Spring/Summer 1996, Volume 13.2
Paul Forster is currently an M.F.A. candidate at Utah State University. His work has appeared in Western Humanities Review, Great River Review, South Dakota Review, The Rough Draft, and others.
George Delancy was meaner than shit to work for until Bomber Charlie showed up. George did as well as any other grower in the valley, but he was still mean. He had a new yellow ranch house with pink roses and big green lawns, a swimming pool for his beautiful daughters, solid barns, well-equipped shops, working tractors, water rights that no one could touch, and he still kicked any ranch dog that strayed across his path. From the day I came to work for him my name was "Dumb-Son-of-a-Bitch."
I wasn't all that dumb, I just stoled things from people that pissed me off. Teachers, coaches, landscape bosses, restaurant managers: anybody that was on my case too hard I ripped off. When the Enterprise Fish Company found me loading cases of Hieneken into the big blue Browning-Ferris the owner said they were pressing charges and I didn't wait around to see if it was true. It was getting hard to find work in town anyway.
"It's because you never had a father," Mom said. "If you had a father you wouldn't steal things." She was crying, but she didn't try to stop me. We both knew I had to leave sooner or later.
I was out on 99 near Bakersfield thinking about L.A. when George Delancy pulled over in a Ford Ranger. I threw my pack in the bed and got in.
I was already used to men who liked their riders quiet so when he didn't say anything I didn't mind. Finally George turned off the farm report he was listening to. "Are you a vet?" he asked.
"Were you in the service? You know, the military, Desert Storm?"
I shook my head.
His face turned sour, like he'd lost a bet. "I keep having this dream," he said, "where this voice tells me to pick up a vet."
I thought he was going to stop the truck and tell me to get out, but he just narrowed his eyes and put the farm report back on. When we came to his exit he pulled the truck over. Before I got out I asked him about work.
He shook his head.
I got out, pulled my pack out of the bed and went up to the door to thank him for the ride.
"Can you lay irrigation pipe?" he asked.
"I can learn." "Ever worked orchards or row crops before?"
"I can learn."
"Any dumb-son-of-a-bitch can learn—can you work?"
"Get in," he said. "Don't just stand there, get in. You want to argue with me about wages?"
"No sir." I hadn't called anybody sir since I'd bussed my last table.
He turned left from the highway and drove through a grid of peach orchards, cotton fields and strawberries towards the mountains. As we came to the first gentle hills he turned onto a smaller road that brought us up to his property. "You can stay in one of those," he said, pointing to three trailers that lined up along the edge of an orchard. "Be ready to work in the morning." He parked the truck and went into the ranch house.
I took in the barn, the machine shop, the tractors, the packing sheds and the irrigation ditches full of water. A farm, a real farm. I choose the trailer in the middle because it got the most shade and then spent a long afternoon walking around and trying to figure out how things worked and what each of the barns and sheds were for. I had the last of my baloney and white bread for dinner.
The next morning I stood out in front of the buildings and tried to feel eager. I'd had no breakfast and my stomach rumbled. George came out into the orange light with one cup of coffee in his hands. I looked to see if he had two. "You can start loading that pipe on the flatbed," he said. Stacks of different-sized irrigation pipes were up against one of the buildings. I moved towards the stack I thought he'd nodded to.
"Not those, those."
I went to the next stack and started fumbling with a long pipe and dragging it towards the flatbed truck.
"Not like that you dumb-son-of-a-bitch!" George put his coffee down, strode over and showed me how. In the next ten minutes I heard "dumb-son-of-a-bitch" twenty or thirty times. I started wondering where he kept his wallet.
A blue truck riding close to the ground pulled in and a fat guy struggled out of it and right away began wiping it down with a rag. "Shorty," George called to the fat man, "leave that Goddamned truck alone for once and show this dumb-son-of-a-bitch how to load pipe." He went back into the house.
