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Joe Hall

A Bubble Coming Up Through Rust

 With the stringy bits of what was left of his hand just cleaned up, I wonder what the hell Buck is doing back. Turns out Buck wants to tell me, Earl, Jeff and Froggy our numbers  hit. 21 million big ones.

 “I’ll take it!” Buck is all flushed and grinning. He waves his stump like a wand. “We’re out of here!” Earl and Jeff whoop, start slapping each other while Buck pats the fellas with his stump like he still has a hand there. Swimming up and down in the air, the whole mess of white bandages looks just like a cigarette. There’s blood at the tip, like it’s lit. The smoke is the ghost. The amputated thing.

It’s funny in an icy sort of way, Buck buying that ticket with the same paw that slipped past the safety-guard and under the head of the drill which punched clean into flesh and bone, got caught on something and twisted into pulp. 

Froggy goes back to a lathe he’s tinkering with. Buck is talking at me. “The Lotto Man’ll be here in two days to work out how we get paid.”

 “Sorry about your hand,” I say. I am. We’ve fished together at Diggs’ pond for years. I think about having no hands. “I guess your boys can help you around the house.”

 “Shit,” Buck snorts, “I can still jerk off. You can retire.”

Buck ambles off. Its summer, huge blowers in the ceiling can’t take away the machines’ heat. I mop my neck, behind my ears with my handkerchief, a gray dingy thing. O.M. is stitched in one corner in cornflower blue thread. O.M.: that’s me, but the stitching ain’t mine. 

¤

The day goes like it does and I’m under the big yellow light of the moon, driving home through back country. I should be happy. Happy.

 Two oaks flare up in my headlights, I slow down, swing between them. Gravel underneath. Hector there to lick my hand when I ease down. He follows me into the stillness, the house. 

Good boy Hector; he gets fed. I try to see after my dinner but the things are there, even the ones I don’t want, wrapping me up, overtaking me—dresses in the closet fuzzed with dust, china in the cupboards, a spider catching flies in the gravy boat, patchwork quilt half-finished, stretched across its frame, stitches undoing themselves a little, velvet patches curling up like suckers from a stump. 

Enough. I take a flashlight out into my half acre garden. I weed, water, visit the scarecrow which is where I go to think.

I see what is ripe. I’ve got to do all the work now.  It’s fine. The night is cool. Melba is dead. The moon is sick. Things don’t change. I’m going to be rich. 

¤

Get out of the house earlier than usual, have coffee at Stuckey’s, but can’t get food down. I think about money and what I’ll do with it, but I get Buck waggling his cigarette-arm like some amusement park mascot saying, “Hey, come on in!”  It’s good to get to work. The Union and OSHA guys are done looking it over so the foreman puts me up to fixing Buck’s press. For a good quarter hour I size it up. The drill looks rusty; there’s an odd sliver of bone jammed into the punch plate. I hear the separate noises of the factory for the first in a long time—machines gnashing, the clattering of conveyer belts pulling themselves along, the whir of forklifts gliding by. I can’t see what the problem is. I have to get in there.  

¤

 Lotto Man has a perfect dome of oil-black hair. He asks how we agreed to divide the winnings, and they say, “Even-Steven.” 

 We’re sitting at a long table and half of Buck’s forearm is gone.

Lotto Man explains we can get paid in one lump sum or in staggered payments. Earl, Jeff and Buck say “Lump-sum” before he can finish. I ask Buck what the holy-hell happened to his arm. Buck says it’s nothing to worry about then something about infection so they took more off. Don’t worry about it.

 Lotto Man is looking at me asking how I want my money like I don’t understand plain English.

 I look at my hands. They’re wide, dented, shined up with grease. Big purple veins tie it all together. I hear the break bell ring and my hands tighten, push me up; I’m out of my seat.  They know what to do, but here I am. I’m sitting, looking at them, twitch.

 I don’t know if I want it, the money, I say. I ask for some time to think on it.

 “Well now,” Lotto Man says and pats his hair, “That’s going to make it hard to divvy things up, isn’t it?” 

 Jeff twists his ball cap in his hands and Earl looks at me cockeyed. Buck just peers down into his sling. “It’s alright. It’s alright,” he says. 

The Lotto man chews on this for such a time that I know a man not knowing about his money must be a first for Lotto Men across the board. I feel bad for making his job hard but he nods to himself and gives us a neat smile.

 “I’ll be back on Monday. You make up your mind one way or the other. Hope y’all can wait.”

 It spreads. Everyone looks at me on the sly when I go across the floor to get a tool or cup of coffee. When I have my head stuck in the guts of Buck’s drill, Froggy asks why I don’t know about the money. I say “I don’t know.” He says, “4.25 million dollars is 4.25 million dollars.”

Jeff and Earl catch me on the way out and ask what the hell do I think I’m doing holding up their money. I tell them not to worry—I’d make up my mind. Besides it’s almost payday. I say it and Jeff looks like he might slug me. He doesn’t on account of me being an old fart. They throw open the heavy door to the parking lot. The heat and light startles them for just a moment and they go.

