“Stuck” was originally published in the Words Work Literacy Journal. I want reiterate that this is a work of fiction, and even when I draw on places I’ve known or worked, the events, people, and attitudes in the story are about the characters and in no way reflect any actual individuals or events.
The story is about fifteen pages, so only the worthy shall pass through to the end. I would love to read your comments after you have finished.
Rural East Texas. I grew up here. And I grew up knowing the only thing I wanted to do was leave; “just get the heck outta Dodge,” I would say. I didn’t grow up in the town I’m in at the moment but close enough that my high school was in the same district as here, so we played football against each other—all the other sports, too, but football is the one that counts in Texas.
The Piney Woods surrounded my two-bedroom rental trailer on the lake, Lake O’ the Pines, I swear. Yeah, I was living the dream life on the lake, and the owners let renters use the boats any time they wanted. Three green flat-bottom boats sat, paddles and life jackets waiting, by the edge of the stumpy water. About two hundred yards into the water, stumps from long dead trees ended and opened up into clear space where, from time to time, a skier or bass boat would bounce across, leaving the lake churning and rhythmically pounding the shore and the stumps and your feet if you were too close. I hated it, but it was the cheapest place I could find. And I knew no one would come looking for me here.
Not that anyone would be looking for me, anyway. Certainly not employers. Maybe bill collectors. Maybe the IRS. But I didn’t care about those guys. It was the people I knew best that I didn’t want to see. After all my talk about leaving this god-forsaken hole, after all my bravado about how I got out and would never be back after my relatives died, here I was back in it.
I’m a brilliant salesman. I can sell anything to anyone – I heard people say it. I heard people say I got it from my dad. He never threw anything away, and I once saw him sell a cracked bowling ball to a guy for three bucks. I was watching from about a hundred yards away across our white-trash front yard with two hounds, a mutt, several cats (though the hounds kept them treed most of the time), five cars (two ran, one would almost crank), seven lawn chairs, and three refrigerators – none of which worked. When I asked about it, he told me the guy wanted something to use as an anchor. That old bowling ball is probably sitting in the bottom of one of those green boats.
No phone, no internet, no cable—TV was about shot. It would stay on long enough for me to watch local and national news if I timed it just right. Then it would go off. Click. No picture, no sound, no nothing.
I had been in Dallas for eight years, and Houston for six before that. My associate’s degree from the community college was enough to get me moving toward a bachelor’s in business at East Texas State. I never looked back. I never considered moving back home and opening a business or working at the plant like everyone else – every little town had its version of the plant or the mill, or it had a downtown starving for traffic. I was happy to be gone. Things went great in Houston. As an area manager for a building supply chain in a booming housing market, I could do no wrong. Every product promo, every ad design, every new hire (almost) added to the store coffers.
When I got the regional manager position, I sold my house for a huge profit and bought an even bigger one in the ritziest part of Dallas I could afford. I had to hire a cleaning service, a pool service, a lawn service – and those weren’t the only services for sale on my salary. Exercising my right to pursue happiness. Then I was arrested for drunk driving. And two months after that, I got caught in a prostitution sting while exercising that right. None of that mattered until one of my stores went under. It wasn’t my fault, of course, but I was the guy who was supposed to make everything work – “That’s what we hired you for.” I was so busy with the piddling court dates and fines and community service that I had missed the declining numbers coming across my desk. When I looked back, the signs of trouble were obvious. But by the time it hit my radar, it was too late. It wasn’t my fault. It was the fault of whosever bright idea it was to place a major chain store in the middle of rural East Texas. Jeesh.
I spent three months trying to fix the impossible—two competitors within fifteen miles and both closer to higher population centers, not to mention the local guys that just refused to give up. It’s not like we were in a range war over water rights or sheep grazing with regulators and such. Squirrels automatically abort if the food supply is short when they’re pregnant. So do retail outlets. I explained all this; our larger than normal market share within the closer areas, our successful bout with (and rejection of) union organization, our profit margins before highway construction began. I knew trouble had arrived when the corporate managers came into Dallas for a meeting—and I wasn’t in it. I tried to explain everything—“But the overall numbers, Brad. Your whole region is suffering because of this.” Unbelievable.
