Sitting on the curb during 10 o’clock break, Colin could hear the high beeps of the Genie scissor lift. Something was always beeping on construction sites. The beeps were paired with the whine of the electric motor turning feeble tires through mud. Metal clanged against metal as the workers laid stainless steel studs against the cold iron guts of the building. Colin could smell the ions of polarized heat from the metal grinders and saws over the waft of his dingy steel toed boots. His cigarette smoke masked the construction smells, but they always came back.
The breeze that swayed the trees turned into a wind that whisked the thin grey cloud ceiling towards the mountains. The treetops bent towards the east, and the blue sky shown through the clouds. Maybe if I got off early I could take Ella to the zoo, Colin thought. That was always their spot. She was in first grade now and had half days on Fridays. Carrie probably wouldn’t be back from work until six. She might never know. The neighbor gave Ella rides, and watched her in the afternoon. He thought back to his parole officer’s advice after he was released on good behavior, “If you go within 100 feet of her the least you will get is a month in county, and 50 hours community service. I’m sorry Colin, but it’s the only way you can get out of here.” It was a good deal at the time, but he didn’t sleep any better outside of prison than he did in. He wanted to see her. Maybe I shouldn’t, he thought.
The shrill of a saw blade turning inside pierced the air. There was a low banter of voices in the building as the men had returned to cutting and placing steel studs on the frame. Colin finished his cigarette and put his hardhat back on. He heard the foreman trying to talk over the saw as he entered the job site. The saw cut out quickly.
Colin heard the echo from the first floor, followed by the clanking of workers dropping tools. Someone yelled to the foreman, and ran to the office in a modular trailer. The structure guy Dave ran by Colin. “Kenny cut off a finger,” he said, as he ran to his truck. Dave pulled his truck up to the curb. Kenny’s brother Juan had a severed finger in a lunchbox. He walked Kenny over, his hand wrapped in an orange visibility vest soaked in blood.
Colin ran to open the door for the brothers. Dave’s truck smelled like cherry Twizzlers and stale smoke and it made him pause. That smell never left his memory. It smelled the same as the blue van Colin’s crew used to get away from the robbery two years ago. He thought back to that day. Poor choice for a getaway car, he remembered thinking.
Kenny and Juan were in the truck, but Colin’s eyes were blank. “Close the door, let’s go.” The driver yelled the same words 20 months ago. He’d taken too much time in the pawn shop. He froze, thinking of Ella while he grabbed the cash from the drawer. He was supposed to pick her up from school later that day. Carrie had to work late. He didn’t think that would be his last time to see her.
“Colin, close the fucking door,” Juan said. He snapped back to the moment. Kenny was doubled over in the back holding the bloody vest tightly on his hand. “You’ll make it buddy,” Colin said, and slammed it shut. They raced off to the hospital, and Colin walked back towards the site. The foreman called him from the door of the modular and told him to come inside.
“What happened in there? Is Kenny going to be okay?” the foreman asked as he took off his clean white hard hat and sat down. Colin was grateful that the foreman was willing to hire him. Even so, like everyone else, he hated that he never helped out, even with the easy work. His hard hat was a mocking formality.
“I don’t know sir; I was coming back in from break when I heard him. Dave went and got his truck to take him to the hospital. Can’t afford an ambulance. His finger was fully off.”
“Shit, that’s a nightmare,” the foreman said, scratching his head, “If they’re quick they’ll get it back on.” Colin looked on at the shelves full of blue prints and mock ups. He knew that he wasn’t summoned to recount the story.
“Colin, you know, you’re a really good worker. I really do like you; you’re always on time, you put in a full day, and you work smart. I knew you wouldn’t be trouble, even with your history.”
“Thanks. I was going to see if I could maybe split –”Colin was cut off.
“But, with an accident like this, OSHA will be coming out for an investigation, and they’ll be checking everyone and the site out and what not, asking questions. We can’t afford to have you around, being paid under the table and all.” Colin knew the words before he heard them. He needed the job. 7-Eleven wouldn’t even hire him.
“This isn’t permanent though, right? Kenny will get better and come back. It’s just a break, right?”
“I know, but it’s going to be at least a month or two before they get around to everything. I’m sorry Colin, I’m happy to have you back when we can. Just, not for a while,” the foreman looked down and started writing notes. Colin headed for the door. “You have to leave your hardhat.”
Colin placed his scraped hard hat on the desk, and walked out the door. Looking up, the bright sky glared in his eyes. Without work, he couldn’t keep Ella off of his mind. He wanted to go see her, needed to. He knew he shouldn’t go. It was his only chance to catch her when Carrie was gone.
Colin climbed the privacy fence and tapped on the back sliding door of his old house; the neighbor watched Ella until Carrie got home later from work. Ella was watching TV in the living room. She was surprised at first, but then she ran to the sliding door, her mossy green eyes shining through the glass. Colin put his finger to his lips to keep her quiet. He opened the door slowly.
“Hi, sweetie,” he whispered, smiling wide.
