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

Winter Layoff
a novel by
Wes Boyd
2011, 2013

Chapter 8

Jim sat around the Pike for a little while longer, filling the rest of the guys in on what it was like down in Pass Christian and the hurricane area, and then allowed that he had to head back over to Clark Construction to check out the vehicles. Bob came along to help out since he said he wasn’t really in the mood to be playing cards again today, anyway.

Both the dump truck and the backhoe seemed to be in pretty good shape and cleaner than they tended to be in construction season. At least going over them they couldn’t find much of anything wrong. The same couldn’t be said of the flatbed trailer that Jim pulled into the shop to check over – there were a couple tires on it that seemed pretty iffy to him. They were iffy enough that the two of them went over to the office to see Randy about it, suggesting that they swap tires off another trailer.

“No, better not,” Randy told them. “If they’re iffy now they’ll be iffy when construction season starts. Run the whole works over to the tire store, and get new tires mounted. Just have them charge it to the company and we’ll work it out later.”

That took a while, but by the time they were done for the day the trailer was hooked up to the dump truck, with the backhoe loaded aboard and chained down, ready to go. Both of the vehicles were even tanked to the gills with diesel fuel, and the big chain saw and some other tools were loaded into the back of Jim’s camper. They still needed to pull together clothes and sleeping bags and some more food, but they had all weekend to take care of that, and Jim decided to do what he could so they could get on the road as soon as they were done with the paperwork on Tuesday.

On Saturday, Jim took care of as many of those issues as he could. He hadn’t actually used any of the food he’d taken with him on the first trip, since it was just quicker and less trouble to stop at restaurants and truck stops when needed. He knew from seeing the mess in Pass Christian that it wouldn’t be an option there, unless they wanted to swing by the kitchen set up for volunteers, which they might just do at least occasionally. While he was thinking that it would only take a couple of days to get the lot cleaned up, there was the possibility that he and Bob might stay for another week or more to see what they could do to pitch in with cleaning up elsewhere. If that happened, he wanted to make sure that they had enough food to hold them.

That evening he called Aunt Rita to fill her in on what had happened. He could hear the TV going and the kids yelling in the background as he talked to her, and once again he wished there was some way he could do more to get them out of that situation. “It doesn’t solve the whole problem, not by a long shot,” he told her. “But it’ll make the job a lot more manageable and get it done quicker. With that out of the way, maybe it’ll open the door to getting you back home.”

“The sooner, the better. You know that deal we were talking about on the way back?” she said, clearly being guarded with her words.

“You mean, getting a FEMA trailer?” he asked, pretty sure what she meant.

“Yeah, that,” she replied. “Right now it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea, but there are still the other issues we talked about with it. I don’t see how we can get anything more done until you get the lot cleared, and then it might take a while, but I’m thinking about it more and more. It’s not a good solution, but at least it would get us back home. Are you going to be coming by here on your way down?”

“Not unless you need me to,” he said. “That dump truck burns a lot of fuel, and it’s a ways out of the way, so I want to keep the miles down if I can.”

“No need to go out of your way,” she told him. “It’s just good to know that something is happening. Give your boss some big thanks from us. It’s very nice of him to help us out.”

Jim headed over to Bob’s house on Sunday to help him watch football games. Jim wasn’t a big football fan, but it was nice to sit around in a family atmosphere, have a few beers and a decent dinner, and just generally unwind. At one point he got Bob’s wife off to the side and thanked her for letting Bob come with him on this trip, and she told him she didn’t mind. She knew he was going stir crazy over the winter like he usually did. It would do him good to get out of the house and out of town for a few days. “Keep him for a while longer if you need to,” she said. “I’ve felt frustrated about not being able to do anything for those poor folks down there, and I know he’s felt that way too.”

On Monday there wasn’t much to do. Jim headed out to his fish coop and spent a few hours trying to catch some walleye, but with no luck. He finally went back home and pulled some frozen fish out of the freezer for dinner, and that was a darn poor substitute for the fresh-caught sort. It was mostly a wasted day, and he would have been happy to have been on the road if it weren’t for the promised stop at the Clark Construction office before they started driving.

The sun was just coming up on Tuesday morning when Jim loaded the food into the back of the camper and ran the heat up a ways to keep it halfway warm inside, then headed over to Bob’s house to pick him up. It only took a few moments to load his stuff into the camper, and then they both drove over to Clark Construction.

“I hope this doesn’t take too long,” Jim remarked to Bob as they walked up to the office. “I’d really like to get on the road. This is going to be a long trip.”

