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Out of the Cage
Wes Boyd
©2010, ©2016

Chapter 9

Tuesday, March 15 – Friday, March 18, 2011

The afternoon wasn’t any easier than the morning had been. By the end of the day Frenchy felt like he could barely pull himself up into the cluttered seat of the pickup. He was that tired, but he felt like he’d put in a full day’s work and had pretty much kept up with everyone else. It had been a lot of damn work, but he felt good about having done it without letting anybody down.

“Not a bad day, yaaah?” Sven said as he started the pickup. “Nothin’ broke down, and we got a lotta firewood, not so much in da wood chips but we do better at da new place next week, I think. So how you doin’, eh?”

“Christ, I feel like I’m about beat to shit,” Frenchy sighed, trying to put a good face on how he really felt. “But I think I can do better when I get back into shape a little.”

“Yaaah, it take you a few days but you doin’ OK. Figured dere was about half a chance you’d fight it out and half a chance you’d say fuck it. Stick with it a few days and it won’t seem so damn bad.”

“I guess I sort of figured that,” Frenchy said.

In spite of trying to sound at least a little perky, Frenchy felt like he really was beat to shit when he finally climbed out of Red’s car at home. Right about then he wanted to get out of his grubby clothes, go soak in the tub for a bit, eat whatever stuff his mother had grabbed off the bargain rack at the Super Market, then sleep until the alarm clock went off.

He no more than got in the door when his father was on his ass. “Christ, I’m surprised you made it through the day,” he snorted. “Or did you walk off the job and have to hitchhike home?”

“It was a lot of work, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” Frenchy admitted, then added a little proudly, “Sven said I did good for my first day. I figure I’ll be able to do better once I get rid of some of this jail fat and get back into shape.”

“He probably said that to keep you working,” his father replied, obviously looking for an opening to put him down again. “From what I hear, the people he keeps working for him are too dumb to do anything else.”

“Nah, from what I could see the ones he keeps are the ones who don’t mind getting their hands dirty,” Frenchy replied, looking for an opening to poke back at his father. “At least it’s good exercise, and we’re not doing the same thing all the time, all day long. We change around a bit so we can use different muscles and give each other a breather. It isn’t as boring as it would be standing around running some damn machine all day.”

“You mean you’re actually going back tomorrow?”

“As far as I know. They sometimes take off on bad weather days but Sven said the weather was going to stay nice for a couple more days, anyway.”

“Well, you better damn well be planning on going back there tomorrow,” his father said, trying a different tack. “You still owe us that fucking fifty bucks on Friday.”

“You’ll be getting it.” Frenchy replied a little sullenly at his father’s needling.

“Bullshit, I’ll bet you don’t last out the week. You must have had an easy day today. Tomorrow he’ll be working your ass so hard you’re not going to be able to take it.”

It was easy to see that this was going nowhere fast, and that his father would rather pick at him than anything else. Rather than pursue it, Frenchy headed upstairs and got out of his dirty clothes. His jeans and coat were a mess, but the coat would have to do for tomorrow whether he liked it or not. It was easy to see that a stop at the thrift store for some more clothes was going to have to be on the list for the weekend, because it seemed unlikely that he’d be able to get many days wear out of what he had on. He wasn’t much for taking a bath in the tub normally, but this time lying back in the hot water felt good, and he strung it out as long as he could.

Afterwards, he got dressed and went down to discover that dinner was some kind of nearly inedible tray meal that involved tomatoes, cabbage, and cheap hamburger masquerading as stuffed cabbage. It sure wasn’t the real thing – anything that tasted good had somehow been removed, leaving only the stuff that tasted bad, but he ate it anyway. He needed the food – his body cried for it as hard as he had been working, and what he had of the inadequate meal didn’t seem like enough to keep him going. It was going to have to do somehow until he got his paycheck at the end of the week. Not five minutes after he’d finished eating his so-called dinner he was upstairs, sound asleep.

The next day was pretty much like the day before, except that they moved their work area so they were closer to the downed wood. That meant that Sven and Mutt hauled it in more quickly, and the rest of them had to work harder to keep up – but when they got too far behind Sven would park the tractor for a while so he and Mutt could help the rest of them catch up. For some reason Frenchy couldn’t understand they had more branches that could be chopped into wood chips, so they got three truckloads of them out rather than the two of the day before. That meant that Red was gone for longer, but they had to work even harder to make up for him being on the road.

