Issue 3:2 | Fiction | Ed Lynskey
of tepid coffee needled with gin was Old Man Slaymaker’s
lunch. Seated on the flatbed, I watched him. Gaunt and rawboned, he
stood a good head taller than me. His thumbs, now only freakish cigar
stubs, tipped the thermos up to his thin lips. Wiping with a blue-checked
sleeve, he felt my gaze.
“Here’s to hair on your balls,” he told me.
Not matching his grin, I joined in his mock toast. Sardines on stale
soda crackers tasted foul, but hunger won out. Of late, I’d had lousy
rolls of the dice. Jobs had dried up. Nobody called. After knocking
around all day for any joe job, I dragged back to the doublewide. I’d
eat from a mess of rutabagas. The evening news reported from the
frontlines in Iraq--it wasn’t good.
Grunts on patrols ran over road mines remotely tripped. The piss poor
armor on the vehicles’ undercarriages left them vulnerable. I wondered
how their buck sergeants swept up bodies blown to bits. I wondered how
the damn dire news was broken to their mothers. I wondered what had
happened to the service since I’d ejected so few years ago as an MP.
“Frank, are you rested?” Old Man Slaymaker asked.
“Just say the word,” I replied. Arising to my booted feet, I felt an icy
burn sear down the backs of both legs. I hadn’t done manual labor in so
long my muscles had grown flaccid. I stretched my sinews. He didn’t miss
my second grimace.
“Soak in a hot bath tonight,” he said. “You’ll be fine.”
“Hey, don’t slack off on my account,” I said. “I can hold up my end of
Old Man Slaymaker sized me up with an easy-natured half-squint. “Hell, I
never said you couldn’t. For a rookie sawyer, you’re making it.”
“Thanks, I think.”
Nodding, he hefted up the Stihl chain saw and cranked up its two-cycle
engine. The raucous buzz turned it into a mechanical barracuda belching
out thick, black smoke. A savage steel chain bit into the red oak’s
trunk, kicking back green sawdust. He coughed into a callused palm. I
stood well away from the falling tree’s path. It crashed to the leafy
ground, landing with a sullen thud. My gloved hands grabbed the ax’s
helve. It first trimmed off minor branches before I sheared the major ones
using a smaller McCulloch chain saw. Old Man Slaymaker had demonstrated
how I could accomplish both tasks with just the chain saw.
I thanked him. He had his way of getting things done, and I had my way.
A crisp nip to the October air meant wintry weather waited on deck. Old
Man Slaymaker had a business model. Come the first cold snap, he’d load
on a cord of split oak to haul down to the fat cat city. Urban dwellers
were his suckers. I’d only half-heard what he claimed to fetch for a
cord of firewood. He paid me a flat seven-and-a-half dollars per hour
wage, a few bucks over what I’d earn flipping burgers--which I’d also
done (Yeah, Frank Johnson, hamburger hustler). I didn’t give a fart in the wind
about what he made off sales, as long as his checks cleared at my bank.
After felling the red oak, Old Man Slaymaker killed his Stihl. It still
growled deep in my ears. “Yo Frank, take a breather.”
“Not to contradict you, but we’d better hustle,” I told him. “My muscles
bind up with inactivity.”
“I hear that but there’s no future in working,” he said before extending
his hands, four fingers and no thumbs. “Look. I lost them ages ago. I
was a sawyer. The best. My most hairy job was adjusting the saw guides.
I’d lay my face down flat about a gnat’s ass from the spinning saw
blade. Hey, loose that damn goofy grin. I’m being serious here--this
ain’t no war story.”
“Sorry,” I said. “All right, go on.”
“That’s better. Behind me a log sat on the carriage,” he said. “If it
bumped me forward, it was haircut city. Or worse. Like suppose the damn
wrench slipped off the guides? Well sir, that’s how I diced off my
thumbs. The saw blade cut ‘em off.”
“No picnic,” I said.
“That it wasn’t,” he said. “Hey, I got an extra thermos behind the cab
seat. Join me in a drink?”
“Is that smart?” I asked. “Operating chain saws and all.”
“Shit Frank, if it makes you skittish, I’ll refrain,” Old Man Slaymaker
“I expect that thermos will keep,” was my wry comment.
We busted ass the rest of the afternoon without pause or incident.
