The Job at the End of the World
A weary resilience worker should know better than anyone: no one is safe when the world is always ending…
The nail gun was busted so I was up on the roof with an actual hammer. It wasn’t bad: a minor storm had come in overnight and swept the heat away. The morning was bright and almost cold, even in July. A good morning for work.
There were an odd number of us on the crew, and I had seniority, so I’d ended up with a motel room to myself on this job. A clean room, with a bathtub. There was no stopper, so last night I’d stuffed a washcloth in the drain and filled the tub, then soaked my bones for an hour, adding more hot water every few minutes.
In the empty bedroom the TV talked fire, flood, heat, and storms. It talked riots and the injustice of the failing courts. It talked war. It talked the way the TV had talked all my life. I found it comforting. I listened as I always did, imagining Earth from space at night. As the TV named places they lit up on the rotating globe. But on any given day, most of the world remained dark. Unnamed. Safe. Most of the world—massive beyond measure, unknown to any one of us—just went on, in peace.
So I’d had the luxury of a bath, a quiet evening on a decent bed, and even what the motel called a “continental breakfast”—an environmentally correct ecofoam cup of drip coffee and a sticky, slightly nauseating blueberry muffin wrapped in unrecyclable plastic.
But he wasn’t about to shut up, and I knew it. I’d worked with Anton six or seven times. A couple of fire-season jobs, a hurricane-season job, three tornado-season jobs. I worked the Galveston Tsunami with him, and I was his team lead for the reconstruction of downtown Los Angeles after the fiver tornado touched down.
Anton was everywhere. Like me, he worked all the disaster seasons. He stayed on the move with any crew he could get on, signed with whatever company was giving the best deal. Anton never had trouble finding work. He could roof, he could frame, he could drywall, he could wire. He could do plumbing, tile a bathroom, install windows. He could even manage some basic HVAC. And he never complained: Anton would strip mud-soaked carpeting out of drowned living rooms, salvage copper pipe out of condos shattered by hurricanes, clear drains clogged with the bodies of dead animals—even if they were the kind that wore clothes and walked on their back feet.
Anton never complained. And he never, ever stopped talking. Everyone on a crew with him learned soon enough that no matter what you did, he wasn’t going to shut up. Spend a day with him, and you learned a lot about his life. You learned about the way things were after the war in Ukraine, when he learned how to do everything he knew, putting up one UN-funded prefab building after another in cities that had been reclaimed from the Russians as nothing more than piles of shattered concrete reeking of death. About how he’d built from west to east, right up to the Line of Contact, where every once in a while you’d hear a thump in the night and come out to see that bear-paw shape a mortar left in the middle of the street, or on a wall panel you’d just put up.
Then, when Anton felt he’d done enough, he’d walked away from Ukraine. He’d walked west, following jobs across the EU and eventually to the United States, where the pay was better and the regulations—as he put it—“basically do not exist.”
You learned a lot about his life, but you also learned a lot about other things. About the conspiracy theories that crawled around in Anton’s brain like ants moving bits of snipped-off reality around into piles. About Anton’s bizarre religious ideas, triangulated somewhere between Orthodox Christianity, thirdhand shamanistic claptrap, and flaming millenarian swordfights in the sky.
That was the track he was on that morning: the religious track. Fucking up the start of an otherwise glorious day while I hammered within earshot.
“I am up there on the roof tacking and some lady she comes by and she looks up and she says to me, ‘You are doing God’s work.’ And all day after I am thinking about this. Turning over in my brain. I am thinking—God’s work? What she mean by this? Because depend how you see it. If hurricane is God’s work, if God send hurricane to destroy this place, and hurricane do its job really well. Then we come in and we build all buildings back . . . how is this God’s work? What I am thinking, after what lady says to me, is that maybe this is devil’s work we do. Because maybe what God want is to push human beings back a little, yes? We are arrogant. Think we can do everything, have everything, not paying attention. And God says—Here. Here is limit. But we are not interested in limits. We have insurance. We have president who shakes fist in air and says, ‘We will rebuild.’ Nothing is more arrogant than this. So maybe this is devil talking.”
“Then why do you keep working for him?” I asked.
