Burt stormed out of his manufactured home, leaving his wife in bed puking into a trashcan and twin four-year-olds bawling at each other across the dinette because they wanted Coco Puffs and the milk had curdled. Tiffany’s nausea, it was becoming depressingly clear, was morning sickness. And him still paying hospital bills for the first litter.
It seemed as if the world conspired against him, and poor Burt couldn’t have felt sorrier; not for his wife, who since her first pregnancy had swelled up and sprouted pimples, nor for the twins, Randy and Ray, but for himself, big ol’ fun-loving Burt Skimmington, king of the pool hall and devotee of The Rawhide, where a half-pound burger cost a buck if you didn’t mind paying a five-dollar cover to watch the tit show.
Burt packed his lip with snuff from a can he kept in his back pocket and blasted down the driveway, spraying gravel all over his Astroturf yard. It was already hot. Seven-thirty in the morning and already hot. He switched on the AC and smeared his sweaty forehead with the back of a nonabsorbent polyester sleeve. If he could just get past the long traffic light where Piney Woods Trail hit the interstate, he could make up for lost time on the highway. If not, he would be late for sure, and Gus Limpkin, his boss and a grade-A hard ass, simply detested late.
the only other car on the road executed
a textbook senility glide into his lane
As Burt barreled down the long curve toward the intersection, he saw the light turn green. A fucking miracle. Thank the Lord. Oh, happy day. But, a hundred yards from salvation the only other car on the road executed a textbook senility glide into his lane and cut him off. The elderly driver then slowed to a crawl so she would be prepared to stop just in case the light was about to change. And before he could downshift and swerve around her, it did exactly that. A nice long yellow, too, wasted. In California, he reminisced, glaring ahead at the old lady who was oblivious to anything other than her own Buick Electra, another sixty cars would have stampeded through the intersection. But not in East Texas. Not today, anyway. He fumed and fidgeted and flared his nostrils while logging trucks roared from left to right, right to left, rocking his pickup in their mighty wake. Wistfully, his mind retreated, as it often did at long lights, to three youthful years spent in California’s San Fernando Valley. He and a chum had worked as installers for a cable TV contractor and spent everything they made on beer and tit shows; the happiest, most fulfilling time of his life. Valley girls, convertibles, the beach. Free cable.
Something moving in the periphery of his vision awakened him to the here and now. It was one of those intersection beggars, displaying a “Work for Food” sign. Burt mouthed a silent “Fuck off,” but the beggar only shuffled closer, grinning like a long lost friend. Burt lowered his window.
“Hey, I got your work right here,” he sneered, displaying a middle digit.
“Shore could use a coupla bucks, brother. I got a kid to feed. You got kids?”
The light changed and the old woman’s car glided smoothly, silently away. The beggar had come to lean against the driver-side door.
“Yeah, I got kids,” said Burt acidly. “You want ’em?” He tipped his head out the window and spat a stream of snuff juice at the beggar’s shoes.
“Little Ike ain’t ate since yesterday mornin,” the bum went on. “Shore could use some help.”
Burt was unmoved. “You ever actually work? I mean, you ain’t ever actually mowed a lawn or dug a ditch or nothin, have you?”
The beggar’s hasty retreat made Burt laugh, a satisfied guffaw cut short by a very loud horn. Air brakes shrieked and blatted as a dump truck expanded dangerously in his rearview mirror. Panicking, he stomped the accelerator and killed the engine. The dump truck howled past on the narrow shoulder, peppering his pickup with roadside gravel. Shaken, Burt restarted the engine and sputtered lamely through what was now a red light and onto the interstate, eliciting more horn blasts from a cross-traveling eighteen-wheeler.
