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

Winter Layoff
a novel by
Wes Boyd
2011, 2013

Chapter 10

It was after noon a day later before Jim and Bob were finally able to get on the road again, after a test run with the dump truck out on the Interstate. It drove better – at least no worse than it had the past summer, and maybe even a little better. Over the time that had passed it was hard to tell. Either way, it was a lot better than two days ago when they’d started out from Spearfish Lake.

By the time everything was said and done, they’d lost two days to the truck breakdown, and they still faced two and a half days of driving, maybe a little less, to get down to Pass Christian. The waiting had ground on both of them, and they agreed to press on a little harder than they’d originally planned, because doing something was better than doing nothing.

Once they got out on the highway with the backhoe in tow, it still proved that they couldn’t drive much over about sixty, simply because the truck just didn’t have it to give. It wasn’t built for speed, after all, and there weren’t many occasions Jim could think of where it had to go anywhere near that fast. The truck still seemed a little more comfortable a little under that speed, mostly because it didn’t seem to be straining so hard. At least it didn’t feel like they were taking their life in their hands to go that fast like it had their first day out. That made the time they spent on the repair stop seem worthwhile by itself.

Because of the delay and the frustration involved, they pushed on later than they’d intended, still switching off every two hours like they’d originally planned. They had made it down to central Illinois where they finally pulled into a truck stop for the night. This time they didn’t bother with a motel and just crashed in their sleeping bags in the back of the camper. It wasn’t exactly warm back there, nothing like the motel room of the past two nights. There was only so much the tiny propane heater could do, so they wrapped blankets around their sleeping bags and made do. Once they got settled in it wasn’t all that bad, and both of them slept reasonably well.

When they woke up the next morning, it was starting to get light. They had breakfast, topped off the fuel tanks, and got back on the road, determined to make up at least a little of what they had lost at the repair stop. They pushed hard all the way, keeping the speed down but limiting their breaks. At least they went through St. Louis during the middle of the day and not rush hour, a relief in the big truck pulling the trailer, but they still weren’t going as fast as they’d have liked to. They were still in southern Missouri when night caught up with them, and they wound up heading in for the night in a truck stop not far out of Memphis, still in Arkansas. The truck stop was within striking distance of Helena if they’d wanted to go there, but they didn’t – there was no reason to, and it would have slowed them down.

Staying in the camper was better that night – they were far enough south that it was warmer, and the weather may have been warmer than the day before anyway. For some reason they slept late the next morning. The sun was already up and shining when they woke up, giving promise of a nice day to be on the road. Again, they headed into the truck stop for breakfast and wound up lingering a little longer over coffee.

“We can probably make it in today if we push it,” Jim said over a third refill. “But I don’t know that I can find the place in the dark. In fact, I’m not sure I can find it in the daylight without looking around a bit, since I was only there once. I know what the street address is, but the street signs are all down, and there aren’t any house numbers to be seen. When I came down here with Rita, we stopped for the night at a truck stop north of Gulfport, and I think that’s where we ought to shoot for today. That’ll give us some daylight to find the place and get things organized.”

“Good enough,” Bob said. “I’m starting to get anxious to get going on this job.”

“Yeah, pissing away two days getting the truck fixed didn’t help much,” Jim agreed. “I want to get this done so I can get back up north and start working on the problems of getting a house built.”

“Let me give you a word of advice,” Bob told him. “Put that out of your mind for now. We have to get this done first, and then you can worry about that. First things first.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Jim replied. “It’s just that I don’t have a lot else to think about while I’m sitting there and driving.”

“Well, we get down there and get to work on that lot, you’ll have plenty to think about just getting the preliminary work done. You’ll want to concentrate on that or you’re going to do something stupid because you’re thinking about the next steps rather than what you’re supposed to be doing.”

“Yeah, I suppose,” Jim sighed. “I guess there’s not much we can do but do it.”

They finished their coffee and got back on the road. They were getting started late enough that they hit Memphis after the peak of the rush hour, so traffic wasn’t bad. The fact that it was Saturday probably had more than a little to do with it. They managed to move right along, and soon they were heading south through northern Mississippi, still riding the right lane most of the way with cars and trucks and the like zipping past them. Sometime after their first driver switch they came upon a big semi, moving very slowly like he had some kind of trouble, and pulled out to pass him. It was the only time they passed anybody on the whole trip.

