Wes Boyd's
Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online

Winter Layoff
a novel by
Wes Boyd
2011, 2013

Chapter 1

A clear winter night in the North Country usually means it’s going to be cold. The stars had been out in profusion when Jim Wooten glanced out the window before going to bed on Christmas Eve. It was no surprise to get up as sunrise approached on Christmas morning and find the windows pretty well frosted up on his mobile home. The windows weren’t completely covered with frost, and there was enough clear space to see a sun pillar poking above the horizon beyond Spearfish Lake, at least from the limited view of the horizon he had from the trailer park behind Hannegan’s Cove.

Yep, cold all right, he thought as he turned away from the window to get the coffee pot going. Below zero, at least. Too bad I’m not going to be able to enjoy it today.

Unlike a lot of people, winter was Jim’s favorite time of year. There were several reasons for that, some of which he’d never even bothered to think through. Maybe the big thing about it was that he didn’t have to go to work – not that he minded working; he liked working in season. The problem was that all too often the days and the weeks got long, and he had to be on the seat of whatever equipment Ray had him running at Clark Construction. Once in a while he’d have liked to be doing something else. That didn’t happen in the winter when he was laid off. If he felt like doing something else, there was nothing to stop him from doing it. If he felt like riding his snowmobile someplace through the beautiful winter landscape, he rode it. If he felt like going out to his fish coop on the lake to try for bluegill or walleye, he went fishing. If he felt like hanging out with friends, inside and away from the cold, maybe playing cards over coffee out at the Pike Bar, he played cards and sipped coffee. If he felt like staying home and watching TV, he watched TV. There was little he had to do at any given time, and that suited him just fine.

But that wasn’t going to be the case today. It was Christmas, after all, one of the few days of the four or so months of his layoff when he actually had to be someplace because someone else wanted him to be there. Back when he’d been a kid, Christmas had been a big deal. Now it was mostly a pain in the ass, but he knew it was something he couldn’t get out of.

With the coffee pot showing signs of life, Jim headed back to the bedroom to change clothes. As usual, he’d kept it pretty cold in the trailer to keep the fuel-oil bill from getting out of sight. Fuel oil was a pretty expensive way to heat, especially after the way the hurricanes had torn up the Gulf Coast the previous fall. Given a choice, he’d rather have had a wood stove to at least take the edge off the temperature. Given the lack of insulation, the furnace had been working pretty hard all night even with the thermostat turned down, and he’d worn long johns to bed as usual.

Might as well get a shower, he thought. Sometimes he’d let a few days go by in the winter, but with it being Christmas he figured he’d better spiff up a bit. A shower when he kept the heat as low as he did was no fun when he got out all wet, but this time it was something that had to be done. At least the water was warm, and he took his time.

By the time he got out of the shower and got some warm clothes on, he could smell that the coffee was about ready. That first taste of morning eye-opener brought him around a little bit. It always tasted best when it was fresh from the pot. He liked his coffee hot, hotter than most people could stand it, and he could feel its warmth coursing through his body. Couldn’t be better, he thought. Damn good day to go out ice fishing. He was in the mood for it and a nice walleye or two would make for a good dinner any other day.

Thoughts of dinner made him think of breakfast. Probably could go out to the café, he thought, but then remembered seeing the sign on the door a day or two before that the Spearfish Lake Café would be closed Christmas day. Well, so much for that great idea. He didn’t feel like going to a lot of trouble to make his own breakfast. With no more contemplation than that he pulled a couple hot dogs from the freezer, threw them in the microwave to nuke them for a couple minutes, and just used a couple slices of bread as buns. He knew it wasn’t enough breakfast for most days, but it would hold him for today.

It didn’t take him long to eat as he pondered his next move. Might as well get it over with, he thought. The day is going to be shot in the butt anyway, so I might as well get some points for it. He grabbed his jacket and some gloves, which were really too light for as cold as it was, but he didn’t plan on being out long. His pickup was parked outside, as covered with frost as the windows of the trailer. He unplugged the electrical cord that ran to the tank and dipstick heaters, then got in and turned the key. It started right up, thanks to the heaters being on it all night, and with the defroster running the windows ought to be clear in a few minutes.

