Short Story Saturday: The Learning Curve
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You can call me Demi. Named after my father my full name is Dmitry Pyotr—- actually, let’s just leave it there shall we? Demi is simpler. Let me tell you about last summer.
It looked like such an easy job at first. The land was table flat with a well. A fucking well, can you believe that? None of this running half a mile of black plastic pipe, fighting air locks or a pump and all the other bullshit involved with diverting water from a stream to your grow. It was going to be a slam-dunk. Turn on the switch and water comes out, now how easy is that?
At least that was what uncle Vlad had assured me and it did look that way.
He had just bought the land then instantly evicted the livestock that had been grazing on it. The farmer that owned the cattle was pissed but that was his problem. This land was gonna produce something far more valuable than milk! This was in early June and there was work to be done if we were going to get a good crop off the field this year. Once we had this place set up running it would be my job.
First a word about my uncle Vlad… His full name is Vladimir but nobody ever calls him that but aunt Katarina and then only when she’s mad. My father used to refer to him under his breath as Vlad the Impaler, a reference to a Balkan despot from several centuries ago. Dad called uncle Vlad that once to his face when he was drunk and Vlad merely smiled a thin, cold smile. and said “Now now Dmitry, you know I have never had anyone impaled, it would be very messy and leave too much evidence. Now disappearances; that’s another matter…” I took him at his word and certainly did not want to be one of the missing. Uncle or not Vlad was not known for his patience.
We arrived on an overcast morning, as early as we could. The air was still, cool, and misty when I got out of the rented truck and looked around. And it smelled strongly of cattle. Vlad made a face at the aroma then said he thought that we should move the truck as far away from the road as we could and set up our operation back there away from prying eyes. The rented truck rolled over the hummocky ground with no trouble but the ground was a little soft where we stopped. Unlike the usual scene where we had a flat ‘dozed out of the woods leaving only rocks and yellow subsoil that was fit only for putting raised beds on this place had real topsoil. Black dirt, that to judge by the size of some of the weeds had to be pretty well supplied with nutrients already.
I hustled starting to get our building materials unloaded while Vlad walked around the area scoping things out. The well was closer to the road but it would be easy to get the water back here.
“Let’s set it up along here” Vlad pointed to a spot so I started to drive pieces of rebar into the ground spaced in two parallel lines. The steel went into the dark soil like a fork into soft cake! Next came the lengths of white plastic pipe. We bent them into arches and set the open ends on the steel stakes protruding from the ground. Following that came horizontal pieces taped to the arches. By noon we had a good sized plastic frame all held together with duct tape. It was an approach we, along with many others, had used for years and it worked pretty well.
By noon the fog had burned off as well, the air was still cool but it was getting breezy. We quit work, went and got the sandwiches and beer we had bought that morning out of our cooler and sat on the bed of the truck enjoying it. My stomach was grateful for that food! As I drank a beer I watched our plastic frame tremble a little in the breeze. It was while I was drinking my second that I noticed a windmill, blades spinning, in the distance. That was not something you saw every day.
After our lunch break Vlad insisted on a shot of Vodka toasted to the glorious victory of capitalism over communism. Hey, why not? It was his high end booze. Then we unrolled our cover for the greenhouse and started to put it on. Started to try is more accurate. By now the breeze had become a substantial wind and a force to be recognized.
Within a matter of minutes 2 of the plastic arches were broken and we had no spares in the truck. I unloaded all the plants from the truck and put them next to the RV where they could not be seen from the road. A drive to a building supply 20 minutes away provided the replacements and some spares-just in case. Another 20 minute drive had us back to the site where we found that our cover had escaped the weight of all the tools we had set on it, blown across the field scattering tools as it went and was now plastered against the fence by the road.