On my way home, I picked up a bottle of Chivas—comfort food. Besides, I had no idea how much might be left in the cabinet, and I didn’t want to come up empty before I passed out. That was the plan, and that’s exactly what I did, drank till I passed smooth out. I wasn’t so lucky with the rest of my good intentions.
I woke up in front of the morning news and stood, suddenly thinking I was late for work. I wished I was late to work, but I had none. I could sell everything but myself.
I put my house up two days before the market dropped. After that, the slow, steady decline in value, along with the subsequent increase in payments due to higher, adjustable interest rates, began to drown me. My morning swims became noontime swims, lunch turned into breakfast, and I bought a lawn mower for the first time in my life. I got plenty of exercise, mowing and swimming and cleaning the pool, so I dropped my gym membership. And I came to understand how out of place a suit was in the state’s unemployment office.
“Pardon me?” said the lady behind the desk where I had just arrived. She had a distinguished air that her gray suit couldn’t account for.
“That’s Texas Workforce Commission.” The plaque on her cubicle wall said she was employee of the month in February of 1992. I wondered what she had done lately.
“Really? Anybody here got a job?”
And she did. She was the one who was going to help me get back on my feet. She was the one who was going to get me a job. She was going to save me—though I’d always heard that was Jesus’ job. And I’m not prejudiced, but—oh, who am I trying to kid—I’m prejudiced against poor low-life losers who won’t get off their proverbial big butts and get a job and take care of their families and buy their own damned health care plans. And I told her so.
Her shiny braids falling forward, she hardly looked up from writing to ask me questions, but there at the end something made her look at me. Before this I’m sure I was just the number thirty-six on the white tab I pulled off the ticket rack waiting for it to show up on the digital red display, but now, now she looked at the knot in my tie and leaned to the left a bit so she could see my shoes hanging even with the edge of her desk. “And this is presently your correct address?” She was trying to sound nonchalant, but I could tell she was impressed. “You said you were going to be moving soon. To where, Mr. Malkempt?”
I answered with a shrug—I had no clue.
After a thorough reading of my information, she did not have good prospects for me, no matter how impressed she was with where I lived.
“Mr. Malkempt, you’ve only worked for two companies, and with one of those a part-time job in high school, you’ve got limited experience. And because of how you left your last job, it’s going to be a challenge to place you in a new position at the same or even near the same level.” She leaned back in her chair. “But maybe something will come along. Keep checking our website and you’ll receive an email if we have any matches for you. Have a nice day.”
Two other guys walked out the same time as me. One had on a bright white t-shirt and blue jeans with holes in both knees; the other smelled and had a filthy jacket under his arm while he scratched at something above his ear. Both carried small green referral cards.
They had jobs. I had a nice suit.
I had shared my dilemma with my sister over the phone after I got the foreclosure notice. The unemployment office had been a last resort. But it was no help. Then I got the call.
“This is Brad.”
“Hey, Jim Renfro, Barry’s uncle?” Some people I know miss the back home sound of that East Texas twang, and my former brother-in-law’s uncle could transform any self-respecting monosyllabic word into three, even four, syllables with ease, each in a different pitch. It irritated my ears and knotted my stomach.
“How can I help you?” I didn’t want to help him. It seemed like every time somebody almost related to me came to Dallas, they felt it their obligation to call me up “since they were in the neighborhood” and perhaps ask me out to eat, which I ended up paying for, or even asking for a place to stay the weekend while they took their kids to Six Flags. And yes, I’m sure I don’t want to join you.
“Ran into your sis at Brookshire’s” (he pronounced it with a very long ‘i’ sound) “the other day and she said you’re needin’ work.”
I hesitated. Work, yes. “Are you in the area?”
“Nope. We’re in Lone Star, near Dangerfield? I’m foreman for ETCS – East Texas Contractual Services. We used to be Pemberton Pipe Testin’ but changed all that when we picked up some other work.”
