By Darren Leibhart
I gripped the steering wheel just a little bit tighter to gain control. I let out what sounded similar to the squawk, looking for any escape from the 20-foot drop on each side of the pickup. Finally, I pulled hard onto the grass where I slammed on the brakes. I let my hands drop from the wheel while the sweat rolled off of my forehead. After a few seconds, Brandon urged me to keep driving. I pushed in the clutch, started the pickup, and shifted it into first to begin the drive back to the compound.
“What the hell kind of sound was that?” Brandon Prodded at me, ”You don’t just cuss or anything? You just let out a hee-haw like some kinda animal?”’
“We about crashed and all you can think about is the noise I made in fear of dying?” I scoffed.
We hit the cattle guard and drifted smoothly down. I slipped the truck into neutral until we reached the bottom. I looked to my left and saw the recreation shack, the least of all the buildings in the forest. It is ten by four feet and houses the employees who maintain the campgrounds for those overweight, snot-nose campers who bring their house with them to go “camping”.
“Hurry up we’re going to miss lunch, and I’m not going to miss lunch for this craphole job,” Brandon complained.
I parked in front of the compound and we slinked our way into the packing house, punched our cards, and walked into the lunch room. The lunch room was furnished by four metal benches. It also housed a fridge and two microwaves. Three windows on the east wall permitted light to flow into the room. Despite having white walls and tiles it always felt gloomy in the lunchroom. It felt like a hotel room when you turn on all the lights at night, still dim. I could see the dust in the air as it floated through the streams of sunlight that poured into the window. There were two wasps on the ceiling flying back and forth methodically. It would be a crime if there wasn’t some sort of bug in there.
“You boys got watches?” Austin spit sarcastically.
“We were unloading those sticks, Austin.” I chimed back.
“You boys should watch the time better, now you only get 15 minutes for lunch.”
I began to mutter under my breath what a waste he was.
“I wake up at four in the morning to come down here on minimum wage and get treated like trash. It’s pretty easy to boss someone around when all you do is drive an air conditioned tractor around all day. You just have some kind of rivalry with me. You need to get a life away from sports you insignificant d--”, I stopped myself and sat down on the hard bench and began to eat my bologna sandwich while staring at the linoleum floor. It’s better not to argue with Austin. You could answer his question, or use an excuse, but he’ll rattle off for 30 minutes to you about what you did wrong and how you’re a waste of money.
Frank spoke up and ended the silence in the room, “I ‘member when you were just a lil kid, Austin. You wood run ‘round by tha’ ole house jus outside’uh town. I ‘member tha’ like it was days ‘go.”
“Yep,” was Austin’s only answer. He had clearly had his reputation bent by Frank. Frank had a good way of making people feel humbled. The room retreated into silence.
I plowed into my sandwich due to the short amount of time I was allowed to eat. I took out one of my Cutie Oranges and ate them, thinking about how much I didn’t like Austin. That’s when he piped up again.
“I want you boys to weed-eat up by Field 6, take the Cushman with you, you don’t need to be tearin’ around in that little Chevy. Dave and Sam need it.”
“Alright Austin”, I replied dryly. He continued to weave his words ordering everyone around. Lisa was sitting behind me and whispered.
“Man that Austin is a real big pain in the you-know-what, heh heh heh.” She was piping into my ear.
Lisa was a plump woman in her fifties. She had freckles and round face with blue eyes. She continued to whisper in my ear inaudibly,
“He thinks he’s some tough guy, I could whoop him myself, heh heh heh. Some big shot basketball player huh. He’s just a joke. Makes his kids watch game film all night ‘cause he wants ‘em to play like him huh. I can tell ya one thing if they play like him they’ll be a big joke, heh.” All the while taking drinks out of her Powerade bottle with a sock wrapped around it. I could almost feel her breath against the back of my neck.
“Lisa, Sandra, and Billy, you girls know what you need to do, go weed the fields, the right way.” Austin blabbed further.
As Austin finished giving orders we all rose from our seats and began marching out of the pale-lit lunchroom in a line. Brandon and I got into the Cushman, the most deplorable “vehicle” you can imagine. The Cushman was one foot off the ground, had no doors, and was about as long as two meter sticks put together. The first meter being a cab, the second being a flatbed.
We pulled out of the packing shed and drove 100 yards down the road to the equipment building. We had just began to load the weed eaters onto the bed of the Cushman when Austin drove around the corner quickly and stopped right beside us in the little Chevy pickup.
“You boys follow me out to Field 6. I’ll show you what you’re doing today.” We began to follow him and contemplated what we would be doing.
“What do you think Austin is going to be having us doing?”, I spoke loudly over the Cushman’s rattling engine.
“Does Austin ever have us do anything good?” Brandon hollered back.
“Austin ruins this job, Frank told me yesterday how before Austin got here our job was fun.”
The Cushman belched as I shifted it up a gear.
“Yeah, he’s not so bad in person though, Austin is nice to me when I’m hanging out with his kids. Plus you and I screw around on the job a lot.”
We arrived at Field 6 and stopped behind Austin. He got out of the pickup and walked back to us.
“You boys are going to weed whack that treeline until I can see through to the other side. That’s your job for today. Weed whack them nettles too.”
I started to weed eat the tree line, which had nettles taller than me. An unknown variety of wasps and mosquitoes stung and bit my arms and neck, while the nettles gave a burning sensation to my face and arms. The heat bore down on me like an iron as I weaved my way through vines and nettles. The worst part of the whole endeavor was the treeline was on a hill. I battled my way for two hours until the next break. I returned with red and swollen arms, bug bites riddling my body, and a sunburned neck and nose.
Austin stalked into the room two minutes later, the door squeaking and slamming shut behind him. He took one look at me and turned around to get food out of the fridge.
“You boys get into some itchweed?” He had a smirk on his face that I wanted to slap right off of him. No Austin, I didn’t get “into some itchweed”. Oh, you mean all this swelling on my face and arms? I could’ve sworn that it was just my complexion.
I finished the rest of the day weed eating nettles, then I slipped into Frank’s truck to carpool to Thedford. I had no more than just got in when Frank started speaking. This wasn’t his usual wisdom, this was something new.
“Austin iza realllll sumbich. Makin’ yuh kids whack nettles all day.” This was new, I had never heard Frank talk bad about Austin Before. I didn’t reply. We drove off the compound and made our way onto the highway. The window was cracked and air was blowing into the pickup. Frank’s pickup had over 200,000 miles on it and was a real beater. It was a Chevy that looked like it was from 40 years ago, and probably was. Rust was covering the surface area of the pickup. There wasn’t one thing that looked like it was completely intact.
“Tha’ Austin don’ have no clue on how to run a forest. All he does is order people ‘round n goes n works n the office. He’s a good fer nothin’ sumbich.” Frank was becoming visibly irritated. “‘Fore Austin got this job out ‘ere we were frens. I’d drive down from ma house and go share a beer with ‘em. Now, I wouldn’t cross the street to share a beer with him.
“Lisa n them other girls are quittin’. They’ve ‘bout had ‘nough uh him. The only people who like em are Sara and Adam, and that’s cause they hadn’t been here long ‘nough to figure it out,” Frank Spat.
Austin wasn’t what I thought he’d been, and I had never known that the relationship between Frank and him was so tense. He told me how Austin had killed over 100 head of cattle by not watering them working his last job, and quit before he could get fired. He added how his kids would never want to come back home.
“He makes them poor kids’uh ‘is watch game film right when they get ‘ome frem playin’ sports. Letures ‘em the whole ride ‘ome on what they did wrong. Says he’s tryin’ to give ‘em a future.”
We pulled up to my parked car in Frank’s drive. I got out of the Chevy, thanked Frank for the ride, and got into my own Nissan Versa. This was a lot of information to process. Suddenly, Austin wasn’t the same person who welcomed me on my first day. I did remember how he would come in on the weekends however. I gave him sympathy for all the extra work he did around the forest; this was new though, and I thought about it all the way home.