Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
3749 words
SHJ Issue 14
Spring 2016

Operating Expenses

by Ron Yates

Randy was watching the Munich Summer Olympics on the snowy black-and-white portable he had recently bought at the pawn shop. This was the second full day of competition, and he thought he would relax for a while before loading his backpack and heading out. He wasn’t in any hurry to start hitchhiking again.

As he settled into the lumpy recliner, he was roused by the sound of tires on gravel and the honking of a car horn. He looked through the window to see who it was and immediately recognized the car and its occupant. Mrs. Bea Stempton, newly widowed, had driven her dead husband’s Ford Galaxie right up to the front of the lopsided old shack. She honked the horn again before he could find a decent shirt to put on. As he stepped out onto the porch, she called to him through the passenger window: “Come on, you can drive me back and keep the car for a while, until we can get the flatbed going.”

Randy blinked and stammered. “I wasn’t planning on...I was getting ready to—”

“I know. We ain’t had a chance to talk, with the funeral and everything. Just get in and drive. I’ll explain when we get to the house. Stacy’s there waiting on us.”

Mrs. Stempton began rummaging in her purse as soon as they were under way. “You’ll need gas, oil, and maybe a new chain for the saw. This should hold you for a week or so. Let me know when you need more.” Randy was surprised to see that she was offering him a hundred-dollar bill, shaking it impatiently. “Go on, take it,” she said. “It’s for operating expenses.”


The next morning, the second day after Mr. Stempton’s funeral, Randy was up before daylight. Troubling thoughts had visited him there in the shack during that long, sleepless night. Mrs. Stempton and her daughter Stacy needed him to continue working to finish out a contract made before the accident. Stacy’s brother was useless to them, having sought and found a different way of life in Atlanta. As they’d discussed the matter over coffee in the kitchen of the old home place, Stacy’s tears and sad smile had been persuasive, obscuring the fact that she shared an apartment in town with her boyfriend. She had said, “Randy, we—I—need you to stay. Please?” Her hair was the color of broom straw. Her eyes were startling blue, like a clear sky after a storm. Now, alone in the morning’s stillness, Randy realized that she only saw him as a friend who could help the family in their time of need, and he felt foolish and weak for having agreed to stay.

Other concerns centered mainly around pulling stumps and clearing land, but as he began to order things in his mind, he realized that the pulpwood must be cut and hauled first. This part of the job was familiar to him, having worked for weeks as Ben Stempton’s helper, but instead of bringing comfort, trying to picture the details produced greater anxiety. The pulpwood truck and saws would be where the old man had left them. Randy would have to begin where Ben Stempton ended to finish out the load.

It was hard to believe the old man was dead. The memory was still fresh of the lumbering, loaded truck pulling over to the side of the road on that hot afternoon to offer him, stumbling under his heavy backpack, a ride. He remembered his face: the opaque blue eyes looking him up and down, the grizzled whiskers stained brown around the mouth from tobacco juice.

“Where ya headed, boy?” he had asked. He must have known, Randy had thought since, that he had no place to go. He’d even seemed to know—though he couldn’t have—about his past in the Pittsburgh orphanage and the foster homes, a past Randy was trying to forget. The old man had recognized an opportunity, but so had Randy. He had been at the limit of his endurance; being free was not working out as he’d expected. Realizing he didn’t have much to lose, he accepted the offer of work and an abandoned shack to live in. He had not planned on staying long, but working with Mr. Stempton—cutting and loading pulpwood, dragging the fragrant pine tops out of the way, sweating, swatting flies—was satisfying. The old man provided lunch daily, and each evening he delivered to the shack a hot, tinfoil-wrapped supper plate piled high by Mrs. Stempton: fried pork chops or chicken, boiled cabbage, beans, squash, and sliced tomatoes with mashed potatoes or fried okra. It was a good enough set-up, at least till he could think of something else. Days turned into weeks, summer faded, and then the old man got killed.

Now, the nature of the accident and the unknown details made the thought of beginning his day’s labor at the scene of a grisly death repugnant. He groped for a way of escape, but, as he weighed his limited options in the light of Stacy’s smile and Mrs. Stempton’s kindness, he concluded that he should do what he had promised to do, even as he clung to a fading image of himself as a free man, obligated to no one, a drifter having adventures and loving a string of women along life’s highway.

Mrs. Stempton was waiting for him when he pulled into the yard, an apron tied around her ample midsection. She handed him his day’s sustenance—breakfast and lunch packed carefully inside a grocery sack rolled down tight—from the front porch steps. “Good morning,” she said. “I’m pleased to see you out bright and early. I went ahead and got everything ready ’cause I knew you’d want to get started.”

