Just when he’d finally been called back to work at the new car plant, Hector Fritch’s faithful Chevette began to die. He and the car had shared many misadventures since his divorce and during the fourteen month lay-off. Now he only had to sit through an orientation and collect a few paycheques before he could start car shopping. GM gave an employee discount, but he had to be on the active roll. He checked the oil while he waited for Cheryl to arrive.
Fritch’s new girlfriend lived near Flint. She’d been coming out Friday nights when she could get a babysitter. His own boy, Wesley, was usually at his mom’s apartment or one of his grandparents’ for the weekend.
Tonight Fritch felt like they could afford to eat out, maybe go to a movie. He’d sold some leftover food stamps to his neighbours, the Hannons. Cheryl had been a good sport for three months. The Parents Without Partners dances where they’d met were a cheap date. But all those resentful, desperate members were depressing once you’d found a new relationship. He wiped the dip-stick and dropped the hood. “Just a few more tasks, old paint,” he told the car, whose paint was silver grey. “Stay with me.”
Cheryl turned carefully into the driveway. Fritch motioned her old Galaxy into the spot next to the Chevette. He couldn’t ask her to haul firewood in it. Anyway, there were child seats and the trunk was always stacked with whatever soda brands were on sale.
They kissed. “Wow, you look good,” he said.
“Thanks. But I’m just a little shaky. We had pizza at work but it was six hours ago.”
“Well then, how about the buffet at Big Boy in Celeryville? I’ll find you something for the road.”
Cheryl lifted a tote and her purse out of the back seat. “Sounds good,” she said. “And, I get to stay over.”
“It’s a celebration then,” Fritch said. “Wes went to his mom’s place and orientation starts Wednesday. We’ve just got one little errand to run first. Then I thought we’d catch a movie too.”
Cheryl followed him through the garage. She brought her bag in. Fritch took his wallet and keys from the kitchen counter. “We’ve gotta run over there anyway. I’ve got a line on some free firewood.”
Cheryl went into the bathroom and closed the door.
Fritch rummaged in the refrigerator. “There’s an apple. How about a granola bar?” He heard the water run and the toilet flush. When she came out, Fritch handed her the snacks.
They took the back roads to Celeryville. Fritch explained about the wood deal while Cheryl crunched into the Red Delicious.
“You know about the muck farms, right?” he asked her. “It’s this really black, like, potting soil?”
“Yeah, I’ve driven by them. Sometimes on our way to the lake.” She searched in the glove compartment for a napkin. “We used to camp near Port Austin.”
“Well, my brother married into one of those Dutch families.”
She wrapped the apple core in a McDonalds napkin. “Dutch? What’s that have to do with..?”
“Well, for whatever reason, I don’t know, but these Dutch immigrants,” Fritch explained. He drove with one hand so he could gesture. “They settled and bought up a lot of that land. Thousands of acres. Terrific for truck farming. All kinds of vegetables. Hey, anyway, that’s how the town got named Celeryville.”
Cheryl peeled the granola bar. “And, so they grow firewood too?”
Fritch chuckled. “No, no. I’m telling this all wrong. No, see, Patrick clued me in that his in-laws cut down a windbreak–these rows of trees that keep the dirt from blowing away? Muck is really fine grained. Don’t even know why they call it that ’cause it’s really dry. The trees were willow or something and got a blight. Guess they were dropping branches on the crops. It’s not the greatest wood but it’s free. He heats with wood too.”
“OK.” Cheryl twisted around. The back seat of the Chevette was folded down to enlarge the cargo space. “You didn’t bring your saw,” she said. “Or that wedge thingy.”
“Nope.” Fritch eased up to a stop sign. Two more miles and over a rise, then they’d come to a great view of the flat, black country. “It’s supposed to be all cut up in four foot lengths. They’re already burning the brush. We’ll just load up and then go eat.”
“Well, did you bring gloves for me?”
“Sure, if you’ve got your strength back.”
They arrived at the last stop and crossed Van Dyke Highway. There were hardly any homes now, just warehouses and garages for the farm machinery. Stacks of wooden crates waited to be filled with onions and potatoes. Fritch drove another half-mile and turned left, following Patrick’s directions. Then he turned into the gravel lot of a packing shed. In mid-September, a night shift was going strong, washing and bagging carrots. He drove past a few clunker cars and found the two-track that ran back into the first fields. Drainage ditches fell away on both sides. He took another turn and crossed a narrow bridge. The sliding sun was blinding but he made the last jog in the route. The trail became nothing more than muck, hard packed by trucks recently driven over it. Smoke rose from two heaps of ash and smoldering limbs.
