Chapter 15 – Local Color

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Motel Man was right. CookieSheet’s was the only place to get what Scott wanted. Since he had no need to watch what he ate at this point in his life, he asked the young guy at the cash register for the Little Boy and Fat Man Special. It was a challenge to get it all packed in but Scott did an admirable job, saving the inch-thick French Toast for last and after slathering it in whipped butter and cutting it all up into bite-sized pieces so all the sides of the pieces could soak up the Aunt Jemima syrup they floated in when Scott was done pouring it. That way, he could just shovel all that sticky sweetness in.

At every break in the action of eating, though, Scott’s mind kept hitting on Betti’s place - his ultimate destination and the center of his ten-day universe and he was continually reminded that it was the reason he was there.

CookieSheet’s was packed with the same kind of characters that frequented the Amoco Cafe back in Fairview and Scott wondered if this bizarro alternate world meme would continue much longer. Twilight Zone stuff. He listened for snippets of Los Alamos Life and caught words of the same concern and topics he’d heard back in Indiana. Nothing much but a few mentions of “The Lab”. 

There were people of all stripes and garb. Merchants and intellectuals, gray-haired retirees, a foursome of black people, all of whom had white lab coats on with some still on under winter coats instead of over their chair backs.

The door chimes tinkled and in walked a big man - a very big man. He was loud right off the start.

“Mamacita! I am home!” he yelled toward the kitchen in a thick Mexican accent, grinning big at anyone who was turned toward him. Most were amused but there were a few that were not smiling. Big Man had to turn sideways to get past the outer tables to settle at the counter near the cash register. Once he had planted his huge rear on the stool, he swiveled around and his gaze immediately rested on Scott just for what seemed like a knowing moment before turning back around. An Asian lady leaned her head out toward Big Man from around the grill area and frowned.

“Kuhn Todd! Did you going to behave yourself in the morning?” Asian Lady called out to him in an accent Scott couldn’t tell the origins of.

Scott went on high alert. Could this giant be the same Todd? The voice was similar, but Scott probably couldn’t tell much difference between voices with the same Hispanic accent.

“Si, Madre. I will behave like a good muchacho,” Todd replied, rubbing sleep out of his eyes.

“You eat here today, okay,” Asian Lady answered from behind the corner. “The ushual?”

“Same old, same old,” Todd replied, looking around again at the people in the cafe. He stopped on Scott again and nodded briefly. Scott nodded hello back but was in no way going to get up and go over to find out if that lunk was the same guy he was supposed to work with on the house. Besides, when the guy-who-might-be-Todd had turned further toward him, it was obvious he had been in a fight of some kind. Scott looked back down at the coffee he had been nursing and thought about how seeing the “contractor” who he was to rely on might change things. He ran over his newly recommitted stance. He decided to allow himself to be resigned to the fact that it was going to be a constant battle to stay in the game until the end on this one.

This Todd guy’s ass spilled all around the red padded stool so that you couldn’t even see the stool, and his gathered jacket was hiked up above his belt line, exposing his pink Plumber’s Part, disgusting Scott. And others, Scott was sure. At least Asian Lady, who seemed to run the place, didn’t have to look at it. Soon, Asian Lady brought out a huge platter of what looked like enchiladas but was different, somehow.

“Six-hun-ned, fitty Baht!” she told the Todd guy. Scott couldn’t figure out what that meant, but the Todd guy pulled out some cash and handed it to her cashier, a young local boy, as Asian Lady turned back into the kitchen.

