Ben Shields … “Jim Threw Things From Trucks”

jamesville, nc

Timothy wants to get back to his old self. He drives too fast down the sunk and butchered New Orleans street that’s pocked with holes. The windows are rolled down. When he gets home he’ll mop the filthy floors his wife won’t touch. He tells himself he does not care. The asphalt dissolves beneath his tires, tiny pebbles and baseball-size chunks sloughing off their foundation. His tires chirp, wheeling into the driveway.

Married four years and still his wife waits for him on the porch, and that is a sweet thing. But before he gathers himself from the truck, she’s at his door and punching his arm. She says, Slow your ass down.

 

***

 

southern_u_haul val macewan

Timothy remembers when he was dangerous. It was high school summer back in his home town. He shifted gears in a work truck, tearing ass down a rutty turn row between two cotton fields in late summer with stick-thin Jim. Jim’s limbs seemed barely held together by clothes, and he was always doing the wrong thing. They both walked the cotton looking for worms and thrips. They did this for money. It was hot, and the fields stretched out miles, colored monotony green. Ahead of them, not very far away, rose a five foot hill with a steep grade built over a culvert. Jim was especially low for no specific reason.

Jim fell subject to a meek mother who spoke little and a fat father that hand-loaded bullets and traveled the state for paintball tournaments. Jim had a seemingly endless brain. His father was scared of the boy’s head, and the mother just said nothing about anything. None of the three matched well as a whole or in any variation. Jim was bored and largely ignored.

That morning Jim had lined his drug powder on the arm rest. Timothy rolled down the window. It spun a narcotic tornado. Timothy did it because it was the only thing he could, because a thousand times asking had not dented Jim’s habit. But Jim forgave Timothy. He said that Timothy did good things more often than most others.

What am I going to do with myself? Jim asked. The windows were down, and the wind whipped crazy in the truck. He asked this often. Despite his smarts, he would be quite stuck in their rural, shit town if something outstanding didn’t happen soon because some people are too gifted for their own good or habitat.

We’ll figure something out for you, Timothy said, and that was exactly what he wanted for his friend then.

I don’t think it’ll work out that way. I can’t do much besides fuck up.

The hill stood right in front of them now, and they had not slowed down a bit. Sweat streaked the dust on Jim’s face.

Timothy said, We’ve got to put those rocks back on the moon.

Jim turned and smiled. What does that even mean?

Timothy asked like a father to a son, Are you ready for an adventure, buddy? Are you ready to feel like you beat the hell out of something and you’re capable?

As long as it helps.

They buckled their seat belts and were soon in the air. When the dirt settled, the truck was turned onto its driver’s side. This wreck was not supposed to happen, but they were safe save scratches.

Jim didn’t say anything. He unbuckled and struggled not to fall into Timothy. He kicked the windshield until it cracked. He kept kicking and started laughing. It was quiet at first, just air passing in quick breaths. When the windshield shattered he was crazy. When he crawled out through the busted glass, Timothy watched him roll like a dog in the dirt, kick his skinny legs and laugh his ass off.

 

***

 

Timothy is in his house on his wrecked street that just as well could split fields as be lined with oaks in the city. Just back from a thirty mile bike ride on the paved levee path, he lifts weights around the empty space over his head. He’s getting back to fitness. Three months he’s been at it. He looks more fit and trim like he did before. No one notices. Why does no one notice? He puts the dumbbells down and palms a tight chunk of his shoulder.

And you can’t tell? he asks his wife who flips through a decorating magazine on the bed amidst her something like thirty throw pillows.

She doesn’t even look up, just says, You’ve transformed your body. I won’t say it again. But she flicks her magazine like she doesn’t believe. She hasn’t admired the tone of his stomach once.

Timothy eyes his gut in the mirror. He showers and dresses for work. He says, I want supper cooked when I get home.

She only shows him her middle finger. She’s always giving him the business.

Timothy was once country-come-to-town charming. Women were all over him. His wife was no diffeJimt. He tells himself this because he’s lately lost it in the fracas of forty-hour weeks and un-wowed wife.

He picks her up and swings her around. She laughs and kicks her feet. Stop it, she says, but he knows she doesn’t mean it.

Timothy sets her down and kisses her head, slips a hand down her shirt and holds her breast. He says, And why don’t you clean the house while I’m gone. He’s joking, but he means it. Do something for god’s sake. He’s sick of picking up messes.

Yeah, yeah, she says at him, and bites his wrist.

He pulls away. She grabs his arm, says, You’re good to me.

She’s not so bad even though she won’t pick up on a Saturday without a single thing to do. He’ll power through it in no time when he gets back because he started off spoiling her and now she’s accustomed. She’d let everything pile around her, pondering curtains and throws.

Her fingers are long and slim, but she’s complained enough about her knotty knees that he believes it and can barely see her in shorts anymore. Her slender shoulders are cool to the touch, and she has long, brown hair. He loves her, though lately it’s some trouble with resentment bubbling like something wretched, his wish for love that doesn’t require much.

But often she makes it easy. It’s her eyes, and she looks at him now, and it’s off to work and have a good day and can’t wait to see you and let me know you’re safe. By God, he will.

He wants to walk out the door, but he bumps against her loose bundle of decorative twigs tied with twine standing in the corner holding on to all the dust and shedding twiggy shit on the floor everyday of his entire life. How many times has he knocked it down? How many times has he wished to cook kill over its embers? But it’s not a home without twigs tied with twine. This corner, this house, this life would be so bare without it. And what else can he do if not right the decoration, say nothing of what wrecks him, walk out to his truck and bang down the mottled street?

Nothing.

