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  • Writer's pictureTodd Stevens

The Trail, scene sixteen

Tom watched the crack at the bottom of the door until the cool fluorescent light above the door automatically went off in the morning light. He slowly began to unzip his bag, and when he did, Cat said, “I’ve been lying here awake for an hour, you don’t need to be quiet.” Tom smiled a little at the fact that they’d both been awake, but thinking the other was asleep. They got up and dressed, packed their bags, and walked out into the cool, pre-dawn yellow of the morning. A half dozen white chickens squawked long and slow and watched them from a distance as they walked across the big dirt lot to the house. The silverware from the night before was still on the porch. They sat at the picnic table and waited for Jerry. “I wonder what he’s gonna have us do?” asked Tom. Cat shrugged and said, “I don’t know, but he’s got more work right here that I can see, than we could do in a year.” A heavy black power line drooped from the corner of the house in a big arc across the dirt lot before attaching to a power pole on the other side. Dozens of quick, brown gray sparrows sat on the line, their heads stealing looks in seemingly every direction possible, every second. Two or three would fly down and land on the dirt and scratch a little, and fluff themselves until they looked like miniature feather dusters, then they’d dart back up to the line, and a few others would take their place. It was very still and quiet except for the birds and chickens, and they sat and enjoyed it. They hadn’t stayed anywhere where they didn’t have the risk of being run off in days, they were safe at Jerry’s, for the time being. “I wish we’d have asked him if we could make a fire somewhere around here, I’m starving and could really use a cup of coffee” said Tom as he rubbed his cold hands together, then cupped them and blew into them. Cat nodded. He had his tongue pushing his cheek out and was using the nail of his thumb and middle finger to pinch at a tiny zit. When he finished, he said, “We can ask him today.” Cat seemed placid, calmer than usual, and Tom thought about the story he’d listened to Cat tell the night before, and wondered if that was something he had to get off his chest, if it was like lancing a boil, and now today he felt some sense of relief. He wondered, but he doubted it.

The screen door squeaked and Franklin came out and sniffed the forks on the porch for a second, then jogged across the yard, tail wagging, his face a big, hanging, slobbery grin. Jerry backed out of the door, and then turned, letting the rusty, wood framed screen door bang shut behind him. He carried two plates, and as he got closer they could see that there were two breakfast sandwiches made of sausage patties, eggs and biscuits, the biscuits probably from the night before. Jerry still wore the pistol on his hip. He handed them the plates, and they thanked him, and he went back into the house, again with a bang of the screen door. They could hear him talking to someone, and a female voice answered. A second later he came out with two cups of coffee and some little white restaurant style packs of sugar. “Used up all the milk on the gravy last night, so if you like a little cream in your coffee, you’re shit out of luck.” Jerry stood at the far end of the table and put one foot up on a seat, then leaned forward and put his elbow on the elevated knee, and held the wrist of that arm with his other hand. He was cleaned up. He wore the same jeans and red suspenders as the day before, but a clean, short sleeved, plaid shirt that was made out of a linen looking material. His hair was combed, but covered with a white baseball hat that said, Massey Ferguson in red letters across the front. He was less red looking in the morning light, and because of that, a million tan freckles and brown age spots showed up more readily, and he smelled like Aqua Velva and toothpaste. “You fellas take your time, this work has been here for a long time, it ain’t going anywhere. Either one of you guys ever driven a tractor before?” Cat, who was in the process of swallowing a big bite of sandwich, said nothing, but nodded and raised a finger. “Good, good, you can drive the tractor out, and I can take the pickup and then come back in,” said Jerry.

