Everett flicks a toggle, and the chain circling the thirty-two-inch bar jolts to a stop. Blue exhaust clears in favor of the syrupy scent of fresh-cut pine, its amber-black pitch everywhere: the saw, his used-to-be-white T-shirt, his jeans, yellow work boots, yellow work gloves, inside his forearms. Everett rests the saw on the butt log of the prone pine. A brown-feathered sparrow lands on one of its sheared limbs and scolds the chopper with chirps and head bobs.
A quarter mile away, Donald's saw hums. It always hums. Everett swears that boy must saw one-handed, wielding axe and measuring stick with the other. He lugs in extra chains so as not to lose time sharpening. He lugs in a canthook to roll his logs away from the brush, ensuring they're fully limbed.
Everett doesn't hear old Warren's saw. Wonders why he still works in the woods.
Now he picks up the voice of Rachel Clarke, the boss's wife. She jabbers from the direction of the landing site a hundred yards off, hidden by thin pine. Everett imagines Harmon Clarke, head down, punctuating Rachel's oration with the occasional "ayup" or "if that be your thought." Rachel's droning stops and the woods crackle with the encroachment of foot falls. Everett has lit a cigarette but squeezes its flame with thumb and forefinger. He pulls on work gloves and heaves a branch to the other side of the stricken pine. He swings his double-edged axe, and another branch, jammed beneath the second log, pops free. As Harmon appears, Everett swings his axe into the stump of the cut pine, alongside his saw, and releases the handle. He wonders why the boss's lips are rippling in and out, their perturbed motion, and checks his tree. Straight, over two feet in diameter, four good logs, brush thrown over, or getting there—the boss should be happy.
Harmon stares at his work boots and says, "Afraid you're all done, Ev."
Everett turns his right ear to Harmon as though not having understood.
Harmon raises his eyes. "They ain't enough work going forward."
"Well," says Everett, "if it's a slack period, I can wait it out."
Harmon shakes his head. "It's worse than slack." He pushes the toe of his boot into sawdust and twigs. "When you come on, I told you then, this might be happening."
Everett wants to say, why not old Warren? But Warren doesn't take up two days' payroll a week, the piddling amount he chops. Everett wants to yammer about boy wonder, whose saw still hums, but can't think of substance for a complaint.
Harmon checks the state of his boots again. "Finish out the day," he says, "and tally what I owe you." He turns and fades.
Everett's pickup clatters over Mill Stream Road, leaving a trail of dust. It turns into his dirt yard and its motor quits. Everett looks through the windshield at what started as a tarpaper shack and over the years acquired clapboards, molding, asbestos shingles, screened windows—stapled over with six-mil plastic come winter. There's a dug well with electric pump and expansion tank, and a dug cesspool for the kitchen sink and indoor toilet.
Everett pulls his chainsaw from the back of the pickup and stows it under a tarp by the front door. He makes another trip for axe, measuring stick, gas can, and files. Inside, his daughter Julianne sits at the kitchen table with the handset from the wall phone against her right ear, the cord dragged across the linoleum floor. "Yeah," she says. "Uh-huh. No I didn't. No, I never said that to nobody." She's fifteen.
On the stove, two pots simmer, one with peeled potatoes and a smaller with canned green beans. It's a twenty-inch gas stove fed from a propane tank outside the back door. Everett cracks the oven door and catches a whiff of burnt chicken leg from the top rack.
"Where's your ma?"
Julianne cradles the handset. "Hanging laundry."
Everett points to the stove. "You supposed to be watching this?"
"It's watching itself."
Everett grasps the phone cord, and the handset leaps from his daughter's hand. As he walks to the wall and slams the apparatus on the receiver, Julianne jumps to her feet and squeals like a raven. The back door opens and Everett's wife, Marion, pushes in with an armful of unfolded sheets. She says, "Now what?"
"I don't need no sass today," says Everett.
Marion drops the sheets onto the kitchen table. "Oh," she says, "is it sass you don't need?"
The rage starts in Everett's stomach, seethes to his shoulders, and contorts his mouth. He crooks right arm and hand above his head, palm open. Marion tries to step back, but her butt's against the table. Julianne puts both forearms in front of her face.
Everett's face sags and his hand drops to his side. "Go on," he says, "I'm not a'hitting anyone." Julianne runs from the kitchen.
Marion slides along the table and steps back. Her voice eases. "What happened?"
Everett twists his body a quarter to the left. "I got let go."
"Well," says Marion. She takes a step toward Everett. "We knowed that situation weren't stable."
"The wife," says Everett. "Rachel. She come out to the job. I hear them a'talking. Then he comes popping through the pine and tells me. Don't even look me in the eye."
"I don't doubt but she checked their books and you don't fit there no more. You going back with Williams, then? If he'll have you."
“She was always good with books, that Rachel.” Marion bends and opens the oven, which emits a thunder cloud. "God damn that girl. Can't do one simple thing."
Everett says, "What about you? Your job be holding up?"
Marion turns off the oven and straightens. "Oh, you bet. It'll be there just afore hell freezes over."
