• Broadkill Review

"An Ode to Dirt-Bags and Behind the Scenes Georges by Skookum Maguire" by Robert Bennett

I sat in my six-month-old, three-quarter-ton pickup with the air on and watched as streams of people came and went from the single-story, cinder block building simply identified by a large block-lettered sign as the Employment Department. Folks would flow in and out, often desperate people who were actually looking for labor and not actual jobs, as the twenty-first century had come to define them.

I was listening to a radio talk show on gun control, when Grady O’Shea emerged from the building with a pamphlet and some loose sheets of paper. He took a brief look around and then headed in my direction.

Most people who saw Grady for the first time would describe him as a big man, but he wasn’t particularly tall. He wasn’t short though, and he had a massive upper body with a deep chest and wide, heavily muscled shoulders. His imposing torso tapered to a narrower waistline, and everything was supported by his short, stocky legs.

He was wearing, as he always was, a pair of stagged off Carhartt double-front loggers’ jeans, with extra-deep hip pockets for falling wedges, and a hickory shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbows. A bright red pair of Logger’s World suspenders connected his shoulders to his trousers. His feet were jammed into heavy wool socks and weatherproof Romeo slippers.

He walked with a grace and agility that belied his size, as he approached the passenger’s side of my truck. A smile emerged to grace his face, as he levered himself into the seat of my truck—a smile so wide it made the corners of his eyes crinkle.

A massive paw came at me on the end of a piston-like arm, and I politely shook it. “It’s good of you to do this, Reggie,” he said. “I was gonna drive my own old rig down, but I’m not sure the ol’ girl would stand the gaff.”

“Glad to do it,” I said. “I have a couple of day’s sick leave coming.”

“Sick leave,” he said, provocatively. “What the hell’s that?”

“It’s something that comes with a government job,” I told him. “They have that, and vacation pay too.”

“May the saints preserve us,” he said, in the Irish brogue that his father used to speak in, as he directed his eyes to the headliner of the cab.

I maneuvered my way out of the parking lot, and headed up a one-way street to the freeway. Then I asked,

“So where is your rig, anyway?”

“Down at Bub’s Bean Barn. I walked up to the unemployment office. Bub said it’d be all right to leave it there for a few days.”

I nodded in response, but Grady was gazing out the window and didn’t notice.

“It’s kind of late in the spring to be out of work isn’t?” I asked.

“I’ll tell ya’, Reg,” he said. “I don’t know what the world is comin’ to. “Ol’ Dale Shepard called me about three weeks back, said he could use the whole crew. He’d bought a bug kill sale up Mule Creek—said the Forest Service was anxious to get it out—to keep the beetles from spreading. So we all went out to Dale’s shop, worked one whole week on the equipment, had things ready to go. Then a bunch of them dirt bags sued the Forest Service to stop the loggin’.”

I shook my head. I could hear the disappointment in Grady’s voice.

“I mean, for Christ-sake Reggie, it’s bug kill. If it ain’t logged pretty quick the dead trees won’t be any good for lumber, and the bugs will spread through the rest of the forest. Them dirt-bags, though, they think the bugs deserve to have something to eat. Bugs are part of what they call the ecosystem.”

He pronounced this last word derisively and slowly, one syllable at a time, “e-co-sys-tem,” with a lot of anger in his voice.

“It doesn’t matter to them that the beetles are not native,” I asked, “and they originated in Japan?”

“We’re talkin’ dirt-bags here, Reggie. Most of ‘em don’t work, and none of ‘em’s got the sense they were born with.”

I shook my head. Any further discussion on the issue would come to no good end.

When it looked like Grady wasn’t going to comment further, and we were making our way up the onramp to the freeway, I asked, “So how’d you happen to end up down at Turlock?”

Grady had a way of getting your attention when he was about to launch into some kind of yarn or lengthy explanation. He’d look you right in the eye until he was sure he had your attention. Then he’d open his mouth, sideways, like he was about to bite off a bottle cap with his teeth. He’d hold that pose for a moment.

It always reminded me of an outraged character in a Lil’ Lulu comic book. Then, just when you thought no sound was going to come out, he’d speak.

“We were workin’ for Calloway last fall,” he started in. “Calloway’s kid hired this fella he knew from college to set Cat chokers. This other kid was full of stories about how there was all kinds of winter work down around Turlock. It had to do with gettin’ turkeys to market for the holidays. He gave us the name of a guy, and I called the fella up. He told us to come on down.

“Normally,” Grady continued, “we’d work through Thanksgiving in the woods, take a few months off over the winter, and go back to work again in March. But ol’ Calloway couldn’t line up any timber, so we knocked off the first week of November and went to Turlock.

“The guy I’d talked to earlier, his name was Halverson, he decided to use us to make repairs to the plant. He had enough help with the turkeys. ‘Course, most of his help was imported, but we’d figured on that goin’ in.

“Them other guys was good with turkeys, but ol’ Halverson, he wanted us to build sheds, pour concrete, weld up gates and pens, repair forklifts, stuff we were good at, and he got it all done for farm wages.

