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

Winter Layoff
a novel by
Wes Boyd
2011, 2013

Chapter 3

Jim realized that some decisions had been made somewhere in the discussion with his mother. Before he made the call he’d been thinking of calling Aunt Rita and getting a little better information, that which hadn’t been filtered through his mother, but by the time the call with his mother ended he had already decided to head south – and soon. He hadn’t realized till then he’d made the decision, but there it was.

And somewhere in the conversation, he realized that he’d decided to take the pickup camper. In spite of the decreased gas mileage, it had the makings of a good idea. He could probably stay in truck stops or something while he was on the road, and it would relieve more crowding in an already crowded house in where ever the hell his aunt and uncle were staying. If he wound up staying in the hurricane-damaged area for a few days it would give him a place to sleep. Besides, this way, he’d at least get some use out of the thing.

With the decision however haphazardly made, he decided he’d better get it loaded onto the truck before the weather got any worse. He set a pot of coffee to making and headed back outside. Fortunately, the project wasn’t too bad, even in the rising wind, only because he had just a few odds and ends floating around in the back of the truck, unlike summer when the thing could be half full all the time. He had to shovel a little loose snow out of the back, but in a few minutes he was backing the truck under the camper and clamping it down. One of the jacks that had held it up was a little stuck and took some persuasion with a hammer to loosen it, but soon the chore was done.

He checked the twenty-five-pound propane tank near the door – there was no gauge on it, of course, but a quick shake revealed that if it had any gas in it, there wasn’t much. If he got stuck in the storm before getting far enough south, it would be nice to have the heater even if it was on the weak side, so he made a mental note to stop and exchange tanks before he left town. He got up into the camper itself, and even with the door open he noted that it smelled a little musty, like it hadn’t been used for a while – which it hadn’t. It needed a sweeping out and there were a few cobwebs, but a broom just inside the door quickly took care of both issues.

He took a quick look at the pads on the bunks, mostly hard and uncomfortable, but at least something he could sleep on. There was a high-level bunk that went crosswise at the front of the camper, but he’d never used it except to put stuff on. The lower-level one could be unfolded to make something approximating a narrow double bed, but other than to see how it worked he’d never opened it, and had never used it that way. From a quick look, it didn’t appear that mice had been into the pads, and under the circumstances that was about all he could ask for.

There wasn’t much else in the camper – a few dishes and pots, mostly extras not needed in the kitchen when he lived with Carolyn, not that she could manage to do much cooking. Toward the end it took her a couple beers or a couple shots to be able to stick a frozen dinner in the microwave. For any real cooking, Jim had been the one to do it. Once again Jim shook his head, wondering how he could have put up with her for as long as he had, and then went back to planning the task at hand. This wasn’t going to involve a lot of gear – some spare clothes, his sleeping bag, maybe a grocery bag full of cans of food or something. There was no point in putting any ice in the cooler, at least not just now, but maybe he’d want to throw some ice and a couple twelve packs of soda into it before he got down to Pass Christian.

Back inside the trailer, the coffee was done. He poured a cup, took a sip, and started gathering what he needed for the trip. Clothes, underwear, a lighter jacket than the heavy thing appropriate for Spearfish Lake this time of year. His sleeping bag was needed, of course, and so was an extra blanket in case it got really cold. He made a quick rummage through the cabinets for some canned food – extra food, really, emergency food. He’d probably eat at restaurants as much as he could, so would probably be bringing most of it back with him. There were a few other items, nothing terribly special – he was used to traveling light when he traveled at all and didn’t take the kitchen sink with him.

He thought about filling a five-gallon jug with water, but decided against it for now – it would be too cold in the camper until he got south and out of the really cold weather. On thinking about it a little, he decided to keep the bag of canned food in the front of the truck until he got a little farther south, too.

All that didn’t take him a long time – just about enough to finish the cup of coffee, which he sipped from when he happened to pass it. He filled a thermos, looked at the pile of gear, and decided there wasn’t much else that needed to go. Three trips got everything out to the truck, then he took one last pass through the trailer to make sure all the lights were off, dialed down the heat to minimum, locked up, and headed for his pickup. It was only an hour and a half or so since he’d left the Pike, no more than that. There was nothing more to do but just do it.

