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

Winter Layoff
a novel by
Wes Boyd
2011, 2013

Chapter 2

Jim got back to Spearfish Lake too late to head out to the fish coop and see if the walleye really were biting. While it couldn’t be said he and Shirley had gotten along famously the rest of the day, at least she’d not brought Carolyn up again. That had more or less kept the peace until Jim felt he’d spent enough time with them and he could manage an escape without it seeming too obvious. All in all, the day had turned out pretty much like he’d expected: a pain in the neck, with both his sister and his mother leaning on him to do things he didn’t want to do, or couldn’t do if he wanted to. The long road back to Spearfish Lake seemed to go a lot more quickly than the drive down to Waldenville. At least it was behind him now.

When he got up the next morning, going out for walleye didn’t seem quite as important as it had the day before. The clear skies of Christmas day had been replaced by a low overcast of winter gray, and there was a nasty wind out of the northeast. Although he hadn’t checked out the weather report, it seemed to Jim like there just about had to be snow on the way. If snow was coming, Jim knew that it was possible to get turned around and lost in the whiteout that could blow up on the lake. Besides, he wasn’t in the mood for it, anyway.

He knew damn well what the problem was – he was feeling guilty about not being able to do much to help out his aunt and uncle. The reasons he’d given at the dinner table were all valid. There wasn’t much he could do by himself, he didn’t know the territory, and he didn’t know how to solve the problem anyway. Still, he was sitting on his dead butt drawing his unemployment check, and it seemed to him like there ought to be something he could do that was more productive under the circumstances. But it was like he’d said – he was an excavating and heavy-equipment guy, not a builder. Oh, he knew a little basic carpentry about like the average homeowner, and he’d been around enough houses under construction that he might know a little more about it than average. But it wouldn’t be enough to do the job even with everything else going for him, like with all the materials and equipment at hand, not to mention the time it would take. He didn’t like the thought, but there it was. What could anyone expect one person to do?

There was no point in sitting around and brooding about it, he thought. It would just bring him down on a day when he already felt down. Might as well go do something, he thought. It would get his mind off it and be better than doing nothing.

It had warmed up overnight, but not enough to keep the frost off the windows on the pickup, although not as bad as the night before. A few minutes of running the engine was sufficient to get them clear enough to drive, and he was soon headed out to the Pike Bar.

The Pike had the reputation around Spearfish Lake as being a rough place, and it occasionally was on a Friday or Saturday night, although Mable Hargraves, the owner, often said it wasn’t as bad now as it had been when she was younger. It was a log building, the inside logs stained a brown that was now nearly black after decades of smoke and varnish. On one wall there was a huge banner for Bubba Winslow, a NASCAR driver long since retired. The banner was a memento of the time that Jenny Easton had used the Pike to shoot a video for a live concert album, Saturday Night with Jenny Easton. There were still fans who sometimes dropped by to check the place out, and the CD had had a place of honor on the jukebox for so long that the regulars were tired of hearing it.

At this hour on a Monday morning, the morning after Christmas at that, it was barely open. Mable was away somewhere, presumably still in bed if she had any sense, but Tammy, a heavy-set blonde in her twenties, was around to keep the coffee flowing and fill any breakfast orders that might come up. Not many did. Tammy just didn’t have the same knack for making home fries, and they wound up pretty greasy and tasting of hamburger from the grill.

There were a handful of guys from Clark Construction who spent at least part of the day on their winter layoff at the Pike, drinking coffee, shooting the shit, occasionally playing a little gin rummy. Some of them might have a beer now and then, but most of them didn’t spend the day half fried. Not surprisingly, there were a couple of old guys sitting at the bar having their morning beer, but at a table back in the corner Bob Coopshaw and Russ Compton were sitting over their coffee, not looking very enthused about the day either. Like Jim, Bob was an equipment operator, and Russ was a carpenter.

Jim signaled Tammy to bring him a cup of coffee and headed over to join the Clark guys in hopes of getting his mind off his aunt and uncle. “So,” he said as he sat down, “what’s happening around here today?”

“Not a damn thing,” Compton snorted. “Just one damn day closer to spring.”

“Supposed to be some snow moving in,” Coopshaw shrugged. “If we get enough of it Ray might call me in to run the grader over the parking lot at the plywood plant for a few hours. I wouldn’t mind having something to do.”