Randy returned the greeting, took the package. Mrs. Stempton’s manner in handing him the sack didn’t invite conversation, and there was nothing else to talk about anyway. If she shared his discomfort with where he was going and what had happened there, she didn’t show it. Perhaps, he thought, her mind was incapable of going into such dark places.

The Jenkins property was just outside of Prathersville on Taylor’s Gin Road. He covered the six miles slowly, savoring his breakfast: a sausage biscuit as big as a cat’s head with sweet creamed coffee from a thermos. He decided to try the radio, pressing each of the buttons, but found only country and gospel music amid the static. Using the tuning knob to explore between the presets, he stumbled upon Don McLean’s “American Pie.” He hadn’t heard it since before he left Pittsburgh, when it was still at the top of the charts. Hearing it rekindled his wanderlust.

He drove up to the rough access road with the lyrics in his head and noticed that the pulpwood truck was visible from the main blacktop to anyone who happened to be looking. He turned in and stopped the Ford a short distance behind the truck, which was loaded with only one layer of fat logs across its frame-mounted rack. He sat there trying to discern what he could from the car’s insulated interior. With the truck positioned at an angle to the access road and the loader boom with its cable swung around to the far side, Randy could see nothing out of the ordinary. The rising sun made shadows, distorted images of leaves and limbs, sway and dance across the hood of the car. He told himself that it might not be that bad. Maybe the people who took the old man away had cleaned everything up. He was reaching for the door handle when he heard a vehicle approaching from behind.

Randy watched in the mirror the front end of a polished Lincoln grow larger, dipping and rebounding in a constrained fashion over the driveway’s harsh bumps. He could make out two occupants, a man on the passenger side and what appeared to be a teenage boy behind the wheel. Randy grew apprehensive, wondering if he had broken some law, as the ponderous vehicle pulled within a few feet of the Ford’s back bumper.

The man got out first and then the boy, who lagged behind as if waiting for instructions. Randy opened the door and stepped out. The figure approaching him wore baggy trousers, suspenders, and a white shirt. The stub of a wet, well-chewed cigar protruded from his slack mouth and his receding gray hair was pushed straight back. His rounded shoulders belied the initial impression of substance imparted by his bulky midsection, which, Randy noticed as the man drew nearer, consisted entirely of soft flab.

He regarded Randy through narrowed eyes and shifted the cigar to one side. “Hello there, young man. You must be Ben Stempton’s boy.”

“Well, no. I just work for him. I’m supposed to pick up where he left off.”

“You mean here, on this property?”

“Yessir. To finish out the job. That’s what Mrs. Stempton and I decided.”

“Y’all did, huh? I’m glad you got everything worked out, but you might of informed me, since I own this piece o’ land. Name’s Wayne Jenkins, and I’m the one who’s already paid Ben Stempton to clear this place off. Who are you? When I made the deal with Ben, I figured ol’ Buena was still working for him. He didn’t say nothing about no white boy.”

“I’m Randy Walls, from Pittsburgh.”

The man appraised Randy’s appearance as he worked the cigar slowly to the other side of his mouth. “That sure was bad about Ben. Who woulda thought it. I didn’t know he had relatives from up north.”

“We’re not related. I just work for him. Met him about a month ago.”

Mr. Jenkins looked down as if studying out a problem, and Randy noticed his fancy cowboy boots. His young driver was smoking a cigarette, leaning against the Lincoln.

“An old lady found him, Miss Elmira Tuggle,” the man said. “She was going to the grocery store and happened to look up this way. I imagine it was real unnatural, seeing ol’ Ben squeezed up against them truck standards, hanging like a tater sack cinched in the middle. She called the deputies, and then I heard it on my scanner. They was getting him down when I got here. A real mess and a damn shame too.” He made this point while removing the wet stub from his mouth and examining it as if there were some mysterious connection between its ruined carcass and Ben Stempton’s. Randy noticed a fleck of black tobacco on his tongue.

“So you were here when they took Mr. Stempton’s body away?”

“Yep. I watched ’em load him up. And I can tell you it’s nothing short of a miracle what Dougherty’s funeral home was able to do. I never figured they’d open that casket, but they did and I know it was a comfort to Mrs. Stempton. Anyway, that’s over and done with. The rest of us has got to keep going. Ain’t that right?”

