Travis Polfrey: the risen Christ of Norah, South Dakota. Two years ago, word came from Baghdad that he was killed by an IED. The local papers ran with it and it was all over the local news. Then there was the church service and the parade; they even buried an empty casket. Three weeks later, I’m sitting at Burque’s Corner on a humid night in early June, wondering how I’m going to pay my way through my next semester at USD. That’s when I saw Travis saunter up to the bar like the miracle everyone thinks he is, and order Jack Daniels on the rocks and a PBR to chase.
Travis always was and remains a dick, dead or alive—the kind of guy who’d get your mom drunk and take her home on Saturday night just so he could laugh at you on Monday morning. But I can see how coming back from the dead could give you a power trip, especially in a town where Wal-Mart routinely runs out of yellow ribbons. That night at the bar, he offered me a landscaping job like he was offering salvation. Other than the money, I couldn’t tell you why I took him up on it. What I do know is this: after a couple of summers cooped up in work trucks with him, I’m thinking maybe I could come back from the grave. It’s insanity by osmosis—I know—but it’s immortality, too. I’m sure Travis knows this. I figure it’s the only way he can live like he does.
Travis cranks the wheel, stomps on the gas and sends us into a fresh skid around a corner. I look back to see if we lost anything. I brace my palms against the dashboard, leaving sweaty outlines of my hands on the cracked brown vinyl. That familiar rough tweed scratches the soft skin on the backs of my knees and the scorched flesh of my shoulders like a wicked combination of steel wool and fiberglass insulation.
Again I feel the two wheels underneath my side of the pickup lift off of the road as we skid around another sharp turn. I keep my mouth shut. Travis is in charge—you get nothing less once you’ve risen from the dead. That means I’m his work monkey, and that means he can make my days much longer than they need to be if he wants to. Deep inside the speakers of the dash Garth Brooks twangs out a song about the American Honky-tonk Bar Association, those people whose paychecks depend on the weather and the clock. Travis spits a black stream out of his window, nods to the radio and turns to me.
“That’s us, man—A.H.B.A. Nothing but the weather and the clock.” He smiles widely and his sinewy arms bounce with the jaunt of the bass guitar. The sun’s already burned premature crow’s feet in the corners of his eyes. His muscles show stringy though his perma-tanned skin, like twists of expired gas station beef jerky. Flecks of Copenhagen speck his teeth like fleas on a yellow dog as he tongues the brown wad further down into the bulge of his bottom lip.
I tell him he’s right, and when I take a moment to wonder what he’ll look like in ten years, and I realize I’m looking right at it. Sometimes I think there’s no time in South Dakota, and especially not at Norah Landscaping. At NL, we don’t mind the weather and we don’t bring a watch out onto the jobsite. Work lasts until we finish the job or the sun goes down. By the end of most days, I’ve got dirt sticking to the drying sweat in every crease in my skin, making thick charcoal black lines along all my features so that from far away I probably look like a rough sketch of myself.
It’s hot and humid today and my nuts are plastered to the insides of my thighs—what Travis calls “bat winging.”
Travis reaches down to lift the ragged edge of his cut-off jean shorts to give the vent a clear shot at his crotch. “Whoooo—eeee!” he says and then he goes back to singing along with Garth about aching backs and gun racks. He hits the gas and cranks the wheel so the truck’s back end squeaks around another corner and catches up with the front. Our shovels, axes and stump chains scrape against the rusty metal of the pickup bed. I brace myself with both hands on the dash. I smile and nod. I always do.
“What’s next?” I ask Travis as he pokes his chin out of the window to spit again. As he leans he takes the wheel with him and the truck lurches over the double yellow into the center of the street. I have a feeling we’re going to Old Arty’s for a stump removal, but I ask anyway hoping I can pull Travis’s focus away from trying to kill us.
“Arty’s got a tree stump he’s gotta get out,” he says, “and this one’s going to be a bee-yotch. Big around as a dinner table.” He lets go of the steering wheel and stretches his arms to show me—“this big.” The tires spinning under my feet kiss the ditch a second before he grabs the wheel again and heaves it back onto the road. “Don’t worry, big guy, I’ll try to make it easy on you,” Travis says, and then forces out the kind of wavery laughing sound you hear coming out by the thousands in a goat barn.
He will almost certainly not try to make it easy on me. I would just jerk the thing out of the ground with the truck and our stump chains, but Old Arty won’t allow it. Doesn’t like his yard torn up. And even if I could convince Arty, it would take another miracle to talk Travis into cutting our hours. So we’ll dig. It’s the kind of job that makes your stomach turn to stone, especially in this heat. But Travis rolls around in time-and-a-half the way a pig rolls in its own shit.
