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Out of the Cage book cover

Out of the Cage
Wes Boyd
©2010, ©2016

Chapter 6

At least there wasn’t any sign of the blue minivan following him as Frenchy went a block, turned, and went another block the other way, all the way keeping an eye open for a place where he could run and hide if they came after him again. Christ almighty, this sucked worse than anything ever! Running away from fucking Alan Jahnke and his wussy buddies! That was the kind of thing that he did to people, not that people were supposed to do to him! Where the fuck did they get off thinking they could pull that shit on him, of all people? God, there was going to have to be some serious ass kicking when the time came! Christ, if he didn’t do it he wasn’t going to be able to show his face around town, ever again!

What he ought to do, he thought, was to look around as soon as he could and find that fucking Jahnke by himself some time. He wouldn’t need Matt or Larry to kick the shit out of him one on one, and then it would just be Jahnke’s word against his. With any kind of luck, he ought to be able to slide out of that one, say that Jahnke had tried to hit him or something. It had worked well enough in the past around the school, especially when he had Matt or Larry to back him up, so it ought to work again.

But maybe, he thought, it wouldn’t work. If he did it one on one some time when there weren’t any witnesses around – and it was pretty clear that he wasn’t going to have Matt or Larry to back him up – it was going to be Jahnke’s word against his. That meant it would be the word of the fucking school valedictorian, most likely, against the word of a guy just out of jail who had Jahnke’s PPO against him. Now, just who the fuck were they going to believe?

Most likely, if he did it one on one with no one around, it was going to be a quick trip back to jail, maybe till August, and that would at least take care of the question of what he was going to do until the weather warmed up. But then, if he got into a fight with Jahnke it would probably be another assault charge, and that could mean the state pen. So maybe it wasn’t such a great goddamn idea after all. There was no doubt that Jahnke needed his ass kicked, but it would have to wait until August, and that was a hell of a long time to have to wait.

Jesus, a year ago he had the world by the tail, a car, good buddies, some money coming in, a girlfriend who treated him right, and people respected him, or at least feared him, which came to the same thing as far as he was concerned. Now it had all gone to shit! He’d sunk so low that he’d just run away from Alan fucking Jahnke, of all the fucking people! It just wasn’t fucking fair! How the fuck was he going to get out of this mess?

Maybe the thing to do was to take his eight bucks and hit the road. Fuck probation; if they caught him, they caught him, and right at the moment, so what? It was goddamn cold to be hitching, but maybe there was a car around that someone didn’t need all that bad. But no, if they caught him with a stolen car, that would mean the state pen for sure too. He wasn’t so sure that Jahnke was wrong about those black dudes, either . . .

It all pretty well came down to what he’d been thinking about earlier. Get through to August somehow, and get the probation off his ass. That would give him at least a little room to do things that needed to be done. The PPOs, well, he wasn’t sure how long they were good for, but he was pretty sure that it was going to be at least August, anyway. If this job with Stromsen worked out, he’d be able to keep his parents off his ass, maybe get some wheels or at least have some money in his pocket when he got out of this damn town. Go someplace else, well, someplace warmer. Someplace where he wouldn’t have to watch people laughing at him for fucking running from Alan fucking Jahnke. If he timed it right, he could still kick the shit out of him and maybe not get caught in the process.

It didn’t seem like the right way, not for him, Frenchy thought as he crossed an intersection, looking both ways for the blue minivan. It seemed to have vanished, probably with the kids inside laughing their asses off. But right at the moment it seemed like the smart way, although it probably wouldn’t take much to change his mind, like tripping across a good opportunity to give Jahnke the ass kicking he deserved.

He wasn’t in a much better mood when he finally got home, cold and fuming about as bad as he had been earlier. At least his folks weren’t home yet, although they would be pretty soon. He realized that mouthing off to them in the mood he was in now might not be the greatest idea he ever had. At least he could take his coat and boots and shit off, then head up to his room and collapse on the bed, still mad as hell but not sure what he could do about it. He lay down on his bed and tried to take a nap, but still the shame of the scene with Jahnke rolled through his mind over and over again.

Maybe he did sleep there for a while, because after a while he became aware that his parents were home and some time seemed to have disappeared, which was good. Also, he wasn’t quite as angry as he had been, which was also good. On top of that, he was hungry, not having had anything but the can of string beans and a cup of coffee for breakfast and nothing at all for lunch. Not wanting to do it, but realizing that it couldn’t be put off, he got up and headed downstairs for the next go-round with his folks.

“I was beginning to wonder where you were,” his father said in a nasty voice as Frenchy got down to the living room. “I suppose you screwed off all day, like usual.”

