After the Gold Rush by CL Bledsoe
It took Goodyear a week to scrape the baked on rubber-cake residue from the dented aluminum pans. When he got to twenty-one he called out, "Stay," and looked around, but he was alone.
He pulled his mask off, and his gloves, hung his safety glasses by the door and went to stare out the one window up front by the break room. The hallway was an abrupt ninety degree angle, leading to the break room. At the crux of the angle a small window perched in the wall, dirty and easily missed. Outside, the sky was a stagnant green. The clouds sat high and away. No chance of coming this way any time soon.
"Hey, Goodyear," Poochie called as Goodyear walked into the break room. "How about some of this chicken?" Poochie offered a chicken leg to the larger man.
"Now Poochie," Goodyear said. "You know that little spindly leg won't do me."
"Might be the last time you get to eat my world famous fried chicken for free," Poochie said.
"You like that chicken, Goodyear?" One of the boys added.
"Goodyear ‘eat more chicken any man ever seen,’" Poochie said, grinning. "I'm gonna have you a special booth at my restaurant, cause I know you gonna be coming in every day. He’s gonna be the only white boy there."
"Right next to the shitter, right?" Goodyear said.
Three or four guys besides Poochie sat around the cracked fake-wood colored table. Goodyear sat down and took the proffered chicken leg and added it to his own sandwich and chips.
"How them pans treating you?" Poochie asked.
"Hit twenty one, told the dealer to stay. Figure that's good enough."
"Yeah, hell. Surprised you did that many. I wouldn't have. Shit-asses can buy the plant, but they can't replace the pans?" Poochie said.
"They moving everything to Korea anyway, don't see why we have to pretty everything up for them," another one added.
"Busy work, that's all it is. Hell, they contracted us to work till the end of the month, and they're working us," Goodyear said.
"Hell, they just keeping you out of the way so you don't scare them investors off," Poochie said.
"Turn me loose on them, I'll show them what foreign relations is all about," Goodyear said.
"Say you gonna have relations with them foreigners?" One of the boys said.
Everybody laughed for a while and Goodyear got busy eating.
"We going this weekend?" Poochie asked after a while.
"Shit yeah, Poochie," Goodyear said.
"Where y'all going?" Someone asked.
"Me and Poochie's going to Tunica."
There were general nods. Most of them had finished eating, but they stayed in the room anyway, drifting from snack machine to soda machine like window shoppers. No one wanted to leave.
Goodyear shouldered through the front door of his father’s house, laden with fried chicken and a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke, set it all on the kitchen table, and immediately checked the stove and oven. They were both on. The oven was empty but there was a pan of smoking darkened something sitting on a burner on the stove. The plastic handle of a spatula was melted to the stove top. Goodyear grabbed an aluminum spatula and pried the melted one off, put the smoking pan in the sink and turned everything off and opened a window to let the room air out. Then, he opened the door to the dining room cautiously and glanced at the furnace, but only the pilot light was on. He opened the door all the way and saw his father asleep on the couch, the daily newspaper’s crossword puzzle settled on his lap. The television was on full blast, like always, so everything was okay, he reasoned.
“You left the stove on again," Goodyear said. "Melted a spatula." His father woke.
"What?" he mumbled.
Goodyear repeated himself. "Ruined whatever you were trying to cook," he added.
"Well I got to heat my lunch up somehow, since the microwave broke."
"Well if you had remembered to keep your fork out of the microwave, it wouldn't be broke." He returned to the kitchen. "Got some chicken in here,” Goodyear yelled. "If you're hungry."
"Chicken? That store-bought shit?"
"Yep." He ran cold water over the spatula and tossed it in the trash.
"That's alright; I ain't hungry. That stuff gives me the trots, anyhow."
"Suit yourself. It's already warm."
"Your Momma'd be rolling over in her grave, trying to feed me that stuff."
Goodyear paused. "Yeah? How many hours you work today? Cause I worked twelve. I ain't got time to cook every night. Now get in here and eat some of this chicken. If it's good enough for me, it's good enough for you." He glanced through the door and watched his father for any movement but the old man didn’t stir, so Goodyear closed the door and set about making himself a plate.
The phone rang, later while he was lying in bed, reading a Mack Bolan book. He'd already read the book, anyway. It was his sister, Libby. He related the spatula incident to her.
"It wasn't too bad," he said. "Just melted."
"What if he pulls something like he did with the microwave again?" she said.
"That's why I got rid of the microwave."
"He needs to be watched. By a professional."
"You gonna pay for that?" Goodyear asked.
"Maybe we could put him in a home. Get the state to help pay for it."