“For who? President?”
“For the devil.”
“Devil pays best rate going,” Anton said. “With pretty good overtime and per diem.”
We stayed there a month, working for the devil or whoever. A glorious month of evenings soaking in the tub of my single room. The heat returned. The drowned town, rising from the polliwog-choked pools of its flooded basements on 2 × 4 skeletons, started to take shape. Not the shape it used to have: that couldn’t be reclaimed. The shape of something new, born of insurance and federal dollars, of people trying to correct mistakes, but also of people trying to make their lives better.
What they don’t tell you is that when people’s lives are destroyed, sometimes it is a blessing. People talk about damage and loss, but what they don’t talk about is the way the storm can wipe a life clean. The way it can give you a chance to start over. The way it reveals pathways you couldn’t see before. For some people, the storm, the tsunami, the fire—they are salvation. They sweep away a world that wasn’t any good to start with. Sometimes, when people move away after a storm, it isn’t because they are afraid another disaster will come: it’s because one disaster was enough to do what was needed.
You can’t tell that to the cameras. You can’t stand in the middle of your ruined town and tell MSNBCNN, “I can’t believe it. Yesterday, this was a shitty town I hated with every atom in my being. And today? All that’s gone!” then give a whoop of joy and walk off.
I soaked every night with that washcloth stuffed in the drain and I realized: I was tired. I’d been doing this job for three decades. I had started back when I barely spoke English. Back in the days when we had no union. Back when we had no health insurance, no bargaining power, no binding contracts, no base pay, no protections. Back when sometimes, at the end of the job, the company just dissolved, leaving nothing for a worker’s compensation claim to stick to, even if you did have the legal wherewithal to make one.
Now, it was different. Over the years, they had come to realize how much they needed us. This had gone from being a job for the desperate to something respected. We were resilience workers now, holding the line against destruction.
But I was getting tired. The people I’d started working with were all gone. Some of them were dead. Some of them I’d seen die—electrocuted at the edge of a canal, impaled by rebar when a parking garage collapsed, swept into oblivion when a damaged dam finally broke.
But most of them just walked away. They learned to do something else. They set up contracting companies of their own, bought vans with ladders on the roofs and their names on the sides. They completed night courses and became other people: IT techs, paralegals, dental assistants. One of them even became a smokejumper: I guess she wanted to see what destruction looked like while it was still happening.
Not me: I stuck around. Fire season, tornado season, hurricane season: the tail of one is always in the mouth of another. You can follow destruction’s loop all year long. I’ve been watching the world end for thirty years. It just keeps ending.
You get addicted to traveling. You get addicted to meeting the new crew, to the conversations around the table in diners good and bad, the camaraderie of bringing a place back to life. You get addicted to the opportunities, too: I’ve been all over the world. I mean, the world isn’t ending only in America. And most places have their local versions of us, but when it’s too overwhelming for the local crews, they fly us out. I’ve taken my tools to many ruined towns I’d never even heard of until they were destroyed.
The yellow-and-black DeWalt drone dropped another box of nail cartridges next to me on the roof. The nail gun was working again. It was hot, and we were all in boonie hats. Anton had covered a lot of verbal ground in a month, but now he was back to his favorite subject.
“What I am imagining,” he said, “is what would happen if we not rebuild. Say we leave every town destroyed. Goodbye, Malibu that God has been trying to kill forever. Fire destroy you. Goodbye, coast of Florida, full of alligators and sweaty old farts. Hurricane drown you. Goodbye, Los Angeles, where you sit in robot car in traffic until ass hurt —giant tornado eat your freeways. Goodbye, Tahoe, where techbros bother forest animals and drink nasty craft beer taste like marijuana. Tornado eat you, too, but tornado made of fire this time. Fire tornado amazing! God make this one special for douchebags who drive up property values and turn place to shit. Goodbye, Nebraska—buffalo come back and poop all over farms that drained water from giant underwater lake to make nothing but high fructose corn syrup. After California turn into one big fire all year, nothing left to burn. No asshole to grow thirsty almonds in desert on government subsidy. Every once in a while, you pass chimney in forest, think: oh yes, people used to think they could live wherever they wanted. But God taught them lesson. And they learned. All the people move together now. Stay out of forest. Stay off beach. Occupy smaller space. More simple life. Own less. Do less. Work less. Think more. Nature come back.”