Vlad was swearing in several languages, only one of which I understood, as he took the scene in. It didn’t matter what words he was using though, I definitely understood his meaning. We trudged across the field and started disentangling the cover from rusty barbed wire fencing. We would get a few square feet free and the wind would shove it back into the wire behind us. After wasting an hour we had it free but torn in a couple places. We dragged it back and stuffed it in the back of the truck while we worked repairing the frame. We replaced the broken hoops and added another horizontal piece to stiffen things up. It looked good to go!
So out came the cover from the truck and the battle began again. The cover flapped and fought but we finally got it stretched out on the windward side of the frame and started to pull it over the plastic skeleton. We had about half of it roughly in position when a gust of wind almost tore it from our grasp and we could hear the snap of breaking plastic pipe once again. After removing the cover from the wreckage we tossed it in the back of the truck and set off for the building supply. This was getting tedious!
This time Vlad bought half a dozen pieces of pipe-just in case. After returning to the job we removed the broken pieces from our frame then we started to reassemble it with the replacements. And that’s when we made the discovery. We were almost out of duct tape! It was on our third trip to the building supply that I noticed the other windmills on farms along the road.
I thought about pointing them out to Vlad but decided it was not a wise thing to do just then…
When we went in the store the guy that had helped us before asked us cheerfully if we needed more pipe but Vlad just grabbed 2 rolls of tape, dropped them on the counter, and pulled out his wallet and paid for them.
We returned to our project and after repairing the frame once again I told Uncle Vlad that maybe we should wait till early morning before trying once again to deal with the cover since it had been calm when we arrived. Vlad looked sourly at the plastic frame trembling in the wind, the windmills we could see were spinning fast now, Vlad could strike terror into any human alive but the wind? It could care less!
After a few seconds of silence he set up some security alarms he had brought, turned them on, then we climbed into the truck and he idled it back to the paved road. By the set of his expression Uncle Vlad was not a happy man! Once on pavement he floored it and we roared off toward town and the motel rooms he had rented while we got things set up.
Once there I set out for the liquor store down the street. I wanted some beer and Uncle Vlad wanted another bottle of Vodka, their best. Dinner could wait a bit, we both needed a drink! When I got back to the motel Vlad poured himself about 2 fingers of vodka in the motel’s water glass, sat on the bed and quietly tossed it back in one gulp. He followed that with a couple more.
“Go find us some food Demi, Pizza, Chinese, or whatever you can find. Too bad there’s not a good Russian place around, I wouldn’t mind some borscht to go with my vodka.” Vlad chuckled as he tossed me the keys.
I drove down main till I spotted a Pizza joint on my side of the road. Nice and simple! I went in and ordered then walked over to their bar and bought a beer to drink while I waited. 30 minutes later I was back in the motel room where Vlad had made a considerable subtraction from the contents of his vodka bottle while I was gone. I dug into the pizza, Uncle Vlad ate a slice then went back to his bottle.
By 9 the next morning we were back at work. The air was still so pulling the cover over our hoop house was pretty straightforward. We should have been so smart yesterday!
If I had drunk half the vodka my uncle had tossed down the night before any work would have been torture but Vlad merely seemed grumpy. We had stopped by the hardware store on the way out of town, gotten a couple hanks of light rope and some more stakes so when the cover was in place we crisscrossed the whole thing with the rope that in turn was tied to the stakes we set in the ground. The result was not pretty but it should hold up to what we had seen the day before and then some.
We hauled bags of fertilizer out of the truck and set them on the ground beside our plastic hoop house.
“You start planting while I take this truck back. I’ll be back with your living quarters in a few hours.” Vlad climbed into the cab, started the truck and rolled it over the hummocky ground back to the paved road and drove off. The silence was almost total, broken only by the distant sounds of cattle.