At least he felt a little better when he got home. His father got on his ass again, of course, but Frenchy just said things were going all right and headed upstairs to clean up. Dinner was about as inedible a tray meal as the night before, and he still felt hungry when he went to bed.

He got up Wednesday morning to a shock – when he’d opened the package of bologna on Monday he’d counted the slices, figuring he had just enough to get him through the week. But on Wednesday morning there were only two slices left, and most of the loaf of bread he’d been eating on was gone. It was easy to figure out what had happened – the lousy dinners hadn’t set well with his father or mother, and they’d eaten up what had been earmarked for his lunches. His mother had said that what he had was going to have to make do for the week – but now the week wasn’t halfway over and he was either going to have to do without breakfast or have an even slimmer lunch than he’d had before.

He made do with a can of cold string beans for breakfast, and used the last of the bread and bologna for his lunch. It was colder and windier that day, and it didn’t seem like he had much to eat around the lunchtime bonfire. He thought about it as he carried wood and did his other work that afternoon, and realized that while he could easily start a fight with his folks about them eating up his lunches, it would accomplish absolutely nothing.

At least after work he was able to get Red to take him by the Fiesta station, where he got a loaf of bread and a big jar of peanut butter. It was at convenience store prices rather than Super Market prices, of course, but at least it would hold him for the rest of the week. It cost him a good part of the eight bucks he had been careful not to spend since he’d gotten out of jail, but it was money that had to be spent. After what had happened earlier in the week he knew better than to leave the food in the kitchen or it might not last until Friday; there was no choice but to hide it in his room and hope for the best. It really seemed pretty lousy to have to hide bread and peanut butter like he had hidden beer not all that long before.

Of course, his father asked who ate all the damn bologna – there wasn’t enough left for a before dinner snack. Frenchy knew better than to say anything, but after yet another disgusting tray meal dinner he went back up to his room, turned out the lights, and made himself a peanut butter sandwich with a plastic knife from the Fiesta station to kill the taste of dinner. It at least made him feel a little fuller, although it still didn’t feel like enough.

It was clear that he was going to have to come up with a better system, but he couldn’t figure out what it might be. At least in a couple days he’d have some money in his pockets and could feed himself a little better.

They worked a little late on the site on Friday morning – they could see they were almost to the end of the quarter-section that had been logged over and wanted to get it finished up. They had their usual lunch around the bonfire, when Sven announced, “Dis afternoon, we load up everything, yaaah? We go back to da barn with it, since dey’s snow moving in for da weekend, an’ we gotta start a new lot next week, da other side of town. We probably be workin’ right behind da cutter-stripper with all da fresh snow on da ground, but at least it’s aspen, yaaah, so we don’t got to sort everything like we did here. We get back ta town dis afternoon, we got some wood to deliver.”

There wasn’t a lot to loading everything up – they’d done it twice over the week, after all, to move from one work spot to another. “You think you can find your way back to town?” Sven asked Frenchy.

“I think so,” he replied. I’ve been trying to pay attention.”

“Good, you can drive da tractor,” Sven said. “You know how to do dat?”

Frenchy admitted that he’d never driven a tractor before, and Sven said that if he knew how to drive there was nothing to it. He gave Frenchy a three-minute course in how to do it, and said that he could follow the pickup until they got out to the main road. They had to take a few minutes to get the skis off the front axle and replace them with tires so it could be driven on the road. That involved messing with a hydraulic jack and some tools, but it seemed to Frenchy that everyone had done it before so it didn’t take long.

Red and Turk headed back to town in the chip truck, hauling the chipper behind, and Shank and Mutt headed in with the dump truck, towing the elevator. Frenchy soon discovered why he’d gotten volunteered to drive the tractor. It wasn’t so bad at the low speed they could manage on the woods trails, but once they got out on the wider road and he could bump it up to top gear, it got pretty cold in spite of the canvas enclosure meant to keep the wind off. Sven soon waved good-bye and speeded up, leaving Frenchy to crawl back to the barn at perhaps twenty miles an hour, freezing his butt every inch of the way.

He was shivering by the time he made it back to Sven’s barn, to discover the crew busily loading the dump truck from wood that had been stacked in an open shed behind the barn. He figured that the best thing he could do to warm up was to help the rest of the gang load wood onto the elevator. Sven wasn’t around; Shank said that he was inside writing the paychecks, which sounded like pretty good news to Frenchy.