“Yeah,” Bob agreed. “And as rough as that dump truck rides, the sooner we get started the sooner we get it over with.”

Rachel was working at her desk when they walked in. She was dressed casually as always, a blouse and sweater and jeans for this cold day. “So, are you guys all ready for your trip south?” she asked.

“Pretty much,” Jim told her. “We just need to see Randy before we go.”

“I’m afraid he’s tied up on the phone again,” she said. “I don’t want to bet on how long this is going to take, but maybe not too long. It’s Norm Eaglebeak over at Three Pines, so there’s no telling.”

“Well, I guess we don’t have much choice but to wait,” Jim replied, already a little antsy about wanting to get on the road. It had been bad enough to have to wait over the long weekend before getting started on this. He just wanted to get down south and be done with the driving.

“It’s not a total loss,” she smiled. “Ken wanted to talk to you before you left. I’ll call him up here.”

Jim couldn’t help but wonder what that was all about. Ken Halpern was the company draftsman and often did a lot of structural design, sort of a bootleg architect when a real one wasn’t needed. “Fine with me,” Jim said, not as if he didn’t have anything better to do than wait.

In a minute Ken came up from the big drafting office in the back – it had been Old Man Clark’s office when Jim hired in, but after his death they’d rearranged things. “So, how are you guys today?” he asked.

“Been better, been worse,” Jim replied off the cuff. “So what have you got on your mind?”

“Oh, a couple things,” he smiled. “Rachel and Randy told me about this little house-building project you’ve got going down in the hurricane area.”

“It’s not a house-building project, not yet,” Jim said. “We’re just going to clear off the lot where my aunt and uncle lived so it’ll be easier for them to rebuild. I’m not sure what they’re going to do or how soon they’ll be able to get anything started once we get the lot cleared.”

“Randy said something about that,” Ken nodded. “But I got to thinking about it over the weekend. If they’re going to build a house on the lot, then they ought to have some idea of what they’re building. Would it help any if I were to pull together some plans for them? That way someone would at least be able to do a cost estimate, a bill of materials, and things like scheduling and time estimates.”

“It’s one of those things that’s going to have to get done,” Jim agreed. “But there are some other issues that have to be dealt with, too. I mean, like, where are they going to get the money to build anything? They’re good people, but they’re not loaded with money, and their insurance company gave them a screwing you wouldn’t believe. They’re getting on up there in age, so they don’t want to have to deal with a mortgage, especially since they’ll most likely have to get along on what’s pretty close to a fixed income.”

“Yeah,” Ken nodded. “Rachel was saying that you said he got shot up pretty bad in Vietnam and was in a wheelchair. Do you know if they’ve gone to the VA about the problem?”

“My aunt said they’d talked to them, but she sounded like they didn’t have a whole lot of hope of getting anything. We didn’t get into it real deeply.”

“Well, I can’t say, they’d know more about it than I would, anyway, but I’d have to guess that they want to get back in their own place.”

“Badly,” Jim said. “They’re living with his sister. The place is a dump and it’s crowded with a bunch of kids yelling and raising hell all the time. It’s driving them up the walls. Believe me, I’ve put some thought into what could be done in the short term without much money to get them back into their own place, and I’m not coming up with many ideas. I mean, even if they can come up with the money, there’s still a bunch of problems.”

“What kind of problems?” Rachel asked.

“Well, for one thing, finding a halfway-decent contractor to do the building. Everyone down there who knows what they’re doing is scheduled tight for months, if not years. A lot of the reconstruction is being done by volunteers, and a lot of them don’t have any idea what they’re doing. There are some who know, though. I wasn’t in Pass Christian long last week, but I did hear of a bunch of Amish and Mennonites from Pennsylvania and Indiana who had come down to help out, and from the talk I heard, they were working quickly and doing damn good work.”

“They have the reputation for doing good work,” Ken nodded. “I heard a little bit about them on TV. From what the story said, they’re doing it right straight out of good Christian charity. Any chance of getting them on the job?”

“Again, no idea,” Jim shrugged. “I don’t know how they select what places they’re working on, but I’ll bet they already know just exactly where they’re going to be for the rest of the winter. What really worries me is that there are a bunch of fly-by-nights running around down there, picking up what jobs they can, taking a large down payment, and then not doing much of anything, or doing a crappy job at what little they do.”

“Unfortunately, there are always going to be those kinds of vultures running around,” Ken sighed.

