammer. All around, belts on motor pulleys whistle, steel sides of air handlers hump and kick in the artificial wind, gears churn like a distant train moving down a track. And Mike pours the rhythm of the hammer into the room—metal singing against metal.
I think that I could tell Mike about the small screw I'd spied just underneath the motor's caul, but I don't. Instead, I cast my mind outside, where the oak and maple leaves around campus have begun to unfurl. Birds repair nests with loose shafts of winterkilled grass and shreds of lunchtime napkins. Students in shorts lounge on their bellies in the deep grass of the Pentacrest, soaking up the first sun of spring, notebooks splayed open in front of them. Some days I join that crowd in the freshly swept hallways and classrooms of ivy-clad, brick buildings, a bag of books slung over my shoulder. But every other morning I wake early and take the twenty-minute walk to work before any students stir. I live in a dorm on the north edge of town and, at 7:30 in the morning, enjoy the slow commute along the Iowa River. Like most springs it is heavy and muddy from run off, and moving fast—too fast for the crew team to be training—but surprisingly quiet. Mallards hover in the dark weight of the river, cruising south through town. I often wonder how long they will ride like this, how they know when and where to get off.
Some days I arrive to the shop before Mike, before the building has yet to yawn open its doors and rooms to students who cruise the halls and trace fingers along the freshly painted walls. I sit at the long, heavy table, sip coffee that soon tastes of hot grease and oil, and slowly drift back to sleep in the pulsing room. I wake to the sound of Mike's moving toward the door, keys chiming, matching the invisible fall of his foot.
Now I watch him jam the screwdriver into the motor and bring the hammer down again and again, grunting as he leans in for purchase. When he lowers the hammer, the screwdriver slips out of the crease and careens across the shop floor.
I say, "I think there is a—"
But Mike doesn't hear me. He is pounding in the sides of the motor with the hammer, two hands white-knuckling the handle. A symphony of metal blossoms in the room, Mike beating percussion to the hovering winds and bleating horns and somewhere on the other side of the south wall a delivery truck is backing into the loading dock, its reverse beacon lighting like a triangle as it moves.
When he is finished, I try again.
"I think there might be a screw," I say, pointing at the demolished thing in front of him. "On the back side."
Mike rolls the motor over to reveal a small metal screw. He chuckles, steps away from the table, and drops his large frame into a chair. His eyes open to laughter, smooth out the creased corners of work. Mike thrusts his feet out into the room and leans back in the chair and raises his arms behind his head. He says, "I sure beat the hell out of it. Didn't I?"
I laugh with him, both of us delighted by the small drama turned comedy. I think that I might be happy here for a while, in this place with a man I recognize, doing the work that I know. We both have time, I think, to do what needs to be done.
I can smell him. The minty aroma of Skoal freshly pinched from a tin. The acrid hint of metal dust swiped from a palm across jeans. Old Spice. Oil-soaked gloves jammed in a back pocket—clean, sweet, metallic, or just drained from the guts of a motor, sour and burnt. The fresh talc powder on his neck from the monthly visit to the little barbershop with the old, revolving signpost on Lynn Street. Mike smells of my father and grandfather—men with whom I shared the bench seat of an old pickup on the way to check fields or pastures as a kid. I figured, one day, I would smell like them, and that comforted me. From Iowa City, my father's farm lay just seventy miles east down Interstate 80, his square blocks of soybeans and corn fitting into the taut blanket the Midwest pulls to its chin. Mike has a small farm of his own that he trucks south ten miles into work from after waking early to do chores. Then, after an eight-hour shift, he will return home to do chores again. There are days he brings whiffs of the life I moved away from—the wet hide of an animal or the sweet smell of penicillin on the sleeve of his coat. These men, I believe, could not wash away the work, as familiar and necessary to their bodies as skin, if they tried.
