The smell of diesel smoke makes me sick. Burnt diesel hanging in the air and thudding engines pounding up sound where there should be silence. I hate the smell of goddamn diesel exhaust. And I pretty much hated the tool push too, right from day one.
It was August and broiling hot. I drove those long dusty roads out on the empty prairie in the middle of nowhere past a dump of buildings called Big Stone. No trees, no people, no nothing. The sky is as big as an ocean out there. What I was doing in that empty shit-land was searching for an oil rig where I had a job lined up. But I needed to talk to the tool push before they hired me on.
I ripped open a bag of Cheetos ate a few handfuls and cracked a can of piss-warm Coke. I sipped the Coke, looked out at the passing prairie and remembered a movie I once saw. A guy is driving across some useless desert country, running away from all the bullshit in his life. But the horizon is far away and out of reach, into the distant world. He slows down more and more, until he stops. Keep going, asshole, I thought. But the coward turns around and heads back to where he came from, to some woman in a dumpy town, who he screwed once.
I chucked out the empty Coke can, slowed down, and checked the map that the oil people in the city had given me. I was heading the right direction so kept on going toward nothing and kept an eye out for the sign they told me marked the turnoff to the rig.
In the grassy plain I passed a scrawny creek called Blood Indian. Across a plateau, down into a deep valley, I crossed a bridge over a river. Way across the river into the wastelands I saw the sign of crossed sticks shoved into the ground along the road to show where the rig was. The sticks marked a dirt truck trail running into the crusty cow pastures. I turned in and drove along a barbwire fence up into some barren hills. The bumpy dusty trail kept on going until it seemed it wouldn't end. Jesus Christ, I started to think, I should just turn around and go home. Then I remembered that screwed up movie coward.
Finally, from the crest of the hills you could see out on the ocean of grassland and the big blue rig chugging out black bursts of smoke. A square of earth was bulldozed up around the rig and a bunch of white and yellow ATCO trailers. The trail wound through the hills into the rig compound.
Men wearing coveralls and hard hats worked on the rig. A dirty fat-legged roughneck in raggy blue jeans was near the rig throwing around some pipe. I got out of the truck and walked to where the roughneck was working, but he didn't see me, or was ignoring me. Finally, I yelled, "Hey," over all the roaring diesel engines and clanging iron. When the roughneck was good and ready he looked at me, squinting. "I'm supposed to see the tool push," I yelled at him.
He grunted sarcastically and grinned. He pointed, and said, "The trailer." A long silver trailer sat out in the grasslands.
"Thanks boss," I yelled, and started to the trailer.
"Hey, butter face," he yelled at me. "Don't call me boss."
A shining new truck was parked alongside the trailer. King-shit must live here, I thought. I climbed the stairs and knocked. Someone yelled, "Yeah," so I opened the door and stepped in. The tool push man was sitting behind a big desk at the end of the trailer pecking at a laptop computer. "Sit down," he said. I sat in an armchair in front of his desk. He had a black ball cap on his head. His eyes glittered like black coals under the brim. Maybe he was fifty years old, but could've been sixty. He was ignoring me. I hated the rough-looking old man right away.
I looked around his place. A tall dark wooded cabinet along the wall was shelved with books, record albums, and an old turntable. I read some album spines: Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash, George Jones. Jesus, I thought. Through the smoky glass doors of the cabinet I could see the dark wood and blue metal of hunting guns. On top of the cabinet was a stuffed bird with a long tail of feathers, and shining glass eyes with dark red patches around them. Something he shot with the guns, probably. Behind his desk was a small table with hunks of deformed metal on it, and a gold-framed photo of a woman with a little girl.
"I'm Art Lancaster, the tool pusher here," he said. He stood up, bent across the desk and held out his hand. He took my hand and squeezed it. Not many men had done that to me before, and it surprised me. He sat down again.
"Ishmael Dean, from Calgary," he said, looking at a piece of paper.
Eva, my mother, told me when I was a kid that before I was born my birth father told her that Ishmael would be my name if I were a boy. She didn't like that name, but was finally won over when she found herself saying it over and over like a song: Ishmael Ishmael Ishmael.
"I get called Ish," I told him.
"All right, Ish," he said. "Are you eighteen? You look younger."
"Yeah, I'm eighteen."
"You have a place in Calgary?"
"It costs plenty to live there. You share something?"
I told him I was living at my mom's, for now. It embarrassed the shit out of me to tell him that.
