by Castle Freeman, Jr.
My friend Cleon said he didn’t understand. He was used to chasing after people who owed him—not people he owed. Young Rusty had it backwards, didn’t he? Everybody knows kids today don’t want to work; but don’t they want to be paid, either? Doesn’t everybody want to be paid?
“From your own point of view, though,” I said to Cleon, “what’s the problem?”
“That was my question,” said Edie. “That’s what I asked.”
“Rusty doesn’t mind not being paid, why should you?” I went on. “You get to keep your money.”
“It ain’t right,” said Cleon.
“Oh, God,” said Edie. “Here comes Mister Right again. It ain’t right. It just ain’t right. If I’d had a dime for every time I’ve heard that the past forty years.”
“Maybe he’s out of town,” I said.
“Saw him on his cycle this morning,” said Cleon. “He waved.” Rusty drove around the valley in an ancient blue hippie wagon that
he kept running somehow, parked here and there, and lived in, off and on, with one or another in a line of young women, off and on, picking up odd jobs and even working regularly, off and on. At present he had the thing parked in the upper pasture behind my barn. He came and went on a motorcycle. For the summer, Rusty was using the bus as a trailer, as an immobile mobile home. It had been at my place since May. I thought Cleon knew that.
“I waited for his invoice,” Cleon said. “No invoice. He was here most of the day, plus gas and oil for his saw. End of the month, nothing.
I thought I’d call him. ‘Course, he don’t have a phone.” “’Course not,” said Edie.
One of the old sugar maples at Cleon’s had come down in the wind. It lay partway across Cleon’s lane. It needed to be cut up for firewood. Cleon said he’d take care of that. He’d have to go slow, since he’d had his bypass only six weeks ago; but he said he could manage it. Then Edie put her foot down, hard and heavy. “No,” she said, and not even Cleon is stubborn enough to go against Edie when her No rings with that particular echo to it, that particular clang, like the closing of the door of a cell in the grayest, highest, strongest prison in the galaxy.
So Cleon called me and asked did I know somebody who could get out to his place in the next day or so and deal with his situation. I think he wanted me to step up to it, myself, but it was only a couple of months since I’d gotten my new hip. That year everybody was down at the spare parts store, it looked like.
So I walked up the pasture to Rusty’s bus. Nobody home, but I left a note. The next morning, there was Rusty at my door, bright-eyed and ready to get to work, but lacking a chainsaw. Did Cleon have one he could use? I didn’t know, so I told Rusty to take my saw. He got it on the back of his motorcycle, and off he went. At Cleon’s, he got the job done the same day.
“I couldn’t fault him,” said Cleon. “He stuck right to it. Went after that tree like an old pro. Went after it like he’d cut his way out of his mother’s belly with a Husqvarna.”
“What a horrible thought,” said Edie. “You ought to be ashamed.” She turned to me. “I couldn’t watch him,” she said. “I was afraid he’d kill himself. Climbing around and over that tree, amongst its branches, chainsaw going full bore, wearing a T-shirt and shorts. Sneakers. Red Sox cap. No helmet, no hearing protection, no chaps, no gloves. It’s a miracle he came out with both his legs. Crazy boy. After a while, I couldn’t watch.”
“Then, bingo, he’s done and gone,” said Cleon. “I don’t hear the saw. Look out the window. No kid. Wood all cut and piled up neat beside the lane, out of the way, just like I told him to do. I go out there. No kid. Motorcycle’s gone.
“Well, I’m all set to get him paid there and then,” Cleon went on. “I don’t know, but to me the job scoped out maybe three hundred, outside. And this kid don’t look to me like an electronic funds trans- fer kind of a kid; no checks. More like dirty twenties, off the books. Wouldn’t you say?”
“Rusty? I’d say so,” I told Cleon.
“So I’d been to the bank the day before, had a roll all ready. Then, no workman, no payday. Well, I think, I’ve misjudged the kid. He’s no cash-on-the-dresser escort. He’s a businessman. It’s only a couple of days till the end of the month. He’ll invoice me.
