MAN CAMP

There was this little second-hand bookstore on Main Street in downtown Williston, North Dakota where I picked up this battered old copy of Treasure Island for a dollar to read to my kids later that night. It was a half-off special that this store and all the other stores, restaurants, delis and pizza places offered to us oil workers from the man camps outside of town as a means of appreciation for the added revenue, though most of the other workers I knew pretty much stayed at the camp. They could have put on the impression of the mythical roughneck-hard drinkin', hard livin' and hell raisin', with tattoos on bulging biceps aiming a pool stick at a cue ball on a pool table in a crowded bar on Friday night. But many of the guys I worked with were like me. Married with kids to support. And despite coming from states as far east as Pennsylvania-where I'm from-and as far west as California in search of work-any kind of work that paid decent enough to support a family-we all preferred to keep our domestic statuses intact.

I'm a maintenance mechanic for one of the oil companies. I fix transmissions when they break down, which they do a lot while drilling, maintain supplies of new drill bits whenever one cracks or gets damaged while drilling, fix pumps and seal leaks in pipes if I find them when the crude oil runs through them. It's definitely a far cry from my old job fixing production machines in a plastic factory that folded two-and-a-half years ago when the jobs went overseas. Smaller, faster, cheaper, better pretty much summed up the reason.

When the plant left, so did my pride in working with my hands. After that there weren't any jobs around where I lived. Construction. Maintenance. Nothing. I would've even settled for shoveling shit into a ditch at minimum wage if the job was hiring. My unemployment was running out, including with the 99-week extension generously provided by the federal government. Aside from the odd jobs I was doing under the table to make ends meet and my wife Audrey's part-time cashiering job at the local Home Depot, we just weren't keeping our heads above water. Plus to make matters even more worse, the house we lived in for ten years was being foreclosed. I felt totally helpless then, broken down to almost nothing. I cried in Audrey's arms that night. I just didn't know what else to do.

Then I saw a news story on television on how the little town of Williston, North Dakota was booming-and I mean really booming-from all of the oil drilling going on there. There were so many people flocking to Williston to work that there was hardly any room for the oil companies or the town to house them all. Some were even sleeping in their cars in a Wal Mart parking lot in the dead of a minus-ten degree North Dakota winter's night. Talk about crazy! So without a second thought I decided to go for it. I applied to an oil company online and within two weeks got interviewed and hired right over the phone. Just like that. But the toughest part of it all was saying goodbye to Audrey and my kids. But I said to myself this wasn't going to be a goodbye. I was going to make things right again. I was a husband and a father and I was going to provide for this family.

I took a public transportation bus back to the camp that stopped across the street from the bookstore. It was getting near eight p.m. and I wanted to get back to eat, read a little of this book to my kids over the internet video feed (Thank God for the company computer room for keeping the family together, I often thought), say goodnight to them and Audrey and get some sleep before my seven a.m. shift started tomorrow. It was late April. The temperatures were starting to get warmer after a long, cold winter. The snow had melted and I noticed some of the flowers and trees were starting to bloom. Spring comes late to Williston, being this far north. But when it does things do get quite beautiful to look at around here.

As I rode along Main Street past the post office and city hall, I saw a few of the small stores were winding down their evening business. Flower and card shops were already closed. A barber shop was closed. A pizza place had employees inside but no customers. The parking lot of the Shop Rite looked like it was thinning out.

There were only two other passengers on the bus besides me. A seventy-something old woman sat near the front keeping mostly to herself. And in the seat across the aisle from me was a very pretty young woman who I guessed to be in her thirties. She looked up from the smart phone she was fiddling with and smiled when I took my seat. I shyly smiled back. I was never comfortable meeting women alone since I married Audrey. Apparently she seemed to fancy oil workers. I was dressed in cleaner, more casual clothes than what I wore on the rig earlier that day: a blue denim shirt with the front unbuttoned over a Villanova T-shirt, faded black denim jeans and my work boots. I guess the work boots were a dead giveaway.

"Treasure Island," she said, noticing the book I had.

"Yeah," I replied. "It's for my kids. I read to them every night. I got three."

I showed her a photo of them I kept in my wallet. Corey, Maya and Stephen, all between the ages of two and seven, all smiling.

"Mmm. That's great." she said, returning the photo. "Do you work on the rigs?"

"Yes, I do. Been there six months now."

"Are you from out of town?"

"Yep. Pennsylvania."

"Pennsylvania." she said, amazed. "That must explain the Villanova shirt." She smiled and pointed toward my shirt.

I quickly looked down to see what she pointing at.

"I'm crazy about the basketball team." I wasn't really. I'm more into pro sports, but I was just going along with the conversation.

"Guess you're a long way from home."

"I sure am."

We rode the rest of the way in silence. I turned toward the window, stung slightly by the woman's seemingly innocent comment. She seemed really nice, someone I wouldn't mind to meet again some night for a drink or dinner and more pleasant conversation in town if I wasn't committed to Audrey. But I was suddenly overcome by a pang of homesickness and loneliness. For a brief moment I felt like I did on my first day in Williston. Like arriving on an alien planet.

The bus approached a side road leading to the entrance to the camp. From there I had to walk the rest of the way. I could see the lights of the drilling rig in the distance, lighting up the sky like Philadelphia at night.

As I got up I turned and smiled again to the woman.

