Rod Picott Looks Back on Life Working Construction on "Take Home Pay" (premiere)
All at once a blue-collar anthem and a searing personal account, the Americana artist is every bit a songwriter as he is an author in this song and short story premiere.
With Out Past the Wires, Rod Picott is taking to not one, but two forms of media to relay his stories. These stories—deeply evocative, humanistic works reflective of much of the artist's own life—are delivered to his audience in ways that speak to both the eyes and the ears. Releasing on 30 March, the project—one of many across Picott's nearly two decades of expertise — captures the riveting narratives that he develops in both an album full of music and a collection of short stories. Each title in Out Past the Wires delivers a song and a story of the same name, with Picott premiering both iterations of "Take Home Pay" with PopMatters today.
"'Take Home Pay' – This is a narrative song – my stock-in-trade," says Picott. "The details come mostly out of my own life. Back when I was working construction, I could see the black clouds gathering in the distance. They were telling me, 'You better make a move buddy or you're heading into a storm that you won't survive.' I got out just in time. No shoulder surgery yet. My back is a twisted mess from those years working construction but I'm grateful I made the move."
Musically, "Take Home Pay" is every bit of a piece of Picott's life sliced onto a plate as it is an anthem for the blue collar worker. Derived from his experiences working in construction, the artist's hearty voice drives the roots-rocking track forward, captivating in both its gorgeous melodies and the very real subject matter.
As an author, Picott essentially expands upon these themes. It comes in more brutal than some might initially respect, with the story's beginnings setting its troubled protagonist in the face of very nearly committing a horrible crime for the sake of money. Without giving anything much away, it's a raw and harrowing look into the realities that the world deals far too many of us. Coming down to it, it's a sadly real story reflective of how everything and everyone are constantly—and often ironically—driven by the power of the almighty dollar.
Read "Take Home Pay" by Rod Picott below:
Danny Miller pulled a carpet knife from his back pocket with his right hand at the same time he wrapped the contractor around the neck with his left arm, so that when he pulled his weight back they both fell hard – the contractor landing on top of him, his back against Danny's front, staring up at the bright summer sky, the knife pressed against his throat. As the two men fell, a fat Mexican pushed forward and tried to make his way from the back seat of the Mercedes, but Eddie Cantrell stomped the door closed with a hard kick from his work boot and pointed his finger straight at the men in the back seat so they would not move, and they didn't.
"You'll cut another check, or I'll rip this fucking knife through you."
"It's a mistake."
"It's not my fucking mistake. I'm going to let you up. You're going to write another check for the full amount and those two guys are staying in the car. They try to get out of the car, I'm gonna cut you open. You tell them."
The man didn't have to address the two in the back seat. They wanted no part of what was transpiring. The fat Mexican had only made a half- hearted attempt to get out of the car in the first place – more to make a show for his boss than to get involved. Danny loosened his left arm from around the contractor's neck, the man's face red from choking, and slid out and up from under the man before the contractor had fully righted himself. The contractor bent, hands on his knees, coughing hard for a moment, then stood straight and looked around for the book that had been knocked from his hand. The man was winded but other than that unmarked, except for a small red hyphen just under his Adam's apple. He found the leather covered check-book near the curb and leaned on the hood as he wrote.
"Don't come back," the contractor said.
"Don't worry about that, you fucking snake," Danny replied.
The contractor got in the car and pulled away slowly.
"We need to go now, before he puts a stop on it," said Danny.
"After that? He ain't gonna put a stop on shit.
You almost killed that fucker."
"I hate these bastards. They think because they skim off the Mexicans, they can skim us?"
"How much did he back charge?"
Danny Miller and Eddie Cantrell loaded the stilts, step ladders, planks and hanging tools quickly into the faded green Ford pickup. They drew ties around the ladders and planks and pulled away from the job site. Across the street, a teenage girl watched them blankly from the huge bay window of her new home, a finger curling slowly in her brown hair. The pickup drove through the development, ignoring the speed limit and banged recklessly across each speed bump. When they reached the entrance gate, Danny turned right, heading towards Lubbock and the bank whose logo was on the check, instead of left towards Amarillo and his apartment and his own bank.
