I am much more comfortable writing goofy blog posts about kale recipes and that time I threw away my keys and didn’t notice. Short stories are, as a genre, very serious, and I spend a lot of energy trying to make light of heavy things. This is the first short story I have written in years, and it is an honor to have won the NCW’s contest. I am very proud of the story and feel it could probably be better, all at the same time. Be kind to me, please.
Judd awoke, again, to the sound of Dustin’s smoker’s hack, exacerbated by a nasty bronchitis that Dustin had picked up on the bus ride from Montana. Through the thin plastic wall that separated their rooms, the kid sounded like a 60 year old man. Judd had been in the North Dakota man camp for about two years, and he had to admit it lived up to the promises of the recruiter he had spoken to back in Colorado. The guy had promised a comfortable life (Amenities like you wouldn’t believe! Better than home! Hassle-free!) and the chance to make his fortune driving water trucks for the rigs. It was Judd’s nature to doubt these men, all salesmen, really, so he had kept his expectations about this part of his compensation package low. And he had to hand it to the guy, hassle free it had been for the past two years. Working 80-90 hour weeks, he had, in fact, made the small fortune he needed to pay for Annie’s care. It was better than the situation he’d had in his first gig back in Colorado, living in a giant double wide with 11 other guys, the bunk beds lined up like army barracks, the shared kitchen covered in slopped Stagg chili and Dorito powder, the smell of burnt coffee and the never ending overflow of the trash can. That had been free, too, provided by the company, but still there was so much time spent on shopping for and preparing food, the clean up duty that everyone shirked, the complete lack of privacy.
Judd got up, dressed, and used the bathroom he and Dustin shared, a Jack-and-Jill between their rooms. Judd wondered how many of the other guys knew that term, a Jack-and- Jill bathroom, from their lives at home with their wives or girlfriends. He wondered if knowing it made them as lonely as it made him. The gravel path to the cafeteria crunched under his boots, the overhead lights above the path glowing down like spotlights. The man camp was active at all hours. The men seemed quieter at night, presumably due to the human habit of their lives before the camp. But there were always men coming in and men heading out, a 24 hour stream of going to work and getting off work, sleeping and waking, being indoors and being outdoors. Even now there were guys watching The Godfather in the rec room, guys lifting weights in the fitness area, guys walking to the bunks, pulling their hoods over their heads to shield them from the relentless prairie wind. It was five a.m.
He’d broken a lace that morning and was hoping the camp store was open early enough for him to get a new set. The store didn’t carry much save for things the men would need in a pinch, boot laces, work gloves, tobacco products, snack foods. He carried the boot laces into the cafeteria, which was near deserted. The place was designed to feed a couple hundred, but due to the irregular shifts, it was rare to see more than 20 or 30 guys eating there at once. Sitting on the bench of an empty table to lace his boot, he noticed one of the fluorescent lights flickering. Looking around, he didn’t see Dustin anywhere, and hoped the kid was moving. They were going to ride together today, but Judd wasn’t going to wait around if the moron couldn’t get himself out of bed in time.
North Dakota was even more open than the eastern plains of Colorado; his rigs were nowhere near the small towns that were scattered across the prairie. Judd felt the expanse of empty land inside his ribs, a deep breath. He could feel himself spreading, opening into the territory. The work kept his mind and hands occupied, and between work and sleep, there wasn’t time to think, or analyze, or, best of all, regret. He asked for extra shifts instead of his weeks off, and while the company insisted on a few days for every man, his supervisor was more than happy to shave a day or two off his breaks. Judd killed the empty days in the game room of the man camp, playing an old version of Gran Turismo on an ancient Playstation 2 and taking breaks on the smoker’s plaza. The gas rigs were a new world. . .unceasing, unstoppable, around the clock. Just the way Judd had hoped it would be.
Dustin was new, barely 21 and fresh out of his parents’ house, the biggest disappointment of his life so far having been an apparently unsuccessful search for a steady girlfriend. Every break he got, Dustin went home to his mother’s chili and cinnamon rolls and to beers with his high school buddies. Judd hadn’t been back to Greeley since he’d left. For Judd, Annie and DJ were still everywhere in Greeley, and Judd knew he’d see JB’s Drive In and picture his lovely wife, pregnant, laughing as a thick marshmallow flavored milkshake mustache dripped on her face. “Say it 5 times fast!” Annie had insisted, and they’d both tried it, giggling like fools, over and over. Marshmallow milkshake mustache marshmallow milkshake mustache marshmallow milkshake mustache. Judd could not imagine, now, having to drive past the junkyard off Highway 34, the one with the observation tower he had paid a buck to climb with DJ so the boy could marvel at the view of the Rockies on the western horizon. The one where the old Grand Caravan, Annie’s car, the car he had spent nearly every day off working on, now sat rusting in the cruel sun. These early, happy memories were somehow less painful than the more recent ones from the year before the accident. Annie’s maddening, dark, brooding silences. The T.V., always on, blaring in the background. His anger and frustration as he grabbed her shoulders and yelled, “Pull it together, Annie. Jesus. Just do something. Do anything. If you can’t be happy with this, make a fucking change.”
