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Tom Drury


In the trainyard I gathered the sweepings of boxcars in a silver basket and put them in a truck. Then I would drive them over to a metal building where we would sift out the good grain.

We worked for Lazslo Jewell of Grafton. Having made money in vegetable dyes, Lazslo was now trying his hand at salvage. He lived in one of the big houses known as the Three Sisters and many people considered him a religious man. But the parts of the Bible he liked were the places where God appears to be really unpredictable.

It was Thanksgiving. It was a dark Thanksgiving day and even at noon the light suggested we would be going home in short order. Some of the guys linked arms and sang "Adeste Fidelis." There was no snow on the ground. The sky was a gray rag above our heads.

I was the only one sweeping boxcars. That was the peon job and I had the least seniority. I will say that Emmett Agar helped me out once I got the grain into the metal building. He had thick arms and his shovel rang and sparked on the concrete as he hurled the corn at the automated sieve that Lazslo had rigged. This metal contraption racked back and forth. Kernels flew from our shovels and some of them made it into the sieve.

Lazslo stared at us coldly when he saw the mess. "Well, Jesus Christ," he said.

There was no need for him to say more. I had only seen Lazslo truly mad one time and I didn't want to see it again. He was the type of guy who would spray herbicide on your clothes if you crossed him. Emmett Agar and I felt like running down the tracks to a new town. We were just a couple of dopes with nothing better to do than this on Thanksgiving.

Lazslo demonstrated a saner way of shoveling. His style was methodical and so, frankly, would mine have been, had this Emmett not been at my side shoveling like some demon from hell. Then something happened that I had not expected. Emmett put down his shovel and walked out. Did he have something on Lazslo? You can never tell the fragile arrangements worked out over time in a job situation.

"There's a whole world out there that Emmett knows nothing about," said Lazslo. Emmett must have been twenty-five years older than Lazslo, but the way Lazslo talked you would have thought he was Emmett's dad or something.

Lazslo handed me back my shovel and headed to his Cadillac. He wore warm-looking black snowmobile boots with a purple stripe and the Arctic Cat logo. I would have liked to have those boots myself. It had started to rain and with Lazslo gone I heard the rain running off the roof of the shed.

With some effort I cleaned up the grain scattered around the sieve and then proceeded across the yard to the next boxcar. It was a green one and the color reminded me of a beautiful meadow in the spring, when the groundwater floods the impressions left by your shoes.

The floors of the cars did not have to be clean, but this is just me. I swept, shoveled, and swept again. The boxcars had wooden floors that looked good when they were clean. It was sometime in the afternoon when these guys gathered down on the ground. I did not know them and guessed they were having a coffee break, although in retrospect I should have wondered why they would want to drink their coffee in the rain.

I worked away while keeping them always in my side vision. Then a sound that had been building steadily for some time became loud, and metal clanged, and I found myself flying through the air. It did not take long, once I had landed, to understand that an engine had come down from the upper yard and hooked onto the car in which I was working.

I got down out of the boxcar. The guys laughed and I called them every name in the book. "A person could get seriously hurt," I said. They laughed all the harder, as if I had told a good story.

The side of an orange trailer near the front of the yard offered shelter from the rain. My arm was banged up from landing on it, and I had that nausea you can get from bruising your elbow. I put the heels of my hands to my eyes and cried, I felt so alone. Didn't I want a girlfriend? Didn't I want a green pasture?

I stayed out of sight until it was too cold. My watch crystal was broken-great. Steam rose into the sky from the sugar beet plant across the road. I mean to tell you it was an unbelievably dark day, and the steam was white. I got up and went into the trailer. Emmett Agar was sitting on a bench with his boots crossed and drawn in beneath the bench. He was eating his lunch.

"You seen Lazslo?" he said.

"Not since he got mad about the way we were shoveling."

"What you got to understand about Lazslo is you're dealing with a deeply unhappy man," said Emmett. "I'm not going to take the rap for that and in my opinion neither should you. I've seen it happen again and again. It's been happening for many years. This is what Lazslo does. This is classic Lazslo."

"You got to admit the system wasn't working," I said.

"Who thought it up? Not me. It sure as hell isn't my system."

"Okay," I said. "True."

"I do the best I can with what Lazslo wants," said Emmett. "Right? What else can you do?"

"That's all you can do," I said.

His lunchbox was beside him on the bench. It was painted to look like a barn, with cows and chickens in the windows. The thermos of course resembled a miniature silo.

"You want half a turkey sandwich?" he said.

"That's all right."

"It's awful good turkey."

"Maybe I will try it," I said. "Thank you."

"What time is it?"

I looked at my watch, but it was indeed broken and would have to be replaced.

"I have no idea," I said.

I decided right then that I would skip work and get a new watch tomorrow. Because isn't it true that all the stores are open on the day after Thanksgiving?

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