He headed back inside, took off the jacket and gloves, and poured himself another cup of coffee to work on while the truck warmed up. Sure would be nice to have a garage, he thought, but there’s no space for one here. He’d considered looking for a small house where he could have a garage and a wood stove, but he’d been barely able to afford this place when he’d moved here a few years before. Since then he’d been careful with his money, and he could probably afford a small house now, but he sure didn’t want to mess around with moving this time of year. Maybe when spring comes, before we get too busy, he thought.

The sun was up now, hanging low in the sky over the lake. A couple times he got up from the table to glance out through one of the few clear spots on the glass to check on the progress of the truck windows. It took two cups of coffee before they looked clear enough, so there was no point in putting it off any longer. Since the truck would be warm, he decided to just wear his jacket and gloves again, although with a knit cap to start out. There were heavier clothes in the truck for emergencies or just in case something came up. He filled a travel mug with the rest of the coffee from the pot to keep him going for a while, shut off the pot and the couple lights he hadn’t bothered with earlier, and headed for the door.

It would be close to a three-hour drive, or maybe even more, down to his folks’ house in Waldenville, well to the south of Camden, a longish but fairly familiar haul. This wouldn’t be a big Christmas gathering, but there’d be some people he hadn’t seen for a while. On the whole, however, he’d rather have been driving out to his fishing shanty on the lake.

Jim headed south on the state road in his pickup truck, but like most Spearfish Lake locals he turned off the highway onto a county road a few miles south of town, the shorter route to get to Camden. The state road wasn’t real direct, and ran through a lot of forest where there wasn’t much to see but trees. The local roads took him through several small towns, so the drive was a little more interesting. Though not as fast as the state road, going this way meant there were things to see, even if they mostly were the same things as the last time, and today he was in no hurry anyway.

His coffee was too cold to enjoy drinking before he was halfway to Camden, but really, no great loss. He could top up at a drive-through off the Camden bypass or something if he could find one open on Christmas morning. It was just another annoyance on a day he figured was going to be annoying, anyway.

*   *   *

One of the few advantages Jim could see about arriving at his parents’ house in Waldenville as early as he did was that he got there before his sister Shirley, her husband Bob, and their kids. He figured the kids were all right for kids, which mostly meant that they were noisy and a pain in the neck. Bob was all right too. He was a factory worker, and his major interest around the house was watching sports on TV, something Jim did just once in a while, only if the weather was lousy and he didn’t feel like going out. Shirley, however, could be a pain in the neck and had been as long as he could remember.

Jim got a few good minutes to talk with his father and mother before Shirley and Bob showed up with the kids. Bob being Bob, he flopped down in the living room, grabbed the remote, and was soon hunting around the ESPN channels for something to watch – at that hour it was a rerun of a basketball game from the night before. Jim cared so little about it that he never bothered even finding out who was playing who. The kids were soon raising hell, and it didn’t take long for Shirley to find something to pick at him about. “Isn’t it kind of lonely living up there in the sticks?” she asked about as soon as she wound down yapping with their mother.

“No,” he said, realizing it would be the same line he’d heard out of her on the Thanksgiving visit, and just about every time he’d seen her since his divorce a few years before. “I like it like that.”

“Don’t you miss having Carolyn around?” she prodded at him a little.

“Of course I miss her,” he snorted, and of a mood to put this one to bed before she ragged on him all day again. “I miss the bitching, I miss the whining. I especially miss the drinking. I miss it, Shirley, about like I miss the broken arm I had in the fifth grade.”

Carolyn was the sister of Shirley’s best friend from high school fifteen years before, and Shirley was always willing to defend her more than she should have. “You didn’t give her much of a chance,” she sniffed, as if everything was his fault. Jim knew all too well that she felt he was to blame for everything, especially Carolyn being a drunk – and that was what she had been. He had put up with it for years and often had felt he should have seen it well before her drinking ruined the things he had once liked about her.

“I gave her all the chances she needed,” Jim replied, his hackles rising again at the same old accusations. “I told her that if she got busted for DUI again after she lost her license, it was all over with. She did, and I kept my word.”

“That wasn’t a very supportive way to treat your wife,” Shirley sniped. It was clear to Jim that whatever happened, he was in the wrong and Carolyn was in the right. He didn’t see it that way, of course.

“No, but the support she gave me crawling into the bottle again after supposedly going on the wagon, which must have lasted all of ten minutes, was even worse,” he said. “Now Shirley, leave it alone. It’s over and it’s done with, and I divorced her for good reason. I’m not in a mood to sit here and have you pick at me about it again all day. Now, we can either drop the subject, or I can go back to Spearfish Lake and see if the walleye are biting. Your choice.”

