Timber


This story appears in Bearskin to Holly Fork: Stories From Appalachia


      Wednesday nights was "anger management group," which everybody in it called "mad class," in a trailer behind the mental health clinic.  What we did there was play-act, something the Doc called "role playing."  The last night I was there, right before Mary Parton tore up my life, the Doc set me and Toby Reynolds in chairs, where we was to pretend Toby had cut me off at a parking space downtown.

The Doc started it off by asking "Now Mr..."  He had to look down at his book on account of never remembering my name.  "Mr. Carter, how would you deal with a situation like this?"

I said, "There is so much parking downtown since the Walmart come in, what would be the point to making a big deal over one little space?"

"But what would you do if Mr..."  The only name the Doc ever remembered was Mary Parton's, so he had to peek at his notes again.  "...if Mr. Reynolds cut you off when you were about to park?"

The truth was, if I found somebody cutting me off for a parking space I'd wonder what town I was in, 'cause it sure wouldn't be Midland.  "I reckon I would talk to Toby about it," I said.  The answer the Doc always looks for is when they get mad people need to talk.

"That's good," he said.  "And what would you say to him?"

Mad class wasn't so bad when it was just setting on a metal folding chair and watching Mary Parton, the most interesting woman I ever seen.  But nights the Doc put me to play acting, I couldn't help but think I'd like just once to put his lights out.  But that was the kind of thinking which got me into mad class in the first place, so I settled down and begun what he wanted me to do.  "I would go to Toby, and I would discuss it with him."

The Doc nodded.  "What would you say?" he asked again.

"I would tell him if he didn't have no better sense than to cut somebody off for a parking space, he ought to keep his piece of shit Chevy off the road."

Toby give me the finger and said "Well fuck you too, Willford Carter.  I reckon I can park any goddamn where I want to on a public goddamn road."

"Well even on a public road you don't need to drive like you mean to cause a wreck," I told him back.

"Mind your own goddamned bidness and let other people tend to theirs," Toby said.  He was quiet a second or two and then added, "If you don't know how to mind your own bidness, I could maybe show you."

I looked over at Mary in time to see her reach up with one hand to move the hair away from her forehead.  Looking into her eyes I once again got the feeling Mary knew more than anybody else in the room.

Including the Doc, who hardly ever put Mary in one of his role plays.

I play-acted getting out of my truck - -even pretended to slam the door- - and walked to where Toby was hogging that parking space.  Bending over like I was leaning in a window I said, "You could get out right now if you think you got anything to show me."

Mostly, me and Toby was only trying to get on Dr. Fitzgerald's nerves.  I say "mostly" because all them Reynoldses think way too much of themselves, and I wouldn't care a bit to show Toby he ain't such a big deal.  I whipped his ass three times before we quit high school, and I could do it again.

Everybody was all the time pranking with the Doc, who hardly ever figured out we were joking around.  It was comical when he got wound up tighter'n a two dollar watch, thinking some for true anger might get loose in his trailer.  I don't reckon he ever stopped to think a real fight would put me and Toby both in jail, and we wasn't about to let that happen.

Not over a pretend parking place anyway.

It took most of mad class for the Doc to show how he thought Toby and me was to act, if we was ever to argue over parking spots downtown.  Which, unless the Walmart burns down, is as likely to happen as a certain bat moving to Detroit, and we go back to cutting trees.

The bat, which lives in our part of the National Forest and no place else, is why everybody who cut timber got laid off three years ago.  After a year, unemployment checks run out, and there was nothing to do but file for other benefits.

The people that run them other benefits think their weekly check - -nine and a half dollars less than unemployment- - gives them the right to mess with your life.  They decided I needed a GED diploma and enrolled me in classes without even talking to me about it.

I didn't care about their GED.  Once we got back to cutting timber, it wouldn't make a fart in a windstorm's difference, and all I learned in their classes is I had forgot anything I ever knew about arithmetic.

And also about history.

Two weeks into my GED studying I got put into mad class.  I had failed the history pre-test for the fourth time, and afterwards a snotty clerk called me a "displaced worker," said I ought to be grateful somebody was doing something about my ignorance.

The clerk ratted me out for offering to put a displaced number twelve boot up his ass as far as the ankle, which Judge Wallace called a threat.  The judge also said it was either go to mad class or lose benefits, and pay a fine besides.

After we got done with parking spaces, the Doc made a speech about how it is often feelings of insecurity which make a person mad.  He said we should learn to be ready to feel that way, so as to be prepared when it happened.  He told us the same thing two or three different ways, using all kinds of words, but that's all I got out of it.  The man's a fool for complicated talk and saying the same thing over and over.