“And yet,” I say, “I’m sure I’ll see you next season.”
“Like I say . . . devil pays best rate going. And devil may be many things, but he is not quitter.”
But what I am thinking now is that there won’t be any next season for me. I’m not just soaking in the tub every evening for enjoyment: I’m tired. My bones are tired. My joints have had it. Thirty years of mucking out storm drains. Of swinging a sledgehammer, a shovel. Of standing in hip waders in water reeking of decay.
I’m tired—and I’m also reasonably wealthy. With no one to spend my money on but myself, and all my expenses covered for most of the year, I’ve managed to save up and buy a place of my own.
I’ve made my paradise as safe as possible. It overlooks the sea, but is far enough away that the waves could never reach it. The forest that was once around it burned a decade ago, leaving little fuel to ignite again. The trees have started to come back, but I won’t let them near my little house with its fire-hardened metal roof, its ember-proof vents and boxed eaves, its fiber-cement walls and tempered windows.
On the last day of the job, we stood around in the parking lot, saying our goodbyes. It was time to turn it over to the local contractors. We’d nudged the town back toward existence: now they would finish the job.
Anton was already gone—signed on to another job that paid better, he said. I didn’t ask where he was headed.
A week before, I’d turned the TV off. Maybe for good. It used to be that the world was mostly dark, and safe, no matter how many disasters the television named. But now it seemed like the TV was just listing as many names as it could, until that whole spinning globe seemed like one rotating ball of flame. I knew that wasn’t the case, of course—but it had begun to feel that way. It had begun to feel like maybe Anton was right. I had started to have strange religious thoughts of my own. What if when the cities of the plain were destroyed, they immediately began to rebuild their walls? What if after every plague, Pharaoh shook his fist at the sky and said, “We will rebuild!”? What if before the flood all the sinners built boats, then floated around waiting for the waters to recede so they could pump their basements dry and file their insurance claims?
Enough. These were the thoughts of a resilience worker whose own resilience was beginning to fray. What I really needed was some time not spent in a motel room. Time to hike in the hills on what was left of my knees and enjoy what I had saved up for myself, what I had built.
On the flight home I found myself thinking of the time I had stayed in the ruins of paradise.
Hurricanes do strange things. In fact, all disasters have a strange way about them. They destroy entire cities but leave one or two buildings standing, almost untouched. It’s as if they want to leave us with something to compare their destruction to. A control subject for their experiment in ruination. Over my thirty years, I’ve seen houses lifted into the air whole by a tornado and set down whole a few hundred yards away, with no more damage inside than a few chairs knocked over and a broken glass in the kitchen sink. I’ve seen a stand of trees as green and alive as any untouched forest, filled with singed deer, their eyes glossy with terror, bordered on all sides by a waste of shattered black stumps. I’ve seen a yacht set on the roof of a five-story building so neatly that a crane plucked it off and set it back in the water, and its owner raised sail and tacked it away.
I’ve seen all of that. But what sticks in my mind most is the time in my first hurricane season, when we stayed in the ruins of paradise.
It was one of those all-inclusive beach resorts. The kind where you move from buffet to pool bar to lounge in a vacant rhythm. Where you spend weeks forgetting the world beyond white-sand beaches, palm trees, the glistening surfaces of pools and wet skin and sea.
Not the kind of place I, or anyone I worked with, had ever been to in our lives.
It wasn’t the whole resort that was spared: it was just a wedge of it, a set of bungalows that had suffered nothing more than a few cracked windows when the storm came through. By a trick of the landscape, the storm surge had not reached them, either.
The rest of the tiny island was gone—nothing left but splinters and rags.
The company we worked for moved us into the resort on generator power. It made sense: these were some of the only buildings standing. At most sites we would stay at some motel outside the destroyed area and commute to our cleanup area. But here, on the island, there was no such place.
The staff of the resort lived in the buildings, too. They were seasonal hires from all over the world, flown in on guest-worker programs. They had nothing to go back to yet, so they were happy to finish out the season and keep making money.
