Fiction — From the June 2013 issue

East Texas Lumber

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Back from lunch, I stood in the early June sun pulling two-by-sixes for somebody else’s load when Mike, the yard manager, came out of the office and yelled, “All right, Brian, I’ve got an easy one for you and Jimmy.”

It took me half a moment to register what he was saying. My mind had nestled itself against the secret, moon-pale skin between the buttons of this shirt Angela sometimes wore at The Hangout, the church club over in the strip mall where the Safeway used to be. But as soon as I did I dropped the two-by-six mid-pull and went up to him and said, “Let me kneel down before you. I swear I’ll get an idol with your face on it and give it flowers and pigeon blood every night.”

Mike colored at that, being Baptist. Fortysomething at least, with a groomed black beard and sunglasses hanging from his neck by a neon-green band, he was the Prime Mover of the yard’s universe, spinning us into motion with his order sheets. My prayers must have climbed their way through the spheres and gotten to his ear. Ever since morning the minutes had crawled, and all I could think of was getting to quitting time and driving to The Hangout so I could pitch my woo Angela-ward.

“Where’s Jimmy?” Mike said, clutching the order sheet to his chest. Jimmy popped up behind him, out of the main warehouse, where he must have been lazing in the door room. A great place for smoking, he told me once, but not for getting high, not with all those doors. Jimmy was a couple years older than me, taller, muscled, long hair straight and brown, with these little round spectacles like you see on timid townspeople in westerns. I’d been paired with him since I started at the lumberyard. After the tornado hit, they needed some extra people, and my dad was friends with a guy who went to Mike’s church. My first week, though, I managed to put a nail through my foot and drive over a stack of sheetrock, and Jimmy was the only one willing to take me on. He was a general master of fuckupery, but he’d worked at East Texas since he graduated from high school and he knew the yard. Those last were Mike’s exact words.

His exact words now were “Don’t screw it up.” The job was a shingle drop for two tornado houses. “Silver Linings to Greenhills and Chestnuts to Oak Ranch,” Mike told us. Jimmy snatched the order sheet from him, looked it over like maybe it was a trick, then beamed at me and told me to get in the truck. Mike gave us an “All right” and headed back to his air-conditioned holy of holies. We didn’t get good deliveries too often. We were always getting lost, and one time we’d scattered half our load on MLK when one of our straps came loose. But all the other guys were swamped.

We parked on the cool cement floor of the shingle warehouse, and Arturo scooted over in his forklift, glanced at the order, and said, “Pinchay my asshole.” Jimmy sat there, grinning as he held his hair up in a ponytail and snapped a rubber band around it. Arturo was always shouting something obscene, and most of the guys laughed without even thinking about the translation.

“Two drops,” Jimmy said to me, relishing it. “And one of them in Longview.”

I let myself sink into the truck’s faux leather, listened idly as Arturo put our pallets together and shouted “Pinchay my asshole” some more. Shingles were already easy because we wouldn’t have to pull lumber for a load, and the Longview drop meant a good long time of getting paid for just riding around. I’d sail through the afternoon, almost nothing between me and quitting time, between me sitting here now and sitting next to Angela at The Hangout and offering to buy her a Mountain Dew.

Jimmy drove us through downtown, passing cracked sidewalks and empty buildings and the line of tall oil derricks they lit up for Christmas, then over to Stone Road to skirt the tornado zone and come up along its backside.

“You got any stops you want to make?” he asked after we passed the new car wash with its imported palm trees and inflated gorilla in an Uncle Sam hat. He’d said it was a right, on long deliveries, to work in some idling.

But I didn’t want the risk. I’d already measured the afternoon out in my head. Once we did our two drops and got back, it’d be four. That was a good hour to return from delivery, four. Too late to start a new job, we’d hang out eating popsicles from the yard freezer, straightening boards and picking up scraps while the day’s last minutes wound down, no worrying about getting to The Hangout in time. When I shared my dream with Jimmy — leaving out any mention of Angela, since the last thing I wanted was his needling — he said, “I got to have my stops.”

“What about this: we don’t fucknut around, Mike might give us some more good deliveries.”

Jimmy leaned across the truck, let it glide between lanes as he reached his hand toward me. “Two stops. I’ll have us back by five. I swear.”