"You're gonna have to go, you know," Eddie said. A statement, not a question.
"I've had enough anyway."
"Me too. It's been 15 years and we're getting the same board price we was back then."
Danny's left arm was weak, aching from the strain, and his hands were shaking slightly as the adrenaline started to have its way. He held the steering wheel tightly with both hands, his knuckles white, so that Eddie wouldn't notice. He scanned the rear view mirror every few seconds, just in case. They drove into the parking lot of the bank and pulled over. Danny took the check from his wallet, signed it, drove up to the drive-through, cashed the check and the two men were on their way within a minute. As they exited the parking lot, the contractor's Mercedes pulled in, the car nearly touching the side of Danny's truck as they passed close. Eddie leaned and shot a middle finger from across the bench seat, but the contractor didn't look up.
The pair drove north toward Amarillo, stopping only to fill the tank, each buying a 12-pack of beer and a barbecue sandwich at the gas station in Tulia. Danny took 87 instead of the Interstate to avoid the state troopers who occasionally stopped work trucks like his for minor offences and so that they could search for drugs. Danny also had it in the corner of his mind that it was possible the contractor had called them in, though he knew Eddie was right. The Mexicans weren't about to witness and it was most likely done and dusted as long as they didn't go back to Lubbock anytime soon. Somewhere just past Happy, Texas, where 87 turned slightly west away from the Interstate, Eddie pointed east out his window.
"Yeah. Big one."
In the distance, blue and white bunting danced a wicked jig in the wind. Large conical speakers hung from tall poles, their honk and bleat barely heard above the road noise. A hundred or so people sat in folding chairs. A few stood waving their arms ecstatically, some waved from their seats. The preacher was in full blood with fists high in the air; he screeched into the microphone in rhythmic waves of words. Each proclamation had the same rhythm and each looked more dramatic than the previous. A sign was nailed to a rancher's gate: 'Revival This Weekend' hand-painted in red letters.
"He looks like Jerry Lee Lewis," said Eddie. "Probably lives like him."
"Think he's married to his cousin?"
"If he is, he's found the Bible passage says he can."
"They got a way of twisting that stuff." "They got a way of back charging, too."
"Don't doubt that. Everybody's back charging somebody."
Back at his apartment, Danny was restless and upset somewhere inside he couldn't place. He tried to watch television but the voices irritated him, so he shut it off and tried to read a magazine, but found himself reading the same part over and over so gave up on that as well. He pulled the tab on a third Lone Star and sat staring out the kitchenette window from his one kitchen chair. He thought about Becky and wondered where she was and how it had gone wrong. He thought about the time when he had visited her at the doctor's office where she was the receptionist and she had led him back into the examination room and taken him in her mouth. He thought about all the cheap things he had done to her and the lousy ways he had treated her and he let it fill him until his guilt and self-loathing felt good, then he kept thinking until the good feeling turned into something dark.
Outside the apartment, the parking lot was filled with the laughter of children, the shouts of mothers calling them home, and pleas for just a bit more time. The long horizon darkened slowly from pink then orange to deep purple and the twelve-minute sky held back the coming night. Danny fell asleep in a DAV armchair as the children's voices faded, and then he was filled with fitful dreams.
Demons shouted curses at him. Black horned things with impossibly long fingers like the branches of trees clawed at him. A deep well opened at his feet and he found himself standing at the precipice of a great void. Preachers – naked, blind, bleached white and hairless – ranted gibberish into his ears from as he strained to hear, panicked, to make sense of their words. Above him, black clouds flew by in fast- forward. He lost his balance and fell forward into an endless depth. The open mouths of the screaming preachers followed him as he fell forever down.