The fat man went all the way around the truck before he put his rag away and came over. "New man, huh? Call me Shorty." He shook hands with me and I looked down into blue eyes surrounded by sunburned crinkles of fat. "Don't worry about old George giving you a hard time," he said, still breathing hard from getting out of his truck. "You'll catch on quick. What's your name? Where you from?"
I told him a little about myself while we loaded pipe and strapped it down. When I dropped a stretch of pipe he laughed instead of cursed. Another truck pulled in and I met two more hands, Ted Rains and Moose Thomas. Moose was like his name, tall and quiet with a big belt buckle and a stiff burr-cut covered by a faded old black stetson. He shook my hand and gave me a little nod. Ted was smaller with a shock of curly black hair and a little beer belly. His eyes were bright and curious and he wanted to know everything about me. I kept quiet about all the stealing and just said that I needed a change. "Change is good," Ted nodded. "Change is good."
The rest of the day was downhill. Moose and Shorty showed me how to lay pipe and Ted gave me half his lunch. After work Ted drove me into a supermarket and loaned me a fifty for groceries. On the way in to town he pointed out the different crops we passed and showed me the good farming from the bad. When we were shopping he walked the supermarket aisles talking about trucking, marketing and how hungry people were in Africa. On the way back out he told me about gene-splicing to grow crops. He'd been to college and was planning on going back for more, but he was still a nice guy.
On Friday George paid Shorty, Moose and Ted and then he called me over. "Dumb-Son-of-a-Bitch! You want to get paid or not?" I hurried over from the steps of the trailer and took a couple hundred dollars. He squinted at me like cold ice when I took the money. The others drove off and I went into the trailer to write Mom a letter about being a farmhand.
After my first week on the place I saw that Ted was a philosopher, Moose had a sense of humor and that George and Shorty had a small war going on. For every time George called me a dumb-son-of-a-bitch, Shorty had a compliment. For every curse and glare George offered the world around him Shorty had a smile and a laugh. All the service people that came out to fix things, all the truckers who came out to pick up crops or drop off fertilizers, they all avoided George and dealt with Shorty—and they hung around longer than they needed to so they could laugh and talk weather. All the migrant workers who came through took their orders from Shorty and he spoke Spanish as if he were one of their own. George backed away from the goodwill Shorty generated like a coyote backing away from poison.
Three weeks after I'd started working we were thinning apricots, walking down the long, shady rows hitting the heavy branches with poles and knocking off half the unripe fruit so that what was left would grow big and healthy. I was working along, kind of daydreaming, when George came up and ripped the pole out of my hands. "Not like that you Dumb-Son-of-a-Bitch! Hit 'em! Knock off the weak ones!" He beat the holy shit out of a few branches, sent green fruit down like rain and then stormed off to his truck. Shorty, Ted and Moose appeared out of the shadows of the trees.
"Don't worry about it," Ted said. "It's just the way he is, don't let him get to you."
"Why's he so mad all the time?" I asked.
Shorty hitched up his huge jeans and then wiped his sweating pumpkin of a face. "George inherited the place," he said. "It doesn't mean to him what it would mean to us." Shorty smiled as if he felt sorry for George, or superior to him.
Ted saw that I didn't understand. "He didn't build this place, he didn't build his life, it's just what he got."
"Shit," Moose said. "I'd be happy to get it."
"Not if you had to take it," Ted warned.
"Is that why his wife's gone?" I asked.
Shorty and Ted looked at each other. No one ever mentioned George's wife, but he must have had one because he had two beautiful daughters. "She left him a long time ago," Shorty said, "but his milk was sour long before then." We looked at him for more of the story but he just smiled and said we could take lunch. He told funny stories about his early years as a farmhand the rest of the day.