Even with pushing fairly hard it was after dark that night when they pulled into the truck stop north of Gulfport where Jim had spent the night with Aunt Rita a week and a half before. They headed into the truck stop for a quick snack, and it was warm enough, even after dark, that they didn’t bother to put their jackets on. Probably the locals considered it cold, Jim thought, but he and Bob were used to northern winters and it seemed balmy.

It was warm enough that they actually had to turn the heater in the camper down a little in the middle of the night – a big change from the first night they’d spent in the camper up north. The next morning, they headed into the truck stop for breakfast before they got going. In the daylight, of course, Bob could see the damage around the area, much like Jim had seen it a few days before. “One hell of a mess,” he commented.

“Shit, you ain’t seen nothing yet,” Jim told his friend. “It actually isn’t too bad around here, they only took wind damage this far away from shore, and that was bad enough. When we get into town and you see the damage the storm surge did, you’ll think this looks pretty good.”

Over breakfast they got down to serious planning. “I think we need to get into town somewhere and find a place to park the rig,” Jim said. “Then we can go on and see if I can find the place, and we can work out the best way to get the truck and trailer there. I also need to ask around and see if I can find out where we can dump the stuff we pick up off the lot.”

“You’d think there ought to be something,” Bob said.

“Yeah, but I don’t know where it is and I didn’t think to ask the last time I was here. I probably should have, but we were only here a few hours. Believe me, I’ve got a pot load of other questions to ask, but they don’t all have to be answered today.”

Half an hour later they were on the road for the last leg of the trip. As before, it was a relatively short run into Pass Christian. As they got into town a ways, Jim pulled the dump truck and backhoe into what might have once been a convenience store parking lot – there was no way of telling since the building was gone, but the parking lot was relatively free of debris.

It turned out that the lot where his aunt and uncle’s house had stood was fairly easy to find – he’d remembered the route they’d taken out of the place pretty well, and as soon as they were getting close he remembered some landmarks. Little had changed in the intervening week and a half and nothing seemed to be going on anywhere within sight. The neighborhood seemed to be deserted. At least they didn’t see anyone. As before, it was just a field of debris with a few leafless and sometimes limbless trees sticking up here and there.

“Jesus,” Bob said from the right seat, “I can’t believe someone would want to be so crazy as to live here if this happens very often.”

“It is pretty bad, no doubt about it,” Jim agreed. “But Aunt Rita said it was a nice neighborhood, and she thinks it’ll come back. She thinks even the trees aren’t as bad as they look, but it’ll take a new growing season to be sure.”

“I don’t know,” Bob shook his head. “That sure takes a lot of guts, or a lot of faith, and I’m not sure which.”

Jim came to a stop in front of the lot – it was easy to remember, with the big tree lying in the middle of the pile of debris. “That’s what we’ve got to clean up,” he told Bob. “Aunt Rita and I aren’t sure if what’s left of their house is under all that shit, or even exactly where it is. If it is there, maybe there’s something worth trying to salvage, but we’ve got to get all that other stuff out of the way to locate it. Plus, we have to find out if the slab is still any good.”

“And you were going to do all this by hand, by yourself?”

“Well, that was the original idea as I didn’t see any other choice then,” Jim shrugged. “I didn’t want to do it by hand, which is why I went to ask Randy about using the backhoe. Anyway, once we get the pad cleared off, I think we need to clear back a ways. I’m not real sure where the lot lines are, but we probably ought to clean up beyond them. And nobody is going to be real crazy about us just shoving all that shit onto surrounding lots.”

“You know, just as a thought, some of those adjoining lots don’t look all that bad,” Bob pointed out. “Maybe, if it’s not going to be too bad, we ought to think about taking a little time and cleaning them up, too. It might make someone else want to move back here.”

“Not a bad idea,” Jim agreed. “It might make the place seem a little more livable to my aunt and uncle. I don’t think I’d want to have to look out my window at a pile of shit like that for years. At least we could make a little improvement there. But I think the first thing we’re going to have to do is just clear a place to park.”

“Yeah,” Bob agreed. “This street has only been cleared one lane wide and that not very well. If we just parked in the middle of it sooner or later someone would come along and get pissed.”

“Right. We at least need a place off the street to park the trailer and the pickup.”

They got out and looked around a little. A short ways up the street a driveway appeared to be fairly open, even if there was no house anymore, and there had been no apparent activity at cleaning things up. “We probably could get by parking here for a day or so,” Bob suggested. “But maybe we ought to think about clearing the street up a little, too. We can probably get through with the rig all right, but it’s still going to be pretty tight backing the trailer to park it.”

