The day you die is usually a day that didn’t go according to plan. Of course, you never think about things like this on a normal day.
Instead, today I’m thinking about work as I get out of my truck and put my hard hat on. I’m thinking of my wife, who I miss already.
There’s still a bitter chill to the edge of the wind. It’s spring, but in name only. It seems like winter is kicking us in the shins on the way out, and it’s supposed to snow again tonight. In April. I just shake my head at the gray sky, because what can you do? At least the ground finally thawed out enough for us to break ground on the condo project.
I tip my hat at Ms. Josephine, the homeless woman, as I walk by.
“Ms. Josephine, good morning.”
She sits out here on the last piece of sidewalk of the city and talks to herself. How she’s made it through winter so far, I’m not sure, because her coat looks threadbare. That makes me pause, and dig some cash out of my wallet.
She looks up at me and nods, her frizzy salt and pepper hair bobbing. She reaches up to shake my hand, so I return the gesture, but then I slip the bills into her cold fingers and curl them around them.
“Go get out of the cold awhile, and get yourself something warm to eat. They say it’s going to snow tonight.”
She flashes me a clear look and nods again. “I will. Bless you.”
She doesn’t get up to spend her money, and she doesn’t say anything more. Sighing, I tip my hat and walk on. “Good day, Ms. Josephine.”
I jog up the steps of the foreman’s trailer and open the door. “Morning, Boss.”
“Shut the door, Grady, you’re letting the cold in,” he grouses in way of greeting. “And I saw that,” he adds, pointing a sharp finger at me. “That homeless woman out there? She’d move on if your bleeding heart didn’t keep giving her money. Some of us have to actually work for our money,” he huffs.
“Well, I do work for my money. So it’s my business what I do with it.” I say it as cheerfully as I can even though his attitude sets my teeth on edge.
After all, in the last few years, the majority of us in this city had been one bad decision, one family emergency, one bad illness or injury away from being homeless ourselves.
How quickly Biff forgets.
When he’d hired me, I’d been just as desperate for a job as he had been for decent workers to keep his business from going under.
He’s not usually this grumpy. I’d say we’re pretty good friends, as far as co-workers go. But like everybody, he has days he wants to be left alone, and I get the message loud and clear. And not I’m not about to let his sour mood ruin my day, either.
I clock in and tip my hat at him on the way out. He nods back, so at least I know it’s not really me aggravating him.
I make way around to the back, passing the huge wooden sign that shows a color picture of what the condominiums are going to look like. It seems impossible that this giant flat field of brown dirt will someday be that shiny new housing, with a park-like lawn out front for families to enjoy, but it’s our hard work that makes it happen.
I greet the crew and I’m ready to get started when I see something that makes me pause.
Stomping over to Travis in the excavator, I climb up on the step and make the sign for him to cut the engine.
He does and says, “What’s up, Grady?”
I tap my plastic-covered, protected head. “Hard hats required.”
Sheepish, he says, “Oh yeah. Sorry. I’ll go get it on.”
“You do that. Safety first.” I pat him on the shoulder, because he’s forgetful, but he’s a good guy.
And then I go about my day, working hard, and definitely not thinking of how people could fool you when it comes to their true nature.
It’s already snowing when it’s time to leave for the day, the world hazing behind millions of tiny blowing snowflakes. It’s just starting to stick, so the other fellows waste no time leaving the parking lot and getting started for home. But my truck heater needs a little coaxing to get warm, and the steering wheel is just cold enough that I decide to wait for it, so it can blow on my hands as I drive home. My truck and Biff’s are the only ones left. Phone out, I text my wife. Reception is bad out here, so it’s the easiest way to communicate.
Just got off. Want me to bring home dinner?
No, I’m cooking.
What are you making?
Ah yes, chicken something. My favorite. My breath puffs out in front of me as I chuckle. Maisie is a great cook, but a bit like a mad scientist or an artist in her methods. She never knows what she’s going to cook until she starts doing it. Lucky for me, I’m not picky and it’s delicious and satisfying 99% percent of the time.
We don’t talk about that other 1%, because she’s also a perfectionist and sensitive, and feels bad when she burns dinner or adds too much salt. Or heaven forbid, makes something with kale.
Be safe, her last message says.
Always, I text back.
The gravel crunches beneath my tires as I pull out of the parking lot.
