(fiction but close enough to the truth, written in 1987)
I pushed through the brush and crawled over a rotten log to a patch of black earth between the ferns. Swinging the hoedad over my head I let the blade fall into the earth and stooped down to place a tree seedling in the hole. The ferns bushed their arms against my face, sending cold water trickling down my neck.
I straightened up and looked back over my route across the brush choked hillside. The slash from the logging was jack strawed over the slope in haphazard mounds. Beyond that towered the big trees at the at the edge of the clearcut. Below was the storm swollen stream, foaming a rich brown, clogged with the mud and debris of the logging. Across that rose the uncut forest which stretched up the creek to the bend.
It was that kind of twilight under a stormy sky when you couldn‘t be sure of the time. The wind was tossing the trees and blowing the wind sideways in long cold gusts. A December rain, it’s always the worst, almost snow. It always gave me the feeling that we didn’t belong in these mountains. It wasn’t a land for people but the land of the big trees, where most of them were gone now and the last were coming down fast.
All around was the roar of the wind and the swollen creek. A silent roar. It lost itself in the mist. It was the sound of time passing and of these slashed and burned hills with the soil rushing over the boulders in the creek below.
Over the wind I heard a yell from the other side of the hill and picked out a yellow rain suited figure slowly working its way up the slope to the road at the top. I watched as two more figures pulled themselves out of the brush and started the climb out.
I loosened the tree bag from my waist and looped the belt over my shoulder. I made my way to the fire trail hacked through the brush and slash at the edge of the clearcut. Sucking the breaths deep into my belly I started up the slippery surface. My body moved mechanically, numb after days of this. My pants felt clammy with a chill creeping up my legs into my spine.
When I made it to the top, the crew bus was parked on the side of the road next to a blue company pickup truck. Next to the driver’s window stood Jeff, our foreman, in his mud splattered rain gear with his treebag still strapped to his waist. The rain beat down over the windshield so that I couldn’t see the face of the contracting officer inside.
“Who the hell says you have to? We’ll pick up production, I told you we had another crew coming in,” said Jeff.
“That’s what you said last week and the week before and you’ve lost people almost every day. We have to get our trees in the ground before the snow hits,” came the pickup’s voice.
Jeff nodded his head, “ Ok, ok. I know what you’re saying but I promise that next week we’ll have more people.”
I stepped up into the bus. The other planters stood in the aisles removing their raingear or slumped in the seats with a blank look on their faces, staring out at the rain. I took off my raingear and took my usual seat by the door. Outside the voices from the pickup went on and on. Jeff’s accusing, pleading, the contracting officer’s low and even. He was just doing a job and in a hurry to get home. Nobody talked in the bus.
The pickup’s engine finally roared to life and he pulled away. For a second his headlights shone on Jeff standing in the rain. I could see the pink paper in his hand. It was the default notice. For us it meant that the contract was over and after paying the company the termination costs on the contract, we’d be lucky to even keep the bus. It might as well mean the end of the coop and back in town jobs were hard to come by.
On the way down the mountain Jeff sat in the half light behind the driver with his face pushed into the grubby pages of the contract, his eyes intent as if by boring into the paper something would emerge. He finally threw it on the floor.
“ Well fuck them.”
“ Yeah, to hell with it” came from the back of the bus.
“ What do they think we are, slaves? I’d like to see them humping it through that slash week after week.”
I settled into the seat and tried to concentrate on the wipers sloshing and squeaking back and forth across the windshield. Around me the voices reverberated over the laboring engine, repeating themselves and obstinately groping for an answer where there wasn’t any. We were a full two weeks behind contract time and all the talking in the world couldn’t make up for that.
I dozed off and woke as we reached the bottom of the hill and turned onto the highway. The dark bulk of the idled lumber mill rose beyond the harsh white glare of the arc lights. The rain lashed furiously at the puddles under the lights, an angry rain.