They thanked him for the food and coffee, and followed him over to the long shed. Jerry ducked in and grabbed an aerosol can of starting fluid. “Gotta use this shit every time, or that old bitch won’t start.” They followed the old man behind the shed, and noticed that he had a funny way of rocking way over onto his left leg every time he took a step with his bowed legs. Tom thought, that’ll be me if I live long enough. Jerry hit the intake of the tractor with the spray and wobbled up into the seat. After another blast of spray administered by Cat, the tractor chugged to life, the motor turning over impossibly slow at first, before finally chugging out big black smoke rings from its stack and running loudly, but normal. Jerry pulled forward and then expertly backed the tractor up to a long wooden trailer, grayed from years of weather exposure. Tom and Cat guided him in and held up their palms when he needed to stop. They lowered the trailer onto the ball and Jerry pulled the tractor and trailer around into the big dirt lot. He climbed down and wobbled over to his pickup. He backed up, then pulled in front of them, dust hanging in the yellow sunlight, then put his elbow out the window and hooked a finger at them, at the same time as he hooked his head, as if to say, follow me. Tom rode on the trailer, dust swirling around him as they puttered down the road. They went back over the culverts and the stinking water, then stopped as Jerry got out and swung a big green gate that was made of hollow metal pipe out of the way. Once through the gate Jerry indicated not to close it. They followed him up a little bald hill, and then down the other side. They drove across a ditch that was full of black water, on a bridge that was nothing more than a few creosote tarred railroad ties and plywood. They turned left and headed back to the west. Two pale gray Sandhill cranes hunted a patch of tall brown weeds and watched them as they drove by, their impossibly skinny and long legs stepping carefully around obstacles. They turned back to the north and drove through a screen of tall thin quaking aspen, their bark as white as snow, and marred with black freckles here and there. Jerry pulled over and parked and pointed where he wanted Cat to park. He made the throat slashing motion to kill the motor. The sudden quiet was shocking. Jerry let the tailgate down and pulled out two stout looking forks, two shovels, a chain, and two pairs of worn gloves, made of heavy brown leather. “This here field is 7 acres, and I’ll bet you if you threw a ball into the air, anywhere it landed it’d hit a rock. Fellas, it’s pretty easy to see what I want done,” he waved a hand over the field like he was a king showing his kingdom. “I want all of these bastards gone.” He drew the word, all, out very long, then he turned slowly and pointed at a blackened barbed wire fence, half obscured by tall grass, “You can unload them just inside that fence, and follow it along as you go…basically I want a rock wall. And fellas, please don’t just half ass it. This wall may be here for a long, long time, kind of make it pretty.” When he said the word, pretty, it came out as ‘purty’. He stood quietly with them for a moment as they looked out over the field. It was more rock than grass, some of the rocks were loose on the surface, and some were embedded into the soil, just the tip showing like an iceberg. The stones were all very pale, almost as if they’d been whitewashed, and stood out cleanly against the deep velvet green of the grass. Jerry turned and wobbled lopsidedly back to the truck. “Be back in a couple hours and bring ya a little lunch.” He was almost settled into the truck, one half of his butt on the seat, “Well shit, I almost forgot.” He reached into the back of the truck and took out an orange 3 gallon cooler and sat it on the ground. “Don’t worry, that water’s fresh, I just filled it yesterday morning.” He climbed back in and banged off slowly until they couldn’t hear him anymore. They surveyed the field, looking for a starting spot, somewhere that wasn’t covered in rocks, but such a place didn’t exist in the field. Cat slapped his thigh with the heavy gloves. “I guess right here is as good a spot as any.” They grabbed their rock forks, and started right by the side of the trailer. Every rock vibrated the fork as they picked it up, and that vibration moved up the handle to their hands, so that after a while their hands buzzed with a low volt electricity feel, even when they took a moment to wipe the sweat away or get a drink of water.

They worked hard under the pale blue sky, resolved to impress Jerry initially so that he might look past a slip up in work ethic later on. Within an hour they had a 50 foot patch cleared. The rocks were piled on the wagon and the tires were compressed to the point where it was worrisome. Tom squatted by one of the tires and knocked it with his knuckles, “We better unload.” Back and forth they went for the next 4 hours, loading, unloading. When they unloaded they took turns, first one man pitched rocks off the wagon, and the other stacked, then on the next load, they reversed positions.

After he’d placed the last rock into the stone wall, Tom looked back on their handiwork. “There are fences like this in Ireland over 5,000 years old, saw it on a documentary about the Irish potato famine when I was in high school. Can you imagine a couple of guys examining this fence in 5,000 years and trying to figure out what the hell it was used for? They’d probably come up with some horse shit explanation about how we used it to measure the seasons.” Cat lit a cigarette as he listened to Tom, then hopped down off the trailer, using his knees as shock absorbers the way younger men can. “Fifty years from now this’ll all be a suburban development. They’ll have plowed all this away. The pastures will be gone, the cows will be gone, and they’ll haul these rocks away and dump em’ in the river for rip-rap somewhere. Probably be a Circle K right here, and the people going in and out to get Slurpees all day won’t have a goddamn clue about the sweat they’re walking over, not a single idea about it,” said Cat. He leaned against the trailer with his butt, and crossed his left arm over his chest and placed the elbow of his right arm on top of his left hand, and held the cigarette inches from his lips with that hand, waiting to smoke. Tom joined him in leaning against the trailer. They looked at the wall and the slight rise of the green field beyond it, scattered with little patches of white and yellow daisies here and there. Cat took a drag off the cigarette and then used the heel of his hand to wipe sweat from his eyes, “I guess that’s what they call progress, plow it under, and build over it.”