As I make my turn, I just happen to look over at the site. Huddled against the fence is Ms. Josephine, the snow starting to build up on her coat and hair.
That image sticks with me.
When I get to the first stop light, the roads are empty and the red blinking light makes the snow look red as it blinks on and off.
No one’s coming, but I don’t move. It’s cold, it’s snowing, and Ms. Josephine is sleeping on the sidewalk.
Would I find her dead when I came in to work tomorrow? Frozen to death?
There was more cash in my wallet than I’d given her this morning. I could give it to her. It would make things a little tighter for the week, but I couldn’t imagine my wife being pissed about that. She’s the tender-hearted one. No way she’d give me crap for getting a homeless person a hotel room on an unusually cold night.
I make a u-turn and pull up to the fence. Ms. Josephine hasn’t moved. I put the truck in park and get out, squatting on the sidewalk in front of her.
She looks up from her hood, and I puff out a little sigh of relief that she isn’t already dead. I hadn’t been totally sure, covered in snow as she was.
I take out my wallet and hand her the wad of cash. “It’s too cold to sleep out here. Go get out of the weather awhile, and get yourself something warm to eat.”
“Thank you.” She looks up at me and nods, the frizzy salt and pepper hair poking out from her hood bobbing. But she doesn’t get up to spend her money, and she doesn’t say anything more. I sigh and look around.
That’s when I see the glow from behind the office trailer, amplified by the white snowflakes falling through it. They were picking up speed. Someone had left the yard lamp on, probably Travis, but it could wait a little longer. I’m not sure Ms. Josephine could.
“You don’t have any way to get anywhere else, do you?”
After a moment of hesitation, she shakes her head.
Looks like I was going to be late for dinner. Hand out, I say, “C’mon Ms. Josephine. I’ll give you a ride.” I can’t call her a taxi or rent her a hotel with the crappy cell service, so I’d have take her in person.
“Thank you, bless you.” She grabs my hand with her two weathered brown ones and I tug her up gently. She looks stiff. She has to be, after sitting out in the weather all day.
I grab the full black trash bag she always has with her and toss it in the bed of my truck. We get in, and she presses her hands to the heater vents as I crank up the blower.
“Is there somewhere else I can take you? Besides a hotel?” Perhaps the Salvation Army, but they’d probably be full on a night like this.
She briefly meets my eyes, but shakes her head. “No.”
“Okay, no problem.” I take out my phone and text my wife.
Going to be a few minutes late.
Okay. Love you.
She’s probably already cooking, or she would have asked why. Smiling, I send my last text. Love you too.
Ms. Josephine notices me grinning like a fool. “Your wife?” she asks, motioning at the phone.
“Yeah.” My grin turns into a full-blown smile. “She’s great.”
“How long have you been together?”
“We’ve been married five years.” And I’m still as lovesick as the day we married. I’m a lucky guy and I know it.
Ms. Josephine smiles at my obvious infatuation, and it’s a nice smile, a warm smile.
“How about you? You married?”
Her smile falters, and I mentally kick myself. I was only trying to make polite conversation, but I should know better. If she was married, she wouldn’t be homeless.
“I was married, but he is passed on,” she says in her thick accent. “Ten years ago now.”
“I’m sorry.” I can’t imagine losing my spouse. Just the thought makes my heart contract in pain.
“Any other family?”
“My daughter. But she lives out of state.”
“Do you want me to call her?” I ask, gently, as I pull away from the curb.
But she shakes her head. “She does not know the condition I am in.” Ms. Josephine looks down at her hands. “And she would not understand.”
Was that true? Maybe, maybe not. But I don’t presume to understand her circumstances or family dynamics, so I leave it alone with a nod.
After we park at the hotel, I open Ms. Josephine’s door for her. She stands there a minute, straightening her clothes and smoothing her hair while I grab her bag out of the back.
She gives me a nod and I lead the way through the double doors.
When we go to the desk to check her in, the desk clerk looks down his nose at her. Glaring at him, I sign the credit card slip for her room. She doesn’t deserve anyone’s disdain for simply being down on her luck.
“Do you want me to carry your bag up for you?”
“Thank you, but no,” she says with a smile, and reaches out her hand.
We shake and she thanks me again for the room.
“No problem, Ms. Josephine. Take care of yourself.”
“Thank you, I will. And I have the feeling we will see each other again. Very soon.”