“So,” I said, perking up a bit and trying to see where I fit into the picture. “You need a sales rep in the Dallas area? I’m your man.”
“Sales rep? Hell, no. I need a hand. Pay’s nine-fifty an hour to start with a raise after sixty days. I always liked your sister and I tol’ Barry he was a plum fool for lettin’ that one get away. Anyway, she tol’ me about you, and I wanted to do her a favor. So when can ya’ start?”
“Start.” Working in rural East Texas. Lone Star, near Dangerfield, a person can be pretty sure he’s lost his way when a town of two thousand becomes the best possible point of reference. I couldn’t believe I was considering it. “Uh, Mr. Renfro?”
“Call me Jim.”
“Okay, Jim? Can I call you back?”
I called him back a week later when they took my house. The decision to sell the Lexus and keep the truck was hard. But the truck was paid for and would be more practical for moving, and anyway, a pickup would even fit in with my new surroundings.
I told him I didn’t have a place to stay, and he hooked me up with the folks that “rent lakeside homes to some of the guys” and would let me stay till I could catch up on the rent.
I had my wipers on high as I did a long, slow fishtail down the red mud road toward my new home. The road was high in the middle, sloping on both sides so water would drain to the ditches, which it had, leaving room for a single vehicle to make it through.
Thankfully, I met no one on the road that day—everybody else had more sense.
Why I chose to wear slacks and a tie, I’ll never know. Maybe I didn’t want to admit I was coming back. Maybe I wanted to impress my new landlords. Maybe I had just lost my way. The old lady, silver-haired and in her bathrobe at noon, pointed through the pines and the haphazard arrangement of trailers to Number 13, lucky me. She said she had a three bedroom double-wide if I wanted it, but I had gone over how much money I wouldn’t be making too many times to bite. I took the small two bedroom, one and a half bath unit for almost half what I would be bringing home in a month. So I slogged back out to my truck, layering my brogans with red clay and pine needles, which I immediately transferred onto the floorboard. I considered where the nearest detail shop might be, then considered how much it would cost and decided I would have to do it myself.
I eased between the trees down to Ole’ Number 13—the sign propped against one tree said so—where the trailer sat in turquoise blue almost against two trees (a pine on the right and a pecan on the left with the sign) framing the door and the black metal steps. Inside, I found a couch and recliner, both in a brown weave with matching black stains, and a coffee table and end table with matching peeled wood grain. The smaller of the two small bedrooms had bunk beds and a straight chair. The larger had a double bed with no headboard and metal rails sticking out at the foot, just high enough for my shins. I could go on if you want: the worn carpet, the broken linoleum, the rusty stove, the moldy refrigerator, the kitchen table with two chairs—both of which rocked perversely—and the dead cat (I think cat) in the white trash bag outside the back door. I sat in one of those chairs the first night after my arrival, regretting, and the first night after starting work and several nights after that. God help me.
Well before light on Monday morning, I pulled into the parking lot of the East Texas Contractual Services, and if it weren’t for the feeling of complete desperation, I would have turned around and gone. I just didn’t have another place to run away to. Four or five guys stood around the back of an old pickup, drinking coffee out of Styrofoam cups, staring at me as I walked up in hiking boots, blue jeans, and a clean shirt, something none of them seemed to be wearing.
“Is Jim Renfro around?”
One of the guys—I found out later his name was Dancer “but don’t dare kid ‘im about it”—lifted his cup and pointed to a lighted open door across the parking lot.
“Thanks.” I could feel their eyes follow me across and wondered how I could be so out of place. I used to call this home.
Three months later, most of my shirts were stained with the grease that seemed to appear out of nowhere when testing the pipes or else they had tiny holes from the sparks and hot slag that flew up from the bulbous torches we used to cut up boxcars so the metal could be melted down and reformed into the rolls and plates and pipes manufactured at the steel mill.
Huge forklifts with clamps on top would carry the boxcars, rusted and rattling, to an open lot about a mile in length and turn the cars on their sides. We had a pattern to follow in cutting them apart so that the last four cuts of about a foot each would have us standing on the ground with a clear path to run in case it fell the wrong way, which it sometimes did.
