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

Winter Layoff
a novel by
Wes Boyd
2011, 2013

Chapter 6

Jim and his Aunt Rita spent most of the morning in Pass Christian, just trying to get things organized. In some respects they didn’t make much progress – there were volunteer groups around working on home reconstruction, but only if materials could be provided, either through insurance money, loans, or gifts or grants like those from church groups. There were some commercial operators, some of which were very overtaxed with work and couldn’t get to anything for a while, and they were warned that there were many fly-by-night operators around, all very good at taking money up front and not delivering anything. Materials were, as Jim had expected, hard to come by and pricey when found. A church-sponsored rebuilding project was having materials trucked in from hundreds of miles away and saving money on the deal.

Jim learned a few other things, too: he learned that there might be unskilled volunteers available to help him with the clean-up for short periods of time. He learned that there was a tent camp for volunteers, and a free kitchen to feed them. Under the circumstances, he’d be welcome to use that. All in all, he didn’t learn anything that would keep him from cleaning up the lot, and a few things that would make it easier.

However, as noon approached, they knew they had to be getting back on the road if they were to have Rita back to John in Helena by any reasonable hour that evening. While Jim thought there was more that could be done while they were there, he knew Rita was antsy about getting back and figured he’d better go along with her on it. After all, there was much he could accomplish without her, and most he could even get done better without her hovering around and worrying – and being depressed at the sight of what had once been her home. That had to be awfully damn hard to take, he thought.

So, they were soon out on the highway, heading north toward Helena, with no hope of getting in before dark. Once they got past the truck stop where they had spent the night before, Jim could see that she had been right. The damage from the hurricane continued on inland quite a ways, but compared to Pass Christian it didn’t look anywhere near as bad up here. Unlike the day before, Rita was mostly silent. Evidently she didn’t feel much like talking.

Finally, many miles up the road, she said, “Jim, I want you to know that I really appreciate your offer to help. I know that’s going to be a big job, but you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.” She let out a sigh and added, “It just seems so hopeless to look at things, and I can’t really make myself believe that John and I are ever going to have a home in Pass again. I mean, I’d like to think we will, but it’s going to be a long time getting back to something like normal, and things will never be quite the same way they used to be.”

“Now, don’t go getting negative on me now,” he said. “I agree, getting the lot cleaned up is hardly going to be the end of the project. It’s just going to be the beginning, but at least it’s a beginning. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and like that.”

“I know, I know,” she sighed. “But it just seems like it’s so impossible.”

“Well, it’s not going to be easy,” he told her. “But it’s not impossible. I’ll be honest – by the time I get the lot cleaned up, it’s going to be getting close to when my job starts again at home in the spring. Maybe by fall things will have eased up a bit and I can do some more. I don’t know, I haven’t thought it out that far yet. But I will tell you this much – from what I heard, some of the builders down there I wouldn’t trust as far as I could throw a fit. If you have a job being done by volunteers, or someone you don’t trust real solidly, I think I’d better be standing over them with a baseball bat to make sure that the job gets done right, or even gets done at all. That probably means next fall, next winter, something like that.”

“I suppose you’re right on that,” she said. “But damn, I don’t want to have to stay with Sharon and Floyd that long. It’s hard enough on them, and it’s hard on us, too. We’re going to have to do something about that, and I hope pretty soon.”

“Well, maybe this can be a first step in that,” he said. “If I can get the lot cleaned up, and there’s utility services going, maybe you could get one of those FEMA trailers and set it on the lot and live there.”

“Well, maybe,” she said. “Those are pretty tiny, more like a big travel trailer than a mobile home like I understand you have. I could live in one, but I’m not sure about John and his wheelchair.”

“It needs some looking into,” he said. “Maybe they have some that are barrier-free, or maybe something else can be done. I don’t know. You can nose around where you can when you’re in Helena, and when I get back down to Pass Christian maybe I can nose around and find out a few more things.”

It turned into another trip through the Mississippi darkness before they got back to Helena, but it was still fairly early in the evening. It had been a fast trip with a lot of time on the road and not all that much on the ground, but in some ways Jim thought he’d accomplished a lot. When he and Rita walked into the house Floyd was at home, slouched in his chair with a beer in his hand and a couple of empties on the floor beside him, the TV was blaring, the kids were even more wound up than they’d been the afternoon before. John looked even more frazzled than ever. “So,” he said, almost in desperation, “Did you find out anything?”

