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Authors: Bruce Machart

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BOOK: Men in the Making
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You're thinking,
You bet.
Real deep, Jimmy.
But you know there ain't nothing to say. Should have looked for work today instead of doing all that scribbling. But goddammit, you think, this is some kind of story and she was getting a little uppity anyhow and then, well—
then
you're off to the races.

"I'm-a tell you what, Jimmy, this one's for real. This story, the one I'm writing today? Got this bus driver in it, and he been known to tilt a few back, you know? Well, kids ain't stupid so they take to calling him Boozer, right? And Boozer's first and last stop—this is down in the Valley, you know, long-ass bus rides down there—and anyway Boozer's first and last stop is this retarded kid. Small town, they ain't got one of them short little buses, you know? Them tard buses?"

A little chuckle from Jimmy now, and you know you've got him.

"So, Boozer likes this kid, right? Feels sorry for him and all, but he's a stomp down, pure-D-fucking miserable drunk, and he's already been about waist deep in the bottle the day it happens. What happens is this—got this part from the news last night—Boozer's looking back at this retarded kid while he heads out toward the ravine, making sure the other kids ain't picking on him and the like. He's cruising this long stretch of highway out west of Harlingen, nothing but caliche and sod farms, and he keeps checking the rearview, looking after the kid when Wham!, there's this horn and old Boozer's way over into the wrong lane with this gravel truck about to drive right down his throat. And then—"

"Then he jerks the wheel," Jimmy says, swirling his beer, "and all them poor little bastards break through the guardrail." He takes a swig and smacks his lips. "And off they go into the ravine and end up breaking their necks or getting knocked silly and drowning themselves."

Jimmy moves into the right-hand lane around, best I can tell, about twenty-five Mexican folk, so help me God, in one old beat-to-shit Ford Tempo. "Must be going to Walmart," he says, pulling on his beer.

You go, "How'd you know?" and he looks at you like all of a sudden maybe you're not answering to your own name.

"Where else?" he says. "Been to Walmart lately? It's all Mexicans. You'd think piñatas was on sale permanent."

"Jesus, Jimmy," you say. "About the bus, how'd you know about the bus?"

"Like you said, man. TV news."

It smarts a little, this guy busting into your story when he's supposed to be listening. "Yeah," you say, "but in
my
story the retarded kid lives. Sure, he's pinned underwater awhile and Boozer's about ten sheets to the wind, but that's why it's drama, man. 'Cause Boozer keeps diving after the kid, just keeps diving and diving, coming up for air, and he can see the kid down there, alive and wide-eyed and pinned beneath one of those bus seats that's come loose in the crash. Old Boozer's gasping for breath, spitting water, but he ain't giving up. He keeps going down, diving again and again as the bus fills up higher with brown water, and the whole time his head's just swimming with a three o'clock drunk. He's maybe fucked up royal, but you better believe he's gonna save his little friend."

Now Jimmy takes the phone book off the gas and puts his foot down hard. "But that ain't real life," he says. "No one lived, you saw the news. Facts is facts. That's what your folks at
Reader's Digest
is after. 'Drama in
Real
Life,' get it?"

 

That's when it happens. You see it coming out the corner of your eye. Just as Jimmy looks down to get another beer, something dark and fast flashes across the on-ramp ahead, then another something darts across, this one bigger, and by the time Jimmy pulls his head out of his ass you're bracing yourself—elbows locked—while the truck rears back and the tires smoke and Jimmy's standing on the brake. And then that sound comes. Not the squeal of the brakes, not the smack of that big black dog against the grill of the truck. Hell with that, you don't even hear that stuff. No, sir, if you're like I was, what you hear is the man screaming from the side of the highway,
No!
and
God No!
and
Oh no!
over and over while the dog slides away from you on its back, its thick black fur peeling on the concrete, rolling up like wet carpet under the poor damn thing while it slides and slides and keeps on sliding. And then Jimmy's got the truck over to the shoulder and he's throwing empties under the seat, saying,
Holy shit
and
Stupid dog
and
Great goddamn
while you're zeroed in on the man who's walking toward you now with his face—no shit—actually buried in his hands, and you start to put the pieces together.

There's the guy's truck on the feeder, all jacked up with its hazards on and a tire leaning against the rear bumper, and then there's the dog, now still and limp and backing up traffic and not even alive enough to regret chasing whatever it was that must've caught its eye.

