Work Language
SUNY Jefferson
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Work Language

Patrick Keck

           The new guy would get the worst jobs. That is the way a hierarchy operates. A new person starts at the lowest rung and climbs up from there. Eventually there will be another new guy. The previous new guy was Roberto from somewhere in Mexico. None of the others cared to work with the two newest people. They didn’t know much about the new guy, and they knew even less about the Mexican. Everyone figured Roberto knew more English than he let on, but he never said much beyond “sí ” and “no.” He worked all day at what he was assigned and said nothing. He would visit with the boss and his wife. They were Tex-Mex from El Paso, and they took Roberto in. They spoke Spanish to each other and shared meals on occasion.

            The new guy would get this work assignments in each morning and it was left to him to explain to Roberto what had to be done. Sometimes he needed the boss to serve as an interpreter. It was basic work: go to room 210 and empty it out and prep for painting, carry that couch up three flights to room 323, fix or replace the door at room 125. It was okay. There was no problem—it was a job. Both of them were pleased to have work. Robert’s accent caused that word to come out as “yob” and it took a while for the new guy to catch on. At first he laughed at Roberto for the way he tried to speak. Then he realized it embarrassed him to seem ignorant. He wasn’t a bad sort. He tried to be helpful. Roberto seemed to understand what had to get done.

            He didn’t need extra instructions. Work was work. He would stay on any task until it was done and done right. He cared about doing a good job. The two young men worked side by side every day. Roberto would stay to work late after everyone had clocked out. There were always extra tasks waiting to get done. The new guy learned to work the same way. They had nothing else waiting for them. Extra work was a better paycheck. For a few weeks, maybe the first month, they didn’t say much to each other. Work was work, and they were content with that. No one else bothered them—no one else wanted to find out what difficult task they had to do.

            They learned to communicate through their work. Simple drawings on a notepad. Pointing—a warning whistle through their teeth. A laugh, a grunt. “Oops” became one of their early common words. They would use it and laugh. They had discovered the universal language of work. Work helped them understand each other on a very basic level. There was satisfaction in a job well done. They both understood that sense of achievement. They became work mates. They knew how to work with each other. They both learned to speak the language of work. They were able to build up their work vocabulary. They improved rapidly.

            The new guy would get the assignments, but he soon learned to let Roberto take the lead. He knew how to get the job done. The “yob.” No muss, no fuss. Quick, efficient, clean, precise. No waste of time or effort. They would work together on a job and get it done. Only then would they take a break. Nothing left out of place, nothing to complete. No reason to return later to do something left undone. Pay attention to the job, and don’t get distracted. Don’t get tired, get the task completed, then relax a bit. Think about just the job. Get the job done right. Don’t be stupid. Don’t stand idle; it takes longer to complete the job. Get the next assignment; don’t give them a reason to send them home early. Work late.

            They used nods, shrugs, winks, and grins. They would point, raise their eyebrows, and laugh. Give a helping hand, an extra shove, hand over a better tool. Don’t stand back, don’t let the work mate do all the work. Try to help. Don’t leave until both were in agreement. “Good.” “Sí.” They used work-words: hammer, nail, crowbar, brush, pail, ladder, and knife. Roberto wanted to learn how to speak English. The new guy learned to speak clearly, slowly, and distinctly. He realized Roberto would watch his mouth speak. He would turn towards him so that he could see. Plain words, building block words. Roberto would practice over and over any new word.

            The work words made their workday better, more efficient, more understandable. The new guy noticed Roberto would try to watch his mouth for the words. He would read every word as soon as it was used. He wouldn’t get it right. The new guy would repeat the word. Roberto would try again. Use it later, watch the reaction. Did it come out right? Was it understood? To get a word right was a nod, a grin, a yes, a sí. They both said sí, both said no. Both would try to get it right—try to make it better—to work at the words. Roberto would practice his new words at night and then try them out the next morning. He would watch for the reaction and adjust the accent. Try again, and again and again.

            Every morning before the workday began, the new guy would drink coffee and read The Oregonian. It was a way to be connected to the wider world. Roberto would meet up with him to get the day started. Soon, the new guy realized that Roberto would watch him read. Let him read—not disturb him—give him time to finish.

            “You wanna read?”


            “Sit beside me, man; I will teach you.”

