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#15

The Trench-Digger



            Rodney sat on the bench in the locker room at the end of his first day with A-Plus Elite Trenches and struggled to keep it together. His back burned and shook with pain.

            Rodney’s boss was talking to Sam, his favorite employee. “I wish we could clone you, Sam!”

            “Yeah, right,” said Sam, smiling.

            “Seriously, buddy, we could use a thousand workers like you.”

            “I just love to dig a trench,” said Sam, looking over at Rodney who was crying bitter tears because he hated digging trenches so, so, so much.

            The boss followed Sam’s gaze over to Rodney and said, “Now that is a worker I would not clone.” He said it loud enough for Rodney to hear. Rodney sobbed.

            “Well. Ha ha,” said Sam. “No one’s actually getting cloned.”

            “You never know!” shouted the boss. “You never know what scientists are doing behind closed doors.”

            “They’re counting their money,” said Rodney. “And they’re putting on their jackets ‘cause their air conditioning’s cranked up so high.” He looked up from his tattered boots and tried not to breathe in through his nose. The smell of his own acrid sweat made him ill. He thought he probably had sunstroke.

            The boss rolled his eyes. “Yeah, that’s exactly what I need. A thousand clones of that.” He jerked his thumb over at Rodney and smirked at Sam.

            Rodney felt an inch high. He glared at Sam as the boss sauntered into his office and closed the door. “Thanks for sticking up for me, teammate,” he said.

            “Rodney,” said Sam. “No one’s getting cloned. My wife would kill me if I got cloned.” He laughed. “She’d have to pack a thousand lunches!”

            “No she wouldn’t,” said Rodney. “They’d just clone her too. Those clones would be packing one lunch a piece.”

            Sam wiped himself with a clean yellow towel in silence, turning it black with filth. Rodney watched him, fighting the urge to start crying again. He couldn’t even close his hands all the way. He couldn’t make fists and he couldn’t straighten his back all the way when he tried to sit upright.

            Sam started whistling and Rodney recognized the tune as Stravinsky. “What’s that you’re whistling?” he asked Sam.

            “No idea,” said Sam. “I made it up.”

            “I quit,” said Rodney, and he threw up very, very weakly in his own lap.

            “OK,” said Sam. “But you have to tell the boss, not me.”

            Rodney hobbled over to the boss’s office and pushed open the door without knocking. Inside, the boss was sitting at his desk with Polaroid pictures of the day’s trenches spread out in front of him. He glanced up at Rodney and said, “Now this doesn’t look like the two-weeks-notice kind of quitting.” He flashed his teeth. “Crying and puking usually precedes the more cowardly ‘you’ll-never-see-me-again’ kind of quitting. But maybe I’m wrong?”

 

            On his way home, Rodney felt as low as he could recall feeling in a long time. He was ashamed of himself, of his frailty, his impotence, of displaying his weaknesses so openly in front of Sam and the boss. Sitting at a stoplight at a quiet intersection in a nice neighborhood with lots of big trees reaching their branches toward each other over the fresh blacktop, Rodney contemplated driving back to A-Plus Elite Trenches to slash the tires on the boss’s pickup truck. But first he’d have to run by the hardware store to buy a knife. And that meant he’d either have to drive across town to the big chain store, or he’d have to find an ATM since Brayless Hardware was cash only. Or maybe this whole plan was just pathetic, it was impossible for Rodney to reclaim any of his lost power, and he really was the kind of man to just cry, throw up, and trickle away after one day of back-breaking labor.

            Just as the traffic light changed from red to green, a sleek, gray little car blundered right into Rodney’s rear end with a grinding crunch, sliding his car halfway out into the intersection before both vehicles came to a screeching halt with their bumpers entangled. “Why?” screamed Rodney, pounding his steering wheel with his blistered, sunburned hands.

            He unfastened his seatbelt, wearily opened the car door, and eased himself out into the street to inspect the damage. The driver of the gray car was a young girl, just a little teenager, and when she saw Rodney limping toward her, her eyes went wide with fear, she let out a small scream, and jammed the button for her power window with a trembling finger.

            “Wait,” said Rodney just as the window closed all the way. The girl, her face pale, her lips pressed together in a bloodless line, shook her head from side to side and Rodney heard the locks on her doors click shut. He tapped on her window, but she just hid her face in her hands. Her shoulders began to heave up and down and Rodney realized that she was crying. Rodney could see his reflection in the window, and sure, he didn’t look great, but he certainly didn’t think he looked frightening. “Miss,” he said, tapping on the window with his knuckle. “Miss? I’m not going to hurt you.”

            “Don’t hurt me!” said the girl with a whimper. Rodney could hardly hear her through the glass.

            “I just said I’m not going to,” said Rodney.

            “Don’t hurt me!” screamed the girl, suddenly clawing through her purse and pulling out her cell phone.

            Rodney sighed and walked back over to his car, leaning against the crumpled back end and crossing his sore arms over his sore chest while he waited for the police to arrive, their sirens even now drawing closer. He glanced over at the girl and saw her still talking on the phone in apparent hysterics. Several cars rolled slowly around the accident in the intersection, their drivers rubbernecking with blank, pitiless faces.

            Two police cars rounded the corner down the street, sirens warbling, and crept to an unhurried stop behind the girl’s car. Rodney gave the officers a little wave as they exited their vehicles. The first cop, a tall Hispanic man with sunglasses, ambled over to Rodney while the other cop, a woman with close-cropped blonde hair, tapped on the girl’s window.

            “What happened?” asked the first cop, surveying the damaged vehicles with his hands on his hips. “You OK?”

            “She rear-ended me,” said Rodney. “I’m fine.”

            “You don’t look fine,” said the cop.

            “Well, I am fine,” said Rodney.

            The cop looked over at the girl, who had rolled her window down and was gasping and sobbing as she pointed at Rodney. The female cop was trying to calm her down, but it wasn’t working.

            “What’d you do to the girl?” asked the male cop.

            “Nothing,” said Rodney.

            “Did you threaten her? Did you make a threatening gesture?”

            “No,” said Rodney. “That,” he said as he pointed at the wailing teenager, “is an overreaction.”

            The cop gazed at Rodney in silence from behind his sunglasses. Rodney didn’t need to see the cop’s eyes to know he didn’t believe him. He was about to explain himself further, when a mini-van roared around the corner and skidded to a stop right next to the girl’s car. A woman in a bathrobe, her hair still dripping from the shower, jumped out of the driver’s seat and the girl shouted “Mom!” and burst out of her car to meet her mother halfway between the two vehicles, running to embrace her in the street and sobbing against her breast.

            Rodney approached the girl and her mother with caution, his hands extended palms upward in front of him. “Ma’am,” he said. “I don’t know why she-“

            “Shut up,” said the girl’s mother, eyes blazing. “Get away from her.”

            Rodney stopped, helpless. As he backed away, the teenage girl, her cheeks wet with tears, turned away from her mother’s chest for just a moment to look at him, and Rodney was stunned by the naked terror on her face.

            He wished with all his heart that Sam and the boss could have seen that face.