“Yeah, well, something to do,” Jim shrugged. Bob had quite a bit more seniority so was the one to get called in when the odd bits of winter heavy-equipment work came up. Jim usually got called in for a half day or a day once or twice over the winter to help out with major snow removal chores, but it hadn’t happened this year so far.

“It’d be good to keep my hand in,” Bob said. “I’ll tell you what, I was one happy camper when Randy decided to buy that new John Deere grader a couple years ago.”

“I know what you’re talking about,” Jim agreed. “I haven’t gotten to run it much, but it sure is a lot sweeter than the old Galion.”

“No shit,” Bob agreed. “I guess Randy is getting set to sell the Galion. Ray was saying the other day that there was no point in it sitting around and rusting. The thing was getting to be a pain in the ass to keep running, anyway.”

“Tell me all about it,” Jim snorted. “I had to use it a couple weeks during spring cleanup last spring. I know how to run a grader, but that thing is a bear.” Clark Plywood logging crews hauled logs out of the woods year around, and in spring breakup they tore up the woods roads pretty badly. Clark Construction had to re-grade a lot of roads as soon as things dried out enough for them to stabilize. Jim knew that the company had kept the old grader around to help out with that chore, but last spring, it had seemed to him like it had been more trouble than it was worth.

“Well, hell, it’s almost thirty years old and it’s been used a lot,” Bob said. “I don’t suppose Randy wanted to throw any more money at the old one once we got the new one.”

“It’s his company, I guess he can do what he wants,” Jim said as Tammy brought his coffee. Clark Construction wasn’t a real big outfit. There were probably only a dozen people working for the company full time over the winter, mostly office help and carpenters on inside projects. When the company was working on big projects in the summer, the payroll might grow to over a hundred. Jim didn’t know Randy Clark very well. He’d seen him around job sites in the summer, but had rarely talked with him very much, except two years before when Jim had spent the summer working on the Windmill Island house. It had been a special challenge, and Randy had been around checking up on things more often than normal. Randy was a little guy with a natty beard, and seemed to know the construction business, but he wasn’t even as old as Jim. Bob had told him long ago that Randy had been with the company since he’d been in college ten years ago, and he’d been mostly managing the company for the last several years, especially after old man Clark started having heart trouble about the time Jim had hired in. While from Jim’s perspective, Randy seemed to know what he was doing, a part of him was less than totally comfortable with the big boss being younger than he was.

Bob had been working for Clark back when Randy had been on the concrete crew in the summer while in college, and he’d reported that the kid was stronger than dirt and a hell of a good worker. What’s more, he was pretty darn fair with the employees, much like his grandfather had been. In Bob’s opinion Randy was all right, young or not. He seemed all right to Jim, but still there was a little unvoiced reservation. It wasn’t something worth bringing up, at least not now.

“So,” Bob said, changing the subject, “did you have a good Christmas?”

“Not as good as I’d have liked, but not as bad as I thought it was going to be either, so I’m just as glad to have it over with,” Jim said, taking a sip of his coffee. “My sister is still all over my ass over divorcing my ex a few years ago, so that made the day pretty long. Then my mother got to bugging me about my aunt and uncle’s house, so I was glad to get out of there.”

“So what’s the deal with the house?” Russ wanted to know.

“Well, the problem is that they don’t have one anymore,” Jim explained. “It was in Pass Christian, Mississippi, until Katrina came along last summer. Now, from what I hear, it’s scattered all over southern Mississippi.”

“There sure as hell was a lot of that shit,” Russ nodded. “I’ve been giving some thought to loading up the camper and heading down there for a couple months to see what kind of work I could find. But when I mentioned it to my wife she just about shit a brick.”

“Maybe more afraid you might find some sweet young thing while you were out from under her eye,” Bob teased.

“Well, I suppose there is that,” Russ shrugged. “But hell, I work hard enough over the summer. Winter is my time to take a break. So why was your mother on your ass?”

“Well, apparently she thinks that since I’m in construction I ought to go down there and build a new house for them,” he shrugged. “And actually, I wouldn’t mind doing it if I could, but I’m no carpenter, I’m an excavating guy. And everything would have to be done down there on the Gulf Coast where I don’t know anybody. I don’t know much about things down south, but I do know that anyone now in the area who knows anything about building doesn’t have to look for work, the work will look for them.”

“Yeah, I could see how that could be a problem,” Bob conceded.