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Jim said, leaning close and talking loud to make himself heard over the kids and the TV set. “Bad, but not as bad as Rita was thinking, or at least as bad as the impression I got from her. I’m going to see if I can get the lot cleaned up in the next month or so, and while I’m working on that maybe we can figure out what the next step needs to be.”

“Well, that’s good news, I guess,” he said. “I guess there’s no point in hoping for miracles. Hell, it would be a miracle for you to accomplish that much.”

“Oh, I can manage that as long as I have the time to do it, and right now I do.”

The three of them talked over the noise and confusion for a few more minutes bringing John up to date, not that there was really much news, good or bad. Finally, the racket was getting to Jim, and there wasn’t anything more to talk about anyway. “Hey, look,” he said finally. “I might as well hit the road. If I can get another couple hundred miles on tonight, I should be back home tomorrow night, and it means I won’t have to spend another night on the road.”

“You’re welcome to stay,” Sharon said – she’d been monitoring the conversation, although not saying much. “You’d have to stay on the couch, though.”

“Not a problem, that’s why I brought the camper,” Jim told her, keeping the thought to himself that he’d rather try to sleep in the middle of a blizzard rather than stay longer in her tiny nuthouse. It was driving him crazy already – how hard could it be on John? Poor bastard, he thought, he sure got the short end of the stick in a lot of ways, but at least having a woman like Rita had to have made some things easier. “It’d be more comfortable for sleeping in than on your couch.”

“Yeah, well, I suppose,” Sharon replied in her nasal voice and southern accent. “I’m just glad you can help out John and Rita, even if it’s just a little.”

“Well, I’m just glad you’re helping, too,” Jim replied, wondering if he ought to offer the couple his trailer in Spearfish Lake for the winter. Sure, it would be cold as hell to the two southerners, but at least it would be quiet. But, he thought, that would take Rita even farther away from Pass Christian, and he might need her advice or a signature or something if he could put something together for them while he was down there. Besides, his trailer wouldn’t be barrier-free, not that this house was, but at least here they had some extra hands, more or less, when John needed help or to get out for some reason.

Even so, the thought that he should have made the offer hung over Jim like a cloud of guilt when he said goodbye and headed out to the truck. He should have at least made the offer, even though it might have slowed him down on cleaning up the lot. Maybe he might do it anyway, if it worked out that he wouldn’t be able to do anything for them until another winter. It wouldn’t take much to get someone like Russ Compton to throw together a ramp at the trailer, and that would make life a little simpler. John and Rita needed to be back in Pass Christian, he thought, to pick up the shards of their lives the best they could, rather than in a place like Spearfish Lake.

Yeah, the place was going to change, and it was going to change a lot. From what little he’d been able to pick up down there today, a huge percentage of the population was no longer in the area, at least temporarily. Only a few diehards or lucky ones, or people actively working on the recovery were still there. The common opinion was that half of the townspeople would move out and never come back, and that was likely to change things beyond recognition for everyone.

But where else would Rita and John go? It was home, after all, and home really was where the heart was.

The drive north up the various Arkansas side roads was slower in the dark than it had been coming down in the daylight, but Jim was able to pick up some speed when he got to I-40, and a little later, I-55. That would take him a long way north, into central Illinois, farther than he planned on getting tonight. He really was tired and he’d already done a lot of driving, but he pressed on north for a while, until he found another reasonable truck stop in Missouri, he thought, without being sure about it. Enough is enough for today, he thought. He headed inside to use the rest room, then went back out to the camper, unrolled his sleeping bag, and called it a night.

He didn’t sleep very well; his mind kept turning over options and ways that he might be able to come up with a house for John and Rita, but most of them were just wild notions and he could reject them right from the start. Finally he managed a little sleep, mostly due to the lulling sound of the semi he was parked next to.

The sun was up when he woke up the next morning – he must have been tired because he’d slept later than usual. After a visit to the truck stop restaurant for the restroom and breakfast, he gassed up and was on his way north again. It was still going to be a long day’s push to make it home, and without even thinking about it he knew he wouldn’t be getting in much before dark.

