one last job

“Most of us outlive our usefulness.”

Dean Talbot was talking to no one. He stopped to blow his nose, looked back at the gravesite and spat on the pile of dirt mounded in front of his machine. The idling John Deere backhoe obeyed as Dean worked the well-worn knobs of his machine. He swung the claw around to scoop dirt onto the gloss black box. In a few minutes the first job was done. Dean’s arm hairs told him that rain would come soon to this little graveyard far out in the Montana prairie where the grass seeds Dean sprinkled would get a quick start. Dean raked the seeds in lightly and tamped the dirt with his boots around the edge carefully.

The mourners had long since dispersed, the tent removed, flowers discarded.  Dean and his machine were all alone. Even the small gravel road was deserted. A gopher barked a warning as the shadow of a red tailed hawk touched his mound. White puffy clouds swept the vast pale sky and their lazy late morning shadows prowled the graveyard and crept slowly east toward the rolling terrain of the river valley below.  The Marias river ribboned through the bony canyon toward the brownish blue waters of the Tiber reservoir which reflected a glint of sun in the midmorning glare and reminded Dean of record size walleye. Dean smiled. He fingered the keys to  the boat and trailer in his worn jeans jacket. One more hole to dig at the graveyard in Cut Bank, then finally retirement.

Dean crawled the backhoe up the landing pile onto the flatbed trailer, chained it tight and lit a cigarette while he waited for the diesel engine in his old ford dump truck to warm up. The broken radio would only pick up a BBC station in Calgary Canada instead of his favorite country channel from Havre.  Dean listened for a few seconds to the stuffy nasal voice of a narrator introducing a new author who had written a book about global warming then flicked the button to the country channel and its hiss of empty signal for a few seconds more before switching it off.

Dean pulled out of Chester and turned onto highway 2, pointed west toward the mountains. Fresh Canadian pacific rain clouds from British Columbia scuttled their way across the eastern face of the Montana Rocky Mountain front and began to blanket The Sweet Grass Hills off to the North. The small island of hills was barely visible in a gauzy ghostlike blanket which seemed to spread across the entire horizon. Dean worried about the upcoming auction of his equipment with the low prices Bud had quoted him.  He might have to find someone who isn’t too ambitious to work the contracts for wages and make payments on the backhoe for a few more years until things stabilize. The recession was spreading its cloud of doom over rural America and Montana. Eastern Montana’s hi-line was no exception. Dean reached for his cigarette in the ashtray when he felt the buzz of the cell-phone in the pocket of his wrangler roper shirt and flipped the cover open.

“Dean here.”

“Dad? Where are you?”

“I Just left Chester. One more hole to go in Cut Bank.”

“I should warn you. there’s a party planned at Chet’s tonight. Do you have your good shirt?”

Dean looked briefly at his favorite tattered shirt with the hydraulic stains and the rips in the sleeves, “yeah.”

“You do not. It’s hanging here in the closet. I’ll bring it. “

“Your mom going to come?”

“I don’t think so.”

“How is she?”

“Let’s not go into it. Ok.”

“How are the kids?”

“You’ll see them at Chet’s tonight. I gotta go now OK?”

The entire eastern face of Glacier National Park was enveloped in a mass of North Pacific thunderheads by the time Dean pulled into the cemetery on the outskirts of Cut bank. It would be dangerous to dig with a backhoe until the lightening passed, so he pulled an old western novel and a small ziplock bag of oreos out of his lunch box and made himself comfortable while raindrops as big as silver dollars splattered his windshield. He rolled the driver side window down a few inches to catch the sweet smell of  ozone before the wind started and he breathed deeply, sucking in the moisture mixing with the prairie grass and alfalfa fields nearby. Dean eyed his cigarettes but opened the oreos instead. He enjoyed the first bite as he bent back the page he had used to mark his spot and resumed reading ….