I cut open the fertilizer bags, scooped a handful from each and spread it over a circular area a couple yards across then started to dig. The soil was dark, looked rich in nutrients, and still had some moisture to start with, the plants were going to grow like crazy in it. By early afternoon I had several in the ground and could really use some nutrition myself when a small RV rolled up to the gate, entered the field and rolled toward me. It was followed by Vlad’s black SUV. Vlad parked the RV roughly parallel to the hoop house a few yards away, climbed down from the cab and gestured in its direction: “Home sweet home, Demi, enjoy…” He laughed, handed me the keys and a roll of 20 dollar bills then climbed into his SUV.
“I’ll bring you a pickup tomorrow so you can get to town. There’s some food in there now so you should be OK.”
“How about beer?” I asked.
“Yes, I brought you beer-but only 1 case you poor boy”
With that Vlad laughed, climbed into the SUV and it drove away.
In a week I had all the plants in the ground, a ratty, beat up looking pickup to drive to town and all my heavy work was done. Now it was just a coast to harvest time. Sort of…
Every morning I would start the RV’s generator, plug in the extension cord that led to the well and water the crop. Every day I checked things over to make sure the plants were doing well and every day they were bigger. After all the drama of getting the scene in place now my biggest problem was boredom. I could see the closest neighbors when they were in their yard going about their lives. I watched the man and his son taking turns riding a little motorbike around a simple track in the yard, sliding out, falling down and laughing. A little girl often played with their dog in the yard throwing a ball or just blowing bubbles while the dog jumped to catch them. The woman waved at me a couple times while she was in the yard.
I was dying to have go over and enjoy some conversation but Vlad had a rule. No getting involved with the locals. All I could do was watch and feel lonely. I wasn’t even allowed to go to a bar, It was get your grub and beer in town then get back to the ranch!
It was about a month after we started that I happened to be outside when a black and white CHP truck drove by-very slowly. The cop was giving our scene careful scrutiny and I started getting nervous. It didn’t stop but I’ll be damned if I didn’t see it the next midday doing the same thing. And again the day after that… This was not a good sign!
Mornings were calm and grey but by afternoon the breeze was up making the hoop house shudder. I had to constantly adjust the cover and check to make sure the ropes holding everything down were secure. It was a pain in the ass but the way the plants were exploding inside made it worthwhile I guess. After all water was no problem plus I wasn’t sweating all day long like I had at some of the grows Vlad had going out on highway 36.
Days went by to become weeks, the weeks became months, eventually it became September. Days were not so breezy and the hoop house was filled with green. The smell coming out of it overwhelmed the aroma of the cows down the road. Things were looking GOOD! On the first week of October Vlad would have a harvesting crew come in for the first pick. They would come back two more times then the RV and I would leave till next year.
It was on the 27th of September that the clouds rolled in overhead, by that evening the breeze was up but blowing from a different direction than the typical afternoon. It sure looked like rain coming to me so before going in for the night I double checked the hoop house to make sure everything was secure, snugged down. Then I went in the RV, turned on the TV and opened a beer. I thought about watching the news but decided to watch a DVD instead. Vlad had provided the RV with a dozen DVds and when he came to check how the crop was doing he would bring more and take the ones I had seen away for some of his other employees to watch.
I don’t know what I would have done differently if I had caught the weather report. Things were as secure as I could make them. As it was I went to bed with a head full of beer and dreams of pretty women interested in ME. The wind was getting louder and RV was beginning to rock gently with some of the gusts but I wasn’t too worried. The hoop house had survived a summer of wind so a little from another direction should be no big deal. I was asleep seconds after my head hit the pillow!
Only to wake up in the dark with gusts slamming the RV, rain hitting the side and roof like so much thrown gravel. I thought the hoop house would hold up but I sure wasn’t going out in the dark to check. I got up, smoked a fat joint, had a couple more cans of beer to calm my nerves, then climbed back into bed.
When I awoke again it was light out, still blowing hard and rain was pouring down. I made myself a pot of coffee, poured a mug and looked out the window. The hoop house was holding up to the onslaught pretty well-so far. One end was flapping pretty badly though. I would have to go out and secure things soon but things didn’t look as bad as I had feared when I was lying in the dark, listening to the storm. Other than that I couldn’t see much through the rain on the windows.
