itasca-03

1988

I was headin’ back from town in my loggin’ truck, a Mack that I’d overhauled twice now. I hate makin’ the fifty mile roun’ trip with an empty trailer. But hell, I mean sheese, the HP ticketed me ’bout runnin’ lights, which I couldn’t fix myself, then, an’ I hadda bring it to Slimey’s garage in town, an’ it was near the time I hadda get it done an’ all. So whatcha gonna do? I was tryin’ to get back not too late for supper when I seen lights in that house jus’ down the road from our place that weren’ never s’pose to be a house.

So I drive in, knowin’ there was a place to turn ’round the double trailer an’ all. A couple pickups, new clean ones like no jack ever drove, were parked by the house. I could see some kinda light walkin’ between the bare studs, not electric, the electricity not bein’ in yet with no buildin’ permit. Looked like a Coleman lan’ern.

So I did a sheese-hook an’ drove outta there. Not a sheese-hook, but you know what kinda hook I mean. My wife, my second wife, Bonnie, says no swearin’ or else. I’m kinda trainin’ myself not to swear, even when I’m alone or talkin’ to anybody, like I am now, talkin’ to yous guys.

I get home for supper but forget to tell my wife ’bout the light, my second wife, but I said that already. I was gonna tell her the next day an’ the day after but forgot both times. So figure I better jus’ let it pass an’ all, Bonnie bein’ how she is.

Couple, three weeks later, sheese, well, hell, I near run over this guy walkin’ ‘long the road. If there hadn’ a been some snow banks left, I might not a seen him, even at the last second like I did. I shoulda jus’ kept goin’, havin’ a load on the truck an’ all. Jus’ a light load I was bringin’ back to my place. The road bans havin’ jus’ gone up, I weren’t s’pose to have no load on.

But I figure, what’s a guy doin’ up here in the woods walkin’ the road in the dark. I didn’t see no broke-down car on the road. So I offer him a lift, which he takes. He hadda little trouble gettin’ up in the cab, him bein’ short an’ all. Maybe five-two or maybe five-three. But short an’ thick. Chunky, like he’s done some hard work in his life.

So I ask him what’s he doin’ on the road. “Out walking to aid my thinking,” he says. So I ask him if he were movin’ up here. He hadda be movin’ up here, everything being south a here. So he says that, yes, he is. I ask if it’s the unfinished house. He said it was. I ask a few more questions, jus’ tryin’ to be friendly. But he mostly jus’ shakes his head yes an’ no. Not a big talker. Maybe dumber than dirt, like Ma used to say ’bout me.

He looks ’round the cab an’ sniffs the fumes—gas an’ chainsaw oil an’ wet dog, ‘cept Snert weren’t with me. Snert, like in the cartoon Haggar the Horrible. Is that still in the paper? I haven’ seen a paper in awhile.

I tell him, “It’s dirty in here, I know. But cuttin’ pulp’s dirty work. My ol’ man tol’ me we used to be called gyppos. My ol’ man killed himself a few years back bein’ a gyppo.”

The Stick, he don’t say nothin’, but he quit sniffin’. Maybe not the Stick, his thick body an’ all. The Stump I’ll call him.

It’s a no-profit business,” I tell him.

Then why would you persist in it?” The Stump asks.

Who’s he to be askin’ me that, him livin’ ‘tween bare studs an’ all, with no septic system or well or REA. So to keep it easy, not showin’ I was a little pissed-off, I says, “I guess I’m jus’ too dumb-ass to know no better.”

I laughed, but he didn’t.

So, how d’you make a livin’?”

I am a physicist.”

Now I took high school physics. I’m not as dumb as you think, or Ma thought. But she never noticed what I took in school. I kinda stumbled into algerbra two, chasin’ a girl, but she dumps me before Halloween. I done all right, an’ all, then. Then senior year I thought the physics class’d be better than art, the art teacher, she being’ kinda out there. But, sheese, physics was a lotta more algerbra two stuff. But I done alright. Pulleys an’ levers was stuff I grew up with workin’ with the ol’ man in the woods, which I liked, him not bein’ like my ol’ lady an’ on my case all the time. But, sheese, those victors at the end, they made no sense, but I could see what they was s’pose to be about. But I done alright. But all them formulas, sheesh!

So I asks the Stump, “What’s physicists do, then, make up more formulas?”

Maybe I weren’t so easy as I thought, ’cause he didn’ get the joke. He sat there, lookin’ like a cornered skunk. I thought maybe he’d piss on the seat or maybe even on me, not that Snert hadn’ pissed on the seat more than once.

Whatcha do for the ol’ H-two-O?” I thought usin’ the formula might ease him back a bit. Dog piss is one thing. Physicist piss, well I don’t wan’ that on my seat, dirty as it is, my second wife always tellin’ me to clean it.

The Stump, he thought for a bit. “I transport it from the tavern down the road.”

Transport. I like that. From now on I’m tellin’ Bonnie, my second wife, how I transport pulpwood. Him gettin’ his water there is jus’ pork chop for Lardbutt.

Lardbutt’s what we jacks call Pete Ahola, the guy that owns the tavern, ’cause he jus’ sits an’ sells beer over the bar an’ some Four Roses out the back door, Lardbutt not havin’ a full liquor license. Licenses an’ permits ain’ big with us up here in Colson—Colson bein’ the name of the fallin’ down ol’ town a coupla dirt roads over next to the railroad tracks up to the Iron Range. The deputy sheriff just ignores the Four Roses, long as he don’t sell it to kids. If people up here go to town to buy it, they’ll be drinkin’ it on the drive back.

Lardbutt don’ give it to you free, I betcha?”

He charges a nominal fee.”

Tell you what,” I says. “Call me Pork Chop. What do people call you?”

Rog,” says the Stump.

I got me a brother-in-law named Roger. Well, he was my brother-in-law, before I kicked my first wife outta the house.”

She left me, but he don’ needa know that.

Tell you what, Rog, you can come get it from my place for free. I’m the next driveway north of your driveway.”

That would be most kind of you.”

You’ll see a garden hose stickin’ outta the side of the garage, the big garage, not the small one. Jus’ pull in an’ fill up your tanks or bottles or whatcha got.”

By then we was pullin’ up to his driveway. Me havin’ a load, I didn’ wanna go down his driveway, the frost still comin’ outta the ground.

Well, sure enough, he come get some ol’ H-two-O. ‘Cept I didn’ ‘member to tell Bonnie ’bout the Stump. Sheese, she was pissed. She even swore, an’ she didn’t say sheese, if you know what I mean.

But we get to kinda know the Stump. He talked more to Bonnie than to me, her knowin’ how to play up to ol’ farts from her waitressin’ days. These days she’s a clerk in the county courthouse, giving out permits an’ licenses, which is how the dope who built the Stump’s house got in trouble for no permit, my second wife believin’ in things like permits an’ licenses an’ all. Then Bonnie helped the Stump get a permit for getting’ in the REA an’ finishing up the house, being kinda tricky after what that dope did. It’ll take longer to get septic an’ well permits. I asked Bonnie what the Stump does with his sheese, if you get what I mean. So she says ain’ none a her business, but she s’poses he’s got a chemical toilet.

So we hadn’t seen the Stump in awhile, weeks I guess, bein’ I was busy cuttin’ 20 miles north. So maybe he gets his water in the daytime. I did see in my yard tracks from his big new clean pickup, now that I think back. Lardbutt’s pissed at me, by the way, him not gettin’ pork chop for sellin’ his water, which is pure pork chop to me, getting’ back at Lardbutt like I did. Bonnie tol’ me I better check up on the Stump. So I stop next afternoon in my pickup, me an’ Snert. I could see the Stump in the house, the part that must be gonna be the livin’room but still bare studs, ‘spite the carpenters bein’ here for a few weeks. I watch for a bit, seen him walkin’ in circles looking at stuff up on the bare studs.

Snert gets all wound up, so I let him out so he could sniff ’round the foundation, leavin’ his callin’ card on the corners. When he had that done, he started on the Stump’s clean pickup, so I knew I’d better get out. I knocked, but the Stump, he don’ answer, ‘spite him bein’ right there near the door. So Snert an’ me jus’ walk in.

He had sheets of AC plywood nailed up on the studs ’round the room. Musta been put up by the carpenters, them bein’ level an’ all. He had big sheets of paper over the plywood. There was writin’ all over the paper. Some of them sheets a papers were a couple three layers thick. Not word writin’, but writin’ like from an algerbra book, only fancier. The Stump don’t see me at first. “Hey, Rog,” I says kinda loud. When I spoke I ‘spected him to jump, but he didn’t. Snert went to smell his dirty socks, him not wearin’ shoes.

The Stump didn’t jump, like I jus’ said, but he looked kinda like a cornered skunk again. So to ease him back a bit I wave at the papers an’ say, “Betcha don’ believe I took algerbra two, not that I ‘member it, but I done alright.” The Stump, I could see him calm down some. I put out my hand. He shook it. So I betcha he did do so some hard work once, the grip he gives me an’ all.

Ain’ seen you ’round. Bonnie says to make sure you’re alive an’ all.”

Fine. Yes, I am fine, but immersed in my project,” he says.

Wanna go down to Lardbutt’s, the tavern, I mean? I been tellin’ the guys ’bout you. They’d like to meet you an’ all.”

No, no. But thank you . . . Pork Chop, was that your name?”

Only thing I answer to. What’s your project then?”

He gets that cornered skunk look again. “I am in pursuit of . . . it is quite deep physics.”

Betcha don’ believe it to look at me, but I took physics in high school, too. Not that I ‘member much. When it got deep, I drownded.” I laughed to tell him it was joke, But he didn’ get it.

So now he gets all worked up walkin’ ’round his papers tellin’ me ’bout it. But I didn’ get it anymore than he got my joke. Guess Ma was right ’bout me.

He tells me how physicists can change stuff now, one thing into ‘nother, the elements an’ stuff.

Now that kinda gets me thinkin’ ’bout things I’d like to be changed. So I ask ’bout his big writin’, was that the formula to change things?

I guess maybe he said yes somewhere in his long-winded answer. But I see Snert liftin’ a leg in the corner. Funny thing ’bout ol’ Snert. He’s a girl dog, or once was, before my second wife made me change him. But he pisses like a male dog. So I hollered at Snert not to leave his callin’ card here in the house. Rog, he jumps near outta his dirty socks. So I tell him ’bout Snert, make a joke of it, ’bout maybe his formula could change Snert back so he’d piss like a girl dog.

I liked the joke myself, but Rog, he didn’t get it. I decided I’d better not bring him down to Lardbutt’s. We can be kinda mean sometimes, ‘specially to strangers who drop in, fishermen an’ all who don’ know ’bout us jacks, ‘specially when they start makin’ fun a us.

Well, I hustle me an’ Snert outta there. I mean fair is fair. If I don’t wan’ Rog pissin’ on my truck seat, I’d better not let Snert piss in his unfinished house.

I was workin’ twenty miles north all summer. But I kep’ thinkin’ ’bout the formula to change everything. Once I was thinkin’ too much an’ let the chainsaw chew up my jeans an’ some of my knee. One thing you can’t change. You gotta pay ‘tention to a runnin’ chainsaw. So I try to think ’bout it only when I’m transportin’ pulp. So I decide maybe I spend too much time alone, my second wife havin’ moved out an’ all.

At first I wanted the formula to change everything to change things, like changin’ mud roads into gravel or makin’ chainsaw chains harder. I can get get sick an’ tired a sharpenin’ chains. But now, sheese, my second wife moved out an’ all, temporarily until I change some things, like my swearin’. So I still try to say only sheese. But now I want the formula to change those things, but I know those things ain’ physics things.

Then I get to Lardbutt’s, where I’m not s’pose to stop, that bein’ one of the things I’m s’pose to change. But hell, I mean sheese, well then hell, just hell, not any of the worse words I’m not s’pose to say. I been too much alone in the woods an’ then at my place, what with my second wife movin’ out. Then I see Lardbutt’s wife’s car’s gone, which was pork chop for me. She’s the only one would tell Bonnie I been here. Not even Lardbutt’d do that. So we stop, Snert an’ me, dogs bein’ welcome at Larbutt’s, it bein’ ‘gainst the law an’ all.

Well, hell, there was Rog in the corner alone, drinkin’ Bubble Up, which Lardbutt keeps in supply to sell to a couple rich ol’ timers who fish ’round here, well, they’s retired an’ not that ol’, so they must be rich. So Lardbutt musta stuck Rog for the high price he charges to bring in those rich guys some Bubble Up. I can see the jacks wanna go after Rog, so I get me a PBR an’ sit with Rog. That makes ’em back off an’ lay into each other like we always done. He says he’s got the house mostly done, the well drilled, the septic ’bout to go in.

After my fourth, maybe fifth PBR, the hard stuff, not that three-two piss, I get all sloppy an’ tell Rog ’bout Bonnie movin’ out on me. Rog tells me he’s been divorced twice. So, hell then, him bein’ all smart an’ all, an’ he can’ keep a wife neither.

‘Nother couple PBR’s an’ some a Lardbutt’s wife’s chili, lotsa beans to skimp on the meat, I trip over Snert, forgettin’ he was there. So Rog, he says he’s gonna drive me home, him only drinkin’ high-price Bubble Up all night, sayin’ he “does not consume alcohol” an’ then bring me back in the mornin’ to get my loaded pulp truck from Lardbutt’s muddy parkin’ lot, it havin’ rained that night, which he done, Rog I mean, even ‘memberin’ the next morning, him not bein’ hung over.

Lardbutt’s wife’s car was back, an’ Lardbutt charged me for parkin’ overnight, sayin’ if I pay enough his wife won’ rat on me to Bonnie, but she done it anyway, havin’ a fat mean streak in her. But I don’ blame Lardbutt, her bein’ his second wife an’ all.

Did I tell you Rog was an Indian, not one of our Indians, but one of their Indians, over there somewhere else. But he weren’ no smarter than me ’bout women, ‘spite his formula to change everything.

©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017

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