“Even after that, there are still a hell of a lot of problems. From what my mother told me the home site is still ass deep in rubble, so there’s that to be dealt with. If I went down to try to clean it up myself, I’d pretty well have to do it with bare hands, since there’s not going to be any machinery for hire anywhere that isn’t already scheduled tight for the next year. And while as far as I know every loose board in the country is headed for the Gulf Coast, I’ll bet materials prices are higher than hell. From what my mother says my aunt and uncle got royally screwed on the settlement from the insurance company, so they don’t have much money to work with, either.”

“Yeah, that could be a problem too,” Bob agreed. “Gets to be too many problems like that, and all of a sudden it doesn’t look like it can be done.”

“That’s what I spent most of yesterday afternoon trying to tell my mother,” Jim sighed. “At least it was better than listening to my sister bitch about the way I treated my ex.”

“She was a drunk, if I remember right?” Russ said.

“Oh, God yes,” Jim shook his head. “I just didn’t see it coming when I married her, but did I ever take it in the ass on that one. At least I didn’t take it too bad on the divorce, since she was in jail at the time and we didn’t really own anything to settle over, anyway. As far as I know, she’s still fried out of her mind most of the time, but my sister says I could fix that if I wasn’t such an asshole. I tried to and it didn’t work but my ex was my sister’s best friend’s sister, so I’m obviously the one to blame as far as my sister is concerned.”

“If it was that bad I guess you were lucky you got away in time,” Bob said.

“Boy, don’t I know it, but I’ll never convince my sister of it,” Jim shook his head.

“Yeah, sometimes it’s worth putting up with some of the pain in the ass you get,” Bob observed. “Take my son. He’s about as obnoxious as an eighth grade boy can get, but I think I’m going to have some fun watching him play football the next few years. So, what are you going to do about this house?”

“Like I said, I don’t see much I can do,” Jim admitted. “There’s just too damn many problems from what I can see, and there’s probably even more that I can’t see. Like, I don’t know how bad cleaning up the lot really is going to be, I don’t know what it’s going to be like to get materials. I don’t know how much money the insurance company gave my aunt and uncle to work with, and a lot of other stuff like permits and codes and inspections. Those bureaucratic types are probably being run ragged and taking forever to get anything approved. Damn shame, too. My uncle is in a wheelchair. He got the shit shot out of him in Vietnam back before I was born. They’ve kind of scraped along since then somehow. I know the house wasn’t very big, but it was about all they had before it got blown away. I really feel bad about it because they’ve had a tough row to hoe all their lives. I wish I could do something for them.”

“I almost hate to point it out,” Bob told him, “but you’re not working right now anyway. Gas is high but it’s not that high. It might be worth the trouble of heading down there to see how bad it might really be.”

“True, but that doesn’t solve the problem of where to get materials to build a house or the people to do it. I can’t do it by myself. Like I said, I don’t know how much insurance money they’ve got to work with, but my mother said my aunt said it wasn’t anywhere near enough. They’re just scraping by as it is, and there aren’t going to be many jobs for her down there in the future, so they’d have a hell of a time paying off a bank loan to cover the difference.”

“Strikes me that there’s a hell of a lot you don’t know,” Russ said. “My wife might let me pitch in on a deal like that, and there’s a few other guys on winter layoff who might be willing to help out for the sake of doing something to help out someone in a bind like that. It might be enough to cover a lot of the difference.”

“Yeah,” Jim said slowly. That was an angle he hadn’t thought of before. Up to this point he’d mostly been rejecting the idea because he didn’t see any way he could do anything significant himself, at least not in the time he had available. But as Russ had said, there was a hell of a lot he didn’t know. Most of the information he had was third-hand or worse, his aunt telling his mother something that she had been told. When it got right down to it, there was only one way to find out. “Things might not turn out to be as bad as everybody seems to think,” he told his friends. “I suppose the only way to know for sure is to go see.”

“If you’re going to do it, you probably shouldn’t think about it too long,” Bob told him. “I figure we’ve got three months, give or take, before Ray is going to be calling us up and telling us to go grade the woods roads again. It might take all that time to get anything done that’s halfway possible for you. Then maybe it isn’t as bad as you’ve heard and with a little help you can get them back into their house before work up here calls you back.”

“Yeah, there’s that, too,” Jim agreed, thinking that until now he’d mostly been trying to think of problems, the reasons it couldn’t be done. Looking at solutions, instead, how maybe things could be done, put the problem in a different light. “I can still see a whole shit load of problems, but there’s no telling what it will take to solve them without taking a closer look.”