The company ships brought supplies into a quay a mile away. We spent our days clearing debris, surveying, beginning to rebuild. But we spent our evenings in the light of tiki torches, eating toothpick-skewered delicacies off the buffet, and swimming in the ocean under the stars. The rest of the world was gone, we could imagine. Maybe not only this island—maybe all of it.
We were there for months as the insurance companies delayed and haggled and we cleared and built. We lived our days as low-paid construction workers—and our nights as vacationers from the upper-middle class. We came “home” from work and changed into flowered shirts and evening dresses we had found clinging to the torn trunks of palm trees. An entrepreneurial resort staffer had a boat and offered evening dive classes, so some of us spent the sunset hours underwater, drifting among the more distant coral reefs the storm had not touched. That was what I did. Nothing could have been more peaceful.
Maybe that was what I was trying to get back to, soaking in the tub: that feeling of immersion, every evening, in a world of drifting calm.
When the job ended and we flew home, I was disappointed to find that everything was still exactly as it had been.
Maybe that’s what everyone feels, coming back from vacation. I couldn’t say. I’ve never had a vacation. All I have had, these thirty years, are pauses—a few days of anxious joblessness, bookended by destruction.
The plane began its descent. I thought—but not anymore. Now I had time, stretching out in front of me. Time, and enough money to enjoy it.
There are firefighters in the airport bar, laughing and watching a baseball game on television, their kit bags scattered at the feet of their stools. Headed to a place where, had I not just retired, I would also be headed in a few days. The first responders save what can be saved—we rebuild the rest. I scan their faces, looking for my friend the smokejumper. Every time I see firefighters, I hope to see her face among them.
We’d run into each other’s arms like old friends. Two survivors from the old days. I’d finally know she wasn’t dead.
I never saw her face because of course she was dead. I dreamed her death at least once a month—the tissue-thin parachute angling in a desperate zigzag, seeking a way beyond the horizonless cauldron of fire.
Some things, you don’t need to find out. You know the outcome the moment the decision is made.
I retrieve my car from the airport parking lot, wiping its windshield clean with a rag. I drive slowly, watching the emergency vehicles descend from the hills, tired faces behind the wheels. The ash has covered everything in a thin, colorless layer. The firefighters weren’t headed out to a disaster—they were headed back from one.
All that is left is a foundation. The firestorm that came through obliterated everything else. The molecules of my retirement are probably already in clouds above another state by now.
I pitch the tent I always keep in the trunk of my car on the foundation, blow up an air mattress, curl into my sleeping bag. As always when I am tired, I sleep perfectly well.
I wake to the crunch of boots on tempered glass and unzip the tent flap. A man in Hi-Viz coveralls stamped with the name of a company I’ve worked for twelve or thirteen times is walking the edge of the foundation with a surveyor’s measuring wheel.
It is an absolutely glorious day: one of those mornings when the overnight clouds break up into yellow tatters, bright and cool. A day made for hiking. Underneath it, everything is stripped to the bare cracked earth, salted with ash. I brush a circle clean with my boot and sit down, looking out over the ocean.
The man finishes his measurements, then walks over and sits next to me.
“Beautiful place,” he says.
“It is. Was, I suppose.”
“You have insurance?”
“Good. But do not rebuild here. Sooner or later, fire will come again.”
“Yes.” I realize there are tears on my face. I am not sure when they started.
Anton put his hand on my shoulder. “Do not be sad.”
“I thought it couldn’t happen to me,” I say. “I’m not a victim. I’m a responder. I was prepared. I thought I was.”
“Nothing to be done. Firestorm over one thousand degrees. Fire tornados dance off shore, even. Burn boats in the harbor to the waterline. Pyrocumulonimbus – you know this word? It is hard word. I practice this word many times. Pyrocumulonimbus cloud was seven miles high. Nothing survive.”
“I should have known better,” I say.
“Not to worry,” Anton says. “We are slow learners. But we have time. World will end for as long as it needs to.”
“The Job at the End of the World” copyright © 2023 by Ray NaylerArt copyright © 2023 by Keith Negley