“End of the month. Start of the next month. Middle. End of that one. No invoice. So I called Pauline. She’s his mom. She’ll know where I can find him, I thought.”
“She’s his aunt,” said Edie.
“Pauline is?” asked Cleon.
“Pauline married Russell’s uncle Bud,” said Edie. “She’s his aunt.” “She raised him, I thought,” said Cleon.
“So she did,” said Edie. “He was raised by his aunt. His mom took off with Steve.”
“That’s right,” I said. “She took off with Steve.”
Cleon called Pauline. Pauline told him she hadn’t seen Rusty, to talk to, for a couple of weeks, but she thought he might be working for O’Brien at the house they were building on Diamond Mountain. Cleon drove on out there. That was where his troubles began, he said.
At the house, he found two men up on the roof, shingling, and another, the mason, on his scaffold at the peak, building the chimney. Cleon saw the mason was alone. That meant his helper was on the ground around the house where the brick pile was. None of the other two workmen was Rusty. The mason wasn’t Rusty. Therefore, Cleon judged, Rusty had to be the mason’s helper. He drove on around the house to find him.
Cleon pulled in close to the house—too close: practically under the eaves. He stopped his engine, opened the door of the Wagoneer, stepped down, and looked for Rusty. In that second, with a mighty crash, a hand carrier full of bricks came down through the windshield and roof of the Wagoneer. Cleon stood dumbly beside the ruined vehi- cle, in the shattered glass and fallen bricks, still holding the open door. He looked up toward the roof, where the mason’s helper, who had failed to secure the carrier, looked down at him with some curiosity.
“You okay?” asked the helper.
Cleon looked around him, still not fully taking in what had hap- pened—and what had not.
O’Brien, the boss, had been sitting in his truck nearby reading the newspaper. Now he hurried over to Cleon and the smashed Wagoneer.
“Jesus Fucking Christ!” said O’Brien. “What a mess!”
“I was sitting right here,” said Cleon. “I was nearly killed.”
“What a fucking mess,” said O’Brien.
“I mean, it was inches,” said Cleon. “Less than inches. It was seconds. I was right there.” He looked into the wreckage of the Wagoneer’s front seat.
“What a goddamned fucking mess,” said O’Brien.
“I’m okay,” said Cleon.
“Fuck me,” said O’Brien. He looked up at the mason’s helper on the roof. “What happened?” he demanded.
“I don’t know,” said the helper. “I guess it slipped.”
Cleon looked at the helper. “That’s not Rusty,” he said.
“Who’s Rusty?” asked O’Brien.
“Your mason’s man,” said Cleon.
O’Brien shook his head. “That’s Dougie,” he said. “I’ve got no Rusty on my payroll. Never have had.” He looked narrowly up at the helper on the roof. “Maybe I should have,” he said, “if this is what I’ve got instead. Get your ass down here,” he said to the helper.
“Some people would move on, after that, as far as Rusty was con- cerned,” said Edie.
“Some would turn the page,” I said.
“Not this one,” said Edie. “No chance. You know why?”
“Because it ain’t right?” I asked.
“You got it,” said Edie. “It still ain’t right. Is it?” she asked Cleon. “No,” said Cleon.
“You know what they say, though.” asked Edie.
“What do they say?”
“’If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit,’” said Edie. “No,” said Cleon.
O’Brien had called a wrecker to tow Cleon’s Wagoneer after the mishap with the bricks. He drove Cleon home. On the way, Cleon told O’Brien about his impasse with Rusty.
“Is this the kid that has the old hippie bus?” O’Brien asked Cleon. “That’s the one,” said Cleon. “You know him?”
“Not really,” said O’Brien, “but if I was looking for him, anybody like that, I’d try the Wheel.”
Of course. Brown’s Wagon Wheel was a no-star bar-restaurant that catered to a local trade who ate fast and short and drank long and slow. In his wet years, Cleon had been a steady patron. (So had I, in mine.) But the Wheel and places like it are a young fellow’s kind of establish-ment, after all.
