Carlsbad Tarantula – Part One

I arrived at the Sentry Fuel ‘n Food Mart early – an island in a maelström of oil field service and potash mining vehicles. The display in the dash of my company truck glowed 5:10 am. It was going to be a hot one, even for mid-July in Carlsbad.

Yesterday’s rain was a memory. Red langbedite and sylvite dust, the essential elements supporting much of the hubbub in this mining district, already hung in the air. Before the day was over I would be destined for another pass through the car wash down on Church Street. It seemed foolish to me that the engineering company for whom I worked would issue its management types spanking white Ford F-150’s in such a pink environment. But I guess they figured it important to maintain a certain sparkly decorum when dealing with the rowdy characters who dig their living from the ancient sea beds of New Mexico’s Permian Basin.

As the troops converged, the crust of yesterday’s mud fell from the undercarriage of their rigs. Pink explosions peppered the warm asphalt of the lot while trucks jockeyed for prime spots at the pumps. For the next twenty minutes or so, a horde of denim- and Carhartt-clad men – and a woman or two – tore like hyenas at the limited supply of ice, assembly line sandwiches, microwave burritos, chimichangas and energy drinks. I watched from a distance. At the risk of sounding superior, time was of a little less value to me than these folk. I enter my hours at my leisure on a Friday afternoon spreadsheet – no time clock or breakneck rush through the Sentry rules my morning ritual.

But still, I had dragged myself out of bed at 4:15 that morning, a claim that probably wouldn’t have counted for much had I intended to hob-knob down at the Blue Coyote that evening after the happy-hour wimps had fled and left the place to the real men and women of this – no joke – salty earth. That crowd has long since adapted to heat, grit, wee-hour waking and the heartless labors of their employment. Of the workers who fell from the crew cabs that morning, some were hungry, exhausted and understandably angry at facing another 105 degree workday, others were sanguine at the prospect of living merely to extract gas, salt, oil or potash from this defiant earth. Clearly, it takes all kinds; and in my way, I was one.

From the periphery of the illumination encompassing the Sentry’s lucrative facility, I watched the crews ebb and flow. National Public Radio’s Steve Inskeep and company murmured in schooled diction from my speakers as last night’s insects still darted in suicidal passion against the searing glass of the parking lot’s sodium vapor lights. From the calm of my cab I barely heard the banter of the workmen as they loaded their coolers, and was unaware of the 300 cubic inch diesel idling silently at my feet. Like me, even the machinery in the employ of the engineering company, is the pampered recipient of disposable corporate cash and regular maintenance.

I usually let the tide recede before taking my place at the Sentry’s coffee nozzle. But that morning it turned out that I would have company. I would have to hustle for once. A green Dodge Ram Crew Cab had lingered too long in the current of darting vehicles. I watched it suspiciously as if it were a wounded animal. Simpson Oilfield Services read the logo across the truck’s flanks. As I regarded the vehicle, the driver’s door popped open and a short, very dark Hispanic man in a reflective vest and green hard hat strained to lower his boots to the asphalt. In a moment the hood was open and he had disappeared into the maw of Simpson’s rig. By the time I returned to my cab with a brimming mug of Sentry’s oily java, the fellow was standing by his truck talking intently into a smart phone.

For an instant we made eye contact. He looked familiar, but I wasn’t certain; since being assigned to Potash Compaction Plant Two five months ago I have seen hundreds of men tripping through their morning routines. The driver of the disabled truck must have found something familiar in me, too, because after barking a few commands to the four fellows sharing his truck, he approached.

I descended from my cloud and prepared to make contact.

“Bud’ty, we needt a handt. I bet you’re a goodt man, heh…” The driver’s voice fell away as if he were shy – as if he were asking an embarrassing question. I realized I had profiled the man incorrectly. His was the characteristic speech of the Apache. The round, handsome face confirmed what I had not perceived from across the lot. I should have known after months in this place, not to judge the Permian people by flesh tone.

“Hey, man I seen your rig up on ‘Paction Two… yeah, we’re just down the roadt at J-19. My guys needt a lift…” The driver was friendly but insistent. He would provide no more detail without prompting. The Apache way.

I was a little apprehensive, not at the prospect of getting involved with this fellow and his crew, but at the fact that I am wedded by routine to NPR’s morning broadcast. Coming to these boys’ rescue would likely put the kibosh on a thoughtful, informative drive into work. “J-19…that’s one of the gas wells down Jitter Creek Road off 180, right?” I asked.

The driver nodded and glanced back at his truck.

“You’re Simpson guys, huh? I hear you fellas do good work.” I flashed a sincere smile. Compliments are rare in these dusty fields, I’ve learned they go a long way. “What’s your name?”

