“Yeah, yeah,” Burt muttered, heading for the barn. A moment later Shag had dispatched the wasps and was attacking the bush with zeal. It was so much fun, Burt, who stood behind watching the procedure, had to take the trimmer away before he sawed the bush down to a stump. He ordered Shag to stack his trimmings and led him down to the boathouse.
“Whose place is this?” Shag asked when they went inside.
“Guy named Partlowe.”
Shag was immediately drawn to the Cigarette boat. “Dang! How fast this sucker go?” Burt retrieved the scrub brush from where he’d thrown it in his scramble to escape the snake.
“This Partlowe fella’s got the bucks, huh?” Shag commented, his eyes playing over the lake, the forest, the lavish boathouse furnishings and details.
Automatically, Burt started to say something derogatory about Partlowe and his ilk—stinking rich assholes without a clue to how the real world operated—but he stifled the urge. This would be fraternizing. With Gus gone, he was boss, and bosses didn’t get chummy with the help. He handed Shag the scrub brush and one rubber boot and showed him where to stand on the submerged beam. It was too much to hope the snake would appear again, but if it did, it wouldn’t be his own legs in the water.
“Here’s some solvent you can hit the tough spots with,” he said, dropping a plastic spray bottle nearby. “Come on up to the cabin when you’re done.” He thought a moment, scratched himself. “No need spendin more’n half an hour on it. There’s lots more to do.” With that he left the boathouse and started up the path. Shag wondered what the hell he was supposed to do with one rubber boot. He took off his own boots and rancid socks, rolled up his jeans and crept out onto the beam barefooted. The Chris Craft didn’t impress him as did the ski boat, but rich people often collected weird shit. As he worked the brush into the greenish slime coating the hull, he wondered just how much weird, and valuable, shit there was in the cabin.
Burt slipped his fingers behind a shutter and lifted out a key. He opened a side door to the cabin, entered the kitchen and punched in a code on a burglar alarm panel. As with the spare key to the office, Gus had been careful to conceal this one, along with the code to the alarm, but Burt had made uncovering such secrets a priority. He went to the hall and turned on the central air, then to a well-stocked bar in the lavish den and poured himself three fingers of Wild Turkey bourbon. It was early for Burt, but hey, why not? The morning had been stressful enough, a little booze would take the edge off. The ice machine only whined when he pressed his glass against the lever, reminding him it was broken. Stupid Gus. He plopped down on a leather sofa in front of an elaborate “rustic” stone fireplace and stared about dumbly, taking frequent slurps of his drink. The den was paneled in black walnut, the floor scattered with Navaho rugs. From the walls, the mounted heads of elk, deer, pronghorn sheep, antelope, and bison stared down with glassy indifference. The room had a dark spicy smell from the mingling over time of furniture oil, leather, tobacco, beeswax. Behind glass, in built-in cabinets, a dozen rare rifles and shotguns stood against rich green baize. There was no overhead fixture; when you hit the wall-switch table lamps cast soft overlapping pools of amber light. Burt left the lamps off, preferring the ambient light from the low, wide windows.
A rude pounding on the kitchen door flung him from the sofa, sloshing bourbon onto his jeans. With anxiety, he pictured who might be waiting to greet him: Partlowe? No, he wouldn’t bother to knock. Gus? He had a key. The maid service? No, they’d come yesterday. Damn! He crept softly into the kitchen, trembling despite himself. The small pane of glass in the door darkened suddenly with a face. The damn bum! After fiddling with various locks, he swung the door open and glared down through the screen at Shag.
“Already?” It had been less than ten minutes.
“Anything else before lunch?” said Shag.
“Lunch? You just got here.” Burt noticed Shag’s eyes prying past him into the kitchen, pointing here, there, everywhere. He was careful to hide his glass of whiskey behind the door frame.
“Gettin to be about that time, ain’t it? What time is it, anyway?”
Burt’s watch was on his left wrist; he’d passed his whiskey to his left hand to open the door; he wouldn’t be able to see the dial without tipping the glass. “One more job, then we’ll see about breaking for lunch,” he said gruffly.
“Hey, mind if I take a look inside?” said Shag with his most personable smile, impaired to a degree by a missing bicuspid. His effrontery took Burt by surprise.
“Sorry, against the rules.”
“Hey, it’s just you and me, bud. Just a peek. I ain’t never seen a spread like this.”
In one fluid maneuver, Burt turned his back, found a roost for his whiskey, opened the screen and stepped out onto the porch, pulling the screen shut behind him. “Lemme get you the leaf blower. Clean off the deck and walkway, and I’ll see if I can make us some sandwiches.”