A telephone pole loomed. “Jesus, fine.” I gave his hand a quick shake. “Two stops, back by five.” It was the best I could do.

The thing is, the tornado had deus-ex-machina’d my life pretty well, and I was fighting to hold on to the improvements. First there was my job. The one I had before the lumberyard was at Whataburger, and I couldn’t go back there. The grease coated my skin like wax, and I’d been fired anyway for leaving some meat out. I’d sat around for months, taking classes part-time at the junior college, and my parents had given me an ultimatum: I had to be out by New Year’s and doing something useful. So I’d decided to move to Dallas and go to the locksmith school there. My brain turned to fuzz whenever I thought too long about most things, but it’d be cool spending your day getting into other people’s houses and cars. Since the tornado came and I started at the lumberyard I’d saved up about a quarter of the money I needed.

And second there was Angela. In high school I’d had only one real girlfriend, a Church of Christ girl who kissed me with her lips closed and dumped me after a month because I kept putting my hand on her stomach and she thought I was trying to edge it somewhere else (I was). But Angela I’d already felt up once. Two weeks earlier she’d sat in the folding chair next to mine at The Hangout. The guy who ran it didn’t charge anything — he went to Grace Church and said The Hangout was his mission for the area youth, to give us someplace to go that wasn’t a cowboy bar or a random field where we might get up to who knew what. On Thursdays and Fridays the same Christian band always played, and that one night two weeks back while the singer was leading everybody in prayer I glanced over and caught Angela flipping him off. “He’s an idiot,” she said when she saw me. “He made fun of people at school and peed on my friend’s car.” I held her Mountain Dew for her when she went to the bathroom, and when the band took a break she told me she’d gone to high school at Pine Tree and that last year was her first year at SFA. “It sucked I missed the tornado,” she said. I told her I was out there every day, delivering wood and stuff to the houses. A light turned on in her eyes. She pushed her brown hair behind her ears and told me she was majoring in biology, wanted to do something with frogs. I said, “Frogs are cool,” and she started talking about going on a frog hunt with her science club in Davy Crockett National Forest. It was like she’d unwrapped this hidden part of herself and was holding it out to me. I asked if she was dating anybody, offhand, and she said no. So when she said she had to get home I walked her to her car. She opened her door and turned to look at me, and that’s when I kissed her. After we did that for about a minute I slipped my hand up her shirt and kept it there until one of the Grace volunteers watching the parking lot started beelining our way. Angela pulled back and said she had to go but that she’d see me again.

But the next night at The Hangout she ignored me for this group of mission trippers from Jasper who’d come to shovel in the tornado zone. A freckle-faced, lanky guy with gelled blond hair kept putting his arm around her, and she kept letting him. I couldn’t figure it out. When I got her by herself, she’d barely talk to me, and it was that way every time after until last night I spotted her alone at the cake-and-candy table. At first I froze, but then I said hey and she said hey. She was holding her arm across the chest of her Scooby-Doo T-shirt, Scooby’s eyes blacked out with marker, as she scratched at the eczema on her other arm. I told her I liked what she had done to her shirt and she said, “He’s a dog, it’s stupid, the others could still be alive now but he’d be dead.” Then I said, “I haven’t talked to you in forever,” though it’d only been last Friday, and she said, well, yeah, that sucked, and now she was headed back to Nacogdoches in two days for summer school. One of the Jasper mission trippers barked her name in this voice he did that made everyone laugh. She smiled at him and started leaning in that way people do when they want to leave you for somebody better. My jaw finally flopped open and “See you tomorrow?” tumbled out. She said sure and stopped scratching long enough to hold her hand up in goodbye.

Tonight was my last chance. I had to get back to the yard by five so I could be at The Hangout by six, waiting for Angela, ready to show her I was the one she wanted.

“Well, shit, I guess we’re late for our date,” Jimmy said when we got to the first drop, over in Greenhills. Roofers crowded the top of the pink-brick ranch house like lizards on a rock. They were drinking Cokes and lying back, eyes hooded under ball caps. We’d done a few shingle runs before, and the first time out Jimmy had told me about roofers. “Lowest of the low,” he’d said. “When a man can’t get a job doing anything else, he becomes a roofer.” Since then I’d always regarded roofers, and roofs, with a quiet disdain.