“Piece a snot,” said Shag Clutter, fanning himself with his “Work for Food” sign. For an hour’s steamy effort, he had earned exactly zilch. He didn’t know the town, but if a rush hour existed he was obviously at the wrong intersection to catch it. Dispirited, he slumped across the median and sat down beneath an exit ramp where he’d left his backpack and an unfinished bag of limp pork rinds. The imaginary little Ike would have to wait for his breakfast.
everything had been contrived to look
rustic, but of course nothing was
The Partlowe summer cabin was half a mile off the interstate at the end of a private road, which wound through loblolly pines growing thick as cane on two hundred prime, forested acres. There were three thousand-plus square feet of “cabin” and a private thirty-acre lake. There were stables, although at present no horses, a picturesque barn, a guest cabin, and a boathouse containing two boats: an extravagant Cigarette boat, too large and powerful for the size of lake, and a rare old Chris Craft from the 1940s for more relaxed puttering, say, at cocktail hour or on particularly splendid moonlit nights. Everything had been contrived to look rustic, but of course nothing was. Gus Limpkin was in charge of maintaining this woodsy-craftsy fraud, with his assistant, Burt, doing all the heavy lifting. As Burt poked his truck over the last rise and rolled into the shade of a postcard-worthy pine tree, he saw his boss lean into the back of his Suburban. Burt cut the ignition, heaved a sigh and climbed down out of the truck.
“Looks like there’s a dead limb fixin to drop,” he said importantly, gesturing toward the guest cabin. The idea was to get Gus looking at the suspect limb instead of his watch and at the same time give the impression that dependable ol’ Burt was always thinking about his job.
“You’re late,” said Gus, still rummaging inside the Suburban. He folded and latched a huge tackle box, then quickly slammed the double back doors—but not before Burt caught sight of all the fishing tackle, boxes of canned goods, a portable barbecue, and even folding chairs. The only thing missing was Gus’s bass boat clamped to the trailer hitch.
“I need you to handle things here for the weekend. Got to run up to another job and put a few fires out before Monday. You know Mr. Partlowe’s showing up tonight and, well, I hate to leave you with everything like this, but he isn’t the only client I got to take care of. I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t absolutely necessary, you know that.” Gus lowered a bushy eyebrow as if daring Burt to know otherwise. Acting appropriately grave and preoccupied, he led Burt to his office in the barn.
“I’ve made you a list,” he said when they were inside and handed Burt two pages of yellow notebook paper. “Looks like a lot, but most of it’s little piddly stuff.” Burt already knew what his chores would be and, indeed, it was piddly stuff, but enough goddamn piddly stuff to work him double-time for a week.
“I don’t know if I can finish all this,” he said forlornly. He sank onto a metal chair beside Gus’s cluttered desk, as if exhausted already.
“Oh, I think once you get started, you’ll manage.” Gus slid open a deep desk drawer and extracted two filthy, gnawed-on pipes and a sack of tobacco. He reached behind him, switched off a small window air conditioner and stood up. Burt seemed unable to stir. He stared blindly at the list of chores as if it were a subpoena. “Eh… was there anything you needed in here before I lock up?” said Gus.
“Just the keys, I guess.”
Gus looked annoyed. “You forget your keys?”
“No, but I don’t have keys to the office or the cabin.”
“Oh, I see.” Gus snatched the list out Burt’s hand and scowled at it. “Well, forget the ice maker then… and the light switch in the kid’s bedroom.” He thrust the list back at his employee and swung open the door—Burt’s cue to get out.
Behind a docile expression, the hired man sulked. Three years as Limpkin’s assistant and he still wasn’t trusted with keys to the office or to the main cabin. He trailed Gus to his car, stumbling a little because he was still studying the list instead of watching where he was going.
“You got my cell phone number if you need me,” said Gus, climbing in.