I stopped calling Eva mother when I was eleven. It hurt her feelings—I could tell by the look on her face. You'd think she was an old woman the way she acts and dresses, but she's only forty-five or so. She wears plain pink dresses all the time, her pantyhose scratch, her shoes creak when she walks, and her knees squish tight together whenever she sits. I got out of high school and stayed with her so I could save up money. I live with her in an apartment. It has a balcony with twisted metal railings where she hangs up geranium plants and other flowers. We moved there from the crummy little house where I was raised—the neighborhood was filling up with shit-people so she got us out. She went to the bank, got money for new furniture, cutlery, and dishes, and put up new curtains. She said something crazy like, "This is the way it'll be for a long time, so I hope you like it. I don't make changes lightly. It could be just a whim, or a wrong choice, and then you have to tear everything down and start all over again. Don't make hasty decisions, Ishmael." I had no idea what she was talking about. She keeps that apartment spic-and-span. She's been assistant manager at a Drug Mart since I can remember. That same pink dress day after day, perfume, and colour smeared on her face. She was never trained in drugs, but they sell other things like magazines, lotions that women rub all over their bodies, little glass ornaments, and crap. Sometimes she steals old candy bars and magazines and brings them home. That was always a big goddamn treat when I was a kid. She got married young. I never knew her husband from back when I was born. My birth father she calls him.
"Good," said the tool push. "Some fellas who apply for work have no place to live. Employed by Safeway bagging groceries . . . a Shell station pumping gas. Is that right?" He flipped the paper over like there should've been more.
"Yeah," I told him.
He looked at me. "We have a full crew, but we can put you to work doing small jobs. Maybe you'll see some future in it."
The tool push went to the door and opened it. Thudding engine noise and diesel stink came pouring in. I guessed we were done and got up too. The roughneck I first saw waddled over, as if his legs had been broken apart once and could never move right again. He stood in the dirt, staring at me.
"This is Ish Dean," the tool push told him. "Ish, this is Jim Flash."
The roughneck smirked, leaning his weight on one fat leg. "H-mm," he said. "Come on."
Jesus, I thought.
He showed me around. Water truck dumps here. This is the garbage trailer, you clean it. Mud trailer. Old mud gets used first, you stack any new loads. Eat here. Twelve-hour shifts. Sleep here. This is where you shit 'n' shower. Cook cleans the kitchen, you clean the rest. When we were done the grand tour he said, "Let's get your shit out of that Chevy."
We got into my truck. He pulled a pack of Craven-Menthol cigarettes from his jacket pocket, snapped open the pack, put a cigarette to his lips, and stretched out his fat legs to search his pockets for a lighter. He lit up the smoke. "Don't be torching these too many places. You'll learn that in the push's safety orientation," he said.
"Who's this tool push, anyway?" I asked him.
"He lives in luxury and we live in a box."
"What an asshole," I said.
He looked at me, dragging on his smoke and daubing it out the crack in the window.
"You married? Got any kids?" he asked.
"Yeah," I lied. I hadn't even seen Rachel in at least three months.
"Fascinating. Grab your shit and follow me."
He showed me my bunk in the sleeping trailer, then disappeared.
I didn't know what to do with myself so I unpacked my gear and put on my new steel-toed work boots and leather gloves, then stood and stared out the window at the big blue rig listening for a long time to the dull humming and moaning of the diesel engines. It was warm in the trailer so I went out. I checked out the places where I was supposed to work, and watched the roaring engines pour out diesel smoke in ugly purple wads. A long pipe spun, whirred, and trembled, down the tall length of the rig. Men worked under the long spinning pipe. Surrounding the banging rig was all the empty grassland.
After a while the men started coming down off the rig, heading toward the food trailer. Jim Flash was already in the food line when I got there. "This is your shift," he told me.
An Indian wearing a white smock and a white cap over a hair net was behind the serving counter. His skin looked as black as a car tire. What the hell could you trust an Indian to put in your food? The Indian served up steaming beef stroganoff, mashed potatoes, and vegetables from hot silver tubs.
Jim Flash ignored me when we sat to eat. The rest of the crew came along after washing up. One tall roughneck with a lumpy face that made him look like he had a mouth full of mice sat across from me. He gave Jim Flash a hard time between bites. "You and your bum-buddy, the tool push," he said, laughing. A roughneck with white hair clumped into dreadlocks was sitting next to him.
"This is Ish," Jim said to them, finally.
"The new nipple chaser," mouse face said, staring at me.
