Thursday, June 26, 2008

Black Lab

I'm trying something new here. I've been working on a short story that I'd like to finish, so my plan is to post it as a kind of serial, 1,500 words or so every Thursday, starting today. The content will be rough and I'll probably make plenty of revisions as I go, but the approach should at least keep me writing. The title will make more sense as the story (hopefully) continues to unfold.

A brief disclaimer: the dialogue contains quite a few naughty words, but the story is about a landscaping crew, after all, so I figure the cursing is part and parcel. My apologies for any offense.


It was not the kind of day, or the kind of job, that James would have picked for his farewell tour, had he known the details. Something residential—a shady backyard with a few unruly beds, a single load of mushroom to be forked and wheeled, some annuals to plant in staggered rows—would have been enough, a nice summing up of his three months with Grubs Nursery, Inc. But he couldn’t have known the details, not all of them, and Big Tom had asked him personally to come along for the trip. And it was hard to say no to Big Tom.

Not that the idea of getting out of Pittsburgh for the weekend, racking up some final overtime hours and staying at his boss’s million-dollar, West Virginian cabin overlooking a private lake hadn't sounded, at first, like a pretty sweet deal. The two-plus hour's drive, even while sandwiched between the likes of Dwayne and Carl with country radio cranking the whole way, had seemed to James a reasonable trade-off. And it hadn’t been bad, actually—he’d slept through most of the ride, mouth open with his head lolling against the seatback, and Dwayne had kept the tone-deaf karaoke to a minimum.

But now they were on the job site. It was noon, hovering around ninety with the kind of humidity that makes a T-shirt feel like embalming cloth. The August sun was turning the fresh blacktop in front of the Oak Ridge Members Spa into tar. It smelled like cooked tire. James’s boots stuck to it as he walked from the strip of topsoil where he had been working—a three-foot border of would-be green running along the parking lot’s edge—to the blue Dodge pickup where the plants they had loaded up that morning were crowded under a tarp roof, awaiting installation. The tarp had kept the plants from freezing in the wind on the highway, which James thought was funny, anything freezing in this weather. He suddenly wished he were back on the road, trapped in the Dwayne-Carl sing-along sandwich, where at least the air moved. He reached into the bed for another few flats of myrtle.

“Aww, Christ.” It was Dwayne, staggering toward the truck with a shirt half-pulled over his head. He was able to free himself just before colliding with a lean-to of shovels and rakes propped against the pickup’s side. Seeing the tools, Dwayne reared back dramatically. He looked at James wide-eyed and started waving his shirt around like he was trying to put out a fire.

“Why didn’t you say something? Almost broke my balls.”

“You looked like you had it under control.”

“Could have knocked my teeth out.” Dwayne was already grinning.

“Too late for that.”

Dwayne had no teeth; he would sometimes take out his dentures after lunch and stretch out in the grass with the teeth sitting on his chest. He would lay there feigning obliviousness while the others pretended to puke up mouthfuls of Italian hoagie.

“Yeah well. How about a heads-up next time. Okay, fuck-nut?”

“I’m all over it.”

James liked Dwayne, but he wouldn’t have minded seeing him go flying into a pile of long-handled garden implements. Slapstick was one of the few perks of the job. Carl had tripped into an artificial pond back in June and they were still talking about it.

Dwayne stretched, winging his arms, and groaned. He started to wrap his orange Grubs Nursery T-shirt around his head like a turban.

“Hot as fuck out here. Hundred at least. That bastard’s trying to kill me.”

He cringed, catching himself, and scanned the lot with wary eyes. With his thin, sun-browned face and impromptu head-wrap, he looked like a Bedouin. James hefted several flats of myrtle into his arms.

“Relax. Tom went to pick up lunch.”

“Oh, right.” Dwayne’s shoulders eased. “Thought I was screwed there for a second. I’m starved.”

Carl came lumbering toward the pickup steering an empty wheelbarrow. He grinned at Dwayne.

“Who’re you supposed to be? Lawrence of fucking Arabia?”