Judd loaded a plate with bacon and eggs, a bagel with cream cheese, juice and coffee, and on a whim, a danish. He saw the to-go food cart stocked and ready, but while the sack lunches were better than nothing, they didn’t always hold him. Better to stuff himself full now and not have to worry about it for a few hours. He didn’t know any of the other men, so he sat down at the end of a table, alone, and pulled out his phone to check the news. Smart phones were amazing to him. He was old enough to have helped his mother, a legal secretary, lug a typewriter home so she could work after he went to bed. He had used clunky DOS desktops in high school, had bought a laptop for the business that had failed, and now, as a water hauler, all he needed was a tiny, pocket sized phone.
He pulled up CNN to check the headlines but got distracted by sponsored links and ended up on YouTube, watching something called a Whizbang chicken plucker that a farmer had built out of an old washing machine. It was random but compelling. The farmer fired up the motor, shot a garden hose into the basket, and dropped in the bird he had beheaded and bled out just before. Feathers splashed into the air and the bird emerged after only about a minute totally bare, like a rubber chicken from an old slapstick gag. The farmer, delighted, raved about the speed and quality of the pluck. Judd looked around for someone to show it to, but saw only one grizzled old codger, mid-60s maybe, reading a paper copy of the Tribune a few tables away. Judd watched him rub his hands on his thighs and pull a pencil, an actual lead pencil, the kind that needed to be sharpened in one of those rotary sharpeners from grade school, out of his shirt pocket. The man folded the paper into a small rectangle and started the crossword puzzle. Judd smiled to himself. He didn’t know the man, had heard he was a retired history teacher from some high school in Bismarck. A little old for the rigs themselves, the man, a procurement officer or something, had arrived a week ago for a site visit. Judd figured he’d have to meet with him sooner or later, to talk about the service records it was Judd’s job to file each week. At 38, Judd often felt like an old man, in camp and on site, surrounded by green, disillusioned millennial boys who thought they’d make their fortune as pro football stars or rappers, who had paid just enough attention in high school to graduate, and who had managed to leverage their diplomas into jobs on the rigs with training and good pay. . .pay that for the most part, the young guys seemed to take for granted, to feel they deserved somehow.
Judd and others his age, far enough along in life to know that you don’t, especially post-2008, thumb your nose at any comfortable paycheck, often thought of themselves as father figures to these kids. Judd had entertained this illusion for a few days until Dustin had set him straight. “Dude,” he’d said, “we don’t want to be like you guys when we’re your age. That would be, like, nothing. We’re already like you guys. When I’m your age, I’m gonna have, like, a family, and my own business, and a fucking BMW. I’m going to work clean, dude. No more of this dirty shit all over my clothes.” Dustin’s plan, Judd knew, was to make enough money to pay for an education in alternative energy at the community college and then start his own business installing windmills or solar panels or “something like, we don’t even imagine now, you know? Like, totally out of a space movie. Like in that old movie, Back to the Future, when Doc stuffs garbage into his DeLorean to make gas. That’s what I’m doing in my 30s, man. Stacks of bills. No more of this raping the earth and shit.”
This was a sentiment echoed by pretty much every twenty-something in the camp, an entire army of future entrepreneurs masquerading as water haulers and roustabouts . The oilfields were just a stepping stone for these young guys, who, honestly, had no idea how good they had it. Judd wondered if it was true, if one day he’d be calling a millionaire Dustin to see about a job when the drilling was done and this whole thing busted, as everyone knew it was bound to. Even the man camp, an entire prairie town, really, designed to be torn down and hauled away like fucking LEGOs.
Judd felt, rather than saw, a man sit down next to him. It was the codger, with his paper. Judd looked up, surprised.
“Happen to have any guesses about a product suffix suggesting noodles?” The man smiled an answer to Judd’s astonished silence; held out his hand. “Ben Stone. Company recruiter. You’re Judd Davis?”