Then he told Bessie Harper to stand with Lonnie Stevens and play act being in a place where Lonnie asks Bessie to dance, and Bessie says "No."  Both of them messed up right away, and when me and Mary looked at one another again, she winked at me.

The mental health people keep poor old Bessie doped up to the place she don't know more than a locust stump what's going on around her.  Even without them pills, she'd likely do anything for a man who asked nice, and telling Lonnie she wouldn't dance with him was a tough thing for her to get hold of.

Lonnie was a hard nut to crack in that piece of play acting too.  He's strong Church of God, and don't believe in dancing, didn't want to even pretend to do what his preacher takes for sin.  But the pranking from me and Toby had used up all the Doc's patience, besides which you could tell he thought it was another joke, Lonnie calling it a sin to ask Bessie to dance.

The Doc decided to show he was by God in charge after all, and said if Lonnie didn't do as he was told, Judge Wallace would get a bad report on him in the morning.

For a man running classes on it, Dr. Fitzgerald don't understand a whole lot about people getting mad.  When he gets stirred up, Lonnie's one of them hot-tempered runts who'll have a normal sized man beat half to death before the other feller even knows he's in a fight.

Lonnie got as red in the face as anybody can without having a stroke.  For a time I figured the Doc was gonna find out about real anger management, and it would of been a hard lesson.  But Lonnie finally did what he was told before Bessie forgot she was to say "No," and after she said it Lonnie fell down into a chair with his arms crossed, tapping one foot and watching the wall clock.

It was a pretty interesting mad class, and I'd a never guessed it was my last one.

All the time I was going to mad classes, Mary Parton made two silly hours every Wednesday night an easy thing to take.  I liked watching how she moved, how she looked at all of us, and when she smiled everything seemed funny.

Mary moved away soon as she finished high school and lived someplace up in Illinois or Ohio till her mother got cancer.  She come home for that, and would have been gone from Midland a long time ago, except for knocking hell out of a nurse two nights before her mama died.

They say what it was, the nurse didn't move fast enough with a morphine shot to suit Mary, and after getting her nose broke the nurse had Mary arrested for assault.  Judge Wallace sent Mary to Doctor Fitzgerald's mad class, just like he did me and the others.

The Doc was even more out of place than Mary.  Once when Patty Jo needed the truck to go to her sister's, she dropped me off a few minutes early.  Smoking a cigarette outside, I heard through an open window what the Doc said on the telephone.  He was telling somebody how awful it was, having to work here because he couldn't pay back some money he borrowed to go to school.  "My office is a trailer, for god's sake," I heard him say.

It was a nice trailer though.  From inside you'd never think you were sitting over wheels, and Dr. Fitzgerald's job don't look that hard.  And you just know he makes more money running mad classes than anybody working in the woods ever did.

After the Doc let us go that night, I meant to head on home.  If I hadn't stopped to light a smoke things might've been different.  But fooling with my lighter gave Mary time to catch up and ask if I was in a big hurry.

Patty Jo was already in bed, or just about to get there, and looking at it that way, there didn't seem to be no need for me to rush off to the house.  If it'd been anybody else, I would have gone on home, but if you've seen Mary, you know why I stayed out that night.

When she first come to mad class, Toby tried nicknaming Mary Parton "Dolly," but he quit when she looked at him real hard over it.  She don't look nothing like the singer no way.  Mary's real slim, and her dark brown hair's short as I ever seen on a woman.  But it looks good.  Mary don't wear much make up neither.

Mary Parton's beautiful is what she is.  Every time she moved I thought of hawks in high summer, soaring clean and easy, beautiful without ever thinking what they look like.  Outside the Doc's trailer, that's how she strolled over to me, graceful as a hawk.

"Gimme a ride home?" she asked.

Mary didn't live but five or six blocks from the mad class trailer.  Whenever Toby Reynolds offered her a ride, she always said she'd rather walk, even one night when it was raining.  I wondered what she really wanted.  Women like Mary don't ask guys like me for rides.

"Truck's across the street," I told her, but she was already walking to it.

"Nice ride," she said when she got settled in.

"Payments are high though," I admitted.  That same afternoon some guy from the credit union had come to the house, said if I didn't get caught up, pretty soon somebody'd be by to take it back to the dealer.

"Can we go someplace before you take me home?"  Mary wasn't asking, she was telling, but it seemed okay, the way she did it.  "You know where the Big Perry fire trail is?"