“You’re certainly being nasty about it today,” she pouted.

“Face it, you’re not going to put us back together again, so you can quit trying,” he said, realizing that this was a hell of a topic for Christmas morning, but he wasn’t in the best of moods anyway, and Shirley was doing nothing to improve it. “I’ve been there and I’ve done that. I have no need to take any more of it. Now, like I said, drop it. There’s a fish coop with my name on it out on the lake, and I’d rather be there than here if you’re going to keep harping on and on about it.”

“But Jim,” she persisted, changing her tack a little. “Isn’t it lonely to be living by yourself up there in the sticks like that? Have you given any thought to getting married again?”

“As a matter of fact, I have thought about it. I don’t think much of the idea, not that I’ve found anyone I might like to marry, mostly because I haven’t been looking,” he told her pointedly. “I like my life the way it is, and I don’t have any plans to change it, especially for some woman who could turn out to be as big a pain in the ass as Carolyn was. That’s a big part of why I moved up to Spearfish Lake after the divorce in the first place.”

There was a little bit more to it than that. The divorce had gone through easily, mostly because Carolyn had been in jail at the time and he’d taken the effort to go to Nevada on his winter layoff and get an uncontested decree. Carolyn hadn’t agreed to the divorce, but doing six months for the second DUI, she couldn’t do anything about it. It had been clear that she planned on continuing to make his life miserable, so while she was still in jail, he decided he’d be much better off living way out of town, and being across a state line would help even more. He’d happened to hear that Clark Construction was looking for a heavy equipment operator, and after an interview he’d gotten the job from old man Clark, back just a couple years before he’d died. He would have liked to have moved even farther away, but this distance had been enough to keep Carolyn out of his hair so far and still be reasonably close to his parents – and his sister, not that it was a blessing today. Going back to the fish coop for the rest of the day was getting more attractive each time Shirley opened her mouth.

Fortunately his father intervened. “Shirley, give it a rest,” he said, looking up from the basketball game that he apparently had little interest in either. “I thought Jim was a little crazy to get latched up with her in the first place and dumping her was one of the better decisions he ever made. I know he’s tired of hearing about it from you, and I’m damn tired of it myself.”

“Well, if neither of you are going to be civil I might as well go back out and talk to mother,” Shirley huffed.

“What’s to be civil about?” Jim said as gently as he could, in hopes of avoiding a hissy fit on her part. “I’m satisfied with the way things are, and you’re the one who wants to keep picking at the scab. It’s very simple. In the unlikely event I get married again, it won’t be to her. Period. If she wants to see the world through an alcoholic haze, fine with me. I’m not going to contribute to it. I’ve done it enough as it is by putting up with it as long as I did.”

“Well, that’s a fine way to talk to your sister on Christmas!” Shirley snorted as she headed for the kitchen.

“Women,” his father shook his head as she departed. “Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em, although I guess you’ve proved that you can.”

“Right,” Jim sighed. “Maybe I’d better head back up and see if the walleye are biting.”

“Oh, stick around,” his father said. “We don’t see enough of you as it is. From what your mom is telling me, Carolyn’s sister has been on Shirley’s case again. She seems to think you could straighten her out, and hell, even I know better than that.”

*   *   *

Jim hadn’t seen much of his mother since he’d been there. She was busy going through all the hustle and bustle of Christmas dinner, and he was happy to stay out of her way. Shirley seemed happy bending her ear rather than picking at him over Carolyn, so that suited him just fine. Given all that, Jim expected Shirley to raise the subject around the dinner table, just to piss him off. It was something she’d enjoyed doing ever since she’d been a kid and was pretty good at it.

Without much thought Jim decided to try and raise another topic of discussion over dinner just to be on the safe side. Not sports. Bob would get off on a rant about how great the Packers were or something equally inane. It really needed to be something the family would understand – that would be safe.

“So, Mom,” he said as soon as he had the chance, “You hear anything from Aunt Rita and Uncle John?” His aunt and uncle were distant, living down in southern Mississippi, but he’d met them a few times over the years. Jim knew from family gossip that Hurricane Katrina had pretty well wrecked their home back in the late summer, but that was about all. He remembered good times with them as a kid because they were both so nice, and remembered his Uncle John’s stories from the Vietnam War.