”there’s no use goin’ on with this ranch business. The railroad’s comin’ in and settlers will swarm all over this land” Jake said to his younger sister. “Dad left us enough land and cattle to keep one family goin’ and I guess that I can make my own way somewhere else.”

“That’s mighty noble of ya, Jake. But where will you go?” Emma asked.

“West.” Jake said. “Just somewhere West.” At that Jake tugged the reins and guided his stallion out of the small graveyard. He glanced back at the small family gathered there at the grave of his newly buried father, and waved goodbye to the only home he had ever known near the Platte River. Jake could hear Emma’s cries fade off as he rode toward the setting sun.”

A face appeared in the side window as the storm clouds darkened. It was Sam Thompson, the groundskeeper. He had to hold onto his wide brim Stetson hat as he yelled over the wind. “Big John’s passed out in his truck again.”

“Where?” Dean asked.

“The Circle K.”

“How long?” Dean put his book back in the lunch box.

“Pulled in last night, Bob told me.” Sam started to walk back to his truck. He turned and looked at Dean hard through the whipping dust and squinted through the wind lash.

“I can’t keep him on anymore if you don’t talk to him.” Sam shouted over the gale.

Sam was caretaker of the CutBank cemetery but he also owned half the town along with a big grain outfit that shipped high quality wheat to Budweiser; another wealthy guy in Montana that you don’t cross if you want to keep on working. Dean was no longer interested in working, but he couldn’t help but respect Sam Thompson. Sam wore greasy coveralls and went to every High School Basketball game even after his kids had graduated. When he sat on the stool at Chet’s bar, nobody who wasn’t local could tell they were talking to a millionaire who hunted with the governor.

“I’ll try.” Dean said. He rolled up his window and started the engine.

The parking lot of the circle K was empty except for John’s idling kenworth. Dean could see the gauges on the dash glowing in John’s eyeglasses, head thrown back, snoring loudly. Dean rapped on the driver’s side window. No reaction.

Dean shouted. “Haysacker. John. Wake up.” No reaction.

Dean tried the door handle, locked tight.

“Godamnit. John. I don’t have time for this,” Dean muttered.

Dean walked back to his own idling truck. He grabbed a bent piece of rebar out of the back of the tool box hanging off the passenger step. Dean rapped the side of the sleeper directly in back of John’s seat hard. Dean was careful to hit the rusty spot where a small dent would hardly be noticed.

“What the Fuck.” Big John growled. John grabbed for something in the cab and bleary eyed, he opened the door a crack. A wavering unfocused face protruded through the gloom of the truck’s interior and smashed its fevered visage against the glass of the driver’s door trying to make out the source of the noise. Cheeto bags and coke bottles spilled from the floor of the old Kenworth into the gravel and mud in the parking lot, along with a half devoured convenience store ham sandwich and an empty bottle of Jim Beam that hit the ground last. The ghoulish specter in the glass produced a hand with a pistol undulating crazily in the air like a dangerous metallic blind cobra.

“goddamnit Haysacker, put the gun away it’s me. Dean.”

The hand sucked back into the cab and the door slammed shut. Some muffled swearing and crashing and banging could be heard in the sleeper as John rifled through scattered belongings to find his shoes. The door opened again. The truck’s engine died as john switched off the ignition and pocketed the keys.

“ya but, goddamnit Dean you hit my truck ferrkrissakes.” He searched the side of the cab for damage.

“I just hit the rusty part.” Dean showed John the rebar’s dent and displayed the weapon in case John was feeling feisty. John was like a son to Dean but with retirement moments away he wasn’t taking any chances.

“You ok?” Dean asked.

“Oh sure.” John answered. “Sounded like a gun shot. Nice way to wake up.”

“Let’s get coffee.” Dean walked back to his truck and shut it off. He slid the rebar back into the tool box. “My treat.”

“Some treat.” John grumbled.