When Danny woke it was barely morning, the sun having just crested the horizon. He brushed the acrid night from his mouth, rinsing a few extra times, and he felt a strange darkness in himself. He stared into his own eyes in the bathroom mirror until, completely unsettled, he turned away. He felt as if he was both himself and someone else. As though his dream-self had woken with him and inside him. The carpet knife was on the metal kitchen table where he had left it. He took the knife with its hooked blade and ran his thumb across the edge. It was sharper than he expected for a knife that saw so much use.
He slipped it under the newspaper that was on the table so that he wouldn't have to see it.
Danny made a full pot of coffee and fried two eggs. He stood over the toaster and smelled the electric heating elements as they browned the bread then slopped the eggs between the toast and ate it as a sandwich at the kitchen door, sipping strong black coffee between bites. His thoughts turned to Becky again, but not to the doctor's office.
This time he thought about when they had first met and how he'd been embarrassed about the tobacco in his lip and the plastic soda bottle into which he'd been spitting the thick brown liquid. He remembered trying to figure out how to get the tobacco from his mouth without her seeing, mortified to be holding a bottle of his own refuse. They'd met at a party held by a friend of a friend and Danny had been nervous and jittery trying to speak with her, finally summoning the courage to ask to see her again before leaving the party with his stomach in knots. They'd had a decent enough run of it until he had made a mess of things by sleeping with a waitress one night when he was working out of town. He'd been feeling down and let the waitress pursue him, agreeing to meet her at a bar near the job site after work. He'd fucked her on the bench seat of the pick-up truck out in the parking lot, the door open, Danny standing in the gravel drive, the waitress still wearing her top, her skirt on the floorboard of his truck. After they finished, the woman left in her own car and Danny had gotten sick in the parking lot, knowing what he'd done and already knowing that he would tell Becky. He tried telling himself he might not tell her in an effort to keep from being sick again when he got back to the hotel. He remembered the rawness of his emotions and the thought of what he'd done and felt queasy all over again. It somehow felt good to think about this horrible thing he'd done and what a shit he'd been, as it helped to have a reason she was no longer with him. Her clothes were no longer sharing his closet, her hairbrush with its sweet smell no longer in his bathroom, her lovely tanned limbs no longer stretched out in his bed. It helped make sense of things to know he deserved to be where he was, alone in his shit-hole apartment.
Danny showered, dressed, brushed his teeth, then walked out onto the shared balcony of his apartment. The sun narrowed his eyes and gave him a headache. The sky was exploding with light and belted down on his eyes. He got in his truck and drove from the parking lot, silently cursing the children on their bicycles for intentionally being slow to get out his way. The dreams seemed to stay with him and he couldn't fully shake the bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. He knew he'd been reckless with the contractor and felt both his seething anger at the man and at the same time embarrassment that he'd come so close to hurting someone over money. In his mind, he could not find the place where his anger and embarrassment met. There seemed to be no way out of the trouble, which started his anger rising yet again at the contractor for putting him in that position.
On this cycle went as he drove aimlessly, feeling the warm air across his brown forearm where it rested on the truck door. Danny drove south – retracing, without thinking, his route from the day before. Thirty minutes later, just outside Happy, Texas, he saw the banners and the blue and white bunting waving wildly at him. He pulled the truck to the shoulder and cut the engine. For a long while, he sat still in the truck, the sun refracting cruelly through the windshield and extracting a full sweat from his body. The dreams ran in his mind like a film, but visceral; he could feel the strange preachers' mouths against his ear and could see the horrible visions. When he tried closing his eyes, the scenes became more vivid. His stomach was queasy. He thought again about the contractor and both shame and anger rose to a head. Danny sat long enough to sweat through his t-shirt, then got out of the truck, waited for a passing semi, and crossed the road to the revival. He felt his self-consciousness rise as he neared the group, smaller today than yesterday, and the hairs on his neck raised as he got near enough to hear the preacher's words in the hanging speakers.