Once again his timing was bad and he hit St. Louis right at morning rush hour, and there wasn’t much he could do about it but grit his teeth and bear it. For a while there thinking about the traffic was the best he could do, but once he was out of the urban area his mind turned back to Aunt Rita and Uncle John’s troubles.

Right from the moment he’d come up with the idea, he’d known that he really didn’t want to try to clean up the lot by hand, working by himself. That really was a damn big job, and even if things went well it would take weeks. It especially ground at him that he’d have to consider doing it by hand – he was a heavy equipment operator, after all, and he could do the job with a good loader in a couple days. That was what they made things like that for, wasn’t it? So people wouldn’t have to break their backs doing a job that a machine could do ten times, a hundred times easier?

The problem – and it had been a problem that he’d foreseen as far back as when his mother first mentioned it at Christmas, which now seemed like a long time ago – was that there didn’t appear to be much heavy equipment available. Oh, there were machines all over the place in Pass Christian, but they were all busy doing something, virtually all of the time. The chances of him getting his hands on any of them, either hired, borrowed, rented, begged, or whatever, seemed just about impossible, especially considering he didn’t know anyone down there. So, the alternative was to do it by hand, with the pickup.

The hell of it was that he knew where there were a couple of loader/backhoes sitting doing nothing. Unless something came up like a real whopper of a snowstorm they probably wouldn’t be doing anything for the next three months but sitting cold in the equipment storage building at Clark Construction. It seemed like the height of craziness to haul one of the backhoes a round trip of twenty-five hundred miles to do what would be, at most, a few days work. But working efficiently, he could probably clear the lot in a couple days work with one of them, which struck him as being a lot better than taking a couple months and straining his back beyond belief doing it.

For perhaps fifty miles he flipped it over in his head. It would cost money, no doubt about that. The cost of gas for this trip wasn’t cheap. He hadn’t been keeping a running total of what he’d put on his credit card but just driving down to Pass Christian and back was probably going to cost him five or six hundred dollars just for gas. At least by taking the camper he hadn’t had to tack motel rooms on top of it. Loading a backhoe on a trailer and hauling it down to Mississippi was going to cost even more, since it would pull the gas mileage down to where it could cost a thousand bucks for gas, right there.

And at that, as big as this truck was, it really wasn’t up to hauling that kind of weight. The smallest backhoe Clark Construction had that seemed like it would do the job was the one they’d used on the Windmill Island job a year and a half before. It was the common type of backhoe, based on a modified farm tractor with a loader on the front and the backhoe boom on the back. It weighed four and a half tons, and the trailer had to go another ton or more. While Jim had never towed that backhoe with this truck, he’d occasionally towed it with one of the company’s bigger pickup trucks and it was a load for them.

Something smaller? Something he could haul with this truck? The only thing that seemed to fill the bill that Clark Construction owned was a Bobcat skid-steer loader, an incredibly maneuverable and handy little gadget that seemed marginally light enough to tow with his pickup – but he doubted that he could get his hands on that. It was used for snow removal in several places around town over the winter, and it seemed pretty doubtful that Randy would be willing to let go of it for any length of time.

He chewed at it two or three different ways, but it kept coming back to the backhoe they’d used on the Windmill Island job. There was still work that would have to be done more or less by hand, since there was no way that even that machine was going to be able to do much with the big tree that had landed right square in the middle of everything. But still, half a day with a chainsaw would reduce it to pieces the backhoe could handle. Maybe he could talk Randy out of it for a while, rent it or something, although what he was going to use for money wasn’t quite clear.

But there was still the problem of getting it down there, and this truck just wouldn’t cut the mustard, not for a trip of that length, anyway. Maybe, he thought, if he could talk Randy into letting him use the backhoe, he could talk him into using one of the company trucks to haul it. It would still be a long and uncomfortable trip, but it could be done.

