He didn’t much like his new job. He liked working with the old man even less.
Not because the old man’s pores leaked bourbon and unfulfilled aspirations each morning; he could tolerate that. No, it was because he was the low man on the totem pole, and the old man was a downright hard-ass about it.
The old man blurted, “Got another one,” then resumed whistling the tune he’d started a mile back down the road.
He didn’t know how the old man did it, how he could spot the strays so quickly. He tried and tried but just couldn’t. All he could see was the pitted road that bumped them along, an endless stretch exiled from the interstate; lonely fields, crusty with frost. Grey clouds smothered both of them, greedy in their need to devour the sky. The kid wrung his hands. In spite of himself, he asked, “How do you know?”
“Know? I don’t, kid. I feel.”
The kid glanced at Orleans. The yard called him that, Orleans; the old man loved himself his blues. “Feel what?”
From Orleans’ mouth popped a half-strangled burp. It stunk of last night’s bottle. “Once you get to doin’ what I been doin’ for so long, you just feel it.” Eyes pulled from the road, he stared hard at the kid. Just stared, his gospel fiery in his eyes.
The kid nodded, squinting through the dust-streaked windshield, searching again for what only Orleans seemed to feel; he rubbed the skin atop his hands raw. Over divots and forgotten stone, Orleans guided the pickup. He eased off the gas.
The kid bit down on his tongue, the question where on the tip of it. But as Orleans steered through the curve, he finally saw what the other man felt and wished he hadn’t.
The kid only viewed one of them. The rest of the strays, they were somewhere, somewhere off in the village that was part of the township, but not. The township no longer recognized the village; the township no longer claimed the village as its own.
The township only dealt with the strays along the road.
Orleans pulled to a stop. They sat, the blues oozing from Orleans’ skin. Expectation thickened the air between them. “Well?”
The kid turned. “Well what?”
“Well are you goin’ to get the fuck out and take care of it?”
“Me? Why does it need to be me?”
The kid chewed his bottom lip. “Look, Orleans -”
“Look my ass, you’re takin’ care of this. It’s the way it goes, kid. I drive, you do the dirty work. My days of scapin’ roadkill are long, long over.”
A sigh, then: “I know that, Orleans, it’s just that I’m not as good as you.”
“Sweet Jesus, Mary and motherfuckin’ Moses! Bein’ good has nothin’ to do with it, kid. You do it. And the more you do it, the better you get. Practice, kid. It’s called practice.”
Practice…but no one in the yard ever mentioned anything about practice. When his pop got him the job at the department of public works, he thought his days would consist of honest work, barrels of trash and recyclables heaved into the hopper of a garbage truck. Picking litter up from curbside, maybe; filling potholes under a blazing summer sun. But the strays? No, he never thought for a moment he’d be out handling the strays duty with Orleans. Truth was, he’d never exactly known who disposed of the strays.
Once hired, he knew.
“Still don’t understand why the troopers don’t take care of this. Why they -”
“Cause they don’t, kid. Once the troopers acknowledge the strays, then they acknowledge a problem. We don’t want that. You see what I’m sayin’?”
“So it’s us.”
Orleans pursed his lips. “It’s us, kid.”
Another sigh, this one dredging the bottom of his lungs. The kid leaned, retrieving the work gloves lying by his boots. He pulled them on, face wrinkled with unbearable worry. A chimney smoke laced breeze whistled in as he opened the door. Orleans grabbed his arm before he left.
“Practice, kid. That’s all it is. I was no different from you once. Wide eyed, a little scared. But I got used to it. No different from wipin’ your ass. Strays ain’t goin’ nowhere, kid, get used to that. Meantime, we got to figure out who can do my job. I can’t do it forever.”
“Why not leave them to rot along the road? No one comes out here. Just the northerners if they make a wrong turn.”
“It’s the order of things, kid. It’s the way it’s done. We’re civil folk.” Orleans jerked a thumb towards the tree line. “But they’re animals. They don’t think like we do. Just fuck and multiply, that’s it. Now there’s too many, and if a few get hit crossin’ the road, well, we need to play our part. Now get out there, kid. Get out and scrape up that mess. You ask too many questions, anyhow.”
The kid did as he was told; he took the shovel from the pickup bed. Through his gloves, the cold of the shovel seeped into his hands. He crossed the front of the pickup, eyes jumping in his head. From behind the wheel, Orleans nodded, prodding him forward.
The sky collapsed upon him, laden with snow, at most a few hours off. It bit into his bones. He drew the collar of his flannel coat to his neck. He imagined his bed, the warmth of his thick quilt. But those thoughts were of little use now. So the kid walked, gravel crunching under the soles of his boots.
After paces, many paces, the kid saw it – shadowed, immobile – the stray, no more a pall heap along the road. He wanted to stop, to run back, but he could feel Orleans boring holes into the back of his head. Slowly, he pressed on.
When he was much younger, his mom and pop warned him about the strays, warned him about their ways, their village of twine and straw. Now here he was.
And the stray, it lay mere feet away.
The kid approached, pushed his shovel under it, the harsh grate of metal on rock making his asshole clench. But he was unable to scoop it. He tried again; the prone body just flopped to its side. “Shit.” The kid fought back tears. He glanced back at Orleans; the old man grew agitated, waved his hands. The kid took a breath. “Practice. That’s all I have to do.”
He got his back into it this time, but the weight of the stray within the shovel’s pan startled him; it was deceivingly heavy. The body tumbled.
With the back of his glove, the kid wiped his mouth. Practice, dammit. He looked to Orleans again, seeking approval for his determination. The old man remained a flurry of hands. Strange. The kid didn’t understand. Then he turned.
They emerged from the tree line, skin slick with the frost that coated the grass. Even from the distance, the kid could see their limbs shivering, the shudder of muscle beneath their vitiligo-spotted flesh. Set low upon their haunches, they fanned out in groups of three; groups of three here, groups of three there.
It came out as a hoarse whisper. The kid could barely talk. He watched while, indifferent to the grey canopy of morning, the strays advanced without trepidation, a trait so wrong from anything he’d ever been told.
A melody now, trancelike in its progression. The kid opened his mouth, still unable to articulate words. Movement distracting his attention from the strays; the body at his feet was not so prone anymore. It pushed itself to its side, rearing its head back, an oblong aberration set upon a thick stalk. It peered through tearing, membrane sheeted eyes. A needled tongue lolled as it sang. “Orleansss…you tell Missstaaa Orleansss…he take oursss from oursss all the time…yeah he take oursss from oursss all the time…now we take yoursss from yoursss oh yeah… take yoursss from yoursss we gonna dine…”
The kid should’ve slammed the shovel atop the stray’s head. Should’ve…but lack of experience left him ill prepared. Instead, he dropped it and turned on his heel. But Orleans had already thrown the pickup into reverse, a gravel infused cloud erupting from the rear tires like a bomb blast. The kid understood.
He understood why the old man’s love of the blues preceded him. Understood why Orleans couldn’t do the dirty work forever.
“Yoursss from yoursss, we gonna dine and dine…”
Orleans was a speck down the road. The kid’s boots still hammered the broken pavement, though. His feet ached under the morning half-light, but the strays squeezed the road from both sides, their needy gait worse than their appearance. The kid thought he heard some blues whistled from another tongue mutated a longtime before. The kid laughed, wondering who Orleans might choose next to do his job.
The kid laughed and laughed; he laughed until he cried.
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2015 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.