“What a waste,” Fritch said. “That’s the size of stuff I usually get by with.” He parked the car in front of a tangle of thicker limbs and trunks. These remains of the cutting went on as far as he could see into the glaring distance. “Can you believe this?”
“How many trees was that?” Cheryl unbuckled her seatbelt and climbed out.
“At least a hundred, Patrick thought.” Fritch popped the latch on the hatchback. “Think what these must cost to replace.” He dug out two pair of gloves from behind the seat. He was running out of the free gloves he used to borrow from work.
Cheryl followed him to the nearest pile. The lengths of trunk-wood were thicker than he imagined. They looked longer than four feet. “Let’s see if we can manage these.”
Fritch pulled out a piece that was of medium thickness. As he rolled it, part of the bark shed off on the ground. He fit his hands under one end. “On three.” When they lifted, the rest of the bark came free. The chunk dropped onto the dry, black dirt.
“Ewwww,” Cheryl groaned as dozens of centipedes scrambled across the log’s wet surface.
“These are sure not right,” Fritch said. “Dead as hell but still pulling up water. I don’t get it.” While it was still clean, he mopped his brow with the back of the cotton glove. Two large half-cylinders of dead bark lay at his feet. He scooted them away. More centipedes. He slapped a glove along the surface of the wood until it was cleared of bugs. “Ready?”
Carrying the log to the car wasn’t too hard. It was soft wood. The only weight came from its last drink or maybe it had been rained on. That would have been a couple of weeks ago, though. Cheryl rested her end of the piece in the opening of the cargo area, then Fritch pushed it in. “Not gonna be able to close the hatch, but I brought a bungee cord.”
Cheryl pulled her blouse out of her shorts. “Getting kinda warm,” she explained. She knotted the madras blouse above her navel. “But won’t you worry about leaving the car open?”
Fritch liked the drop of sweat trailing down her cheek. He tried not to stare because that knotted blouse certainly trumped her stretch marks. The evening was turning purple at the horizon, the neutered sun becoming a stoplight-red ball. “If they take this stuff, they need it more than me. You’ll have to bring your purse in with you though.”
Cheryl held her end of the next log well away from her exposed tummy. They huffed back and forth carrying four more logs. Fritch wanted to be able to see out the back so they didn’t cram it too full. Most of the bark was stripped off before they grappled with them. He knew the hatch wouldn’t close now.
“Wow, what a beautiful evening,” Cheryl said. She brushed bits of bark from her arms. The blouse clung to her chest and sides.
“It sure is. Almost sultry.” Fritch pulled the hatch down onto the top of the logs. He stuck one end of the bungee into the latch mechanism then stretched the other down to the bumper. It wouldn’t hold the load in, but the Chevette didn’t accelerate very hard anymore. “You know what,” he said. “I’ve got a blanket behind the seat. We ought to do something.”
Cheryl smiled sheepishly. “Here? What if someone else comes back?”
Fritch eyed the trail and the buildings across the fields. The evening had become totally still. He heard the low hum of a conveyor belt back in the packing shed, and then what sounded like the muted crack and rattle of drums. This was distant, like maybe from town, three miles away. That’s right. There must be a football game tonight. They’d be able to see the glow from the field lights before long. “It’s getting dark. We’d see headlights coming in plenty of time.”
Cheryl peeled off the gloves. “Anyway, I couldn’t enjoy it with all those centipedes crawling around.”
Fritch said: “It was just a thought. Hey, you get to stay all night!” He wondered if that windbreak would have blocked those sounds; from the packing shed, or an approaching car. When he was a kid, the PA at the football field carried a long way.
They put their gloves on top of the load and he fired up the Chevette. Now he could smell the oil burning out of the blackened tail-pipe. Some of it came in as they backed around and headed out slowly. He didn’t want to raise a billow with the hatch open. He sighed with the job done and all the satisfaction that had built up: A great girlfriend, going back to work, a new ride soon, and his house warmed on the cheap. What could hold them back now?
Chris Dungey is a retired auto worker living in Michigan. He has the care and feeding to two wood-stoves. He hikes, bikes, sings in a Presbyterian choir, camps at sports car races, and spends too much time at Starbucks. More than forty of his stories have appeared online and in small presses over the years. His first collection, The Pace-Lap Blues and Other Tales from the Seventies is available from Amazon and on Amazon Kindle.