As he drove north, he began to realize that there was still another problem – getting the debris out of there. Probably nobody was going to be very thrilled at the idea of him just shoving it onto a neighbor’s lot – it would have to be moved away somewhere. If he was going to haul a backhoe down to clear one lot, hauling the stuff off in a pickup dragged the job out from a few days to weeks or even months. A pickup couldn’t haul very much, and it would still have to be unloaded by hand. It would be easier than loading it by hand, but not by much. What he really needed was a dump truck. It could haul more and be unloaded mostly by pulling a lever. And he knew that Clark Construction had several of them.

One in particular came to mind – it was a smaller one, a Ford F-800 chassis from back in the eighties sometime, fitted with a ten-foot box. In the summers they had to be careful to not overload it with gravel or anything heavy like that, but Jim figured that the debris on his aunt and uncle’s lot wasn’t going to be as heavy as gravel. Best of all, it had a trailer hitch, and could haul a backhoe and trailer easily – in fact, they often just used it as a machinery mover, especially on small jobs. That would kill a couple of birds with one stone all right. Best of all, it wasn’t used much in the winter – sometimes for snow removal, but Clark Construction had other dump trucks. With the dump truck and the backhoe, cleaning the lot would only take a few days at most.

The real problem remaining was going to be talking Randy into letting him use the backhoe, a trailer, and the dump truck for a couple weeks or so, maybe more counting the travel time. He didn’t know if that could be done at all, and it was going to take some courage to ask him, and he had no idea of how that idea was going to fly.

Jim didn’t know Randy Clark real well. He was the big boss, after all, and owned the company. Oh, they talked casually on occasion, and back when they were doing the job on Windmill Island they’d talked a little more than that, but mostly about the job. Although Bob had told him that Randy had been a good worker way back when, as far as Jim knew the only thing Randy shoveled now was paper, but from what he could see, he was pretty darn good at it.

Thinking back to the Windmill Island job, Jim could remember several interesting conversations with him. That job had been something else, something new to almost everyone on the scene, and with some special problems that hadn’t been encountered in anyone’s experience, so everyone was winging it. All of the materials and equipment for the job had to be floated to the island on a kind of half-assed raft made out of old oil drums and scrap lumber. It had been Randy’s idea, it was inexpensive, and it worked. The backhoe was about the heaviest thing they’d floated to the island in one lift. Everyone had been worried about it, but it made it with no problems. He and the backhoe had been assigned to the job all summer, and there were a lot of things that couldn’t have been done, or at a minimum would have been a lot harder, if he hadn’t been there with it. He’d done a number of things with the backhoe that he wouldn’t have thought possible, and some others that took some head scratching, but everything had worked out. That had been an interesting job, and he had learned things he’d never dreamed.

Because so much was new to everyone, Randy had been out to the job much more often than usual, sometimes paddling out to the island in a kayak if the raft was at the island and no one seemed likely to be heading over to the shore-side landing soon. Jim remembered him as being a pretty friendly guy and open to suggestions. Other companies Jim had worked for in the past, the top boss just had to have his way, right or wrong. Randy would, at least, listen to an idea and ask for opinions, and that was refreshing, in a way.

What was more, Randy had not only praised him but gave him a big bonus after the Windmill Island job was done. Randy had told him they never would have been able to get the job done on time without the way Jim had made himself useful, even when there was no work for him to do with the backhoe. That told Jim that Randy thought pretty well of him.

But how would Randy react to Jim asking if he could borrow the backhoe and dump truck for a month or so? Would he be willing to rent them? Jim didn’t think Randy would just loan the equipment out, but might be willing to rent them for a while, since insurance and OSHA sorts of things got in the way. It was going to be more expensive to get the equipment down to the Gulf Coast with the dump truck as it would be to tow it with the pickup. He could dig into his savings and kite some cash on a credit card, but renting it on top of that would probably get beyond what he could afford.

But then there was a lot of work for a backhoe and a dump truck down in Pass Christian. Maybe if he had the equipment down there for a while, he could pick up enough cash here and there, even under the table, to pay for the gas and the rental – or at least not bite him in the wallet quite as badly.

Finally, he realized that about the only thing he could do was get his courage together and ask. After all, about the worst Randy could do was laugh in his face, and he could still gather up tools like a chainsaw and head down there to try to do the job by hand. That would be hard, but screwing up the courage to ask Randy for a favor like this seemed much harder.

First thing in the morning, Jim promised himself. Whether I want to or not, the first thing.

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