“No, I had a fairly busy day,” Frenchy replied, trying to let the insult roll off his shoulders as much as he could. “I went over to the school, then the probation office, and then went out looking for work.”

“So you’re not going back to school, then? What a sack of shit! Like I told you, you better not be thinking that you’re going to be sitting around here on your dead ass all day. I’m not going to put up with that kind of shit.”

“As far as school goes, I talked to Mrs. Wine,” Frenchy replied, trying to get past his father’s obviously still bad temper. “We pretty well decided there wasn’t much point to my going back till next fall since I can’t graduate this spring anyway. There’s a GED program over at the Community Improvement Agency that I’m going to be looking into, but the next classes don’t start till May.”

“Your mother and I aren’t going to be carrying your lame ass till May and then after that while you’re taking some lame-ass GED class,” his father snorted. “So that means you better damn well be finding a job.”

“Got a lead on one,” Frenchy said defensively. “I won’t be able to talk to the guy till after supper, but I figure on heading over to see him then. I don’t know anything about it, but Mr. Hotchkiss out at Clark’s said it was about the only thing he knew of.”

“Dave Hotchkiss, huh? Well if you talked to him you know there ain’t no chance you’re going to be working at the plant, not anytime soon, anyway. Where’s this job at?”

“Working for a guy by the name of Sven Stromsen. I don’t know much more about it than that.”

“Sven Stromsen, huh?” his father smiled. “He’ll fucking work your ass off. I’ll bet you don’t last two days with him. From everything I know about him, he’s an ass-buster from the word go.”

“I’ll make it work if I have to,” Frenchy said stoutly, seeing the challenge in his father’s words and hoping that he’d be able to make him eat them. Right at the moment he felt like that would give him about as much satisfaction as kicking Alan Jahnke’s wussy little ass would. Hell, his father deserved to be on the ass-kicking list, but the time for that hadn’t come yet. Maybe one of these days things would be different, and he couldn’t wait for that day to come. “I don’t want to sit around here on my dead ass anymore than you want me to. I need the money and I’ve got things I need to do with it.”

“That’ll be the damn day. You stand a better chance of going back to jail than you do of working for Sven for more than a couple days.”

*   *   *

Supper was halfway decent, what there was of it – a frozen lasagna from the bargain rack at the Super Market. His mother was pretty cheap and wasn’t much on cooking, so most meals around the house started out something like that, which had something to do with why there wasn’t often a lot of food around the house. At least it was better than the slop they served at the jail, which often seemed to be venison – fresh road kill, everyone knew; it didn’t cost anything at all. Frenchy knew he would be damn happy if he never had to smell the stinking stuff again. The one good thing that could be said about his mother’s cooking was that she’d never go to the amount of work that it took to cook venison in any form.

Of course, there weren’t many words said, since his father and his mother both seemed pretty ready to fly off the handle at the slightest word from him. All he could do was shovel the food into his mouth and get out of their sight as quickly as he could.

It would have been nice to have wheels to run out to Stromsen’s house, but his father never offered to loan him his and Frenchy knew better than to ask. There wasn’t much else he could do but get on his coat and boots, then start out walking in the darkness. At least it seemed likely that no one would recognize him in the dark.

It was a long walk out to Stromsen’s house, but at least Frenchy knew roughly where it was – for a while he’d had a beer stash a ways up past the place, out in the junkiest part of town. It was a clear night and getting cold already; it was likely to get colder before he got home. At least there was still no wind, and that made it almost tolerable.

He was still getting pretty cold when he got out to Stromsen’s house. He recognized the place, even though he couldn’t see much of it in the dark. It was a beat-up, junky, run-down place, the yard scattered with junk cars and other machinery like it was almost the county dump. Even in the darkness he could see piles of wood sitting all around the place – not pulp logs, but looking more like firewood. The smell of burning wood told him that it was how the place was heated too.

It was clear that he wasn’t supposed to go to the front door; it hadn’t been shoveled out all winter, but the back yard had been partly shoveled out and partly flattened out by driving over it, so there was nothing to do but go around to the back. He knocked on the back door, not once but several times, but there was no answer. Was the long, cold walk out here going to be all for a waste?

Frenchy was starting to think about making the long walk back when he heard the rattle of an air wrench coming from a tumbledown barn out back, along with some muffled cursing. Figuring that it wouldn’t cost him anything to take a look, he climbed down from the porch and headed for the barn. He didn’t know whether he should knock on the door or just walk right in, but figured that it couldn’t hurt to knock first, and added a yell of “Anybody here?”

“Yah, what da fuck is it?” he heard a gruff voice come from inside. “Come on in.”

Frenchy headed inside, to see a pretty large man down on his knees in front of the dual wheels of a large covered truck. “Hi,” he said. “Are you Sven Stromsen?”