I got out at the edge of town and walked up the wet asphalt of a side road to the covered back porch of my house. In the light of the kitchen window were boxes of empty beer bottles with more spread over the floor leaving only a narrow path to a stump set next to the door. I sat there and unlaced my boots, picking the mud off as I did.
The porch roof leaked a steady trickle of water over the sagging boxes. I considered straightening them up but it didn’t seem to be any use. There would be more coming and someday one of us would cash them in at the store. If it was my best friend Jackson, he’d just return with more full cases.
I pushed open the kitchen door. A small shaded bulb shone over the sink. A welcome warmth glowed from the room beyond where a wood stove sent an orange light flickering over the floor of the darkened room. I placed my boots carefully by the stove and sat in a rocking chair, stretching my damp socks towards the heat. The rain ran over the window panes in long streams, lit by the dancing light from the stove. Jackson slept in an easy chair next to it, a few empty bottles standing next to him on the floor.
I sat there for a long while watching the light from the stove play over the walls in flickering yellow and orange flashes, closed my eyes and breathed slowly, feeling the warmth work its way up my legs and the ache returning. I was too tired to change, but aware of the clammy wet shirt across my shoulders, and of sickness that could find you again on a night in wet clothes
His voice broke the stillness. “I built the fire up good didn’t I, I thought you’d be home soon, ” and then lapsed back into silence. I couldn’t tell in that light whether his eyes were open.
“It looks like the company is really going to dump it on us, ” I finally said, not caring if he heard, just needing to say it to the dark room, the stove and the rain outside.
“They’re going to default us.”
“Oh yeah ? ”
The silence drew on for awhile until he got up and walked into the kitchen in his stockinged feet and returned twisting open a quart bottle of beer. He plopped down, bringing his feet up to a stool and raised the bottle to his lips. He took a long pull, his throat muscles working up and down. He put it down with a sharp sound on the floor as if he were done with it but his hand hung close to the mouth.
“So, how’s your back feeling?” I said.
“Oh, Ok, I took some of the tylenol like you said and they seem to help.”
“They’re good, lots better than aspirin.”
“ I don’t know, those darvon work pretty well too.”
“You shouldn’t be taking those if you’re going to be drinking beer, “ I said, trying to keep my voice relaxed.
“That’s what you already told me,” he said and bought his arm up to his face holding the bottle like he’d never let it drop.
The sound of the rain filled the house, just that and the cackle of the fire and low thud as the logs settled in the stove. I didn’t look at him any more, his figure was just visible on the edge of my vision.
He said “ you know, I’m not sure about that operation, you can never tell about those things.”
I glanced up, he was looking straight at me now, the question hanging in the air like it had for a long time. A question I couldn’t answer.
“But it’s better than sitting here all day long,” I said.
He kept looking at me slow and steady like he had all the time in the world. “But do you think if my back is better you guys will let me come work with you again?”
“I don’t know, you’ll have to ask them. Look, I don’t want to get into this again. So if you fix your back, then what about your knee? There’s no point in it but if you want to work , you’ll have to ask them. I might not be here.”
“Oh yeah, where you going?
“Christ, I don’t know.”
I felt really tired, Even sitting there by the stove I could imagine myself in the crew bus jolting and lurching its way up to another day under the rain.
“ Yeah….I don’t know.” I got up and moved towards the stairs. He called out to me.
“Hey, if you’re hungry there’s some beans on the stove in the kitchen.”
“Ok, maybe later, I need to go lie down for awhile.”
I climbed the stairs and pushed open the door to my room. The street light over the road outside cast its white glow over the floor and the mattress. I didn’t turn on a light but just peeled off my shirt and pants and slipped under the sleeping bag. I closed my eyes and lost myself in the rise and fall of rain on the roof. I knew that I didn’t have to get up in the morning and go out in it again and I didn’t know what I was going to do.
Late that night I awoke to talk and laughter from below, the back door opening and closing and the tramp of heavy boots on the floor. And the sound later of bottles crashing and skittering across the floor.