“I talked to her on the phone the other day,” Jim’s mother reported. “They’ve had to move around a couple times since they got out of the shelter, and they’re now staying somewhere around Vicksburg, Mississippi, with his sister. I wrote down the address, but I don’t remember it. Rita said it was a pretty small house with a lot of kids, so it’s pretty crowded.”

“Better than having to live in some school gym,” his father commented.

“Well, yes,” Rita said. “Especially with the trouble John has getting around.” Jim knew that John had been in a wheelchair as a result of wounds in Vietnam. Although Jim didn’t know his uncle well, he’d always seemed to be a fairly upbeat guy considering what had happened to him. “It looks like they’re going to be there a while, and they’re not very happy about it.”

“That’s understandable,” Jim said, nodding while glancing over at Shirley, who didn’t seem ready to bring up Carolyn again right at the moment, although she was acting somewhat sulky otherwise. “I thought they’d be back into their own place by now.”

“It doesn’t look like it’s going to happen anytime soon,” his mother commented, shaking her head. “Their house was totally wrecked. They finally got their insurance settlement the other day, but it’s a lot less than they’d hoped for, not enough to replace the house. I really don’t understand what that’s all about. She tried to explain it to me, but I didn’t understand what she was saying very well. Even if they did have the money to rebuild, Rita says that there isn’t a prayer of finding someone to do the work.”

“Yeah, I’d imagine things are a little tight down there,” Jim agreed. “I’ll bet construction people are just about naming their own price.”

“That’s what she was telling me,” his mother sighed. “They’re afraid it’s going to be years, but John doesn’t want to mooch off his sister for that long. There isn’t much else they could do unless they came up to stay with us, though.”

Shirley spoke up. “Jim, it seems like there ought to be something you could do about that. After all, you’re in construction and ought to know your way around those things.”

“There’s probably not much I could do,” he replied, amazed that Shirley could make any constructive comment about him. “After all, I’m an equipment operator, not a carpenter or anything like that. There’s no way I could go down there and build a house for them.”

“Maybe it’s something you could look into,” his mother said, picking up on his comment. “After all, you’re not working right now, and you at least know something about it. Rita seemed pretty desperate when I talked to her. Maybe just knowing someone is thinking about their problem would do them some good.”

Jim shook his head. “Don’t get me wrong, Mom. It’s a good idea, and I’d like to help, I really would, and while I’m on winter layoff would be the time to do it. I probably won’t get called back until the end of March or early April. But it would just be me, and like I said, I run backhoes and other heavy equipment. I wouldn’t know where to start with actually building a house or even just doing extensive repairs if there’s anything left to start with, not in the time I’d have to do it. It takes a whole crew months to put up a house, and I’d be working alone. It’d take me years. I mean, I’d like to help if I could, but there it is.”

“Still, there ought to be something you could do to make them think you’re at least trying to help,” his mother said. “From what Rita said, their lot is mostly buried in trash the hurricane left behind. Even getting that cleaned up would be a help and would save them some money.”

“Again, it would be nice if I could help,” Jim sighed. Aunt Rita and Uncle John Fleming had always seemed like nice people, in spite of everything. Jim knew that Aunt Rita and Uncle John Fleming had lived a tough life, no doubt about it. While he didn’t know the details, he knew that they hadn’t been married long before John had to go to Vietnam, and he’d come home in his wheelchair, but somehow they’d managed to shoulder that burden and carry on. Now, to have their home blown away when Katrina came ashore just added to their misery. “But again, even if I went down, it would just be me. If their place is anything like you say, I might not even be able to get the lot cleaned up by myself with just my pickup truck. It’d take some equipment, and I don’t know anyone down there, or if some were available for rentals. I’d think every piece of heavy equipment for hundreds of miles around is probably working three shifts a day as it is.”

“I suppose you’re right,” his mother sighed. “Rita is, well, not very optimistic that they’ll ever be able to get back in their own house, at least anytime soon. She and John both seem rather beaten down about the whole thing. Everything they owned was destroyed by the hurricane, everything but the clothes they had on their backs and the wheelchair John was in. It would at least give them a little hope if they knew someone was trying to do something to help them out.”

“I can understand that,” Jim agreed, wishing things weren’t the way they were and that he could be more help. “But when you get right down to it, they’re over a thousand miles away, and there’s not much we can do from here.”

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To be continued . . .
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