When I got to the Graveyard the following morning, the first thing Bear asked me was if I brought my own tools. I showed him my tool box and he nodded. I stood there for a minute, waiting for some more specific instructions. Like where to start. He just looked at me. “What’s the problem? You change your mind already?”
“No,” I said. “I, ah, I’ll go get started.”
“Be careful how you stack them parts once you get things apart,” he warned. “I have to sell those, you know.”
I walked down the short hill into the Graveyard, trying to find a good place to start. There was no order to any of it. Maybe once upon a time Bear organized the place – there was some remnant of a loose organizational system. Motorcyles in the front, lawnmowers and bicycles in the back. But that had clearly been a long time ago. There was more rust then anything. Everything was left uncovered and was at the mercy of the elements. The ground was permanently muddy in places. There were pools of spilled oil, transmission fluid, break fluid, and water everywhere. Every once in a while there were things laying on tarps – like he had intended to keep them off the wet ground – but in most cases, the tarps were torn and the pools of liquid simply sat on top. Even I could tell there wasn’t much worth salvaging.
For no particular reason, stopped somewhere near the center of everything. A small pile of five or six push mowers was as good a place to start as any. I found a reasonably clean and dry patch of grass to sit on and started on an orange one that still had most of its paint. The big bolt holding the cutting blade to the bottom of the engine was rusted and difficult to break loose, and so were the smaller bolts that held the engine to the mower base. After wrestling with it for several minutes, I made a mental note to buy some WD40 before I came back. The other mowers were in similar condition. I took them apart and separated everything into piles: a pile handles, a pile of blades, a pile of motors, pile of mower decks, and a pile of bolts. Then I went to work taking apart some bicycles. By the time I finshed, it was midday. There wasn’t any point to doing anything without some WD40. When I made my way back to the top of the hill, Bear was nowhere in sight. I put my toolbox in my trunk and pulled out of the empty gravel lot.
He was waiting on me The next day. “Come on,” he pointed down the hill. Then he led me down into the graveyard, right to the spot I’d worked the day before. “Here,” he pointed to the piles.
“You did this, right?”
“Yeah.” The piles were still neatly organized amidst the rust and chaos.
“Can I ask you something?”
“How am I supposed to sell those parts when they’re not organized?”
I didn’t say anything; the piles looked organized to me. They looked a damn sight neater and more organized than anything else in the graveyard. I considered pointing out that if he wanted them organized a particular way, he should’ve said something. April had warned me against that, though. Bear apparently took a dim view of people arguing with him. So I continued to stand there and not say anything.
“Don’t you know ANYTHING?” he snarled. “Lookee here. You got the Briggs and Stratton parts mixed with the Tecumseh parts. All the bolts are mixed in together. Plus,” he pulled one of the handles out of the pile, “you didn’t take off the gears or choke chord.” He tossed it back in the pile and looked at me like he wanted to spit. “I’m not paying you to half-ass out here. Do the job right or I’ll find somebody who will.”
Fat fucking chance, I thought. “Yes sir.”
He nodded and stomped out of the graveyard. I lit a cigarette and stood there for a moment, considering my options. If I quit my only other option was a one of those plastic name tags, an ugly hat, the smell of canola oil and wilted lettuce. I finished my cigarette, sighed, and went back to the piles I’d made the previous day to begin again.
“You need to watch out for him,” April warned me that night when I told her what had happened. “He’ll make you work and then fire you so he won’t have to pay you.”
“Doesn’t he have to pay me?”
She rolled her eyes. “He’s paying you cash under the table. He doesn’t have to do anything.”
I didn’t show up at the graveyard until after noon; there wasn’t a set schedule and I didn’t feel like waking early. Bear wasn’t around when I got to the graveyard; so I just grabbed my toolbox and headed down into the graveyard. It was Thursday. I was trying to keep my mind on the weekend coming up. April and I were going to be hanging out, as usual. I agreed to go to church with them on Sunday – not so much because I was interested in all the hellfire and holy talk, or even to score points with April’s old man – but because I wanted to see April in a skirt and she hardly ever wore one during the week. Ok; so it wasn’t the best of reasons. But it was a reason; and if I had to sit through a couple of hours of moaning and hymn whining bullshit to get a quick view of her thighs, so be it.
April and I had been going out for months – and beyond the heavy petting, we hadn’t gotten anywhere. Not for my lack of trying. But there was always something. An early curfew. A big test. The emergency break in the car. The small back seat. Always something. The closest I’d ever come to anything with any girl up to that point was when Suzie Parks’ swim suit top came undone in the lake two summers before. She was most of the way out of the water before she noticed. (The only thing that saved her was that this was life before cellphone cameras.) It would be unfair to say I was desperate; I’d had girlfriends before and I’d gotten to cop several feels; but that was as far as it went and I was, after all, out of high school and almost in college. The clock was ticking.
It was difficult to think about April’s skirt when I had to actually pay attention to what I was doing and make sure I put everything in the correct piles. I never bothered to ask Bear what would happen if it rained – the nuts and bolts would most likely sink into the mud and the exposed motors would be waterlogged and more prone to rust. I wasn’t a mechanic, but I understood not to leave anything metal out in the elements. I’d left my bike out overnight once when I was younger. It rained that night. When I went out the next morning, the chain was drying out and the tires were waterlogged because the rain collected where I had left my bike. Plus it looked like stray cats used it as a scratching post / litter box. But I knew better than to say anything to Bear. Clearly he had a system that worked for him, even if it didn’t work for anybody else. Towards sunset I packed up my tools and walked out of the graveyard.