"Work in the woods long as I have and you'll learn every one of them trails," I told her.

What the Forest Service calls "trails" are graded gravel roads running all through the National Forest.  The government makes timber companies build them in case they need to get equipment and men to a fire in a hurry.  If you know the way they run, you can get just about anyplace in Hawkes County, and hardly ever cross pavement.  When I feel like getting out of the house and away from Patty Jo, I like to follow fire trails, see where all I wind up.

At the edge of town, by the Ashland mini-mart, Mary said, "Pull in for a second."

I sat hoping nobody'd notice whose truck she got out of.  It wouldn't do for Patty Jo to hear I was driving around after mad class with Mary, or any other woman.  But I wouldn't of cared if Toby Reynolds drove by in time to see her step down from my Dodge.

Mary come out with a Coke and ice, and once we were on the highway, reached into her big purse and pulled out a pint of Beam.  She cracked the seal, took a double swallow and handed the bottle to me.  Whiskey on my breath would mean two hours of bitching if Patty Jo smelled it.  I let Mary's little hand hang there a while before I took the bottle and poured down a dose, chasing it with some of her Coke.

A mile or two out of town, Mary rolled down her window and it was fine how wind blew her short hair around.  Till we got to the fire trail it was just passing the bottle and the Coke back and forth without talking.  I drove and breathed perfume that smelled like lemons only not exactly, and wondered how it would feel to have one hand full of that hair.>

Mary Parton ain't like other women in Hawkes County.  The times we were in mad class I studied a lot on how she was different, and never did work it out all the way.  She's smart without being a smart-ass, never makes people around her feel dumb.  Looking like she does, Mary can't help but make men feel awkward, but she never made me feel stupid.

She acts like her life is under control, while the rest of us are forever shoved around.  Even the Doc, on account of owing money to somebody, has to live in a place he hates.  Mary was smart enough to get loose from Hawkes County after high school, and was free in a way the rest of us weren't.  When she laughs you hear freedom.

I heard it when she giggled and said, "You sure don't like Toby Reynolds, do you?"

"He's okay," I told her.

"Bullshit," Mary said.  "That wasn't all pretend tonight.  For a little while I thought you all were really gonna get into it."

See?  Mary knows things nobody's explained to her.

I drove two thirds of the way to the end of the main fire lane, and then turned onto a rutted road we'd once pulled logs out on.  It was an easy grade for my truck, but Crown Vics the county deputies drive couldn't follow.  Me and Mary wasn't doing nothing wrong, unless you count drinking the whiskey, but them deputies are as bad to gossip as a bunch of Baptist widows.

I stopped the truck on a point jutting out over ten or twelve acres of clear-cut, and when the lights shut off, till my eyes got used to seeing by a sky full of stars, it seemed dark as a cave.  The sky is why I like the fire trails at night.

Mary noticed it too.  "Pretty," she whispered, handing over the pint.

Three or four jolts on the way from town had me feeling pretty good, so I drank more Coke than whiskey.  I pointed and told Mary, "In daylight you could look down that way and see where we were cutting, right up to the time they made us stop."

Without looking where I pointed Mary asked, "You know Roy Robinson?"

Worked with him some," I told her.  Roy run the skidder on our crew, but he's sloppy, knocks down twenty saplings to reach a log instead of going around the little trees.  I don't like watching that.

Roy's my second cousin," Mary said.  "He claims you all ain't going back to work for a long, long time.  Not till timber gets to be more important than bats."

I hadn't said it out loud, but I'd been thinking the same thing.  My hands was softening, even the space between two fingers of my right hand, where one callous has been since I was sixteen.  It's from jerking the starter cord on a chainsaw fifteen or twenty times a day.  If I touched it with my thumb, the roughness was about gone.

When Mary offered another drink I thought about never again working in the woods, and took a big swallow.  When I handed the Beam back to her Mary was looking at me in a way I recognized.

Most of the time I can drive a fence post with the end of an eighty foot oak, drop it right where I want it.  But every now and then a cut tree will twist on you, and then there's no telling where it's gonna go.  You know you have to jump, but you don't know which way.

That's how Mary looked at me, like I was a tree she was cutting and she didn't know which way I was gonna fall.

"Know Donnie Douglas?" she asked.

"Just who he is," I told her.  Donnie's a car dealer, but there's a lot more to what he does than cars.

Patty Jo's brother's a contractor, and two, three years back put in a swimming pool for Donnie, then built a redwood deck all the way around the house.  Randy says the day he give him the bill, Donnie glanced at it, and told him to wait right there.

