Year I turned foreman, a guy I used to know by Cocaine Tommy calls me up and asks can I get him a job. Says he needs a fresh start after a 180-day bit in the Big Muddy River so he can do right by his kid. Can I give him a chance?
So I did. I always liked that scraggly jailbird, and anyway we apprenticed together and used to be tight. And he did try to do right by his kid as far as I could tell. Sam, her name was. Six years old. We’d see her all the time because her Meemaw—the mama’s mama—would swing her by every Friday for Tommy’s three hours’ unsupervised. Jane, that was the Meemaw’s name, took care of Sam since the mama couldn’t.
She was a tough old lady, that Jane, but kind. Right before Memorial Day, she let Tommy take Sam for a long weekend as a reward for keeping out trouble. I remember because she dropped off Sam on a Thursday night.
“Don’t you call sick,” I warned after Jane drove away. “Tomorrow’s a work day.”
Tommy tousled Sam’s stringy hair. “I ain’t calling sick. It’s gonna rain.”
Above us the sky showed nothing but blue.
“How you figure that?” I wanted to know.
“Sammy, baby, we’re going to show Mr. Jerry here how to make a rain turtle.”
“A turtle, Daddy?”
“Rain turtle, baby. We’ll make it from pebbles—and it’s got to be actual rocks, not dirt—then draw a circle around it with a twig off a tree, and then spit on the top while asking the Great Spirit for rain.”
At “Great Spirit,” Sam giggled. Tommy grinned. He said he learned the trick from Sam’s Peepaw before he died, and the Peepaw learned it from some type of Indian back in the Great Depression.
“Oh, and we can never forget where the turtle is, baby. That’s the most important part. You have to knock it over when the rain you asked for comes.”
Tommy and Sam made their turtle beneath a sapling on the side of our garage, and sure as shit, the next day I had to call it in for rain. Damned thing netted Tommy a four-day weekend. At work that next Tuesday, as a special fuck-you to me, he wore a T-shirt he picked up at the Fox River Family Fun Fest. “Friday Fishing Derby,” it said. “Rain or Shine, We Cast the Line.”
Two things happened after that. First was drought. Brutal heat and dryness. Not a drop of rain for weeks and weeks. Second, Tommy got back together with his old lady. Said they were going to do it right this time, get their acts together. Goal was to get Sam to live with them by fall.
I was happy for them, but addicts are volatile and two in love explosive. Wasn’t long before Tommy started coming off the rails. Sloppy work. Frequent lateness. Some bullshit about needing a more reliable car. After a few months, I could hardly recognize the guy. He lost weight and packed on grease and filth. He looked his worst when I found him on his hands and knees one afternoon looking for what he said was a lost bag of weed.
“Back to work,” I remember telling him. “We’ll track it down later.”
“Come on,” he pleaded.
“‘Come on,’ what? Little bag of grass? I’ll give you some of mine after work.”
“Look, I’m just really freaking about getting caught, OK? Like one of these kids around here finds it and tells their parents or maybe worse the cops?”
I laughed. “Like the cops will care.”
Tommy tucked his chin to chest and whimpered.
“Goddammit, Tommy, what’s wrong with you?”
“Sam, Boss. I can’t fuck this up. Jane is super-pissed about me and Suzy, and so is my bitch P.O. They’re not going to let us see Sam any more, OK? I’m dying. Suzy’s dying. Every night that woman cries for her baby.”
“After the job, Tommy.”
“Listen, if your kid is so important, maybe you shouldn’t be smoking at all.”
“You’re right. You’re right.”
“OK then. Jesus.”
“Just help me find the bag.”
I remember clenching my fists and thinking hard about the Polish brutes in the day labor pool out by Army Trail Road. “Look, Tommy,” I told him. “I’ll help you, but you make the choice: we finish up the day first, or we look now. We do it now, I want you gone as soon as we find it.”
Tommy nodded vacantly. “OK.”
“OK help me find the bag.”
So we looked. Stupid thing showed up in some mulch near by where he thought he lost it. Tommy snatched it up before I could check it out, but I doubt it was buds he had in there.
I never saw Tommy again after that. Years later, though, I did bump into Jane. On a rain day, matter of fact. Terrible storm, it was. Sheets of rain crashed down on cars and trucks, and I had to pull into the Olympia Grill on Route 59 to wait it out. Jane worked the smoking section—empty but for me—and we had ourselves a real nice chat. She even showed me a picture of Sam all grown up. Two full sleeves of tattoo ink covered her arms. Beautiful work, too—not at all like the blurry blue jailhouse scratching on the neck and chest of her old man. At first I thought it was blossoms and berries she had on there, but looking closer I saw it was tackle. Oversize fly-lure showstoppers on her shoulders, and brightly colored spoon lures, spinners, and bladed jigs trickling down.
According to Jane, Sam rented a chair at some high-end salon near the country club in Aurora. Said I should stop by some time. She’d turn my white hair blonde again. Give me highlights. Bring out my eyes.
Big Hark is a writer from Chicago.
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