“Hell,” Bob snorted, “you’re laid off for the winter. What else have you got to do but sit around here and drink coffee until your eyeballs turn brown? You might as well get out of here before that storm that’s moving in hits us and won’t let you leave.”

It would be unfair to say that Jim had a ton of enthusiasm for the idea when he was done talking with Bob and Russ. He was still pretty well convinced that it was going to be an impossible task for him to take on, pretty close to a fool’s errand. But he understood that there was a chance something might be possible, and at least checking things out might take away some of the guilt he was feeling about not doing anything about it. If it couldn’t be done, it couldn’t be done, and that was that.

Besides, as much as he liked winter, the thought of avoiding a winter storm had its possibilities, too. He could get out of the house, out of Spearfish Lake, and maybe see some new countryside. He hadn’t bothered to do much of that the last few years. Besides, he might be able to do some good with his aunt and uncle’s problem, even if he couldn’t solve it all the way. For instance, if his aunt and uncle’s lot wasn’t as bad as the stories seemed to say, he might be able to take a week or so and get it cleaned up, with nothing but his bare hands and his pickup truck. At a minimum, at least they’d know someone was thinking about them and their problem and had tried to do something about it. That would make them feel better, if nothing else, even if it was barely a start on a house.

After finishing his coffee, he headed back out to the pickup and started home, thinking about how to go about approaching the problem. He had no idea of where his aunt and uncle’s house had been, other than the fact that he knew it had been in Pass Christian, which was a hell of a long way from Spearfish Lake. For that matter, he had no idea where they were now. The only way to get that information was to call his mother, who he thought had the phone number of his uncle’s cousins where they were saying.

When he pulled into the driveway his eyes fell on the camper body for the pickup, sitting on jacks at the back of the carport next to the trailer. He’d only rarely used it. It wasn’t in very good shape. He’d bought it cheap from a co-worker a couple years before with the idea of making a few weekend fishing trips with it, but that really hadn’t panned out. He’d been busy enough working through the summer that when he got a weekend free about all he wanted to do was lie around and relax. He’d tried using it in the winter a couple times, but unless the weather was pretty mild the heater wasn’t up to keeping the place comfortable. A couple of times he’d thought about selling it, but he’d never gotten around to doing it. No point in taking it on this trip, he thought. It would drag the gas mileage down to where it would be cheaper to stay in a motel. On the other hand, if he wound up cleaning up the lot for a few days, there might not be anyplace to stay at all – probably what motels were still standing were all jammed to the gills. Having the camper could keep that from being an issue.

He rolled it around in his head for a few moments and realized that he wasn’t quite ready to make a decision. He headed inside and called his mother at her office. “Mom,” he said, “I’ve been thinking about this problem with Aunt Rita, and I’m thinking real hard about heading down there to see just how bad the problem is. It might not solve anything, but I’m not doing anything right now anyway, so I thought I might as well go take a look.”

“I’m sure that just knowing someone is seeing if they could help would be a relief to them,” she replied. “But you said yesterday there’s probably nothing you can accomplish.”

“The odds are that there isn’t, but there’s no way of knowing for sure until I can see how bad it is. There might be something, like the lot isn’t as much of a mess as you understood it to be. You said Aunt Rita is pretty down about this. Maybe she’s so down about it that it’s not as bad as she thinks it is.”

“She is pretty down,” his mother agreed. “But if the house is gone and the lot is covered with debris, it’s got to be pretty bad. It really doesn’t matter. It’ll be good for them to know someone cares. How soon are you planning on leaving?”

“Pretty soon. I’d like to get out of here before this storm we’ve got coming hits.”

“I don’t have the address and the phone number here at work with me,” his mother said. “Are you planning on stopping by where they’re staying? That way they’d know you were coming down to see if you can help them, and you might find out something she didn’t tell me. I’m a little worried about them anyway. I got the feeling that things were even worse for them than she was saying.”

“To tell the truth, I hadn’t thought it out that far,” Jim replied honestly. “But it sounds like a good idea if it’s not too far out of the way.”

“If you’re leaving pretty soon, why don’t you call me at home this evening?”

“Sure, that would work,” Jim replied. “I’ll go ahead and plan on calling you from out on the road somewhere. I probably ought to get ready and get out of here before the storm hits.”

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To be continued . . .
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