Big Bend

A short story

That night Mr. Hunter (the crew all called him Mr. Hunter) lay quietly awake for two hours before the line of his thoughts finally made the twitching conversion to mirage and hallucination that heralded ease and melting sleep.

What had kept him awake was primarily a worry that he was being too much the imperious old businessman, the self he thought he'd conquered—even killed—in retirement, the part of himself that poor Betty had least admired (though this was the part that brought home the bacon). This area of worry he packaged with a resolution only to ask questions for at least one day of work—no statements or commands or observations or commentary, no matter what, to Stubby or anyone else; no matter what, questions only.

Stubby, who was now snortingly asleep in the next bunk of their nice but spare staff accommodations here at Big Bend National Park, was not hard to compartmentalize: Mr. Hunter would simply stop laughing or smiling at or even acknowledging Stubby's stupid jokes and jibes, would not rise to bait (politics primarily), would not pretend to believe Stubby's stories, especially those about his exploits with women. Scott was Stubby's actual name. He was fifty-three, an old hippie who had never cut his ponytail or jettisoned the idea that corporations were ruining the world, and who called the unlikely women of his tall tales "chicks" and "chiquitas." Strange bedfellows, Stubby and Mr. Hunter, who shared a two-bed room in the workers' quarters.

Another cause of sleeplessness was Martha Kolodny of Chicago, here in blazing, gorgeous, blooming, desolate Big Bend on an amateur ornithological quest. Stubby called her "Mothra," which had been funny at first, given Ms. Kolodny's size and thorough, squawking presence, but which was funny no longer, given the startling fact of Mr. Hunter's crush on her, which had arrived unannounced after his long conversation with her just this evening, in the middle of a huge laugh from Ms. Kolodny, a huge and happy, hilarious laugh from the heart of her very handsome heart. The Kolodny compartment in his businesslike brain he closed and latched with a simple instruction to himself: Do not have crushes, Mr. Hunter. He was too old for crushes ("sneakers" he'd called them in high school, class of 1944). And Ms. Kolodny was not the proper recipient of a crush in any case. She was under fifty and certainly over 150 pounds, Mr. Hunter's own lifelong adult weight, and married, completely married, two large rings on the proper finger, giant gemstones blazing.

Still other concerns, carefully placed by Mr. Hunter one by one in their nighttime lockers: the house in Atlanta (Arnie would take care of the yard and the gardens, and Miss Feather would clean the many rooms, as always, in his absence); the neglect of his retirement portfolio (Fairchild Ltd. had always needed prodding but had always gotten the job done, spectacularly in the past several years); the coming Texas summer, a summer he might rather miss.

Oh, but Betty, his wife, his girl, his one and only love, his lover, his helpmate, his best friend, mother of their three (thoroughly adult) children, dead of stroke three years. They had planned all they would do when he retired; and when he did retire, she died. So he was mourning not only the loss of her but also the loss of his long-held vision of the future, the thought that one distant day she would bury him. No compartment was large enough to compartmentalize Bitty (as he always called her), but he achieved a kind of soft peace, like sleep, when he thought of her. He no longer experienced the sharp pains and gouged holes everywhere in him and the tears every night. Count your blessings, Mr. Hunter, he had thought wryly, and had melted a little at one broad edge of his consciousness, and had soon fallen asleep in the West Texas night.

The National Park Service hired senior citizens, as part of its policy of not discriminating based on age and so forth, for pleasant jobs at above minimum wage. And because they didn't accept volunteers for the real, honest work that Mr. Hunter had decided to escape into for a salutary year, he signed on for pay, though he certainly didn't need the money. And here in Texas, Mr. Hunter, rich as Croesus and older, found himself shoveling sand up into the back of the smallest dump truck he'd ever seen, half shovelfuls so as not to hurt his back, and no one minded how little he did. He was old in the eyes of his fellows on the work crew—a seventysomething, as Stubby pointed out, working for $6.13 an hour.

The crew was motley, all right: Mr. Hunter, who was assumed to be the widower he was, and assumed to be needy, which of course he was not (in fact, the more he compared himself with his new colleagues, the wealthier he knew himself to be). Dylan Briscoe, painfully polite, adrift after college, who had wanted to go to Yellowstone to follow his ranger girlfriend but had been assigned here the previous summer. He lost his girl, met a new girl, spent the winter in Texas with Juanita from Lajitas, a plainspoken Mexican-American woman of no beauty, hovered near Mr. Hunter on every job, and gave Mr. Hunter his crew name—Mr. Hunter—because Dylan was constitutionally unable to associate the name Dennis with such an old geezer. Freddy was a brainy, obnoxious jock taking a semester off from the University of Alabama. He was leery of Mr. Hunter, disdainful of Stubby, horrible on the subject of women ("gash," he called them collectively), resentful of work, smelling of beer from the start of the day, yet well read and decently educated despite all. Luis Marichal, the crew boss, about whom much was assumed (jail, knife fights, mayhem) but little was actually known, was liked by all, despite his otherness, for saying "Quit complaining" in a scary voice to Freddy more than once. He always had a gentle smile for Mr. Hunter. Finally, Stubby, short and fat and truly good-humored. Nothing needed to be assumed about Stubby, because Stubby told all: he had recently beat a drug habit, was once a roadie for the Rolling Stones, had been married thrice, had a child from each marriage, had worked many tech jobs in the early days of computers, had fallen into drink after the last divorce or before it, and then into cocaine, and then into heroin, had ended up in the hospital for four months in profound depression, had recovered, had "blown out the toxins," had found that work with his hands and back made him sane. And sane he was, he said. This work crew in Texas had made him so.

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