 And Buck is out there too, across the lot looking at me over his truck bed. I think he’s going to ask me about the money too. He wipes his baggy cheeks with a sleeve. His mouth opens and closes like a fish on a line sucking down air.

¤

He’s hanging there, as usual, in a pair of my coveralls and an old flannel shirt. He’s a fatso. Underneath my old flop hat, his head is an old burlap sack on which Melba painted a sideways grin. And what is this?

He’s lost a hand. There it is beside him—my old leather glove. I can fix that, isn’t that right Hector? Hector doesn’t say nothing; he just stands there like he was made of rock.  So I go pick up the glove. When I do, Hector starts bawling in my ear and tears off toward the house.

I hold the glove. Its fingers are stiff, spring soaked and summer baked. I look up at the scarecrow. His grin isn’t crooked tonight. No, its not; his mouth is just a slash in burlap. Straw is spilling from that slash like he’s puking his guts out.

 “Well, hell,” I say, “You’re lucky you lasted this long.” 

¤

Can’t figure what the hell is wrong with Buck’s press. Just won’t go. Can’t figure how Buck got his big fat hand in there either. Been fixing things for twenty-five years, but there is no rhyme or reason to what I am looking at.

The Foreman comes around and asks if I’m going to stay on. “Sure,” I say. “Got to kill time somehow.”  He tells me Jeff and Earl already called it quits. I go ask Froggy what he’s going to do. He says, “I’ll leave when the money is in my pocket.” Froggy is colored, but he’s got a level head.

Buck taps me on the shoulder when I’m back at his drill press. He is in khakis, loafers and a baggy silk shirt and walks tenderfooted. No sling, nothing but empty sleeve—no elbow. His eyes goggle and he steps side to side when he realizes this is his machine.

Just to say something, he blurts “Been looking for a good place to move. Some place with good schools and all.”

His eyes seem real dark in his wide face. There’s something scared there.

“You got to figure it all out pretty quick. This money is more work than you think.”

“That’s right,” I say. “Ain’t enough time to figure.” Buck agrees. But now he’s got a pinched look.

 “Well, look,” he says, “I know it’s not my business, but shit—what do you got to figure?” Buck knows me best and the way he says you stings—like I got nothing and don’t care for nothing.

He steals another glance at the press. I wipe my hands with a rag. “Look,” he says, like he’s interrupting me, “just take the money. Take it. You got no reason not to."

 I don't get heated. I don't fuss.

 "Sorry." Buck opens his hand next to his face, his first finger up on his cheek, his eye back on the drill, the thread of the long bit. A tremble going through him, making him shake.

 "Lotto Man!" Buck forgot to mention he’s here to drag all us winners outside to some cameras. We start to the door by the loading dock. He puts his good arm over my shoulder, gets in my ear, confidential.

 "Hey, maybe you don't need it—the money. You keep things nice and simple. I like that about you. But you don't have to keep it. Give it to the Salvation Army. Or the Odd-Fellows home. Shit, give it to Hector."

 Hector. I think of him worrying things in his jaws.

 “Let him eat steak and gravy.”

 Steak and gravy. “He’s a good dog.”

 “Yeah. Hell yeah. Give him break. Fix him up with a bitch.”

 I laugh. It’s a pleasure, just going with it. That’s it. Okay. “Okay.”

Buck grins.

 “I’ll take it”

I open the door. There we are in the outside light, Buck hurrying ahead of me, pointing out his big new Impala then there is this pack of people snuffling around us with cameras. Is this a beard? I touch my face. Buck introduces us to the local news people and Lotto Man is there.

Though Buck looks pale and puffy, even for a big country boy. He’s in a good mood, on the tips of his toes, but the bottom has dropped out of my stomach. We grin like idiots. We hold a big floppy check. A made-up lady in a suit jacket jams a microphone under our noses and asks what we’ll do with the money. Buck, Earl and Jeff have it figured to the cent, but Froggy looks at his boots and says he guesses he’ll send his kid to college. I say I hadn’t really thought about it, but she just brings the microphone closer. I start to explain about how when a man has a rifle, a fishing pole and maybe some muscadine on a rail all he needs to do is sit back and let it go. I say, “You get what I mean by need?” The camera snaps off, she clicks away. 

 The lady just wants to talk to Buck about his crazy luck anyway.  Jawing away, Buck looks happy as a clown though he gets even pastier toward the end. 

¤

Here’s Hector under my front wheel with his insides push out on the gravel. I didn’t want to show you this. I didn’t want to. No. But look, here.

 He just darted out from under the house, right when I was pulling in. Couldn’t stop fast enough. There’s no sense to that. None. Where's the shovel? I know where the shovel is.

So I have to go to sleep in that brass bed alone, because I don’t feel like fooling with the garden or patching up a scarecrow. My hands hurt from trying half the day to jimmy out a bunch of stripped bolts. Melba is dead.

