Darren reached for his beer from the rough plank, propped up by paint cans, that he used for a coffee table. The couch springs sagged and he had some difficulty being comfortable. Gene had brought some faded and worn pillows to help. Grit permeated them and the sofa. He watched the television set on its carton with rabbit ears pointing toward the one channel he could receive. His neighbors had little satellite dishes and could get all the sports channels he missed.
He propped one long leg up on a paint can and ran a comb absently through short salt-and-pepper hair. Darren's thin body ached from the years. His hands were gnarled and the veins stood out ominously. His socks had holes in them and his plaid shirt was torn at one shoulder. His large ears, short hairs curling out from them, stood out from a long, angular head. It hurt him now and he picked up the beer can, contemplating his life with angry disgust.
Someday Darren would build himself a house. It would be log, with a large living room with a cathedral ceiling and a stone fireplace. It would have one large bedroom for himself and one small guest bedroom. It would have two bathrooms. One would be in the hall and the other would be off his bedroom. It too would be large, with a skylight. It would have ten or twenty acres around it, some open and some wooded. It would be on a quiet back road. It would have a small kitchen and a laundry room. It would have a workshop outside, full of all the tools he needed.
What had happened to his last job? Drinking a little on it wasn't reason enough to fire him. He'd done his work well. Everyone said so. It was his drinking that haunted him and taunted him. He'd tried to quit a few times, but life was just too depressing. His mind didn't work right. He craved it. His hands shook until he gave in and bought a six-pack or a case or two. At least he had fun with his buddies, whopping and hollering and talking over each other and never remembering the next morning what they said. It didn't matter. It was the comradery of it. Hell, nearly everyone in the holler drank to get drunk and raise a little hell. It was entertainment and friendship. They stuck together, helped each other out when one or another got a DUI or into a brawl at a bar. It was their way of life and had been for as long as Darren could remember.
Still, he thought, there was a better life out there somewhere. He thought that when he was by himself. He saw other people living it. When he was with his friends, he was happy to be a part of that. It was comfort from the world, the one that fired him a few times for just a little bit of drinking on the job, maybe a few mishaps. It wasn't fair. They didn't understand. Some others took drugs and didn't get caught, didn't get laid off. Well, he did run into that post in the factory. But it was just an accident. It didn't have to do with drinking.
Darren took another swig. He'd apply to Poral today. He heard they were hiring and he had plenty of experience with fork lifts and other machines they might have. He needed to save money this time, he reminded himself. He needed to get out of this falling apart old house with its drafts and creaking in the wind. His mother had left it to him. It was all he had really. Whatever else happened with him and his money and his jobs, he always managed to pay the taxes. At least he had a roof over his head, however leaky it was. He needed to fix it but he needed money for shingles and he didn't have it. Well, daggum it, it was raining again. He got up to make sure the buckets were in the right places and not full.
"How's it going, bud?" Gene was at the door.
"Fucking roof is leaking again," Darren answered, moving one bucket a little to the left toward his one remaining living room chair. The room had emptied over the past months, as he'd sold off what was any good at all, that anyone would want. All that was left was near refuse and he knew it. He stared down at his hands without a thought in his head.
"Fix it," Gene said, taking a seat on the couch and pulling a beer out of his jacket pocket. His hair was long and scraggly. It tended to look as if he never combed it, but he did. A thin mustache hovered over thin lips. He wore a soiled shirt and torn jeans. Instead of a belt, he tied a string through the loops. His brown boots were scuffed and buckled and torn at the back of one heel. The heels had worn down on the inside to match his slightly knock-kneed gait. His skin had a grayish tinge through thick white hair on his arms. His face was weathered brown and creased in wrinkles from sun and hard times.
"Yeah, right." Darren sat down and reached for his beer. At least he had money for that. He knew he was an alcoholic, tried to control it by not drinking whiskey except on rare occasions. His liver hurt and his eyes were bloodshot. His nose was red and his face lined with dark creases.
"You look bad, friend." Gene leaned back on the sofa, surveying the room.
Darren took another drink and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "I feel pretty bad today."
Gene nearly lost patience again with him. "Why don't you lay off the sauce for awhile, kid? Dry out and give your body a chance to heal."
"I can't. I've tried." Darren leaned back and took another drink. "It makes me sicker. At least I can forget it all this way," he added.
Gene frequently took the role of an older brother, although he was younger by six years. "I stopped by last night to check on you."
Darren reached for a cigarette and lit it. "You did? When?"
"About eight o'clock. You were passed out on the couch. I shook you but I couldn't wake you up. You just groaned."
Darren laughed. "I vaguely remember that. Come by for any special reason?"
Gene dropped his cigarette in an empty beer can. "Wanted to know if you wanted to cut wood today."
"Can't." Darren pushed a bucket away with his foot and it toppled and rolled over. "My damn saw's broke again."
Gene was good at working on tools, had fixed the saw time and again before. He sighed a little tiredly. "What's wrong with it this time?"
"I don't know," Darren said, exasperation in his expression and tone. "Damn chain won't pull."
"Here." Gene reached out and examined the saw, turning it over in his hands. "Let me have a look-see."
"What's wrong with the fuckin' thing?"
Gene started taking pieces apart little by little. "I think I can fix it."
"Aggravatin' bitch. I get so aggravated trying to keep it going."
"Really you need a new one. This one's about shot."
"I need a new everything," Darren said. "I need a new life."
"There you go, bud. It's fixed," his friend announced, fixing a bolt and putting the saw back on the floor near a greasy rug by the stove. "Let's get out of here for awhile. You'll feel better."