So I fortified myself with my pot of strong coffee with some cheap brandy added to improve the flavor-and cut through the dull hangover from last night’s excesses.
Finally I put on my boots and a jacket, opened the RV door, steped outside. My boots landed in about 3 inches of slowly moving water… WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS! The tall grass concealed it well but half the field was fast becoming a lake. It was a shallow lake but a lake nonetheless.
I splashed over to the hoop house and looked inside. The plants looked fine so far but they were standing in 3 inches of water too. They wouldn’t stay looking fine long!
The rain kept falling and the water in the field kept rising. A small creek had established itself flowing from a previously unnoticed culvert under the road. It flowed slowly across the field and fed the newly formed and rapidly rising lake. This was a disaster! After drying off in the RV
I grabbed the cheap burner phone Vlad had left for me to get in touch with him if I needed to. “No signal” was the message it displayed when I opened it up. The nearest cell tower must have gone dead!
I went back outside, waded over to the pickup and started it up. Sticking it in 4 wd I let out the clutch, hit the gas and the truck went nowhere. Actually that’s not true, the wheels turned, dug 4 holes in the muck and the pickup sank till it was sitting on the frame. Forget moving the RV then-if 4 WD wouldn’t get out of this mess the 2 WD RV was going to sit here till it got towed out on a long cable from the road or till next summer. Vlad was going to flip out!
Finally I decided my only option was walk, OK wade, to the nearest neighbor’s and beg to use their phone-if it worked. When I knocked on their door and it was opened by the little girl.
“Mommy, the man from next door is here,” she called out.
A few moments later the woman I had watched from a distance walked into the room, smiled at me, then said “Well hello there, did you finally decide to come over and get social?”
I suddenly felt like an idiot, realized I was blushing. I explained that cell service was down and asked if I could possibly use their phone for a minute.
“Sure, need to call your boss or a tow truck?” and she laughed. But she handed me a phone then left the room with the little girl following her..
I didn’t think it was so damn funny but she was letting me use their phone so I kept my thoughts to myself. I dialed up Vlad’s number, the phone rang 3 times then an answering machine picked up the line.
“Vlad, this is Demi. my cell isn’t working so I am using the neighbors land line. We have big problems here, this field is flooding. The pickup and RV are both thoroughly stuck and the water is still rising. It’s about 5 inches deep under the plants now. This stuff needs to be hauled out of here NOW before it becomes just so much grey mold. Hope you get this message soon!”
I hung up, called out a thanks and the woman popped back in the room. “Want some coffee and a chance to dry off a little?”
“I would love to but I have to get back to the RV. Hopefully some friends will be here fairly soon.”
“Well don’t drown. I’d loan you our canoe but it’s up on the garage rafters at the moment” and she laughed again. She had a nice laugh but I didn’t see much humor in the situation myself!
About 3 that afternoon I heard voices and the sounds of people splashing through the water. I opened the door and there was Vlad with 3 other guys. A few yards inside the gate by the county road was a big Uhaul moving van with the rear doors open.
They all waded towards the RV and when they got near I went out to join them. Vlad pointed towards the hoop house and snarled, “Cut em down whole and load em in the van. We need to get this shit out of here and take it to the trimmers.” He gestured at me and said, “You too!”
He waded over to the hoop houses and looked inside. A steady stream of Slavic profanity came out of his mouth as he surveyed the scene. “That shitty bastard never told me his field flooded” was one of the few things I could understand.
One of the men produced a couple folding saws. He handed one to me and nodded towards the crop. He and I would each saw through the base of a plant while one of the others held the plant erect so it couldn’t fall in the water. Then they would splash back to the van and toss it in, butt first. I was looking out at the storm and the guys splashing their way to the van when I saw a tractor rolling up the road towards the rented truck. As it rolled by the driver spent a few seconds with his head turned watching the two men carrying their green corpses then he went back to watching the road as he drove away. Not good timing perhaps but the driver didn’t seem to be all that interested in what was going on.