“Yaaah, dat’s me,” the man said, not turning his attention from the truck wheel. He had more than a trace of the “Yooper” accent that a few people around Spearfish Lake had, not as thick as some Frenchy had heard but thick enough. Frenchy supposed that he had a little of it himself, but nothing like this guy. “What can I do for ya?”

Frenchy decided he might as well get to the point. “Mr. Hotchkiss over at the plywood plant said you were looking for some help.”

“Yaaah, had a guy quit on me a couple days ago,” he replied, turning to look at his visitor. Frenchy could see his face in the work light that lay on the floor beside him; he could have been forty or sixty, it was hard to tell. The face was worn, lined, and even at this distance it was easy to see that Stromsen had been in a fight or two over the years. Even with him sitting down, it was easy to see that he was a big, muscular man. “Figured somebody would show up sooner or later. You dat LeDroit kid dat Hotchkiss was telling me about?”

“That’s me,” Frenchy said.

“You da kid dat just got outa jail, and you’re hurtin’ for a job?”

“Yeah, I got out yesterday,” Frenchy admitted. “I really need some kind of a job or my folks are going to throw my ass out of the house. I don’t care if it’s full time or what, but I’ve gotta have at least part time, because I don’t want to have to be looking for a place to sleep out on the streets, not in this weather.”

“Yaaah, I been dere, I know what dat’s like. Look, I gotta tell ya, if I hire ya I’m gonna work your ass damn hard. It’s just minimum wage, dat’s all I can afford, and dere are times I don’t even get to pay myself. If da weather is too bad, we don’t work and ya don’t get paid, and it’s been bad enough dis winter dat there have been weeks we only worked a couple of days. But if you work good for me it beats hell out of eatin’ air.”

“I know I’m out of shape from laying around that damn jail,” Frenchy told him. “But I’ll work as hard as I can.”

“Look, I gotta tell you dis too. You da kid dat has da reputation for likin’ to use his fists, right? Well, you don’t be goddamn using them around da crew, or not only are you gonna be out on your ass without a check for da week, I’ll have ta pound your ass myself. I fuckin’ been in enough fights over da years I know I can do it if I have ta.”

“I know a few people that need their asses kicked,” Frenchy replied, still just a little bit pissed, “but I doubt any of them work for you. Most of them are still in school.”

“Aw, dat’s just school shit,” Stromsen replied. “From what Hotchkiss said, you ain’t in school no more, and you havta put dat shit behind ya. I got kicked out of school years ago for kicking some asses dat needed kicking at da time. After I got outa school I learned dat da school stuff don’t mean a crock of shit. It’s just fuckin’ kid stuff. Coupla dem guys are real good friends now, and Hotchkiss is one of dem. Things are a lot different when you’re out of school, yaaah? You just gotta put dat shit behind ya.”

“It ain’t gonna be easy,” Frenchy said. “Those people really got it coming to them.”

“Well, just fucking keep it off da job, dat’s all I’m asking, and don’t get your ass thrown back in jail or you’re gonna be out of da job, anyway. Now, I tell you what. Help me with dis goddamn tire, and I take you out to da woods Monday and we see how it goes, yaaah?”

“Sure,” Frenchy replied, just a little relieved. Thick Yooper accent or not, there was something in Stromsen that said he talked pretty much the same language as Frenchy did. As tough as the old fart seemed to be, that seemed pretty good. “What happened to it?”

“Don’t fuckin’ know for sure,” Stromsen said. “I think dat Red drove da inner tire over a stub branch in the snow and poked a hole right through it. Shit like dat happens out in da woods, ’specially when we got dese old junk tires. Unfortunately nobody noticed it was down until it was all beat to shit, so now I godda run down to da junk yard and get a new tire tomorrow, along wid a couple a spares for when it happens again. You know anything about workin’ on truck tires?”

“Not really,” Frenchy admitted. “I know how to change a car tire on a rim, but all I know about working on truck tires is that it involves a sledgehammer.”

“Dat’s all right, you can learn. You stay wid me, you gonna learn a lot of dis shit. All I can afford is old junk equipment. It’s a pain in da ass, as rusted and beat to shit as everything is, but like I said, it beats eatin’ air.”

It was a lot of work getting the outer tire and wheel off, then the inner tire – which had come apart and parts of which had wrapped around the axle, and which had to be removed, a job that involved a lot of cussing from both of them. What was left of the inner tire was on a split rim, which had to be taken apart, and then there was sledgehammer work from the both of them to get it off the rims. It took a couple hours to get the job wrapped up.