Everett clasps hands in front of his belt buckle, interlacing his fingers. He wears polished green work clothes, shirt and pants. He's shaved and put a part in his hair and stands next to Williams outside the doorway to the office of Williams Woodworks. The office, housing Williams and his clerk, hangs off a hallway running from an exterior door to the shop floor. Williams says, "So maybe you ought not have left in the first place."
Everett lifts his eyes.
Williams says, "Give up steady work for that big money in the woods."
Everett lowers his gaze to the wide hemlock boards of the hallway floor. They've been painted dark brown the past year, swept and mopped the night before.
Williams says, "Now you know how it goes, don't you?"
"Yessir, Mr. Williams."
Above the whining and banging from the shop floor comes a scream followed by a loud and elongated "shee-it." The shop foreman saunters into the hall with a head motion back toward the floor. "Little Al," he says. "Jammed his thumb in the press."
"It ain't pretty."
Everett tries to put the thought away: if Albert can't work, they're down a man. He raises his face and looks into the close-set eyes of the foreman. They never got on well, Everett and the foreman, less so after Everett gave his notice. The foreman turns and Williams follows him to the shop.
Everett stands alone in the hall breathing wafts of cut wood, sawdust, and glue. The whines and bangs have resumed. A few minutes later, Williams returns with his foreman, muttering, "A floor full of morons, I swear."
The foreman shakes his head.
Williams says, "Put him to sweeping and cleaning. Make sure he keeps that gauze on."
"You bet, Mr. Williams." The foreman's eyes fall on Everett a last time before turning to the shop floor.
Williams says, "Well, Ev, I'd like to help you." His head flicks toward the outside door at the other end of the hallway. "But we're full up."
Next morning, Everett follows a stubby man into a square enclosure formed from five-foot-high metal partitions and sits in a straight chair alongside a gray desk. The man waddles when he walks and wears a white shirt and necktie. He has a round face, scrubbed, with round, gold-framed glasses. His fingernails are clipped and clean. His teeth are perfect, not false perfect but real teeth taken care of.
Everett squirms and views the dirt-encrusted hands in his lap.
The man with the gold eyeglasses says call him Tim, mind if he calls Everett by his first name? His voice puts on back-country, but he's town through and through. Everett nods. Tim glances at Everett's filled-out forms on the desk. "Been looking much?"
"Nossir. Was hoping you could help in that regard."
Tim sits back. "Is woodworking all you know? That and chopping?"
"Yessir. That's all I ever done."
"Well." Tim taps a pen on his desk. "It's a handicap these days, don't you know? If you'd done metal. But even there, jobs are getting scarce."
Everett looks back to his hands.
Tim swings in his chair so he's in profile to Everett. He swings back. "Tell you what. But you got to promise me. You won't reject it out of hand."
Everett nods at his hands.
"There's a position come open at the Grub 'n Go."
Everett's face warms. The employees at Grub 'n Go wear striped shirts and paper hats, in public, seen by everyone. They say things like, can I take your order please? Do you want extra sauce with that? The ones out back flip burgers. The ones out front clean tables and empty trash.
"It's full time," says Tim, "and they're a'looking for a real a-dult." Pronounced with a long "a," as though he lived out on the dirt roads.
"I never done anything like that," says Everett.
"They'll train you." Tim leans over the desk like he's letting Everett in on the secret of creation. "It may not seem much first glance, but the pay's near what you've ever had. And—" Tim presses closer. "You get days off and health insurance."
Everett says, "My wife gets us health insurance already."
"That's good, but you never know. And there's a four-oh-one retirement plan."
Everett remembers the last time he was at Grub 'n Go. The woman ahead said, I don't want no pickle on my burger. And the woman behind the counter said, no ma'am, you don't have to have no pickle. We'll special order that burger.
"It's indoor work," says Tim. "It don't break your back." Tim lifts the receiver from his beige desk phone and pecks at the phone's keypad. He leans back, listens, then says, "Sue, how are you these days? Tim here at unemployment."
Everett pictures himself special-fixing a burger. No pickle.
"It's a man," Tim is saying. Everett's ears consume smatterings of female voice. Tim says, "Have I ever steered you wrong?" More chatter from the other end. Tim says, "You bet."
He hangs up and smiles. "Tuesday morning. Ten o'clock. Get there a few minutes early."
Everett doesn't return the smile.
"You don't need to interview or nothing," says Tim. "They're taking you on probation."
The shame rises and reddens Everett's face. A child’s job.
"Everett." Tim's eyes float oversize behind his gold glasses. "The work you used to do is gone, or going that way. Now, you get over there Tuesday morning and give it a try." Tim sighs. "Okay, You're thinking, what if it don't work out, what if I hate it. Your unemployment money will still be here. Don't be worrying about that."
Late afternoon, Everett sits at the kitchen table. Marion walks in and says, "Well?"
"They want me to work at Grub 'n Go."
"Do they?" Marion places a brown bag of groceries on the wooden counter top and opens the refrigerator. She turns her head. "Where's Julianne?"
