The Roof Is on Fire

Ben von Jagow

On one especially hot day in July of 2016, I found myself walking through Big Spring, Texas. I had spent the previous night camping on a small patch of grass behind a department store and had fled the scene just after dawn. After a supermarket breakfast, I began heading north towards Highway 20, where, if all went according to plan, I would hitch a ride west to Odessa.

Despite being early, the sun was high in the sky, baking the pavement, cooking the streets. I had been walking for close to twenty minutes and was already drenched in sweat when I heard someone shout from across the street.

“Hey, guy.”

Being the only person dim enough to stroll the Texas streets in the heart of summer, I knew the call was directed at me. I turned and saw a tattooed gentleman standing atop a roof. He was waving me over.

As I crossed the street, I took note that the man was not alone atop his roof. Four or five other shirtless individuals, no less tattooed than he, were casually hammering at nails, lugging bags, pulling shingles.

Ah, I thought, roofers.

“What are you doing?” asked the man once I was in ear-shot.

“Walking to the highway,” I said.

This caught the attention of a few of the workers. They had stopped attending to their tasks and were evidently trying to decide if what they had just heard was worth any further attention.

“Why?” he said.

I began to think about how I was going to answer when he interrupted me.

“You want a job?”

I blinked. Recession my ass.

“No, thanks," I said. "I need to be getting to Odessa."

“How are you getting to Odessa?” came out as “How you gittin’ ta Dessah?”

“Just going to hitch a ride somewhere near the highway,” I said.

This caught the attention of the entire crew.

“What?” asked the inked man.

I scoured my brain for an explanation but found nothing. All of a sudden, I was very conscious of the five men staring down at me, literally and figuratively. "I'm not crazy," I wanted to say and probably would've done so if one of the workers, positioned on the roof's crest, hadn't spoken.

“I’ll take ya,” he said with the nonchalant air of someone volunteering to take out the trash.

I turned towards him. He was using a flathead to pry loose a stubborn shingle.

“Yeah,” he said, not interrupting his work. “I got a meeting with my parole officer in Midland, so I’ll drop you off.”

Before I could comprehend the significance of what I had just been told, the first guy piped up.

“Perfect. You can work half the day, make a little money, and then ride up with Keith.”

And so, just like that, I found myself atop a roof in Big Spring, Texas, pulling shingles, where, at the day's end, I would depart for Odessa with "Keith."

After agreeing to the terms, I started to contemplate if this was, in fact, an intelligent decision. I knew I’d be taking a chance with Keith, who, let me just say, was All-American in the sketchy department. But then again, I looked sketchy, and Keith would be taking a chance on me. Despite not having a mirror, I knew I looked and smelled like someone Jeffrey Dahmer might associate with. Besides, hitchhiking had proved to be rather difficult in Texas; who knew if someone would pick me up.  So, I said “to hell with it” and decided to take the ride.

As it turned out, the roofers were friendly. The work was hard, and the fiberglass from the shingles was forever penetrating the skin, but it felt good to be earning some money. It was also painstakingly hot. The black tar paper appeared to crave the sun’s attention, and the sun seemed more than willing to accommodate. We cooked like the contents of a stir fry until our fleshy pink backs had been seared to a nice candy-apple red.

At one point in the day, I asked about the weather in Texas, and to my surprise, the group remained silent. They looked at each other as though I had just inquired about the conditions in Honolulu. This I didn’t understand because one of the guys had told me that he had never left Texas, hadn’t even seen the ocean. After a couple of seconds, one of them answered.

“We don’t really know. We’ve all been in jail for the last few years.”

“Ah,” I said. “Cool.”

The group seemed reluctant to talk about their time behind bars, so instead, the conversation turned to me. Where was I coming from? What was I doing in Big Spring? I told them that I had spent the last six months backpacking around South America, but instead of receiving the standard “Oh cool, which countries?” response, I was greeted with a very genuine “Why?” It was the initial guy, the one who had called me over. His tone suggested that I had just confessed to voluntarily peeling my eyelids back with a can opener.

“I guess I wanted to see the world,” I said.

The consensus was that this was not a viable motive, and the discussion quickly returned to something more interesting.

At three o’clock, I was offered a couple of sweaty bills and a handshake. I said my goodbyes and then hopped into the passenger seat of Keith’s black pickup truck.

“All set?” he asked.

I nodded.

Keith glanced at the digital clock on the dashboard and then peeled out of the lot, leaving a cloud of gray dust in our wake.

For the first few minutes, we refrained from speaking and instead soaked up the AC's cold air. At a traffic light, Keith scanned through his radio presets.

“You like country music?” he asked.

I did, but even if I didn’t, I wasn’t going to tell him otherwise.

We rode in silence until Keith stopped in front of a small residential home, where we were joined by Keith’s girlfriend, Misty. Suddenly, Keith wouldn't shut up. It was like he was a battery-powered toy, and Misty was his switch. He was animated, he was witty, he was everything the previous Keith wasn’t, and it made me anxious.

The source of Keith’s excitement, I was surprised to learn, was me. The man was more than eager to tell Misty all about his newfound friend in the front seat.

“He was just walking down Simler and decided to work with us for the day. He’s from Kansas!”

“Canada,” I interjected.

“Right, Canada. And he has a backpack with a tent and everything,” he said.

Misty wasn’t listening, I wasn’t listening, but I don’t think Keith noticed, or he simply didn’t care.

The ride dragged on as though lulled by the Texas heat. Keith rambled like a small engine while Misty and I sat in silence, awaiting a chance to enter the conversation. But Keith’s mouth was a faucet, his dialect a steady stream, free of interlude. He also shifted between topics so rapidly that, if an opportunity did arise to contribute, your point was about three topics past its prime and was thus irrelevant. It was exhausting, and after a while, both Misty and I gave up and tuned out.

After an hour, we reached Odessa, or, as Keith called it, “The Murder Capital of Texas,” a point I wish he had withheld because I was planning to camp there that night. I said my goodbyes and thanked Keith for the ride. He really was a nice guy, despite what his file at the Texas State Police Department might say.

Keith didn’t tell me much about his jail time or his crime. All I found out was that he had tried to smuggle a copious amount of marijuana across the US-Mexico border. He had told me that, had the border patrol officer not looked in the bed of his truck, he would be stinkin’ rich.

Had Keith looked in a mirror prior to that trip, he likely would’ve seen a pretty shady character staring back at him. So, it didn’t surprise me much that border patrol had asked him to pull over to the inspection area. Also, Keith was rather talkative. I’m sure that, after being questioned if he had anything to declare, Keith told a long and convoluted story that touched on a few topics before concluding with the fact that he was trafficking some narcotics but to keep it on the low because his goods weren’t exactly “legal.”

Again, I’m not certain about the logistics. All I know is that Keith ended up in a State prison, and I ended up in the front seat of his car. I also know that he didn’t feel it necessary to add first-degree murder of a Canadian hitchhiker to his sentence. And because of that, Keith is going down as an alright dude, maybe not in the books of the law, but in mine, he’s top-notch.

So, on the off chance that you’re reading this, Keith, maybe you’re doing alright for yourself, or perhaps you’re back in the slammer. Either way, if you ever need someone to speak on your behalf, whether it be for a parole hearing or a job reference, I would be more than happy to vouch for you. Texas forever.


About the Author

Ben von Jagow is a writer and poet from Ottawa, Canada, who lives in Stockholm. His work has appeared in literary journals such as Amsterdam Quarterly, Marathon Literary Review, The Stockholm Review of Literature, Jersey Devil Press, Gordon Square Review, and the Literary Review of Canada. For more of Ben's work, visit benvj.com.