Burt usually went into town for lunch—The Rawhide featured a buffet-and-beer special with topless waitresses. But he wasn’t about to take the bum along, or trust him on his own while he went himself. He led Shag to the barn, took down the leaf blower, returned to the deck at the side of the cabin, and demonstrated how he wanted it done. Then he gave the blower to Shag and stood back to supervise.
“You’re hitting them too hard!” he shouted over the deafening whine of the machine. “Just kinda finesse them towards the steps, then you can hit ’em harder.” He couldn’t tell if Shag were listening or not. “Now, when you get a bunch in the yard, keep herding them into the trees over there!” Gus always made him put the leaves in big sacks and hump them around to a compost pile, but Burt didn’t have the patience to walk the bum through all that. Since he seemed to be doing what he damn well pleased no matter what he said, Burt went back into the cabin and freshened his drink. Fuck it. The Partlowes never noticed anything one way or the other, especially in the yard. If Gus had wanted everything done just so, he could’ve stayed here instead of sneaking off to go fishing.
Burt had barely settled himself back onto the leather sofa when he heard the leaf blower fall silent. He waited, listening. Quiet. By the time he reached the door and swung it open, Shag was already there, preparing to knock.
“Yessir, guess I’m ready for that sandwich.”
“Now wait a minute,” said Burt, “you ain’t had time to do all that.” He crashed out of the door and walked around to the deck. Leaves had been scattered, redistributed, but hardly cleared away. “Listen,” he said, swinging round on a very meek-looking Shag, “I don’t want to see one goddamn leaf on this deck or in the yard. I want ’em off the deck and outa the yard, see. Didn’t you hear anything I told you?”
Shag looked mystified. “Lot better’n it was,” he said defensively.
“Not much.” Burt repeated his previous instructions in a strident voice then huffed around the corner to the kitchen door. As he settled himself back onto the sofa and took up his drink, he heard the leaf blower start up. With a sigh, he flicked on a giant-screen TV and began surfing channels until he found an “adult” station. A “cheerleader” wriggled suggestively as she chanted what sounded like, “goo-goo, wanna-wanna, goo-goo” to a “crowd” of six male fans. Burt muted the sound and concentrated on her perfect little body and tight behind. The leaf blower stuttered and died. He waited to hear it start up again but it didn’t. Growling, he heaved himself off the sofa and went to the door. Shag was already there.
“What’s the problem, this time?” Burt snarled.
“I gotta go to the bathroom.”
Burt stared at the bum, dumfounded. “Well go piss in the trees and get back to work.”
“Don’t need to piss, I got to… you know, take a—”
“Well, go on! What’s the matter with you?”
Shag looked mortified. “Cain’t I come in and use the restroom?”
Burt felt a throbbing in his temples; purple spots clustered and danced before his eyes. He opened the screen impatiently and ushered Shag to the nearest bathroom, off the hallway just past the kitchen. Shag went in and locked the door. Almost immediately, Burt wished he’d ordered him to use the toilet in the barn or in the boathouse; both were so equipped. He had let the bum slither inside, and something told him this was a grave tactical error. He lingered impatiently in the hall, waiting for him to finish his business and clear out.
“Hey,” came a voice from behind the bathroom door, “you live in that little cabin by the barn?”
Questions, more questions. What was the safest answer: Yes, I live in the cabin? No, I live in town? None of your goddamn business?
“I mean, this is purty cool…” there was a strain in the bum’s voice as if he were lifting something heavy. Burt winced. He didn’t even like speaking with Tiffany when one of them was on the pot.
But Shag wasn’t on the pot. He’d rattled his belt buckle for effect, lowered the toilet seat with an audible clunk then set about inspecting the cabinets and medicine chest. Clean, luxuriant towels, washcloths, a dozen bars of bath soap, several toothbrushes still in their packages. The closest thing to pharmaceuticals was an economy sized bottle of aspirin. What a disappointment. He should have wheedled his way into the master bath where the good stuff was kept. Rich people, Shag knew, took a shitload of drugs; drugs he could use occasionally himself. The underside of a bridge looked a lot more hospitable with a few tranquilizers in one’s beer.
“Hey! You still there?” said Shag, softly closing the cabinet doors.
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“I guess you live in town, then. That’s why I seen you this mornin, coming to work.”
“What the hell difference does it make?”
Shag flushed the toilet and turned on the faucet. “Nothin, just makin conversation.” Quickly, while the toilet still gurgled, he pulled back a curtain to see where he was in relation to the yard. He released the lock on the window, raised the sash a couple of inches, unhooked the screen, and readjusted the curtains. As the toilet gulped and fell silent he opened the door and came out. Burt stood in the hall, arms crossed over his chest. Sensing his mood, Shag decided not to press for lunch. Instead he headed energetically for the kitchen door.
“Gonna finish blowing them leaves,” he said with enthusiasm, “and you’re gonna like it, this time!” The screen door slammed.