"She got an after-school activity."
Marion drags a quart of milk from the bag and pushes it onto the top shelf of the refrigerator. "And what be that? Does it have anything to do with the Dolan boy?" She pulls a package of pork chops from the bag.
Everett slaps the palm of his hand on the table top. His voice lifts. "I'll tell you this, Mr. Man, you won't find me working for no Grub 'n Go."
Marion drops the pork chops on the counter and turns to Everett. "What are you doing instead?" She turns back to the refrigerator and stows the pork chops. She talks with her bent back toward Everett. "Are you taking their unemployment then? How long will that last?"
Everett hears the squeak of worn brakes and the sputter of a car motor, and looks out the front window. "It's the Dolan boy, all right."
Marion closes the refrigerator door and approaches the window. "Oh, that girl, she's asking for a strangling."
Rachel Clarke tops the list of people Everett could do without seeing, but here she comes, high-stepping into Grub 'n Go, trailed by her daughter, same age as Julianne. Rachel wears a straight skirt and button-down blouse. She boasts mega breasts, but not the enticing kind, the get-out-of-my-way variation. A beehive bouffant complements her stature and attire. The daughter wears a plaid, pleated skirt and white blouse, uniform for the nearby academy. She's been to Everett's house twice, for Julianne's ninth and tenth birthday parties.
A month has passed and Everett's off probation, working the counter, wearing a practiced smile. Rachel stops, steps back, steps forward, then postures with hands on hips. "Well, I do believe, don't you look official in that smock and hat. And I never seen your fingernails clean afore." Rachel elbows her daughter's arm. "Say hello to Mr. Evans."
"Hello, Mr. Evans."
"Hello, Trish." Everett deploys his chit-chat. "You been keeping up with them studies then?"
Rachel glances over her shoulder. "Well, I best order. You got yourself a line."
Rachel and Trish chew their burgers and fries. Everett takes orders from the queue of after-school customers. As Trish slurps the last of her Coke, Rachel approaches the counter, which has cleared of customers.
"We had to let old Warren go," she says.
"So I heared," says Everett.
"And we don't have hardly enough to keep Donald busy these days. Not like it used to be." Rachel shakes her beehive. "Them landowners. Don't you know, they want top dollar for their lots, but when you cruise them, there ain't nothing there but scrub and knots."
"It's a shame," says Everett.
Rachel says, "So this is full time, this job?"
"You got yourself a good situation, Everett." Rachel looks about. There's no customers waiting, but her daughter stands at the door shifting from one shoe to the other. Rachel turns back to Everett. "And Marion, she's still employed, right?"
"It's a state job she's got, isn't it?"
"Not exactly. The place she works for contracts to the state." Rachel waits for more. "They do the rest areas. Cleaning toilets, taking away the trash."
"Yes'm, forty a week."
"Well," says Rachel. She lifts her shoulders and chin and gives Everett a nod. "There you go, two good paychecks. With a little frugality, you're set. You're—"
An old-timer, ruffled gray hair and calloused hands jutting from a pea-green wool shirt, stands alongside Rachel. He nods to her and turns his attention to Everett. "I could do with another ketchup."
"By gawd," says Everett, "you can have two or three if you want."
The man's stubbled face crinkles. "By gawd, I'll take two then." He closes a hand around the packets pushed across the counter, nods again to Rachel, and turns back to the chairs and tables.
"You're not a drinker?" says Rachel.
Everett peers at a knick in the counter and passes a thumb over it. "Some," he says.
Rachel lifts a forefinger. "Give it up. Besides the trouble, it's wasted money."
Now Rachel examines the backs of Everett's hands, which rest on the counter. "And smoking too," she says. Over her shoulder, Everett watches Trish leaning against the door jamb with one shoe raised, its heel scratching the inside of her other stocking. Her lips are parted, and Everett notices turquoise braces on her upper teeth.
"Wasted money," says Rachel. "Harmon, he don't drink and he don't smoke."
Rachel turns to the door. She turns back and presses against the counter.
"It warms my heart to see you doing well, Everett."
That night, Everett says, "Seen Rachel Clarke today."
Marion looks up from a half-knit sweater. "Did you then?"
"Said she was glad to see us getting on so well."
"Ain't she the sweet one." Marion works another stitch. "What you doing about fixing the truck?"
"Old Warren has a junk out back. I can have the alternator for the taking."
"You give him something, even if it's ten dollars."
"What you doing about our plumbing? That can't be freezing again come January."
Everett stands. "I guess I'll go out for a smoke."
"I guess you will."
Everett crosses the rear threshold and closes the door behind him. He scans the night sky for Polaris. Pretty sure he's found it. Heat tape and insulation, he thinks. Forty feet should do it.
Robert Perron lives and writes in New York City and New Hampshire. Past life includes high-tech and military service. His stories have appeared in numerous journals, most recently Lowestoft Chronicle, Mom Egg Review, and STORGY Magazine. Visit his website at https://robertperron.com.