“Not too soon, I hope. It’s supposed to still be chilly tomorrow. Stay here as long as you can and then find someplace warm to stay, okay?”
With a smile and I wave, I exit the hotel and go back to my truck. I’ve still got to swing back by work and turn off the yard light before I can go home and eat dinner with my Maisie.
When I get out of my truck back at the site to shut off the light, I pop my collar. The snow is getting heavier now. But then I pause between steps.
In the deep silence of dark snowfall, I hear something. It’s the engine of the backhoe.
I pause for a second to make sure, but there it is. I’d heard that sound five days a week for years now; there is no mistaking it.
What the hell?
I walk through the opening of the fence and out behind the trailer, behind all the other parked equipment and stacked supplies. In the glow of the portable lights I’d returned to shut off, I see Travis in the backhoe, no damn hard hat on, and Biff standing there beside some guy in a suit. Behind them are two larger fellows standing there with their arms crossed.
I’m pissed about Travis not wearing his hard hat and confused as to why these guys are still at the site after hours. I don’t notice the most important detail until it’s much too late.
He turns and looks at me, eyes wide. The suit beside him turns slower. Then Biff’s face turns red and he stomps over to me. “What the hell are you doing here, Grady? You should have gone home.”
“I started to, but the homeless lady was out in the snow. I came back to call her a taxi, but—”
“You shouldn’t have come back. Leave, right now.”
He grips my arm and turns me away from the others standing at the edge of the light, but the details are starting to filter into my brain now, and my heartbeat jacks up.
There are red barrels on a pallet with a ‘toxic’ symbol on the side. There are more barrels in the pit, some of them leaking, that Travis is covering with dirt.
“Biff, what’s going on here?” He yanks me around again as I try to look back at the scene.
“It’s none of your concern, Grady. I want you to go home to your wife, and forget about this. It’s nothing.”
“It’s not ‘nothing’.” I yank my arm out of his grip and stab it in the direction of the pit. “You’re burying toxic waste under the condo site. What the hell, Biff?”
Dozens of families were going to live there. With children. What would all that crap do to the soil? To the water supply? They weren’t even burying it that deep. “You’re going to make all those people sick!”
“No, I’m not. It’s nothing serious—” he begins. And though I work with my hands instead of my head, I’m not an idiot.
“I know what the symbol on the side of those barrels means,” I hiss. “It means you’re illegally dumping this crap where it’s going to harm a lot of people.”
“Told you he wouldn’t go for it,” I hear Travis call out from behind me. I turn to glare at him. The backhoe is off and he’s got one arm resting on the controls.
“Where the hell is your hardhat, Travis?”
“I’m off the clock,” he mutters, looking away.
I turn back to Biff. “You’ve got to stop this, Boss. You’re making a mistake. Why are you doing this?”
Biff scrubs his mouth with his hand. “Grady, you know how hard it’s been to recover from the recession. I had to do something to keep my business afloat. To keep my house, to eat, to live, Grady. I did what I had to do. I had to make sure my family would be okay. Surely, you understand that, don’t you?”
On some level I could. But I would never sacrifice other people’s health, their lives, for my own gain. “And now? The town’s doing better, you’re winning all the bids, so why are you doing this now?”
“A cushion, Grady. A way to weather any other surprises that come along. And hell,” he chuckles, “to be able to afford a vacation every now and then.”
Surely he couldn’t be that much of an ass, could he? Perhaps he saw the look on my face, because he grabs my arm and pulls me closer.
“I’ve tried to get out of the arrangement before, but those lab guys wouldn’t let me. I think they’ll kill me if I refuse.”
I sneak a look at the three guys standing to the side. There’s two big slabs of beef with clasped hands, and between them a faceless shadow in a top hat and a cane, and a glowing red cigar tip about where his mouth would be.
“I get it, I do. But you’ve got to stop this, Biff. You know it’s wrong.” I lean in closer to him. “I’m sure you were coerced into this. Tell the police what you know, and you won’t go to jail.” Probably, anyway. There’s something in his eyes, something like regret. I’m getting through to him. “I’ll vouch for you, you know I will.”
“You’re right.” He puts a hand on my shoulder, and pats it. “Let’s go talk to Mr. Poisson.”
We walk toward the suit, standing there in pressed clothes and shiny black shoes with a bright halo of light from the portable lamp behind him.