Bear was waiting for me at the top of the hill. Fucking great, I thought. He surprised me by smiling. From the look of it, though, he didn’t smile often.
“So how’d it go in there today?” he asked, slapping me on the back.
“Why don’t you come on over and sit for a bit. It was a little hot today. How about something cold to drink?”
It had been humid that day the way late June can be in southern Ohio; I’d brought water with me, but something cold sounded good. Bear directed me to a kitchen table and four wicker back chairs sitting outside the small trailed he lived in. “Have a seat.” I chose the chair that looked the sturdiest and sat down while he went into the trailer and came back out carrying a couple of cans. “All I have is this Hamm’s Ice,” he said, handing me a beer. That wasn’t the first beer I’d ever had, but it was probably the greenest. Even though the can was ice cold, the beer went down sickly warm and left an aftertaste like dirty socks in my mouth. He must’ve noticed the face I made because he chuckled to himself and shook his head.
“So, Kid… how you like the graveyard so far?” he asked.
“I like it fine,” I said, lighting a cigarette to get the taste out of my mouth. I looked aound, hoping a customer would pull in and give me an excuse to leave. Highway 67 was empty.
“There was a time when this was a good location,” he said. “Used to get a lot of traffic out this way.” He took another drink, draining his can. “Not so much now.” He crushed the can and tossed it in a pile of empties next to the trailer. “Recycling,” he remarked, with a chuckle. Then he stood up. “You want another?”
I shook my head. “I’m good.” When Bear walked back inside to grab himself another beer, I looked at my watch. It was nearly six. I could tell him my mom expects me at home, I thought. Then I thought better of it. A guy like Bear McGee wouldn’t respect a guy who ran home to his mother. He came back out and put another can of beer in front of me. Then sat down and cracked his open.
“So,” he said, “Carl says you’re seein’ his daughter.”
Bear smiled. “I wouldn’t worry,” he said. “Carl’s a push over. That girl’s got him wrapped around her little pinky finger.” He took an swig and smiled. “Like she proly has you wrapped around the other one.” He laughed. “I haven’ seen her in a while. I hear she’s all grown, though.”
“Carl says she’s gonna go to college.”
He nodded. “Well, that’s good. I always wanted to go, myself. But it just wasn’t in the cards,” he
shook his head. “What about you?”
“What about me?” I was bus trying to get to the bottom of that can without puking.
“Are you going to college?”
I shrugged. “Yeah. I guess. They’re always telling us we need to think about it. My mom wants me to go. Ape thinks I should go.”
“And what do you think?”
“I think they both sound like the guidance counselor,” I said. “And I don’t like her very much.” When the words left my mouth I immediately regretted them. After all, I wasn’t being exactly honest. I wasn’t so much excited about going to college as I was about the prospect of getting out. But that was something, right?
Bear laughed like it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. He nodded. “Yeah, I felt the same way. Fucking people telling you what to do what to do and what to be. It’s all damn useless.”
I nodded and looked down into my can of beer. It was almost empty; but the second was was sitting there, getting warm and waiting for me.
“I think you’ll do just fine here once you get the hand of things,” Bear remarked. “And there’s plenty there to keep you busy. I was wondering, though, if you’d like to help me with something.”
I drained the first can and steeled myself for the seond. “What’s that?”
“I need to put up a fence, he said. “Around the graveyard. Just in front. So nobody can see it from the road.”
“Why? You can’t really see it from the road unless you’re looking."
Bear’s eyes narrowed and darkened. “It’s the goddamn Sheriff. He’s been trying to close me down for years. He dropped by this morning and gave me a ticket. Told me people were complaining. Called me a public blight.” He grunted and took a another drink of his beer. “Told me if I didn’t get it cleaned up, or at least get a fence around it, he’d get a judge to close me down.”
“Can they do that? You live here, right?”
He nodded. “Don’t matter. The Sheriff, he’s been trying to close me down for years. Even back when he was just a local cop.” Bear shook his head. “Anyway. I tried telling him about you… about how you’re going through and cleaning things up for me… but that’s not enough. Nope. He told me if I didn’t get it take care of by Monday, he’d come back with a court order.”
“Yeah. Listen, I just need help,” Bear said. “I can get the fencing. I just need someone to help me put it up. Interested?”
“Sure.” Even I knew that Sheriff Tom Ainkle was a pain in the ass. He’d been Sheriff for as long as I could remember, and he was one of the principle reasons why the township was still dry and why the only two non-white families – a black family from Cincinnati and a family of Mexicans looking for work – had decided to pack up and leave. Naturally, though, the older folks and the church goers liked him; and he made sure to exploit that every election season. “I’m in.”
Bear nodded approvingly. He made no mention of money. “It’ll have to be done Saturday. Can you get here Saturday morning? Say around 8? I should be awake by then.”
I nodded and downed the second can so I could get out of there. “I gotta go,” I choked. “Ape’s expecting me.”
“You don’t want to keep a girl like her waiting,” he smiled. “I know I wouldn’t.”