We watched the fat paramedic drape a white sheet over the skinny man’s body. A wrecker loaded a blue Camaro. The windshield was bloodied and smashed. A girl our age cried on an older man’s shoulder. He wore coveralls and a Braves cap.
“Damn,” I said.
We sat with the radio on—“a Led Zep six-pack,” the DJ said—under an oak on Eddie Privette’s land. Bug, my partner, had hung a left when we saw the deputy holding traffic with his palm. Bug pulled my beater truck up the dirt drive toward a trailer we’d never seen before, turned around and parked under the tree facing the scene.
“Not damn,” Bug said. “Goddamn.”
We scouted cotton for Joe White’s Crop Services. Joe paid twelve dollars an hour, twenty cents a mile. I read the ad in my college’s paper: Scout cotton fields this summer. Work on your tan! We inspected fields for weeds and insects. We filled out paperwork, noting any problems, and Joe consulted his clients, like Eddie Privette, on spray recommendations.
Bug knew his Eastern North Carolina cotton pests like the back of his calloused hands. On the second day of training, Joe ran the film projector and said he’d buy lunch for the first man—Joe called us men—to describe the pest on the screen and its invasive impact. Bug raised his hand and the rest was history: Bug became Bug. I don’t remember his real name. Where I’m from, nicknames stick like white on rice.
“Lemme bum a cigarette,” Bug said. “I’ll owe you one.”
I pulled a Marlboro from my pack on the sun-cracked dashboard. Traffic was backed up as hell on the country road. We were glad to be away from it.
“Perks of the job,” I said.
“You damn right.”
Bug drove a decent Silverado, but when Joe paired us that morning—some days we worked solo, others we worked in pairs—Bug asked if we could take my piece of shit instead. He said he had a date that night and didn’t want his baby dirtied. His baby. This was my third time working with Bug. He’d been fine before, but was acting strange.
“Reds,” he said. “Cancer sticks.”
I looked in my rearview mirror. A dude in his late twenties in a wifebeater with a shaved head stepped onto the trailer’s stoop. The yard was cluttered with combat-themed gnomes I’d seen in Phil’s Guns & Ammo: traditional ones in pointy hats armed with M16s and Uzis. Some crouched. Others lay flat on their stomachs. All aimed at imaginary foes. A tricycle lay on its side next to a black Bronco. We weren’t trespassing. Any truck with a Joe White’s door magnet was allowed on client property. Eddie, like other farmers, leased trailer lots and farmhouses. Tenants were told we’d be around.
“Clearing up,” Bug said.
The wrecker and paramedics left in opposite directions. The cops interviewed the girl. The older man rubbed her shoulders.
“That’s right, daddy,” Bug said. “A daddy’s there for his girl.”
“How’d you know he’s her daddy?”
“I’m psychic,” he said.
Wifebeater approached the truck.
“Oh,” Bug said to me. “You see Skinhead?”
I looked in my rearview again.
“Yeah. Least he ain’t a dog.”
Once or twice a week, a mongrel bitch would barrel out from beneath a porch, puppies yapping, to bare its teeth and chase our ankles. Wifebeater sidled up to Bug’s door.
“I seen it happen,” Wifebeater said.
Bug stabbed his cigarette in the ashtray. I cupped my hand against an air vent. My right thumb was raw. We’d pull ten unripe bolls per field. We’d slice the bolls with a thumbnail and peel the green shell. The cotton was slimy and hissed, and would be flecked brown or black if damaged. Ten bolls told the field’s story.
“This weather’s something,” Bug said.
“Yep,” Wifebeater said, winking. “Think it’ll snow?”
“Watch the truck,” Bug said to me. “I’ll be back.”
“Okay,” I said, “but it’s my truck anyway.”
“I’m serious,” he said, and stepped into the yard with Wifebeater.
I slid into the driver’s seat.
Ten minutes later Bug hopped in the passenger seat and fiddled with his nose. Then he rubbed his hands, sniffled, and asked for a tissue.
“Go,” he said.
“Look in the glove box,” I said. “Dairy Queen napkins.”