“Ikshu… they call me Icky.” A thin smile flashed across the driver’s broad face. “Alternator dead. We’re screwdt, I’ll get her back on roadt quick, but yeah, you can run my guys up to our job, heh? I’ve got some goodt buff’lo jerky…”

“No pal…you won’t owe me anything, just get their butts over here pronto.” I glanced at my watch as if I gave a shit. “But they’ll have a ride back tonight, right?” I couldn’t bring myself to call him Icky. The driver gave me a thumbs up and hollered at his crew while I collected rolls of drawings from the back seat and stowed them in the bed box. My radio issued a report on a drone strike in Yemen as four men struck out across the gulf between gas field services and project management.

I presented a casual, welcoming face to the four fellows, feigning tolerance as the spotless grey upholstery of my back seat succumbed to the grime of my accidental passengers, and squawking only when it became apparent that all four of the workmen planned on cramming into the back seat: “Dudes, shotgun is wide open. Somebody, c’mon…up front.” I snapped my fingers with Sergeant Bilco urgency.

A flash of panic played across the face of the last man out, an alarmingly thin, freckled Anglo cowboy attempting to wedge himself into the remaining inches of the rear seat. Unlike the other men who each were already wearing their hard hats, he sported a tall cowboy hat. A dark blue hard hat covered in an impressive display of job decals, hung from his right arm. The cowboy had been around, he knew that I knew MSHA regulations require seatbelts for each passenger on a mine site, and he appeared uncomfortable that I would call him on it, but he was clearly more worried about sitting in the leather passenger seat of my uncommonly clean Ford, terrified, I think, that he might have to make small talk with me for 45 minutes in the chilling absence of country music.

I never thought anyone noticed, but it occurred that he had probably seen me keeping my distance from the mob in the Sentry’s pre-dawn lot, and that I had been pegged as boss material: Liberal. Educated. Distant. There may some truth in the characterization, but I am only marginally educated and truly don’t feel superior. Admittedly, I have shied away from Miller-time gatherings at the Last Crossing Roadhouse, and passed up joining in the grab-assing when the break room was too rowdy. I have mastered the ambiguous nod to retreat behind white-collar status. But if I am aloof, it is only out of shyness. After a life of coping with that affliction, one learns when to screw up the façade of confidence, and when to embrace invisibility or savor solitude. Since coming to work here, coffee and the radio on a solo drive into the sunrise each morning east of Carlsbad have currently filled that bill.

Grudgingly, the freckled fellow flung open the passenger door and climbed aboard. He made a show out of adjusting his seatbelt and settled solemnly into the seat as we pulled away – his lunch pail and hard hat cradled in his lap – the cowboy hat still perched on his head. I tried not to intrude but noticed a tattoo peering from beneath the sleeve of his left arm: A rattlesnake coiled around the handle of a bowie-knife. The image startled me from my initial impression of the skinny young man as some sort of Huck Finn.

With a welcoming smile clamped on my face, I glanced over my shoulder to take stock of the three fellows behind me: Two Navajo steelworkers and a Mexican millwright. The Navajos I have worked with are often shy, unlike the Apache or the Zuñi who tend to be inscrutable. These two young men – I’d guess 25 years – were no exception. They nearly blushed, then bowed to examine their cell phones when I jokingly suggested that since there was plenty of room on the seat they didn’t have to sit so close. The third rider cracked up at what I guessed he thought was some homophobic inference in my suggestion.

Instinctively, I suspected faux laughter, and that this fellow was programmed to score points with anyone of authority. Or was he mocking me? He made me more uncomfortable than the mysterious character seated beside me. But I, too, am instinctively programmed: To suspect anyone trying to take my measure. That attitude makes me neurotic, and probably explains the buffer between me and so many of my cohorts in this treacherous world where the measure of a person is critical… where you may have to rely on anyone at any moment for life and limb.

I gathered my breath: Did they want to listen to something other than Morning Edition? Of course not I assured myself, and before they had a chance to reply, I switched the radio to a sure-fire selection: KBIM Country Giant. Bound to cross the cultural divide I presumed. Haven’t seen an Indian or a cowboy yet that didn’t dig country music, but I had my doubts about the patronizing Mexican. I figured he’d act like he liked whatever I dialed in. Toby Keith burst into the cab in mid-song. I tapped the steering wheel with my wedding ring, trying to act like I was moved by the music. Several bars in it became apparent nobody else was similarly touched – no foot-tapping, humming, or lip syncing stirred my passengers. Fuck, I thought, might as well have kept NPR on the air. The Country Giant cued another tune with a guitar-heavy intro. I looked at the dial, had I bumped the knob to Classic Rock? The music sounded pathetically like the Eagles. The skeletal roughneck beside me twisted in discomfort on his seat. Hemorrhoids I guessed. I guessed wrong.