The mouse-faced roughneck was Billy. The white-haired Rastafarian was Mink.
"Where's the tool push eat?" I asked.
Billy looked at me. "Numb-nuts? He eats in his abode."
I laughed. "Too good for us?"
"You learn quick, Ish," he said, and laughed.
Jim Flash was smirking, looking at us with beady bright eyes.
"Blond and black leather—my faavorite colours," I heard Billy say. He never stopped joking, never said anything serious the whole time we ate.
After supper the crew went back to the rig. I walked around in the roaring and rumbling and looked at all the pipe and sheet iron. A truck with a big iron tank came lumbering out of the prairie and backed up to the rig. The driver got out and unlatched a hose. After a while he drove slowly away, throwing up dust into the hot wind. The sun lowered and it got shadowy across the country. It made you feel empty inside, like an empty hollow drum.
The crew came down again and went to the sleeping trailer. I went in too. They showered up and then sat around smoking and bull shitting.
"The tool push sleep in that trailer?" I asked.
"Yeah. Satin sheets and a blow-up doll," said Billy, laughing.
I laughed too.
Some of them played cards. I watched Jim Flash and wondered why he walked like he did, almost crippled, and was such a big friend of the tool push's.
It was lonely in bed at night. I heard the faded clanking of the rig and its clacking engines working. They were drilling for oil. It hadn't dawned on me until then. They were drilling for oil somewhere far into the crust of the earth.
I didn't know when to get up, when to eat or what to work at, didn't know what the roughnecks were doing up on the rig, the diesel engines roaring and smoking, thudding and bumping, the blaring sun, burning wind blowing all the time, powdery dust leaking into your boots like water, swirling dust prickling your eyes. It was fucking crazy.
After a couple days Jim Flash showed me where I hadn't been getting any work done. No trenches dug. No planking over the mud. No paper in the shitters. Garbage piling up behind the Indian's kitchen. "Get your act together and get to work," he said. And the high-and-mighty tool push stared down at me all the time from the rig tower. He drove off in his fancy truck a lot while the rest of us slaved and ate dirt. When my first seven-day shift was finally up it seemed like a whole year had passed.
The morning I was leaving for the city I was loading my bag into the truck when the tool push walked out of his trailer. He showed me a hand-drawn map. "This is our next lease," he said. "Go over these trails on your way home. Make note of any washouts or trouble spots for the trucks. Let me know about it next shift." He turned and walked off. "Don't get lost," he yelled.
I looked at the map. I'd have to go all the way to the Saskatchewan highway instead of across country the way I wanted. I slammed the steering wheel with my fist. "You asshole," I yelled. But the tool push was long gone.
I sat there and started thinking I might never come back. Just say to hell with it, and quit. But I didn't.
Those prairie trails run up and down hills of ripened yellow wheat fields. Black crows fly over them. When the fields thin out it's mostly burnt up grassland and blaring white salt flats. Cattle are small black dots. Barbwire fences and tall rusty weeds line the dirt trails. Abandoned houses are all along the road. Most of the farmers are long gone from that shit country.
Just before the highway near the next lease site I pulled off of the gravel road onto a rutted car trail to take a piss. I got out of the truck and walked into the tall grass. The warm wind was waving the grass and you could smell it. Then right in front of me something walked out of some scraggy silver bushes. It was a walking bird. A long-tailed bird with blood-red patches around its eyes and dark feathers with arrows of black shooting through them—the same kind of bird as the dead one on top of the tool push's cabinet. The bird perked around in the grass. It stopped, cocked its head up, and then darted under a bush. I walked toward it thinking it might fly up. But the wild bird disappeared into the grass like a ghost. I took a piss. You could kill yourself way out in that empty land and no one would ever find you. I got back in the truck and threw the tool push's map out the window.
The highway running through the long grey plain was like a black ribbon. Heat waves rippled across it. As I drove I started thinking maybe I'd found a place, back where the ghost bird was, that no one had ever seen before. Maybe Rachel would like to go there. In the dark of the night we would drive out from the city. The sun would rise and light up the grass. If we were lucky we would see the ghost bird walking in the shadows.
I started missing Rachel. I remembered her warm brown skin and that smooth place just under her tits. I didn't expect that I'd ever get to touch her again. She didn't want anymore of my crap, she'd told me, last time I saw her.
I stopped for a fill up and a Coke at a trucker's station in Medicine Hat then kept on up the dreary highway. Finally, I could see the snowy mountains far away on the horizon past Calgary.