“No fooling,” Jim agreed. “I pretty well figured that if I can find a contractor, he’s got to have a pretty good reputation or I’m going to plan on standing over the site super with a baseball bat to be sure the work gets done right. The problem is that I’m an excavating guy, and I may not necessarily know what’s right or wrong. Hell, if I was more of a construction guy, I’d be half tempted to try to round up some guys on winter layoff from around here and take the job on myself. At least that way I’d know the work was being done right.”

“You know, that might be a thought,” Bob suggested. “There’s guys like Compton who’d be happy to go down there for a few weeks to work on this sort of a job, just to keep from getting sore butts from sitting around the Pike. Hell, that’s part of why I’m going on this trip.”

“I’ve kicked it around,” Jim said. “It’s not the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard, either. We’ve got, hell, three months before we get going again around here. Get a handful of guys like Compton and we could do the job pretty easily. But that’s actually one of the smaller problems. Even if we could come up with the money and the guys, there’s still the question of the materials to build the house with. I don’t want to say that building materials are unobtainable, but from what little I heard down there it’s hard to get them, and people are paying through the nose to do so. You know those Amish and Mennonites I mentioned a little while ago? From what I heard, they’re building stuff with materials trucked down from Pennsylvania or somewhere. It’s cheaper to pay long-distance trucking costs than it is to buy anything locally.”

“Yeah, especially if some of it is donated, and I’d imagine that with a church group like that, at least some of it is,” Ken said. “As you say, those are problems, but they’re problems that could be solved. Maybe when you get back you could manage some of them.”

“There’s still the money issue,” Jim pointed out. “I’m having to reach into my own pocket pretty deep as it is, just to get the lot cleaned up.”

“No,” Rachel said. “That’s one of the things Randy wanted to talk to you about, we talked about it over the weekend. You’re going down there to do this as a Donna Clark Foundation project, which really means in this case it’s a tax write-off for Clark Construction. Randy’s got a foundation credit card for you. You’re to use that for fuel and meals and other expenses like them. When the foundation gets the bill they’ll pass it along to the company, and then we can write it off. We’ll get most of it back when tax time rolls around.”

“Holy crap,” Jim said, stunned by the news. He’d done some figuring and there was no way that the dump truck was going to burn less than a thousand dollars worth of diesel fuel on this trip, and it most likely would be more than that. “My truck, too?”

“Well, of course,” Rachel smiled. “After all, it’s part of the Clark Foundation project. It may be a little cute with taxes, but if the government is going to leave us a loophole like that, we’d be damn fools not to use it.”

“Well, son of a gun,” he said in sheer relief. The projected fuel costs alone would have come close to maxing out his credit card, and he’d just figured he was going to have to bear the expense out of family loyalty plus the guilt over the fact that he’d been lucky in life in ways Aunt Rita and Uncle John hadn’t been. “Rachel, I don’t know how I can ever tell you how much I appreciate that.”

“It’s no big deal,” she said. “I’m just glad I thought of funneling it through the foundation. Jim, don’t get me wrong. I’m like everyone else. I wish there was more I could do to help. I’d even be willing to go down there and help you out if I thought there was anything useful I could do.”

“I really appreciate it,” Jim said. “You have no idea how much I appreciate it. Hell, I’d kiss you if I thought you wouldn’t slap me for it.”

“Not just now,” she grinned. “Did you save your gas receipts from your trip down there last week?”

“Yeah, they’re all in the glove compartment.”

“Don’t lose them,” she said. “I’m not sure if I can get you reimbursed for them, since the trip was made before this was a foundation project and is in a different tax year. But I’ll work on it while you’re gone.”

“You don’t have to,” he said, even more stunned at the pronouncement. “But it would be appreciated if you could manage that.”

“To get back to what I was saying,” Ken said. “There’s a chance some of those other issues could be solved when you get back and can work on them, especially with someone like Rachel running interference for you.”

“Yeah, I can believe it,” Jim replied, still not quite believing this conversation.

“So, that means it’s possible that this could turn into a house, assuming the money issues can be worked out. But, if you’re going to build a house, you’re going to have to have plans, and you’re going to have to have a bill of materials and stuff like that. Like Rachel said, I’m like everyone else, I’d like to be doing more to help out than I can just sitting here. As you probably know, I have file cabinets full of standard house plans, and while I have to modify them to fit the situation, well, that’s what I do. If Norm Eaglebeak over at Three Pines isn’t dropping some huge new project on Randy in that phone conversation they’re having now, I’d be willing to spend a little spare time drawing something up so you’ll have it to work with.”