A black guy named Mo supervised the area. He showed me how to use the torch with its hoses extended behind me to avoid burning through them, and how to walk with the flame at my feet so I didn’t screw up my back, and how to button my shirt over the top of my gloves so the hot metal didn’t pop and get stuck inside, mumbling all the while under his breath between coherent sentences. I thought he was just trying to make the new guy look dorky, so I ignored the part about the sleeves until I was cutting along inside a car with sparks flying everywhere, making it look like a Dallas Fourth of July, when a pop sounded and a huge blob of slag tumbled into the top of my glove. I dropped the torch and slung the glove out the end where I had cut a door, but that didn’t help. The slag clung to my skin like I had clung to civilization, and by the time I knocked it off with my other glove, the little chunk of gray steel clattered to the floor, cold.
Every day we met at the work barn and drank coffee from Styrofoam cups till they loaded us into the van. Two guys on the crew were named Ray—Cool Ray, with long blond pigtails and sunshades, and Fool Ray, because he was an idiot. On the way back to the work barn that day was the first time anyone I worked with spoke to me directly other than to pass along instructions from Mo or Jim.
Cool said, “Some people say to put butter on that, but it only holds in the heat. You need to clean it good or it’ll get infected. Then use some ice or something.”
“They got that spray at the corner store,” said Dancer. “That works pretty good.”
“Yeah, my ole’ lady always puts aloe vera on mine,” said Fool.
“Shut up, you pansy ass,” said Cool. “Nobody asked you.”
I decided not to point out that nobody asked him either; it just didn’t seem like a good idea. But after that day they talked to me a lot. I never understood what kind of right-of-passage I had made it through, but I understood why they didn’t like Fool Ray. He was late a lot and would wheel into the parking lot just as we were about to pull out, making us rearrange ourselves in the van; he missed work a lot and since the company got paid by the piece or the pound they pushed us to make up for what he wasn’t doing; and he cried. I cried too, but never in front of anybody.
But if what happened to him happened to me, I might.
He was standing on top of a boxcar one day, about to make his final top cut, when I saw Mo and Cool Ray waving and running toward him.
He shot Cool the bird and kept on going, and then there was a pop. Not like the sound of the torch when it hits a big pocket of something that sends metal into the air or just goes out, but more of a “tung,” the ringing sound of a deep vibrating gong. The sound repeated, and it all fell apart just like in the plan, except Fool was on top and disappeared into the pile. He didn’t break anything, but by the time we pulled him out of there he was sobbing like a baby. Cool called him a name or two, and Mo said if he did that again he was fired, and Jim chewed him out later for not listening, and he cried the whole time. That was the second time he had cut a boxcar wrong. They moved Fool Ray over to the high pressure pipe testing area where he was killed two weeks later because he wouldn’t stay behind the safety barricade. The threads on a pipe blew and sent it slamming into the far barricade. The pipe bounced back and nailed him in the chest, pinning him between it and the other barricade, the thing that should have been keeping him alive. They said he still had a cigarette in his mouth. Everybody joked that smoking will kill you.
I went from Chevis to Jack Daniel’s Black Label, cheaper and more socially acceptable in my present circumstances.
One day after work, Dancer walked up to my truck and tapped on the window. “My wife says you probably don’t eat good, so here.” He passed me a large paper grocery bag. “She sent meatloaf, but that Tupperware better come back clean or I gotta wash it. See ya’ tomorrow.”
Meatloaf with tomato sauce, mashed potatoes, green beans, black-eyed peas, and half a pan of corn bread. I cried that night, too. The next morning I handed him the sack with clean Tupperware inside and said, “Thanks.” Nobody said anything or asked anything. I’m pretty sure they thought we were dealing.