I realized “snow” meant cocaine. I was his accomplice. I wasn’t perfect. I’d smoked weed with suitemates. But I was smart about it. Time and place. Bug blew his bloody nose.
“What the hell, Bug?”
“You know what.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“The hell you don’t.”
I drove toward John Sanderson’s first fields. We carried a book of laminated maps with client farms and routes, but I’d memorized Sanderson’s land.
“It’s no big deal,” Bug said.
He wiped his face with a napkin.
“No big deal?”
I turned down the dirt road leading to fields one through seven, but didn’t get ten yards before a walleyed mutt jumped in front of my truck. It didn’t move—just stared and wagged its stupid tongue. The dog looked like it’d been smacked with a softball bat every day of its life.
“It wants to play,” Bug said.
I mashed the horn and the dog scurried to the side. I touched the gas and it nipped my tires.
“Speed up,” Bug said.
I didn’t mess with country dogs. Sooner or later, you’d leave your truck and wade hundreds of yards into high cotton. The dog might have friends you didn’t see on your way in who’d show up. And if you fucked with the wrong one on your way out, it would remember. The kinds of dogs I’m talking about hold grudges.
“Dog’s gonna be pissed,” I said, “but okay.”
I floored it. Dirt sprayed everywhere. The dog disappeared. Bug held his stomach and howled.
“Dog’ll be choking for an hour,” he said.
“I can’t believe you bought that shit,” I said. “At work.”
“Man,” he said. “You my mom?”
“I’m the guy whose truck you drove to a trailer on a client’s property to score crack.”
“Coke,” he said.
He dangled a miniature Baggie in my face.
“Jesus. Put that away.”
“Could be worse,” he said. “Could be angel dust. I could be buck naked, banging my head against the dash.”
I parked between the field and woods. A black cat ignored us and licked its paws.
“Here kitty,” Bug said.
The cat yawned.
“You’re daddy’s kitty,” he said.
“Daddy’s high as fuck,” I said.
Bug patted his pocket.
“I put it away, per your orders, Mom.”
“I’ll get fields four through seven,” he said.
I was glad to be rid of him.
I’d finished my fields when I heard Bug yell and the dog bark.
“I’ll kill you,” he screamed.
I ran to the truck. Cotton stalks smacked my legs. I watched for copperheads and rattlers. My biggest fear was stepping on a snake in a field. Another scout, Ricardo, saw a seven-foot diamondback on his first day. There were also fire ant hills.
“Goddamn,” Bug said.
I reached the truck.
“I’m coming,” I said.
I stopped at field seven Bug swung a stick in the air and backed toward the truck.
“Hurry,” I said.
“I got this,” he said.
The dog growled.
“You daddy’s girl,” he said.
“Almost there,” I said.
I opened the door.
“You’s a good girl,” he cooed.
He dropped the stick. The dog had proven its point.
“Get in,” I said, and hit the gas before he could shut the door.
We returned to Wifebeater’s trailer at lunch break. Bug had left his wallet on the coffee table and called Wifebeater from the payphone outside Willie’s Speed Mart, a cinder block hole-in-the-wall. I bought a MoonPie and Pepsi from Willie’s son.
“Vacation,” the son said. “Daytona Beach.”
“He deserves it,” I said.
Willie was never there. Only his son and daughter. I’d never met Willie and wondered if he actually existed.
“He’ll be back next Monday,” the daughter said.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll drop in to say hello.”
We pulled up to Wifebeater’s. He waved us in from the kitchen window.
“You gotta come inside,” Bug said.
“He wants to meet you.”
I wanted to punch Bug in the face. I didn’t want trouble. I showed up on time. Kept my mouth shut. Head down. Nose clean. Wrote good field reports. And why would he want to meet me? I wasn’t a customer.
“This is bullshit, Bug.”
“I’ll owe you two reds.”
“You’ll owe me more than reds.”
Bug and I sat on a couch across from Wifebeater in a rocking chair. Deer heads adorned the wood-paneled walls. A dream catcher hung above a bookshelf filled with truck stop knickknacks. Bug played with his wallet’s chain. Wifebeater, or Darrell, called himself a storyteller.