Judd took the man’s hand. “Good to meet you,” he croaked, then cleared his throat to clear the sleep from his voice. “You out from Bismarck?”
“Yep. Turned me loose for a few days for field research. I have to say, I was expecting worse. The food is really quite good, though I would never tell my wife that. And it’s quieter than I thought it would be. For whatever reason, I had a picture in my head of the man camp as something from a Steinbeck novel. Not quite Grapes of Wrath because, no family, you know? But maybe Cannery Row. “
Judd laughed. Steinbeck was the only author he remembered authentically liking in high school English. “Not near enough alcohol for that. Too many rules.”
Stone laughed too. “That and you all have actual work to do. Less time and energy for frog hunting. Listen. You have any time for a meeting today?”
Judd considered. Stone was a recruiter, not procurement, which made his motives for the meeting less clear. “I’ve got a shift. Leave in about 10 minutes. Could meet around lunch tomorrow, though, if that works for you.”
Stone rose from the table. “I’m holding court in the conference room up by the front office. 1 or so? Tomorrow afternoon?”
Judd nodded. “Sure. Can I ask why?”
“I’ve got an offer I think you’ll like. And since I can tell I’ll still be working on this,” he waved the folded crossword, “think on that noodle thing, will you?” Stone refilled his coffee mug, ceramic, with the faded gild of a logo on it, nodded to Doris, the giantess who served as the camp’s head breakfast cook, and left the dining hall just as Dustin exploded into it, boots unlaced, shrugging into an insulated work jacket, waving an acknowledgement to Judd.
Dustin stuffed his pockets with sausage biscuits and filled his thermos with coffee while Judd grabbed sack lunches for them both. “You look like shit,” Judd said to Dustin. “Sure you don’t need a day?”
Dustin shrugged. “Nah. I’m alright. The cough is a real bitch at night, but it’s better in the daytime.”
The shift went by. The drilling rig had left the site the week before, and the injector, after a minor repair, was put back to work. There was a bit of tension and uncertainty about the flare until it was clear that all was working the way it should. All of the site activity was hidden from view by giant water tanks. In this case, Judd wondered whose view they were worrying about, as this particular site was so remote they hadn’t seen any sign of humanity since they turned off the state highway 25 miles back. The truck convoys hauling water were one of the most visible things for local people to object to. . .so much traffic on once sleepy, rural roads. But it would be worse, Judd knew, if the entire drilling process was so tangible. It was an unspoken rule that the rigs should be hidden as much as possible, not, of course, that the company had anything to hide about their safe, environmentally sound businesses. What the public could see, the flare burning off the emissions, the giant drill rig, the 24 hour spotlights, was upsetting enough. The turmoil underneath it all, the underground explosives and the chemical soup and the invisible gasses, was far more frightening.
Still, this job was the only luck he’d had in the past few years. He knew the company had saved his ass and the asses of any number of other men who had been laid off from jobs in construction, in landscaping, in mortgage lending, for God’s sake, during the recession. Judd had become, over the years, a master of control of his own thoughts. He refused to engage with complex moral conflict. He would not dwell on difficult things, not environmental issues, not politics, not his mother, not Annie, not DJ.
He thought of his mother, her face a perfect mask of serenity and contentment throughout his father’s alcoholic rages. Realized too late, after he himself had run off and left home, how heartbreakingly lonely the eerie calm of the house must have been for her. He remembered himself, a frightened 10 year old, approaching his mother as she scrubbed pans at the sink after dinner and asking her about the erections he had started getting on a regular basis. During math class. On the school bus. Riding his bike. “What’s happening?” he asked her. “Am I okay?” His mother’s hand in its yellow rubber glove had slowed only for a moment, her grip almost imperceptibly tightening on the sponge.
“Of course you’re okay,” she had said, refusing eye contact. “Just don’t think about it and it will go away.”