            Every morning, they would read the headlines in the paper. The new guy would run his fingers along the word and pronounce it out loud—slowly, distinctly. Roberto would follow his finger across the page closely and intently. He would mouth the word. He would look at the newspaper every day. He would struggle. They would search for news on Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. They searched for local news and any information that helped them understand their place. There was an eruption of news on the activity at Mount St. Helens. Each day, there was more news on the volcano. Roberto could not pronounce the “V.” It would come out as a “W.” Try as he might, the “V” wouldn’t form. “Va-vah-vol-volcano.” The new guy would try each time to help Roberto get it right—“wolcano” or as best he could, “wolcano.” He would get frustrated. He wanted to get it right. The new guy would laugh. “Muckin Wolcano” became their fallback word. “Close enough, man; I know what you mean. Don’t let it bother you. You’re good.” They both would say “wolcano” and laugh.

            Roberto lived outside town—somewhere, but he never said where. He lived with an American redhead who had a terrible temper and no sense of humor. She made a point to find fault with everything. The new guy would think of the quote by Francis O’ Walsh: “Some people find fault as if it were buried treasure.” That was her. The end of the workday would find them walking out of town. The new guy stopped with his pickup once or twice. “You want a ride, man? I’ll take you home—no problem.”

            “No, no thank you, dude. Gracias.” She didn’t want anyone to know she was living with a Mexican. She didn’t like the fact that Roberto sent home as much money as he could to his mother, to Quintana Roo, the Yucatán Peninsula. He wasn’t Mexican—he was a Mayan.

            Every workday resulted in new words, new meanings, and new phrases. He was even able to talk back to his shrew woman. She didn’t like that either. Roberto became less self-conscious. He would practice his words all day long, knowing the new guy didn’t mind and would help him get it right. Pipe wrench, level, sledgehammer, pliers (“ply-aaes”). They worked in the elements: rain, wind, and snow. They watched the Pacific Ocean: whales, seagulls, sand pipers, and crows. The ladies walking on the beach: “Babes, .” They read the newspaper every morning together, side by side. “Wolcano will flow,” he said one day.

            Roberto had left home when he was sixteen. He never had a chance to go back. He missed his mother. He has ten brothers and sisters—scattered. He knew one brother worked for the Mexican railroad. He thought another brother was in Yuma. He couldn’t think about it. He missed his family more than words could say.

            The new guy told him, “Ya know, I’ve always wanted to go to Mexico, ‘cept I don’t know the language. I don’t know what to look out for—wouldn’t dare go by myself, but I would take you to your mom. Any time you wanna go, we will head out and go.”

            Roberto couldn’t think about it. It was too much. It hurt.

            “No,” he would say.

            “, man. Let’s go!”

            “No.” Then he would look away. He wouldn’t show his feelings.

            Roberto was a serious worker. He cared about every detail. Skilled, precise, meticulous—he was quick and efficient. He loved to do a good yob. He showed the new guy all sorts of tricks, shortcuts, and new ways of doing an old task. He could size up any job and know how to get it done. He loved to perform sleight of hand magic tricks, Juegos de manos. He was good at distracting someone with one hand while the other was doing the trick. He loved to laugh. Both of them would make each other crack up all day long. When the others were on their lunch break, they would walk on the beach or climb up to the roof of the three-story building to watch for whales, or ships out to sea, disappearing into a swell, to reappear later.

            One day, the new guy borrowed the high-powered binoculars from the office and went out to the beach, watching for whales and the ships. Roberto came up and looked at him.

            “What is this?” was his unspoken question.

            “Here, take a look.”

            At first, nothing; then he looked at the binoculars all over. How could this be? He would look again.

            “Whales, .”

            “Here, look down the beach, man.”

            “…Babes. .”

            “Checking out da babes, man.”

            “…, babes. What is this?” he asked.


            “…Oh, man, that will be a tough one.”


            He smiled. “No, we will work on that one, man.”

            “You’ll get it.”

            From then on, he would ask if the new guy would get the binoculars to use at lunch time. Feast on sights.

            They would go to the roof with the binoculars. It was a better place to watch the whales. They weren’t looking across the surf. They were looking down, past the surf. Seagulls and crows used the roof below to watch for treasures, for food, and for trinkets. They would scatter at first wing then swing back to settle. The crows meant something to Roberto. He called them brothers.

            “Smart,” he would say. “They shit on the cowboy. Smart.” Then he would laugh.

            “Stupid cowboy.”

            “.” They would watch when the crows would take turns dive bombing the cowboys pick up in the parking lot.

            Roberto said, “They will never forget. They will find him wherever he goes. They will always shit on him. They know his hatred—he is bad.”