You can see the mountains from our apartment. I've looked at them almost every goddamn day of my life. But I've only been in them once. Eva told me that my birth father took us there just after I was born. She and him cooked up some fish they caught from a river. She told that story like it was some kind of good memory.
The city seemed fast and wild after being on the grasslands. But at the apartment it was quiet as a church. I flicked on a sports channel and settled onto the sofa.
When Eva came home from work she was curious about my new job, but I ignored her questions and kept watching TV. She started cooking some pork chops. The sunlight fell through the curtained window onto her back and the dark hair of her head. She was quiet, working over the sink and the stove. She's never had a date, that I can remember, in all the time since I was a kid. She probably hasn't had sex since my father was around. I ate the pork chops and some sliced tomatoes in front of the TV.
I went to bed but couldn't sleep too well remembering nothing but blazing sun, roaring engines, and the smell of that sickly sweet diesel smoke. I went to the fridge and got a can of Coke. From the kitchen window the streets looked dark and still. I turned on the radio in my bedroom and listened to some all night sports talk from some place like Tulsa. I thought about Rachel, remembered the ghost bird from that morning, and tried to remember the smell of the grass out there where it lived.
Eva was gone to work before I got up. I ate a bowl of Cheerios, then found part of a chocolate cake in the fridge, ate that, and guzzled some cold lemonade she had in a frosty glass pitcher. She must've made the cake to eat by herself when I was gone.
I had nothing to do so I got dressed and drove over to Rachel's apartment. Her car wasn't there. I knew she was probably working, at a shop in a south end mall, selling eyeglass frames. There's a nice park behind her building. I wondered if she ever walked there in the grass and trees. I stopped the truck along a railing and walked into the park. The grass was green and damp. If you looked closely you could see birds jumping around in the shady tree branches. I stood there a while and watched.
On the way back to the apartment I picked up a maxi-bag of potato chips and a couple of two-liter Mountain Dews from a 7-Eleven. I turned on the TV and lay on the couch again.
When Eva came home she went to the bathroom and started a tub. She yelled, "Why don't you call Rachel?" As if somehow she'd known I'd been sneaking around her place. Her saying that pissed me off, and I ignored her. I smelled the frothy bath, and her perfume, steaming out of the bathroom.
Going back to the rig I drove a road along a river running through the treeless plain. The river was cut deep into the land so that you couldn't see it, but you knew it was there. On that empty stretch of road I came across a burned out truck. A black burned out shell, and the ditch grass burned black all around it. Nobody lived way out there. The place was lifeless. I wondered if somebody was still in the burned out truck. It was a long drive across no man's land to the rig and the sky as blue as water.
My first day back the tool push showed me around the rig. I didn't like being near him. He said words like, rotating table, wellhead, casing, draw-winch, bits, slush pump. Just below the peak of his black cap I saw the cracks of his hard eyes squinting into the white burning sun.
During that week-long shift the fiery sun kept burning and the rig iron was too hot to touch. Dust gusted up in the wind and swirled into devils. The smell of burning diesel made you sick in the heat. I drank liters and liters of Coke—I couldn't seem to get enough to drink. I had a pay cheque by the end of my next shift.
Back in the city I went to Tire-Mart, bought four new tires for my truck, and put the rest of my money into a bank account. In the bathroom mirror at the apartment I saw my face burned red and brown from the wind and sun. My hands were stiff and sore and stained with rubbed-in dirt. I didn't drive to Rachel's apartment this time.
Eva said I should call some friends. But that was a past world. I could cut all of that off and never think of it again. That was easy. Screw them all, I thought. Some things aren't as important in the world as people say they are.
During the heat of the day I slept in the shady apartment and watched TV a lot of the time. When Eva was there she hovered through the place like a ghost. At night, sometimes, I walked around the rumbling city.
Back at the rig there was another long week of hot weather. One shift, way past midnight, a load of pipe casing came in layered on a trailer like cut down trees from a forest. I helped the driver cherry-pick the heavy steel lengths onto the pipe rack in the darkness. I wrapped cable around them and he lifted them free. The night air was full of banging rig noise and diesel smoke and the rig lights blared in the blackness. When we were done I took off my hard hat and salty sweat dripped into my mouth. The truck driver opened a Thermos and said, "Thanks. Most rig-hands don't help." He'd been trucking the oil patch for ten years, he said, and had a wife and two kids. The truck driver talked to me like I'd always been there and was one of them. When he drank his coffee I saw that two of his fingers were just dink stubs.
