“I was looking decent, but nothing fancy and certainly not sexy! I was going to the grocery store! I mean, I had shorts on, but not short shorts. I had on that little tee-shirt top, you know, the pale yellow with the little loop stitching on the edges? Nice, but not exactly an attention getter. Well I see a group of construction workers working on a building up ahead, so I just look straight ahead, no eye contact, nothing to lead them on. So when I get up close every single one of them goes presidential on me. I couldn’t believe it! I wanted to tell them a thing or two but that would just encourage them so I kept my eyes straight ahead and kept walking. What’s this world coming too?”
Their motorcycles were leaning at the front door; close enough to need notice but far enough away not to be a real nuisance. The two of them, in uniform with utility belts and holstered guns gave the intended impression of being comfortably sprawled in two wooden chairs but it was a lie, they were nervous. They watched, using peripheral vision, as I avoided the fly blower at the door and walked away from them and toward the ordering counter.
“Tall Americano.” I stated flatly. My speech was unnecessary the girl behind the counter had already written David on my paper cup. I gave her three dollars and put the change in the tip cup. I took my preferred seat in the corner and scanned the room, looking through the uniforms as if their chairs were empty. I settled my stare a foot to the right of the tallest officer and focused on a parking lot light standard two hundred feet through the spring drizzle, a drizzle that had the parking lot shining black and reflecting every light. The tall officer looked at me, thinking he was returning my stare, but when he realized I wasn’t looking at him he turned away too quickly, embarrassed. I allowed a hint of a smile, like the light standard had done something to please me. I listened to their conversation as they tried to make small talk, pretending they were not bothered by my presence. One kept referring to working out and having been in the Marines the other didn’t take the hint and told a story about his mother and what a truly caring woman she was. I grew tired of their conversion and concentrated more on what I was writing and on sipping my Americano. I’ll check my FaceBook page even though none of my “friends” are awake yet. I’ll finish what’s in my cup and leave the men in blue to their break.
Most of our creek hunts take place along the banks but today, with the water running so high, the best game is floating down stream. I follow Ricky’s example, find a nice long stick and watch upstream for my victim. And then I see it – the mother lode of rusty nails – a complete wooden gate, with hinges and latch floating heavy in the water. I brace myself at the water’s edge, stick at the ready; I see ahead how the current will turn the gate and where my purchase will be the most effective. The moment comes and I jab my stick into a crack between two of the planks nailed to the front of the heavy gate. The stick takes hold and the gate spins in the predicted direction. As the gate hits the bank at my feet creek water backs up and spills over the top of the gate filling both my shoes with water as it helps me lift the gate out of the water and up the bank enough to keep the raft of a gate from continuing its journey downstream.
“Hey!” I yell across the water to Ricky who has watched the capture from the other side of the creek, he gives me a cheer and takes off running for the next bridge. I pull the gate up the bank a few feet and sit on my bottom in the mud, drain my shoes and wait for Ricky’s help getting this prize home. I count five two-by-fours at least four feet long, enough one-by-six for a four foot by five foot deck, and everything comes with its own supply of nails!
“It’s a beauty Jimmy!” Ricky shouts as he slides down the slippery bank to where I sit. We sit and admire our conquest and get our breath, the real work will be dragging this mess to my carport but the battle for materials has been won. When we are rested I cup my left hand under the top rail of the gate, Ricky cups his right hand under the top rail of the gate, we drag the gate up the bank and to the sidewalk next to the road. We leave a trail of sawdust as the concrete sands the bottom edge of the gate. The scraping noise fills the neighborhood. People come to their porches. Ricky and I with big grins on our faces wave with our free hands. Some people just shake their heads and go back inside their homes, some wave back, one old guy on a front porch swing gives us a big thumbs up and shouts, “Way to go boys!”
“They were just laughing and laughing; made me want to slap them upside the head if you know what I mean?” he didn’t look up from what he was reading and I had no idea of what he might be talking about.
“You wanted to hit them on the side of the head with your open hand?” I said just to make conversation.
“What?” he looked up from his book and gave me a puzzled look.
“Slap upside the head,” I clarified.
“Oh,” he shook his head like he was trying to clean his brain of foolishness. “In this book, this author has everyone laughing at everything – they sound like complete fools,” he held the paperback in one hand and waved it around while he talked.
“So…read something else?”
‘“I’ve never not finished a book after reading more than a couple pages. It’s a commitment. If you’re going to start something you should finish it. My dad taught me that, he was a very responsible person. Raised my three sisters and me, never complained a day in his life; at least not about having to take care of us. Hard work, out in the hot sun, they used to start at four in the morning during the summer! He said, “Finish what you start!’”