There is a certain kind of single minded satisfaction about doing a hard, simple job that produces instant visible results. As the day wore on and the pale yellow sun moved above, and then just past them, they could see the fruits of their labor, the ground was clear of the white stones, leaving black pockmarks, like craters, where the rocks had been pried from the ground. Green grass grew in rings around the holes, and bowed over, like it was trying to feel the now missing stones. It was quiet except for the ringing of the shovel and forks twanging against rock, and wave after wave of geese, black vees against the powder sky, flying over and honking their nasal call. After dumping a load of rocks and on the way back, they could look down and see the little swath where they’d cleared the stones away, and it gave them great satisfaction knowing that it was only their labor that had done it.

About one o’clock they heard the distant banging of Jerry’s truck approaching, then saw yellow dust in a cloud rise just beyond the little hill. Jerry pulled into the field and stopped just to the south of them. He got out of the truck with much labor and grunting and groaning as if he were moving a broken leg. He reached back into the cab and grabbed a red and white cooler, then called to Cat and Tom, “You fellas come on over and get a bite to eat.” He walked around to the passenger side of the truck and sat the cooler on the ground, he was still wearing the pistol, then opened the truck door and hefted himself up and sat on the seat, with his legs sideways and rested on the bottom of the door jamb. “Couple sandwiches and some other shit the wife threw together for you guys, dig in.” Tom opened the cooler and took out a thick ham and cheese sandwich and a weeping can of cold Pepsi, and sat in the shade of the pickup with his back against a wheel. Cat followed him, but sat cross legged facing Jerry. They thanked Jerry for the food and began to eat. “My youngest brother lives not too far up the road from me. His youngest kid was gonna pick this field for me a few years back. He was a good looking little shit when he was a young kid, funny, smarter than hell, just a good boy. He was gonna pick this field, and I was gonna pay him with a nice little 75’ Nova I got a deal on at an auction. That little car ran like a dream, was in perfect condition, only had 67,000 miles on it. Well, he was always gonna do it, he was always just about to get started. Then he hit his sophomore year in high school and something changed, took on a smart ass attitude, got real big for his britches, and as worthless as tits on a boar. Well, his daddy ran right out and bought him a brand new 1989 Chevy Silverado, brand new. That little piss ant acted like he was some big rancher, and I’ll tell you something,’ Jerry spat a thin brown stream of copenhagen juice at a daisy, but missed, “he was all hat and no goddamn cattle. I said that right to my brother too, told him the kid was all show, no go. As you might imagine, that didn’t go over too awful well with Darrel…that’s my brother. He barely talked to me for three or four months.” Tom and Cat tried to savor their food as they listened to him talk, and Tom kept staring at the spot where Jerry had spit, reminding himself not to sit in it. “Anyway, here last spring the little piss ant run that shiny new pickup right into a pine tree and folded her up like a lawn chair.” Jerry tipped his head back and shot another thin stream of brow spit at the daisy. This time he hit it, soiling the lower half of the petals. Tom and Cat watched it drip, and kept eating. “Well, guess who come calling on that Nova?” The slightest grin pulled up on one corner of Jerry’s mouth, and the corners of his eyes wrinkled with the same tiny smile.”That’s right, “ he said without waiting for them to answer, “Darrel and that little piss ant. I told em’ that there was a different kid working for it…of course there wasn’t, and it was wrong of me to lie…but fuck em…” He eased himself out of the passenger seat and back to the ground, then stood for a second as if he needed to let his feet get accustomed to the ground. Tom and Cat finished their sandwiches and took out two little bags full of corn chips, and started in on them. Jerry walked out into the area they’d cleaned and stood with his knuckles on his hips. “I guess that makes me a bitter old man…” he said it to no one.

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