At lunch, electricians and plumbers and painters in the area bring their sack lunches or steaming cups of soup from the bagel shop across Washington Street to Mike's break room. They crowd under the light, the darkness falling down their backs as they lean forward into their stories and pound exclamation points into the table. When they start in on managers and the goddamned administration, as they usually do, I tip back in one of the ancient, broken office chairs that encircle the table and crack a book. I am beginning to love language and stories. I read every day, filling my lunches and work breaks with pages from paperbacks I have slipped in my bag.
Mike schools me in other ways.
"You plan on reading that book all day?" he asks, standing at the heavy, steel door that opens into the hallway, the light from outside casting into the shop. "Let's go."
He takes me to basements and ancient hidden lofts, through crawl spaces to change filters in old machines that cough air into the building. Places, it seems, no person has been in decades. Some of them I will stand or crouch or crawl in only once in the five years I work with Mike. I wonder, as each year passes, who changes these filters if I don't. Mike knows every valve to turn off to direct either hot or cold water through pipes that heat and cool the building. I watch him shimmy up chases and tighten pipe cuffs around leaks with a socket wrench, walk into air handlers the size of bedrooms and climb 6-foot, rickety ladders to hang filters in front of tall vents that suck air in from the outside.
"Some days I feel like I'm wearing these oily rags," he says, hoisting the filmy sheets above his head until the intake sucks them into place. The ladder swings two feet at the top whenever Mike leans his 240 pounds out to hang the filters over the beast's mouth. I stand at the bottom of the ladder—a 150-pound anchor—and bend for more filters, folded and stacked like blankets in a cardboard box. With one foot on the lowest rung and two hands separating and peeling open the six-foot-long sticky sheets, I try to maintain my, as well as Mike's, balance—the motions unfolding like a ballet in a wind tunnel.
With little effort, Mike hoists me onto lab tables to change light bulbs or replace electric ballasts that cause a string of lights to flicker and buzz. "Everything's connected," he says, handing me the last long bulb of four. I twist it into place and an entire row of fixtures in the room pulses on. "Like pearls," he says.
"A necklace," he continues, securing a pinch of Skoal between his bottom lip and teeth. "If one pearl's missing the whole damn thing falls apart. A circuit's like that. Thought you'd might have read that somewhere." He shifts his weight and turns for the door, a small chuckle hidden in the clank of keys shifting at his side.
Mike wears three sets of keys clipped to a belt on his right hip, each a group of twenty-five or more on a Key Caddie, which has a retractable metal cord that rips like a zipper every time he pulls a key to a door. He wears enough keys to get us into almost every room of three six-story buildings in his area on campus. There are round keys and square keys, some labeled with numbers, others with letters. All of them look the same to me, but Mike has a way of knowing them with his fingers. He leafs them open like a fistful of cards to decipher which one he needs. On the keys that Mike uses most often, he has wrapped a scrap of tape around their crowns, so that when he comes to a commonly used door he simply reaches to his side and points the right key to the lock. Almost mechanical—pluck, zip, click—the rhythm and motion become engrained in my head. I figure he has a key for every door—closets and machine rooms, copy centers and the offices of professors, students' test results pinned to their doors—that if he wanted to he could open any room and step in.
Most days working with Mike are full of motion. Others, lessons go unspoken. On these days he arrives to the shop in the morning wearing, already, a full day of work under his eyes. He has been pulling calves all night in the snow or, since dawn, repairing a section of fence his small herd broke through into a neighbor's pasture. As if sensing it, other men in the area take lunch elsewhere.
"Just give me five minutes," he says, dropping his keys onto the table before dropping himself to sleep on the long, wooden bench that stretches under a low air duct. In seconds I see the rise and fall of his belly and the slack-jawed expression of sleep following closely after exertion. I never ask him how or why he lives the way he does; I don't have to. Instead, in the minutes that pass, the sound of the machines around me falls away.
