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

Winter Layoff
a novel by
Wes Boyd
2011, 2013

Chapter 7

There was more snow on the ground when he got back to Spearfish Lake; he could see that in the darkness. It had been pretty well cleaned up, though, so maybe the storm he’d dodged wasn’t as bad as the weather people had been predicting. Whoever it was that plowed out the trailer park had done his driveway like they were supposed to do, so there were only a few feet of sidewalk that needed some work with a snow shovel. He decided that could wait for later as he was tired. He grabbed the bag of food from the back of the pickup, hauled it inside so it wouldn’t freeze, and made a second trip for his clothing. That would do for now, he decided, after more hours on the road than he wanted to think about. The rest of the stuff in the truck could wait.

As expected, it was chilly in the trailer. Fortunately, the furnace brought the heat up quickly, and he was able to have the shower he’d been promising himself for a couple days. He wasn’t real sure how Aunt Rita had been able to stand being in the pickup cab with him for the southernmost part of the trip, but there hadn’t been any opportunity to do anything about it.

It felt good to be back in his own bed after the days on the road. He’d only been gone four days, but most of them had been driving, and driving for long hours, at that. Even though he still seemed to see a road in front of him when he closed his eyes, it didn’t take him long to get to sleep.

He was up before dawn the next morning – no great trick as long as the nights were this time of year. He thought about making himself some breakfast, but just wasn’t in the mood, so went back out, got in the pickup and went over to the Spearfish Lake Café. Being back in the familiar place made the last few days seem like a dream and mostly a bad one at that, but he was still a little road weary so knew he must have made the trip.

He lingered over coffee for a couple refills, but realized that he was just wasting time, and there was nothing to do but to go ahead and do it, however much he didn’t want to.

It was just a short drive over to the Clark Construction office. In the daylight, he could see that the snow the storm had left hadn’t been that bad, although there were clear signs that quite a bit of cleaning up had been done. It sure was a lot colder than Pass Christian, though.

He walked into the office more nervous than ever. He wasn’t really concerned, in one sense of the word, but it would be a hell of a lot better if he could manage the next few minutes successfully.

The office couldn’t have been open long as Rachel was just settling in at her desk. “Morning, Jim,” she said cheerfully. “What can I do for you today?”

“I need to talk to Randy for a few minutes,” he said, glancing at her nice smile. One of the nice things about working for Clark Construction was that everyone was on a first name basis, and as far as he knew it had always been that way. Everyone had even called Old Man Clark “Brent” back when he was still alive, even his grandson Randy, who had inherited the business.

“He’s on the phone,” Rachel replied. “He said he needed to talk to Greg Schoonover before Greg got busy with something. I don’t think he’s going to be real long. So, how was your Christmas?”

“Oh, all right,” he said, not really wanting to get into it with her. “I went down to my folk’s place in Waldenville. How was yours?” She was a nice woman, about his age or a little younger, taller than her younger brother Randy, slender, and good-looking with long chestnut hair. She had a slightly horsey face in Jim’s opinion, although he wouldn’t say that to her. She’d only been working for Clark Construction for a year and a half or so, as an office assistant. Now she was bookkeeper and assistant to Regina Lawrence, the office manager and general keeper of the flame around Clark Construction since her predecessor had retired not long after he came to the company.

“Oh, very good,” she smiled. “Jared and I went over to Randy and Nicole’s, and even Dave and Ruth and the kids came up. It was a lot of fun. It sure wasn’t like any in California.”

Jim knew about that, even if it was mostly by company gossip. One thing he and Rachel shared was messy divorces, and hers had been even worse than his, culminating in her ex-husband breaking into Randy’s big house out on Hannegan’s Cove to try to beat her up, or something – nobody was sure what, but he’d had a gun on him. Unfortunately for him, Randy was there – and one of Randy’s hobbies was martial arts. He was good at them, and nobody who knew Randy would dare mess with him, except for Rachel’s ex, who apparently didn’t know any better. When the dust settled her ex was doing time in the state pen and didn’t look to be getting out for a while.

“Had to have been warmer there,” he commented, not wanting to get into that dreary topic, either.

“It was,” she said, apparently with the same thought. “But I’m getting used to Spearfish Lake winters again. Would you like a cup of coffee?”

“I just finished one but I could stand another,”

“Good,” she smiled. “I think it’s ready, and I could stand one, too.” She got up and went over to the coffee pot, filling two foam cups and handing one to him. “So,” she said, still trying to make a little conversation, “have you been doing anything interesting?”