Then the water truck came in from the dark world. Stars were sprinkled all over the sky. I stood with the driver while he smoked a cigarette, neither of us saying anything, looking up at the dangling stars in the warm night.
In the blasting heat of the day I painted the faded mud tank to a new bright blue. I stood back and looked at the clean shining new paint. Finally I was starting to think of things to work at.
Grey clouds blew up one day and caked out the sun and it cooled right down toward evening. In the night a hard blowing cold winded the trailer. The wind was calm by morning—and snow had fallen. It seemed crazy, after all that heat, white snow patched all over the land like a magician had powdered it there.
I put on a sweater in the cold and went to breakfast. The cook was scraping a grill. He looked at me. I didn't trust that Indian and his phony mystery world.
"Snow, in August," laughed Pete Freissen, his hands wrapped around a cup of coffee.
"We'll be freezing our asses off pretty soon. I feel it coming," Billy said.
"It won't last," Pete answered.
"Philosopher fucking Pete," mumbled Billy, staring into his empty plate.
Pete was hardly even thirty, but he seemed like an old man to me. On Sundays he stuck earphones on his head and listened to choirs singing sad religious songs. He took any kidding about it by saying, "Men must worship." "What a fruit," I told Billy. "He must be a Mennonite or Mormon or some kind of church bug." Church Pete's face was flat and empty like a snake's. I'd heard a hundred times in my life, Don't trust anybody. That was about the most obvious thing in the world you learned. "He has mouths to feed, and he feeds them, that's all I know," Jim Flash said about Pete. But I didn't trust Pete one little bit. I didn't trust any of them.
After eating I clanked up the steel steps to the deck of the rig and looked out on the hills, cold and dead looking with the new white snow all over them and the cold grey clouds rushing low and silent. It made you feel hollow, like being on the deck of a steel ship crossing a lot of cold water going nowhere near where you wanted to.
By noon the clouds were breaking up so that powder blue began to show through and blotches of sunshine fell onto the country, the snow blaring white, the clouds cracking open more and more and then breaking up completely, floating away like ice on a river, and pretty soon all of the snow was melted except for long white ribbons of it in the cracks of the hills. Through the diesel smoke you could smell the wet grass and the warm waves of wind blowing back from across the hills.
One night I started writing a letter to Rachel: Hi, it's me . . . So, R . . . Dear R. Life out here is crazy . . . R. The sun was red when I got up this morning. But I quit trying. I had no idea how to say anything.
I'd been thinking about her a lot since seeing the ghost bird. I used to hate going to her house when she lived with her mother and father. Her father is short and dark skinned; straight off the boat from Greece or some dumpy country like that. A real carpet layer. He never gave me the time of day, and spoke some kind of Greek shit to his wife whenever I came around. A real hard ass. Rachel has long black hair that falls in waves, and her teeth are as white as pearl.
September was coming in now and it was cooling down around the country. At supper one night Mink said, "We're going for a walk past the mud tank," and he nodded in the direction I should go. After I finished eating I went. A red sunset was falling. Insects hissed and rattled and little birds jumped up in front of the glowing sky. The air was cool in the grassy hollows. Frost could come by morning.
I made out Billy and Mink's silhouettes and walked straight to them. They were standing around a hollow in the grass. Mink took out a crack pipe from his pocket. He filled it, and then lit it. Billy brought out a warm glowing bud from behind his back. I smelled the hungry weed burning smoke into the air.
"The tool push hears nothing about this, right, numb-nuts," Billy said to me. He drew on the joint and the tip of it burned brightly. The glowing bud bounced and bobbed in front of his shadowy face, then danced alongside his leg as he lowered his arm.
"Is it good weed?" I asked.
"Weed. Don't call it weed, man. My old man was a farmer. Weed is a disease. My old man poisoned weeds. Poisoned everything. Until it killed him off." He held out the joint. "Snifter, city boy?"
I took the burning peg. A moaning bird called; maybe a hoot owl.
Mink let out a long slow breath. "What's that?"
"Owl," I told him.
"Bullshit," mumbled Billy. "Mourning dove."
The sunset was draining away and the speckled stars jittered like Christmas lights up where the sky was dark.
"Where's the farm?" Mink asked Billy.
"What? It's long gone, brother. Long gone."
After a while Billy said, "I miss my wife. I could use some of that warm stuff. You single faggots don't know what you're miss'n, Sushi. Regular ass. Hey, Mink?" Then quieter, so that you hardly heard him anymore, he said, "My little boys are in bed this time of night."