“I seen the Mexican dive into her car,” he said.
The TV blared General Hospital. No one else was home and I damn sure didn’t ask questions. The kid could be at school. The wife could be at work. Maybe he had neither.
“Can’t blame him,” Bug said. “They’re treated like shit.”
I remembered Joe explaining the differences between documented and undocumented migrants. The undocumented aren’t protected by labor laws, aren’t provided housing, and are easily deported. None of Joe’s farmers used illegal labor. He wouldn’t stand for it. Joe said the documented ones had it rough, too, and we had it made compared to most of the world.
“I was looking out the window,” Darrell said. “Watching for the mail truck. He stuck his thumb out.”
“Hitchhiking?” Bug said.
On the TV, a gray-haired man caressed a younger woman with flowing brown hair I recognized from a Pantene commercial. They stood atop a cliff. The man’s back faced the edge.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment,” the man said. “All my life.”
“Me too,” the woman said.
“Go on,” Bug said.
“As her car neared, he stood on his toes.”
“Like a diver,” Bug said.
“You’re in my house.”
Bug raised his hands.
“Sorry,” he said.
“And he dove into her windshield. Timed it perfectly.”
I wasn’t surprised he killed himself, the way the windshield was smashed.
“Hotter than hell,” Darrell said.
His window AC was cranked to the max and vibrated. Water dripped on the carpet.
“Hotter than a two-dollar pistol,” I said.
“That one’s my favorite,” Darrell said.
The soap returned from a commercial break and the woman pushed her man off the cliff. His hands flailed and he yelled her name, Deborah, as he fell to his death.
“It had to be done,” Deborah whispered.
Outside, an engine idled. Darrell went to the window.
“Company,” he said.
“We’re leaving,” Bug said.
“See y’all again,” Darrell said.
The car was an older, gray Impala. The driver wore a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses and stared straight ahead.
“He’s waiting for us to leave,” Bug said.
“I know,” I said.
I peeled out and drove fifteen over, but remembered Bug’s Baggie and tapped the brakes. A deer shot across the road.
“Good timing,” Bug said.
I took a left toward more Sanderson fields. Five years before, a female scout for another consulting company was abducted in one of those back fields. She was stuffed in a trunk by a nutcase rapist. Authorities found her body in the Tar River and arrested the man at his mother’s house.
“Scary shit,” Bug said.
I let him out first. The back fields were too far to reach by foot.
“Be careful,” he said.
Bug worked another three weeks before he was canned for missing several days. We guessed relapse since he seemed fine at the beginning of the summer. Around that time, Darrell’s trailer was seized, and the lot sat vacant until a family of five plopped its double-wide on it. I never worked for Joe again after that summer, but I used him as a reference. I got a job selling cars after graduation. Not bad for a dude with a sociology degree. I’m considering grad school. Maybe social work. My professor said we need more male social workers. We’ll see.
“You were a good scout,” Joe said at the summer’s end barbecue.
“I learned a lot,” I said.
“Some things you don’t learn in school.”
Joe knew all the local gossip, and I listened and grew wiser. He told me about the skinny man. Investigators confirmed his identity and notified his relatives in Mexico. “John Doe” was Ernesto Aguilar. The toxicology report revealed PCP. I remembered Bug’s comment in the truck and searched the Internet for symptoms: proclivity to strip clothes and self-harm. I saw the potential connection to Darrell, the storyteller, but I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted more. I wanted Ernesto’s story. I wanted to interview the girl and fat paramedic. I wanted answers, but sometimes there are none. Sometimes you can only imagine a man who is lonely and depressed, who misses his wife and kids, who works long, hard hours priming tobacco, who becomes addicted to PCP, who doesn’t know much English but likes the way “angel dust” sounds on the tip of his tongue.
Michael Fischer’s writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Beloit Fiction Journal, Green Mountains Review, Phoebe, Natural Bridge, and several other places. This is his second appearance in Waccamaw. He’s a Visiting Assistant Professor at Wabash College.