“Yeah, that’s part of what I wanted to talk to Randy about.”

Just then Randy came out of the office. He was a short guy, with not a lot of family resemblance to his older sister, and with a natty little beard that Jim had been told covered a port-wine stain birthmark on his chin. Bob Coopshaw had told Jim once that he’d had that beard clear back in high school. “Morning, Jim,” he said by way of courtesy, then turned to his sister. “Rachel, go ahead and pay that Jasper Electric invoice, but Greg knows that he owes us one on this. We’ll get it back some other time.”

“All right,” she said. “It just seemed a little skunky to me.”

“It did to me too, but I think we got it straightened out.”

“Good deal. Anyway, Jim has been waiting to talk to you.”

“Sure, Jim,” he said. “I can always make time for you, not that we have a whole hell of a lot to do today. What can I do for you?”

“Well, it’s kind of a long story,” Jim replied as Randy headed for the coffee pot. “My aunt and uncle live in Pass Christian, Mississippi. I knew they got hit pretty hard by Katrina last summer, but I didn’t find out till Christmas just how bad it is. There just isn’t any home there anymore, and they’ve been living on gym floors and with relatives ever since.”

“That can’t be fun,” Rachel said. “I hear there are a lot of people like that.”

“Yeah,” Jim said. “But it’s worse since he’s in a wheelchair. He has been ever since I’ve known him. He got shot up pretty bad in Vietnam, but he and my Aunt Rita have been able to make a pretty decent life for themselves until this came along. Anyway, they took a royal screwing from their insurance company, and while they want to move back home they don’t know how they’re going to be able to manage it. So, anyway, my mother asked me to go down and see if there was anything I could do. Randy, Rachel, I was in Pass Christian the morning of the day before yesterday, and you never saw such a mess in your life. I just don’t know how to describe it.”

“I’ve seen some of that on TV,” Randy said, sitting down on a nearby desk.

“I have, too,” Jim nodded. “It’s a lot worse than you see on TV, mostly because the destruction is everywhere – it’s all you can see, no getting away from it. Aunt Rita tells me that there’s only like one house in ten in town still livable. There’s some rebuilding and cleaning up going on, but at least as far as I can see they haven’t made much of a dent in it. Anyway, there’s a huge pile of debris on their lot down there, and they have to get it out of the way before they can rebuild, even though they haven’t figured out how to rebuild yet. I thought that if I could clean that up, it would mean some progress for them. At least they wouldn’t see that part as an obstacle anymore. I thought about trying to do it by hand and with my pickup, but on the way back I got wondering if I could borrow a dump truck and a backhoe from you for a few days. It would be a whole lot easier.”

“I suppose it can be done,” Randy said. “I’ve often thought that it’s kind of a shame that we have this equipment just sitting here doing nothing when we could be doing something with it to help down there. But we were busy with construction here up till about a month or so ago, and I just haven’t thought about it very much. Also from what I’ve seen on TV, it looked like they were getting a handle on it, so it didn’t seem there was any reason to worry about it very much, now.”

“They’re getting started on it,” Jim said, starting to realize that this might be a little easier than he thought it would be. “But it will be years getting it done. There’s just no equipment to rent down there, and all the contractors seem to be up to their necks in work. Anyway, I was thinking that if I could take the small tractor backhoe and the red dump truck down, I could at least make a little dent in it.”

“Right off the top of my head, I don’t have any problem with it,” Randy told him. “Especially if you’re the one doing it. You’re one of our best workers, and I happen to think I owe you a little for what you did out on the Windmill Island job a year and a half ago. The job you want to do being for a relative of yours makes it a little personal, too. But there’s a couple problems, the biggest one being insurance.”

“Well, I have to say I don’t know what I can tell you about that,” Jim shook his head. “That’s a paperwork issue, and I don’t know anything about it.”

“Oh, that’s not saying it can’t be done,” Randy said. “It’s just that we have to figure out a way to do it.”

“Randy,” Rachel spoke up, “This could make a great tax write-off, and the insurance could be wrapped up into it.”

“Sounds good,” Randy said. “But Jim’s aunt and uncle aren’t a 501(c)3 tax-exempt nonprofit.”

“No, but the foundation is, and it could be a foundation project.”

“Yeah, that’d work!” Randy exclaimed. “It has all the earmarks of being a good idea and then some. Jim, you’re not looking to get paid for this, are you?”

“No,” Jim said, just a little surprised that it was beginning to look like it was going to fly. “I’m just trying to keep from going over the limit on my credit card.”