“Ya done good wid dat, Frenchy,” Stromsen said after Frenchy had hauled the remnants of the tire to a pile of real junk out behind the barn. “I think maybe you do a good job out in da woods. You be here at seven on Monday, and we take a ride out to da woods with da crew. Dress warm, it ain’t gonna be getting’ much warmer for a while. Bring ya a lunch, and maybe a thermos of coffee or somethin’. We don’t take much of a break for lunch, but we gotta take some. Hell, I can’t even go all day like I used ta be able to, yaaah.”

“I can do that,” Frenchy said, thinking that he was going to have to be getting up awful damn early. Close to an hour getting out here, plus time to make coffee, assuming his mother could be persuaded to get some coffee and something that would do for lunch, getting dressed – he was going to have to be cracking his lids around five thirty or so. Shit, he could remember days when he and Matt and that fucking Larry were still up at that hour of the morning, even not counting the day he’d been arrested. “You going to need any help getting that tire back together tomorrow?”

“I wouldn’t mind, although it’s gonna be along in da afternoon when I get back from da junkyard, and I got some other stuff to do too. I could give you a call and you could drive on out and help me.”

“I wouldn’t mind that,” Frenchy replied. “It’d have to be later on in the afternoon, since I figured I’d start working on my community service stuff in the morning. I’ve got to get that shit out of the way too. The only problem is that I got no wheels right now, and no chance of getting any for a while unless this job works out, so you’ll have to give me some warning. It took me close to an hour to get out here tonight.”

“No fuckin’ wheels, huh?” Stromsen shook his head. “Fuck, dat means it’s gonna be a long, cold walk back for you tonight, yaaah?”

“Yeah, but I don’t have a hell of a lot of other choice.”

“Well, yaaah,” the older man said. “Tell ya what. I really can’t pay ya for tonight, but dat fuckin’ TV dinner I had ta eat tonight ain’t set very well wid me. I think dat Spearfish Lake Café is still open. Maybe we ride over dere in da pickup and see what dey got on special. I buy, OK, and den I drop you off on da way back.”

“Fine with me,” Frenchy said. “It’ll be great to eat something that isn’t venison or that didn’t come off the bargain frozen food rack at the Super Market.”

“I know, I eat off dat a lot too, and it gets pretty fuckin’ bad sometimes. Let’s go up to the house, get some of dis dirt and grease and shit off our hands, then go get some food.”

Stromsen’s house was a mess – Frenchy’s mother was a better housekeeper, and it was going pretty far to say that – but it was pretty clear that Sven was a bachelor and didn’t care much about that kind of thing. It was also pretty clear that whatever his business was – and he hadn’t gone into much detail – it was a pretty close-run thing, near as damn it to going broke, so there didn’t seem to be a lot of spare change hanging around. All that reinforced the thought Frenchy had earlier, that while Stromsen was supposed to be a tough man to work for, the two of them had a lot in common. That might make things a little easier.

In a few minutes they were in Stromsen’s pickup, which was a rusty old rattletrap that looked like it was hanging on by habit. Its best days were long ago, but while it was cold inside it at least moved, so it beat walking – beat it by a long shot, especially as cold as it was getting outside now that it had been dark for a while. It wasn’t until they were halfway across town to the Spearfish Lake Café that it occurred to Frenchy that this was the first time he’d been in a vehicle since the cops had hauled him into the jail back in August.

“I been thinking about it,” Stromsen said as he turned onto the state road. “It’s gonna be a goddamn long walk for you ta walk in every morning and home every night. Maybe tomorrow I give Red a call, and see if he can pick ya up about quarter to seven. Or maybe, if you work wid us for a while and you work out OK, someone can swing by and pick you up in da morning and drop you off on da way home. I know it ain’t no fun ta be without wheels, ’specially as cold as it is dis time of da year, yaaah.”

“That would be a huge help,” Frenchy said in relief. “I wasn’t looking forward to working out in the woods all day when I start out already chilled from walking in.”

“Dat ain’t no fun, yaaah,” Stromsen agreed. “I know, I done dat too. But you gotta do what you gotta do. We may not be able to do it all da time, we have to see. But like I say, Frenchy, you play fair wid me and I play fair wid you, at least da best I can.”

A few minutes later they pulled into the Spearfish Lake Café, located out on the corner of Central Avenue and the state road. There were a few other cars around, and a few people inside; it looked to Frenchy that they were getting set to close for the night. The special proved to be the hot meat loaf sandwich with mashed potatoes, smothered in gravy. It looked pretty good to Frenchy, and Stromsen apparently agreed, so that was what they ordered.

It was wonderful – the coffee was rich and warm, not the lukewarm, thin, tasteless shit they served at the jail, and it was the best meal that Frenchy had eaten in months – what’s more, it didn’t taste a bit like venison. By God, Frenchy thought, this was the best thing that had happened to him since he’d been arrested.

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To be continued . . .

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