The longer I stayed on the farm the more I liked it, except for George calling me a dumb-son-of-a-bitch and being mean to his daughters. I felt sorry for George's daughters. They had an older woman who took care of them, and they went off to school every day on a yellow bus in clean clothes, but they were sad. They followed all of us hands like puppies and they were just as grateful for attention as any puppy ever was. George didn't hit or curse them, but he was like a desert—all strictness and dryness, and the little girls didn't get more from him than a few empty, dusty words. When I saw them, Sarah and Sally, seven and nine, following him around with their heads down and their hands behind their back, I wanted to steal from him so bad I could taste it. I wanted to steal his trucks, his tractors, his TV, his radio, everything he'd ever owned. The longer I saw those sad little girls the more I thought about just how and what I would rip off when I got the chance.
There was a good side to it though—those girls fell in love with me. Every chance they got they snuck into my trailer. Sarah, the younger one, was crazy about those "Where's Waldo" books and spent hours on my lap trying to find him. Sally, the nine year old, couldn't stop playing house. She'd lead us all through the whole thing: "You be Daddy and I'll be Mommy and Sarah is Baby. Now, Daddy, you ask me how my day was and if I went shopping and to the shoe store. Now I'll ask you about the crops and you tell me they're all fine but the peaches need more water." Just like that. She'd lead us through every word. One night it hit me that she was trying to be a real Momma for Sarah and my eyes started stinging bad. I went out to steal George's truck but the keys weren't in it; they weren't on the left front tire where he liked to leave them either. I had the kitchen door open when the damn dogs started barking.
The next day I was watching where he put those keys when Shorty offered to teach me to plow. It was hard at first but I picked it up and pretty soon I found I liked lacing up the furrows of a big field as tight as a shoe and then turning off the tractor to look at my work. When George saw me in the John Deere he didn't stop calling me "Dumb-Son-of-a-Bitch" less, but he paid me a dollar more an hour. I wrote Mom about the raise and held off on stealing anything for a while.
Bomber Charlie showed up a month after I did and in exactly the same way: riding in George's truck and picking grass out of his hair from a night in a ditch. George brought him in while we were unloading one of the flatbeds and we gathered around him when George gave us a yell. "This is Charlie," George beamed. "He's a vet."
A thin, road-burned man nodded at us, dully and without interest. George looked puzzled, as if he expected something to happen. Finally he walked away and left Charlie like a stack of pipes.
Charlie wore black shoes, dirty, baggy blue slacks a tee-shirt and a faded army jacket. His hair was shaggy without being long or curly and his face was leathered from the sun. His eyes were grey and clear, but empty. He looked like a lot of men I'd seen on a lot of street corners. "Where'd you come in from?" Shorty asked, in his friendly way.
Charlie didn't answer.
"We'd better get you some farm clothes," Shorty offered, with a patient smile. "Come on." He walked into one of the barns and Charlie followed him without a word.
"That was a stupid war," Ted said. "Stupid."
"Which war?" Moose asked.
Ted looked surprised that Moose had even asked. "Vietnam," he said. "My father and my uncle were in it."
Moose hooked his thumbs behind his big belt buckle and waited.
"That war destroyed a lot of people," Ted said quietly, then he moved off.
"I guess that was a pretty bad war," Moose told me.
"Ted doesn't let much get to him," he said.
Bomber Charlie turned out to be a piss-poor worker, slow and lazy, but George never called him Dumb-Sob-of-a-Bitch or looked at him with the same sour-eyed anger he had for the rest of us. George just looked puzzled every time he saw Charlie, just as he had that first day, puzzled and edgy, like he was expecting something. Nothing unusual happened that I could see. Charlie never said a word. He just moved into the trailer next to mine and things went on pretty much as they had been.
Then in August we were driving three trucks of crates over a stony hill and down to the peach orchards when George stopped the lead truck. Shorty, Moose and Charlie got out of the flatbed ahead of us and Ted and I got out of the one we were driving. We all walked up to see why George had stopped.