“The Wheel?” said Cleon. “It must be fifteen, twenty years since I was in the Wheel.”
“Not long enough,” said Edie.
“The Wheel don’t change,” said Cleon.
“Why would it?” asked Edie. “There’s always more drunk men coming up.”
Cleon ignored her. “Even the smell’s the same,” he said. “It’s good to see, in a way.”
“Or would be,” said Edie, “if it was a good smell.”
“And how do you know what it smells like?” Cleon asked her.
“I can guess,” said Edie.
“So,” Cleon went ahead, “I go in there. I look around. No sign of Rusty. I signal the barman. Barman comes over. I ask him if Rusty’s been in. ‘Never heard of him,’ says the barman.”
But Cleon knew, he remembered, how the Wheel worked. He took a stool at the bar and ordered a beer. The barman served him. Cleon paid for his beer and laid a twenty on the bar.
“Rusty?” the barman said. “Rusty was in a while ago. You missed him.”
“Will he be back today?”
“He might be. I can tell him you’re looking for him. What name?” “Rogers,” said Cleon.
“What about?” asked the barman. He grinned. “Wait, let me guess,” he said. “Let me take a wild shot. Rusty owes you money.”
Cleon shoved the twenty across the bar. The barman took it.
“I owe him,” said Cleon.
The barman folded Cleon’s twenty and slipped it into his shirt pocket. He chuckled. “Is that right?” he said. “Well, that’s a new one on me. But you know Rusty.” Then he looked sharply to his left, down the bar. “Gentlemen?” he called. “Fellows?”
Cleon became aware of a situation developing near the end of the bar—a quarrel: anger, raised voices. He looked in that direction in time to see a large, black-bearded party heave himself up off his stool and seize the pitcher of beer from off the bar before him. As Cleon, the barman, and the other patrons watched, frozen in place, the enraged drinker cocked his arm and hurled the half-full pitcher at another customer who sat at the bar between him and Cleon. The other ducked, and Cleon had just time to turn away before the pitcher hit him in the back.
Cleon’s was not a happy home when he returned from the Wheel, unharmed but his clothes saturated with beer. Edie commenced sniff- ing and snuffing like a bloodhound the moment he entered the house.
“Are you drunk?” she asked Cleon.
“Hell, no,” said Cleon.
“You stink,” said Edie. “What happened to you?” “I got hit by a flying beer pitcher,” said Cleon.
“Sure, you did,” said Edie.
“I’m sick of this,” said Cleon. “This kid’s like some kind of ghost. Pauline? She hasn’t seen him. She said try his place. But he doesn’t have a place.”
“Well, yes, he does,” I said. “’Course he does. With me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I thought you knew,” I said. “His bus is at my place, out back.
Been there all summer. Rusty isn’t always there, but he usually sleeps there—with his little friend.”
“Hah,” said Edie.
“What little friend?” Cleon asked me.
“Depends on the night, I imagine,” said Edie.
“I imagine,” I said.
“Why didn’t you tell me he’s at your place?” Cleon asked me.
“You never,” said Cleon. “I go running here and there, getting nowhere, all the time he’s in your backyard. Thanks a lot.” “I told you,” I said.
“You sure did not,” said Cleon.
Edie clapped her hands. “Okay, okay,” she said to Cleon. “Enough. Point is, now you can go on and get this nonsense over with. Just go on out to Ned’s.”
“You come with me.” Cleon asked me.
“I’m not doing it alone,” said Cleon. “Every time I go after this kid, I about get killed. I want somebody I can hide behind. Come on, okay?” “I don’t think so,” I said.
Cleon and I drove out to my place. We parked in the yard and walked around the barn to the pasture and on to Rusty’s hippie wagon. No sign of his motorcycle.
“He’s not home,” said Cleon.
“We came out here,” I said. “Let’s see.” I knocked on the front door of the bus. We waited. I knocked again. I called out, “Rusty? Hey, Rusty?”