The local unemployment office kept trying to get me to apply at the steel mill, but I said I wasn’t staying. My regular trips to the local library to look for jobs on the internet were fruitless. And it rained more that year than it had since nobody I talked to could remember. On my way home after working a Saturday in June to get in extra hours, I was sliding back and forth across the red mud road when my truck decided to just keep going. I slid on into the left-hand ditch and moved back and forth about twenty or thirty feet but couldn’t get it back up on the road. I killed the engine and listened to the water gurgle around my manifolds till they cooled down, then I listened a while to the radio, and then I listened to the rain and a crow cawing somewhere off in the woods though I knew it was the wrong time of year for crows.
I was about to give up and wade home when Chilly pulled up next to me in his four-wheel-drive and looked out his window, shaking his head. “You’re stuck.”
He didn’t know how right he was.
Two weeks later, on Friday, I told Jim I had some business I needed to take care of and needed Monday off— “No problem, don’t make a habit of it.”
I got up at my normal time on Monday only because I was used to it, funny how habits set in so fast. After coffee and a shower, I opened my closet and stepped into a pair of Dockers and grabbed my loafers off the shelf where they had rested since I moved in. I adjusted the neck of my t-shirt and pulled a light blue button-down off its hanger. I sat on the edge of the bed with the shirt in my lap, studying the little gray spots – mold. How many others? I had left three shirts hanging, never risking them at work, always waiting for the return. The white one was in worse shape than the blue – it was next to a fuzzy wall. That odd smell – I had figured it was from the cat or something the cat had killed before meeting its own end; I hadn’t thought about mold, hadn’t considered the place might leak.
My last shirt, deep forest green, still worked with the khaki Dockers, and the tie I had picked out with russet accents looked even better against the green than it would have with the blue. On top of that, I now had two more work shirts, not that I would need them. I don’t even think guys actually quit when they worked for ETCS; they just stopped showing up. But if things went the way I planned, I would leave all my shirts hanging in the closet, the grease-stained ones, the holey ones, the moldy ones—I would put on my green shirt and disappear.
Kilgore, Texas. I slid past the headquarters of Tex-La-Ark Oil Field Products twenty minutes ahead of time and then found a drive-thru for a cup of coffee, which I sipped but didn’t drink—if they offered me a cup in the interview, I wanted to accept. And they did. I walked into the office at five till nine, introduced myself at the front desk and waited ten minutes for her phone to ring. Both men, in slacks and ties, rose when I entered the conference room. Introductions, smiles, sure I’d love a cup. We visited a while and talked about nothing, including my hometown. Then it came to why I left my job in Dallas.
“So, Brad, do you know Tom Morrison?”
“Sure,” I said, “I’ve known him for years. We were always in different regions, but for a big company, the upper echelons get pretty small.” I wondered what Tom would say about me. I never tried to make enemies, but sometimes things happen. Sometimes a store is in a border town and it’s easier for the guy in the next state to take it into his territory – and I had convinced our bosses to give me two of Tom’s Oklahoma stores. Too late to worry about that now; just keep things conversational. “How do you know him?”
“Oh, we went to OU together way back when – You a Sooners fan?”
“Longhorns, actually, you guys got the better of us this year.”
“I talked to Tom, and he said there were some issues.”
“Yeah, one in particular – I lost a store. That’s why I want to get back into sales rather than management.” I faked a smile; I was dying inside.
Then the other fellow took his turn. “You’re not really doing either right now though?” He didn’t really mean it to be a question, but it sounded like one.
“Well, a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do.” I leaned back and sipped my coffee with a smile to show them I didn’t think it was any big deal. “So this is route sales. What kind of territory are we looking at?”
“A pretty good area,” said the desk owner, pulling out a Wal-Mart edition Rand McNally Road Atlas. He opened to the right half of Texas, dragged his pen in a sweeping line that included Clarksville, Mount Pleasant, Longview (but not Kilgore), and Carthage—exactly where I didn’t want to be. “John has been covering this for the past four years and has built it up so that we need to split his territory.
He’ll keep Kilgore out to Dallas and Waco; whoever we hire will have all this back to Texarkana.”
“Looks like a great opportunity,” I said. “When do I start?” That got a chuckle as I had hoped and showed that I was eager, a good sign in a salesman.