George, tight-lipped and angry, was glaring at a big hunk of Granite that had shifted into the little roadway over the hill. There wasn't room to get the trucks around without taking a chance on sending them into a long slide down the slope. Shorty walked around the boulder, sized things up and then offered to get a tractor with a front loader.
"Damn it to hell," George said. "That won't work."
"It might work," Shorty said. "If not we can try winches and pulleys."
"From where?" George demanded. "We can only get one pulley off the road and the field's too far down the hill to use the trucks down there."
Shorty smiled at George's anger, hitched up his jeans and took another walk around the rock. "I'll just find us a way," he said.
"I could blow it up," Charlie whispered.
We all turned from the rock to look at Charlie.
"I could blow it up," he repeated, louder.
Shorty started to laugh.
Charlie shrugged imperceptibly and walked back towards the trucks.
"Wait a minute, wait a minute," George said. "Charlie, get back here. You can blow this thing up? How?"
Charlie came back and spoke in a flat, quiet voice. "That's what we did."
"When?" The light went on in George's eyes, "You blew things up in the service?"
"Bridges," Charlie said.
"And you could blow this up?"
"Hot damn," George said, as if he'd finally gotten the answer to a question that he'd fought with for years. "That's something I'd like to see. What do you need?"
"I don't know," Shorty said.
"Dynamite? We've got a bunch of that laying around somewhere from when the crews put in the canals at the north end."
"Sounds crazy to me," Shorty said. "I don't like messing around with that stuff. I know of a hand who blew himself to hell back in..."
"But Charlie knows what he's doing with it," George cut him off. "Charlie was in the service. How much would you need, Charlie?"
Charlie ghosted up to the boulder and ran his hands over it like a curse of doom. "Three pounds."
"Let's go," George said. "Charlie and I'll go down and pick it up. You boys wait here."
"You don't want us to go to work?" Shorty asked, looking at George to make sure he heard him right.
"Won't hurt you to take a break," George said.
Shorty looked disturbed.
George grinned at him and began to walk away.
"We may as well back down and go to the peaches the long way," Shorty called.
"Okay," George waved back, "but you drive on up the other side when you hear us honking. I want you to see the fireworks."
Shorty, looking a little stunned, watched George stride off with Charlie following him like a shadow.
"I've never seen the old whipcracker so excited," Ted said, as soon as we got in the truck to back down the hill. "That Charlie, I don't know, never says anything, never smiles, I feel sorry for him—I don't think anybody who went over there ever really came home."
We were down in the peaches for an hour before George's honking cut through the leaves. "Damn," Shorty said. "I guess we'd better get up there. Using the pulleys would have been twice as easy but I guess some folks just like to destroy things." He moved off toward the flatbed with resignation. I felt like we'd been given a holiday, but Shorty wore a worried face so I kept quiet on the ride up the hill.
When we got up to the rock Charlie was taping sticks of dynamite together and laying wires. The wind had picked up and his hair jumped around his face. He looked different, focused, like he was finally doing something he understood. He put dynamite into cracks in the rock and underneath it and then took a wire back down the hill to a plunger, just like the kind I used to see in cartoons.
"Hot damn," George whistled.
"The trucks need to be at least a hundred yards away," Charlie said.
"Dumb-Son-of-a-Bitch!" George hollered, throwing his keys to me, "you get my truck a hundred yards back."
While I reversed the truck I watched Charlie go over his work and make minor adjustments. When I came back up the hill he was ready. He looked at George and iron-haired, whip-thin George smiled at him and gave him a little salute. Charlie nodded. A hot gust of dusty wind blew through our group. Moose grinned at me, Ted winked. Charlie began to walk down the hill and we followed him like sheep. "Lay down," he told us when we got to the plunger. Everybody got into the dirt like soldiers. Shorty stood watching indignantly.
"Shorty," George laughed, "get your fat ass down in the dirt or get it blown off."
Without a smile Shorty got down.
