Story of the Month
Deadbeat first appeared in Down & Out Magazine, and was chosen as a Distinguished Mystery Story of 2017 by Louise Penny, editor of that year’s The Best American Mystery Stories. A story of steelworkers on an unsafe construction site, inspired by the time a highrise construction crane collapsed and fell onto a Manhattan bar I was about to visit as part of a St. Patrick’s Day pub crawl. The bar owner and a kitchen worker were killed. Many other things inspired this story, but I’ll mention them at the end.
by Thomas Pluck
We’re a thousand feet over the city when Chad Egekvist asks me if I’ll do him a favor. The crew is lifting the boom of the crane up the skyscraper, the most dangerous part of the job. This is when the giant steel monolith pulls itself up by its own bootstraps so we can add more girders and build higher. The bedrock of Manhattan’s good for it. But if someone’s gonna die on the job it’ll be now, and Ege is distracting me from eyeballing the rest of the crew to make sure they’re keeping safe, and it ticks me off. It’s not like we’re eating out of our lunchboxes sitting on an I-beam, like in those photos from the thirties.
I tell him not now and he gives me a look like I’m the asshole when he knows he’s the one being the asshole, and I ignore him. He’s got fifty pounds on me but I got the seniority, and if he so much as spits at my feet he’ll be working shit shifts for chump change for a year if he’s lucky. Ege knows this, and backs off. The boom goes up and locks down, and I give my crew of connectors, including Ege, the sign to go back to work positioning and riveting the beams that hold everything together.
These days I’m a foreman, but I did my time. Put in the long hours to become a journeyman ironworker, worked my way up to connector, linking I-beams until my right knee went. All that time you spend bent, sitting on the beam with your boot on the bottom rail while you rivet, it catches up to you. You favor one leg as long as you can and then the other one wears down until you got two bum knees. I got my right one replaced a ways back, but the left one’s acting up, and my kids’ school is bleeding money. So I’m still working on the bad knee, chewing oxy to keep the throbbing down, even though all I do these days is stand up here on a steel perch in the sky and make sure no one does something stupid and gets themselves killed, or worse.
Like get me killed.
The shop steward calls a break for me and my crew, and instead of climbing down to eat with the steward I join my guys on the beam. We eat sack lunches and wash them down with coffee, let the sun warm our faces, the spring breeze whip our hair, blowing away the smell of honest sweat from our Carhartt jackets. I catch a tickle of whiskey from my cousin Kari’s Thermos and flash him the eye.
I’ve been dry three years now, ever since the first knee surgery. I’d been drinking to take the edge off the pain and Dani, my wife, she watered my bottles down slow, so I hardly even noticed until I begged her to bring me a nip in my hospital bed. She told me to work through it, and I did.
The Demerol made it easy.
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