Thursday, June 17, 2010

An American Day

The early August sun was only an inch above the horizon, but even at forty-five miles an hour with the windows open, there wasn’t enough air in the truck cab to keep Mike from sweating. He glanced at his watch. I’ll get there in time, but not by much. A truck like his, also towing a backhoe, approached in the oncoming lane. It was Phil, and they waved to each other as they passed.

About half a mile ahead, a solitary figure stood on the other side of the road, and as Mike got closer, he began to signal Mike to stop. A stone’s throw behind the man were some trees, a pickup truck, some shovels stuck in the ground, and a pile of dirt.

Mike pulled over, and the man, solidly built with curly black hair above the dusty sweat on his forehead, came over and laid the thick hand of a manual worker on his windowsill. “Thanks for stopping. Could you please fill up our hole for us?”

Mike looked at the dirt pile and saw under a tree three young men in sweaty T-shirts looking at him through their eyebrows. “Well, I’m already cutting it close for my job.”

The man’s other hand appeared on the windowsill, a twenty-dollar bill where one might have expected to see a cigar. “I understand, but could you please fill up our hole?”

Twenty bucks wasn’t all that much, but Mike didn’t envy anyone who would have to shovel dirt in this heat. The pile would take him maybe ten minutes to move, but that could make him late, and Dick, the foreman at the other site, could be pretty touchy. He looked at the bill for a couple of seconds. I wouldn’t stop strangers if I weren’t pretty desperate. Sighing heavily, he took the money and opened the cab door.

Immediately the man called, “Guys!” and the men who had been resting under the trees hurried to Mike’s trailer. “My name’s Ray, he said, extending his hand. “I really appreciate this.”

The men loosened the winches that held the backhoe on the trailer and attached the ramp to the rear with Ray watching closely the whole time. Mike climbed into the backhoe, backed it off, and headed for the dirt pile. As he worked, he occasionally saw Ray out of the corner of his eye in animated conversation with a thin man in a button-down office shirt.

Fifteen minutes later, the hole was filled and his backhoe was on the trailer. As Mike climbed into the cab, Ray and the office man came over. “Thanks again,” Ray said, “I know it was a hard choice.”

“Well,” Mike grinned slightly, “I suppose I’d have jumped sooner if the offer had been thirty bucks.”

Ray whipped out his wallet and handed Mike a ten-dollar bill. “We’d have been at this for a week”—he looked purposefully at the office worker—”if you hadn’t stopped.”

Mike chuckled, waved at the men, and drove off.

He was indeed not going to be there on time, and that meant men would be standing around waiting for him. A few blocks shy of his destination was a doughnut shop, so he pulled over to the curb, put on his emergency flashers, and trotted to the door. He groaned when he saw two men waiting behind the customer being served, but he had a plan. He came up behind them, put his hands on their shoulders, and said, “Excuse me, guys, but I’ve gotta get out fast. Can I spot you coffee if you let me go first?”

As one said “Sounds good to me” the other said “That won’t be necessary,” and all three laughed. Mike thanked them, placed his order for two dozen donuts and a pot of coffee, plus a large cup each for the two men, and returned back to his truck.

He had left home expecting to start moving dirt before ten o’clock, but he pulled into the site shortly after. Dick scowled at him from under his snap-band cap as he drove up.

“I’m sorry I’m late.” Mike said. “I got waylayed.” He pulled the doughnuts and coffee out of the truck. “Please give these to your guys while I get set up.”

Dick grunted and took the goodies reluctantly over to where his men were waiting. Mike attached the ramp, undid the winches, backed the backhoe off the trailer, and headed for the stakes that marked his workplace.

After last-minute instructions delivered in a voice that made him wonder if Dick had missed the last train home, Mike set to work. He knew his stuff, and his part of the job went smoothly. Dick’s workers were another story, and Mike could tell this was one more long day for the old guy, so he worked through lunch, hoping Dick would take that as a gesture that he was making up for being late. The afternoon went much like the morning, but an hour or so before quitting time, a breeze came up, giving the work site some relief from the merciless sun.

At last, his assigned work finished, Mike got stiffly off the backhoe and wandered over to where Dick was filling out some forms on the hood of a dusty pickup truck. “Anything else I can do before I go?”

Dick didn’t raise his head. “Nope. The office will mail your check tomorrow.” He finally looked up at Mike, then signaled for him to wait and walked around to the passenger door, opened it, reached in, and pulled out two bottles of beer. He handed them over waist high. “Enjoy these with your lady.”

Mike took the bottles, and his eyes widened as he read the labels. Whoa! This stuff isn’t cheap! He looked at Dick, who had returned to his papers. “Wow.” No response. “Thanks.”

“Next time don’t be late.”

The conversation was over, so Mike loaded up the backhoe and headed home. The cab was now only comfortably warm, and before long he pulled into the gravel driveway of the dented brown and white trailer parked where he hoped to put the garage when he started building the house next summer. Bonnie was reading a magazine on the tiny weathered porch, her blonde hair to her elbows and her legs dangling down the stairs. When Mike pulled the emergency brake on, she stood up and came toward him, the evening breeze blowing her hair back and caressing what Mike was discovering were not her most important assets.

He grabbed the bottles with a satisfied smile, took a deep breath, and gave his head a vigorous shake as he let it out. He was ready for the evening.

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