While the Todd guy was busy shoveling forkfuls of food into his large mouth, Scott put three singles on the table for the young guy who also cleared the tables, grabbed up his hat and gloves and made his way out of the place.

~~~

Let’s take another run at this,” Scott thought, pulling up to the house on Navajo again. The morning sunlight that was flooding in from the east on the front of the house made the dirty yellow cream just a bit more cheery than it had been the night before and Scott’s mood was a reflection of this light. The thought of the Big Dog still scared him, but he had brought a weapon with him this time. He walked from the street to the driveway this time, and toward the front porch. In the middle of the driveway underneath a partially melted and refrozen cap of ice, was a huge mound of gravel, just about five feet high. Who knows how long that pile had been there? And what was it for? Some concrete job or around the skirting of the house? 

Scott stepped up onto the porch, peering into the side window for any sign of the dog. Nothing yet. Keying the upside down lock again, Scott opened the door just a crack, eying through the slit for any site of the dog. 

“Hey, Pooch!” Scott yelled. He waited for any sign of movement while holding the door knob firmly in one hand, the other holding a Price Plus plastic bag. He didn’t hear or see any movement so he took out the pound of ground beef and unwrapped it anyway, at the ready.

“Hey boy! Got something for you!” Scott said, loudly. Not sensing a response, he slowly opened the door, scanning around the room and back hallway in fear of another chase. No dog. 

In the daylight that was streaming in, the extent of the disaster which was Betti’s house, could be seen. It was difficult for Scott to comprehend what his idea of finishing the remodeling job had to do with what he saw before him. It did not compute. 

Standing in the entryway to the kitchen, Scott saw that the expensive oak cabinets that had been installed were new, but were very damaged. As he thought last night, there was no countertop to the base cabinets and there were gaps between them. The new stainless steel refrigerator was filthy with handprints and drywall mud and food smears and there was something dark that had leaked out of the fridge onto the tile floor. 

As his eyes traveled down onto the floor, Scott could immediately see that the foot-square ceramic tiles had been laid off kilter and uneven which had begun to cause cracks in many of them. Even to his untrained eye, he could tell they were high quality tiles, but were covered in stains, sawdust, dirt, and who knows what. 

“What a shame,” Scott said aloud. “Jesus.” He moved further into the room and stepped onto the pieces of the broken light bulb and at the sound, his head jerked around for any signs of Big Dog and seeing none, he looked down into the heat register again. The dried dog crap was there among the rest of the trash that had obviously been swept into the hole deliberately.

Walking forward into the house, he could see into what he assumed was the living room. It was paneled in a badly printed knotty pine detail and looked to be a complete job, except for the five-foot rectangular hole that was had been cut into it at about waist height. It was another thing he wondered about without an answer. There was that fist-sized hole in the exterior wall about shoulder height, but it was obvious from the light leaking through it from the outside that it had been manually created by a pretty damn heavy blow. 

In the middle of the room were two twin mattresses directly on the filthy brown shag carpet. There was a table saw next to them and had apparently been used right there because there was sawdust all over it and on the floor and on the mattresses, with pieces of wood stock and chips lying about. 

The condition of mattresses themselves were cause to delay a more detailed study. Scott chose the avenue of denial that these might in any way be meant for his bed. Both had motor oil grease and other stains underneath the sawdust and were as filthy as the carpeting. 

Then there was the drywall in the hallway leading to the living room room and in the kitchen that Scott remembered had looked like the drywall compound had been applied by Shetland ponies. In fact, he had to correct himself because Scott had a younger sister, Grace, that had a Shetland pony that could paint recognizable paintings with a brush held in its mouth and was more talented than whoever did this drywall job. It might have to be all torn down and reinstalled. Scott skirted the edge of an abyss of hopelessness that was beyond what he could register. It was like being one person locked in a room that had been decorated in four layers of wallpaper over six decades and it all had to be scraped off cleanly with only your fingernails. And he’d only seen the two rooms and not even either end of the house. He was looking at a month’s worth of work - at least.

And still he moved further into the house. There was no carpeting in the South bedroom, just off the kitchen. To his huge relief, the drywall was not as bad.  He wondered how many people Todd had been employing to do this work. Upon inspecting the heat registers in this room, they too were stuffed with construction debris, trash, and more old dog shit. Scott wondered just what he would say to Todd when he finally showed up.