            The cowboy hated Mexicans. He said he “wouldn’t work with no dirty Mexican.” He didn’t like the new guy because he seemed to work well with Roberto. He didn’t like anyone. No one else felt the same way. Roberto was the only illegal anyone knew this far north. He was quiet, kind, and reserved. No one had any reason to hate him. They would talk past him. Talk fast enough so he wasn’t part of the conversation. He was never included in any friendships, never invited home for dinner. He didn’t expect it. “Not many friendly people in the USA,” he would tell the new guy. He would not practice his words in front of the others. He would stay quiet. “” and “No” and nothing more. No one knew he understood what they were saying. It was a secret—a strength.

            Roberto has been in prison for a while. He didn’t say how long. Robbery—for some food. While there, he had to defend himself against a bully. The bully went to his knees with a knife wound—a shiv. A lawyer got Roberto reported to Nogales. No problem. He was back in Yuma a week later. From there he made his way north to Apple Valley, Tulelake, Yuba, Klamath, Corvallis, then to the ocean. Away from the border, away from the crowds of illegals. Away from Immigration. He was looking for work and looking for safety. He was sending money home. Roberto started explaining survival to the new guy. He knew his friend was naïve, open, trusting. He showed him how to be wary, to trust no one—to stay on guard and stay alert—to be ready to run and hide.

            Roberto showed the new guy how to stand when facing someone, anyone. He warned him every day someone bigger, meaner, stronger would try to take advantage and gain the upper hand. He showed him how to stay on guard, how to hold and carry a knife so it could be reached quick. How to work the sheath and the strap so the knife came out fast with no snags. He showed him how to strike deep and quick, and then run like hell. Don’t hesitate—there won’t be time. Don’t think about it. Run fast. Think later. Look for places to hide. Don’t provoke a fight—don't look for trouble. Let the nasty words flow past. Words are nothing. Don’t hang around. Don’t be seen. Don’t get yourself noticed. Don’t get drunk. Don’t be stupid. Stay safe.

           The last day the two friends were together they had walked down the street to go to a bar for lunch. About once a week they would to have a meal and a few beers. Dos Equis Beer. Two X’s. The two friends. It was an acquired taste. It reminded Roberto of home. The new guy was walking in first, in front of Roberto. Suddenly Roberto grabbed his arm and pulled him back out the door.

           “Hey! What the...?”

           He didn’t understand. They went back down the street at a fast pace. He was wide-eyed and looking straight ahead. When they reached the hedge he turned to look back towards the bar. He looked at the vehicle. He counted quietly. He walked to the office and spoke to the boss in Spanish. They both looked alarmed.

           “Stay outta sight, I’ll handle it,” the boss said.

           The two friends went back to a room they had been painting.

           “What’s going on?” asked the naïve one.

           “Immigration. They are here.”

           “You sure? How do you know?”

           Two suits—waiting at the bar—no drinks. The new guy never noticed, never gave them a second thought. Someone had turned him out. Someone felt righteous—“The cowboy.” It didn’t matter. It was done.

           “You go now!” Roberto said.

           “What? No we’ll figure this out. There’s gotta be something we can do.”

           “No, you go now! Go!”

           There was no arguing. There was not time. The new guy walked back to the office then saw the dark blue can with yellow lettering pull in the parking lot. Agents with guns drawn. He counted—ten of them. They spread out.

           The lead agent was angry with the boss. If they had to search the place each one of them could be arrested for aiding abetting.

           “Tell me where he is hiding!”

           The new guy couldn’t do it. They pushed him out the door, with a heavy hand on his neck. Each doorway he would call out his friend’s name, fumble with his keys, pretend the door was stuck.

           The agents got angry. “Take us to him now.”

           Finally to the room they had last worked to completion. By that time he hoped there was enough time for Roberto to run down the beach. He opened the door and he could distinctly smell the pungent smoke from a joint in the freshly painted room.

           “A yoint,” He would call it.

           “Dude, what are you doing Man?” He was in disbelief.

           Roberto flicked the stub out the window looking at the ocean—the surf, the birds, the whales. He looked at his friend, the new guy and winked. Then he gave him a hug and walked out the door with the agents. He never said a word. He didn’t want them to know he could speak and understand English. All that was left was their tools on the floor.

* * *

           It has been years—no, it has been decades. Every time the old guy picks up a tool, he will say out loud, “hammer” or “square” or “level”—clearly, distinctly, sadly. To this day he will complete a job and ask out loud, “Good?”


           He always carries binoculars on a walk.