"
Yow,
" Jimmy says. "You all right?"

You and Jimmy been friends a long time, but still you tell him to
shut up,
just
shut the fuck up,
because there's this man coming up to the truck, and it don't matter at all what else is real or fake. Because it don't matter if he's got a wife or kids or a fiancée that's given him the boot or nothing.
Shut up,
you say, with a hand on Jimmy's chest, because outside that man is stopped now and kneeling on the asphalt shoulder and there's nothing else to say but that he's coming undone on the side of the road, crying for a dog he loved a whole damn lot, and well, when it comes right down to it, if you're like I was you've never felt like that, and all you know is that the whole thing makes it feel like that little heart has quit swinging inside you—only you don't know how, because you feel all tore open and exposed to the elements and there's traffic blowing by like mad and wind pushing in the windows thick and fast, the way that brown water must've poured in on Boozer, and the sound it makes is all muddled and crazy and broken to bits like the prayer you can't quite piece together inside you, the one that says,
Please God, someday, let me have that much to lose.

The Last One Left in Arkansas

I'
M NO ARKANSAS
native. Still, I've seen my share of strange skies. After Anne and I were married, we left Texas so that I could attend forestry school in Oregon. From the balcony of our apartment just south of Eugene, we'd watch the black Pacific clouds roll into the Willamette Valley and even the birds would go quiet. It was a West Coast thing, like an earthquake—eerie, breathtaking, sometimes terrifying, but usually short-lived—over before the real panic had time to set in. When I was a kid in the Texas panhandle, clouds were recreation. God's truth, early one September the entire third grade skipped the afternoon half of school to follow a low nimbus across the scrub-grass field toward the creek bed. It was recess. Someone started walking and we all followed, cooling ourselves under the only outdoor shade we'd seen in months.

That was Texas. This is Arkansas.

Here in this valley, clear through to March, when on nights like tonight I sometimes sit on the porch in my parka, sipping whiskey and shivering and trying to find just the right prayer for the son I lost eleven years back, or the courage to call the one who's alive but living hundreds of miles away, often even the clouds turn lethargic, and they sit, and they stay.

They stay in such a way that tonight, if you sat in your truck at the intersection of the mill road and Highway 10, where the company land ends and the Ozark National Forest stands like a frozen wall to the north, your wipers would groan as they raked sleet from the glass. The clouds would hunker down, blocking out the moon, but even with one headlight out you'd be sure to notice that they haven't replaced the sign on the corner yet—it still reads
329 DAYS WITHOUT AN LTA
.
Lost time accident, that's what they call it when someone saws through an arm or shears a hand in half with the planer. All it takes is a second of distraction, one turn of the head. One bad decision. When you spend a quarter of your life in the mill, you have to remember every second what the motors and blades are capable of. You don't wear loose-fitting clothes and you don't take a drink at lunch. You don't work at a station before you've been trained and certified. When you're on the line, you don't think about your wife's nice plump ass and you don't worry about little Johnny's grades. You concentrate. I did it for ten years before I made plant manager, still do it when I'm out in the yard. There's rules and, as they say, you follow them so you can clock out and make your way home to play "This Little Piggy" with your babies without coming up short any piggies.

Something else you don't do—you don't clear sap build-up from between a pulley and belt when the conveyor is running. I've seen it tried and there's only one possible outcome: the belt doesn't slip and the pulley won't stop and the pillowblock bearings won't let loose of the shaft. It's one shoulder socket versus a forty-horse motor and the arm is coming off. Period. Every time. No question and no excuse.

I didn't know this Lonnie Neiman well, but I know what he didn't know. There's only one way to clean the debarker. That thing's a bad SOB, a real widowmaker, and you've got to respect it. You disconnect the power line. You call the electrician and have him cut the juice completely. It's something you'd expect everyone would know, but you've got to watch the new guys. They'll sweat their rears off, they'll
yessir
and
nosir
you to death, but when it comes down to it, they're just too damn eager, too revved up to slow down and think. The boys say Lonnie was like that, a whole mound of red ants in his pants. It's hard to believe, such a lack of common sense, such outright stupidity, but you can't tell his mother that. You can't say,
I'm sorry something awful, ma'am, but the boy was just too dumb to stay alive.
You can't even say for certain what the hell he was doing in there, except you have to figure that, with a kid like Lonnie, less than a year out of Blue Mountain High and just three weeks on the job, he was probably trying to go the proverbial extra mile, trying to make an impression. Well, if you ask my line foreman, Big Red, the kid did just that.

