For a Shift at Exxon
by Conor McNamara
It’s 18 degrees and I’m in Burnsville, West Virginia working on the pipeline. “Never Too Much” by Luther Vandross is blaring from the speakers at the Exxon station. Inside the Food Center the clerk, a woman my mother’s age, shakes out a commercial doormat. A boy in gym shorts is helping her, following her closely with a dustpan. They seem like a good team. Suddenly, a familiar guilt about my own mother. I think about how I should be with her 2639 miles away. I think about how when I was young she did everything in her power to make me happy. (Homemade Halloween costumes, Batman bedding, cookies.) When she bought me a baseball glove and wrote my initials on it in Sharpie, she bought herself one too, so she could play catch with her only son. I load a Styrofoam cup with ice so I can tend to my bruised knee at the motel. “Finally,” the woman says, “we got an actual ice machine.” And the boy, her son I suppose, nods his head.
On this job, there are moments of stupid happiness that distract us from hard truths: we have no homes, we’re disposable, our bodies will eventually break from the work we do. Eddie and I are nearly in tears, laughing about a rodman who got fired for smoking weed, a guy both of us agree smells like fish. We work our asses off hiking through the mountains and by the time we’re finished, a trip to Wendy’s and a shower are more important than the pasts we’re running from. Eddie and I drive over the Laurel Run Bridge and find ourselves in the Skyline Plaza parked in front of a Kroger. There’s snow and rain and a woman pushing a shopping cart, two kids dueling with lightsabers at her feet. She looks incapable of worry, plowing through life with wild children and a determination not to lose. A hand warmer buried in my back pocket burns my palm when I reach for my lighter.
I return to the Exxon station where Ms. Amanda, the woman my mother’s age, reads a romance novel at the counter. “Hey, I don’t mean to bother you,” I say. She puts her book down and straightens her face as if to say, “I’m all ears.” I tell her about how I work in the woods, and I’m scared because I have a tick bite on my stomach. I ramble on about my family being miles away and that I have no internet at the motel. How at our morning safety meetings the danger of ticks has been emphasized. I catch myself oversharing and smile at her. “Do you want to show me the tick? Is that what you’re asking?” She leads me past the rumbling ice machine, down a hallway lined with stacks of milk crates, to her office. I lift up my shirt and Ms. Amanda rolls her eyes. “You’re fine, pal,” she says. “Did you pull the head of the tick out? It looks like you did.” She gives me rubbing alcohol and antiseptic towelettes from the Exxon first aid kit. Sometimes all I want is a second opinion.
As I was spinning around on snow-covered I-79 in my Toyota, I didn’t think about hospital beds or my funeral. I didn’t think about the cliff on the other side of the guard rail. I just thought about the money. I’m here to pay off this car, not bury myself deeper in debt. I’d been having a smooth morning too, coffee and clean long johns. But the roads hadn’t been plowed and I’d lost traction. In that moment, fishtailing, nosediving through my life, it felt like I was going to lose everything in West Virginia.
In Buckhannon, the gas company rents out the basement of an old church. Folding chairs. A coffee-stained plastic spoon on top of a paper towel. The office is packed with pipeliners. Coveralls and dirty hands. Some rent rooms at extended stays. The veterans haul their campers. With my car in the shop, I try and find something closer to the office. No matter where we’re sent to work, we assemble daily in the bowels of what used to be First Horizons. A cross hanging on the wall gets covered each day by large Google Map printouts showing where we’re headed. “You’re a big dude,” a safety inspector from the gas company says. “Irish?” The two of us smoke as the sun comes up behind the mountains. “There’s donuts in there,” he says. Throughout the project, bonding between me and the inspector. I tell him I got an English degree in Montana. “I didn't learn any better how to write,” he said. “I slept with my high school English teacher though.” We laugh as our teeth chatter.
The US Post Office sign reads “Burnsville Wes Virginia” because details don’t matter. What matters is that people stay warm and come home safe at the end of the day. The NAPA Auto Parts has security bars over its doors. The closest thing to a restaurant: a tattered banner advertising the “Grand Opening” of the Iron Bridge Café, which has been closed for years. When I walk the streets, I see the lights and colors of TV sets on thin curtains and I hear coughing. The streetlights make no difference and as the train tracks rumble, I take a deep breath. I haven’t made any major discoveries about humanity in Burnsville. I just wish Ms. Amanda didn’t have to miss the birth of her granddaughter for a shift at Exxon.
My father left home after high school to wash dishes at a ski lodge before he crabbed for ten seasons in Alaska. A careless crane operator somewhere on the Bering sea ended my father’s career, allowing a 2000-pound crab pot to skim his shoulder and knock him from one deck to another. Skin was taken from his legs and plastered to his forearm. He went back to school and became a lawyer because he didn’t want to die pulling in tons of king crab. I am my father’s son, maybe doing life in a different order. I went to college out of high school, grad school after working a year at a grocery store in Montana. Now I’m getting my blue-collar cash flow on. Florida was supposed to be a place to finish my thesis after helping my sister move across the country for a job. I stayed for five years. Delivering beer in Panhandle towns not far enough away from segregation. Jean, a Haitian driver for Budweiser, was forced to deliver orders to the back door of Odem’s Bar close to the Florida-Alabama line when he started driving in the early 2000s. Sweating in the sun with Jean, I decided I’d never leave. The palm trees. The grits. Eventually I put my degrees to use at a state college. Tutoring and polishing resumes for students close to dropping out. A mother of four who worked nights at Walgreens. Football stars from South Florida who were determined, even after they were kicked off the team, to get an education and not return to their hometowns. All of us determined. But I could never pay my bills. A week after a friend told me about the money on the pipeline, I was gone.
About the Author
Conor McNamara works as a rodman in pipeline land survey. He was born and raised in Seattle. His fiction and poetry have appeared in several literary journals, both online and in print. His short story, Montana, recently appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. "Words Matter," the reading series he began in 2017 in Pensacola, provides a platform for young artists to create community and share their art.
From the Editor
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