The head roofer came over to the truck. After we’d driven over the ruined chain-link fence and parked on the grass we’d found him sitting under a crab-apple tree, the only thing in the back yard still standing. His skin was leathered and red, and he wore a dirty denim shirt and a chewed-up Lone Star Feed hat.

“Twenty bucks and me and my partner’ll put these shingles on the roof,” Jimmy said, nodding at me when he said “partner.”

“Done,” the head roofer said, and passed Jimmy a twenty and got back under his tree. He took a Marlboro from the pack in his shirt pocket and lit up.

If the roofers didn’t give us the twenty bucks we unloaded the shingles on the ground, and they’d have to haul the bundles up one by one on a ladder. But with the truck backed just right we only had to lift them from the bed, which was already more than halfway up the side of your basic ranch house. After he pocketed the twenty and gave me a ten, Jimmy edged the truck up against the house, and then we got out.

“Go on up,” Jimmy said once we’d both climbed onto the bed.

“You go up.” The few other times we’d done this I’d been the one stuck on the roof. If I wasn’t careful my foot could go through a soft spot, put me in a wheelchair for life if the roof was rotten enough. Mike had told me the stories himself.

“You going to sling these shingles?” Jimmy asked.

I couldn’t, of course — I was too weak. Each bundle was sixty pounds. Without a word I scrabbled up over the gutter, and once I was on the roof Jimmy started handing the shingles to me. He hoisted them like they were nothing while I waddled, bentbacked, as I carried them up and down the slope of the roof and dropped them wherever the workers pointed. They didn’t get up, just nodded and grunted. As I walked back to fetch the next bundle, my arms would float up in release and I’d look out at the mile-long tornado cut that ran through town, scabbed over here and there with fresh plywood and timber, dotted with trash piles and teams of volunteers in the neon shirts donated by the TV station over in Tyler. Then I’d pick up the next bundle and forget about the tornado as I strained and breathed little breaths and prayed I wouldn’t make a fool of myself before I dumped the sucker. On the roof’s far slope, where the plywood hadn’t been replaced, it was harder to find the rafters, and my third trip over I missed one. My foot sank into the plywood — a soft spot, rotted to sponge. This was it. Thinking of Angela, the three minutes of her I’d had and all the minutes I wanted, I eased my weight to my other foot, still balanced on a rafter. The roofer watching me laughed. I wobbled, then got myself clear, and once both feet were settled I tossed the shingles before the roofer could point. We only had a few bundles left and each trip back I eyed the divot and moved my feet in straight lines along the rafters I’d found. Soon we’d finished. The roofers began to cuss and rise. Before I got off the roof they already had the nail guns going, the bright new chestnut shingles spreading up from the eaves.

When the tornado had come, back in April, I was at the junior college, on the top floor of Pfaff Hall waiting for my history class. The siren we always heard on the second Wednesday of every month blared, and at first I thought it was an idiot cop pulling a prank. But then an announcement echoed through the cinder-block halls: a tornado had touched down and we had to get to the bottom floor, away from glass. A sudden giddiness rattled the air. The juco profs stationed themselves at spaced points and waved us forward, as if they’d trained for it, and at the end of the hall Franciosa James, who I’d shared a table with in fourth-grade homeroom, shouted, “Gonna motherfucking storm up in here.” People near him laughed. “I ain’t making no joke.”

Franciosa’s words were the true signal. Low-grade panic kicked through me, and I fought my way toward the stairs, weaving around others. Just before I reached them, though, I got blocked by three girls whose tank-topped, salon-toasted skin I’d contemplated all semester. They held one another as they walked, the girl in the middle bawling. Temporarily forfeiting my panic, I reached out to put a hand on her. With everything upended, who knew what might happen? But a guy in a camo shirt elbowed himself between us. The bulk of his thick, broad body muffled what I’d started saying to the girl about it being okay, and I had to listen to him show off. He said he’d walk right now over to the Show Room for a shot if he could get some company. I gave up and went downstairs. Death, I meet thee alone, I said to myself, thinking it was from a poem in high school. I didn’t really believe I was going to die, I just liked the charge of it.