Charlie stared at the rock for a long minute, almost as if he was trying to print it on his mind. Then he pressed the plunger.
The rock moved as if something had nudged it, then it lifted up and blew into pieces. A roar came echoing down the hill and then a deep boom. Rock and dirt rushed across the blue sky in a dirty smudge and then fell like rain all around us.
When the echoes had died off George leapt to his feet and rushed up the hill and we went after him like kids. "Look at this! Look at this!" he cried, fingering pieces of hot rock and handing them to us. "Blew the son-of-a-bitch to hell!"
"Amazing," Ted said. "That was granite."
"Damn," Moose nodded.
Charlie inspected the destruction professionally and then stared off into space. "Good job," George told him with a slap on the shoulder, but the distant look had already fallen on his features and he didn't respond.
The next day George and Charlie made a trip into Bakersfield and came back with a load of dynamite, wires, timers and fuses. For a week we blew out rocks and tree stumps. "Hell of a lot easier than pulling 'em out," George said. After tree stumps we started on the old cars and tractors that lay rusting here and there.
"Why in the world does it make George so happy to drag Charlie around and blow things up?" Ted asked, after we'd watched an old International disappear in a flash of metal and smoke. "I don't know," Moose said. He still had a little smile twitching around his lips. Moose liked watching things go up, and getting paid for it and two weeks of this fun had him talking more.
Shorty shifted gears and pulled us into the walnuts.
"He sure is different," I said.
"He's changed," Ted nodded, "and change is good. He actually made some jokes with those truckers who came out yesterday for the peaches."
"He talks to everybody who comes out now," I said.
"Why does he always want us to watch?" Moose asked. "We hardly work anymore, we just watch Charlie blow shit up."
Ted nodded, the way he did when he was thinking about something he liked to think about. "My guess is," he said slowly, "that it makes it more real, more like a ceremony."
"A ceremony?" Moose asked. "Like a wedding ceremony?"
"More like a funeral," Ted said. "More like a funeral because..."
"We never get any work done," Shorty snapped him off. "It's a Goddamn wonder the place still runs. All George does is grin and spit."
"But it's fun," Moose said.
"It's not fun," Shorty snapped out so hard we quit talking about it.
A week later we were out in the dawn eating packaged donuts, drinking coffee and waiting for George to come out of the house. A cool touch was in the air and I could smell smoke from somewhere. I looked up and saw the Sierras blue and inviting. "Weather's changing," Ted said, following my look.
George came out of the house, gave Sarah and Sally a kiss, sent them off to the bus and walked over to where we sat on the tailgate of Ted's truck. "Irrigation canals," he said, "down at the south end in the east corner."
Shorty looked up from running a rag over his truck. "South end?"
"That's right," George said.
"But what about the apples?" Shorty asked. "We've got to get pipe up there. Those Golden Delicious are dry."
"Smell the wind," George told him, "it's time to get those rows ready for the fall planting."
"We've got time," Shorty said. "Those apples are dry."
"A crew of Mexicans came in last night," George said. "They'll take care of it."
"I better go help," Shorty said.
"They'll be fine," George stopped him. "Put the backhoe on the flatbed and pick up a load of shovels. Let's go. Come on, Charlie." The south end of the farm was dead flat and furrowed for row crops. I'd never been to the east corner and was surprised when we drove up on an old two-story house surrounded by a group of paint-peeled buildings. "That's where George grew up," Ted pointed.
The house was neglected. Big sycamores fluttered over a yard gone wild and a tattered flag still hung from the porch. "Place doesn't look bad," Moose said, "just old."
"She needs one hell of a paint job," Ted said.
Up in front of us George stopped his truck as we neared the front walk.
"Shit," Shorty snapped. "Shit."
George and Charlie got out of the big Ford. George motioned towards us to get out and join them.
"Shit," Shorty repeated.
"Charlie," George said, after we'd all gathered around them, "How you feeling today?"
Charlie didn't answer.