It took about half an hour to empty the hoophouse and fill the rented moving van. By then all four of us workers were soaked and cold. Vlad had been in the RV most of the time and when the truck was loaded and locked I went to tell him. We splashed across the field and rejoined the other men . He looked at them and barked, “They know we’re coming; let’s go.” The sodden workers were told to crowd in the back seat of the truck while Vlad climbed, mostly dry except for his feet and ankles, into the driver’s seat.
He turned to me and said, “Demi, you stay here and somebody will be back to get you in a while.” I started splashing back to the RV while he closed the door, started the engine, then let it warm up awhile as I waded towards the RV. He slipped it into gear and with spinning wheels the truck moved forward onto the pavement, turned left toward the highway then started accelerating away just as I splashed around the front of the RV, opened the door, then climbed in.
I didn’t get the soaked jacket off my back before I heard the siren. I instantly went to a rain-streaked window and watched while a black and white truck, roof lights blazing, drove by the open gate pursuing Vlad and his payload. If Vlad ever had any crazy notions of escape, they ended within a quarter mile when a tractor towing a large piece of machinery pulled slowly out in the road and blocked it. Two more pursuit cars arrived behind the first within seconds. They must have all been hiding down the road and around a bend just waiting to pounce it all happened so fast. Perhaps the farmer that drove by on his tractor wasn’t as disinterested as I had thought.
We were busted!
In a few seconds more, five cops stood in the rain, guns drawn. One by one Vlad and the men started getting out of the Uhaul, turning and putting their hands high on the sides of the truck. One of the lawmen would step in, pat the man down then have the guy put his arms behind his back. Then on went the cuffs and into the back of a car they went. The cops took their time with Vlad so when they put him in the car he was almost as wet as his laborers. Finally all four of them were stowed away. One of the cops pointed at the RV sitting like a small, unlit, aluminum island in a shallow lake. Two of them started to walk towards the RV and my heart sank! Then they stopped and after a brief discussion one of the cops strung yellow plastic tape across the gate opening then got in the Uhaul. The others piled into the pursuit cars and two minutes later they all were gone.
Someone had made a big mistake and I had gotten a reprieve.
I got out of my dripping clothing, tossed it in the shower then found some dry stuff in the laundry hamper and pulled it on. Dirty beats dripping every time!
I pulled a beer out of the fridge, popped off the cap, then grabbed a Campbell’s soup can out of the cupboard. I gave it a twist, and one end unscrewed. Inside was my cash stash, a much diminished roll of 20 dollar bills. I counted the bills out on the table, all twenty seven of them. Picked up my wallet from the kitchen counter and counted the cash there-another 83 dollars.
So many questions swirled through my mind as I drank my bottle of beer. Could I get a bus ticket back to New Jersey? Go back and live with my folks? Get a casino job like my dad? Would my folks even take me in? It looked like my uncle Vlad wasn’t going to be employing anybody but lawyers for a while!
Finally I stuffed all the cash in my wallet, put my soaked jacket and shoes back on, and set out wading towards pavement carrying most of my clothes in a trash bag.. At the gate I climbed over the yellow plastic tape emblazoned in black block letters “Crime Scene, do not enter! Since it didn’t say “do not exit” I didn’t feel too guilty leaving…
I slogged down the road heading towards the highway under a grey, weeping sky. I was hoping for a ride but each car I showed my thumb to just hissed on by through the rain. The drivers weren’t even slowing down to look me over.
I wondered if I should have just waded out and introduced myself to those cops…
At least Uncle Vlad and his boys were probably getting warm by now.