Donnie went in the house and come out with a grocery sack full of hundreds, thirty four thousand dollars loose in a paper bag.  Randy'd never carried so much money in his life, said all the way to the bank he shook like he had a palsy.  While she was counting the bills, the bank teller said, "Looks like you been working for Donnie Douglas."

Donnie moves a lot more out of eastern Kentucky than used cars, and everybody knows it ain't just pot, that he's got people making speed and other stuff for him.  Way before the bank teller finished counting, Randy decided he wasn't going to do no more work for the man, ever.

"Do you know Donnie well enough to speak to him?" Mary asked.

"Not really."

"I do."

"You do what?"

"Know him to speak to."  Mary took a big draw off her cigarette and blew smoke through the open window.  "More than just to speak to, if you want to know the truth."  When she turned around on the seat I could feel Mary's eyes on me, wondering which way I'd fall, which way she'd need to jump.  "If I was to tell you something," she said, "Could you not tell nobody else about it?"

I knew I was fixing to get into something with Mary Parton I didn't want nor need, and I knew I couldn't stop it from happening.  From the time she stepped into my truck I couldn't have stopped it.  I could feel a bad thing out there, coming closer, but I couldn't stop it.

Off in the woods a dead limb snapped under a deer's hoof, and it sounded loud as a pistol shot in the quiet.  The deer didn't stir for a long while, waiting for something awful to happen from stepping on that stick.  In my truck I waited for a thing just as awful to come out of giving Mary Parton a ride home.

Neither one of us, me nor the deer, moved for a long time.  I took a deep breath when I heard it moving downhill into the valley, probably surprised to realize it'd live to see daylight.  Sitting next to Mary I didn't feel nearly so safe.

"Well could you?" she asked again.  "Not tell nobody else?"

I nodded.  "You can tell me anything you want to," I said.

Mary shifted in the seat, pointing her knees in my direction.  "When I started messing around with Donnie I didn't know he was married.  Wasn't no ring on his finger."  She reached over and tapped my left hand where it was wrapped around the steering wheel.  "It's more honest when a man wears a ring like you do."

The stars made my wedding band shine.  Patty Jo'd throw a fit if I ever took it off.  I didn't want to talk about wedding rings though, and when I lit a cigarette I blew the smoke out real loud.  Dr. Fitzgerald says that's a sign you're getting something off your chest without saying anything.

I hadn't yet done nothing wrong, but already knew I was going to.

"I got to get out of this shitty little town."  Mary fidgeted some, and then said, "Tonight was my last night in that stupid class.  I'd leave tonight if I had the money."

I sat easier, thinking Mary was leading up to me loaning her money, or giving her some.  If I was working I might've handed over fifty or a hundred, then lied to Patty Jo about where it went, but the way it was, I barely had gas money to the end of the week.  "I'm sorry, but I can't..." I started to say.

"What if I was to tell you that before tomorrow morning you could make a thousand dollars?" Mary asked.  "And I could make a thousand, and be out of this town."

She was talking about doing something for Donnie Douglas.  Maybe after we come out of the Doc's trailer I hoped Mary was taking me into the woods to get screwed.  Maybe I didn't care why we went out there, maybe it was enough to just look at her, close enough to smell lemon perfume.  I was in a place I didn't belong, and didn't care.  I wanted to be there.

But the idea of doing anything for Donnie Douglas made me wish I was at home in bed.

Mary stopped looking at me like I was a tree about to fall.  I was already down, and she hadn't had to jump out of the way after all.

"Let's go," she said in the dark.  The bottle went back in her purse and she poured the rest of the Coke out the window.  "You know where Donnie's sister lives?"

I wanted another hit of that bourbon, but didn't say nothing about it.  "Up Dry Branch a ways," I answered.

"Donnie and them have serious money to pay people like us."  Mary was almost whispering.  "This could work out a whole lot better than cutting trees."

I knew Donnie Douglas - -and anybody he was mixed up with- - didn't mean nothing good for guys like me.  I knew all that, but I didn't say nothing, just drove toward Dry Branch Road and wished I'd gone home after mad class.

 When we got to Frieda Douglas's house Donnie was on the porch, waiting.  Inside somebody was moving around, stepping in front of the windows every now and then.  I wondered who they were, if they knew who I was.  I started to pull in behind a dark Buick but Donnie motioned me to park off to the side.