“OK, that means it’s a volunteer effort, like when we did the soccer fields,” Randy frowned a little as he thought about it, then smiled. “We ought to be able to slide that one past the tax man without too many issues.”

“Just to keep things from getting too confused, we probably shouldn’t start it till the first of the year,” Rachel pointed out. “But no big deal, since that’s Sunday.”

“Good point,” Randy agreed, and turned to Jim. “You aren’t planning on heading back down there until like the first of the week, are you?”

“Well, if you’d said no to my borrowing the equipment I’d probably be heading back this afternoon. It’d be a huge job to have to do with my bare hands. Their lot is a huge mess, and it has literally tons of stuff on it that the storm just dumped there.”

“Oh, take a couple days off, enjoy the holiday,” Randy said. “There’s a couple other things that need to get done to make this all legal, like calling a formal meeting of the foundation board, but that’s just rubberstamping the deal. We may not be able to get the insurance rider settled until the first of the week anyway. You’re talking about the Ford backhoe, right, and the Ford dump truck?”

“Yeah, and a trailer for the backhoe,” Jim said, amazed now that it sounded to be all but a done deal – and so easily, as much as he’d worried about it.

“I haven’t checked the maintenance logs, and Ray is gone somewhere for the holidays,” Randy said. “Everything should be in good shape, though. Ray had a couple of major maintenance projects he wanted to do this winter, so he did the routine annual maintenance on machinery as things shut down for the winter, and everything should be good to go. But you’d better check it. Go through the maintenance logs to make sure the oil changes and stuff are current, give everything a good going over, check the tires and hoses and stuff like that. Start both the truck and the backhoe up, just to make sure they run and the batteries are OK. Can you do that by yourself?”

“Sure,” Jim said. “You’re right, everything should have been done, but we might as well make sure. Randy, I don’t know how to tell you how much I appreciate your letting me borrow that stuff. That’ll turn what was pretty much an impossible job into an easy one. Look, I have one question, though. I’d kind of kicked around the idea of maybe doing a little extra work down there with the equipment just to cover the costs of getting it down there and back. It’s not going to be cheap, and it’s coming out of my pocket.”

“Better not,” Randy said. “Not if it’s a foundation project, anyway. I have no problem with you pitching in with the equipment to help someone out as another volunteer effort. In fact, I wish you would if you get the chance. But charging for it, better not. The foundation is a nonprofit, so things might get a little sticky with the tax man.”

“Well, all right,” Jim replied, just a little disappointed. This was going to cost him – but it was going to cost him anyway, and this way he could get the job done quickly, and maybe help someone else out in the process. It seemed a fair trade for being allowed to use the equipment – a week or two to get the job done, counting road time, instead of what could easily be months.

“One other thing,” Randy said. “This isn’t a hard and fast, but I’d be happier if you had someone else down there with you. The other set of hands could be useful on a job like that, and it’s a safety issue. I mean, there’d be someone else around if things go wrong.”

“I can’t disagree with you on that,” Jim told him. “The idea of my going down there to check things out was Bob Coopshaw’s as much as my mother’s, and he sort of sounded like he could be talked into going down to help out. I’ll hit him up on it and see what he says.”

“Bob would be good,” Randy said. “The two of you ought to be able to get quite a bit done while you’re there.”

“And besides,” Rachel added, “Bob was in here a couple days ago complaining about how bored he was, having to sit home and watch all the daytime TV. I know just exactly how he feels too. That stuff will rot your brain.”

“I think I’ll go try to track him down first,” Jim smiled. “I might have an idea of how to find him. Then I’ll come back and go through the equipment.”

“If you find anything wrong, let me know,” Randy told him. “And drop back in Tuesday morning before you hit the road. There’s probably going to be some paperwork to be done, and once I get a chance to think about it, I might be able to come up with another angle or two.”

Over the next few minutes, as Jim finished his coffee, they talked about the destruction Jim had seen in Pass Christian and elsewhere. “Well,” Jim said as he finished it up, “I suppose I’d better go hunt up Bob, and then go over the equipment. Randy, I really want to thank you for helping out on this. My aunt and uncle are nice people, but they’ve been handed the short ends of more than a few sticks in their lives. This isn’t going to get them back into their home, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

“To tell you the truth, it’s my pleasure,” Randy told him. “I keep seeing that stuff on TV and feeling guilty that I’m not doing something to help out there. Now, at least I am, a little. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to do something about it.”