My head was on a roller coaster ride as I walked through the rain. On the one hand I was still free, the cops had missed me and if I knew uncle Vlad he wasn’t going to bring up the fact. Neither would the others if they knew Vlad. On the other I was 3000 miles away from the security of home and wasn’t sure if I had enough money to get there without hitchhiking.
My brain had gotten in such a spin that I didn’t hear the old guy coming till his truck pulled up next to me and stopped. The driver’s window rolled down and this old coot said, “Want to get out of the rain or do you need a shower?” He laughed at his own dumb joke but hey! He had stopped and was opening his passenger door so I wasn’t going to play humor critic.
I trotted over to the truck and was confronted by a suddenly noisy dog that had been lying on the seat unseen. “Stop barking, Dingbat! Move over and let the man in!” the guy said gently and his dog gave one more bark, sniffed my offered hand a few seconds then moved away and leaned against the driver while I got in. As the truck got rolling again, the dog gave me a more thorough examination with its nose, decided I was OK and curled up on the seat between us, head on the old man’s thigh. His old pickup smelled of weed and several generations of dogs frankly but it was warm and dry. So was the dog pressed against my left thigh so I wasn’t about to complain!
In a minute or two he produced a joint from his shirt pocket and lit it up. “Are your hands dry enough yet to take this without getting it soaked and do you want any?” He held the smoking joint out so I could take it if I wanted. I accepted it gratefully and took a couple big drags off it before handing it back. It went back and forth between us a few times and shrank to a small butt before he spoke again.
“You look like a drowned rat or at least one that took an unintended swim. Where are you headed?”
Somehow the combination of the old guy’s pot and the question “Where are you headed” just overwhelmed me with emotion. Where was I headed anyway? I didn’t really know… I felt totally lost.
It was then that I broke down and blurted out my whole crazy story. I guess I figured if he was willing to pick me up and share a joint my benefactor wasn’t going to suddenly pull a badge and escort me to the nearest jail. I needed to talk to somebody!
“So I could assume you are unemployed and homeless now, right?”
“I guess that’s the polite way to describe it, yes.”
“Well then, Want a job?”
The question floored me! Was I hearing right? I had just avoided getting caught up in a raid and some old codger was offering me a job? Was he crazy or desperate or both? Did I have a guardian angel like aunt Katarina used to tell me when I was a kid.
“I have a farm supply business and one of my guys just got sentenced to a year in jail. He was doing what you were but wasn’t quite as lucky when the cops showed up. It leaves us shorthanded so if you are interested in a straight job here’s the offer. $12 bucks an hour to start and you get a little cabin inside our fenced in compound. You would be labor during your work shift then security at night. The security part covers the rent. This was what Jim was doing before he had to go serve his time. Just the knowledge we keep someone on-site at night keeps potential thieves away so there’s not much work involved in that part of the deal. Any interest?”
Any interest? That question had my mind spinning again. Atlantic City was both far away and after Northern California it wasn’t very appealing. In fact it wasn’t appealing at all, especially since my father would give me no end of hell if I got there. 12 bucks an hour wasn’t much but the prospect of free rent sweetened the deal a whole lot.
Most importantly it offered me the prospect of dry housing and a stable income while I figured out where to take my life from here.
“When do I start?” I said….
I tossed the last sack of Stutzmans into the customer’s bigass pickup on top of the pile. His order was now complete so I finished up my story.
“So that’s how I got here and it ain’t bad at all really. The old man Charley, my boss, says the people that made money consistently in the gold rush were the merchants, the folks that sold the miners their supplies. So that’s what I do, help sell you greenrushers your supplies. It’s been a low stress job and I get to meet all sorts of interesting people. I’ve made friends here and this place is gossip central so I think I’ll stay a while.
Best of luck to you and hopefully I’ll see you again next planting season.”
The pickup’s owner handed me a couple 20s and a fatty as a tip, said, “Thanks for loading all the shit and thanks for the great story.” He climbed in his truck, it rumbled into life, and then rolled away toward the gate under bright April sunshine.