Dwayne looked embarrassed, but laughed.

“It’s hot as hell. I got sweat in my eyes.”

“No. Looks good. Maybe later you’ll introduce us to your fucking camel.”

“You’re one to talk. Sweating like a hog over there.”

Carl was big, two-fifty at least, and in his leather work boots and monochrome beige shirt and shorts looked like he could have been on safari, hunting animals rather than spreading their manure around. He had a large, wet triangle on his chest and his face was a sheen of tiny droplets.

“I don’t sweat. I glisten.”

“Here.” Dwayne grabbed a towel from the bed of the truck. “Glisten into this.” He threw it at Carl, hitting the dark wedge of perspiration as if it were a target. It looked for a second like it might stick there, affixed to Carl’s shirt, then fell into the well of the wheelbarrow.

“Thanks. Asshole.”

They all turned their heads as they heard the sound, the swelling diesel roar, of Big Tom’s monstrous black Ford pulling into the lot. The pickup drove across the blacktop like a gleaming spaceship and as it came to a stop beside them they reflexively straightened their backs, each trying to assume a more purposeful posture. The tinted glass on the driver’s side rolled down and they saw the vast, blue-eyed ruddiness of Tom’s face in the cab, like a freshly shaven Santa. He whistled at them.

“Looking good, ladies.”

“Thanks boss,” Dwayne said.

Carl had been wiping his face with the towel and now he slung it around his butt and pulled it back and forth like a Chippendale dancer, turning so Tom could see all the action, playing up the joke.

Tom let out a single, hoarse guffaw. They could smell the sickly sweet aroma of Backwoods cigars wafting in air-conditioned waves from the open window. The radio was playing Billie Holiday, of all things.

“Here." Tom reached across to the passenger side. "Catch.”

He tossed a rumpled paper sack out the window to Dwayne. It had the Tacoland logo on it, the last thing any of them wanted to eat on a scorcher like this one, but what could you do. James could see from the smudge of guacamole on his cheek that Tom had downed his portion in transit.

“I’d say it’s time for lunch break," Tom said, "but it looks like you jerks already took the liberty.”

He smiled at them. The anti-Santa.

“How’s it going with that myrtle, greenthroat?”

“Not bad," said James. "Still a long way to go.”

James had never figured out why Big Tom called him greenthroat; he assumed it had something to do with the fact that he was nineteen, relatively young meat, but he’d never had the guts to ask.

“Good. Keep plugging after lunch.”

James was still holding the flats of vines. He nodded.

“And you two. What about that hillside?”

Dwayne and Carl had been put in charge of planting rows of forsythia on a steep slope overlooking the exit ramp from I-90, the first thing country club members would see as they approached the Spa.

Dwayne gave Tom a thumbs-up.

“Okay then. Enjoy the tacos. And stop fucking standing around like a bunch of illegals. We’re out of here tomorrow at five. No later.”

All three bobbed their heads.

Tom put a hand on the steering wheel and let the pickup start to drift forward, but he kept his blue gaze on them.

“I’ll pick up some things for tonight," he said. "What'll you drink?”

“Bud,” Dwayne and Carl said at the same time.

“Good boys.”

He gave the black monster some gas and it bellowed, surging ahead and leaving them in a cloud of diesel fumes and trace echoes of “Moonlight in Vermont”.

Carl grabbed the fast food from Dwayne and tipped his wheelbarrow backward, handles to the ground, the way they often did when there was nowhere else to sit. He settled his butt into the plastic well and started pulling wrapped items out of the bag for distribution.

“Hot sauce. On a fucking dog day like this.”

James set the myrtle back on the edge of the bed and hopped up there himself, legs dangling. Carl threw him a taco.

"Beef okay?"


They were just about to dig in when the black pickup was thrown into reverse. It backed across a hundred feet of empty parking lot to its original spot beside them. The window was still down.

“Hey Dwayner.” Big Tom paused, waiting for Dwayne’s eyes. “Nice hat.”

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