"Yeah. Fresh air would do me good." Darren agreed, swatting at smoke from his stove in the room.
Gene looked toward the stove on its broken slab hearth. He paused and asked, "Is it clogged again?" He didn't want to work on that today, had other plans.
"Gettin' that way," Darren advised. His eyes nearly watered and he sniffed self-consciously.
Gene put down his beer and lit another cigarette. "I'll help you with it when we get back, or maybe tomorrow," he offered.
"Okay, bud. Let's get at it." Darren pulled himself up slowly, balancing his body with both hands on the arms of the chair. "Poor old body," he commented almost to himself, as he felt each muscle pull and grind. His back ached vaguely and his stomach churned. He steadied himself with deliberation and started toward the door.
"Have you eaten today?" Gene reminded him.
"Oh, hell. I get my vitamins outta here," he turned to lift his beer from the table and drained it, opened another out of the line arranged there.
"No, you don't," Gene disagreed. "I'll fix you some lunch before we go," he offered. "Have a seat."
Darren fell back into the chair as Gene went into the kitchen and opened cabinets. "You have any meat?"
"I got tuna fish somewhere," Darren muttered. He felt despondent. He didn't want food.
"Got it. Tuna fish sandwich coming up," Gene answered, opening a can. "You need to clean up in here, bud. You'll get some kind of disease with all this dirt and garbage around."
"Yeah, man. I need to do a lot of things," Darren answered with a tired wave of his arm.
Gene came back through the door with two sandwiches in his hands. "Here you go."
Darren took it without interest and nibbled at an edge. "Thanks, man. It's good," he said politely. His guts said otherwise and he felt a wave of nausea rise, choked it back, and took another drink of beer to wash the sandwich down.
"Eat up," Gene encouraged him. "Then we'll get out and do some cutting."
Darren nodded absently. "I need wood."
"I know," Gene agreed. "I saw the pile, what's left of it."
They finished eating in silence. Gene rose, leaning over to pick up the saw. "Okay, bud, let's go," he urged.
Darren pulled himself up again out of the chair and followed Gene to the door.
"Where shall we go?" he asked, sitting back in the passenger seat with legs spread, one elbow resting on the window opening. He'd brought three beers and figured Gene had more in the back somewhere.
"How about the forest?" Gene asked. "I saw some dead oak down a few days ago up on Highlander Pass."
"Good to go," Darren responded without much interest. He didn't really care where they went, or that they cut wood today. His joints ached from the moisture and he took another drink. Then he noticed the rain slacking up, turning to intermittent drops. "Cleared up for us anyway," he commented.
"Yeah," Gene agreed, concentrating his eyes on the winding road before him. "They said it wouldn't last long."
Darren and Gene rode in silence, drinking their beers and singing off and on to the radio, until they turned left off the main road.
"See those trees over there?" Gene asked, pointing to his right.
Darren saw wood to build his dream house with a few leaning dead against them. "Yeah, I see them. Look easy to get," he noted.
"Right," Gene answered, slowing the truck to a stop and pushing on the brake. "Let's go, bud. Grab your saw." Gene pulled his out from the back seat as Darren opened the door, grabbing his saw from the covered truck bed.
"Imagine these pines," Darren said later, as they stepped into the woods, "cut and stripped for a house."
"They'd be beautiful," Gene agreed.
"I'm gonna do that some day," Darren announced.
"Oh yeah," Darren said, secretly amused.
"I'm going to build me a log house on the back lot, away from the road. Have me a nice kitchen and high ceilings and solid windows and a good tin roof."
"That'd be good," Gene replied with barely concealed humor. "You might need to get a job first though."
"I'll get one," Darren assured him. "I'm going to Dillard's tomorrow."
"Are they hiring?" Gene sounded surprised.
"Yeah, man." Darren pulled on the chain several times and the saw sputtered to a start. "They're always hiring. Always firing and losing and hiring."
"What would you do there?" Gene asked, genuinely puzzled.
"Mechanic work mostly, I guess."
Gene recalled the saw and Darren's general ineptitude with machines. "Ever done that before?" he asked with a sceptical frown.
"Yeah. I've done it a little," Darren lied with bravado. He'd lie to Dillard's too. Say he had experience. Make up some past employers. He'd get friends to lie for him too.
"Well, that's good then," Gene said. They cut wood in silence and loaded the truck for home. "Ready to go?" he inquired as Darren leaned lazily against the side of the truck and stubbed a cigarette out under his boot.
"Yeah, I'm ready," Darren answered, climbing back up into the truck and reaching for a beer behind it. "Mind if I drink this?" he asked perfunctorily.
"Course not. Open one for me too." Gene answered, starting the engine and turning the truck around.
"I'm going to use those pines one day," Darren slurred again, as they headed toward the main road.
"Sure you are," Gene coddled him with a slight grimace.
"But first I gotta get that job at Dillard's," Darren reminded himself hazily.
"That's right, friend," Gene said with hidden condescension. "First you gotta get that job at Dillard's."
They chugged their beers, pulling one more each from behind the seat, on their way home. Gene helped unload half the wood and got back in his truck. Leaning out the window, he reminded Darren, "Don't forget to eat, friend," and pulled back out the driveway.
"I won't, bud," Darren assured him as he swayed toward the front door. "I gotta get some of that pine wood," he thought to himself, falling into the chair again. "That'll be real pretty for my new house."
Originally from New England, Jeanette Harris resides in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. She created A Country Rag an online publication that explores Appalachian culture through diverse poetry, short stories, graphics, regional cuisine and articles.