“Daddy!” Ella said, running to cling to Colin’s leg. He shushed her. She looked up at him. “Where have you been, daddy?”
“Your mom doesn’t want me around anymore. But she’s not here, so I thought I’d stop by and see if you would go to the zoo with me?” Colin asked. “They just had leopard cubs.”
“I want to see them! Mom never takes me. I’ll go ask Mrs. Walorski, she’s doing the laundry.” She ran to get her jacket. Colin stopped her.
“No, no Ella, don’t worry about Mrs. Walorksi, it’ll just be you and me,” he said, holding onto her hand. “It’ll be our fun little secret.”
When they pulled up to the zoo there were peacocks loose in the parking lot. Ella jumped out and ran over to stare at one picking through the grass for worms. Colin walked over. “Ella turn around, I’ll get your picture with it” He took a photo on his phone. He didn’t have a picture of her since she was four. “Look at how green it is Ella. It’s just like your eyes.”
They went up to the kiosk and Colin paid cash for two day passes. The clerk notified him that they would be closing in an hour and a half. Passing the turn-styles, they went inside.
“Daddy, let’s go see the leopard babies.”
“Not quite yet, we always see the elephants first,” Colin said, “Lets save the leopards for last.” They went to the elephant pen, just like they always had. The Asian Sanctuary smelled like lilies and wet grass. It reminded Colin of how Carrie used to smell. As they went through, Ella stopped at every plaque and asked Colin to read it to her. They passed a security guard by the red wolves. His radio garbled about a search for someone and their daughter. Colin continued past him, on to the monkey cage with the industrial rope swings. The animals all had makeshift toys that were almost broken. There was an empty keg for the tigers to tackle and roll on, and little plastic balls for the otters and meerkats to throw around.
On the path to the aquarium, Colin spotted a cop car parked outside the entrance. The cop was at the ticket booth explaining to the clerk that he needed to get in. Colin picked up Ella and walked her quickly into the aquarium. She was amazed at the giant tank where they combined all ocean species from small sharks, and steelhead, to rays and starfish.
“Look, someone sunk a boat in the pool,” Ella said laughing. Colin barely heard.
“Yeah that’s funny, isn’t it? Let’s keep going.” Colin was looking at the door. The security guard just came in. He gave him a nod and walked past him, holding Ella’s hand. He gave a quick nod back, but then followed them outside. “Sir, can you hold on one second,” the security guard said to Colin ahead of him. Colin didn’t look back. He picked Ella up. “Let’s go check out the leopards now. What do you say?” He took a quick right before the seal display, out of sight from the security guard. He could hear the guard calling on the radio.
They raced over to the leopard pen. It was full of tree logs that were makeshift walkways in the canopy. Colin set Ella down and kneeled beside her. They searched through the foliage, looking for a glimpse of irregular spots and yellow color. All they could see was still green leaves and dead brown sticks.
“Daddy, where are all the leopard babies,”
“I don’t know honey.” Colin looked at the door. One of the wardens came out of the feeding door beside the glass in muck boots and latex gloves, her curly hair pulled back in a hat. “Hey can you tell me where the new leopard cubs are? My daughter and I came to see them.” Ella shouted out “Leopard babies! Leopard babies!” The woman looked over at Ella and him apologetically.
“Sorry guys, they just went in for the day. We did a display earlier and they’re pretty tired.” She walked out of the entrance, and the security guard and a policeman walked in. “He’s there,” the guard said pointing at Colin and Ella. Carrie ran in after the cop.
“They’re gone daddy. We should have come here first,” Ella said. She was interrupted by the policeman. “Hands up Colin. Step away from the girl.”
“I’m sorry sweetie. We should have,” Ella’s big green eyes began to swell.
“Colin. Step away now.”
“Easy, easy,” Colin said standing up, placing his hands on the glass of the cage. Carrie ran and picked up Ella, as they took Colin’s hands and cuffed him.
“Oh Ella, are you ok?” Carrie said, holding Ella tightly. “Jesus Colin. You know you can’t just drop by and take her to the zoo.” Carrie pinned Ella’s head to her shoulder. “You’ll never see her again,” Carrie said, marching back to her car. Ella began to cry hard in Carrie’s arms. The policeman escorted Colin to the zoo exit. As they walked off, Ella struggled out of her mother’s grip. Ella ran up behind him and clasped around Colin’s leg. The policeman stopped and kept a steady hold on Colin’s arm.
“Are you going away forever, daddy?”
“I don’t know honey. I’ll visit you sometime soon,”
“Thanks for taking me to the zoo,” Ella said with tears in her eyes.
“Anytime, Ella. Thanks for coming with me.” Ella went back to her mom.
The cop bagged Colin’s belongings downtown. The gritty concrete and cafeteria food smell of the jail was all too familiar. The guard let Colin take one more look at the picture of Ella next to the peacock, her green eyes shining in the sunlight.
*Like what you see? Read more of the author’s work @ hellopoetry.com/david-james-