I understand the relationship between sound and silence—work and rest—that moves men like Mike and my father through their days. The motion and stillness can be as routine as placing a hat on a hook at lunch or stepping into boots, right foot, always, first. Although I wasn't the typical farm kid who rose at dawn every morning and fed grain to or milked cows, I followed my father wherever he went. "Work builds character," he'd say over the drone of diesel tractors pumping black smoke out their stacks. I listened.
From the time I could reach the pedals on the John Deere riding mower until I left for college, I spent one eight-hour day every week every summer trimming grass around the farm. I became that machine's caretaker. I filled it with gas and changed its oil and hosed it off each night after riding it. I filled low tires with air and twisted rubber plugs into holes where nails had punctured through. I attached a new seat when the old one's vinyl cracked in the sun and exposed the stuffing inside. When the PTO quit one summer I unbolted the blade deck and dropped it to the ground and stretched a new belt around its pulleys with a pry bar. I understood that machine with an intimacy born of familiarity. There was no part of it I could not know. I go at my books with the same desire to know, to understand the workings of the stories. Some days, the engine of the story pitches and turns.
There are days I wake Mike when he rests on the bench because I'm worried the area manager will walk in. But others I sit there in silence, the minutes stacking up, listening to the deep reach of his sleep.
Summers open like an unplugged drain. Students pour out of dormitories and down streets heavy with flotsam and moving fast, like the river cleaning its spring banks. I stay on campus and work with Mike full-time in the summer. I clock in every morning at eight and move through the rhythms of the day like a man earning a salary. Some days I creep my chair closer to the lunch table and the men shuffle over to make room. They tell stories on me and wrap arms around my shoulders and laugh at their own jokes, and at four-thirty we move down the hallways side-by-side, lunchboxes in hand, calling out, "See you tomorrow," at the door.
Warm weather, Mike and I spend days on the tarred and graveled roofs of university buildings servicing air conditioners. We lug hundred-foot garden hoses up into annexes, beyond the reach of elevators, and step through dark doors onto sun-drenched decks high above campus. Like miners we knuckle open our eyes to the sudden natural light, having spent deep months in a florescent-halled world. With a thumb curled over the end of a hose attached to rooftop spigots, one man soaks the unit while the other works a stiff brush up and down the ribs of the delicate coils. The build-up of silt from winter and spring has to be removed to allow for better air access over the frosted water pipes inside. The work we do will cool the Physics Library, keep the book-molding humidity away. Kneeling close to the unit I smell the Freon wash up, fresh and pungent—a glacier of oil. On the roof, heat quickly replaces the weight of hoses on our backs and we welcome the kickback of wind-caught spray.
On days when Mike is gone, he leaves his keys on the shop table for me. People who work in the building call down if their room is cold or their lights are flickering, and I hustle off, Mike's tool pouch settling into my side. People recognize and trust me even when Mike isn't there. I am his apprentice. Mike's words echo in my head on the way back to the shop, "Been doing this for twenty-five years, guess I'll do it for another twenty-five."
But there are days when his absence is deafening. I arrive at offices with the wrong tools or parts and have to trot back down to the shop to find them. Mike's keys hang heavy at my side, unnatural, loud, and I am glad I don't have to wear them every day. Sometimes I jam them deep into the tool pouch so they won't make any sound. Or I search for the key that gives me access into the little room Mike showed me once.
The room, just down the hall from his shop, is too small to be a professorial office and too big to be a janitorial closet. So, through the years, Mike organized the space into his own personal office. He pulled a small desk and chair to the back of the room, so that when he sits behind it the room extends before him to the door. In front of the desk, on the left wall, he maneuvered a narrow, metal storage rack that is empty except for a few manila folders tossed on the shelves, spilling news clippings of his children playing sports. Beyond the metal shelves, a short, plaid couch fits so well it cannot be moved from its place. The door, when opened, brushes against the couch's fabric. When Mike and I first stood here together the space was uncomfortable to share with another person. Standing with my arms outstretched I can nearly touch both side walls. But it is quiet and the paint smells as clean as a hospital, so I go to this room to read, to avoid working alone when Mike isn't here—to avoid the mechanical rhythms of the day.