He looked directly at me with an earnest, honest question. He took me by surprise. “Do you like this horse shit?” Turns out the sinewy Huck Finn had a foul mouth, too. “I quit listening to this fucking crap after Waylon died… just saying, boss.”

Boss…did I deserve that? Did he not think I had jumped to a fair share of foolish, arbitrary tunes from my superiors? I wanted to tell the emaciated fellow that he’d probably do better if he abandoned the crack pipe, took up kombucha and kept his god-damned musical opinions to himself. But I feared he might slash my throat…and besides, I agreed with him. I always seasoned my musical palette with a careful selection of country and western, but like him, my tastes in the new sounds from Nashville, or wherever they conjured up this country pop, stopped back with Randy Travis. A broad smile broke across my face despite myself. “You got that right, pal. I usually just listen to the news. Too bad I don’t have satellite radio, I’d put on that XM Real Country station. Good old stuff, 24-7.” I was getting somewhere, now.

“Whatever, man.” Replied the cowboy, dropping the useless subject to watch as we passed a convoy of mobile frac sand pumps.

“You don’t know shit about music, Justin.” To my surprise, a voice from the rear seat scolded the cowboy. I raised my eyes to the mirror. It was the Mexican. “Waylon was good, but ain’t you heard Rodney Crowell, Hank Jr. or Junior Brown?”

I was secretly impressed that the Mexican wasn’t afraid to call the sullen fellow in the seat beside me on his rude musical opinion. Then again, maybe he was just trying to ingratiate himself with me? Either way it took some balls, but who knew. Lord knows what debts the cowboy might already have owed his antagonist. As the realization sunk in that the relationships of these men extended far beneath the surface, the cowboy replied to the criticism by hoisting an arm above the seat and directing a bony middle finger toward his crew mate. He never took his eyes off the frac pumps. Never uttered a word. I depressed the accelerator, the sooner I got this volatile crew to the gas fields the better.

Several silent minutes passed. Somewhere along the line I once learned that a good host knows how to keep the conversation flowing. I should have known by then that a sleep-deprived crew still awaiting the effects of their first coffee may not be all that keen on small talk. But I am a slow learner and I took another stab at rallying this crew into happy chatter. “How is J-19 coming along. I see you guys erected a surge tank a few days back. Is she on-line?”

I turned back to my passengers to make eye contact with the Navajos in hopes of drawing them in. One of the shy duo raised his eyes to mine and shrugged: “Lot of muddy shit, man…” He dropped his attention back to his phone. It appeared he might be looking at photos of his children or his brother’s children or their children. His five word reply was clearly his last word on the subject. The Navajo way.

The Mexican heard the brief exchange and was eager to offer a bit more detail. He reminded me then of a helpful, bright Border Collie, and I mean that in a good way. My opinion of the fellow was already changing favorably. “Oh man… Chee is right on. That mother’s got an appetite for mud. We’ve been pumping shit down her throat for 2 weeks, ain’t got nothing back but crap gas. That tank you saw…empty. A waste of money.” A full set of bright teeth broke from a smiling mouth, “But I coulda’ told ‘em…this hombre is bad luck. She’s my thirteenth well. That figures, huh?”

“Sure does…if you’re superstitious.” I smiled at a real exchange. “Thirteenth. How many years would that be?”

The Mexican stopped to count out some math. “Graduated from high school here in Carlsbad – a Caveman – in 2002. Started right in on the fields, with Simpson. Wow, thirteen years, same outfit. Double bad luck. I was hoping for a good auto mechanics job or junior for a NASCAR crew, but Simpson was hiring. And crap man, you just don’t walk into NASCAR. Good thing we’ve got work here. Got lots of oil in the basin.”

The cowboy perked back up. “Lots of fucking salt water you mean, Trujillo. That’s ‘bout all I ever seen.” He turned in my direction to reply to Trujillo’s comment. I imagined I smelled a trace of alcohol. So did Mr. Trujillo.

“Jesus, Justin. I hope there’s no piss test today. You’d better keep your ass out of the harness today, dude. Damn it, man.” Trujillo’s voice had shed its playfulness, the Collie in him turned Shepard. “Man, you know the Coyote is off-limits after ten. Ain’t you ever heard of sleep?”

“Piss off. The Coyote is fucking home… and I’ve been coming home safe since I was fifteen. I been closing her down since my first fake ID. Had my first fight, my first fuck – you name it – out in Coyote’s parking lot.”

The two Navajos began laughing softly, stirred by caffeine and the mention of fucking. They murmured in their tongue and a mixture of American slang euphemisms for sex. From the corner of the mirror I recognized their childlike comradery. The themes were universal: Someone got lucky. Someone is jealous. Someone is skeptical. Someone has passed gas. Their laughter, although restrained by a persistent 200 year-old cultural divide, rose in volume. An innocence clung to these young men. Wide awake now, they put their phones away and punched each other in the shoulders congenially. Suddenly it was hard to imagine them tumbling from my pickup in 30 minutes and strapping on fall protection harnesses and taking to the harrowing heights of steel work above J-19.