“Yeah, good idea,” Jim agreed. “If it isn’t done now it’ll have to be done later. If we wind up coming back down to build the house we probably won’t have the backhoe and dump truck with us, so we’d better do everything we can while we have it here. Let’s go get the rig and get started.”

It only took a few minutes to get back over to where they’d parked the truck and trailer. Bob was just getting into the cab of the dump truck when a dirty white pickup truck screeched to a stop next to them. “What are you guys doing here?” a voice from inside said. “You’re supposed to be over at the job on Beach Boulevard!”

There was something about the tone of voice that just pissed Jim off. “And just who are you to tell us where to go?”

“I’m the volunteer equipment manager,” the guy said. “Your truck says you’re from Michigan, so you’ve got to be volunteers. We’re trying to get Beach Avenue opened up so we can get some businesses reopened.”

Resolving to keep his calm in the face of the officious official, whoever he was, Jim walked over next to the pickup. “I hate to break your heart,” he said. “But we’re not down here as general volunteers. We came down to clean up a specific lot, which happens to be my aunt and uncle’s place. We have hopes of building them a new house later this spring.”

“You’re not down here to help out with the cleanup?” the guy said, amazed. “But we need all the help we can get over on Beach Boulevard. I really need you guys over there.”

“Sorry about that, but we’ve got our own job to do,” Jim told him. “Now, if someone happened to be working nearby and needed an extra backhoe for a few minutes, say to help move something heavy, I’d be glad to help out. But we didn’t come down here to do anything other than our specific job and we can’t be here long.”

“Well, damn,” the guy said. “Where is this place you’re supposed to be working on, anyway?”

“Over on Buckner Avenue,” Jim said, giving him the house number.

“Buckner Avenue?” the guy said. “That’s scheduled to get cleaned up in, oh, two or three months, although we’re running a little behind on that.”

“Well, at least part of it is going to get cleaned up sooner than that,” Jim snorted. “With any kind of luck there’s going to be a new house sitting there by the time your cleanup crews get to it, and I’m going to be some kind of pissed if they bulldoze it.”

By now Bob had climbed down from the dump truck and had come over to join the conversation. He’d heard most of it. “We haven’t got the time to piss around two or three months waiting on your cleanup crew, if they even get to it that soon,” he said. “We’re on winter layoff, and if we don’t get the house done by the time we have to go back to work, it’s going to have to wait until this time next year.”

“Well, I guess I can’t stop you,” the guy sighed from inside the pickup. “But we sure could use you over on Beach Boulevard.”

“Tell you what,” Jim said. “If you can answer a few questions for me, or at least tell me where I can get the answers, if we have some time left over when we get done with what we came down here to do, maybe we can go over and pitch in on your Beach Boulevard project for a couple days.”

“Well, that would be better than nothing. We can use all the help we can get. Of course, that’s true anywhere, but we’re trying to do some things in an organized manner.”

“I can understand that,” Jim said, trying to sound sympathetic. “You have your stuff to do, and we have ours. At least we’ll be saving you a little work somewhere up the road.”

“Yeah, I suppose there is that,” the guy said. “What is it you need to know?”

“The first big question is where we dump all the stuff we clean off my aunt and uncle’s lot.”

“Oh, that’s easy. You really must be new here to not know that. Go down this street three blocks and right two blocks, there’s a collection point in what used to be a supermarket parking lot. All you have to do is haul it there. It’s spread out so it can be picked through for salvage, especially stuff like ATM terminals and slot machines from the casinos, although I doubt you’re going to find anything like that over on Buckner Avenue. Oh, and bodies. There are still people unaccounted for. If you find one before you get it loaded, stop work and call the cops, and someone will be over to deal with it on site. Bodies can turn up anywhere, and after this long they’re going to be pretty badly decomposed.”

“OK, we’ll keep an eye out,” Jim said. “What happens to the stuff after it gets dumped at the collection point?”

“Well, they try to sort through it for stuff that may be of value, mostly metal, metal roofing, aluminum siding, stuff like that. After that’s done, the rest of it is run through a drum shredder and loaded onto an eighteen wheeler, and it gets hauled off to some landfill. The Coasties and the EPA won’t let us dump it offshore, and the nearby landfills are getting full, so some of it gets hauled as far away as Arizona.”

