“Apprentice” Part III

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The snow had stopped, but the walk back was colder than it had been earlier. Six inches of snow covered the parking lot and made the night brighter than it should be. Quiet. As I started into my room I heard a groan and went to look.

Lester sat in the snow, his back against the crew truck door, and Robby knelt beside him, their heads close together. Lester’s pants were down to his knees. His button front union suit, faded from red towards pink, was missing buttons so that his chest was exposed to the night air. Lester’s fingers shook as he fished through his key ring. Robby tapped one of the keys with his finger and whispered something to Lester, who reached over his shoulder to the crew truck door but couldn’t make the key enter the lock.

Robby looked at me and winked, then tapped another key on the ring and whispered to Lester again.

“We’re going to the liquor store as soon as this old bastard finds the right key,” Robby said.

“How long has he been trying?”

Robby stretched his neck, like he wanted to see over the hood of the truck, then shrugged his shoulders.

“I don’t know. Twenty, thirty minutes.”

I grabbed Lester under the arms and pulled him to his feet. He dropped his keys and tried to reach for them, but I held him up.

“My keys.”

“Bring his keys,” I said.

“You bring the keys,” Robby said, still on his knees. He pushed snow over the spot where the keys had fallen.

I kicked Robby in the chest. He fell back in the snow and lay there, spread like a kid making angels.

“Bring the keys,” I said, as I pulled Lester toward my room.

Lester lay on my bed where I dropped him and rolled his head back and forth, mumbling about his keys and the liquor store. After turning up the thermostat I started on the buttons of Lester’s union suit, which was soaked through. His chest was blotchy purple and covered with scattered gray hairs.

“Let me alone,” Lester said. He pushed away my hands.

I pulled some covers over Lester and sat on the bed, wondering if I should call an ambulance. Robby came in and dropped the keys in my lap. He stood in front of the heater rubbing his hands together.

“Looks like a dinosaur thawed out of a glacier,” Robby said. He coughed and rubbed his chest.

“He’s nearly froze.”

“Went out to look at the sky and found him there,” Robby said. “So drunk he hadn’t even fastened his britches.”

“You couldn’t get him inside?” I asked.

“He didn’t want no help. Let him freeze.” Robby turned to warm his back. Faint wisps of steam curled off his pant legs.

Lester stopped mumbling and lay quiet, his eyes closed, breathing deeply. Robby turned on the television and watched from the foot of his bed. I sat beside Lester and watched the two of them, listening to the heater pop as the metal expanded.

Lester moved in his sleep and brought an arm out of the covers. The sleeve of his long underwear was pushed up, exposing a bright pink scar on his wrist, erupted flesh the size of a silver dollar where he had been electrocuted long ago. I knew there was another mark on his leg, a reddish purple burn where the electricity entered his body.

Lester first showed me the scars when I was a kid. For a long time after I had imagined bones and blood vessels as copper wire and I developed the habit of grounding myself on wood before I touched a door knob or the television. I’d often wondered what my father felt, what it sounded like. What the cooked flesh smelled like. Had he had screamed or cried. But I’d never before thought about him falling after the electricity knocked him out of the tower. I had a picture for that now.

After a while Lester began to cough and couldn’t stop. He rolled to his hands and knees and fell on the floor, tangled in the bedspread. He cleared himself and stumbled to the bathroom. I listened to the sound of vomit rushing out and then the toilet flushing. When Lester came out he buttoned his pants, then sat on the bed to lace his boots.

“You okay?” I asked.

“Damn you two old women,” Lester said. “I’m going to the liquor store.”

“You ain’t able,” Robby said. He went to the bathroom and looked in. “Come back and clean your mess first.”

“I’ve got a pair of apprentices,” Lester said. He talked to the wall while he worked on his boots. “Scared of a little ice.”

“Least I ain’t a drunk. I can out-climb you anytime, old man,” Robby said. He sat back on the bed and looked at the television

“I wonder about you boy,” Lester said to me, “holed up in this room. I never slept when I was your age. I chased women all night and couldn’t wait to climb the next day. I’d climb a tower in my Sunday pants just to watch the sunrise, be waiting on the rest of the crew to show up for work.”

He looked over at Robby. “You’ve never seen the sunrise, have you coalminer?”

“You’d better stay off them towers at night,” Robby said. “You might run into an accident.” He didn’t take his eyes off the television.

“You boys left the job without finishing today. Left your rigging hanging in the tower, bolts missing. That’s a safety violation.”

Lester was looking at me but he was talking to Robby.

“That could cost you your job,” Lester said.

“You going to take your nephew down with me?” Robby said.

“Frank kept his tools on. You were insubordinate.” Lester winked at me. “I think he’s been smoking that dope on the job, don’t you Frank?”

“Talk to both of us, Lester,” I said. “Not just Robby.”

Lester stood up and Robby stood up. They stared at each other. Lester had shook off the drunk. His eyes were bright and he looked as mean as I’d ever seen him.

Robby reached in his back pocket for his knife but it wasn’t there. I leaned over and scooped it off the night table and slipped it into my back pocket.

“Coalminers shouldn’t smoke that dope,” Lester said to me. “Their brains are fuddled enough from in-breeding.”

“Give me my knife,” Robby said.

“I’ll hold on to it for now,” I said.

“Too bad the union won’t let foremen climb,” Robby said.

“To hell with the union. I’ll climb with you, Coalminer,” Lester said. “I’ll help you finish your job and if anything happens to me you tell them I was drunk and fell.” He turned to me. “You coming?”

“No.”

“Don’t look for a job in the morning, then, either of you.”

“You’d best come look after your uncle,” Robby said.

I pulled my coat on and followed Lester and Robby out the door.

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