It was advice Judd returned to over and over again, the simple truth around which he organized his life. It was what had drawn him to trade the plains of Colorado for the North Dakota prairie, to ignore completely the earnest urgings of his therapist to “re-engage with society.” At first, the man camp had been just the exact blissful escape he had searched for. Recently, though, there were the dreams. Dreams in which the real and the imaginary intertwined like fingers. Dreams in which his rig was leaking into a burning river, and it was his limp, lifeless body, not DJ’s, being recovered from the roiling foam. Dreams of a withered, ghost-like Annie who pointed and scowled at him, so accusatory, so suddenly lucid, and it was Judd, not Annie, who had driven the Caravan off the bridge, and then he suddenly stood again on the bridge above the wreck, engulfed in guilt but frozen, unable to flee. Dreams in which DJ, his curly mop bouncing around his 4 year old innocence, scrambled around the bank rocks, asking, incessantly, if Judd wanted to try a different fly. In this dream, he could feel both the annoyance he had felt toward the boy in the real-life moment, the emotions of his past self, and also the agony and regret of his current being. He wanted to shake his past self into the moment, or scare him into it, like Marley to Scrooge. Judd as the ghost of his own empty future. Judd lost. And another, himself at DJ’s age, hiking in the foothills, climbing to the top of a rock and spreading his arms as far as they would go. Spinning, like he’d seen people do on TV, the joy and pride of his own accomplishment streaming from his core, from somewhere near his boy heart, through the big sky, combining, in the end, with the giant, mysterious clouds.
Dreams were just dreams, but Judd found it harder and harder, in the morning, to shake off the emotion left in their wake. Even when the images receded, he was left with the pride, the desperation, the regret, and these emotions did not reconcile easily with life in the man camp. He thought about Dustin and the other young guys, and about himself at their age, so full of cocky confidence. Sure with absolute know-it-all certainty that the way they lived or ate or thought was the one right way to do any of those things. Dustin, to Judd, was nearly as innocent as the DJ of his dreams. Neither of them had lived enough time to fuck it all up, to fail at important things. Neither of them realized how much of life was the luck, good or bad, that flowed out of the crap choices you made before you understood what it all meant, before the stakes were clear, before you knew how to properly care for the things you held dear. Neither would have ever wondered, the way Judd did when his dreams woke him, breathless and sweaty, whether Annie had a real accident or whether she meant to drive into that river.
Dustin had picked up Judd’s habit of ladling soup into a mug so that he could drink meals down on the walk from the cafeteria to the bunk before collapsing into sleep. They would head out again after Judd’s meeting, back to switching tanks in the relentless howling wind that scoured the prairie. Today, Judd sat for a few minutes to eat mac and cheese before stumbling back to catch a nap. He wondered if Stone had eaten lunch yet, if he had found his suffix suggesting noodles. He wondered if Stone had known the solution all along but had needed a conversation starter.
When he awoke later, there was a film of dust and tears crusting his eyes nearly shut, and when he cleaned his ears after his shower, the swab came out blackened and greasy. The lens coating on his sunglasses was scraped and scratched nearly off from the grit that pelted the men as they worked. It was one reason Judd had come to prefer the night shift; often, the winds were calmer at night than they were during the day. Dustin’s alarm was still beeping, and Judd banged a few times on Dustin’s locked door to get the kid moving before heading into his own bunk.
The bunks were small, a single bed, a closet with drawers inside, a small counter/desk with a mirror above it, something Annie would have called a vanity. In the middle, there was just enough space for one man to stand up. Visitors were naturally discouraged by the tightness of the space; men tended to socialize, if at all, in the dining and rec halls rather than in the bunks. Women, drugs, and alcohol, according to the rules, weren’t allowed in the rooms at all. Judd had returned from shifts a few times to see subtle evidence that one of the company’s promised spot inspections had taken place. Judd was grateful to have his own room, but he understood that he had traded real privacy for convenience here in the camp. He accepted it as a condition of employment, and didn’t rail against the injustice of the inspections the way Dustin and the other young guys sometimes did. Judd had argued with Dustin, just once, that living at home with his parents had likely been even less private, that they had probably searched Dustin’s room when he wasn’t home, lurked on his Facebook account, eavesdropped on phone conversations. . .all without the courtesy of announcing that this was a possibility. Dustin had looked so crestfallen at this, so betrayed. “That’s fucked up, man. I wonder if they’re in my room, like, right now. I mean, I thought I lost a dime bag once, but maybe like my dad just took it and didn’t have the balls to say anything, you know?” Judd had felt like such an ass, sowing the seeds of discontent between this kid and what was probably his perfectly well-meaning, loving father. It was exactly this contrariness, this need to point out flaws to others, that had driven Annie crazy. “Like your mother,” she had said. “Just like her. Knock it off, will you?” And he had tried, he had, was still trying, really, but he never saw it until after the fact, when the razor sharp effect of his bullshit had hit the people around him. When the wound was already inflicted and he had no idea how to stop the bleeding.
Stone was in the conference room looking every bit the retired history professor when Judd arrived. His ancient blazer had leather patches on the elbows, pencils stuck out of the breast pocket of his shirt. Judd wondered why Stone, who seemed to have been cultivating this look for years, neglected to use a pocket protector. The bottom seam of his pocket was marked and stained with ink and lead. Stone’s eyebrows, his most prominent feature, like gray, bushy caterpillars, were furrowed over the crossword, while the conference room table was disheveled, so covered in stacks of manila folders and newspaper and reports that sitting across from Stone felt almost like having a conversation from opposite ends of a canyon.
They shook hands. “-aroni,” Judd said as they both sat.
For a split second, Stone looked confused, then laughed heartily, studying his crossword. “Of course!” he exclaimed. “But that does mean that these two down answers can’t be right.” He attacked the page with a gum eraser, and Judd noticed that the metal eraser casing of every one of Stone’s pencils was empty and bent.
Stone rubbed his hands together and opened the manila file nearest to him. “Now, from your file it appears you had quite the successful land appraisal business down Greeley way a few years back. How’d you end up hauling water up here?”
Judd didn’t answer right away. What sort of answer did Stone want? Surely not the sordid personal details. “Turns out the water pays better than appraisals. I needed the money. “
“Aims Community College. Associate degree?”
“Yes. Took a few business courses, gen ed stuff.”
“But you didn’t go on for a Bachelor’s?”
“Nope. Thought I’d be a land surveyor, but didn’t make it through.”
“You still have family back in Colorado?”
Judd saw Annie, the specter Annie of his dreams. He pictured her speechless glare, so full of the depths of her hate, drilling straight into him. He never knew how much information to give, how much of his life people were prepared to take in response to such pleasantries. “In Greeley. My wife. In assisted living. She doesn’t really. . .she has a brain injury.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Stone sighed. Judd was surprised by the older man’s sincerity, and then was surprised by his surprise, by how long it had been since he had believed in anyone else’s honesty. Stone continued, “Here’s the thing, Judd. We need an advance land guy back there in Weld. Someone to secure easements from property owners, convince them to allow us to get the seismic testing done, reassure them that they won’t start being able to light their water faucets on fire. Company policy says promote from within, we need someone who knows the area, and you seem to stand right out. You interested?”
Judd felt his hands start to shake, but managed to keep them hidden. “What’s the offer?”
“Significant salary increase, with bonuses, you’re looking at well above six figures. Stock options. Nice private office in our Greeley headquarters. I hear it’s got a mountain view and everything. Company truck. Relocation paid, though looking at the, well, simplicity of your situation here, we may be able to swap out the moving expenses for a down payment credit toward a house. You keep your benefits. Get yourself back near your wife.”
“When would I start?”
“End of the week. Two weeks off to get yourself settled down there, and then you’re on the job.”
Judd let out a low whistle. “When do you need to know?”
“First thing in the morning. I’ll see you at breakfast, you let me know.” Stone smiled. “You could do a lot worse than this, you know.”
Judd smiled weakly and excused himself. He knew.
Dustin was in the dining hall, an empty tray in front of him save for half a bottle of chocolate milk, texting. Judd sat down. “You ready?”
Dustin didn’t look up, his fingers nearly blurring across the touch screen of his phone. Judd hated the kid’s distractibility, the assumption that the human in front of you, face to face, should wait in favor of the human on the other end of the digital world. Finally, Dustin put his phone in his pocket and looked up. “Dude. You would not believe this girl. Like she thinks we’re going to get married, wants me to quit and come home and play house. And I was getting into that, you know, thinking about putting in my notice. And then my buddy tells me she’s running around on me at home, out at the bars every night, sitting on guys’ laps, and shit. I mean, what does she want from me?”
Judd briefly considered telling Dustin about Stone’s offer, but rejected the idea. It would be a little like explaining algebra to a preschooler. Judd needed wisdom, and Dustin didn’t have any to offer. Guys he knew his own age in the camp were mostly working for the money, living away from their presumably loving wives and living, healthy children, wanting desperately all the time to leave the camp and go back home. He’d be an asshole to ask any of those guys for advice.
He thought of Annie as he’d last seen her, over two years ago, in a wheelchair in the nursing home recreation room, a blanket on her lap, her hair greasy and stringy. Her eyes vacant, his once beautiful young wife just staring at him, silent. Judd believed that he was as unrecognizable to her as she was to him.
“Dude. Time to go, right?” Dustin said. “What’s up?”
Judd got out his phone and handed it to Dustin. “You ever heard of a Whizbang chicken plucker? Maybe that’s how you can make your millions and impress this girl.”
“You’re real funny, jackass.”
The next morning, over Doris’ famous biscuits and gravy and strong coffee, Judd told Stone he’d go home.