 

***

 

Jim dated a damaging red-head in college. Every time she gave Jim hell, Timothy was there to say, It’ll be fine, friend. Timothy and Jim stared at the popcorn ceiling in Timothy’s room and drank rum until they passed out the time Jim and his girl broke off for what appeared to be good.

A year later she drove from three hours away to the house Timothy and Jim shared with some other guys. The boys had just gotten back for their second year of college after a summer at home. No one would let her in because she was crazy then. So she kicked the door until the knob ripped out of the old wood, and she and Jim were rekindled by force. It scared Timothy, but not for his physical self. Jim had found a capturing, bruising love, something on a level Timothy had not seen and could never get near. He shrank away from that kind of romance forever.

 

***

 

When he gets home, to his surprise, dinner is ready, and the house is clean, but only because his sister-in-law is there. The girls admire the picture frames and candles. Timothy kicks the shit out of the dishes, cleans the mess his lady made, while the girls visit. A thankless job. In the bedroom he stretches on his stomach crawling under the bed to pull his weights out because they’d absolutely ruin any flow if they were in the open. He bumps his head on a cross bar and yells.

He hears his wife ask, Babe, from the other room, but he ignores it.

Two hundred pushups, shoulder presses, tricep work. He can barely get through. His muscles are shot. Timothy lays out on the floor and watches the ceiling fan shaking to its roots. He walks to the mirror and picks at the fat around his belly and shakes his head.

He finishes up and puts on his shirt. There is nothing to do. He hears them in the other room, the girls giggling on wine. He sits down in front of the bundle of twigs. It does not one useful thing. He reaches over and tugs a twig from the top. Carefully, he works it out. It’s a thin, little whiff of a thing. There must be a million of them.

 

***

 

Jim threw things from trucks. In the summers when they worked he’d pick up whatever laid loose around the shop. From the driver’s seat and going fifty he could lob a tube of axle grease off-handed with his spindly arm over the truck and dead-center a speed limit sign. It would thud and pop and stain the whole thing black. Sometimes the boys were out of line.

Timothy was driving the levee like a demon going from one farm to the next. It was one week before they went back for their second year of college and two weeks before the door would get kicked in by Jim’s girl. There was a man on a bike up ahead. Jim was back to drugs after a few good weeks and acting shitty.

You’ve been talking to her? Timothy asked.

She calls.

Don’t answer. She’ll suck you in. She culls the light from the world.

Jim said, I don’t think you understand what it’s like to have someone love you like this.

They were getting up on the man on the bike. Jim had only a half-empty water bottle. He rolled his window down.

Don’t you dare, Timothy said.

Jim didn’t say anything. Timothy swerved to the other side of the road. The bottle still pegged the man in the back of the neck. He wobbled on his bike and tumbled down the levee. Timothy slammed on the brakes and pulled over.

He shut the truck off and tried to undo his seat belt. You could’ve killed him.

Jim grabbed Timothy’s arm. I could get arrested, he said.

You damn well should. I told you not to. Timothy quit moving to get out. He put his head on the steering wheel and left it there.

Jim then rolled his window up. Drive, he said.

Timothy kept still. Jim reached over and turned the ignition on.

Timothy said, Let me help you fix this.

I don’t want that. Drive. That’s what I want you to do right now.

Timothy felt like, for a second, he’d never done a right thing. The green tops of a tree line to his right shook in the wind. He watched them and said, You can’t help but get into unnecessary shit. She does this to you. She makes you bitter.

Jim didn’t say anything, just looked ahead at the road. Timothy drove them off, and they were never complicit in anything ever again because Jim wanted too much awful shit and threat in his life.

Jim’s things left the house over a two month span after he got back with his girl. First some clothes and toiletries, then books, his computer. Eventually there was nothing left of him. There weren’t farewell songs. It was a gradual falling off. He was only down the street, just a few blocks over, just across town.

 

***

 

Timothy drives home real sweet to his house in the city, and the knots and holes in the street are only worse from riding slow. He studies each divot and crack with his tires. He’ll skip the workout tonight. He’s been at it too hard. His body is mush. He wants to walk into the kitchen where his wife is humming and working supper. He can smell it. Better or worse, she’s never a red-head, even if the meal is canned carrots and frozen chicken and macaroni from the box. It’s goddamn fine, isn’t it, that he’s a housecat now?

He can’t get back there to her like he wants because he’s staring down at the tipped over bundle of sticks that’s blocking his way. Did he even touch it, or is it mindful and this its language? I got to go, it says to Timothy amidst its mess of shed shit. Chuck me outside. I want to rot in the dirt, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Babe, Timothy says.

His wife walks into the hall.

Never taking his eyes off the bundle, he says, I’m throwing this damn thing out. I can’t live like this.

She walks closer to him, drying her hands on a rag. She looks at it, too. Well, she says. That’s fine.

He nods. Buoyed. He says, I’m not doing the dishes either. He lifts his head up and sets his shoulders.

She looks at him, then steps over the bundle, puts her hand on his cheek and kisses his head. Go rest, doll.

 

***

 

This is the danger Timothy allows himself. He rides his bike on the levee trail. Lately, the river is high, and it passes through the water trees at its natural bank, fills up the flat and laps at the levee base right where it begins to rise. He takes a break and watches the water modulate, catching his breath. There isn’t a stiff current. The water just eases. He looks around and sees that no one is on the trail this morning. Timothy checks his helmet and tilts his front wheel over the edge and sets the bike rolling down the hill. He bounces over knots in the turf and yelps the whole way down until he finds the river at the bottom. He holds on and rides out until the bike stops in water over his knees, and he falls over underwater. If there were people out this morning, running or walking their dogs, they’d see him rise up howling.