"It's getting dark," Mink said. "The coyotes might be coming out." He was finished his pipe and rubbing his arms with his hands.
The firebug torched as Billy drew on it again. He handed it my way as he blew out. I reached for it, but he dashed and fainted it like a wand, so I couldn't take it. "Fuck off, Billy," I said, and grabbed the joint.
He laughed and put his hands in his pockets. "Let's get our asses back before fuck-nuts sends the marines," he said. I handed him back the stub then turned into the darkness and started to walk. "You don't like that asshole tool push, do you, Ish?" I heard Billy say. "Maybe we can do something about that."
The shadows in the grass looked like things. I wanted to run, but didn't.
Jim Flash was sitting in the lounge when we got back, looking at us with that phony smirk of his. He stared at us, grinding his teeth, smirking. Billy laughed when he saw him.
The dope hadn't taken all the way but it put me to sleep right away. I dreamt about the long-tailed ghost bird. The ghost bird was breaking out of the grass toward the sky, again and again, flaring upwards, its wings beating wildly. It never got all the way into the sky, bursting from the grass over and over.
In the middle of the next night Jim woke me up and told me, "Come on, we're plugging the hole."
I put on my cold dirty gear. The wind was howling—cold hard gusts of it. We walked through the water, mud, and shadows. The dark flat clouds glowed, sweeping across the cut of moon. We started hand bombing heavy bags of cement, fast. I worked until my lungs were burning, then sat on some bags. Diesel smoke from the clattering engines pulled down on top of us. I sucked in air to get my breath and sucked in that stinking diesel exhaust. It made me sick. Jim kept pounding bags. He laughed, seeing me. We could've been in the middle of an ocean or some far away place of the world that no one ever thinks about. We were just shadows moving in the darkness.
In the daylight we had to move the rig to the new lease. The rig moving trucks showed up chugging diesel smoke. Swampers tore things down and linked things up with cables and chains. Pretty soon the derrick was out of the sky.
Jim said to stay with him to clean up some work and let the others take my truck to the new lease. It was like something new had begun. Like breaking away from something old and moving on.
Buffalo isn't a town it's a pile of crap out on the prairie. Oily black railway ties from torn out tracks lie stacked along the weedy highway ditch. Billy's truck was parked outside a tar paper building in Buffalo when Jim Flash and I went through on our way to the new lease. "Let's check this out," said Jim.
We got out of the truck and pushed open the creaky door to the Beverage Room of the little hotel. In the tiny foyer there was a telephone mounted on a wall covered with old auction sale posters. The saloon was dark and smelled pissy. Billy was leaning on the bar next to an old man and Mink. A lady behind the bar sat on a stool with her legs crossed. A slot machine blinked along a dark wall. Jim and I sat at a table. Jim splayed out his legs and stared at Billy and Mink.
The lady came over to our table. "What can I get you?" she asked. She sounded like she was from another country. But she wasn't, she was just a prairie chicken.
"Give me a Coke and a bag of potato chips," Jim said.
She looked at me.
"A beer, same as them," I told her, nodding toward the boys at the bar.
Jim got up and went to the foyer and I saw him reach for the phone. The waitress brought our order. Jim came back from the phone and ripped open his Old Dutch potato chips. "Cheers," I said, and took a long swallow of beer, my eyes watering up tears from the burn. All the dust and heat from all the hot weeks seemed choked up inside of me.
"Bull . . . shit," I heard the old man at the bar say, loudly. Then, clink. I looked toward the bar and saw a beer glass rolling on the floor. Billy was doubled over, laughing.
"Spill a man's beer," the old man slurred, drunkenly.
Laughing, Billy said, "Hey, no harm done, Daddy-O. Plenty more where that came from. Right, Mink?"
The waitress dug out a mop, walked around the bar, and cleaned up the spill.
About five minutes later the barroom door pushed open and the tool push walked in. He took a chair at our table and pushed back his cap. His forehead was white above his dark face. The waitress came over right away and asked what he wanted.
"Rye 'n' water."
"You know them?" she asked, nodding to the Billy and Mink.
"They work for me," the tool push said.
"They don't need to treat Earl like a fool." She bent over and wiped off our table with a rag. "He's a living veteran. He was in Holland and Germany, over in the war." She stood up. "If they don't get out soon I'm calling Jack in from the farm."
She went to the bar then returned with the tool push's rye drink. He picked it up and downed it. "All right, let's go," he said, loudly.