Travis slows the pickup to a crawl and heads down the narrow drive slicing a thin gap in the Black Hills spruce and juniper at Art’s place. We come up on a small beige split-level shielded from wind and neighbors. Surrounding his flowerbeds, swollen with hostas, low-growing evergreens and hydrangeas, lies a pristine row of fine brick edging. Travis stops the truck and cuts off Garth mid-chorus. He pulls the parking break, and when I step out onto Art’s emerald lawn, it’s still damp from when the underground sprinkler system was on in the middle of the night.
Art raises his trembling hand as he smiles and shuffles down the redwood steps toward us. He limps up to the truck as if his head is full of lead and his body’s made of balsa. Old Art, he’s always got his nose right down in whatever we’re doing. Always running his hands all over any project he calls for. He does this, he says, because his cloudy, grey, cataract-ridden eyes can’t see imperfections in our work, but the nerves in his crumpled tinfoil hands are still sharp enough to feel even the slightest departure from bubble-on level. Travis says the “old queer’s full of shit” and never fails to flash me a wink every time Art runs his hand up and down a stray tree branch.
Despite the heat, Art’s got on a melon-colored cable-knit sweater, heavy brown wool pants, slippers and gloves made from what looks like otter hide. Old people have bad circulation. I wish I had bad circulation—anything to stop this sweating.
Art arrives at the truck just as I lift one of the wheelbarrows out of the pickup bed. He reaches one of those mahogany-gloved hands towards my shoulder and pats twice. His hand feels like driftwood wrapped in silk. I look around for Travis, but he’s ducked down on the other side of the pickup, pretending to check the chainsaw’s oil. What he’s really doing is hiding, and I don’t blame him.
“I’m so glad you could come today. I just don’t know what I would do if I had to look at that rotten old thing for one more day,” says old Art, peering over my shoulder through his cataract shades at the enormous stump. He doesn’t get out much, he says, so he figures he might as well have a nice view around the place. Whether that means having a well-kept lawn, or whether that means watching Travis and I sweat it out in his front yard, I don’t know. When it’s this hot outside, I can’t bring myself to care, either.
Since we don’t take any heavy equipment onto jobsites like Arty’s, we need a quick and ingenious method of loading large pieces of chopped up stump into the back of the pickup so we can haul them away. NL uses work trucks from what might as well be the turn of the century, and Travis turns the wooden plankwalls of the pickup into a ramp running up to the bed. He does this so proudly you’d think he was turning water into goddamn wine.
I found out how Travis does this on my first day at NL. I thought it was part of a hazing ritual for new employees—that he was just telling me to disassemble the truck just to see if I would. Then I saw him take the planks off himself, build up a head of steam and wheel three hundred pounds of rotten sod up to the bed. In retrospect, he may have planned on running the ramps just once to amaze me into submission for the rest of the summer. What I do know is that I couldn’t help follow in Travis’s example, and after that day ramping was the only way we loaded the truck bed.
You can’t worry about making it halfway up the ramp before you run your wheel off one side. You can’t wonder what hundreds of pounds of dirt and rock will feel like when they land on top of you. You make yourself forget that you have no health insurance and that you’d really like to spend the fall back in Vermillion finishing your degree instead of healing broken bones and sliding further and further into debt without anything to show for it but the metal pins skewered through your joints. If it isn’t emptiness you feel when you run up those ramps, it’s close.
I glance at the stump and then smile at Arty. “No problem, Mr. Christiansen. I can’t blame you for wanting to get rid of it.” I pry the wooden plank from one side of the pickup bed and set up my ramps.
“You’re Charlie Picket’s grandson, aren’t you,” Old Arty says.
“How could you tell?” I try to humor him, but I’m starting to get anxious. Travis usually doesn’t care if I chat up the clients, but Arty’s a different story. I look toward the stump and see Travis standing with his one hand on his hip, sizing it all up. He shoots me a glance that tells me to get my ass in gear. The root axes, shovels, and dirt rakes all clang their way into the wheelbarrow.
“Oh, I know a few things about this town. And when you used to run touchdowns for the Cyclones, I’d listen on the radio. You were quite the runner, weren’t you,” Arty says.
“I guess,” I say. “But I’d rather walk now, anyway. Less work. Safer.” From across the lawn I can hear the halting rumble of the chainsaw as Travis yanks the pull-start a few times. The starter won’t catch, and Travis mutters some filth under his breath.