I put my hand up against the glare, trying to see his face. Right as I do, he takes a deep drag of his cigar and lights up the bottom half of his face. It’s painted like a skull, and a jolt of apprehension travels down my spine.
“Mr. Poisson, Grady here knows what we’re doing here is wrong.”
“You’re going to make these families ill—” I start.
Mr. Poisson puts up a hand and snaps, and suddenly the two dark shapes come out of the dark and one grabs me, twisting my arms behind my back. Biff goes back to stand next to the suit.
My heart is beating in my throat as my shoulders ache. I see what’s happening here now.
“Don’t do this, Boss.” I beg. I thought I got through to him, I thought he understood.
Somberly, he nods at the two meat-heads at my back, and that’s my only warning.
My knees are kicked out from behind me, and I fall into the dirt, hollering as my arms are twisted higher. My shoulders burn with pain but only for a second. The second guy steps in front of me and punches me so hard in the jaw that I fall sideways into the dirt, arms wrenched free of their hold. But they’re numbish now, and tingly, and I struggle to get them under me to lift myself up.
Blood from my mouth drips down into the soft dirt and makes little balls. Before I can get upright, there’s a hard kick to my side that lifts me up and knocks the wind out of me, and I’m laying there clutching my broken ribs with my burning arms, trying to catch my breath.
But the same kind of people who would bury toxic waste at a residential site are the same kind of people who kick you when your down. And they did, over and over, until I couldn’t feel any one individual pain. Everything hurts. I could barely breathe and ended up heaving in the dirt with a sharp kick to my stomach.
I meet Biff’s eyes for a second while I lay there. Then I look at Travis, but he looks away. They start stomping my legs.
They don’t stop. And they’re not going to until they’re good and ready, and there’s nothing I can do. I can’t even catch a breath. A throbbing numbness sets in. It’s like I’m drunk on too much tequila and all the blows are just dull thuds against my body. The pain is there, but distant.
“Maybe we should stop now, Boss. I’m sure he won’t tell.” Travis sounds nervous.
“Do you want your bonus or not?”
The blows keep coming. They’re going to kill me. My friends. Men who I’ve worked with for years. Who I’ve been to the bar with dozens of times. Who I’ve barbecued with and met their families.
“Enough,” I hear someone say, but I’m not sure who. There’s blood in my eyes and ringing in my ears, and my body feels like it’s encased in liquid nitrogen. A burning, painful cold. But that one word is my Hail Mary. I’m going to live. And as strong as my morals were, my desire to live was stronger. To see my wife again.
“I won’t—” I cough, spitting out coppery blood into the dirt, but I know I have to get the words out to save my life. “I’ll leave. I won’t say a word to anyone.” I heave in a breath. “I’ll forget I saw anything.” I’m not proud of myself, but self-preservation is a strong instinct.
Someone kneels beside me, blocking the bright light. I can’t see through the blood in my eyes, but it’s Biff, because somehow I can still smell his cologne over the blood and dirt and my broken nose.
“I know you won’t, Grady.”
I nod, to reinforce it. But he continues.
“I’m sorry, man. I already gave you that chance. You should have minded your own business.”
That doesn’t sound like my Hail Mary. “Wait—” I groan.
Hands roll me over, and I’m falling for a second, until I hit hard dirt. And then more dirt hits me, on the back, as I struggle to get on my hands and knees. I try again. But my body is weak, and the dirt is heavy, and more keeps landing on me.
When it’s too heavy for me to push up on my arms, the helplessness gets to me and I cry out.
They’re burying me alive.
I struggle to swim up and out of the soil, but it’s packing around me, trapping me. I can’t get out from under all this dirt, and it’s getting in my eyes, my nose, my mouth as I gasp for the disappearing air.
In seconds, I’m locked into place, encased in soil, being squeezed from all sides.
Everything throbs with pain and panic. But I don’t really feel it much. The pain doesn’t matter. The situation doesn’t matter. The betrayal doesn’t even matter anymore. All that matters is that I already miss my wife, and this is going to hurt her so bad. I love her so much, I don’t want her to hurt.
Maisie, beautiful Maisie. Her smiling face appears before me, and I reach for her.
I have to get home to her. I have to hold her, to kiss her, to tell her I love her, and everything is going to be okay.
With the weight of the world on my chest, I reach one last time for her. But I’m out strength, out of air.
Out of time.