The back bathroom was, in a compound word, non-existent. No toilet, no sink - only walls that were still to be finished and when Scott walked onto the tiled floor, two tiles rocked and then broke. He stood still like a soldier who’d stepped onto a Bouncing Betty.

“Fuck!” he yelled. He didn’t know what to do. Walk further in to inspect the tub or back out like it was a minefield, careful to retrace his steps?

Scott took a long step backward, set the ground beef package on the floor and looked back down through the house. No Big Dog.  He knelt down just before the bathroom tiles, his fairly new skinny Diesel jeans soaking up the dirt and drywall dust into where his knees dug into the plywood underpayment, then leaned out over the bathroom tiles and placed his palms on the broken tiles and they rocked again. Scott could tell that the mastic or mortar underneath had been troweled out unevenly. He tested other tiles further in and to the sides and he could feel that there were more that would break. As long as he was down on the floor, he lowered his head down onto the tiles and looked underneath the jacuzzi tub front that was still open. There was no plumbing or motor for the jets or heater or anything underneath. It would all have to be installed. Scott had no idea how to do something like that.

“Shit. This is going to cost Betti more money in tiles. All has to be redone,” he said aloud. 

Scott noticed himself saying more things out loud than he would normally say. He usually only said things to himself out loud when there was another person present so it wasn’t like he was going crazy or anything. But now he suspected there would be much more of this.

Everywhere he looked he found more to be corrected, more to be done from the start. The only way he could get a handle on it was to start a list. He would call Betti later and give her the bad news. Man, he did not want to be the bearer. 

Scott got up and walked into the kitchen to see if Todd had left a pencil and paper or anything to write on. There really was nothing of any use that he could find anywhere in the kitchen or living room except a carpenter’s pencil but the lead was broken way into the shaft. Of course.

Scott went back out to the Jeep. When he had gotten together a few pens and a pencil and a note pad he had brought along, he stuffed them into his pack with some snacks and water bottles he’d purchased from the Price Plus. When he slammed the Jeep door shut and turned to go back to the house, he chanced a glance over at the house across the street. A dark-haired head popped up and down behind the open hood of a 1978 Jeep that was parked in the driveway and up on jack stands.

Scott took in the scene. The house was one of those modular houses that had been covered in adobe or stucco with log beams or at least the ends of log beams coming out at the top corners and had the roof raised to make the place look much more substantial than it was. There was a Home Depot shed in the back of the driveway that had a huge American flag draped over it’s front where the doors would be.

It was hard to tell what kind of shape the place was in given that there had been a few snows and melts in the recent past and that always left a yard and house a bit soggy and dirty. Things that had been left out before a snow were finally exposed and seemed happenstance. All in all, it looked like a decent place, though, so Scott decided to find out who it was that had been spying on his antics.

Not one to shy away when he felt he was being impinged upon, Scott placed his pack and water on the hood of his Jeep and walked over. As he walked across the street and into the driveway, Scott noticed a bare bones gym setup at the back with a boxing bag hanging from a thick chain under a large tree.

“Can I help you?” Came a man’s deep voice from behind the open Jeep hood.

Scott stopped, startled, and wondered how the guy knew he was there. He stepped up to the engine compartment of the jeep to find an obviously Native American man waist deep in the Jeep’s  engine compartment.

“Uh, just wanted to introduce myself,” Scott said, nervously. “I’m a friend of Betti’s - the lady who owns the house across the street. I was wondering if you saw a big dog around here. I think it was a dark brown Rottweiler”

“Nope. Can’t say that I have,” the man said without looking up. He was darker skinned and about in his late thirties. He wore a camo vest with nothing else underneath to protect him from the morning cold. Native Man’s copper chest was hairless and his arms were small but muscular, tendons and biceps outlined as he worked bent over something in the engine. His long black hair that was beginning to grey was wrapped in a knot at the back of his neck with a red kerchief and looked anything but feminine. He had on greasy green military pants that had been wiped many times with all sorts of substances all the way down to the cuffs. Scott couldn't see what he was wearing for shoes because his feet were way down and resting on the wishbone suspension but he bet they were army issue. Native Man had one tattoo on each of his shoulders. One was a military insignia and on the opposite side, the portion he could see from where he was appeared to be something of a horse and rider. He was sweating in the chilly air.

“That’s weird,” Scott said. “Last night when I went into the house, it almost bit my ass off.  Now it’s gone.”