A giant girl in shiny basketball shorts, her curly hair sweat-plastered to her head, stared at her cell phone as texts came in and called out to everyone that the tornado had crossed Dudley Road. Then the power went out and the bawling girl screamed. In school they’d told us a tornado was supposed to sound like a freight train, but I didn’t hear anything. We all sat there in silence, except the guy in the camo shirt, who for no reason burst out laughing a couple of times, maniacal. Twenty minutes later a janitor came in and said we could get up, the tornado was gone. It had veered just after Dudley and sliced through another part of town.

Disappointment seeped through the hall, then we rallied. Everyone tried their cell phones, but the tower must have been down, so we filed out of the building. While some went for their cars, I settled in with the rest — the three girls among them — who walked under the now calm sky looking for destruction. We headed east, where the janitor’s and sweaty-haired girl’s reports had last placed the tornado, and at Henderson Boulevard we found a police barricade already put up. A hushed crowd gathered along it, bristled with arms that wheeled about at the whims of greedy, pointing fingers. Across from the barricade the doughnut shop had folded in on itself, its refrigerator tilting out what remained of the front door, the cartons of milk spoiling in the sun.

Half a block up, the barbecue place had vanished into a pile, its blue vans sprinkled along the street. Paramedics were there, ministering to people with injuries. In the neighborhood behind the strip of restaurants, splintery twists of wood curled up out of the ground — the remains of trees — and the houses looked like knocked-out drunks, windows empty and black, bits of everything vomited everywhere, glass, mail, china, pictures, stuffed animals, appliances large and small. A police cruiser was parked at the head of the street, lights flashing. Beside me a knot of men estimated death counts. Ten, twenty. One fevered guy in a green Subway shirt said it’d be a hundred at least. Some police had stopped in for tuna Footlongs, and that’s what he’d heard, a hundred, and then he’d clocked out and left to come to see. The number jittered through me. I looked around for the three girls, hoping I could be the one to tell them, but they were off who knew where.

As it happened, by the end of the day the count had dropped to one, a ninety-year-old man, Earl Vancey, who hardly anybody knew. Didn’t go to any church, sat by himself each morning at the Circle Café, same coffee and oatmeal, same denim shirt. When the tornado came he’d crouched in his bathtub and the wall had fallen in. Everyone said they were relieved it was only the one, a blessing, especially with him being so old. But now the president and the governor wouldn’t come, and there’d be no movie stars or other famous people to escort through the wreckage. We were lucky to make the scroll on the bottom of the twenty-four-hour cable news. Still, the destruction was enough to attract Baptist men’s clubs, who roved the tornado site wielding chain saws, and mission groups with their crates of bottled water and sacks of donated clothes. It was enough to get me this job and Angela in my arms.

After the Greenhills drop Jimmy looped us back to 259, but instead of keeping straight on toward Longview he turned left on 31. “Stop one, need to swing by the house,” he said.

We’d never before gone home while on the clock. Pulled over for tacos, lingered in convenience stores, taken long routes, sure, but this was a line we were crossing. Still, I hadn’t bargained for a veto, so I kept my mouth shut, crossed my fingers, and soothed myself with images of me at The Hangout, right on time.

I didn’t know where Jimmy lived, and I was surprised when he took the ramp onto 135. We drove past the oil-field shops that lined the edge of town. Out here there was no trace of the tornado, but it was ugly all the same. The road was four-lane, a big highway in the middle of nowhere, and after passing a line of five identical mustard-colored buildings with their attendant gravel lots we pulled into a potholed driveway. Houses sat on metal beams, hides of shagged tar paper gathered about grayed, termite-ridden wood. Jimmy drove past them to a yard of smoothly packed dirt where a house in only slightly better shape than the others squatted on concrete-block feet.

“My dad buys them,” Jimmy said, when he noticed me looking back at the houses in the field. “He’s going to turn them into lake cabins.”

He leaped out of the truck and, passing the front porch, started climbing through a window. I didn’t want to think about why, and staring out at the field of houses I ignored his legs wiggling over the sill and let my mind drift to the flesh beneath Angela’s shirt. I struggled with my inadequate map, itched at not knowing how much ground had been lost to the guy from Jasper. Then a banging on the hood set my heart knocking in my chest. Jimmy. He opened my door and started pushing me toward the steering wheel.