"Wondered if you all were coming or not," he said, sounding about half-pissed.  I almost made a joke about anger management, but the whiskey buzz had turned into a headache, and Mary didn't look like anything would make her laugh.  "You tell him the deal?" Donnie didn't look at me.

Them benefits people never look at me neither, always aim their eyes behind or beside me, the way Donnie Douglas did.  I stepped to the right and made him look at me.  Donnie's face was even meaner when he smiled.

After that I didn't care where he looked.

"We drop the cars off in New Albany and get our money," Mary said.  "That's all there is to it, right?"

Donnie nodded.  "That's all."  He motioned me over to the Buick.  "You both got CB radios and a full tank of gas," he told me.  "Don't lose sight of each other, and if something happens like a flat tire, anything like that, you let Mary know you've had to stop.  There's a Union 76 across the river from Louisville.  Somebody'll meet you there."

Donnie went back inside his sister's double-wide, and Mary and me was by ourselves again.

"Do I leave my truck here?" I asked.

"Donnie'll have somebody take it to your house," Mary answered.

I thought about writing a note for Patty so she'd know I was all right, but then she'd be even more worried.  Once in a while, when I wind up passed out in somebody's car and don't get home till morning, Patty warpaths me for a day or two.  She'd do more than warpath if she knew I was driving one of Donnie Douglas's cars to Louisville.

"Ready?" Mary asked.  When I nodded she reached in her purse and tossed the whiskey bottle at me.  "Go easy on that," she said.  "You follow me, all right?"

I nodded again, and Mary climbed into a silver Taurus.  By the time I got the Buick's seats adjusted and the mirrors fixed right, she was fifty yards gone.  I was glad she headed into Mather County to pick up I-64 rather than going back through Midland.  If anybody in town seen me driving that Buick, Patty'd hear about it for sure.

I only let myself have one drink every half hour, timing it by the clock on the tape player.  And no matter how weird it sounds, especially after what happened, I wish I could redo that four hours to Louisville.  Till we crossed the river into Indiana, I had the best time of my life.

We kept the CB radios on and talked back and forth the whole trip.  Or mostly she talked and I listened.  Telling about socking that nurse in the nose, Mary made it into a real funny story, even if it was also about her mama dying, and I laughed hard as I ever will.  And she had other funny stories about what all she'd done after leaving Hawkes County.

She'd done all kinds of things to make a living, and every one of them could make a television show.  She even spent a year working as a topless dancer in Columbus, but what she told about it was funny, not dirty.  I didn't know women in places like that make fun of men who lay dollars down in front of them, or that the men never guess they're being laughed at.

Once we hit the outskirts of Louisville Mary grew quiet, and I didn't laugh no more.  It was two in the morning, but there was lots of traffic, not all of it semis.  I wondered where all those people were going to or coming from so late.

Mary stayed right at the speed limit.  I was most of the time able to keep near enough nobody cut in between us.  Wasn't hard, because everybody wanted to pass us.

Crossing the bridge into Indiana Mary got on the radio again, and soon as she started talking I knew this was where things would go wrong.  "Ever have to do something bad because somebody could make you do it?"  It sounded like Mary was about to cry.

I couldn't think of nothing to say.  My mind was empty as the whiskey bottle, and I couldn't think of nothing to fill it with.

"Sometimes you can't help what happens," she said.

Suddenly Mary Parton was flying away from me, red tail lights growing dim as the blue flashers coming up from behind got brighter, and nearer.  I knew a whole lot, right at that moment, knew it so clear it was like a voice had been explaining things all the way from Hawkes County, only I hadn't bothered to listen till the blue lights come on.

The trooper who stopped had to have been in on it.  He had a sniffer dog with him which scratched right away on the trunk lid, and two bricks of marijuana were under the spare tire.  The way he found it so fast, the cop had to be in on setting me up.

I've done all but six months of the time they give me.  Laying it out here at the county jail is better than the reformatory at Pendleton.  Patty can come to see me twice a month and there's no way she could get here that often if I was any further north.  I've stopped worrying about her leaving, so long as she don't find out Mary Parton was in the car I followed across the Ohio River.

I reckon things will work out.

Back home they still ain't cutting timber, but there's talk of men going back to work sometime this year or next.  Every now and then I dream about being back in the woods with a chainsaw.

In the dream I'm cutting on a great high white oak, and I don't know which way it wants to fall.  I'm standing there watching the chain eat into the tree, and I'm wondering which way the tree's gonna go.

Mary Parton's behind me.  I feel her looking at me, and I wonder which way I'll fall this time.

That's when I wake up.
 

~ end ~

 


 
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