So did the debarker.

Imagine a porcupine turned inside out, a big mother with three-foot-long steel quills. That's what a debarking drum is like. An enormous pipe, fifteen feet in diameter and lined inside with hundreds of these quills. Load it with a dozen or so twenty-foot-tall, forty-year-old Arkansas pine trunks, turn that sucker on, get it rolling good, and thirty seconds later you've got naked trees, fresh and clean as an Eden stream. Step back, blow the bark and sap out the discharge vents, smell that rich, sappy-sweet smell, and keep on keepin' on. Now, load that killer with one six-foot-tall eighteen-year-old kid. Let's say he's a real green-ass, maybe he's trying to suck up to the foreman, do some extra housekeeping before the shift ends—who knows? All the same, he's in there when Big Red throws the switch to cycle the motor.

Red's been a crew chief for seven years, and if Red says there wasn't any screaming I've got to believe him. Just a bump, he said, a liquid whistling sound. Something that didn't ring right in his ears—that debarker is Red's baby and he would know. Then he opens the discharge vents and a few minutes later the boys find him puking his guts up in the washroom.

That was three days ago. Tonight it's history, the sign by the highway just doesn't tell the story yet.
329 DAYS,
it reads,
WITHOUT AN LTA,
like maybe Rita in the front office couldn't stand to pull the numbers off the board and hang a zero in their place.

 

Usually, when I leave the sawmill for the night, I roll the truck windows down and breathe in deep through my nose. I take some of it home that way, some of the smell, some of the life that even a felled tree keeps holed up inside. It means something to me, makes clear the persistence, or maybe resistance, of the organic. Something dies—even a tree—it rarely goes willingly. It wants you to smell what it was in life, or what it could have been if you'd had the sense to let it go on living. It wants you to remember. Trees, like angry husbands and wives, always want the last word.

When I was ten, my father held me in front of him at Uncle Weldon's processing house in Odessa. After Dad had me choose the calf, my cousin Frank loaded a bullet into a special sledgehammer, and when he swung there was a dead, dull sound—no resonance—like maybe he'd dropped a wrecking ball into quicksand. Later, with the calf hanging from a hook inside, my uncle pulled a knife up through the smooth hide of the animal's underside and stepped back as the bulge of intestines slumped forward with a sucking sound and plopped onto the slick cement floor. What I remember most was Dad's breathing, the way his chapped lips clamped shut below his wiry mustache, the way his nostrils flared as he inhaled, sucking the smell of the animal into his lungs, keeping it alive awhile longer inside him.

Usually, for me, it's the same with trees, but lately it doesn't matter. The rain is freezing in midair and the stripped logs in the mill yard are sealed with skins of ice. It's winter in Logan County, Arkansas, and you can't smell a damn thing.

 

This evening, before Red and I took care of the smell in the debarking drum, on my way to Lonnie's wake the clouds were gray slate, perfectly smooth, spitting pebbles of sleet down on the countryside. The trees beside the road stood coated with ice, polished skeletons with bark-brown marrow. My driver's side headlight has been out for a week, and the dark and the ice on the road and the thought of coming face-to-face with Lonnie's mother were all mixed up like frozen slush in my gut.

Dangerous as it was, I stomped on the gas and rolled the windows down, and for the ten-mile stretch of highway I sped cold and half blind and sliding through turns toward town. I told myself that I just wanted it done, that I'd make my appearance at Wickman's Funeral Home and get it over with so I could head to my house and pour a whiskey and have a seat on the back porch. But what I really wanted, I suppose, was what I've wanted all winter—to be normal, a forty-seven-year-old lumber boss with a son gone off to college in Texas and an ex-wife who runs a nursery in Abilene. To forget about this poor kid who got himself killed in my debarking machine. I wanted the clouds to clear so I could sit in the sun on top of Magazine Mountain. I wanted my oldest boy back, wanted him alive. And I wanted like hell to smell the sticky insides of trees.

BOOK: Men in the Making
12.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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