“Apprentice” Part II

A Peco truck at downed power lines in Penn Valley Monday. Photo Pww Bannan

In the motel room Robby turned the television to Jerry Springer and sat on the foot of the bed a few feet from the screen, watching with the sound off. I stood by the window, watching the sky grow dark. Snow rounded off the sharp edges of the cars and trucks in the parking lot and muffled the sound of the eighteen wheelers gearing down to come off the interstate.

During a commercial Robby adjusted the electric space heater set in the wall. The red coils added a glow to the dim room. He went in the bathroom and came out with a wound up towel.

“Lester should have dogged the job before anyone got hurt,” Robby said.

“Lester’s got his own ideas about things,” I said.

“Family always sticks together.”

Robby tapped the heater grill with the back of his hand. A two inch cockroach scurried out of the crack behind the heater and Robby snapped it off the wall with his towel.

“I don’t think of Lester as family.”

“Well, your uncle’s about two steps away from making the worst mistake of his life,” Robby said.

I sat on my bed and adjusted the pillow against the headboard.

“I’ve seen things happen to foremen for a lot less than Lester.”

” That’s Lester’s problem. You and him should work that out.”

Robby went through the cooler until he found a soft drink, then headed for the shower.

The room was cold. Wind blew through a crack under the door. I thought about Baughman, the sound of his chin splitting open, like an aluminum bat smashing a pumpkin. His hardhat sailing away, bouncing off pieces of steel all the way to the ground.

The shower sounded warm, water flowing through pipes in the wall and bouncing off the plastic curtain, drumming against the floor of the tub. I hadn’t been warm since before I started climbing. I hoped the snow meant we wouldn’t work Friday, that I could get an early start home for the weekend.

The phone rang. “Who’s this?” Lester said, when I answered. He was already drunk and making the nightly call from his room a few doors down. His voice sounded like a diesel tractor cranking.

“Frank Bell. You know who it is Lester.”

“Listen Frankie. Come drive me to the liquor store.”

“How’s Baughman?”

“He’s fine. They stitched him up and he’s already snagging shag in the bar.”

“That’s good,” I said.

“Let’s go to the liquor store. I’ll be waiting outside my room.”

“I’m not driving anywhere, Lester. Why don’t you go to bed?”

“Come on Frank.” He cleared his throat. “I’ll buy you a steak.”

“Not tonight.”

Lester coughed, then said, “Where’s that coalminer?”

“In the shower.”

“Get him.”

“Hang on a minute,” I said. I dropped the receiver on the nightstand and went outside. Snowflakes rattled through bare tree limbs. The only movement was the headlights of a car going up the mountain on the interstate, a good mile off. The crew truck parked outside the room was painted clean by the snow. It could have just come off the showroom floor except for the sides, which were still spotted with mud where the snow wouldn’t stick.

Lester would be pissed off in the morning, if he remembered. But the worst he could do was make me stay on the tower all day and I had done that before.

I walked out to the street and down the sidewalk toward the Stereo Lounge, about a half mile from the motel. When I opened the door smoke rolled out. The floor was wet with tracked in snow. Baughman was sitting at a table so I bought a beer from the old man behind the bar and went over. Baughman pushed some empty bottles to the center of the table to make room. He wore a flesh colored bandage across his chin.

“You okay?” I asked.

“They gave me some pills,” he mumbled. “Can’t feel a thing.”

The only women in the place were two waitresses who moved between tables taking orders over the loud talk of the line crews and truck drivers who had put in for the night. Alan Jackson played on the juke box and pool balls clicked from the back room. The older waitress made a fuss over Baughman. She brought fresh drinks and sat on his lap, tugged at his ears, pecked him on the chin. Then she moved to the other tables, smiling at the old codgers who wrapped their arms around her waist. The younger girl was prettier, too fast for reaching arms. I hoped she was only stopping off on her way to better things.

When the music stopped the girl went to the machine and fed a dollar bill into the slot, then flipped through the selection cards, tapping her foot in time to music in her head. I walked over and stood beside her, watching her reflection in the smudged glass. She had brown eyes and freckles, a plain face.

“Any Lyle Lovett?” I asked.

She looked at me. “Does this look like a Lyle Lovett place?”

I shook my head.

“And no, I don’t remind you of someone you went to high school with, and I don’t look like Carrie Underwood. I don’t want a light or a drink and I don’t dance on my breaks. Does that cover it?”

“How about I’m lonely?” I said. “That’s about it.”

“Don’t you feel foolish?” she asked, looking back at the selections.

“Most of the time,” I said, and walked back to my table. Baughman was laughing.

I sipped my beer and talked line work with Baughman, admiring the way the young girl danced away from reaching arms when she served drinks. When it was late enough for Lester to have drunk himself to sleep I went back to the motel.

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