Native Man slowly raised his torso. He had a grease-stained six pack and was not a tall man. He had a large crescent wrench in his left hand and with his right, reached way across over to the Craftsman tool chest next to the house wall to pluck up a very large screw driver, staying focused on the job, never even glancing at Scott.

“I saw that,” he finally replied. “You must be some sort of athlete to out run a dog like that in close quarters.”

“I’d call it running for my life more than anything. He had a hold of my pants leg at one point.”

Native Man laughs and finally looks directly at Scott.

“It’s funny what people can do when their life is at stake, would you agree? Would you mind helping me out for a second?”

“Sure. I’m waiting for someone to get here anyway,” Scott told him.

Native Man handed Scott the huge screwdriver and showed Scott where to place it on the engine. Scott could feel the grease on the handle and made a note to watch where he put his hands afterwards.

Just hold it right here,” Native Man said. “All you have to do is keep this guy from moving your way.” He tapped what Scott knew was the alternator and Native Man placed the wrench on the bolt to tighten it.

“You replace the brushes in the alternator?” Scott asked.

Native Man gave a momentary squinting side-glance at Scott as he cranked the wrench.

“Yep.” Then he reached down and pulled on the rubber belt threaded through the pulleys. “And you must be waiting for Todd.”

“How’d you know?” Scott asked, surprised.

“I do live across the street. Plus, he’s been working on that place for a few years and I do live across the street.

“That took him more than a year?” Scott asked. “It’s a wreck!”

Native Man loosened the bolt again, then said to Scott, “Put a little more pressure on the driver, would you please?” The alternator moved ever so slightly and Native Man bore down on the wrench again. “The trick with Todd is you have to stay on him and stand up to him or else he will ride your gravy train forever.”

“Todd sounds like a scary guy,” Scott probed.

The sound of the metal on metal stopped as Native Man climbed off of the Jeep engine and wiped his wrench off on a rag, then turned to Scott with his hand out. Native Man was about four inches shorter than Scott, but his posture was ramrod straight and he had the strong and easy confidence of a much taller man.

“When you’ve seen what I’ve seen, kid, Todd’s not a scary guy.”

As Scott handed the screwdriver over to Native Man, handle first, they both turned at the rolling tire sound of a dark, official-looking car driving slowly by. The windows were blacked out so they couldn’t see who was in it, but Native Man knew. The car stopped at a house just one house down and across the street.

“Another stop for the Grim Reapers,” Native Man said, watching.

“What do you mean?” Scott asked.

Two men in dark suits and sunglasses fluidly raised themselves out of the car, walked up the driveway and stepped onto the porch without looking around. Then one of them knocked on the front door, while the other turned to survey the neighborhood.

Native Man said, “G-Men. The Feds. The government has been restructuring our budget - with no more cold war and all for so long - and they have been laying a lot of the scientists off.”

At the house, a small Asian man opened the front door. When the second G-Man turned back to the door, only the backs of the G-Men could be seen, but the first man’s jaw could be seen moving and his head gesturing. The face of the Asian man dropped to a mixture of sadness, then anger as he slowly reached around his neck to pull his green badge lanyard up and over his head. Asian Man’s thinning hair was flipped up from the back when the lanyard came up across it and it stayed that way, a turkey’s spread plume. He looked down to the badge and then handed it to the G-Man, saying something that could only be made out to be bitterness as the clipped but muffled sounds came to Scott and Native Man.

“So that guy is getting fired right now?” Scott asked as G-Man spoke more to Asian Man and Asian Man resignedly nodded his head up and down.

“Yes. It’s been happening more and more lately,” Native Man solemnly said.  Hopefully this one doesn’t become a jumper.”

Scott thought Native Man was joking, so he laughed, then said, “Must be tough, though, to be let go that way.”

The G-men walked back to their car and Asian Man backed into the open door frame, glaring at them from the doorway as the men reached the car. The driver turned to gaze over at Scott and Native Man just a little too long before getting into the car. And when it pulled away, Asian Man slammed his front door shut.

“I should get back over there,” Scott told Native Man, looking across to Betti’s house. “Have a lot of shit - stuff, ‘scuse me - to figure out.”

Native Man chuckled and turned to Scott to offer a strong, dark hand at the end of a sinewy forearm, the muscles prominent. Scott met the man’s eyes with his own. 

“Tom,” Native Man said.

“I’m Scott, nice to meet you,” Scott said sincerely. He noticed the dog tags around Tom’s neck in the opening of the vest.

“Stop over anytime. You need any help with Todd, let me know,” Tom said. 

Huh. That’s the second time...” Scott thought. He was puzzled by this offer but thanked Tom and walked back over to the trailer, looking down the street as the black car drove slowly around the corner and out of sight.

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