"I'm feeling pretty good," George said, He looked at the house with a long, measuring look and then he smiled. "I'm feeling pretty good. Charlie, you think you could blow this place up?"
"No," Shorty told him quickly.
"Yes," Charlie said.
"You think you could blow it sky high?"
"Yes," Charlie repeated.
"Hot damn," George said, with a big white-toothed grin that made him look about seventeen.
"I don't like it," Shorty said.
"But I do," George answered.
"Your daddy loved this place."
"But I hate it," George said. "Charlie, blow this son-of-a-bitch to hell!"
Charlie floated down the walk, through the weeds and around the house. His hands began their walk of doom over the foundations.
"Perfectly good house," Shorty said. "Damn wasteful if you ask me."
"Useful," George corrected him. "There's going to be a beautiful new acre of crops where this shithole used to be."
Shorty turned around and walked back towards the flatbed.
"Well," George said. "How'd you boys like some furniture?"
Nobody said anything. A cool breeze fluttered the faded flag on the porch.
George pulled out his chain and worked a key off with his walnut- knuckled, thin, knotty hands. "Anything in there you want, it's yours."
"What?" Ted asked.
"Just put it where I'll never see it, that's all I ask."
"There's furniture in there?" Moose asked.
"Fifteen pounds," Charlie said, drifting up with that quiet walk of his.
"Thirty," George laughed.
Charlie started getting the dynamite out of George's truck.
"Go on," George told us, "You too, kid. Anything you can get out before Charlie pushes down the stick, it's all yours."
Ted looked at all of us and then said, "Change is good," and walked towards the house with the key in his hand.
"Pam's wanted a bunch of new furniture," Moose said, as if he was apologizing, and he followed Ted.
"That Charlie's an artist," George nodded towards the house in admiration. "I've always been terrified of that stuff myself. Go on, kid, what are you standing around for? Go on. Furnish that trailer of yours like the Hilton."
The inside of the house was dusty, but neat as a pin—it reminded me of a museum where you walked down a hall and looked into rooms from the western days. There was even an old radio set. Moose went by me carting a big oak table. "The chairs match," he said.
Ted went buy after him with a brass lamp. "Hot damn," he said, imitating George. "Hot damn!"
There was so much stuff I didn't know where to start. I drifted through the high-ceilinged rooms until I found a wall of black and white pictures. I saw George when he was young, standing handsome, tight-lipped and stern by his father. I saw Shorty in picture after picture, always surrounded by ranchhands and beaming at the camera. I wondered if Shorty would want some of the pictures and I started to take them down. Then I heard Ted yell to Moose, "My mom's going to love this!" and I stopped. Shorty could come in and get all the pictures he wanted—I had to get some things for Mom before Charlie blew them all to dust.
For a half an hour I jumped around grabbing bowls, vases, silverware and anything else I thought she'd like. Ted, Moose and I yelled slowpoke jokes at each other and raced to the trucks and back. Every time I entered the house my feet tickled and felt the dynamite Charlie was tucking into the foundations. After a trip where I got a big crystal bowl with flower patterns cut into it George stopped us and the race was over. I'd made more trips, but Moose and Ted had dragged out the big things like chairs and cabinets. We stood puffing and sweating and looking at each other while George tossed dirt clods in the air and watched Charlie lay the last wire.
"Where's Shorty?" Ted asked.
George stopped tossing clods and looked around. Off in the distance a tiny figure moved towards the orchards. "It's not like Shorty to walk anywhere," Ted finally ventured.
"No, it's not," George agreed. "Old Shorty's been a hand with the place a long time, he sure hates to see it change."
"Change is good," Ted nodded, just like he always did whenever a new situation came up.
"Ready," Charlie said.
George's eyes were still in the distance. "I ought to do something nice for old Shorty one of these days," he said.
