h. l. nelson is Editor-in-Beef for Cease, Cows mag, Fiction Editor for Black Heart
mag, and a former sidewalk mannequin. (Yes, that happened.)...read more Children and old
people love her, but h. l. always wears a disguise. She has been published in
several zines, but she only desires to wear a fez. Red, the color of everything
that's best. Tell her what you're wearing right now: hlnelson.com
JERRY SAYS, “Yeah, I’d kill the hooker.” He rolled the cigarette tight and uniform, as I’d seen him do a thousand times before, and like his pa did before him. He pulled the lighter from his pocket and gave it a few taps with his index finger. He said once that it ‘primes’ the fluid inside. Then placed the cigarette on his wet bottom lip, paused and added, “Hell yes, I would” before lighting up.
That was just like Jerry, saying some flippant shit just to piss me off. Sometimes I wondered why we were even friends, why I was always sticking up for his dumb ass. Making sure the Rig Supervisor, Hal Bigsby, didn’t know when Jerry was late due to nights out drinking and carousing. Fixing his time sheet so he’d get full pay. Even keeping certain habits of his from Sally Sue, his wife. Always cleaning up after the sumbitch. It was a goddamn full-time job. I huffed, and banged the platter of steaks down on the patio table.
We were doing our normal Saturday night routine, cooking steaks on my grill, drinking Pabst, and dodging our fat wives, who we could see through the patio door, waddling around the kitchen making pinto beans, potato salad, and yeast rolls. No doubt talking about us: our oily piles of clothes left on the bedroom and bathroom floors, grease from our hands left on the Lava soap in the kitchen, stains on the carpet and how best to get them up. I saw them shaking their heads at times like dogs do after a bath. Rita’s dark hair like a lab’s, Sally Sue’s like a retriever’s. Our four combined kids were panting around their heels, little pups.
I’d been hearing it from Rita for twelve years, ever since I took the job with Baker Hughes Oil as a pipeliner. I steadily moved up, and now I’m Field Supervisor. But I still get dirty with the boys. I hired Jerry on as a floorhand six years ago, but now he’s my Lead Hand. He never would have gotten the position without me. It’s hard, dirty work and long hours. I’d seen men come onto the field with big, soft white bellies like frogs’ and, within months, harden into bronzed gods. Laying pipe and drilling is not for the faint of heart.
But our women never complain when we bring our checks home for them to deposit on Saturday mornings. They always go get mani and pedis and get their hair lightened, or whatever women do. Rita tried to get me to go years ago, said my feet are like an old man’s, all corns and yellowed, ingrown nails.
...read more (2/6)“Like hell,” I said. “You’d have as much a chance of getting me in one of those there salons as I’d have of getting you in my truck to go muddin’.”
“Oh shut up, Mr. Macho Man.”
“I’ll show you Mr. Macho Man later tonight,” and I slapped her a good one on the rump.
She cackled, turned away, and waggled that big behind at me. I started gettin’ hard. She hadn’t gotten me hard in a while.
In fact, Rita and I haven’t been close for years. Hell, I don’t know the last time we had sex. Maybe before we had Little Billy, and he’s a year now. She was always wanting it when she was pregnant. Lately, she’s always telling me to ‘man up,’ but when I try to start up sex, she cuts me off. Real aggravating. And hurtful, though I’d never admit it.
“Killing a hooker isn’t an easy task,” I say, poking the coals with the butt-end of my spatula. The sparks race to the grill grate. “A lot of ‘em are trained by their pimps. Or so used to it, they’ve trained themselves. And is Becky really that ugly? You take a minute and really think about it.”
He laughed at me, a big guffaw, like I’d made a joke. Without thinking, I threw a half-grilled yellow onion at him. It glanced off his shoulder and landed in the roots of the big maple tree.
“Ow! You sumbitch. You’d think I was talkin’ about Rita, shit. I didn’t know you had a thing for Ugly Becky.” Jerry leaned back in my tattered plastic lawn chair and blew smoke rings. He picked the always-present tobacco pieces out of his teeth. Jerry was a real redneck. I was better than him, and his shit-talking proved it.