In a few minutes he was out on the state road, heading south. Remembering his intention to get a fresh tank of propane, he pulled in at the Qwikee Stop at the corner of Central Avenue. It took a few minutes and a little work with a wrench from the tool box kept behind the seat of the pickup to make the change. It was more work to light the pilot on the heater – it was always cranky to get started – but once the little flame was going he decided to run the heat up a little and drive some of the chill out of the place. Once the heater was on, he topped off the truck’s tank, went back into the convenience store, and bought some cookies and other snack food to have handy while on the road.

When he went to pay for everything, the clerk asked where he was heading, and he told her, “Down south, to see an aunt and uncle for a bit.”

“Have a good trip,” she said. “If it’s anywhere south, it’s got to be warmer than here, but then, anywhere about has to be warmer than here.”

“There have to be worse places,” he shrugged, “but it’ll be good to be away for a while, too.”

In a couple more minutes, he was on the road again, with no need to stop for anything much anytime soon. The first part of the route was familiar, the state road and county roads down to the Camden bypass, but he went right by the turnoff that would have taken him to his folks place at Waldenville – Waldenvile as he often thought of it these days. While it had once been his home, he had also lived there with Carolyn and was happy to not have to be there and have her or Shirley around to bother him. Instead, he stayed on the bypass, and a few miles south, near Weatherford, took the four-lane heading southwest. It wasn’t the most direct route, but would at least help him by bypassing some big cities like Decatur and Chicago.

For the next several hours he drove – there wasn’t much more to be said than that. He usually wasn’t much on having the radio on in the truck, even on long trips like this, which he rarely took, but this time he figured it would be a good idea. It might help him, he thought, to try to keep track of the oncoming storm a little. The radio stations weren’t much help – it was mostly talk radio, jabbering about things he had little interest in, or which disgusted him. He kept twisting the dial to find some music to listen to, and occasionally found some, but mostly it was one stupid and pointless ad after another. The weather reports he did hear weren’t very useful – warming up a little and snow tonight was the best he got out of any of them, and he pretty much knew that already. At least he got to see a little countryside that was new to him, and in a way that made the trip at least a little bit worthwhile.

Eventually the needle on the gas gauge slipped low enough that he decided to stop, fill the tank and empty another one that had gotten full from sipping at coffee much of the way. He found a place to stop – the gas wasn’t cheap, but he had to have it and have it when he needed it. It went on his credit card anyway, so he decided to just ignore prices. With the truck ready to go, he drove through a nearby fast-food place and then got back on the road again, trying to keep pushing south to get the storm behind him.

As he drove southward, he kept running the problem through his mind. It still didn’t seem like there was much he could do for his aunt and uncle, but at least he’d find out just how bad the situation was. There was only so much one man could do without tools, without materials, and without enough money to buy everything needed, so it really seemed like a fool’s errand. After a while, he decided to try and not think about it anymore, and ponder other things instead.

His sister bugging him the day before about not wanting to get married again came back to him. Really, he didn’t – he missed having a woman around, in a way, and he supposed he’d consider it if the right one came along. However, Carolyn had burned his butt in a big way, and it bothered him in more ways than one. Once upon a time he’d had the vision of building a good life with her – a nice house, kids, a good job, and all those things that a lot of people hoped for and usually managed. It hadn’t worked out for him, and not for the first time he kicked himself mentally for not seeing Carolyn’s problem before he’d gotten married. And really, it hadn’t been a problem then, or at least it hadn’t been apparent, but none of those dreams had come to pass, washed away in the alcohol stream that she poured down her throat. These days, he drank a lot less than he had when they had been going together, maybe an occasional beer with the guys down at the Pike, but that was about all.

Now, looking back at the whole experience with Carolyn, he couldn’t help but wonder if he really wanted to try his luck again. What if he missed signs like he ought to have seen with Carolyn? He didn’t want to go through that experience again. If it meant he didn’t want to risk having another woman in his life, well, so be it.