After the house leapt up and collapsed in on itself George gave us the rest of the day off to move our new things. "Just put 'em where I'll never see 'em," he said, and drove off with the Country station blasting out his windows and Bomber Charlie riding along like a faithful dog.
The three of us got in the flatbed and drove slowly back towards the ranch. "Don't you hurt my China," Moose said, when Ted took a bump too hard.
"It's strange," Ted said. "All of this is strange."
"When I got here all George did was call me Dumb-son-of-a-bitch," I put in. "Now he pays me to watch things blow up and gives me furniture and things."
"Pam's going to love that table," Moose said, smiling off towards his house.
"Why does Shorty hate it all," I asked. "Yesterday he was talking to those hands from Farm Supply and then George came out and gave them a couple of beers. Shorty stood there for a while, but then he went off without a word and started washing his truck."
"He loves that truck," Moose whistled. "Older than hell and he loves it."
Ted nodded, but he was thinking of something else. "You know," he broke out, "maybe George always felt bad about his past and now he's getting rid of it. Maybe it's not things outside himself he's blowing up, maybe it's things inside."
Moose looked at him like he'd drunk too much.
"Now wait a minute," Ted explained. "When fireworks were first invented the Chinese used 'em to blow bad spirits out of their villages, maybe that's what George is doing, blowing his bad spirits off the farm."
"You went to college too long," Moose said. "Chinese, shit, the Chinese didn't invent anything."
"Noodles and gunpowder," Ted answered.
"If George is doing all this cleaning out to fix his past," I said, "why didn't he do it a long time ago?"
"Big things take time," Ted answered, making a turn. "When my wife and I got divorced we knew it was coming, but we still held it off for years before it finally happened."
"The Chinese didn't invent shit," Moose said again, and he dug my ribs to let me know he was just trying to get a rise out of Ted.
But Ted wasn't about to be distracted from his thoughts. "It's not just time," he went on, "sometimes you need a catalyst, in my marriage it wasn't till another man came along that things finally went into the grave."
"So what's this 'cattle-piss' for George to start smiling and giving us furniture?" Moose demanded.
"Charlie," Ted nodded. "Bomber Charlie."
Moose gave up trying to get a laugh. "Don't hurt my furniture," he said.
After Ted and Moose loaded up their truck and took off I put all my new things around the trailer and then sat out on the steps writing a letter to Mom about all the things I was going to send her. While I was finishing it George rolled in. He whistled around to the back of his truck and lifted out two black lab puppies with big pink bows around their necks. He was standing with one under each arm when the big yellow school bus pulled up.
Three days later, when we were finishing up unloading apple crates and Shorty was washing his truck out in the dusk, George nodded for Ted, Moose and I to follow him around a corner of the packing barn. I smelt cold diesel grease from the tractors and smoke from the apricot orchards where the Mexicans had done some burning earlier. A spray of yellow sparks shot out of the machine shop where Bomber Charlie was grinding something down. George looked back and forth between us. "How'd you boys like to do something nice for Shorty?"
"Sure," we said.
"How'd you like to buy him a new truck?"
No one said anything. Finally Moose said, "We don't have that kind of money."
George had his hands in the back pockets of his jeans. He looked like a big, bony older kid trying to talk us younger kids into our first swig of Southern Comfort. "No, no, I said that wrong," he told us. "I'll buy it, I'll pay for it, I just want you boys to help me give it to him." "A new truck?" Moose asked.
"A new truck," George grinned. "I want you to help me surprise him."
"That's some present," Moose whistled, "That's a lot of money."
"Shorty's been with the place a long time," George nodded.
Ted folded his arms on top of his little beer belly and then shook his mop of black curls slowly. "I don't know, George. It's, well, nice, doesn't even come close, but Shorty sure loves that old truck. He's out washing it right now."
The smell of sparks and burnt metal rode the cold air out from the machine shop. "Sure, he loves that old truck," George said, "but think how much he'd love a new one."
"I don't know," Ted hedged.
