He stopped the truck and threw it into park on a dirt road just after The Universe punched him in the face. It was as though someone who was sitting next to him had reared back and struck him across the jaw line, so clear and startling was the revelation.
He’d been working on the pipeline for several months now – an outfit called King Pipeline. His younger brother had got him the job, even managed to secure him a place on his crew in those first months. They worked together in the chemical plants and refineries of Pasadena and Channelview. It was good to work with his brother. He enjoyed it very much. But his brother had recently been sent to head up a new job in New Orleans, leaving him alone to work with men he did not know on a cattle ranch on the outskirts of nowhere while living in a cheap motel room in Goliad, Texas.
He’d started on the pipeline in the early Summer of that same year, a month after graduating from a university on the East Coast with an Master of Fine Arts in fakery and disguise. He’d vowed that he’d never take another job where he’d have to shower after work – just a few years before, sitting in his apartment in New York City with his friends, proposing a toast, “Here’s to grad school boys and to never having to lift shit for a living again.” But since then he’d done much lifting, continued lifting and had been lifting heavy objects until just a few moments before The Cosmos had tried to give him a knock out blow in the cab of the work truck which he now drove.
He’d just completed a ten-hour workday on the Polinski Cattle Ranch where he and the pipe gang were laying half a mile of thirty-two inch pipe, which was to be pulled underneath the Colorado River then used to transport natural gas to its final destination. Where that destination was he didn’t know or care.
As he sat in the cab of the work truck alone, a mile away from the main gate of the ranch he began seeing things in a different light and thinking things with a different means of process. The truck, the sky. The whole world seemed very familiar yet strangely different, more wondrous than it ever had, before this moment. And in a voice as clear as his own he heard the words, You could be happy doing this for the rest of your life. Maybe.
The sun was setting and it streaked the South Texas sky with swaths of purple, pink, orange and blue the likes of which he’d never seen before in his life. Cattle grazed lazily on that vast stretch of land. Pecan and Mesquite trees dotted the ranch as far as one could see to the south. Small flocks of birds winged through the twilight. Though the truck’s engine was off the radio still played low, but clear. It was a country music station and the song was pure honky-tonk heartbreak. Steel guitars cried and a man’s voice pleaded. The song, as far as he could tell, was about loss and moving on. Hands on the wheel. The enormous silence underneath absolutely everything – the light, his breath, the tightness of the muscles in his back and his legs all the way down to his steel-toe boots. All of the world, there, in that perfect moment. Precise. He was there.
Maybe I could do this forever? Maybe this is all I need? Maybe working hard, making money and living in motels until the right woman came along would be alright? I could pay off my student loan, buy a new truck, buy a house and be an eligible bachelor with something to offer. Hell, I might even quit drinking and doing drugs. Then he thought through the whole list again.
Could he give up trying to be an artist? Could he really work this way for the next thirty years? Would this be enough to sustain his spirit, his comfort level, while his loftier ambitions were put on hold? Could he pretend those ambitions were not there? Could he continue pouring vodka and pills on his problems? Would the fire that burned inside him be extinguished long enough for him to build an escape route to this life?
He thought of the long days of work. The sun or the cold beating him down one millimeter at a time. He would be beaten a little smaller every day. He thought of the intolerance of some, not all, of the workers on the crew, the bosses, the bosses’ bosses until it became one long chain of ignorance and fear. A chain of hate forged in the cold fires of the inability to reach out, to try and understand another human being. How many more “fuckin’ wetbacks” could he hear before exacting revenge?
He thought of the woman he might meet. Would he meet one that really loved him? One that read Thomas, Cummings and Shakespeare? One that would tolerate his penchant for carousing until the small hours? One that would stay?
Thought after thought, possibility after possibility. Scenarios from what he thought a normal happy life might look like flooded his head. Scenes with women, first dates, bank managers, car dealers, dentists, in-laws, doctors, children, little league games, all of these things filled his mind at once like some dry and desolate water tank with a rusty and reluctant valve which now broke open and flooded the parched and dry receptacle of his mind with hope and wonder. He looked at his reflection in the side-view mirror. He saw the face of a man he thought he knew staring back at him. A man only slightly familiar, like some distant cousin met only once or twice in childhood.
The sun had almost disappeared and the brilliant colors from a few moments ago were almost gone like ribbons being taken down after a birthday party. Deep indigo and lighter blues remained, hanging there in space like towels on a clothesline. He turned the key in the ignition. The engine started right away, a low loping murmur. He put his right foot on the brake, shifted into drive, released the brake and slowly made his way down the dirt road towards the ranch gate and its lock.
He arrived at the gate, put the truck in park and killed it. He got out, unlocked the gate and swung it open away from the highway which was just a few yards in front of him. He got back in the truck, started it, drove to through to the edge of the highway, got out and went back to shut the gate.
Before he returned to the truck he stopped and looked left on the highway then looked right. There was no traffic, no wind, nothing save the lights of the radio towers that dotted the horizon and what few stars had begun to shine. Time was swollen, pregnant with what The Universe had just revealed to him. Was it The Universe, or him? His own fear, intolerance and inability to reach out and understand another human being, namely himself?
He stood there in that dense stillness. Maybe this life isn’t so bad after all? Maybe I don’t need to be an artist? It could be this simple all the time. The distrust of these ideas made his shoulders tense. He drew a deep breath and sighed it out.
He needed a drink. He walked back to the truck, reached under the seat and pulled out a plastic pint bottle of vodka wrapped in an oil cloth and stored in a plastic bag. He unwrapped it and looked to see how much was left. A little less than half. Just enough to get him to the liquor store and refuel and to make the music on the radio sound better. It would also serve to help him forget the decision that was put to him, if just for the rest of the night.
He unscrewed the top and took a long hard pull. The jet-fuel vapors in the nose and the sweet burn down the throat were all too familiar to him now. He’d been drinking and drugging hard for a year now. It felt exactly right and completely wrong at the same time, like playing himself at chess and pretending not to know what his next move would be. He screwed the cap back on and shoved the bottle, rag and bag under the seat again. He got in the truck, put it in drive and headed west on the highway towards Goliad in the quiet night. The vodka had loosened his nerves like a hot bath and he turned up the radio.
The Universe had revealed itself, punched him in the face. The only question left was would he punch back and how hard? He pressed the gas a little harder and watched the needle on the speedometer rise. Night was now completely upon him and he wondered what he would do.
Luis Galindo is an actor and writer. He is an ensemble member of Independent Shakespeare Company in Los Angeles, currently playing the title role in Macbeth, and the role of Jaques in As You Like It, in their summer festival in Griffith Park. In the Fall, he’ll serve as a guest artist/lecturer at Tulane University in New Orleans. The Pipeliner’s Dilemma is part of his upcoming book, Electric Rats in a Neon Gutter – Poems, Songs and Stories from the Cities of America – due out in early 2014 via Jamberoo Press. Luis is from Texas.