Then, as if a breeze purged the car of all antagonism and the smell of Sentry breakfast sandwiches, the mood changed. Justin flipped open his smart phone, and without visible means Trujillo knew exactly what the cowboy was seeking. “Don’t tell me you’re still drooling over them Glass-Packs down at Napa Auto. Dude, I told you: Luppy’s on highway 260 in Artesia, he’s you’re man. Save you plenty.”

Justin’s posture improved – pleased that Trujillo still recalled their conversation about mufflers during lunch down in the motor control center last Thursday. That conversation evidently covered a lot of automotive ground and left Justin with the impression that Trujillo sincerely shared his love for Chevrolets. His classic ’78 Camaro deserved the best. “Oh yeah, your cousin works there, right?”

An ethnic slur hovered in the air, but Trujillo knew Justin was too grounded in the blood of this working town to buy into a stupid stereotype. He realized Justin might be a red-neck, and at times a drunken asshole, but paid real attention to anyone or anything worth listening to. Trujillo snickered, “Yeah, my cousin…Ramon. Look him up. If his shit is good enough for low-riders and Pachucos, it’s good enough for you.”

The exchange jumped abruptly from automotive accessories to family as Justin popped up a photo on his phone and passed the device over the seat to Trujillo. “Gloria snapped this one yesterday.”

His chatty compadre smiled at the picture of a little girl. “Man, she is looking sweet…how old is Felina now, three?”

“Yeah, three. Fucking hard to believe…her birthday is on Saturday.”

“Wow, man…and another month she gets a new brother, heh?” Trujillo was apparently up to speed on his workmate’s family milestones. “How’s Gloria doin’ carrying Justin junior around in this heat?”

“Ready to pop, dude. She and Felina ‘bout spend the day in the wading pool.”

If there was any friction between Justin and Gloria from his late nights at the Coyote, it wasn’t discernable. From his reflection in the passenger’s window I saw the young father’s smile beaming like a ghost as Trujillo passed the phone bearing the photograph of his daughter over to the Navajos. They approved. In the day ahead they knew they would have to rely on each other for safety and support in a world of crushing steel fabrications, dizzy perches and incinerating electric current. Approval was a vital element, like good steel in a set of carabiners.

I turned back to the road. Soon the spindle steel of J-19 rose above the horizon. 5:45 AM, I knew they would make it to this morning’s safety talk with a couple of minutes to spare. The last time I looked at my passengers before we arrived at the dusty bivouac area outside the gas well’s security shed, a contest to determine who owned bragging rights to the best lunch entre was underway. From what I gathered, Trujillo’s freezer bag of home-made Buffalo wings was edging out the other contestants’ Baja Lunch Wraps, Big ‘n Beefy Microwave Burritos and Peking Cup-o-Noodles.

These relatively young, relatively tough men in black denim, sinister tats, black silk skull caps, tight braids and bandanas might have appeared threatening to an outsider, but as they concluded the lunch pail contest and bartered coveted candy bars for plugs of Skoal, they still acted like 4th graders. The bonds of survival are forged in the most unlikely of ways.

In the last few minutes before I dropped them off, the foursome fell silent. As sunrise’s shadows stretched across the laydown yard adjacent to J-19, they gathered themselves to wrestle with work and survival in this unforgiving environment. Their entire culture, or at least their audacious demeanor, was an adaptation to these rigors. But as their steel toes met the drifting red dust, a solemnity overcame them: caveman, cowboy and Indians. They could just as well have been trudging off to work on Mars. I lingered to watch Trujillo, Justin and the Navajo twins approach the shack housing the time clock. The little structure reminded me of the shrines that spring up unexpectedly along roads in Mexico. But there were no flowers, no rosaries, no holy water or photos of the departed, just the canary yellow and hot pink of news bulletins from MSHA and the contractor’s HR officer.

Before the fellows got out of ear shot, I rolled down my window and hollered at Justin. He turned to face me, clearly hoping that we might never meet again. I tapped my hand to my head, and he instantly realized his error. In a flash he yanked the cowboy hat from his skull and replaced it with his hard hat. If MSHA had been in a pissy mood, Justin knew he could have been fined or worse. Despite himself, I could see the glint of a smile as he acknowledged that, for the moment, I had his back.

Without notice, the ear-splitting squeal of a 150 ton crane’s corroded bogies shattered the din hovering about J-19. I considered a prayer for deliverance of my accidental passengers as the beast crawled into position. Justin tamped his hat down tight and he turned to face the monster…

continued in Carlsbad Tarantula – Part 2, appearing in Some Gumbo in the weeks ahead. copyright, Don Anslow, 2016