“Yessir, I believe so. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

“We’ve got to keep working and planning and making things happen, and what I’m trying to make happen is a small subdivision, about twenty-five or thirty houses. I think they ought to sit real nice in here, that is if I can get the property cleared off so the builders can start puttin’ in the footings. I need to get them houses dried-in before the weather turns cold and rainy.”

The man examined both ends of the cigar stub thoughtfully, then flipped it to the ground. Randy waited for the point which Mr. Jenkins seemed to be working toward, but instead of speaking he crossed his arms over his chest, shifted his weight, and began craning his neck, taking a slow visual sampling of each direction. Randy recognized this as a cue for him to offer something.

“Mrs. Stempton and I have discussed everything. We’re going to honor the deal.”

“I was thinking of paying Bea a visit to see where things stood, but, of course, I’d have to give her a few days, the funeral being so recent and all. See, I’ve been debating whether or not to just go ahead and bring in the big loggers and bulldozers and get it done. I didn’t figure she’d have any notions about finishing out the contract with Ben gone. Trouble is, that heavy equipment would tear this place up to where you wouldn’t recognize it. I want to keep all these nice shade trees and preserve the natural beauty. Besides, bulldozers are too damn expensive. On the other hand, though, is this time thing. In the building business you’re always fighting time. There’s a lot at stake here, boy. I’m already committed—very committed—so I’ve got to make the right choices. You following me?”

“Yessir. But I’m here this morning to get started.... I feel sure I can keep the same schedule that you and Mr. Stempton agreed on.”

Mr. Jenkins eyed Randy up and down, then motioned to the teenage boy waiting back at the Lincoln. “Bring me a cigar, Lyle. They’s some in the dash.” The boy responded quickly and was soon at Mr. Jenkins’ side, holding before him like a talisman a fat brown blunt, still in its cellophane. Randy rested his weight against the back of the Ford as Mr. Jenkins tore off the wrapper and dropped it to the ground. He examined the cigar and worried over its closed end while Lyle fished in his pocket for a lighter. After nibbling off the stump and licking the cigar along its entire length, Mr. Jenkins was ready for his smoke. The teenager produced the lighter and held the flame at the glowing tip for several seconds while the man worked his cheeks, producing thick balls of aromatic smoke that hung about his head in an expanding festoon. After Lyle clanked shut the lighter, Randy, sensing that the boy was looking at him, turned his head, shifting his gaze to the pulpwood truck.

Mr. Jenkins said through the dissipating cloud, “You know, the deputies sure were puzzled about what happened to Ben. They just couldn’t see how he managed to get that cable wrapped around him thataway.”

Randy worked a weed out from the ground with the toe of his boot. “I’ve thought about it—wondered, I mean. The old man, he could do anything. But the cable’s stiff and it’s got some kinks in it that get twisted up sometimes. It’s freaky, but it could happen. Hooking the cable and working the loader is really a two-man job. I would have been here helping, but—”

“You’re right, boy. Unexplainable things happen all the time. Best not to worry too much over ’em.”

Mr. Jenkins puffed knowingly on the cigar, as if pondering the wisdom of his words. Lyle, the teenager, looked at the man through the haze, then shifted his attention back to Randy, leaning uncomfortably against the trunk of the Ford.

“He said I could have a day off and I took it. I didn’t know he was gonna...”

The man withdrew the cigar from his cheek. “I got some real concerns here, young man. I don’t mind telling you. I knew Ben Stempton—what he was capable of—and he always kept his word. He’d been doing this kind of work all his life. But you...well, you seem like a fine young man, but I’m not sure you’re up to the task. You know what they say: never send a boy to do a man’s job. What do you think? Can you clear off forty acres, haul out all the pine and brush and pull up the stumps by the end of October? That’s what Ben and me agreed on. I can’t afford to push it out no further.”

Randy straightened himself. “I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t believe I could do it.”

“Uh-huh. Well, at least you got confidence. You’ll need it. I don’t know what you and Mrs. Stempton worked out, but there’s quite a bit more money in this deal, that is if it gets done in time. And y’all are getting all of whatever the pulpwood brings. Did she tell you that?”


“Well, awright then.” He looked at Randy and nodded for several seconds before sticking the blunt back in his cheeks and puffing, just in time to bring the ember back to glowing life. “Looka here,” he said through the smoke. He reached around to the bottom of his baggy trousers and brought out a fat billfold. After ceremoniously leafing through the bills, he picked a crisp hundred from the wad. “Here,” he said, “some good faith money. And I got a suggestion. When you finish out this first load and take it in, look around and see if you can hire somebody to help. I know there’s usually some young bucks hanging around that pulpwood yard looking for something to do. Think about it: one sawing, one loading. Another pair of hands to hook the cable around the logs and the chain around stumps. It’ll make the job go a lot faster. Besides, with a helper, you won’t be all by yourself out here.”

