by Roger Real Drouin
Up here on big flat there’s only the low, constant hum of the compressors. And the wind rough against the truck, whipping against the rig. Oscar sips the last of the coffee from the thermos, and he thinks of his girls, warm inside far away, sound asleep.
He listens for the wolf, listens past the hemlock and cedar, but there is only the wind.
After three months, he knows the job, knows how to take the measurements at the stations, on the hour, knows to listen for the two-way, knows what to do in case NIOSH comes around.
Josh tells him they’ve got to go down to No. 4.
So Oscar puts the diesel in four-low, letting the truck motor down the two-rutted across the flat, letting his thoughts wander also, back to being a kid fishing for trout with his old man, the sun coming up, the autumn wind cold and the river clear.
“I know where it is,” Oscar says.
“OK.” Josh puts the topo map back up on the dash. “You know to go right where it forks?”
When the two-rutted forks and cuts back again, along the edge of the flat, Oscar watches the clouds like wildfire haze and below, in the gulch, the creeks where they turn into one.
There’d be three more rigs across the flat, before next winter.
They pass into the white pines and the ferns.
“Did you see Patterson’s new Rubicon?” Josh asks.
“Yeah, I saw it in the lot.”
“That’s a beautiful Jeep, man.”
Oscar knows his Pap would have understood, would’ve known how his son couldn’t endure the metal-cold feeling churning in his stomach every morning as he sat in the truck those three extra minutes before he stepped into the burning smell. His Pap would have stood by whatever he decided.
Maybe Carla will understand too, like his Pap would have.
She would—he hopes she would. Maybe it would be better after he did tell her. She might already know that he couldn’t do it any longer. She knows what kind of man he was.
But Josh, his old friend from high school, would think he was crazy. He’ll probably start on about the pay. He’ll remind him they were fixing to bring in eighty this year, and a bonus after their first year. Where the hell else can a blue-collar guy with no college education make half that pay? He’ll mention Oscar’s old Ford, past the two-hundred-fifty-thousand mile mark, frame rusting through, and his two little girls—how there ain’t no work, nothing, out here. How ten months ago, before Centur hired them, they were both taking unemployment for the first times in their lives.
The lean, searching wolf stands on the creek bank. Long-legged, white-faced, looking into the water, sniffing. Now aware of the distant men—clumsy footsteps, their equipment. They are out, far away. Yet too close. Old eyed, looking out, the wolf now listens to the men too close, and is gone, steady steps out, up, a way worn through the warming light, soft, faint, before there’s less and then no light. But the sounds of the men remain behind.
They had said how it was the new energy for this country, how it burned cleaner than coal or oil. How they were going to use it to heat the skyscrapers in Chicago. Here there is the dead fish, floating above the shallow edge of the broken-shale creek bottom, dead in the water, its gut bloated like a balloon, and the clouds in the water seeping up from deep under the strata.
Oscar kneels above the fish watching the red-orange color slash—its gut bloated like a balloon.
It’s Tuesday morning. He waits in his truck parked by the stacked pipes. He waits as the other men head in the trailer to clock in. He waits, starts his truck and turns it towards home.
He crosses Macay Pass in the early afternoon, and when he gets home no one’s there yet. The last of the bills are waiting stacked on the table.
Roger Real Drouin is a writer. His stories have appeared in the Potomac Review, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Grey Sparrow Journal, Pif Magazine, Pindelyboz, and elsewhere.