Burt managed a listless salute as the Suburban roared up the driveway, but his boss wasn’t looking. He angrily wadded the list into a ball. When the sound of the engine faded, he flattened it out again and went back to the office. In a plastic rock by a dripping water faucet (at least fixing that wasn’t on his to-do list) he removed a key and unlocked the office door. He flicked on the AC, sat down in Gus’s old swivel chair and began opening and closing all the desk drawers. He’d made a practice of going through the desk and files whenever the opportunity presented itself, just to keep abreast of things—like what Gus charged Herb Partlowe for expenses and what he’d actually paid for them. To Burt’s disappointment Gus was scrupulous, with Partlowe, at least. He had been less straightforward with his loyal assistant. Burt was always asking how much “they” were making on a particular job, and, instead of telling him it was none of his business, Gus would give him a “guestimate.” According to the books, the guestimate was never as much as what he actually received.
The telephone trilled and Burt jumped in his chair. When the beep sounded at the end of the recorded greeting, Mrs. Partlowe’s neurotic whine came on to complain about the broken light switch in one of the children’s rooms. The “children,” Britney, aged 27, Brett, 25, would be coming shortly after she and her husband expected to arrive, Tuesday. Before she rang off, she said, “…so, if you get this message, please call me at home. Otherwise, I suppose I’ll have to find you Tuesday.” The dial tone sounded, and the machine clicked off.
Gus had told him Partlowe was coming tonight. Why had he lied? The only explanation was that Gus didn’t trust him to finish everything if he knew he had all weekend to do it. Now that hurt. And then Gus’s story about having to “put a few fires out” on another job when it was blatantly obvious he was going fishing. That hurt, too.
After leaving the office (turning off the AC, locking the door, replacing the key in the fake rock), Burt carried a ladder from the barn and started mending a rotten patch of shake shingles on the guest cabin. He did a sloppy job, his only concern being that the patch looked okay from the ground. Without Gus hanging over him, things would go a lot quicker. The Partlowes never seemed to notice what he did or didn’t do, except when their extreme comfort was threatened. The icemaker, Burt realized in a flash, posed just such a threat. There were two more icemakers, one in the kitchen refrigerator and another in the guest cabin, but they’d give Gus purple hell about spending an entire weekend with no ice in the den. By not trusting him with a key, his boss was going to get a mouthful, if not from Partlowe himself, his bitchy wife.
Burt finished the patch and moved on to the next job on the list, cutting back a shrub that encroached on a window and the Partlowes' view of their lake. He carried a gas-powered trimmer from his truck to the front of the cabin, started the motor with a couple of pulls and had barely touched the first branch when a swarm of red wasps poured out of the bush and pursued him all the way to the barn.
“Screw this!” cried Burt. The trimmer was still idling in his hand as he stood just inside the barn panting from the jolt of adrenaline as much as the unaccustomed sprint. He dearly hated wasps, anything that bit or stung, like bees, caterpillars, scorpions. He turned off the trimmer and wiped his forehead on his shirttail. The wasps needed time to return to their nest and settle down, so, after peering around the barn door to check that the coast was clear, he lugged the trimmer back to his truck and consulted the list for something to do in the meantime.
the snake had disappeared but so had
one of Burt’s rubber boots
The hull needed scrubbing on the Chris Craft, so he decided to try that. Gus made him attend to it on a regular schedule so it was never very dirty, and at least he’d be working in the shade. He stuffed his cheek with a fresh wad of snuff and ambled down the faux rustic path to the boathouse. There was a brush with a long handle, but to reach the back of the boat, he had to climb off the dock and balance on a crossbeam submerged two or three inches in the water. He took off his shoes, pulled on a pair of rubber boots and climbed down onto the beam. No sooner had he stooped down, wobbling precariously on the slimy board to scrub the area around the brass propellers, than a snake as thick as his wrist slithered out from under the dock and wrapped itself around his leg. Hysterical, Burt thrashed and kicked until he slipped off the beam and fell painfully against the edge of the boat. For an agonizing moment, he hung suspended between boat and dock, up to his waist in water, until he was able to lever himself onto the beam and from there back onto the dock. The snake had disappeared but so had one of Burt’s rubber boots. He lay on the dock in a puddle of water, soaking wet, shouting obscenities until his throat got raw. Why was everything so GODDAMNED IMPOSSIBLE? There was nothing to do but go back home and change clothes.