Billy turned around when he heard the tool push. He stared at him, then got up and started coming toward us. When he was near our table Jim pulled out a chair with his foot and gave it a sharp shove so that it banged against Billy's legs. Billy stopped dead and stood there.
"Hit the road, boys," the tool push said.
Mink got up from the bar and started to walk out.
"Funny boy," Jim mumbled, looking at Billy.
Billy grunted something, and then went out the door behind Mink. When they were gone the tool push looked at Jim and broke into a smile, as if he couldn't help himself.
"H-mm," Jim said, smirking. "Fucking comedians." He finished his Coke and stumbled out.
The tool push left some money on the table and then walked over to the old man and helped him up from the barstool. The old man was all bone-grey and thin. I couldn't imagine him ever being in any war, killing people. The tool push walked with him to the door. "Back in a minute," he said. Then they were gone.
Big deal, I thought, and finished off the last swallow of my beer. I was all alone with the waitress and the sputtering bells of the slot machine. She just sat there, frozen, like a statue. She didn't even blink my way.
I heard the tool push honking on his truck horn outside the bar. I went out. Night was falling and a frost was coming. I got into the tool push's truck. In seconds we were gone back into the wilderness.
The tool push didn't say anything as we flew along the roads. The silence was uncomfortable, so I said, "Billy got the message, eh?"
He said something stupid like, "Some of these guys stay angry about things they can't even remember anymore. Got no expectations for anything good." He looked at me, smiling. "I try to be an optimist."
I'd heard plenty of lectures before and didn't want to listen.
"What does your mother do, Ish, if you don't mind me asking?"
"She works at a drug store," I told him.
"Is it just the two of you at home?"
I didn't want to talk to him. Nothing about me was his business. I kept my eyes out the window. On top of the roller coaster hills you could see the darkening sky and the shadowy land, then we'd swoop into a deep gully and couldn't see anything at all. The night was black by the time the rig lights showed. In the passing fields I saw running shadows. "Deer," the tool push said. The derrick sparkled like a Christmas tree. The truck's dash lights glowed and the tool push had the heater on. The beer was wearing off. It made you feel hungry and empty.
Things were up and running and going smoothly at the new lease. The country turned grey and black after the frost came. Fall had come in for good.
I was working a morning shift on our third day at the new lease. At noon I would be on leave to the city. I took a coffee break behind the garbage trailer away from the clatter and hissing of the rig. The morning frost was melting from the grass. I could smell the tool push's coffee brewing in his trailer.
After a minute I sensed something and swung around. The tool push was standing there staring at me. "Ish!" he said. I felt embarrassed, like I'd been caught at something. "I'm going up the road. Come on," he said. I followed because I thought I had to.
I got in the cab of his clattering diesel truck. A shotgun was leaned against the seat, its smooth dark-grained wood polished and shining. The tool push looked at me. "Billy's gone at the end of this shift. Maybe you'll want to move up to some rig work?"
"I don't know," I answered. "Maybe."
The tool push drove down the lease road. "There's some dandy bird hunting in this country," he said. He turned the truck onto a dirt trail along some barbed wire fence. He was watching the country, looking for something to shoot at, or maybe trying to tell if the ground held oil. I stuck my arm out the open window. The grass was so tall it brushed against my hand.
"Play any sports?" he asked me.
I didn't look at him. I wasn't about to be polite all of a sudden.
"There isn't much time for regular exercise in this work. Or a social life," he said. "You looking at married life some day, Ish? Have some kids?"
"I don't know," I told him. I started to get angry, like on the night trip out of Buffalo.
"I had a wife and a daughter," he said.
After a while I couldn't help but look at him.
"We lived in a house trailer up near Hanna," he said. "Sherry, my wife, wanted some fun out of life, but I was too much into my own thing and didn't pay much attention. I never got to know my daughter before Sherry flew the coop with her. My daughter was just a babe-in-arms."
I looked at him. "Where is she?"
"She lives on a farm in South Dakota, raising ostriches. We haven't talked in years."
I realized he was talking about his wife. "Your daughter, I mean," I said.
He looked at me. "She died when she was five years old. Christmas time, 1975. They had a concert at the church. My daughter was the star of Bethlehem. They had tinsel hung up and there was a manger and some candles for stars; that kind of thing. She got too close to the candle flames and the wrappings on her costume caught fire. The straw in the manger started up when she fell to the floor, and she was engulfed. It happened just that fast. No blame to it, really." He looked at me, and then back at the trail. "It's a crazy story. People die in the strangest ways. You think kids aren't included in that. But that's just something you believe when you're young, and you feel immortal. She's buried in a little grave up in Empress." He paused. After a while he said, "Then you get older and the past fades out like a light. I feel like I've lived forever."