Fatter, puffier and paler, Buck is here at the foot of my bed with his cigarette arm. He twists the damn thing off at the shoulder—it makes a cracking noise as the fibers of meat pull apart like a biscuit of shredded wheat. Then Buck sets the arm across my legs and even though there’s a quilt between I can feel his arm hair on my leg hair. Buck says “Where’s the toilet in this dump?” I say “For Christsakes” and the stump across my legs starts to smoke on one end, the bandage peeling backwards from the flame to where I don’t want to look. But I’m cool as a cucumber and say to Buck, “Why don’t you talk to Lotto Man” except Melba is there—not Buck—and its daytime in our kitchen. She’s saying, “Wouldn’t a beach house at Ocracoke be nice?” I agree. I knew she took to that place and what the hell since we’re rich and I don’t know how to spend money.  Then Hector is howling at the door which is strange because Hector isn’t born yet and I haven’t taken the money. 

¤

 Things wind down. We’re told it’s time to meet with Lotto Man to hammer out what’s what with the money and splitting it up. Buck catches up with me.  The bug has eaten his arm up to the shoulder.

 “Time to go,” he says, “Time to make some money.”

 “Hello,” he says. “Hey.”

 “C’mon,” he says.

What’s he looking at? He’s getting farther away, like the silver cone of one of the work lamps in the ceiling or something in a rifle scope.  And me finding wind to speak--it’s like a bubble trying to come up through rust.

 “Don’t say you got cold feet again.”

 Cold feet? I don’t know what I got. I want to tell him.

 Buck is gone.

¤

Froggy cuts his eyes away from me. Earl is chiseling his teeth with a gold toothpick. Jeff is fussing with the cuffs of his new shirt. Lotto Man is stacking and restacking his hands over a small pile of paper and Buck looks down at his own belly.

 I tell Lotto Man I don’t want the money—they can have it.

 Buck is all white in the face for a few then comes to and says, “The hell is wrong with you?  Take that money. Take the money” He tips his chair over while leaving the room.

Lotto Man pats at his hair and says, “There’s a first time for everything.”

I get back to Buck’s drill but a belt blows on another press and I’m pulled away again. Nothing is working like it should. The whole thing is a big mess, and I say so to the foreman. That’s when Buck hits the deck. He’d been waiting around to talk to some Union guy about more money for his hand and I guess now his arm and elbow and now he’s spread-eagle on the floor. 

¤

Foreman calls me into his office and asks if I’d like to retire. Says it’s because “Oh you know” people not wanting to work on machines I fix and company morale. I never worked on Buck’s press before it took his hand, but he says that doesn’t matter as long as people think I did.  “And what’s the difference?”

 I say I want to keep my job. But he goes on, “Take it easy. Retire. Sell your house. Move to some nice retirement village on the coast.”

Haven’t smoked for years but I’m outside shaking one loose from the pack. Have to keep my job.

Someone has my arm: it’s Buck. He’s squeezing out greasy tears.

He’s begging me to take the money. He says we’ll work something out; maybe I just want some, a little, whatever. It isn’t right to not take anything. Says what the hell was I buying lotto tickets for anyway?

He’s jiggling like a big white pear and keeps trying to shake my hand.

I say “The hell difference does it make?”

He says it might save his life. He’s worried sick. “Don’t you want to save a man’s life? Don’t you know I got a wife?  I got family. I got to be there.”

He tries to shake my hand again, but I light a cigarette, fire crawls through me. 

Buck stops crying and looks at me hard.

“You believe in luck?” he says.

I don’t want to tell him no, no I don’t believe in luck or games or foolishness. But I tell Buck I don’t know about Luck. I tell him it depends.

“That ticket was the worst kind.”

It’s late. We’re in the dumpy shadows of the plant. Buck looks awfully desperate for a rich man.

“You got to take some of the bad stuff off me.”

I say. “I know.”

I think of Hector and his insides squeezed out. The cigarette tastes fine.

Buck is still looking at me like I’ve got his arm in my trunk and if he asks the right way I’ll fetch it back to him. 

¤

Now I’m driving through the long cool tunnels of trees. I can’t sleep, I’m saying my prayers:

Melba, its dark where I am, but I don’t think I’ve been too bad since you went. I try not to let work worry me. I just do it. I can look at a machine and take it apart in my mind and put it back together piece by piece, the parts just floating into place. I understand things plain and simple. That’s pretty good.

I crest a hill and start down it. It’s a gentle feeling, my stomach rising slightly. Staying awake is work, but its good work.

But this drill is beyond me—it’s almost got me licked.

Hector is gone.

It’d be dumb to say I feel like that scarecrow, but I really do. There’s less to me these days. 

Don’t think I’ll find him out here.

Like what I got in me wants to get out—I feel light inside. Driving through the forest with my headlights off.

But if he has to wander though hill and valley like blood through veins, then so do I.

While all the shadowy trunks of the trees bend sideways to let me go on by. 

¤

Today, I re-tread a conveyor belt, replace two sets of drill heads, clean all my tools and hear about Buck dying.

My mind goes in its many directions; I say Shush. Shush now. But Buck won’t let me be.  I see his big fat body rise in the shape of a gear and that gear rises up into the sky to take its place in the purple clockwork up there.

I wipe my mouth and stick my wrench into the guts of Buck’s drill.

Starlings have torn open the scarecrow’s middle, made a nest there. Melba is dead. There’s a lot of tomatoes this year. 


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