This is one weird-assed bum, thought Burt. Probably mentally ill, half of them were. He went back to the den and tried to resume interest in the “cheerleader,” who had since moved into the bleachers and an entirely different sort of routine, but he couldn’t relax. He drained his whiskey, wiped the glass dry on his leg and put it behind the others in the liquor cabinet. Outside, the leaf blower traveled here, there, up and down. Debris rattled against the wall.
All at once it came to him why he felt antsy. He was hungry! If there wasn’t anything to eat at home, he always stopped at a gas station and bought himself coffee and a microwave sweet roll, but this morning he’d been in such a hurry he’d forgotten to eat. Now, he wanted nothing more than to get rid of the bum and go to The Rawhide for lunch. He had all weekend to finish up the chores, why not take the rest of the day off? Gus was playing hooky, why couldn’t he? He staved off his appetite with a fresh wad of snuff and headed for the kitchen to set the burglar alarm.
But every time he pushed the RESET button, the panel reacted with a series of rapid beeps and flashed a code he couldn’t decipher. Why didn’t it work? He supposed it might have something to do with a breached zone, but since he’d come and gone exclusively by the kitchen door, that didn’t make sense. He punched RESET over and over until he got tired of hearing the frantic beeps and finally decided not to sweat it. He would be back bright and early in the morning, anyway.
“Hey! Lunchtime!” shouted Burt over the howling leaf blower. He noticed that the bum had actually herded most of the leaves off the deck and into the yard. He was blowing a big wave of pine needles into the trees as Burt made his announcement. The engine slowed to a puttering idle.
“I just got this here,” Shag hollered, pointing toward some mounds of pine needles, “then I’ll be finished.”
Burt put his hand out for the tool. “Forget it. That’s good enough.”
Perplexed, Shag surrendered the blower, then trailed him to the barn.
“We gonna eat now?”
Burt pretended not to hear. He lifted the blower onto its rack, came out of the barn and swung the big doors shut. “That’s all for today,” he said, marching towards the truck.
Shag had to hurry after him. “You mean, that’s all you want me to do?”
“That’s right,” said Burt, avoiding the bum’s eyes. “I, uh, got a call. Have to go put a few fires out on another job. I’ll drop you off.”
“We ain’t gonna eat?”
“Don’t have time. Here.” Burt fished his still damp cash out of his jeans and peeled off a five and five ones, placing them in the bum’s outstretched hand. “Get in the truck. We got to go.”
Shag stared at the money, folded it and stuffed it in his shirt pocket. Burt was already in the truck, gunning the engine. “I could, you know, come back tomorrow,” he said, climbing in beside him.
“Won’t be necessary.” Burt backed up and roared out of the yard, switching the AC blower on high. The bum had worked up a sweat and filled the truck with stink.
“Heck, I could stay here!” said Shag, brightly. “Spend the night in that little guest cabin and get a early start in the mornin.”
“Nah,” said Burt, after a moment of pretend consideration. Spend the night in the guest cabin—yeah, like shit. He lowered his window and let fly a stream of brown snuff juice. “Won’t be back for a few days,” he said, cranking it up again. “I know where to find you if I need to.” He raced up the Partlowe’s narrow road at breakneck speed, pine trees whipping by like giant pickets in a fence. “Where you want me to drop you? Diner? Taco Bell?”
“Where you gonna eat?” said Shag, angling for a free meal.
The idea of walking into his favorite club with this reeking scumbag almost caused Burt to swallow his snuff. “Can’t eat,” he said, choking. “Don’t have time. There’s a Chinese place on the highway. How ’bout that?”
“Just let me off where you picked me up,” said Shag, morosely. Burt stared straight ahead wearing a wide grin. He swung out onto the highway and sped towards the Piney Woods intersection.
Loud thumping music, whistles and hoots flooded out with every swing of the dingy purple door, but the pay phone at the 24-hour gas station across the street wouldn’t pick it up—at least that’s what Burt always relied on, because he’d called Tiffany from here many times before.
“Hey, hon,” he said, sighing regretfully. “How’re the boys? Uh, huh. Yeah, well tell Ray if he doesn’t want the business end of my belt when I get home, he bet… Yeah… Well… I don’t care, you tell… Uh huh, but if he doesn’t… Don’t care, I don’t… Well, that’s sorta what I’m callin about. Gus… Gus had to… Gus had to go check on another job and left me in charge… No, I just grabbed a taco… No, I can’t… Hon, I’d love to, but I just don’t… Tiffany… Tiffany… Hon… Can’t Sheila take you to the doctor’s? I wisht I could, I really do, but what I’m trying to say is, I got to work late and don’t know when I’ll be in.”
That accomplished, Gus sprang back into the pickup and roared across the street to The Rawhide’s parking lot.