“Run while you still can, son,” Old Arty says in a confidential tone, not looking at me, but over my shoulder at Travis. Then he smiles and raises his voice to tell me that I’ll have to settle for walking soon enough. He gestures to his own twisted legs. “Just look at me,” he laughs. I laugh. That helps a little.
The chainsaw fires up and soon it’s belching through the primer and spewing thick bluish smoke. Old Arty says something else, but I can’t make it out over the roar of the two-cycle engine. He waves me off to go about my work and shuffles past me to the stump and Travis.
Travis swings that chainsaw with the same abandon with which he approaches everything else. He climbs on top of the stump, braces his foot against the section he wants to remove and pushes down as the blade slices through the wood until it gives way. I’m always waiting for the moment his blade slips and he cuts through his own thigh or shin, but it never happens and never will. I wheel my way over to Travis kicking at the sawed-off sections. The chunks of wood burn my hands as I throw them into the wheelbarrow; the friction of the saw scorched the edges black and hot.
Soon, I’m running up the ramps with load after load, defying injury and death again and again. Each and every time I push up into that point of feeling nothing and hold onto it as tightly as I can until I level off at the top.
Travis is a surgeon with the chainsaw and I am Sisyphus behind the wheelbarrow, and nearly two hours pass before we’re ready to dig the roots out of the ground.
And this, I know, is going to be the hard part.
Old Arty, he’s been standing there the whole time, hunching over our shoulders, tapping at the partially exposed roots above the soil line. We carve a trench a foot and a half deep all the way around the stump. Thick, pale roots snake into the ground like enormous night crawlers. It’s time to chop.
Travis lifts the bill of his cap to wipe the sweat away and he looks up to check the sun. Even though Travis loves his time and a half, stump-chopping is near the bottom of his list of favorite things to do. He starts in on a root as big around as his calf. “They oughtta armor tanks with these locust tree stumps,” he says, and a few unimpressive chips of wood fly away from each of his swings. I grab my root axe and chip away at a big one of my own, mirroring Travis’ pace.
Art shuffles around us to inspect the scene, bending down to run his gloved hands over the exposed roots. “Please be careful when you take it out of the ground. I don’t want to see marks in my lawn,” he says to Travis, who replies with only a few grunts of agreement, and a jerk-off motion with his free left hand after Arty turns away.
Then, to me: “You know, it’s funny that you should be the one to remove this tree from my yard. It was your grandfather that planted this tree.”
“Really?” I ask between swings, but it doesn’t surprise me. My grandpa planted plenty of trees throughout Norah back when he owned and operated Pickett Nursery. He even laid down the sod on the Cyclones football field.
“I remember the day he planted it. Must have been thirty years ago. That tree wasn’t more than two feet high, and sickly. Naturally, I was upset. I was sure it would never grow another inch. But Charlie convinced me to give it time. He was new in the landscape business and I could afford to give him a chance. But the tree didn’t grow. Two months later, I called Charlie and asked him what I should do to save it. I had spent so many hours watering and fertilizing I guess I had grown sentimental towards it,” says Old Arty, and I can see Travis rolling his eyes in my peripheral vision. Our root axes thump out a cadence that could march an army.
Old Arty says my grandpa came out that day to inspect the tree for himself. He says my grandpa walked right over to the tree, looked at it a few minutes and said that the only way to save the thing was to cut it all the way down to the ground. If it sprouted back from its roots, the tree would make it. If it didn’t, it was time for a new one. “I begged him not to cut down my little project but his hacksaw did its work before I could say very much at all. Then he handed me a handful of dollar bills and said that I should return the money only after the tree had grown ten feet high—a foot for every dollar. Three years later, I paid him back with those same bills,” says Old Arty.
I can feel Travis staring me down even though I’ve kept up my chopping throughout Old Arty’s story. Travis checks the sun and says it’s almost five o’clock. That’s my signal to start busting ass again. So I keep on with the axe, thunking out that same rhythm as two more hours pass and the sky takes a burnt orange hue.
Every so often Travis will circle the stump, grab one of the roots and try to use it as a lever to pry the remainder of the behemoth from the ground. Each time the stump awards Travis one tantalizing wiggle and then settles back down into the hole, and each time Travis curses a bit more loudly and more colorfully under his breath. Even though it’s obvious all the major roots are chopped through, the thing still won’t budge.
