Like Swimming

How’s your brain?” Joe asks.

The doctors fucked up the operation. All Jaws wanted was the tumor gone, but now he’s lacking short term memory as well.

“All good on the northern front,” he says, tapping the side of his head. He gets the question every day and is running out of ways to pretend everything is fine. As far as anybody knows, the procedure had gone perfectly.

Like a secret to-do list, Jaws writes his tasks in a small notebook and keeps it in his shirt pocket. When no one is looking, he pulls it out and reminds himself of what he’s supposed to be doing. Carrying three two-by-sixteen planks of lumber on his shoulder, he stops. Hunching over, he rests the wood on the ground. “That’s right,” he says to himself, “the wood is going to the electrician’s shack.”

He hoists the load again and finishes the delivery. Each job takes at least one of these pit stops. Once, in the middle of cutting iron bolts with a Metabo, he had to stop after a handful to remind himself there were still a dozen left.

Construction in the Arctic, he thinks, is probably the worst and deadliest thing he could be doing in his condition. And he poses as much danger, if not more, to his coworkers as he does to himself. But he’s been doing this work for ten years- since graduating high school, and it’s the only existence he knows.

Keeping up is becoming a job in itself. Just remembering everybody is a chore. Jaws keeps a cheat sheet of their names and characteristics. It’s the first page in the notebook. Joe: crew foreman, bad teeth, red hair and beard. He has one for everyone on the crew.

It’s a good thing checks are directly deposited in his bank, Jaws thinks, or he’d forget to pick them up.

“Jesus,” Joe says, walking next to Jaws as they leave the break shack. “You’d think the top of the world would get a little warmer in the middle of Ju-ly.”

Jaws laughs, and it feels like old times for a fleeting second before he has to check for Red Beard’s name. “Twenty-two ain’t bad. At least it’s sunny. Before you know it we’ll be back in the negatives.”

Joe nods and Jaws thanks God some things have stuck with him, the vernacular and blue collar lilt. It’s as if they were ingrained. Genetic even.

And at least everything he knew before the operation is intact. It’s just new things he can’t retain. Sometimes something sticks for thirty minutes, but more often it’s half that. After ten years of the same job, same company, Jaws can’t believe his shit luck being sent to a crew where he didn’t know a soul. His regular crew is at North Star, but they were full up and he was needed at Pump Station 1.

Over the years he’d done a lot of jobs at P.S. 1. Flying into Dead Horse and bunking at M.C.C. felt as close to home as anything.

“Take a ride with me,” Joe says, pulling himself into one of the company pickups.

“Sure,” says Jaws. He buckles the seatbelt and is thankful most of the basic safety regulations haven’t changed in years. If they did, maybe it would be easier to have them tattooed on him, like in that movie Memento people were raving about a few years ago.

“We’ve got a new guy flying in tomorrow,” Joe says. “I want you to pick him up from the airport, show him the ropes around here. Pass on some of that knowledge.”

For a second Jaws feels panicky, like Joe knows. Like the company is phasing him out already. He swallows hard. “First timer?”

“Yep. Nineteen. Dad works on a crew at Pump Station 5.”

“Whose kid?”

“Rob Landry. Ever worked with him?”

Jaws chews his lip. “Once or twice. Think we bunked together at Kuparuk a few years back.” If there were an entry for Landry it would read: master carpenter, no sense of humor.

“Well you’re my man. After the toolbox meeting in the morning take truck nine and pick him up.”

Jaws hunches toward the door of the truck and writes it in the notebook. They pass under the vapor flare, which is cracking good and loud in the afternoon’s high wind. The sound, like a jet taking off and being heard from the tarmac, drowns out any other thoughts in Jaws’ head. For a moment he has the relief of not having to remember. Not a goddamn thing. But the truck stops and Joe says, “Here you are.”

“Thanks,” Jaws says and steps out on the pad. He’s facing the carpentry shack and drawing a blank. It’s not something he’s likely to grow comfortable with, this blankness. He waits for the truck to pull away before checking the notebook. Take six barricades to new trench, west side of pad.

He loads the barricades into the back of a Kubota and drives them across the pump station. He knows the place the way other people know their neighborhoods. He stops at the nine-hole for a piss, then delivers the barricades to the unfinished trench running parallel to the holding tanks reading Gas #1 and Gas #2.