“That would be a big help, even if we don’t get to build it this winter,” Jim said, finally understanding that he was getting another voluntary offering of free assistance.

“I figured something like that,” Ken said. “But it helps to know what kind of house we’re talking about.”

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know,” Jim told him. “I was never in the old house, but I got the impression from Aunt Rita that it really wasn’t anything special, just about like something like twenty-four by thirty-six, single story, slab on grade. I can’t really tell you anything more than that.”

“Slab on grade?” Ken frowned. “That isn’t done around here much.”

“It’s pretty common around there,” Jim said. “They don’t have frost to contend with. I couldn’t tell from the old house because the slab wasn’t visible at all, completely buried in rubble, but around the neighborhood I could see several other slabs still in place, so there’s no reason to assume that it was any different.” He thought for a moment, then added, “Uncle John is in a wheelchair, and I remember Aunt Rita saying that the important thing about the house was that it was naturally barrier free, and it was built long before making buildings barrier free was any sort of an issue.”

“Yeah, whatever I come up with, that’ll have to be a given,” Ken nodded, scratching some notes on a pad. “Anything else come to mind?”

Jim frowned and rapidly paged through his memory of his conversation with Aunt Rita in the truck a few days before. “Actually, nothing in particular stands out in my mind,” he said finally, “Except for the fact that she mentioned that they liked to sit out on the screened in porch when the weather was cool enough. I get the impression it gets real hot and real humid down there, so that pretty well calls for central air in my mind.”

“Figured that, at least for the central air, although I hadn’t thought of the porch,” Ken said. “Sounds like a good idea, though. My guess is that if it comes down to getting a house built this year we probably ought to think about staying in the same footprint of the original house so you could use the old slab. That could be a big cost and time savings.”

“Hadn’t thought about it, but you’re right,” Jim agreed. “Of course, if the slab is bad and not repairable, I’ll have the backhoe and dump truck already there, so I could rip the old one out and haul it off. I didn’t get a good look at the others in the neighborhood, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the old one could be used.”

“As soon as you get the slab cleared off enough to tell, get the exact measurements, including stuff like the plumbing locations, and get them to me,” Ken said. “The sooner I have them, the sooner I can work that stuff into the plans. Of course, if you don’t think the old slab is usable, let me know that, too.”

“It’s going to be a few days,” Jim said. “Like I said, the slab is buried under a huge pile of rubble and debris and there’s this huge tree lying right in the middle of the whole damn show. It’s going to take a while to get down to the site and a while to dig down to any concrete still there.”

“The sooner, the better. I have a feeling that there’s going to be another big Three Pines job in the works, and I’d just as soon have this out of the way before I get all wrapped up in that.”

“You know,” Rachel said, “Ken, you’d probably be better off if you talked to Jim’s aunt and uncle directly about what they need to have in the house. I might be able to help them with some of the other issues. Jim, could you give me the phone number where they can be reached?”

“Sure,” he said, digging out his wallet. He wrote the number on a scratch pad and gave it to her, adding, “The only thing is that I’d really rather you don’t get their hopes up too much. This is still a long way from being a done deal, especially to get it done this winter, or even this year. But at least knowing that someone is working on plans for a new house in addition to what Bob and I are going down to do for them will give them a boost that they need really badly.”

“We’ll try to not build it up too much for them,” she said, getting up from her desk to take the note. “Randy is sure taking a long time on that phone call. I’ll see if I can get that credit card from him, so you can be on your way.”

“I hate to have to bother him if he’s talking about a big job.”

“Oh, he’ll be needing a breather anyway,” she said, heading into Randy’s office.

In a moment she came back out, with Randy following. “I’ve got Norm on hold for a minute,” he said. “It looks like it’s going to go on for a while longer, so I might as well get you on your way,” he said, handing Jim a credit card.

“Randy, I really appreciate this,” Jim said. “At least you’re letting me do something for my aunt and uncle, and God knows they need it.”

“No big deal, it keeps life a little more interesting around here,” Randy grinned. “Like I told you the other day, it’s nice to know that we can do something to help people out down there. Have a good trip, and be safe. Why don’t you plan on giving us a call every few days to let us know how you’re coming along?”

“Sure,” Jim said. “You take care yourself, and get us a nice big job to work on this summer.”

“No doubt about that,” Randy grinned. “Well, I guess I’d better get back to going around with Norm.”

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