"Sure," George urged. "A new truck, same custom features but all brand-spanking new—no old engine swallowing a quart of oil every day just to keep it running."
"You're really going to buy him a new truck?" Moose asked.
"Look," Ted pleaded uncomfortably. "This is nice of you, darn nice, damn nice, you've been damn nice to all of us lately, but I can't do it, I can't have anything to do with Shorty's truck. He almost killed me once just for touching it."
"One time I accidently spat on his tire and he took a slug at me," Moose remembered.
"Sorry," Ted told George.
I thought the old whip-straight, angry George was going to snap to life, but the new George, elbows and grins, stayed right where he was. "Okay," he said, "I'll do it myself." He slapped Ted on the shoulder and walked off.
"A new truck," Moose said. "Shit."
Ted turned over an apple crate, sat on it and took a deep breath.
The dark shape of George walked into the machine shop just as a roar of sparks spilled out of it and tumbled across the ground. Around the building I heard Shorty turn the water off.
"I was going to steal from him," I confessed. "For every "Dumb-Son-of-a-Bitch" he laid on me I was going to steal something. But I can't now, not since he's been giving me things."
"Who wouldn't want a new truck?" Moose asked.
A week later we were out in the row crops again. Shorty was in the last field before the walnuts opening up the furrows for the winter lettuce while Moose, Ted and I cleared the irrigation ditches. The day was clear and cool, "Fishing Weather" Moose called it. He was taking Ted and I up into the Sierras once the apples were in. I stopped pulling weeds to take a leak and watched Shorty turn the big John Deere around and head it back around away from where he'd parked his truck. I was zipping up when I saw Bomber Charlie and George come hustling out of the walnuts. They slunk over to Shorty's truck and Charlie crawled under it. Before Shorty had reached the other end of his row and turned the tractor around they were back in the trees.
Then everything fell still, and the seconds of time became clear like pictures. Shorty turned the tractor around and rumbled slowly back towards the other end of the field. The new John Deere he drove was bright green. A red-tailed hawk drifted over. Moose and Ted, who'd seen what I'd seen, stood as still as scarecrows and watched Shorty. And Shorty's truck lay sleeping, blue and old and tired and comfortable, in the weak autumn sun.
Two hundred yards; the mountains a blue wave in the east. One hundred and fifty yards: the hawk drifts back. One hundred yards: Shorty spits out of the tractor. Ninety yards, eighty, seventy: Shorty's old truck waiting at the end of the field right in line with the furrows Shorty's cutting.
At fifty yards the truck pitched up like a giant mule had kicked it and blew into a thousand pieces. A cloud of firey oil stretched up and grabbed out a handful of blue sky and then a booming roar leapt across the field and tried to knock me over. A rain of pebbles made circles in the irrigation water around my knees. Finally the echoes rolled off and left the smoke to drift up peacefully from charred bits of metal.
After a long time Shorty climbed down from the tractor and walked up to where his truck had been. He stood looking at the junk around his feet like he was waiting for it to reappear. When the new blue truck came roaring and honking out of the walnuts he didn't even lift his head.
George and Bomber Charlie made straight for Ted, Moose and I. "Get in!" George yelled. We bundled into the bed and George gunned us to where Shorty was standing. We all got out and stood in a half-circle around Shorty. "What do you think, Shorty!?" George shouted, even though Shorty was right in front of him. "She's all yours!" George thumped the hood.
Two tears rolled down Shorty's fat cheeks.
"Aw, don't cry about it," George said. "You don't have to be so happy you cry. She is brand-spanking new though."
"Your daddy gave me that truck," Shorty said.
"Sure he did," George nodded.
"He was always nice to me," Shorty said.
"Sure he was," George said, "And he always called me a dumb-son-of-a-bitch. But he's gone, Shorty, gone, all that's gone. Look at this beauty!" He thumped the hood again.
"He gave me that truck."