*   *   *

Jim was still a little stunned as he walked out of the Clark Construction office. That had been easier than he’d expected – much easier, in fact! He didn’t understand what Randy and Rachel had been talking about concerning the foundation, but it was all tax stuff. From what he could tell it sounded as if Randy was going to get his costs covered out of the deal, so it probably wasn’t going to cost him much, if anything. That rankled a bit because he’d already spent money getting down and back to evaluate the job, and he would be spending a lot more on this second trip. At least he was going to have the dump truck and backhoe this time, so it wasn’t going to take as long, even it took more gas getting it there and back. Cleaning up Rita and John’s lot was going to be easy – at least a lot easier than if he was breaking his back to do it. That, after all, was the bottom line, and it might get them out of that hellhole in Helena and back into a house in Pass Christian a little more quickly.

Back in his truck, Jim drove right over to the Pike. The odds were pretty good that Bob would be sitting around drinking coffee and shooting the shit with a few other Clark workers, the ones who seemed to spend a lot of their winter layoffs doing just that. If by some chance he wasn’t there, he could try him at home.

Sure enough, there was Bob, along with several other guys, including Russ Compton. They were gathered around the same table he’d seen them at the other day, and there was a deck of cards sitting out, so it seemed like pinochle or gin was on the agenda for the day. The place was just about as he’d left it on Monday. There were still a couple old-timers sitting at the bar, having their first or second or maybe even third beers of the day. He walked over to the table, pulled a chair up from another table so he was sitting at a corner, and said, “So what’s happening around here today?”

“Same shit, different day,” Compton snorted. “Another day closer to getting back to work.”

“So,” Bob spoke up. “You ever do any more thinking about heading down south to see about your aunt and uncle’s place?”

“Yeah, I did,” Jim admitted. “I’ve been down there and back already. Let me tell you, that town is the goddamnedest mess you ever saw. I mean, just totally trashed, debris and junk all over the place. The next time someone says something is a disaster area, I’m going to be able to tell them what a disaster area really is like.”

“So how about your aunt and uncle’s place?”

“Totally gone, like nine out of ten houses down there,” Jim shook his head. “The lot just has a big pile of debris sitting on it, with a great big tree lying right in the middle of the whole damn show.”

“Not much you can do, huh?” Russ shook his head.

“Well, I thought so,” Jim smiled. “But I just talked Randy into letting me borrow the Ford backhoe and the red dump truck to go down and clean it up. I’m heading back down there the first of the week.”

“You know, that doesn’t surprise me,” Bob nodded. “Randy is good about things like that.”

“Yeah,” Jim admitted. “He really is a pretty good guy, isn’t he?”

“Damn good,” Bob said. “I had my doubts about him when Old Man Clark died a couple years ago, but Randy has really grabbed hold and made things work around the place. Are you going to be able to get the lot cleaned up with that equipment?”

“Should be able to, but I’m going to have to borrow a big chainsaw somewhere to cut up that tree.”

“Ask Randy,” Bob suggested. “There’s that big Stihl sitting out in the tool room.”

“Hell, I forgot about that,” Jim shook his head. “Anyway, he suggested that I take someone else with me to help out. I’m guessing it’ll take a week or ten days, including driving. Any of you guys interested in seeing what a real mess looks like? At least it’s pretty warm down there. And it’ll get you out of the Spearfish Lake cold for a while.”

“I could be talked into it,” Bob said with a smile. “It’s getting goddamn boring sitting around here every day, and I could stand a little fresh air. Where are you planning on staying down there?”

“Well, if it was just me, I was planning on taking a tent and sleeping bag in the dump truck with me,” Jim replied, realizing that he hadn’t thought about it very much. “But I suppose if someone else wanted to come along we could take my camper. It’s no big luxury motor home, but it’s free and out of the weather.”

“If we did that we could change off driving the vehicles,” Bob suggested. From the sound of his voice it sounded like he was pretty well talked into it already – again, another chore that had been much easier than Jim had expected. “I don’t know how well I could manage to drive that damn dump truck that far without a break. I don’t think my kidneys would take it. I’d be stopping to piss every five miles.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” Jim agreed, and decided to quit messing around. “You want to come with me?”

“Sure, if you’re not leaving until after the holidays,” Bob said. “I can stand for a little time out of the cold weather, but that goddamn TV is going at home all the damn time. At least on New Year’s Day I can take it over long enough to watch some football, if for no more reason than to piss off my wife.”

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To be continued . . .
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