This wood had obviously been sitting for a while – there was some snow on it, but not much, just what had blown in under the eaves. Once they got one truck filled, they turned to filling the other one. About that time Sven came out to join them, and told Red and Shank where to deliver the wood – different, but apparently familiar places. They soon took off, taking Mutt and Turk; Sven told Frenchy to ride with him in the pickup.

As soon as they were heading down the road, Sven said, “Frenchy, ya got a bank account?”

“Nope,” he replied, “Never needed one.”

“Better ya get one,” Sven said. “I think ya smart enough ta not have ta pay da cut dey take at da check cashin’ place, yaaah, an’ from da stories I hear ya tell around da bonfire at lunch ya might not want ta be leavin’ money stashed around da house.”

“No shit,” Frenchy said. “I’ve been trying to think of a place I could stash my money where the folks wouldn’t get to it so they could dump it into the slot machines over at Three Pines.”

“Right, den we go by da Spearfish Lake Bank and get ya an account, yaaah,” Sven said. “I might have ta sign for ya, but since ya are over eighteen, maybe not.”

A few minutes later Frenchy had a bank account for the first time in his life – with a hundred bucks in it! He had forty bucks tucked behind his driver’s license, and fifty bucks for his old man, and what was left over in the main part of his wallet. Sven even gave him a few minutes to stop off at the thrift store to pick up a couple pairs of used and worn but wearable coveralls that would protect his jeans and make him a little warmer out in the woods. They were a few bucks each, but worth it – and it left him with a little over thirty dollars to spend on other things.

From there, they went over to where Red and Turk were delivering the wood. It had just been dumped out on the ground, and the homeowner wanted it stacked, so the four of them pitched in stacking it by the back door. It made a pretty good pile, and as they were working the homeowner came out and wrote Sven a check for the wood. After that, the four of them went over to another house, where they helped Shank and Mutt stack the wood there. There was time enough before quitting time to do another load with each truck, so they went back out to the barn, loaded the trucks up, and made two more deliveries.

Back at the barn with the light getting low, Sven told them as he passed out paychecks to everybody but Frenchy, who had already gotten his, “I been listenin’ to da radio. Don’t sound like we get much snow tomorrow but we get dumped on Sunday maybe. We still got some more deliveries to make, so I think maybe Monday we make dem and see if we can dig out some more wood an’ stack it in da shed, maybe Tuesday too. Dat would give da guys with da cutter-stripper enough time ta give us enough room to work.”

“So long as it means we don’t have to sit on our ass on Monday, fine with me,” Turk said. “I’m thinking about heading out to Fern and Judy’s to have a few.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” Red agreed.

“Well, just be showin’ up on Monday,” Sven told them. “Might be better if ya didn’t have big heads on ya when ya do.”

A few minutes later they were done for the day, and Frenchy was riding back toward home with Red. “Too bad you can’t come out to Fern and Judy’s with us,” he said. “We usually have a pretty good time, maybe have a fight or two.”

“Yeah, it would be fun,” Frenchy agreed, “but I’m still under twenty-one, so I can’t do it. Besides, my probation officer would have a shit fit if I wound up getting in a fight out there, especially with a few beers in me. I might not make it out of jail till August.”

“Yeah, too fucking bad,” Red shook his head. “I don’t like Fern and Judy’s as well as I used to like the Pike before that Kulwicki guy bought it from Mabel. She didn’t much care if people got wild once in a while, but Kulwicki won’t have none of it, and a bunch of people got thrown out on their asses. Thrown pretty hard too. He’s a big fucker, used to play for the Packers. I guess he’s the football coach now, a real hard ass.”

“Wouldn’t know,” Frenchy said. “I guess he took over as coach after I got thrown in jail. From what little I know, and it ain’t much, he was a real hard ass around the football team too.”

“Still, too bad you can’t have a few beers with us,” Red shook his head again.

“Yeah, well, but shit. I’ll tell you what, this time a few months ago if I’d had the money I got in my paycheck, I’d be in my car heading over to the reservation to score a bunch of beer. I could come back here and double my money selling it around the kids at school. Then I could get my girl and have a real party. But now, fuck, no car, no beer, no girl, and no friends I can party with. Life sucks, then you die.”

“Ain’t it the truth,” Red said. “Well, your time will come. Save your money so you can have a world-class bender when you turn twenty-one and can catch up. What you doing tomorrow?”