“You’re going to drive,” he said. He’d shoved me halfway across the cab and now lifted himself up to where I’d been sitting, pulled a joint out from his pocket, and punched the truck’s lighter with his thumb. “I’m going to smoke.”

“We both have so much to live for,” I said. To no avail — one last push had me behind the wheel. I sucked at driving the trucks and I didn’t have my CDL. But the afternoon tugged, and fighting Jimmy would mean losing more time. I did some active visualization — me returned to the yard safe — then started the truck, backed around to straighten us up, and pretended not to be frightened as I got us past all those houses and onto 135, shifting through the gears and popping the stick until the engine stopped making its horrible grinding noises.

A mile gone, the lighter released and Jimmy grabbed it, touching it to the end of his joint. “Snow cones,” he said. “That’s stop two.”

The snow-cone stand Jimmy wanted was on the edge of the Family Dollar parking lot in Sabine. As I drove us there the truck kept losing its smooth gear, bucking and heaving until I tamed it with blind shoves of the stick. Meanwhile, Jimmy preened: he took off his glasses, undid his ponytail, combed his fingers through his hair, all with the joint pinched between his lips. When I at last got us to the stand he said, “Keep going, keep going,” until we were clear to the other side of the lot. I stopped the truck in a row of empty spaces, but Jimmy didn’t shift from his seat. Instead, he pulled a five from his pocket, passed it to me, and told me to get him a pink lemon.

“You’re not getting out?”

“Does it look like I’m getting out?” Then, calm again, “Get yourself something, too.”

“Okay, but you’re driving after this.”

“Fine. Just let me finish.” He held up the end of his joint.

I walked across the asphalt toward the stand, a cube of slapped-together plywood painted white. On each side, above red, yellow, and blue circles, stenciled letters spelled sno-cone. A blonde girl leaned against the back counter and paged through a magazine covered with photos of some celebrity’s fat-curdled belly. A donation canister for the tornado victims sat beneath the list of flavors.

“One pink lemon, one blue coconut,” I said, putting Jimmy’s five on the counter. The girl flicked her eyes at me, smacked her gum, and repeated, “One pink lemon, one blue coconut,” like they were the two most boring flavors ever. She dropped the magazine on the counter and took two cups from the stack beside her, then turned around and filled them with shaved ice. The stand was raised, so that my eyes were directly level with her butt. I envisioned myself somehow lodged in the tuck of denim between cheek and thigh.

“Is that Jimmy in that truck?” the girl said, back still to me as she stood at the jugs of syrups and pumped the cones with color.

“Which Jimmy?”

“You know which Jimmy,” she said.

“Well,” I said. “Within the infinite possibilities of Jimmys, that very well could be the Jimmy you want it to be.”

She set the cups down. “Whatever. You can tell that infinite Jimmy to stop bothering me. Next time I see him I’m going to slap him upside his head.”

“I’ll pass that on to the Jimmys I know,” I said.

She picked up a rag and gave me a slit-eyed scowl. “Whatever it is you want, you ain’t getting it.” Then she turned around and ran the rag along the shelf beneath the syrups, where drips collected from the gummed and crusted nozzles. “But you can go right ahead and stare at my ass again.”

I blushed, didn’t say anything, and took the snow cones back to the truck. Jimmy was slouched in the driver’s seat, his head just above the window, watching the girl. I gave him his pink lemon, told him what she’d said, and for a few seconds we studied her together.

“She dispenses nectar,” Jimmy said, and scraped his teeth over the syrupy ice, slow and reverent. Sure, he had ape muscles and went to parties where people got drunk and naked, but he read fantasy novels too.

After he tipped the last of the snow cone into his mouth he put the truck in gear. Loose asphalt crackled beneath our tires. I ran over one more time what I’d decided to say to Angela that night. First I would ask her if she wanted a Mountain Dew, and when I brought her one I would put my hand on her arm and look her in the eyes and say she might be going back to Nacogdoches and I might be moving to Dallas someday, but now that we lived in a world with tornadoes what did that matter, we had tonight. Then I’d stay quiet for a moment and she wouldn’t say anything, just nod and let me take her to her car. And that would lead to other nights. Nacogdoches was only an hour away. I could drive there at least once a week.