"There's thousands of people gonna die tonight across the world. Thousands of those people are not gonna be ready to meet God. That's why I read you this first thing that God told me – that God called you and touched you for a reason that you can touch somebody else. And if we don't start touching people, don't worry 'bout the word cause God said he hastens the word to perform it. And I didn't have anybody in that room with me in that little room but a little bitty Bible about that high and that big and that's all I had to read was the New Testament. But the Bible says any man can cometh unto me and no- wise I shall not cast him out. And I said, 'God, if you want to see a picture of me, I make a Hell's Angel look good!' I'm really telling you the truth. I was a miserable looking beast!"
Calls of "Amen" came from the crowd. No one looked at Danny as he approached, their eyes either cast down or trained on the sweating preacher.
"And God did a transformation on me, so much that I had my dad take me over to my mother's house on the way to church and all my family was on the porch and they didn't recognize me! They didn't know who I was. That was God's transformation! And there's thousand will die tonight to spend the rest of eternity burning in hell!"
Sweat poured from his forehead, the collar of his thin polyester jacket was dark blue and wet down to his chest. When the preacher raised the Bible high to accentuate his words, Danny could see the man's armpits were soaked down to the bottom hem.
He sat in a grey folding metal chair at the back of the crowd and listened. Across the field, the land was dead flat. Whispers of dirt rose up threatening to form devils, spun for a moment, then lay back down again. The sound of the preacher's voice was sharp and rhythmic from the speakers overhead.
"And all they had to do was say Jesus come into my heart, I accept you as my savior…I want to be born again!"
The preacher roared along and Danny began to feel his troubling dreams lifting from his mind. He felt a cold chill in his neck and the hairs on his arms raised. His eyes were wet before he knew it and his knees moved up and down involuntarily, his chest billowed in small wracks. He could feel himself crying softly and could not stop himself, though he felt no particular embarrassment. No one paid him any mind and he continued crying, not truly trying to stop and only somewhat even aware of himself. The dreams floated up and away from him and he felt their release. He felt his anger leave him too. Across the field more dust devils spun up and out.
"You know what you become? A brand new creation, a brand new creature. I'm talking about a creation of God. He's the Lord God Almighty if we know him well and know him rightly…"
The preacher kept on, and the sun did as well as it moved slowly in its summer arc across the sky. The man talked for hours. Danny's crying softened and he found himself immobile, the air around him filled with the man's words. The words sounded beautiful to him, the enormous blue sky yawned wider than he'd ever seen, and his body felt un-tethered and limp.
As the preacher started to bring his unceasing sermon to a close, a young boy in a starched white short-sleeve shirt emerged from behind the makeshift pulpit with a shoe box in his hands. The boy made his way across and down the rows stopping fully in front of each person, pushing the box in front of them and looking directly at them, awaiting each donation. The boy stood achingly long in front of some of the faithful, the box extended in front of him. As the boy moved, the preacher's eyes followed along with him and he exhorted directly toward whomever the boy stood in front of. The bills continued to pile into the box and when they reached the top, the boy pushed them down again to make room. When the boy reached Danny, he pulled his wallet from his jeans and emptied the contents, a feeling of exaltation coursing through him. Looking up, the preacher's gaze buried deep into his own.
"The wicked borroweth, and payeth not again! Well, if you don't pay your taxes, sorry, I'm not twisting it – you are wicked...otherwise get some scissors and start cutting these verses out, but don't carry a Bible that you say you believe in and then debit to follow if you don't intend ever to take every single word of that book be you doers of the word and not hearers only – deceiving your own selves!"
The boy finished collecting from the last row, then walked briskly back to the stage and behind it, the back of his shirt clinging to his sweaty neck. Danny sat still as the crowd murmured amens, some of them speaking softly to themselves, most with eyes cast down toward the dirt at their feet as they rose and left slowly. He did not move. When the last of them had made their way to their cars, Danny finally stood in the quiet. He could hear the plastic bunting slapping softly against the wooden poles and the low electrical hum of the muted speakers. He made his way down through the parade of folding chairs, a wonderful heavy feeling filling his chest. When he neared the back of the stage, he heard the preacher's voice, now soft and raspy from his work.
"I'm going to have to back charge you, son. You worked them too quick; there should be more here."