Days are short at this time, especially just after Christmas, it being right after the shortest day of the year. Night soon caught up with him; he stopped for another tank full of gas and another hamburger. He realized that his mother ought to be home by now and decided to take advantage of the stop to call her. It proved difficult to find a pay phone – they seemed to be a dying breed with cell phones all over the place anymore. He didn’t have one, but once again thought that one might be useful when he wanted to call someone from out on a job site or something. On the other hand, there was no point in his having one to take calls, because there really wasn’t anyone to call him, except his parents, who called rarely, and his sister, who mostly called him to bug him about Carolyn.

He could just imagine being out on a job someplace, doing something delicate, or out on the lake somewhere playing a fish when his cell phone rang. He’d answer it, of course, because it might be important, only to find out it was Shirley wanting to whine about something and willing to take his time to do it no matter what he was doing. Maybe, he thought as he finally found a pay phone in a hallway near the rest rooms, it’d be just as well that I don’t have one of the stupid things.

“So,” his mother said, “did you decide to head down to see Rita and John?”

“I hope so,” he replied. “At least considering that I’m partway down there already. I’m somewhere in Illinois, I can’t tell you where, somewhere between here and there.”

“I called Rita when I got home,” she announced. “They’re going to be glad to see you. I told her that you might not be able to do anything, but at least she sees it as a positive step.”

“I still don’t know what I can do, but at least I can take a look at the problem,” he replied. “That much hasn’t changed from before. If they know I’m on the way, I guess I’d better know how to find them.”

“I got the address again and I’m glad I did. I had it in my head that they were somewhere around Vicksburg, Mississippi, but it turns out they’re in Helena, Arkansas. That’s closer to Memphis than it is to Vicksburg. Do you have something to write with?”

It took him a minute to get the address and the phone number written down, along with some directions for finding the place. It didn’t sound very complicated, but if he’d missed something on the directions it might be a lot harder. There was no way to tell without finding out. He read the address and phone number back just to make sure he had them right, then said, “I’m not too sure how far that is, but the odds are that I’ll be there sometime during the day tomorrow. I’m probably going to find a place to pull in for the night long before I get there.”

“Well, take care, and do what you can. It’ll make them feel better, anyway, just to know someone is trying, even if nothing comes of it.”

Jim got back in the truck and pressed on south. He was nearing St. Louis when he realized that it really was getting late, and he was getting tired, so he pulled into a truck stop, found a place to park toward the back, and called it a day. After using the facilities in the building, he went around back and found the little furnace had done a reasonable job of heating up the camper. Even if it wasn’t real warm, it wasn’t downright frigid inside, either. He turned up the heat so he’d be a bit more comfortable, spread his sleeping bag on the lower bunk, stripped to his underwear, and turned out the flashlight he’d used to keep from running down the truck’s battery. He was soon snug inside the bag.

It had been a long day, and he’d covered a lot of ground. It may be a fool’s errand, but maybe it would be worth it.

He didn’t sleep real well – much of the time he was awake, or at least was having dreams so vivid that it seemed as if he was awake. Maybe it was all the soul searching he’d done over Carolyn, or maybe it was sleeping in the strange place, but the main dream was of a more settled, domestic life, with a wife, a house, and a couple kids. It was the kind of thing he’d wished he’d had with Carolyn and never managed. The odd part was that while he could almost see the woman in his mind, whoever she was, he couldn’t quite make out her face. It was a disquieting dream, and it partially woke him up several times, but each time when he went back to sleep the mysterious woman came back to him. It didn’t make the night go any more quickly.

Despite bedding down at what was a little on the late side for him, the long winter night meant that he was stirring well before dawn. He glanced at his watch, decided it was time to get up, pulled on his clothes from the day before, and got his boots on. He turned down the heater and headed into the truck stop to use the facilities. While he was there he had a good, big trucker’s breakfast and studied his road atlas, then had the waitress fill his thermos with coffee. He was soon on the road again.

He hit the St. Louis area right around rush hour, so traffic was heavy, but he followed I-55, crossing over to the west side of the Mississippi and staying on it until he was near the Memphis area, making another gas stop along the way. The weather was noticeably warmer now, almost balmy by Spearfish Lake standards, and from what he could get from the radio the storm was well north of him, although the gray skies and blowing wind told him that it wasn’t all that far north. Just to stay out of the city, he got off the Interstate and headed south on local roads along the west side of the Mississippi. It was still another hour before he got into Helena, in the middle of the afternoon.