"He wouldn't go for it. He built this house, and he plans to die in it."
"Well we have got to do something before he hurts himself."
"Don't know what to tell you," Goodyear said. "I'm doing my best here."
His sister was quiet. Goodyear took the opportunity to tell her about Poochie's restaurant idea, but she hardly listened and soon hung up with an angry tone in her voice.
The next day, Goodyear got off work early, did some shopping and cooked. He bought hamburger meat and steaks, planning on making burgers, but when he came home and found the stove off, he was so pleased he went ahead and cooked the steaks. After supper, they spent the rest of the evening watching westerns on TV.
Later, Goodyear's sister called again.
"Everything was off today," Goodyear told her. "We're watching John Wayne movies. Why don't you talk to him, he's in the best mood I've seen him in in months."
He handed the phone to his father and returned to the living room to watch TV. After a few minutes his father called out, "You're sister wants ya."
"Yeah?" Goodyear said.
"He told me a joke." She sounded amazed.
"Was it funny?"
"Back to his old self."
Saturday, Goodyear headed to Tunica early with Poochie.
“The key to Blackjack is finding a good table. Some folks don’t know what they’re doing, and they’ll mess up the flow, hit when they should stay, that kind of thing. Get a good rhythm going, and everybody wins,” Goodyear explained on the way up.
“Kind of like sex.”
“I suppose,” Goodyear said.
“How’s your Daddy doing?” Poochie asked.
“No good since that business with Uncle Lonnie.”
“Can’t believe his own brother would do that to him.”
Goodyear didn’t answer for a long time. “They were never close,” he finally said. He struggled to elaborate. “It was him and Shug that really ran the farm. And you know how Shug is with people. The only reason they even put Lonnie’s name on it was Mamaw made them when Lonnie got back from Korea, so he’d have something to come back to.”
“Yeah,” Poochie said. “I always thought he was a mailman. Used to deliver to my cousin’s place.”
“Retired from the post office on a pension,” Goodyear said.
“Be hard to work a farm and be a mailman at the same time; seems like they’d work the same hours.” Poochie pondered it. “I imagine it was hard working for Shug. Your uncle—I don’t mean no disrespect, Goodyear, but he’s a hard man.”
“Biggest bastard this side of the Mississippi,” Goodyear said.
“So that why he sued for his third of the farm?”
“His wife put the idea in his mind. She was out catting around on him, and finally give him the ultimatum.”
“That’s rough. Hell, I’d shit-can the old she-bitch.”
“Well, he’s on up in years. Maybe he just figured it was too late to start fresh.”
“Huh,” Poochie said. “I know what that’s like.”
Goodyear liked the Sam’s Town Casino best, so that’s where they went. It bore no resemblance to a riverboat, though all of the Tunica casinos were supposedly riverboat casinos. It resembled more one of those new Church of Christ warehouse-churches. They parked near the entrance and passed three bored-looking kids sitting by the doors with their backs against the wall.
“This is nice, isn’t it?” Goodyear said as they stepped inside. The carpet combined the colors of precious metals and rust in paisley shapes. Waitresses in short, glittery skirts carried drink trays among the jeans and tee-shirt clad customers. There was music playing, but neither could identify the tune. There was a timelessness about the place: inside, it could’ve been the 40s, the 20s, the future. There were no windows or clocks anywhere.
Poochie sidled over towards the slot machines.
“Oh come on, now, son,” Goodyear said.
“I thought I was coming with a man, not a blue-haired old lady.” Goodyear nodded towards the cards tables. “Let’s play some jack.”
They lost track of time until they were both down to barely enough money for the $5 buffet—which the free drinks had made a necessity—and gas for the drive home.
“You can’t win all the time,” Goodyear said.
“Be nice if I could win some time,” Poochie said. “Damn.”
They drove back, stuffed on breakfast foods, though it was nearly midnight, both still tipsy, listening to a battered cassette of Neil Young’s Live Rust album, Poochie, sullen, and Goodyear, contemplative.
“You know, I was hoping to get a little seed money,” Poochie said.
“There’s always tomorrow.”
“Not when Charlene finds out how much I lost. I won’t live to see tomorrow. Reckon I could borrow a little to tide her over?”
“Yeah. Let me hit the ATM on the way,” Goodyear said.
“Surprised to see you back here, Goodyear. Thought you and Poochie’d be in the Caymans by now,” a coworker said in greeting to Goodyear back at work, Monday.
“What would fellers do without us?” Goodyear responded.
“What you doing today, Goodyear?” Poochie asked.
“They got me scrubbing pans again.”