“Go get the chains, man,” Travis says, defeated. He sits down and stares through his knees at the remaining hulk.
“You sure we don’t want to wait on the chains?” I ask, doing my best to inject my voice with the right dosage of caution and doubt, but inside I’m ready to dance with relief.
“Hey, you go ahead and keep digging till the sun goes down if you want, but I’m through with this,” Travis says.
Arty shuffles up between us and says, “I really would rather that you didn’t try to drag the stump out of the ground with your truck. If I had wanted my yard torn up, I could have called the city you know.”
“It won’t be anything,” Travis says, “there can’t be much more than a little root or two from the bottom. The big roots on these things grow outward and we got all them chopped.” Travis says this with the authority of someone who is bullshitting and knows it.
Arty relents and backs away. Travis nods to me and I jog over to the truck to get the tree chains. They’re heavy and rusty and leave reddish brown stains on my hands like flakes of old dried blood. Travis and I loop them around what’s left of the stump and hook the ends under the truck’s back bumper. I grab the wooden ramps and throw them off to the side.
“Alright, go give her the onion,” Travis says.
Of course Travis wants me to be the one to drag the stump out so that once Old Arty’s lawn looks like it’s been shelled with artillery, he can say it wasn’t him who tore the yard up when our boss back at the shop gets word that we jerked the stump out with the truck instead of digging it out by hand. I climb in the cab and turn the key. I jump a little when Garth Brooks blares out more nonsense about small paychecks, gun racks, and waving American flags.
“A.H.B.A.,” I mutter under my breath. The vent below the steering wheel cools me off as I push down slowly on the pedal. At the moment I feel the chain tense up, I let off the gas. I look back at Travis in my rearview mirror. He stabs his thumbs toward the sky.
I rev the engine a bit, but not to the floor. I can hear the back tires rip into Arty’s perfect sod. I hear the chain creak. The stump doesn’t budge. The truck lurches sideways, cutting a fan-shaped swath in Arty’s grass. I let off the gas.
In the rearview mirror, Travis stabs both thumbs skyward this time and then crosses his arms.
I push the pedal further to the floor this time. I cringe when I see chunks of Arty’s plush yard fly in high, graceful arcs behind the truck like dozens of duffed shots on a golf course. I can feel the vibrations of the chain straining between the stump and the chassis as they travel through the back of my seat.
Over the roar of the engine, I hear Travis at the open window. “Get the hell out of there and let me do it.” He yanks me out, takes my place inside the cab and cranks the radio up to full blast before I can say anything. Garth howls out through the speakers, more bullshit about aching-back-over-taxed Americans.
I put a few yards between myself and the truck, and even though I’m ticked off, baked through and frustrated, I can’t help but enjoy watching Travis in action. You might expect him to be crazed—hunched over the wheel, one hand jamming the gears and the other testing the play in the wheel, but instead a look of calm washes over his face. And why not? It’s Travis, for Christ’s sake, Norah’s own divine resurrection, and in two hours he’ll be back at Burque’s Corner sipping whiskey, hustling pool. The gears scream when he releases the clutch, and once the truck reaches the end of its chain, it glides back and forth across the surface of Arty’s lawn like a gigantic rusty yellow surfboard on a perfect green wave.
Arty can’t even look anymore. He limps away toward his house with his fingers tucked up underneath his cataract goggles, covering his eyes. The sound of the engine drowns everything else out. It’s all too much and, despite myself, I’m laughing out loud. I’m laughing so hard I have to gasp for air against the breeze blowing dirt and exhaust fumes bellowing from the truck. Travis and I lock eyes as he shifts the truck into a higher gear and prepares to give it hell one last time. In this instant, this lull between roars of the engine, I can hear Garth telling us to not delay, contact our American Honky-tonk Bar Association, today.
Travis steps on the gas. The truck pitches forward and jerks back like a blind dog running to the end of its leash. It all happens so fast that Travis can’t react, and the truck snaps forward again with a violent shudder. Once the stump rocks onto its side in the crater we’ve dug, I can see it’s at least six feet high, and I see Travis grinning triumphantly at me from the truck. I try to yell at him to let off, but a whipcrack of snapping chain and breaking glass cuts through the air before I can do more than grunt. That grin disappears in a red puff of cloud just before the big, rusted hook lands, red and wet, on the front hood. The stump pops from the ground like a giant cork and tumbles out of the hole. The truck lurches forward and the engine dies. Behind me, Old Arty’s voice builds up to a shriek, but Garth Brooks finally shuts the hell up.