“Sounds like the truckers are making out on the deal,” Jim said in a friendly manner. “No charge to dump stuff at the collection point, right?”

“Right, it’s all disaster cleanup. If you have loads that are all solid wood or brush or something with no salvageable materials, tell the guy at the dump site so it won’t have to be sorted.”

“I don’t know what all we have, but I do know it involves one very large tree,” Jim said. “Anyway, that’s good to know. Now, do you know where I can find out about utilities in that neighborhood?”

“Straight up this street is the area where they’re handling rebuilding coordination,” the guy said. About half a mile, you can’t miss it. I can’t give you any answers about that specific neighborhood, except to say that utility recovery is spotty and that area is low priority since there hasn’t been any rebuilding there that I know of. You’ll probably wind up having to go to several different places.”

“Well, thanks,” Jim said. “You’ve been a big help. Like I said, if things go well we’ll try to put some time in on your Beach Boulevard project.”

“It’d be a big help. Anything would be a big help,” the guy said. “Hey, sorry I sounded so snotty when I first met you, but it’s been a tough day already, not that all of them aren’t. Some of the people coming down here to help, well, their hearts are in the right place, but they don’t have any notion of what they’re doing, and that stuff gets old after a while. But good luck to you. If I get a minute I’ll try to drop by your project later and see how you’re coming.”

“Well, good luck and don’t let the rough ones get you down. We’ll see you around.”

“Same thing,” the guy said. “And hey, it all counts. Thanks for coming down to help out. Try to get over and help out on Beach Boulevard. I’d really appreciate it.” He started the pickup and drove off.

“You know,” Bob said after the guy in the white pickup was back out on the street. “There’s a man with a job I don’t think I’d want.”

“Me, either,” Jim agreed. “I think I’d just as soon be running a backhoe and not having to worry about all that shit.”

“No shit. Were you just bullshitting him when you said we’d go over and help on that Beach Boulevard project of his?”

“Maybe yes, maybe no,” Jim shrugged. “We’ll have to see. We might get a day or two to kill for some unknown reason, and if we do, there’s no point in letting it go to waste. But I think there’s enough to do up north that as soon as we’ve done what we can here, we’d better be pointing it back towards Spearfish Lake so we can start on the next thing.”

“We have to get there, first,” Bob smiled. “Let’s go do the first thing.”

When they got back over to the lot, they looked things over and decided to unload the backhoe in the middle of the street since there wasn’t enough room to unload it in the neighbor’s driveway. They parked the pickup there, too. Since their main concern was to get down to the foundation pad as quickly as possible, Bob started in by clearing a path with the loader bucket to get to the pile, and clearing away enough in the front yard to have a spot to load the dump truck. Just getting that done took a while, and they didn’t have quite a large enough spot clean by the time the dump truck was pretty well full. Jim suggested that Bob ride along so they’d both be sure of the way to the collection point and how things operated there.

They found it easily enough – the guy in the dirty white pickup had given good directions – and when they got there they found it to be smaller than at least Jim had imagined. Apparently they were able to move stuff through the facility pretty quickly. There were piles of metal and other salvage and stuff spread out on the pavement so it could be sorted through. When they pulled into the lot they were flagged down by a guy who looked like he might have something to do with the place. He hopped up on the running board and said, “Haven’t seen you before.”

“We just got here this morning,” Jim said. “We were told that you sorted through stuff before you did whatever you do with it.”

“Right,” the guy said. “What do you have?”

“Mostly just wood junk,” Bob told him talking past Jim from the right side of the truck. “We were told to keep an eye out for metal junk, bodies, and stuff that looks like it might be valuable, but I didn’t see anything this load. I just scraped it up off the ground, and it was pretty thin.”

“Good,” the guy said. “We have to sort through a lot of stuff that comes in, but anything we don’t have to is all to the good. Let me know if you bring in anything that you think we ought to go through. But, if all you have is wood scrap, just go over there and dump it next to the drum shredder.”

They spent a little time checking out the operation, and headed back over to the lot. “About one more load,” Bob said, “And then we’re going to really get to work on that pile. Christ, I can’t think about how many loads it’s going to take to get just this one lot cleaned up.”

“Me, either,” Jim agreed. “But we’re just going to have to do it. We can switch back and forth running the dump truck and the backhoe, if you like.”

“Probably a good idea,” Bob agreed. “I’ll take the backhoe for a while.”

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To be continued . . .
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