"Really nice meeting you." I said.

"You too." she replied. "Take care."

I got to the entrance to Camp Three. It was a two-story building of about fifty or so rooms that more or less looked like one of the motels in town. Outside on one of the benches I found my friend Russ, looking very soused. He had a scotch bottle in his hand. Having it in the camp was against company regulations. But Russ had a friend in security who paid him no mind as long as he didn't do anything really stupid. I wasn't about to turn him in either.

"Hey-hey, Russ, my man!" I exclaimed. "What's goin' on?"

"Hey, Dave." he replied, his speech a little slurred. "Care for a spell?"

He held up his bottle but I waved it off. It was getting late. But I liked Russ enough to spare him at least a few minutes. He helped me get used to this place when I first came here. He was from Oklahoma, working on the rigs there and in the Texas panhandle before coming up here a few years ago. The company made him a crew leader because of his experience. But he was more than that to me.

"What'cha got there?" he motioned toward my book. I handed it to him, and he strained a little trying to read the cover in the fading light. "Treasure Island?"

"I'm gonna read some of it to my kids tonight." I said, taking the book back.

"You're one helluva dad." he said, patting me on the shoulder. "I really mean that."

Russ never had much of a dad growing up. From the countless stories he told me, his dad was a lowlife drunk who wasn't much around to begin with. Like most fathers. Mine was one, too. Which was why I vowed to myself never to travel down his route.

I could tell something was wrong with Russ. He took another swig of his bottle and sighed, looking out toward the lights of the interstate to the west. I sat next to him, watching the headlights of the cars and trucks moving down it. It was sort of hypnotizing.

"Doris is leavin' me." he said, straight out. He was always one who never mixed with words.

My heart sank like a stone. I never met Doris, his wife of fourteen years. But Russ used to talk so much about her and his daughter Phoebe that I practically felt like I knew them. He often told me how Phoebe was such a smart girl, a "prodigy" as he liked to put it. He told me she could play the piano like a concert pianist. He was saving for tuition to send Phoebe to a performing arts school.

"She's run off with some dentist in town," he added. "Said she needed somebody to be near her."

I knew exactly what Russ was going through. It was the sort of thing that often woke me up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. That empty feeling of failure that you get when you haven't really failed. When you feel like it's your fault but it really isn't.

"I tried so hard, man." His voice quivered. He was in tears. "All I'm tryin' to do is be good to my girls."

"Russ," I began. I put my arm around him. "Someday things are gonna get better for all of us."

"I try so damn hard." he sobbed.

I gazed out again at the freeway on the prairie. Darkness was setting in.

"I know it." I said.

I left Russ outside to sober up. Before I opened the door to the building I turned and saw him hunched behind one of the bushes, retching the alcohol out.

Things are gonna get better, I thought.

When I got to the cafeteria I got a ham-and-cheese sandwich, a beef noodle ramen soup and a black coffee and sat down at one of the tables, flipping through the pages of the book I bought. There was a flat-screen TV on the back wall near the entrance, perfect for ball games when this room gets crowded. On it was some cable news show talking about how people in Greece were taking to the streets demonstrating over money problems.

Nice to know we're not alone, I thought.

Over at a far table were three workers involved in a card game. Everyone plays cards here a lot in their time off. Gin, blackjack, and Texas Hold-'em poker mostly. It passes the time. I've played a few times but I'm always the first to admit that I suck. Even my kids' used to kick my ass in gin rummy. I never had the luck most people have, so I try not to get involved in a game involving money. After I finished eating, I took a shower and changed into my sweats. It was nearing ten p.m. and I was bone tired.

I entered the computer room where several cubicles of desktop computers were set up for our use. They were the best with high-speed internet on all of them. It was usually crowded with guys checking their e-mails, surfing the internet, chatting in chat rooms and on Facebook and Twitter, and talking through webcams to their wives and families. I logged in to Audrey's e-mail address, clicked on the webcam, and in about thirty seconds I was looking at Audrey through the screen. She was sitting on the couch in the living room, looking as beautiful as ever in spite of her blonde hair being pinned up loosely and tired wrinkles under her brown eyes from the events of the day.

She filled me in on the day's news. She took the car to Pep Boys and had new brakes put on. I suggested this to her two weeks ago when she said she'd heard squeaking whenever the car came to a stop. Stephen, our youngest who was just leaning to speak, mentioned to Mommy, "Squeaky car." I gave him credit for reminding her because Audrey often forgets. Maya had lost a second tooth and promptly put it in an envelope under her pillow for the tooth fairy to pick up. And Corey, our oldest child, scraped his knee trying to do his Superman impression by flying off the swingset out back.

Atta boy, I thought.

I told her how my day was, picking up the book from the bookstore in town and some other usual stuff. I didn't tell her about the woman I'd met on the bus earlier today. It all felt like I was back home again, key word being almost.

I kissed my fingertips and touched the screen. "I love you." I said.

Audrey followed suit. "I love you, too."

She brought the kids to the screen. They were all in their pajamas, all smiling. Maya showed her almost toothless smile. Audrey held Stephen in her lap. I asked if they'd all been good and they all shouted in unison, "Yeah!'

I took out my book and showed them it was Treasure Island. I then opened to the first chapter and began to read.

"Chapter One. The Old Sea Dog at the Admiral Denbow. . ."