I sit here for hours when Mike is gone, in his chair, tipped back against the wall, feet kicked up on the desk. Or, lounging on the couch, I hang my feet into the middle of the room. At first I chance only an hour or two. But soon I find myself opening the pages of books I have brought with me, not closing them until I finish. The Catcher in the Rye. Siddhartha. On the Road (two, three times). Cannery Row. Kerouac's The Town and The City. I pull these books out of my bag and open them on the desk over coffee rings and oily finger smudges. I read books cover-to-cover in one sitting for the first time in my life in this tiny, cement-blocked room. Mike's keys rest in a heap at one corner of the desk.
As I read I hear the few students at summer school shuffle past the room, chattering and shrieking and bursting into laugher. I hear the voices of area electricians or plumbers increase as they approach the door then fade as they continue down the hallway. They will not ask tomorrow where I had been all day. I know that seven floors up Dr. James Van Allen, the scientist who discovered the Earth's radiation belts in 1958 and whom the building is named for, at eighty-four years old, works mornings at his desk and stays home after lunch. Outside, the air smells of newly cut grass, and students who have hung around for summer load into open-lidded Jeeps and drive to Sugarbottom Lake to play Frisbee golf or mountain bike or swim. Mike, I imagine, clambers on a roof at his farm or resets the hinges of a door on his barn or drives cattle to the county market. I can see him taking a break in his garage out of the sun, reaching past the sterile syringes and brown bottles of medicine for a twelve-ounce beer hidden in the back.
At noon I will get hungry and fold the corner of a page in a book, grab Mike's keys from the desk as I stand, and before walking into the hallway, slowly peek the door open.
One autumn day I hunker down to unscrew the oil plug of a fifty-gallon air compressor while Mike pulls the breaker that runs the compressor's motor. We are in one of the cavernous boiler rooms in the subbasement of Van Allen, where the walls reach thirty feet to the ceiling and enclose a labyrinth of air ducts, supply and drain pipes and conduit that make up the nervous system of the building. Large boiler pots bolted to the floor emit steam from their joints and spit water that sizzles on its shell or burns skin if a careless helper stands too close. I kneel to the compressor's oil reservoir. Mike throws a clean work rag over my shoulder to use after the oil coils around my fingers and hand. I have done this several times before, so Mike just watches while I work.
"See that tunnel over there?" he says, and points behind me, across the basement floor to where various large pipes stretch into a long and dark corridor. I have never been in the tunnel, but I know that if one were to start through it he would end up in Seashore Hall or, if choosing the correct splinter tunnel, Old Music. Those buildings and the one we stand in share a city block, all under Mike's supervision. "There are tunnels like that all over the university. I worked in them for the first couple of years I got here."
"What were you doing?" I ask. I stand and wipe my hands on the rag, jam it into my back pocket. I set the oil plug on the top of the compressor and watch the old oil run into the bucket I have placed underneath the drain to catch it. It's thick and black and sinks into itself like tar.
"I was fresh out of the army in '72 and this place didn't have much to offer in terms of work. They sent me and a couple others into the tunnels to clean them."
"What do you mean, clean them?" I ask, looking at him.
He stares right through me.
"We took brooms and shovels and garbage bags into them and cleaned them of asbestos dust." He looks away and fixes his eyes back on the tunnel, as if looking for the end where he could emerge into the light on the other side, in a different place. "No masks. No gloves. Breathing that shit all day, for weeks."
I pull the rag from my pocket and start rubbing my hands, even though my fingers are clean. I know about asbestos. I know the men whose job it is to abate asbestos from the buildings; they sometimes pass Mike and me in the hallways, covered head-to-toe in disposable space suits, rubber gloves and thin, protective booties. I know there is no cure for asbestosis. I don't know what to say.