The Mud Dog team is still sucking dirt out of the hole when he unloads the Kubota. Dave (brown hair, beard, glass eye) cuts off the Dog’s power and taps Jesse (blonde, goatee) on the shoulder.

“Thanks, man,” Dave says.

“No prob.”

In tandem Dave and Jesse remove their hard hats and wipe their foreheads. Jaws remembers seeing this sort of synchronicity in Mud Dog teams before. Like the bond between twins.

“Any ground water problems with this one?” Jaws asks, pointing at the trench. At twenty feet long the thing is only half done.

“Not as bad as one-o-seven,” Jesse says, motioning between the holding tanks. “That one keeps filling up like a damn swimming pool.”

“How many sumps you running?”

“Two,” Jesse says, and Dave adds, “One at each end.”

“Just not keeping up, huh?”

Dave shakes his head. “We’re going to wait until the sparkies are ready to lay cable, then we’ll pull the hose over there and suck the water with the truck. Keep it dry while they do their thing, then we’ll refill her and compact the sucker as fast as we can.”

Jaws knows the drill, but guys on the slope are always more than eager to explain what they’re doing. It passes the time, breaks the monotony. He looks down into the four-foot-deep hole. It’s not so different from a grave, he thinks. Only two feet away. Suddenly everything gets dark and his feet give way under him. He starts falling head first into the trench.

Dave reaches out, grabs him, pulls him back and holds onto him until his legs have resettled. “You all right?”

“Just lost my footing.” Jaws keeps his eyes on the ground until he climbs back into the Kubota. He can’t afford such close calls. The doctors warned him not to go back to work. No way to know how the brain will react, they said. But if he’d delayed his return to work it would have meant telling the company what had happened.

Dave and Jesse have the Mud Dog running again and Jaws waves as he drives away, hoping they won’t say anything to Joe. He doesn’t have to go by the vapor flare, but he takes the long way to do so anyway. He liked the way it felt earlier and wants to recapture the freedom it provided his brain, but the wind has died down and it’s not as loud anymore.

Quitting time has never changed. Six in the morning to six at night-those have always been the hours. Seven days a week. Six weeks at a time. So when Jaws checks his watch and it says 5:30, there’s no reminder needed that it’s time to head back to the break shack and get on the bus to M.C.C. He stuffs his gloves, safety vest and glasses into his hard hat as he walks into the shack. There’s a corner of the bench at the second plastic table where he places them at the end of every day. Another left-over ritual.

Jaws gets on the bus and stares out the window at the melted tundra, all standing puddles. Soon enough, though, it will turn back to ice and be covered with snow.

Having less to remember has made it easier for Jaws to fall asleep. But the dreams are more vivid now. That night he dreams he is staying in a hotel. Probably in Anchorage. It’s not like he goes anywhere else, works his six weeks on the slope, takes his two weeks off and goes back to Anchorage. Two weeks of getting drunk, then sleeping it off. But this hotel has a nice pool in the center of the building. No one else seems to be staying at the place. Jaws is facing the pool. He’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt. And new tennis shoes, which only stands out because he’s so used to wearing his Xtra Tuff boots at work. But by the time his two weeks of R&R end he’s barely gotten used to real shoes.

But the next thing Jaws knows he’s in the pool. Fully clothed, and completely submersed. He’s floating there, eyes open, taking in the hotel’s Greco-Roman decor from under the water. It lends the world a bluish tint. He begins talking to himself, but it’s all gurgles and bubbles that rise to the surface and pop silently, rippling the surface.

Just as he’s starting to disappear in the water, his alarm clock starts beeping. 4 a.m. Jaws sits up. It’s the first time he’s been in a single room-his one lucky break-and he hasn’t gotten used to not having to worry about a roommate’s schedule. He writes his room number on his hand, grabs his toothbrush, and walks down the hall in his boxers to the community bathroom.

Back in his room he gets dressed. The routine has changed little since his first time on the slope. Two pairs of socks, a tank top, a long sleeve shirt, Carhartt jeans, and a hooded sweatshirt. On colder days he has a Carhartt jacket, too. And long underwear. Next he goes to the cafeteria. Breakfast is scrambled eggs, four pieces of bacon, two sausage links, hash browns, and a glass of orange juice.