For a week, I called my sister daily since it was her number I gave out on all my applications, but she only had apologies for me. After the second week, I called them to find the position had been filled in-house and got more apologies from the secretary.
That was fine, I’d have something soon.
I spent Fourth of July at Dancer’s. His backyard was full of the guys from work with their wives, or “ole’ ladies,” and his sister-in-law latched onto me right after my first beer and didn’t stop talking till I left her house, having dropped her off and gone in for a drink. We had a good time over the next few weeks.
Sarah, that was her name, came over to the trailer about every other weekend, and once we went to a bring-your-own dance hall. The huge orange prefab building boasted concrete floors and blown insulation. Quite a place.
We found Dancer and Sarah’s sister—I never could remember her name but I think it was Joanna or something—at one of the hundred or so round tables on the country side—the other side was rock and roll—with Cool and a guy they called Frog at work but George there. George and his wife looked a lot alike, long, thin hair, his in a ponytail to match long, thin bodies, pale on both counts. They had an ice chest with beer, but I got cups of ice for my Evan Williams—I had switched again to something cheaper.
We stayed at the table while everybody danced, but when it was our turn Sarah discovered I had no idea what to do, so we just kind of moved back and forth while other couples glided around the room. I felt like a NASCAR rookie with a bad engine getting lapped every few minutes. I didn’t watch racing much until that year, but Sarah was in love with Dale Jr., so the television stayed on as long as it would on Sunday afternoons, or we would go over to her house and wait for her ex to drop off the two girls.
We started meeting everybody out at the dance hall once or twice a month just for the company and to have a little fun. At the table one night, I was telling about all the restaurants on the West End, and George’s wife rolled her eyes and said, “Hell, it’s not like we’ve never been to Dallas.”
“I know, but you’ve never lived there. There’s an underground shopping center right downtown.” And I went on to exaggerate about that for a while until we all lapsed into a semi-comfortable silence.
“Don’t you get jealous?” Cool Ray asked. Sarah was out on the floor with another guy who knew what he was doing. I glanced out where Cool was looking. There she was, cheek to jowl with a fellow in pressed jeans, shiny boots, and a black hat. It was so perfect I had to laugh.
“Naw, how can I? I don’t know how to dance, and I want her to have fun. Besides, I’m improving, and I’ll be able to keep up with her one of these days.”
Dancer had his own laugh. “Shit, you won’t ever be able to keep up with her. Just like I can’t keep up with her sister.” He leaned over and kissed Joanna, or whatever her name was.
“It doesn’t matter anyway.” I leaned back and sipped my Evan Williams. “I’m getting the heck out of Dodge.”
“Yeah, you’ll make it,” said Dancer; standing, he gave his wife a tug to break her eyes off of me. “Come on, honey, let’s dance.”
I don’t know what that was about.
“Yeah, we’ll all get out of here.” George grinned at Cool Ray.
“I don’t know about you,” said Cool, shoving his ponytail aside and scratching behind his ear. “But I’m leaving next week. I already give ole’ Jim my notice.”
Everybody at the table laughed and started talking about winning the lottery and rich uncles dying and finding buried treasure. Sarah sat down next to me and took a long swig off a fresh beer, joining in with what she would do with a million dollars. Everybody laughed but me.
I smiled, though, and let them have their fun because I knew I would get out of rural East Texas one of these days. I knew where I belonged, and it wasn’t in some backwoods dance hall, drinking cheap whiskey out of plastic cups. I made it out before, and I’d make it again.
I listened and peeled the label off my bottle of bourbon with cracked fingernails, oil and dirt stuck there from work. I ripped the rest of the label away and started scratching at the glue clinging to the side of the bottle. I made some progress on my bourbon bottle until Sarah dragged me back out on the dance floor, neither of us caring about the stain on my shirt sleeve.
I couldn’t resist her, and I couldn’t keep up with her. But I hung on while she shuffled me back and forth across the concrete, and I sunk a little deeper. A little deeper into the bourbon, into Sarah, and into rural East Texas.