I picture Mike and myself just hours before raking domed piles of leaves across the roof of an auditorium. The trees on campus looked skeletal, backdropped by a low, cloud-filled sky. The more we raked, the larger the piles grew, and Mike skimmed a shovel underneath them and lifted a heaping pile into the black garbage bag I held open. We had done this job several seasons together, filled an unspoken rhythm. The wind stirred and kicked a few leaves out of the bag, over the edge where students walked to class or mingled in groups. They wore thin jackets and crossed their arms over their chests, holding any warmth they could close to their bodies. Buildings that lined the streets downtown were just as cold and drab, their rooflines chunking dark rectangles out of the paper-white sky. Across the city I could see the west side campus rise up from the opposite bank of the river, the concrete and steel and brick step-stairing up the hill, casting shadows in folds between buildings. Farmland was out of sight, at the fringe of the city, but I thought I could see the distant wisp of a dust cloud rising from a field of dry corn being harvested, or, maybe, an old Ford, like Mike's, hauling down a loose-graveled road.
I imagine the fibers threading Mike's lungs, the detritus clogging his breath. I finger the keys at my side and look up to him. "Mike," I say quietly, "what will you do?"
He reaches for the Skoal in his jeans and lifts the lid and fills his lower lip. He brushes the excess from his mouth and looks down at the compressor. The oil trickles into the bucket.
"You're getting pretty damn good," he says, looking me up and down for oil smears. "No mess or nothing. Maybe I spoke too soon about them books." He grins wide. "Close that drain off and let's go."
He stands over me and leans against the cool cement wall while I tighten the drain plug, fill the oil reservoir with five quarts of new oil and twist on the top fill closure. He watches silently. He throws the breaker when I finish. The motor, when it roars to life, fills every space of the room with sound.
The winter before I graduate, Mike and I are driving the back roads of Johnson County, north of Iowa City, after a day spent re-shingling the roof of his barn. A soft but dense snow is falling and has blanketed the road. The truck tires surround us in a muffled drone of rubber on graveled snow pack. He is driving me back into Iowa City, "the interesting way," he says, flashing a smile. We have stopped by a few rural taverns on the way home, his way of repaying my work. I recognize every man bellied up to the bar from my childhood, the card players in the corner booth and the wise-crackers gesturing with their pints, a leg up on the bar rail. They've come here to warm up. We drive for an hour, two, over back roads I have never been on and will never see again in the light of day. Homes cast warm squares of lamplight onto dark yards. Wooded ravines flash by, their streams frozen in place and silent. I never know where we are, though the two headlights plunge forward into the night, steady.
"The Johnsons live there," Mike says at one point, nodding to a small house backlit by a single yard light haloed in the snowfall. "I went to school with Fred. He had this girlfriend that everybody wanted to date. Built like a brick shithouse. You know what I mean?" He takes his hands off the steering wheel and cups a large pair of invisible breasts in front of his chest. He cracks a smile and chuckles to himself.
I stare at Mike's silhouette in the dash lights, notice the crow's feet surrounding his eyes and the gray bristles of a growing beard. I look at his hand, now back on the steering wheel. He has cut it at some point in the day—the edge of raw metal, maybe, from hauling himself into a mammoth air handler or an errant spike of bailing wire from patching a fence at dawn.
In six months I will be gone, moving west to graduate school, and Mike will be here, driving through the folds of land that extend from Iowa City, a dust cloud in his wake. I want to thank him, but I don't know how men say that. I want to hear him say, "You're welcome, Nate." Instead I tell him about the books I am reading, the ideas I have. My plans. He nods, sips from the beer can he has wedged between his legs, and listens. Outside, the landscape moves by us, moonlit white and silent. I fill the cab with the words lifting out of me, orbiting above our heads in the space that we share, filling the cab with sound as we travel forward into our lives, into the dark of our knowing.