The bus ride to the pump station in the mornings always seems shorter than the ride back to camp at night. Dave and Jesse are in the seat in front of him, and, as usual, are more talkative than anyone should be at 5:30 in the morning.

“That noggin’s been through a lot,” Dave says, looking back at Jaws.

“I wish people would stop talking about my head,” Jaws says and immediately regrets it.

“You ever get used to it?” Jesse asks. “Life as a sloper, I mean.”

On the one hand, Jaws has been used to his life for a long time. But the question comes at an awkward time; he doesn’t feel used to anything anymore. “I did,” he says. “But I’ve seen a lot of people come and go who could never get the hang of it. It’s a different life, but like anything you can get accustomed to it if you want.”

“I guess so. I’ve been doing it two years, but everyday I think about going back to being broke, making furniture.”

Jaws remembers his dream from the night before. “It’s like swimming,” he says. “Just ‘cause you know how doesn’t mean you can’t drown.”

Jesse gives Jaws a funny look.

“Just because you know what you’re doing up here, in terms of the job, doesn’t mean you can’t get overwhelmed. A lot of people come thinking it’s just another construction gig. They get burned out. If you come into it accepting it for what it is, you’re likelier to survive.”

“That’s deep,” Dave says.

The bus stops outside the pump station gates and a security guard boards the bus to check everyone’s ID badges. Out the window there are a few caribou grazing. It’s a sight Jaws never tires of. Every year he looks forward to August in the Arctic, when the herds migrate in the hundreds across the tundra. Once on the pump station pad, the bus drops the electricians at their break shack, then the construction crew at theirs. The toolbox meeting addresses the proper care and storage of tools. There are only so many possible topics, so they get rotated regularly. After that, it’s hard hats on and out to work. For Jaws, that means getting in a truck and driving back in the direction of M.C.C., to the Dead Horse airport.

The drive takes about thirty minutes, but the plane is late. So Jaws spends his morning waiting in the airport, which is about the size of a small restaurant. When the plane does land, about twenty guys get off and crowd around the area where their luggage will be tossed. Jaws couldn’t count how many times he’s been through the process if he wanted to.

Only one person looks younger than Jaws, so that’s who he approaches. “Landry?” he asks. The kid turns, his cheeks are smooth. Probably doesn’t even shave twice a month yet, Jaws thinks. At least when he made his first trip to the slope he had that. And by the time he left for his first R&R he’d grown a decent beard. Facial hair assimilation was how he’d described it to his high school buddies.

“John Ridge,” he says, extending his hand. “But you can call me Jaws.”

“Jason,” the kid says and steps away to grab his bag from the metal tray bolted to the wall.

In the truck, Jaws gives Jason safety glasses, tells him to put them on-slope rules. “We’ll stop and get your room at M.C.C. so you can drop off your bag, then we’ll head out to the pump station.”

“You a lifer like my dad?”

“Seem to be,” Jaws says. “Started around your age. That your plan?”

“No, just trying to make some cash before I start college.”

“What you going to study?”

“Thinking about biology. But I’m not sure yet.”

“You’ve got time.” Jaws wonders when that stops being true. Probably when you can’t remember waking up by the time you’ve finished breakfast, he thinks.

“So, what’s in store for me?”

“Well, it sounds like you’ll be getting the grab bag. I’ll be showing you the ropes, and I’m kind of a utility man. Carpentry, scaffolding, digging. Lots of digging.”

“I dig,” Jason says and laughs at his own joke.

At the pump station Jaws gets the kid outfitted with a hard hat, gloves, and a safety vest, then takes him on a tour of the pad. It’s hard to check his notebook with somebody else around all the time, but Jaws has no choice. So far, Jason doesn’t seem to notice.

“It’s not much,” Jaws says when they arrive back at the break shack. “But if you’re not careful it’ll start feeling like home.”

“Sounds like my dad. Once, in middle school, I figured out he spent seventy-five percent of his time up here.”

“I believe it.”

“Doesn’t leave much time for anything else, does it?”

“Working here either becomes your life, or you move onto something else. But it’s hard to walk away from the money. I can only imagine it’s harder when you have a family.”

“You going to do this for the rest of your life?”