Together they walked to the back door of the circle K. the café in back of the bar was empty of customers. The lunch crowd had dispersed. Pool balls cracking from a hard break and a general din of NASCAR races and small town gossip and laughter filtered through the swinging door from the bar. A tired waitress reading a newspaper at the near end of the counter looked at her watch testily, grabbed the coffee pot and served them as they settled into the booth near the kitchen. The cook could be heard through the order window talking on his cell phone. Some Mel Tillis whined from a duct taped radio shack tape player back in the kitchen. Its twang somehow made all the more annoying by the magnification of the already terrible sound waves bouncing loudly off the greasy fryer hood. The French fryer protested loudly with volcanic explosions as the cook tossed some freezer burned jalapenos into the hot oil. Dean knew that would be his nuts if he missed the retirement party his daughter was planning tonight. He needed to make this quick and to the point.

“Sam says this is it, John. He’s tired of it and so am I. I don’t care if you lose the truck anymore, but if you do, you better get your shit squared away real fast. Cause unless you get it together Sam’s gonna make sure the bank never helps you again.”

John looked down at the coffee. He took his glasses off, breathed hard at both lenses and wiped them off with a napkin. He stirred sugar into the cup and looked down at Dean. John was huge; 6’8” and around 300 lbs when he was starving himself. His wrist was double the size of Dean’s who at 6 foot was no small man himself. Dean had seen John lift two bikers up by the collar ten years ago and throw them both out of the Red Dog Saloon when he was a bouncer working for beer. Big John rubbed his unruly knot of curly blonde hair that tufted his huge bear head. He shrugged his shoulders.

“What do you want me to do?” John said flatly. “I try to keep up with stuff, but I just get behind.”

“You won’t know what behind is John. If you lose your truck…”

“I know.” John said. “I’m an idiot.”

“Sam fronted the down and even cosigned at the bank.” Dean said. “Every man has his limit. You gotta respect that john.”

“What should I do?” john asked. He put his round wire framed John Lennon glasses back on. John peered out at Dean with the moist eyes of a lost drunk. John’s question told Dean everything he needed to know. John had no gumption left. No plans except getting another bottle. He’d seen it too many times in his life living out here where the wind can drive a man crazy. Sometimes when a man says he doesn’t know what to do, it means he doesn’t want to do anything right anymore, and there is nothing Dean can do about that. Dean looked at his watch. He thought about inviting John but then remembered the last party they had together and decided to keep the retirement party to himself.

“Show up when you’re supposed to. And talk to Sam before he lowers the boom.”

“ok.” John says. “I’ll try.”

“Hey look, I gotta go.” Dean said. He felt a pang of abandonment guilt as he saw John sit there looking so helpless and lost. He regretted saying it as soon as he said it:

“Look- I got a hole to dig today for some marine who lost it in Afghanistan. I’m retiring after today. You can take over the payments on the backhoe and cover it up next Monday if you want to quit the road…just Talk to Sam first about getting the Kenworth back to the bank though OK?. Take care of yourself?”

John just sat there sipping coffee, too hung over or maybe too stunned to answer. It was hard to tell which. He could get no read in John’s eyes. The glare from the fluorescent light in John’s glasses was all Dean could see. He left Big John to his decision, a huge lumbering man who had a scary high IQ and almost 85% retention of all those history books he devoured in every library in Montana; no college degree and without a clue how to survive in this world and growing more and more dangerous to be around by the day. But, like most drunks that Dean had worked with, John was hard working when he showed up; high-functioning with heavy equipment and good with tools when something goes down.  They just never have a clue how to fix their own life.

When Dean pulled the door shut, he could hear the cook yelling into his phone. “goddamn it you bitch…” then the screen door slammed and all Dean could hear was the wind blowing in from Canada. A spring freshet from the arctic carried small flakes of snow and the alley behind the bar seemed to crawl with graupel as it skittered past him in the wind. The wind whipped madness of white motion made Dean slightly dizzy as he walked toward his truck for one last job.

(c)  W.C. Fleischman (excerpt from work in progress)

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