“All hell,” Poochie said. “I’d quit.”
Goodyear smiled. “And piss away my severance? No sir. They want me to waste time scrubbing pans, I’m their man.”
All morning, he went over his plays from the casino in his mind. The factory room had no windows and no clock, so when the lunch bell went off, he was so lost in his mind, it took a moment for the noise to register. In the hallway, he stared out the window at the clear, blue Arkansas sky, without a single cloud. He couldn’t remember the last time it had rained.
“Good thing we ain’t farming these days,” he said, but it lacked conviction. He made his way to the break room, the smile already forming on his lips at the sound of his compatriots before he entered the door.
That night, he found another pan warped and burning on the stove. Acrid smoke filled the kitchen. Vandale was sitting in front of the TV, which was cranked full volume, doing a crossword puzzle.
Goodyear poked his head into the room. “Cooking something?”
“What?” Vandale said. “Reckon I could eat something.”
Goodyear shook his head and closed the door. He made burgers for his father and him, cursing the whole time. They watched “MASH” reruns until Vandale’s complaints about the preachy later seasons drove Goodyear to his room, where he dealt hand after hand of 21, studying each round. He finally went to bed when his hands—aching from the harsh chemicals that’d leaked through his gloves over the course of the last few days—made it too difficult to continue.
They had him scrubbing the walls the next day. At lunch, he gave a kind of monologue about his days on the farm, previous to coming to the factory.
“Thing about farming, is it’s never boring. There’s always something needs doing.”
“So why’d you leave?” someone asked.
“No future in it.”
“That’s why you came here, right?” Poochie said. They all laughed.
After lunch, they had him off by himself, scrubbing walls and mopping floors. “I didn’t sign on to be a god damned janitor,” he said. He looked around, but he was alone. He undid his pants, whipped it out, and pissed on the wall. Then he went back to stare at the sky.
The foreman found him there after a half-hour or so.
“Taking a break?” Goodyear didn’t answer. “Don’t you have something you’re supposed to be doing?”
“Y’all got me scrubbing the walls.”
“Well, get to it, then.” The foreman started to walk away.
“Somebody pissed on the floor,” Goodyear said.
“What?” The foreman came back and glared at him.
“What’s it matter? They’re going to tear the place down, anyway.”
“Might not. They might put something else in here.”
The foreman put his hands on his hips. “Listen, you’re paid to do a job, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, but I can’t do it.”
“Why not? You sick or something?”
“No, they’re moving it to Korea.”
The foreman gave him a look. “Just try to look busy,” he said. “They’re paying us. Least we can do is look busy.”
“No pride in that,” Goodyear said.
“You don’t want what they’re paying, you can head out, right now. Nobody’ll shed a tear.” The man held Goodyear in his steady gaze.
After work, Goodyear found Poochie in the parking lot. “You game for a little trip?”
“This evening?” Poochie asked.
“Why not?” Goodyear smiled.
“Oh brother, I can’t. I’m still recovering from the last one.”
“You know what they say about falling off a horse.”
“Yeah, they say maybe you shouldn’t be riding the damned thing.”
He listened to The Guess Who’s “Canned Wheat” on cassette and tapped the steering wheel in time as he drove. It was crowded, and he had to wait to get a seat at one of the Blackjack tables. He wandered over to the slots and won fifty bucks. He cashed it in and set it aside and then stood by the tables until a spot opened up. He won the first hand and then the second. When he rose from the table, stiff-legged and blurry-eyed, he was up nearly a grand. He drove home, nodding off twice and waking to the sound of his tires leaving the highway.
It was after midnight when he turned onto the gravel road and took the west fork that led home. He didn’t see the lights or the flames until he was nearly upon them because he was nodding off again. He had to swerve into the tall grass to avoid a fire engine parked in front of the house. He parked and stared. Someone knocked on his window. It was Aunt Esther from down the hill.
“Vandale’s okay,” she said. “I don’t know that he should be left alone,” she added.
“Invite him over for tea,” Goodyear said.
She took him down to her house where Goodyear’s father sat on the couch dressed in his boxers, a tee-shirt, and his house shoes, reading the paper—which was all he’d rescued. He looked up as his son walked in, folded his paper, and said,
“I reckon I could eat something.”
CL Bledsoe is the assistant editor for The Dead Mule and author of sixteen books, most recently the poetry collection, Trashcans in Love and the flash fiction collection, Ray's Sea World. Recent work appears in, The Arkansas Review, Contrary, and Barrelhouse. He lives in northern Virginia with his daughter and blogs at http://NotAnotherTVDad.blogspot.com