“More community service,” Frenchy sighed. “I want to get that shit over and done with by August so I can have all of this probation shit behind me.”

“Yeah, that ain’t no fun,” Red agreed. “I’ve had to do too much of it. God, I hate butchering road-kill deer.”

Frenchy felt a degree of achievement as he got out of Red’s old car at home on Friday evening. He’d made it through the week, and although the work was hard he was getting used to it. There was even a degree of feeling like he’d done something useful – he’d made some money, and people would be staying warm from his work. In some strange way it felt satisfying. It wasn’t a job he’d care to do for the rest of his life, but he could do it for a while, at least till his probation ran out. When it did, he’d have a few bucks stuck back to try to go somewhere else and do something else.

He headed into the house, and was met by the doorway by his father. “You got the fuckin’ money?” he said sullenly.

“Yeah,” Frenchy said, pulling out his wallet and handing him the fifty bucks. “Here you go.”

“Yeah, OK,” his father said, not pleased in the slightest. “Where’s the rest of it?”

“What rest of it?” Frenchy snorted. “You got your fifty. Count it. Two twenties and a ten. They taught me that much over at the school.”

“Don’t bullshit me,” his father scowled. “If you got paid, you got more money than that, and I want it.”

“No way,” Frenchy said, tired of the horseshit he’d been putting up with from his father all week. Even having a hundred bucks in the bank gave him a degree of independence he hadn’t had before, and he felt like making use of it. “You said fifty, and there’s your fifty, so I kept up my end of the deal. Besides, I had to buy some work clothes. My stuff is all torn up from working out there in the woods, and I’m getting tired of freezing my ass off. On top of that, I had to buy some stuff for lunch, since the lunch stuff you guys bought me that was supposed to last the week was gone by Wednesday. I ought to deduct what I had to spend from the fifty I just gave you, but I’ll let it go this time.”

“You got an awful fast mouth for a jail rat,” his father shouted. “I know you got some more fucking money and I want it.”

“I don’t have it,” Frenchy said. “I’m not making the money you are, not by a long shot. That’s a minimum-wage job, and you wouldn’t believe how much of it disappears for taxes and shit. Then while I’m supposedly paying room and board I’m still having to feed myself.”

“We feed you good,” his father snorted.

“Then how come I’ve been losing weight all week? You haven’t been feeding me enough to work on! Look, you said fifty. You got fifty. That’s what you’re going to get, because there ain’t no more for you to get. I kept up my end of the deal, now you keep up yours.” He turned and stomped upstairs, just about mad as hell. All his folks wanted was to work him to death and take all his money so they could dump it into the slot machines, and that was the way he was treated around the place. That was all he was worth to them.

Getting the hell out of town never seemed like a better idea to him, or at least the hell out of the house, he thought as he stripped down for his shower. Getting out of town didn’t seem like it could be done, but getting out of the house – well, it could be done if it had to. Maybe Sven might take him in for a while if he asked nicely, or maybe Red or one of the other guys. While he liked Red and didn’t mind working with him, he didn’t like him all that well and wasn’t sure he wanted to consider staying with him, but maybe it could be done if he had to. That hundred in the bank probably wouldn’t last him long, but he was just glad as hell that it was in the bank right now.

He started for the shower, but stopped before he made it to the bedroom door. It seemed pretty damn likely that his father would be pawing through his clothes for his wallet while he was in the shower, and that just made things worse. He stopped, got his wallet, and pulled the bills out of it, a little over thirty bucks, and scouted around for a likely place to hide it while he was in the shower. The underside of a drawer seemed like the best idea he could come up with on short notice; he left a dollar in the wallet for good measure.

Sure enough, when he got back to his room after his shower, his clothes had obviously been moved, and the dollar was gone from his wallet. After a quick look, though, the thirty-two bucks he’d hid under the drawer was still there, so the quick-and-dirty hiding place had worked this time. It might not work when he was out on the community service job tomorrow, he realized; there was a good chance he’d come back to find his room had been ransacked again. But now, he had more time to find a better hiding place – and maybe not a place around the house – and he realized that he’d better never have much money on him around the house, five or ten at the most, maybe not even that.

Now, that, he thought, was a total sack of shit. Have fun dropping it in the slots Dad, he thought. It’s going to be a long time before you get more than your fifty out of me, and as soon as I can manage it you’re not even going to get that. Thank God Sven got me that bank account.

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