“Where’s all my clean shirts?” he raged, raking hangers back and forth in the closet. In the hour and a half he’d been gone, Tiffany Skimmington had made it into a grubby housecoat and as far as the kitchen dinette where she sat glowering at Randy and Ray and talking on the phone. The twins had been given a half-stale sweet roll each. Randy’s was on the floor.
“Where’s a clean damn shirt, Tiffany!”
She was on the line with her friend, Sheila. “I urped until nothin came up but spit, but I’m feelin a little better now,” she told her, exhaling cigarette smoke.
Burt appeared in the kitchen doorway wearing only boxer shorts. “Tiffany! Where’s a damn—”
“If there isn’t any in the closet, you don’t have one!” she replied, in a voice particularly smart-assed for Sheila’s benefit.
“Momma momma momma momma—”
“Hush, Randy. Ray, eat some of your sweet roll or I’m gonna get that sour milk out of the trash and make you drink it.”
Burt retreated to the bedroom. He found a pair of passable jeans in the dirty-clothes hamper and the last tee shirt in the drawer. It was always the last tee shirt because it didn’t fit anymore. He’d spread his wet wallet out on the dresser, removed and patted dry his driver’s license and his cash and put these in his back pocket. The can of snuff had proved watertight. When he was dressed, he came back to stand in the kitchen door.
“Why was you all wet, daddy?” Ray wanted to know.
“How’d you get wet, daddy?” said Randy.
“Burt glared over their heads at their mother. “Shit, Tiffany, ain’t you wondering what the hell happened? I mean, ain’t you the least bit curious?”
Tiffany asked Sheila to hold on and put her fingers over the mouthpiece. “We need milk.”
Burt stomped through the kitchen and out the door. Sheila said she was getting another call and told Tiffany to hold on a second. While she waited, Tiffany shuffled into the bedroom and stepped over Burt’s wet clothes to reach her pack of cigarettes.
Burt peeled out of his driveway, displacing more gravel onto the Astroturf yard, and burned rubber all the way to the highway. He made sure to squeal his tires with every gear shift, working himself into an explosive fury. He had just topped a rise and floor-boarded the accelerator when he spotted the state trooper’s motorcycle parked two hundred yards ahead. The trooper stood beside it, aiming a radar gun directly at him. Burt took his foot off the gas and braked steadily until he drifted past him at an even four miles over the speed limit. Sweat glands opened up like little lawn sprinklers all over his scalp. He cocked an eye towards the rearview mirror and saw the cop still glaring after him, but he would’ve already climbed onto his cycle if he meant to give chase. Burt exhaled with relief. The light was green at the intersection of Piney Woods Trail and the interstate, but instead of accelerating he slowed down, resigned now that he would never beat it. The world had indeed conspired against him, there was no use struggling. The light went yellow, then red.
With resignation came resentment. His characteristic good-old-boy features grew rigid, diabolical. Burt stared ahead, zombie-like. But something crept into his peripheral vision and hovered there like a gnat. Gritting his teeth, blood pressure rising, he refused to turn his head. Then whatever it was tapped on his window.
“Shore could use a coupla bucks, brother. I got a kid to feed. You got kids?”
It was the street worm, back with his “Work for Food” sign.
it was the street worm, back
with his “Work for Food” sign
If he’d had one of his guns in the pickup, he would have rolled down the window and stuck it in the street worm’s face. Burt’s eyes bulged, his mouth trembled, his heart constricted like a tightening fist.
“Little Ike ain’t ate since yesterday,” said the beggar. “Shore could use a little—”
A high-pitched keening escaped from Burt’s nostrils, the sound a pressure cooker makes just before it explodes. He wanted to scream at the beggar, but his teeth were locked tight; his jaw muscles rippled and bulged. He lowered the window and like a camera his eyes snapped on the haunted, freckled face, the salty stains on the creature’s western shirt, the cardboard sign: “Work for Food”.