The house where Aunt Rita and Uncle John were staying proved to be easier to find than he had expected. It was a pretty small house, even smaller than the mental picture he had formed in his mind, and the neighborhood, to be kind, wasn’t very nice, although Jim had seen worse. He was surprised to get out of the truck and discover that it was considerably warmer than it had looked – maybe around fifty, he thought. In any case, it was a lot warmer than it would have been in Spearfish Lake.

Aunt Rita came to the door when he knocked. She’d been expecting him, after all. She was much like he remembered, short and heavy set, with hair a little more gray than it had been the last time he had seen her. It had been half a dozen years or so since he’d seen the two. They’d made a trip up to see her family in Waldenville, and Jim had spent an afternoon with them, along with a collection of other relatives, and that day he’d talked with them about some of the things they’d been through. He really didn’t know them well, seeing them so seldom, but at least he remembered them. He knew she was around sixty, give or take, but now she looked more tired and frazzled than he remembered her. “Jim, it’s good to see you again,” she said, obviously meaning it. “Mary said you were on the way, but we didn’t expect you quite this soon.”

“Nothing much to do but to drive and get it over with,” he shrugged. “So how are you doing?”

“About as well as can be expected,” she sighed. “At least John’s sister Sharon and her husband Floyd were able to take us in, and that’s a lot better than staying on a gym floor. Come on in. Have you had lunch yet?”

“Yeah, I grabbed a burger back up the road a ways,” he said as he stepped inside. It hadn’t been much of a lunch, just a lousy drive-through burger and a while back at that, but he knew from what his mother had said a couple days ago that things were tight around the house, and he didn’t want to put them out any.

The house proved to be smaller on the inside than it looked from the outside, and it was crowded. There were several young kids, all school age, running around and raising hell – with it being vacation time they were home. Jim knew they were Sharon and Floyd’s grandkids. His mother had told him that one of Sharon’s daughters was divorced and living in the house with them, along with her three kids. A television was blaring, but nobody looked to even be watching it. It was very clear that in this small a house things were very crowded, and without asking he knew that it had to be hard on Aunt Rita and Uncle John, who had never had children.

John was sitting in the cluttered living room in his wheelchair, looking a little forlorn himself. Just from a look, it appeared that the last few months had taken a toll on him as well. He’d remembered him as an easy-going guy, a nice guy who was always ready with a wisecrack or a joke despite being in a wheelchair. Jim remembered in his many stories, one of them about how, after his war wounds had healed, he had realized he would never be able to walk again. John had said he couldn’t stand the thought of being a useless bump on a log, so he’d gone back to college, became a bookkeeper, and had made a pretty good living at it. But, like the house, the job had blown away, and according to his mother he was feeling pretty useless again. “So, how are you doing, John?” Jim tried to say cheerfully.

“I’ve been better,” he shrugged. “But I have to admit that I’ve been a lot worse.” There was a smile with that. Apparently his sense of humor hadn’t totally deserted him, but it also sounded like it was buried more than a bit.

“Hi, you must be Jim,” a frowzy, dumpy, timeworn looking woman about John’s age said. “I don’t think I’ve met you before. I’m Sharon, John’s sister. Rita said you were in construction and were going to see if anything could be done about their house.”

“I’m not exactly in construction, I’m in excavating,” Jim replied. “But I figured it couldn’t hurt to take a look.”

“At least that’s something,” Rita said. “It’s more than anyone else has done to help us with the house. I’ve only been back once just to look at it, and it’s a total mess. It’s even hard to tell where the house was, everything was so destroyed. But it’s clear that we’re going to have to do something. Sharon and Floyd were nice enough to take us in, but we don’t want to have to mooch on them forever.”

“Without having seen it, I don’t want to say that nothing can be done,” Jim told her. “And there may not be much I can do, either. But I can’t tell without taking a look, and maybe I can do something.”

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To be continued . . .
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