We heard movement from inside the bus, light footfalls coming from the rear. Then the door opened, and a young woman stood on the step. She shaded her eyes with her hand and peered at us.
“Hello?” she said.
She had evidently been asleep. She rubbed her eyes. She might have been nineteen or twenty. She wore an old gray T-shirt that came halfway down her thighs. Her feet were bare, and her pretty head of blonde curls fell nearly to her shoulders. She yawned and stretched herself. Cleon and I watched her do that. We watched parts of her body move inside her T-shirt in a way that let us suspect she didn’t have a lot going on under it in the way of more clothes.
“Rusty not here?” I asked the girl. She shook her head. “Where is he?” Cleon asked her.
The girl shrugged. “Working?” she said.
“You know where?” Cleon asked her.
She shook her head. She tried modestly to pull her T-shirt a little farther down her thighs, which stretched the thin cotton over her shoulders and chest, an effect that Cleon and I also observed. This young woman was nobody either Cleon or I had seen before, much as I regretted it—much as, I’m sure, Cleon regretted it.
“Who are you?” the girl asked us.
“I’m Cleon Rogers,” Cleon said. “I owe Rusty money. I want to give him the money I owe. That’s what it is. I’ve been chasing him all up and down the valley, trying to pay him. I’ve been after him for six weeks. It’s ridiculous.”
The girl gave us a little smile. “Well,” she said, “you know Rusty.” “I don’t,” said Cleon. “But I’m getting to.”
“Look,” I said to Cleon. “Why don’t you just leave the money with this young lady. She can get it to Rusty. Can’t you?” I asked the girl. She shrugged again. “Sure,” she said.
“No way,” said Cleon.
“Why not?” I asked him.
“I’m putting the money in his hand,” said Cleon. “Anything else ain’t right.”
“Still got the bankroll, I see,” said Edie.
“Still got it,” I said.
“Nobody home at Rusty’s, I guess?” she said.
“Well, not nobody,” said Cleon. “Somebody was sure home.” “Who was that?”
“Didn’t get a name,” said Cleon. “Blonde, legal but only just, wear- ing her sister’s T-shirt.”
“Her little sister’s T-shirt,” I said.
“And nothing much else, wouldn’t you say?” Cleon asked me. “Not much,” I said.
“Oh, dear me,” said Edie. “I’m sorry to hear that. I know how much you boys must have hated having to look at her.”
“It wasn’t easy,” I said.
“What’s the next move?” asked Edie.
“There is none,” said Cleon. “I’m giving it up. It ain’t right, I don’t understand it; but the hell with it. I’m done. If at first you don’t suc- ceed, try, try again. Then quit. This kid wants his money, he can come and get it.”
He never did. A few days later, I got home to find Rusty’s bus, his cycle, his roommate, and Rusty himself gone. Cleared out. Pauline said Rusty had taken a job installing TV cable in St. Johnsbury, at the other end of the state. As far as I know, he never did get paid by Cleon.
Did the young woman from Rusty’s bus go upstate with him? Nobody knows. I’m betting she did, even though Cleon thinks he might have seen her since then waitressing at a place in Brattleboro. He’s not sure, however. “Somebody who looks like her, anyway,” said Cleon.
Nobody looks like her, and Cleon knows it.
“I don’t understand it,” Cleon said. “Walking away from a three- hundred-dollar payday? Plus, there’s the cost of the gas for his saw, the oil. He’s out of pocket there.”
“Matter of fact,” I told him, “that was my saw he used. That was my gas, my oil. I’m the one who’s out of pocket.”
“Is that right?” Cleon said.
“That’s right,” I said. “And I’m not Rusty, you know? I wouldn’t mind getting something back from you on that.”
“Good luck,” said Edie.
“Good luck,” said Cleon. He shook his head. “I don’t understand it,” he said again. “But I guess I don’t have to, do I? It’s kids today, ain’t it? And from one point of view, maybe this one’s got it set up about right. He don’t get the money, but he gets other things. He’s having more fun than me, it looks like.”
“Not me,” said Edie.