He thrust the bill at him.

Randy was hesitant. He felt Lyle watching to see what he would do. “I think I’d rather wait until I’ve actually earned some money.”

Mr. Jenkins shook the bill closer to his face. “Don’t be a jackass. You’ll earn it soon enough out here in this heat. And, like I said, there’s plenty more where this came from—that is, so long as I see progress. I don’t mind paying some each week. This’ll be your first payment, and you can use part of it to hire you some help.”

The tone of the man’s voice, his impatient shaking of the bill, and the smoke about his head combined to make a forceful presence. Randy took the money as Lyle looked on with a blank expression.

“I’ll stop by from time to time to see how things are going. I’ll give it a week before I decide anything, you know, about the big loggers and bulldozers.” Mr. Jenkins rocked back on his heels, looped his thumbs under his suspenders, and puffed as he waited for Randy’s response.

“I’ll do my best.”

“That’s all that can be expected, and I appreciate it. I’ve got a little better feeling about this now. I believe you’ll do awright.” As his cheeks pulled at the cigar, he offered a hand that felt to Randy as he shook it like a scaled and gutted carp.

“Come on, Lyle. We got other business this morning. You take care, young man—Randy, wasn’t it? Don’t get too hot. We’ll be seeing you later.”

And that was that. Mr. Jenkins turned and walked back to his Lincoln with Lyle stepping lightly alongside. Then Randy was alone with the trees, vines, and briars, in the surrounds of the partially loaded pulpwood truck and culpable cable. The moment of his facing what the old man left behind was at hand. As he lifted himself off the trunk of the car, he felt the crinkling bills in his pocket and realized he was in possession of more money than he had ever had in his life.

He waited until the Lincoln was out of sight, then approached the other side of the truck circumspectly, hoping for the best, but the buzzing of flies presaged a disturbing reality. Dreading each step, he moved slowly until he was actually there where the life had spilled. At first he turned away gagging. The chorus of dollars in his pocket began to taunt, reminding him that he didn’t have to do this, that they and the old man’s Ford could take him away from this place. But a softer, smaller voice persisted through the prattle and told him he had to face it, a fact he accepted in his stomach where the churning was. Turning back was made bearable by a process he didn’t understand, a knotting of something inside, accompanied by blue flashes in the outer realms of his consciousness—the bright morning sky glimpsed between swaying leaves, or the flickering glances of Stacy Stempton in his mind. As he faced the flies and the blood-soaked ground, spotted with chunks of dried and rotting organic matter, he was surprised at how easy it was. He told himself over and over, “This isn’t so bad. It’s not so bad. Not so bad. . . .”

Then he was stepping over the spot of thickest clotting, where the flies, orgiastic, were loath to disperse. The cable was a mess, twisted up against the truck frame and kinked where Ben Stempton had died, smeared and stippled with daubs of flesh, tissue, and fabric. He opened the passenger door and reached in for one of the grease rags the old man always kept there. Before the cable could be rewound, it would have to be untangled and wiped down.

He set himself to the task, working the kinks out and rubbing the stiff metal cord. As he worked, time froze inside the hum of the flies. Finally, after starting the engine and winding the clean, straightened cable back onto its drum at the top of the standards, thought returned with urgency, telling him to move the truck away from that spot. The familiarity of the driver’s seat, pedals, and gear lever brought relief.

He was able to move the rig only a hundred or so feet before he would have to clear out some brush and small pines, but at least he would be away from the stench and the flies. The truck seemed eager, unchanged by what had happened. As he engaged the clutch and began to roll over the rough terrain, he felt a loosening of the accident’s hateful grip. The slow-rolling wheels pulled up a new scene with clean smells and sounds where Randy, by using his muscles, could shape a different reality. He pushed the nagging thoughts of problems and expenses out of his mind, hopped down from the cab, and reached for the saw. Using his foot to keep it steady on the ground, he fingered the choke knob and yanked the cord.

SHJ Issue 14
Spring 2016

Ron Yates

holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte. His work has appeared in Shark Reef, The Writing Disorder, The Oddville Press, Still: The Journal, Bartleby Snopes, Prime Number Magazine, and other venues. Yates lives on Lake Wedowee in east Alabama. He hikes, takes pictures, tinkers with old cars and motorcycles, and occasionally leads writing workshops.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury