A week after the election, on a surprisingly mild day, Andrew, Billie, and Clyde (“call me JR”), who was the tallest of the three, were playing their version of 21 at the basketball rim by the picnic tables in back of the apple-processing plant.
Glaron sat at the table keeping score, with three piles of pennies in front of him. The two white boys—in their early twenties but still with soft, petulant faces—straddled the picnic bench across from Glaron, at once bored and jittery, casting occasional glances at the pennies.
Two black men—friends of JR’s, hired for the month because Steve needed a full crew in November—leaned against the building in the sun, smoking, encouraging the players in low voices, tossing a penny on a pile for each basket.
Against the sound of an 18-wheeler backing into the front of the plant with another load of apples, JR and Billie tied at 19. Andrew stepped out of the chalk-marked ring and went to the far end of the table, where he had left his bottle of Gatorade. He took a swig from it and immediately spit it out, spraying liquid in a half-circle around him.
The basketball game stopped. “Piss in your drink?” asked JR.
“Vodka.” In two steps Andrew stood over Bryan, who was trying to get up, one leg under the picnic table, and poured the Gatorade over the boy’s head. “Goddammit, Bryan, I told you not to be an asshole!”
“Don’t touch him,” Glaron said in a low, firm voice.
Bryan and his sidekick were standing now.
“Nothin’ wrong with your drink, you just want a fight—“
“You little turd. You think I would pick a fight with a shit like you?”
“Hold it,” said JR, next to Andrew now. “Not cool,” he said to Bryan. “The brother don’t drink. You don’t fool with that.”
The other men gathered around, ready to separate the two before a punch landed. In front, the driver cut the truck engine. Steve opened the back door and stopped mid-word at what he saw.
“What’s going on?” he said.
“Just a lunchtime discussion, chief,” said JR.
Steve took in Bryan’s wet hair, liquid dripping off his chin, and Andrew standing next to him.
“Bryan, get in here.”
“Come here! Logan, you too.”
Andrew moved immediately toward the door, his mouth tight.
“Thompson,” Steve said to Glaron, “check in the truck.”
“Yes sir.” Glaron got up, scraping the pennies into his lunch bag with a cupped hand.
Steve had created an office for himself in a windowless storage room, with one wooden table, two straight chairs, and three metal filing cabinets. It was as tidy as Steve himself, who, Andrew had observed to Annie, favored minimum-security style of denim and a buzz cut.
The three of them stood in a triangle around the desk, Steve behind it, Bryan near the far wall, Andrew leaning alongside the door.
“Why is your head all wet, Bryan?” Steve asked, and Andrew heard some fatigue there, as if this kind of conversation wasn’t new.
“He poured his drink on me.”
Steve sighed. “Logan, why did you pour your drink on Bryan?”
“He put vodka in it.”
“Shut up, Bryan. Logan, did you see him do it?”
“Why do you think he did it?”
“Ask the little turd—”
“I’m asking you.”
Now Andrew sighed. “Because he needles me. About the meds I take to keep me from decking him twice a day. About hanging with the black guys. Jesus, don’t get me started—because he doesn’t do the job, because he doesn’t get it, because he hasn’t hit bottom yet.”
The other two stared, Bryan with his mouth half open.
“The rest of us have hit bottom and are on the way up. Bryan’s still clueless.”
“Thank you, Logan, we’re not at a meeting.”
Andrew shrugged. “Saved my life.”
“Bryan, go back to work. And this afternoon, work.”
“Leave it. Let it dry, nice and sticky.”
Bryan left. Andrew remained, waiting for dismissal.
“Logan, one more fight and you’re out.”
Andrew and Steve both sat, across from each other.
“You’ve got a nice lady.”
Andrew nodded. “Keeps me straight.”
“I was going to ask you if you want to stay through the winter. Help me get this place cleaned up, organized.”
“I’m here, Steve, I’m not going anywhere. Wish I were, but I’m not.”