“You ever do any actual work?” said Burt, through a clenched throat.
“You bet.” Shag took this as an invitation and leaned familiarly against the truck. “You know, handyman-type stuff, yard work. I don’t dig no ditches, though. Ha ha ha ha ha…”
Burt gave him a psychopathic smile. I’ll get him in the truck, then I’ll beat the crap outa him and throw him off a bridge.
“Well, climb on in, then, cause I got enough to keep you busy for a whole day.” Even in his unbalanced state, Burt appreciated the disappointment in the street worm’s face.
“Uh, well, ah…”
Burt laughed, a stagy, good-natured guffaw. “Come on, hop in. And I don’t expect you to work just for food.” He laughed again. “A man deserves a day’s pay for a day’s work.”
“Lemme get my pack,” said Shag, unhappily. Burt watched him slope off toward the exit ramp. The light turned green and a log truck which had pulled up behind blared its horn. Burt hung out the window and waved it around. “Ho ho ho! Go on, friend!
Sorry ’bout that!” He was still chortling as the bum hefted his pack into the back of the truck and climbed in on the passenger side. Kiss your skinny ass goodbye, worm! Burt gave him a maniacal grin and turned onto the interstate.
He took his prey three miles past the Partlowe property and turned onto a narrow, potholed road which led to a lonely bridge across Turkey Creek. “Almost there,” Burt shouted with glee. The truck bounced and swerved, slamming driver and passenger against the doors and each other. Shag looked over his shoulder at his knapsack tossing around in the back of the truck. “Almost there, almost there,” Burt repeated under his breath. Nobody ever came here, it was the perfect place to kick the shit out of a bum. Let him scream! Let him howl! No one would hear.
Burt skidded to a halt. A tree, a huge diseased hackberry, lay in crumbling pieces across the road. On the shoulder, two men sat in a county truck eating breakfast tacos and listening to Mexican radio. A third stood in front of the tree waving a STOP paddle. Burt’s head sank to the steering wheel. He wanted to cry.
“Cain’t get there, huh?” said Shag, sounding not in the least disappointed. “Guess that’s that, huh? Nothin to do but drop me back where you found me, huh?”
Burt raised his head and turned toward his passenger as if seeing him for the first time. In a way, he was. Tiffany collected refrigerator magnets with slogans printed on them. Her favorite, and one she never grew tired of quoting, read, “When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.” Burt would squeeze the beggar and make lemonade.
“There’s another way to get there,” he said, shifting in reverse and turning the pickup around. And in just over ten minutes, Burt and his captive pulled up under the pine tree beside the Partlowe cabin.
“First off, I want you to trim a bush where it’s overgrown the window,” said Burt, referring to the wasp-infested shrub. He climbed out and unlatched the tool box behind the cab. Shag opened his door, reluctantly. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but something about the way this deal was unfolding gave him an uneasy feeling—until he beheld the brochure-worthy spectacle of the Partlowe “cabin.”
“This your place?” said Shag, ogling unselfconsciously.
Burt snorted. “Yeah, and my Lear Jet’s parked over there behind the boathouse.” Burt came around the truck with the trimmer and asked Shag if he’d ever used one.
“Coupla dozen times, I guess,” said Shag, who hadn’t ever. Burt gave the rope a yank and handed it over. Shag liked power tools, initially, anyway, until they got heavy or made blisters or leaked oil on him, etc. Revving the high-pitched engine unnecessarily, he ambled over towards the cabin while Burt looked on with juvenile anticipation. Shag reached the bush, raised the trimmer, then turned around and came back.
“Got any bug spray? There’s wasp nests in there.”
“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 Navajo rugs. From the walls, the mounted heads of elk, deer, pronghorn sheep, antelope, and bison stared down with glassy indifference.
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 Partlowes' 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
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, Burt sprang back into the pickup and roared across the street to The Rawhide’s parking lot.
~ Part 2 coming soon ~