“Didn’t matter to us. If we’d stayed in Oregon and filed for unemployment, our claims would have run out before we made it to spring. And there was no guarantee there’d a’ been anything goin’ on in the spring, the way things are now.

I nodded my head by way of acknowledgment. I couldn’t think of a good way to respond, so we drove on in silence.

We were going up the Siskiyou divide when I noticed Grady looking at me with his jaw cocked to one side again. He was about to say something more.

“I gotta tell you, Reggie,” he started in. “It was one of the funniest damn things I’ve seen in a long time.”

I nodded and grinned. Grady was a great storyteller. He set things up well, paused in all the right places, used his hands, his eyes, and body language—and he never failed to get the punch lines right. He could hold a crew spellbound around a landing fire all through lunch break, and everyone would walk away howling with laughter, wondering where the time went.

“It don’t freeze that often down in Turlock,” he continued, “but this one week it got colder ‘n a witch’s tit in a blizzard. You know how it is, when you’re in a place where it don’t often freeze, when it actually does freeze it seems a whole lot colder than it really is.”

“Yeah,” I said. I’d experienced that myself.

“Well, this one week it got down into the twenties. We started to see things like water meters freezin’, pipes breaking under the sidewalks, people falling on their ass crossin’ the street… Some of the streets had been overlaid so many times they were crowned up in the middle like river dikes. Cars would slide over against the curb and just couldn’t go no place.”

“They probably don’t pave the streets that way in Minnesota,” I offered.

“I expect not,” he said.

We were making our way down to the Klamath River when Grady continued. “So anyway, ol’ Halverson had us runnin’ around replacing broken pipes and stopping up leaks, trying to keep the plant runnin’. Then this one day, I think it was a Wednesday, we was all out where the trucks come in to unload. It was lunchtime, so we sat down on the loadin’ ramp and opened our nosebags.

“But a rotten old one-inch galvanized pipe had froze and broke the night before—split right along the seam—sent out a mist of water that was almost like a heavy fog. It musta run all night, and over the course of several hours it managed to cover the place where the trucks drove in with three inches of water. ‘Course, being so shallow, that fuckin’ water froze right to the ground, tighter than a bull’s ass in fly time.”

I shook my head in wonderment.

“I’m here to tell ya’, Reggie, that fuckin’ parking lot looked like one giant ice skatin’ rink. Thing of it was, though, that broken pipe was still spraying, and the spray on that ice made it slicker ‘n snot on a doorknob.

You couldn’t walk on it. Everybody who tried ended up flat on their back. A guy’d take a step and his feet would shoot right straight up in the air.

“So, there was this little short guy—the rumor was the guy was Portuguese, a bald headed fella with big black eyebrows. I mean, them eyebrows looked like something you’d buy off the Fuller Brush man. Tubby little guy—looked like an oversized midget wrestler. Never knew his name… We got to callin’ him Eyebrows. The first thing you’d notice about him was his eyebrows.

“Anyway, ol’ Eyebrows drove an old B Model Mack with a forty-foot trailer to bring turkeys into the plant—guy must a’ got paid by the bird or something. He was always in a hurry.

“But the minute we saw him comin’ that day, we started gathering up our lunch. We could see, nothing good was gonna come of little Eyebrows getting’ out on that fuckin’ ice with that old Mack, and if a guy was lookin’ for a show, he wasn’t to be disappointed.

“Thing is, the way the trucks came into the staging area, they went up a little ramp and then down into the parkin’ lot. So ol’ Eyebrows, he stands on the fuel coming up—wheels a’ spinnin’, the old Mack blowin’ black smoke out the stack. So he comes on over the hump and lets off on the fuel, but he’s got the Jake brake on—‘course that brakes the drivers and the rig goes sideways. The trailer, though, it’s just free-wheelin’, so it starts on out around the truck.

“Naturally, the next thing ol’ Eyebrows does, he jumps on the air. And I’ll tell you what, lockin’ up all them rubber tires on that ice was like puttin’ the whole kit-an’-caboodle into high double overdrive. We’d climbed up onto a fence by then, and from where we was standin’, it looked like everything speeded up. Like one a’ them old silent movies.

“‘Course, in all the excitement, Eyebrows forgot to flip off the Jake, so it’d killed the engine. The drivetrain was still in gear, though, so when he took his foot off the brake pedal, the trailer came on around the truck, and the truck itself was acting like a sea-anchor—which was fitting because Eyebrows was now sailin’ off across that fuckin’ skatin’ rink backwards.

“When he went by us, I looked in through the windshield. That little fucker had his mouth open so wide, it looked like he didn’t have eyes—and them eyebrows, they was goin’ a hundred miles an hour.

“And that’s when the turkeys in the trailer started to cluckin’.

“Well sir, it looked to me like he hit that fuckin’ loading dock going about twenty, maybe twenty-five miles an hour. And it hit hard enough to pop the trailer doors open. Within thirty seconds that fuckin’ ice rink was wall-to-wall turkeys. There was white feathers and turkey shit from one end to the other—and them birds, they was in an extreme state of agitation.