I fumed, wondering why I was so spitfire mad. It wasn’t like I was in love with Becky, not like that. I squirted some more lighter fluid between the grill grate onto the coals, and watch them blaze up. I thought of Jim Brewer and how Becky and I started talking.
We’d had plenty of accidents in the field, but I’d never lost a man, not on my watch. Jim was the first one. I was supervising another part of the field that day and left Jerry in charge, knowing he had a hangover from the night before and wasn’t feeling his best. But we had a light load to pull that day, so I let him cover. I didn’t know we’d have a blowout. I didn’t know Jim would leave behind a young wife and newborn.
...read more (3/6)I had to do a summary write-up for the Rig Manager, which was sent to the home office, changed to make us look better, and shared with the media, who had caught wind of it and were hounding the company:
Employee #1 was operating a pump truck. After the fluids from the truck were poured, the well started to flow uncontrollably. The fluids from the well reached the tubing board on the rig mast and poured onto the truck. The fluids ignited, burning 40% of Employee #1's body. Employee #1 was being treated at a hospital when he died from complications from the burns.
By the time it was sent out to the news channels, Baker Hughes’ lawyers had made it look like none of it was mine or Jerry’s fault. I knew from talking with guys on other rigs that the company’s lawyers did this all the time. And accurate accident reports were never filed with government agencies.
For months after, I had nightmares, most of which involved seeing Jim’s skin turn black with the blast of incinerated oil, and me being frozen by an invisible force, unable to help him. One night, I dreamed Jerry was rolling a cigarette right before the blast shook the platform, and as the explosion rocked us all back but him, he leaned forward and lit up. I woke drenched, like I’d been out in the rain.
I started having panic attacks on the job, heart thumping, not able to breathe. I’d have to go down to the field and try to relax. I checked and rechecked our work and the gauges, running my hand along the smooth surface of the piping looking for small cracks. One night, I cracked and told Rita what’d been happening. She insisted I go to a psychiatrist, even made the appointment. He prescribed me Effexor. I’d never taken meds before and thought they were bullshit, but Rita said she couldn’t handle me falling apart, what with Little Billy and Kathy being only ten months between. They ran her ragged from sun up to sun down. She said, “Fred, I need you to get your shit together. You’ve gotta be the strong one around here.” Yeah, she had her work cut out for her and I didn’t want to be another thing to be taken care of, so I went to the damn head shrink.
...read more (4/6)It was right after that that I was in our makeshift breakroom on the field, getting my sack lunch and meds out of the travel fridge. I looked around before scrambling the bottle of pills out of the bottom of the bag and filling my canteen with bottled water. The pill bottle was open on top of the big water bottle when Becky Green came in behind me. I didn’t hear her. She was working risk assessment and was on-site two to three times a week, doing the job that I had lately assigned to myself, out of guilt. My eyes were closed long enough as I slugged back the pills (damn horse pills) for Becky to spy the bottle and read its label.
I opened my eyes and nearly shit myself, seeing Becky standing there in her work overalls and thick black boots like my own. She looked like a pear, small on top and big on bottom, stringy red hair like straw, face pockmarked like a spent oil field.
“Oh shit, sorry Fred. I didn’t mean to give you a fright. Thought I’d get some lunch.”
“Hey Becky, it’s ok.” I grabbed the pill bottle and shoved it back in my bag, getting ready to head out. I turned away from her, but she touched me on the shoulder, let it linger there a minute. When I turned around to face her again, I could see tears in her brown eyes.
“I can imagine how hard you’re taking Jim’s death.” She stared straight in my eyes. “It wasn’t your fault.”
We regarded each other for a few and, I know it sounds strange, but I felt lighter somehow. Becky may not be much to look at, but just her saying those words right then made me feel like a ten-ton weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
“Ah, thanks for that, Becky. That’s real swell of you to say. Imma go back out, now.”
“Ok, Fred. But let me know if you ever wanna talk about anything.” And she smiled a smile that lit up her face in such a way that I didn’t think about it looking like an old oil field anymore.