For the first time, Jaws is thankful for his new condition. Of course all the heartbreak is still there. All the relationships that couldn’t weather the life of working on the slope. But there’s no longer the pressure to try. He can’t imagine chasing women or holding down a relationship right now. And for once it has nothing to do with his job. It’s not the best sort of freedom, Jaws thinks, but it’s freedom nonetheless.

“Jaws,” Jason says, and he’s looking Jaws like it might have been the fourth or fifth time he’s said it.


“You going to work up here forever?”

“I’ll do it as long as I can,” he says. “As long as they’ll let me.” He realizes how pathetic he must sound to a kid getting ready to go to college. And now he’s stuck with a picture of himself as one of the old-timers who’s only kept around to sweep out the break shacks, an existence he could have never fathomed a few weeks ago.

“Why do you do it?” Jason asks. “Why stick around?”

“It’s what I know, what I’m good at.” Jaws can’t wait to forget this conversation. He looks at Jason fiddling with his hard hat and tries to imagine a time when things like hard hats didn’t feel comfortable. He wasn’t so different from Jason at one time, but he knows that thought is wrong, romanticized. He knew from his first day this would be his career.

Jaws scales a tower of scaffolding and starts taking it apart, lowering the pieces down to Jason. “Everything we do,” he says, “will eventually be invisible. If we do our work right there will be no trace of how things got the way we leave them.”

“Like the pyramids or something.”

“Kind of, only we don’t get any sort of monument.” Jaws laughs. From his perch he can see a good portion of the pump station. There are several open trenches waiting for the electricians to lay cable. The pipeline strikes across the tundra, Jaws tries to picture its whole path, crisscrossing the state. In the distance there’s a vapor flare from one of many processing sites. “You know,” he says, “it’s been ten years and this place looks pretty much the same.”

Jason grabs the crossbeam Jaws is lowering. He’s an intent worker already, and pays attention to what he is being taught.

“I hope this is your only stay on the slope,” Jaws says.

“I do too.”

“Get a degree, do something better with your life.”

Jason nods, sets down the crossbeam, readies himself for the next.

I can’t keep this up, Jaws thinks. It’s been hard enough and it’s only been a couple weeks. He certainly can’t survive another decade. And training somebody else? It’s too much. He lowers another piece of scaffold and looks at his notebook. “Jason,” he says, “in an hour I’m not going to remember any of this.”

Jason lifts his hard hat, shields his eyes from the sun.

“I had an operation. They fucked it up and now I have no short term memory.”

“Holy shit. Serious?”

“If anybody finds out about it, I’m out of a job. I’m out of a life.”

Jason is still holding the last crossbeam. It’s at his side like a walking stick. “I won’t rat you out.”

“I can’t keep looking at a notebook every fifteen minutes for the rest of my life. But what am I going to do if I’m not doing this? Drink and sleep?” Jaws has never experienced vertigo, but suddenly he’s dizzy. The dirt is moving, shifting, changing color. It’s no longer gray and brown, it’s all blue. It’s becoming water, and the ripples are washing right over the kid’s head.

His head is cloudy, like from the anesthetic before the operation. “I want to swim,” Jaws says.

“What?” Jason lets the crossbeam fall to the ground and starts climbing the metal bars. “Hold on, Jaws.” The kid reaches the top and grabs Jaws by the shoulder.

“It’s just like the pool,” Jaws says.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Jaws hangs onto the one crossbeam he hasn’t disassembled on the top level of the tower. Jason continues to hold onto his arm. Jaws waits for the bluish glaze to disappear. And the pump station, too. The trenches, holding tanks, pickups, and break shacks. Even the pipeline. He holds on until it’s just him, the tundra, and the migrating herds of caribou heading to a place where there is no short or long term, only a now.

Ryan W. Bradley has pumped gas, changed oil, painted houses, swept the floor of a mechanic’s shop, worked on a construction crew in the Arctic Circle, fronted a punk band, and managed an independent children’s bookstore. He received his MFA from Pacific University and his poetry and fiction have been published or are forthcoming in The Oregonian, Gargoyle, Word Riot, Oranges & Sardines, Pear Noir!, Potomac Review, and Pank. CODE FOR FAILURE, a novel based on his time as a gas station attendant, will be published by Black Coffee Press in 2012. He is also the editor of Artistically Declined Press and lives in Oregon with his wife and two sons.

Photo by: Felipe Skroski

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