“One of the funniest things about it, though, and I was kinda surprised about this—them turkeys, they couldn’t get around on the ice much better than people. One of them would take off runnin’, and his feet would get to goin’ like a buzz saw—but he’d just be runnin’ in place. It was like something you’d see in a Wylie Coyote Cartoon.

“‘Course, that raised the frustration level for them turkeys, and they started clucking like a son-a-bitch. A guy couldn’t hardly hear himself think.

“And that’s when ol’ Eyebrows decided to get outta the truck. Now if you or me were to get down out of a rig like that, Reggie, we’d grab onto the handhold on the cab, and just step down. But little Eyebrows, he couldn’t do that. He was too short; he had to jump.

“I’m here to tell ya’, it didn’t take long for that little fella to learn his lesson about ice. Thinking back now, I expect it had to do with past experiences he’d had about falling. Any time ol’ Eyebrows fell down in the past, he didn’t have far to go to hit the ground. But this was different. I mean, ice is flat-fuckin’ hard, right?

“So sure enough, little Eyebrows jumps outta the cab a’ that truck, hit the ground, and immediately both feet went straight up in the air. He landed flat on his back, but he still had the momentum from the fall, so the little rascal went slithering off towards the south side fence.

“He was wearing a sweat shirt when he first emerged from the truck, but it got pulled up around his ears. There was lot of bare skin was showin’, and I’ll tell you what, it was damn cold.

“Anyway, we all sat there watching little Eyebrows go foggin’ off across that ice—looked kinda like a human hockey puck, and them eyebrows was goin’ like a couple a’ black-footed ferrets, trying to detach themselves from his face. To make matters worse, he was mopping up big gobs of turkey shit and feathers as he went.

“Ya’ ever watch the Winter Olympics on television, when they do that curling? Well, I couldn’t help but wonder, if a guy coulda run along beside ol’ Eyebrows, if he coulda steered him off in one direction or the other with a broom.

“Anyway, I suppose you’ve heard about guys getting’ tarred and feathered. Well, what was goin’ on with Eyebrows was kinda like that—only different.

“It was a fence post that finally stopped him. He hit like a horseshoe ringer, dead on, spread eagle, right in the crotch. He made a funny noise, like a wounded coyote—woodle, woodle, woodle, woodle…”

I had to laugh, listening to Grady reproduce the high soprano, falsetto noise that the little truck driver made.

“After that, we all just stood there, watchin’—wondering if the little guy was gonna be able to get up. But after a bit he began to move. He got a hold of the fence post with his left hand and hoisted himself up.

“I suspected the manure and feathers he’d gathered up on his trip across the ice would peel off and fall to the ground, once he got to standin’ upright. But, like I said, it was real cold. Turned out that shit was froze right to him. And I ain’t lyin’, boy, that little fucker was shaking like a redbone hound shittin’ peach pits.

“And that’s when ol’ Halverson come outta the building. He told us to knock off for the rest of the week. ‘We will start in again Monday,’ he said, ‘after things warm up.’”

“So me and the crew, we went around and turned off the water every place we could find a valve. Then we left. I don’t know who gave Eyebrows a ride home. Somebody must have. But there was no way in the world he was gonna get that old truck outta there until the ice melted.”

We were just pullin’ through Red Bluff by then. I’d assumed Grady’s narrative had come to an end, but as we continued south he started in again.

“We showed up over at the plant on Friday afternoon, hoping to get our paychecks, but Halverson wasn’t around, so we figured we’d pick ‘em up Monday.

But on Monday morning we were told there’d been a problem at the bank—something about a wire transfer. Halverson blamed it on the cold weather, but that didn’t make sense to me. On Tuesday, Halverson took off before noon, said he was going to get the bank straightened out.

“By Wednesday, the story hadn’t changed. The fellas were starting to get a little antsy. Halverson told us to knock off for the week—said to come back Monday morning and he’d have things worked out. We’d be able to collect our last two week’s pay.

“So we showed up the following Monday morning to find the gate locked and No Trespassing signs all around. There was a foreclosure notice on the front gate from Stanislaus County, under a great big sign that read, IN RECEIVERSHIP. ‘Course, we’d been working up in Oregon. We knew what that meant.”

“So what did you do?” I wondered aloud.

“We went back and told the manager at the apartments where we’d been staying what had happened. We made the best deal we could with her. She had to call the owner to get permission. Then we packed our gear.

“I was rooming with ol’ Hap Hanson, so while Hap filled the duffle bags with clothes, I went to see an attorney. He took my last two-hundred dollars, but he agreed to take the case.

“When I got back to the motel, everyone was ready to go. We went to a gypo gas station to get some fuel and started back to Oregon.

“We stayed in a group in case somebody broke down or ran out of gas. Punky Garret called it a convoy, but he was always a little slow on the uptake, if you’ll remember.”

I nodded.

“We wanted to conserve what little money we had, so we didn’t stop to eat, and when we got to that rest stop on the south side of the Klamath River, we had to siphon a few gallons of gas outta Punky’s car and dump it