It was four o’clock when we got to Longview.

“I need something to eat,” Jimmy said. He looked at me, his eyes gone soft. It was the first he’d spoken since we left the snow-cone stand.

“Two stops is two stops,” I said.

“I’ll be quick. Please. You do something good, something good will happen to you. Rule of the universe.”

“Ha.”

“Your call,” Jimmy said. Then he smiled. “Angela Grimes.”

An acid shudder flashed through my stomach. “You know about Angela?”

Jimmy pretended not to hear me, slapped his palms on the steering wheel to the drum solo being spat out by 96X.

“What do you know?”

The solo finished, he said, “I’m too hungry and upset to remember.”

I looked at the green numbers of the clock. We could still make five if we hurried. “You’ll be quick?”

“You won’t even see me eat.”

Jimmy drove us to the Waffle Shoppe, a twenty-four-hour place on the corner of 80 and McCann with a sign that had a waffle the shape of Texas on it, a big pat of melting butter where Waco would be. Counting minutes, I’d suggested McDonald’s, but Jimmy had said he didn’t believe in McDonald’s, and then he’d repeated Angela’s name. Inside we took one of the stunted booths next to the counter, and when the brown-shirted waitress came by Jimmy ordered a jalapeño omelet. She looked at me and I said I didn’t want anything, but Jimmy winked at her and told her to bring me a pecan waffle.

“So that girl at the snow-cone stand,” Jimmy said when the waitress left. “Beth. Last weekend I was at this party and her friend got me into a room and pulled down her pants and was like, ‘Fuck me,’ and so I did. And then Beth comes into the room all like, ‘What are you doing fucking my friend on my little sister’s bed?’ ”

“What’s this got to do with Angela?”

Jimmy blinked at me. “Nothing. I just needed to clear out my own shit. Beth’s the one I want and she’s just mean to me.”

The waitress returned, and plates and silverware clattered onto our table. Jimmy gave the woman his wide grin, said thanks, and sliced the end off his omelet and shoved it into his mouth.

“So,” I said. “You’ve got food in you now.”

“Oh, yeah, sweet little Angela. We go back.” He forked in more omelet. “Her brother throws big parties in Pine Tree. I was at one last night and she told me you loved up on her.”

I poured syrup on my waffle until the grid filled up.

“She said, hey, you know this guy, I think he works where you work, he felt me up in the parking lot, and I said I bet he was gentle, and then she said she was about to piss her panties and went to the bathroom. She had her frogs with her because some guy had sneaked into her room and tried to lick them.”

“Did she tell you why she’s been ignoring me? Because she’s been ignoring me.”

Jimmy shrugged. “She’s always been one of those secret shy girls. You know, you think she’s all cool talking but then she gets spooked.” He licked mashed omelet off his lips. “I can tell you something, though. She’s primed. I’ve got a nose for it. You need to get your finger wet.”

He held his own finger up and danced it in a slow twirl. I slid down in my booth. Its seat was stitched with duct tape, the stuffing a memory, and the coils pushed back like they wanted to spring me out.

“It’ll be you or somebody else, and if it’s you you’ll hook her.”

I darted an eye to the tables around us, empty except for one, a guy with a trucker’s beard and a folded-up newspaper. Jimmy’s plate was empty now, speckled with yellow grease and jalapeño seeds. My waffle remained untouched.

“We should go,” I said, and Jimmy turned his twirling finger at the waitress and asked for the check.

At the Oak Ranch development, we drove past staked-off lots of plowed-over red clay and cul-de-sacs of two-by-four skeletons until we came to a small herd of near-finished houses. A second tornado, in the same storm, had touched down here, but it had been smaller than the one in our town and had only scraped along the empty streets, tearing up roofs and breaking windows. Jimmy did his routine with the head roofer, a guy in a clean buttoned shirt and matching ball cap stitched with his company’s name. The man looked at the two of us, smiled, and told us he’d keep his twenty.