“But you’re as crazy as the rest of them.”
“The little shit thought I wouldn’t taste the vodka. I’ll wind up in the paddy wagon.”
“Watch your language.”
“He your nephew?”
Steve paused. “He told you?”
“Everybody figures it.”
“—My sister’s only kid. Other one got drunk, wrapped his car around a tree.”
“I’m sorry,” said Andrew, meaning it, thinking, so that’s what this is about.
“—Thank you. Nice manners, Logan. Always.”
“Momma. We all have manners, Steve, they’re just buried in shit.”
“Bryan doesn’t have any manners.”
“Thompson does, and he’s not crazy, by the way. Billie’s pretty sane too.”
“I can’t keep the whole crew on. Thompson’s not strong enough to come back another year . . . maybe you and Thompson. Maybe. Stay out of trouble. Now get back to work.”
* * * * * *
“He say how long he’ll keep this place open?”
Andrew and JR were leaning against Steve’s Ford Explorer in the dark, smoking, waiting for Annie to pick them up. They had done overtime, unloading the truck, and were the last to clock out.
“—Not exactly,” said Andrew. “Did say that he couldn’t keep the whole crew on all winter.”
“Well, this crew ain’t staying in that icebox all winter.”
“You got enough weeks for unemployment?”
“There you go, asking me something to make me think. You’re too smart for this job.”
“Girl helps,” said Andrew, wondering, again, if JR were under cover too.
Why do you think that? Annie had asked.
Just a certain lack . . . of . . . detail.
Annie arrived then, and in the second before they moved, she saw the two men—tall, long hair crushed under baseball caps, one white, one quick to tell you he was “high yellow”—leaning against the white Explorer, their legs crossed at the knee in the same direction, right leg over left, as if they might, in the next second, dance away. They wouldn’t dance, of course, they would get in the car, bringing with them the smell of cigarette smoke tinged with apples.
“Don’t say anything about today.” Andrew spoke to the road as he flicked his cigarette butt to the curb.
“Not me,” JR said to the asphalt at his feet.
“A car with four doors,” he mused, sitting in back of Annie. Next to him, half of the back seat was folded down to make room for Chloe’s crate.
“Amazing, isn’t it,” said Annie.
“Auction,” said Andrew. “Get you something if you want.”
"Yeah, they auction bicycles?
“A bicycle you can find.”
“Find me a bicycle in Florida next month. That’s the thing to do.”
“I just want to stop at the dry cleaner before they close,” said Annie, turning right, away from Schuyler toward the malls.
“You’re the driver,” said Andrew. “How are the Witches?”
“Witchy. There was a fight, outside a bar in the town of Cowpoke. So we reported the fight, and the location. Today Tina called Catherine and me into her office and chewed us out for twenty minutes about reporting the location.
“We kept saying, but that’s where the fight was, right in their parking lot. She kept saying it was unfair to them, bad for their business.”
“Well, yeah. So they called her. Advertisers?”
“No! Not even.” Annie set the hand brake and went into the dry cleaner.
“Your girl work for a witch?”
“Two of them.”
“—I could put a spell on them, you know,” said JR, who claimed New Orleans as home.
“Go for it.”
“Start it tonight.”
“Don’t tell her.”
“Can’t tell her.”
Annie hooked the dry cleaning onto Chloe’s crate, then headed to Schuyler by the back way, with fewer stoplights.
As soon as she crossed the city line, a large red light circled in back of her. Annie pulled over, expecting an emergency vehicle to pass, but a police car pulled up in back of her.
“Shit! What did I do?”
“Fuck,” said Andrew. “You clean, JR?”
“I’m clean,” snapped JR, “you clean?”
Andrew nodded. “Don’t say anything about the paper,” he said to Annie.
She opened her mouth, closed it. A week earlier, telling a cop, “I should know better! I work for the Observer!” had turned a speeding ticket into a warning.
This cop was at the window. “Everybody out. With ID.”
Copyright © Debby Mayer