I started to think that what he'd told me could be made up; that the whole story could be a lie. What a goddamn thing to tell, even if it was true. After a minute I looked at his sun-cracked face. He didn't seem any different from having told his crazy story. Dark wormy blood vessels lined the back of his hand. I imagined those big black hands holding a newborn baby. It seemed insane.
The trail joined a straight flat road going into some harvested wheat fields surrounded by hills. Grass rivers flowed down from the hills into the yellow pan of fields. A hedgerow of leafless trees lined the chalky dirt road and some coppery leaves lay scattered in the dust. Out in front of the truck I saw a batch of small birds running from the wheat field, running along the trail ahead, running away from us. The tool push sat up in his seat and braked hard. The running birds disappeared one by one into the grass and trees.
The tool push shut down the rumbling diesel. Slowly, he took his shotgun in one hand and opened the truck door with the other. He stepped out and walked to the front of the truck, staring at where the small birds had disappeared. He reached into his vest pocket, pulled out some bright red cylinders and dropped them into the shotgun barrels. Then he clicked the barrels up. He started walking down the middle of the trail. Near where the birds had run into the trees he stopped and raised the gun. Just as he moved again the birds flew up. I saw them flashing above the trees and then over the fields. The tool push swung his gun. I heard a hard thud, and another. His body jumped with the recoil and a bird froze and fell from the moving flock, crumpling to the ground. Another bird faltered but didn't fall all the way. It sloped toward the ground, its wings beating. The tool push lowered his shotgun and watched. The wounded bird fell, its wings pounding hard, lower and lower. Then it was down on the trail flapping and jumping as if it were insane.
The tool push cracked open the shotgun and the red smoking shells jumped out. He walked toward the bird dying and flopping in the dust. When he got to the bird he bent and picked it up. I squeezed my hands into fists. He swirled the bird in the air by its neck to kill it. Its wings flapped out of control then went limp.
The tool push picked up the other bird and started back. I watched him all the way back to the truck. Through the rear window I saw him lay one bird in his open palm. It was small and grey with blood coming out of its beak. He set the dead birds in the back and took up his shotgun and got in. "Partridges," he said, and started the diesel. We drove back to the rig after he nailed those birds.
When we got back I headed to my bunk and lay down. I remembered, once, when Eva and I lived in that grubby little house where I grew up I saw a little kid standing all alone, crying in the street, tears running down his dirty face. I ran into the house and told her. She seemed pissed off at me and kept doing her work. Then she said, "They need to learn to take care of their own." I never liked that house. It was a dump no matter what she did to it.
After a while I went to the mud trailer. I swung open the big trailer doors. Some left over bags of drilling mud were piled on pallets. I ran at the heavy bags and slammed my shoulder into them. I kept ramming them until I heard my own grunting. Then I punched at a bag until it broke open. I felt the cool fine dust of the chemical mud spilling around my hand and fingers. I ran at the pile again, slamming into it. Finally the bags gave way and toppled over.
At noon I left the rig. I drove to the grass plain along the highway where I'd seen the long-tailed bird. I stood out in the grass for a while. It was golden and waving out toward some blue hills far away and shadows from drifting clouds moved on the ground. I wondered if the tool push would have shot one of those long-tailed birds if we'd seen one. Probably. I wondered about Rachel and how her life was going. It had been only five months since I'd seen her, so probably not much had changed.
In Calgary I stopped at a Safeway to pick up some groceries for the apartment. I wasn't sure what to get so I walked around with a cart. Some lady hustled by and banged into me. Her face was lumpy with worry. She stared past me and kept on going.
My mother was cutting up celery at the kitchen counter when I got to the apartment. I stood in the doorway holding the Safeway bags. Her hair was pulled back and I could see flecks of white in it where it used to be dark. She had on a soft pink blouse with small white buttons done up to her neck. It all seemed new. I hadn't looked at her, really looked at her, in a long time. Maybe never. Her face looked old, but she seemed solid, and almost beautiful.
"I brought some groceries home," I said.
She looked up. "I didn't hear you come in," she said. She looked at the groceries in the bags in my hands. "Thank you, Ishmael."
"You're welcome," I told her.