“Fuck him,” Jimmy said. He climbed up onto the truck bed and flung the pallet as far as he could from the house. “He wants to lug them, we’ll make him lug them. Get over there.”

I didn’t mind losing the twenty. Unloading the shingles on the ground was faster than putting them on the roof, especially once you got into rhythm. It was 4:30 now, and since Jimmy’s revelations at the Waffle Shoppe I’d had to do several of the slow-exhale exercises I’d learned in seventh-grade gym.

I hustled to the pallet. Jimmy threw the shingles down and I lined them up as they fell, pulling back as the next bundle soared toward me. I let my mind go to The Hangout. I wasn’t asking Angela if she wanted a Mountain Dew, I was just buying it for her, showing her nobody knew her like I did. Then I was telling her about living in a world with tornadoes. Her face was pointed toward mine, lips soft and open and sugared from her drink. If the stuff about the tornado didn’t work, I’d tell her I knew where the old man had died and that I could take her there, anything to get me with her. I wondered if she’d be wearing the same bra. The one before had been this thin cotton, with a useless bow between the cups that I wanted to untie and keep in my pants.

“Shit!” Jimmy yelled.

I looked back. I’d faltered out of rhythm, and a bundle of shingles caught my side, a deep punch beneath my ribs, then spun to the ground. I bent over, held my breath as tears gathered in my eyes and a bruise knuckled to life beneath my skin.

“Fucktard,” Jimmy said. “You awake?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Then go pick those shingles up.”

The bundle had ripped open, silver shingles fanned out. Ignoring the throbs around my kidney I scooped the shingles up and dumped them on the pallet. Jimmy hurled the rest of the bundles down and I fenced my brain, kept it away from that bow, and didn’t break the rhythm. By the time we were finished and sitting in the truck my side only ached a little and I was feeling pretty good. We’d get back just after five and I could still be showered and at The Hangout by six.

Jimmy drove us down McCann, then 31. No more wandering: we were headed directly home. Honks blared around us as Jimmy told me about some show he’d watched where wolves captured people’s souls. In the rearview mirror I saw we’d forgotten to tighten one of the straps. It whipped out off the side of the truck like a devil’s tail.

Ten minutes after five and the yard was already dormant, that sweet time when the start of the next day is at its farthest. The sun hung above the far sheds, a lone white dot. The other trucks had been pulled in for the night, angled one next to the other like children put to bed, and I had to get out and unlock the gate. As I swung it open I thought about Angela and my hand and how the two would soon join.

I had gotten the gate wide enough for the truck when a door slammed, echoing out into the yard and jostling the image of me and Angela in the Hangout parking lot. I looked around and caught Mike shooting toward me from the office. At the sight of him my stomach flipped over on itself. His face was red, and his throat made a grinding noise, like some possessed person in the movies. I clung to the gate and heard Jimmy brake the truck behind me.

Mike’s glare jumped from me to Jimmy and back again before he got his throat to working. “You took the wrong dadgummed shingles to the wrong dadgummed house! I just got a call from Greenhills. The customer came out of her house and looked up and what did she see? Chestnut shingles. What did she order? Silver Linings.”

I stood there, my fogged brain not computing what this meant for me, The Hangout awaiting. But after another quick bout of throat grinding, Mike assuaged my confusion.

“You want to keep this job, you better get out there right now and fix it.”

The little hopes I’d been tending popped and crumpled beneath my skin. We’d have to load new shingles for the Longview house, then get the shingles we’d dropped there and take them to Greenhills. We wouldn’t be done until eight, and by then it’d be the Jasper guy with his arm around Angela, getting his hands wherever he could, making dates to see her in Nacogdoches.

“How about early tomorrow?” I began, but Mike turned his red face on me and I swallowed whatever else it was I was going to say. Jimmy started bitching, then gunned the truck and told me to come on. I gave him my chained-dog look, like just step closer and I’ll maul you. All the hours I’d gotten through and we’d fucked up before we even knew it. Goodbye, Angela. Then I dragged myself around the front of the truck and up into the cab. I mean, Jesus, but it would take a dozen tornadoes to get me the life I wanted.

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’s first book, Byzantium: Stories, will be published next month by Graywolf. He teaches at the University of Toledo.

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