“I’m sure he wasn’t talking about that book,” I pointed at the book, which took a little effort as it was still waving around in circles.
“Slippery slope,” he said like it was the answer to end all answers, “slippery slope that’s all.”
“Tell me more about this incline with limited traction,” I had completely lost interest in the conversation but if I kept him talking I would have to do less.
“Slippery slope,” I stated without giving it a thought.
‘“Deciding what things need to be finished and what things can be left unfinished. Where does it end? It makes the whole, “finish what you started” thing meaningless! Changes it to, “finish what you want to” and what kind of sense does that make?”’
“I got to go. Good to see you again,” I stood and offered him my hand to shake. He took my hand by the fingers and did a limp fish shake.
“You going to finish your coffee?” he asked.
The sun was already a well defined half ball of burning fire by the time Jack leaned the brush painted red bike on the bales of blue hay next to Toby’s house. The house was dark inside so Jack began the task of releasing the tractor from its anchor at the silo. The task was not entirely new and the necessary tools were nearby. He started the tractor and moved it ahead a few feet once it was loose from the auger. He left the tractor running at an idle so slow he could almost see the individual fan blades on the front of the little diesel engine. A deep rumble filled the valley and the smell of the exhaust felt like work about to be done. Jack looked toward the house, no lights showed through the wood framed, paned windows. He moved the tractor to the far side of the barn, backed it into its spot, and pulled on the knob that would shut off the flow of fuel. The tractor chugged into silence. There was no sound. The sun had cleared the mountains and Jack could already tell it would be another hot day. He watched the rolls of cut straw lying in the field. He knew what his next task would be and eyed the hay rake sitting next to the tractor considering whether or not to go ahead and hook it up but decided to wait just in case Toby had other plans. He let the morning become, which it would despite anything he could do and he walked around the barn and up the porch in front of Toby’s house. It was still early and the inside of the house was still dark and quiet so Jack sat down on the swing for two at one end of the porch and let its subtle squeak announce his presence to Toby. Minutes went by. He could smell the hay starting to bake; the smell was more than pleasant, it filled him with a general feeling of health and well-being. In town people would take a bit of straw from Toby’s field and make a tea when someone was sick or felt a cold coming on; breathing the steam from the cup would keep the sickness away. Jack wondered if Toby had ever been sick. And then he worried at the lack of sound coming from inside Toby’s house. He started to move toward the door and then he heard water running through the pipes in the wall of the house and settled back onto the swing. The sun was well above the mountains when the screen door amplified the squeak of the swing and Toby poked his sleepy round head out the doorway.
“Come in,” Toby said leaving the door open but allowing the screen to close. Jack followed him into the kitchen where Toby sat at the round table still rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Toby waved one hand toward the stove as an invitation to Jack and Jack took the hint without questions. As Jack found their breakfast Toby made his unnecessary excuse, “I’m getting old Jack. Take my advice and don’t let it happen to you.”
“My dad says there is only one way to avoid it,” responded Jack. The Mr. Coffee machine started gurgling its black/brown liquid as Jack broke some eggs.
“Yah, avoid that too.” Toby said, sounding like he could use another hour of sleep.
“My dad also says you were old when he was a boy,” said Jack.
“I looked old, this is the first time I have felt old. I thought the wheat made me immune. Turns out, I was wrong.” Toby stretched out his short legs and hugged himself to get a kink out of his back. Jack took two thick slices of blood red toast out of the oven and smeared them with butter, turned sausage patties and flipped the eggs to cook their sunny side. He found orange juice in the refrigerator and poured two glasses. Toby continued the process of an old man waking up and let Jack have complete control of serving the breakfast. They ate in silence for a while. Just the clink of stainless ware and the crunch of toast could be heard. “Have you ever thought about being a farmer?”
Jack was surprised at the question but answered quickly, “I think it’s the best life possible. I’ve never considered it because my father has no land and being a farm hand is a different thing,” this wasn’t the first time he had thought in this direction.
“Farming the blue stocks is something different. It requires more of you. I’m not sure I can explain it but you become part of every crop, there’s a joining.”
“I’ve heard other farmers say the same thing.”
“Yes, but I think this is something more. I can’t really compare, this is all I have ever done,” the rest of what Toby thought he thought to himself and the conversation became normal breakfast chatter, leaving the question and the reason for the question behind. Toby helped with cleaning up and by the time they stepped out onto the porch the heat of the day greeted them like opening the door of a pre-heated oven.
A couple of small changes were made to Heat (18). I put food into Jacks bag.