Over the next few months, me and Becky met up in the breakroom and even went out to Lucky’s Pool Hall a few times. I felt real guilty about those times, but nothing sexual ever happened between us. It was just a good time, good conversation. And she cleaned up real well, too. Looked much better in a skirt than those work overalls and steel-toe boots.
One night at the pool hall when they were about to close and we’d gotten a table, she brought up Jim’s death.
...read more (5/6)“Hey Fred,” she grabbed my hand across the table. “I’ve enjoyed getting to know you. A lot.”
I could feel color rising into my face. She saw it, and let me go, looked down a bit out of embarrassment for my embarrassment. But then she looked back up and right into my eyes.
“We haven’t talked about Jim’s death, and I think we should. I think we both have a lot of guilt about it that we need to let go. What do you think?”
I sat for a minute. There was something about Becky’s voice that made everything all right. I didn’t even feel the need, at that moment, to say anything back. It was as if Becky saying that I shouldn’t feel guilty anymore made it happen.
Reaching across the table, I grabbed her hand and nodded my head slowly up and down. Her face beamed.
After that, we talked more openly about life. I did more than just nod at her like a dummy. I also started taking less of the Effexor until, soon, I completely stopped. Rita was thrilled, and even kissed me full on the lips when I told her I was off the meds. Normally, I would have taken that as cue to try to get her in bed, but I just didn’t feel like it. I didn’t feel the same. So I just smiled at her and went to put the kids in bed.
I cracked a Pabst and took a long draught, eyeing Jerry. “So you’d rather kill a hooker than fuck Becky Green?” I asked as I flipped the sirloin, its fat sizzling and dripping onto the orange coals below.
“Hell yes, there’s no way I’d sleep with that ugly witch. Not even if you paid me.” He put a freshly-rolled cigarette behind his ear and crossed his arms. Then pulled down the brim of his cap over his eyes and laid back like he was gonna take a nap, not a care in the world. He was being a fuckin’ sumbitch.
I tried to keep calm while searing the grilled vegetables the women had brought out to us. But I could feel a mounting anger. My eyesight hadn’t gone all red yet, but it was comin’. I’d only been in a few fights in my life, but I kicked each of their asses. And I wouldn’t hesitate to kick Jerry’s, either.
Looking his way, I could see he’d raised his brim up and was grinning at me like he thought we were playing a goddamn game.
...read more (6/6)I chucked my half-finished beer across the yard, and it hit the fence with a bang that bounced around the backyard like a baseball looking for a window to smash. The women stopped their chatter inside and tilted their chins toward us, glaring out the patio door window. I didn’t care.
Jerry sat up quick, pulling his cap brim up. “What the hell’s gotten into you, Fred?”
“You just don’t know, Jerry. You have no idea, and you run your damn mouth. I oughta beat your goddamn ass.” I took a step toward him, clenching my fists.
Jerry put his hands up and scrunched his shoulders, shook his head. “Fred, hey, it’s me. You know how I am, talkin’ shit all the time. I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. I take it all back.”
I stopped fuming toward him, got myself under control. By that time, I was standing pretty close. I could see the vein on the left side of his neck pulsing quick. The fucker was really scared. We’d never had a fight like this, so I was shocked to see him back down so easy. I saw Rita and Sally Sue still watching us from the kitchen. Sally Sue waved dismissively and walked away, toward the living room. Rita, though, was keeping a watch on me.
I bent down until my face was inches from him. He was almost squinting, and trying not to look me in the eyes.
“Thanks for taking that back, Jerry. There’s just a lot of things...” I trailed off. On impulse, I took the cigarette from behind his ear, him all flinching like he thought I was gonna punch him, and stood up. I palmed his lighter off the table, flicked it open, lit the cigarette, breathed in and exhaled. Then I handed it to him to finish.
After handing the cigarette over, I looked right at him and said, “Well, I’d fuck her. I’d fuck Becky Green.”
Jerry puffed smoke from the corners of his mouth and raised his beer, waving it like a white flag.