Together, me on the ground and Old Man Slaymaker up in the flatbed, we
hefted the smallest logs on to stack between the homemade pylons. We’d
back tomorrow for the rest. Though a solid two hours of sunlight
remained, he decided to call it a day. I didn’t dissent. Inside the
truck cab, he pumped the clutch and shifted the gear stick.
I yelled over the engine noise. “Sorry to hear about your wife.”
“Yeah, Kate was a good old gal,” he said. “She’d have to be to put up
with a rotten son of a bitch like me.”
“How did she die?”
“Yeah, like I said, sorry about all that.”
Lurching on the bench seat, we lumbered along the tank trail out to the
paved state road, each alone with our thoughts. Sunlight filtering
through the autumnal foliage gave the woods a coppery aura. I saw its
beauty but didn’t react. Instead, my mind juggled figures. Ten hours
work at seven-and-a-half per hour tallied to what? Seventy-five bucks.
I’d pay the mortgage. Barely. I also vowed that once solvent I’d never
again eat rutabagas.
“Frank, you wanna stop by the house for a little?” asked Old Man Slaymaker.
“I guess it wouldn’t hurt anything if I did.”
Old Man Slaymaker lived in a low, ramshackle shingle house out on the
old by-pass and we went there. After prowling down the short red-stone
lane, the flatbed truck with its tonnage mashed to a groaning stop. We
flung open our doors and piled out. Stretching, I figured on offloading
the red oak logs. Later Old Man Slaymaker could cut them to size and
bust up with a wedge and maul.
“That second thermos is going to waste,” said Old Man Slaymaker.
“No offense,” I said, “but java and gin strike me as a vile mix.”
He jostled his jewels. “I admit it’s an acquired taste. Come in?”
“Naw, I better pass. My overalls are filthy.”
“Shit. You ain’t been in my house before, have you? It put the word
‘squalor’ in the dictionary.”
“I guess it wouldn’t start a war if I did. Not for long, though.”
“Stay as long as you like,” he said. “I’ve got nowhere to go, nothing to
He retrieved that backup thermos, a chrome jobber all dented up. I
followed close on his heels and we filed through a side door. A deep
freeze hummed to my right. I smelled wood smoke. If I cut wood for
part of my livelihood, I’d burn it in a stove for cooking and heat, too.
We strolled through a disheveled kitchen. A nudie calendar hanging over
a coffeepot and gin bottle was decades old. Her pose still tingled your
In the pine-paneled den we claimed overstuffed armchairs. Jubilant, Old
Man Slaymaker slapped his knees. “Man, nothing like home sweet home,” he
said. “How do you like life in an Airstream?”
“Doublewide,” I corrected him. “I live in a doublewide trailer and I
have no major complaints.”
“I’ve paid off this castle.” His knobby hand indicated around us.
“Roaches and all.”
a pretty cool place you got here,” I said.
“Aw, it’s maybe one notch above a flophouse. Well, it’s just me now. I
don’t cook or clean for myself. What I mean is, what’s the point in it?”
“I hear you,” I said. “I still have to meet a mortgage. Pursuit of the
“Well, I ain’t exactly cruising on Easy Street,” he said. “I still have
to hump to keep myself in a few groceries.”
“No Social Security?”
“From what I put in it, I get back a pittance,” he said. “Kate didn’t
work. She was an invalid her last years. The house always smelled like
“Yeah. I better head back,” I said. Just then, the den’s walls left me
with the sensation of collapsing in on us. The smell of greasy foods set
my teeth on edge. I sat in a boozy stranger’s house, listened to a boozy
stranger’s life. My want of fresh air made me restless, uncomfortable.
“What’s your hurry, Frank?”
“I got some stuff to do in town.” Straightening my knees to arise, I
waved at him. “No need for you to stir. I can find my own way out. See
“Sure, sure. We’ll get an early start at the ass crack of dawn. Go cut
us some god damn cordwood.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Until then, later.”
Not until I sat buckled inside my Prizm did I breathe easy again. I laid
down two hot strips of rubber to squeal off up the road. My thumbs beat
on the steering wheel’s upper arc, marking time to R.E.M. on FM radio.
My frown deepened.
“Man, I need a better job,” I said. “Flipping burgers doesn’t sound so