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Oregon Grind by Rick Attig

 

Rick Attig is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer at The Oregonian newspaper in Portland. He has a MFA from Pacific University.

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In the thin shade of the ragged stand of poplars, Foster raised a fist of bloody gauze into the air. “I ought to just tell them to fuck off,” he said.

JeriLou took a sip of her coffee and smiled across the picnic table sitting behind the coffee cart, where the highway noise wasn’t so bad. “Hon, don’t you think you’ve given them enough fingers?”

Foster set his hands on the scarred table. He’d lost his left forefinger with the snap of a band-saw blade, the pinkie on the same hand with the kickback of a cutoff saw and, just that morning, the middle finger of his right hand caught in the belt of debarking machine and flung into the shattered bark rumbling up to the shredder. They’d made half-hearted attempts to save the first two, the foreman handing the bloody pieces to the EMTs, the emergency room doctors tossing them away with barely a glance. But Foster’s ground-up fuck-you finger was in the pulp somewhere. In a few weeks, it’d be part of a cardboard cozy on a Starbucks cup.

JeriLou took another sip. “I haven’t lost a one, but I’m done with that mill.”

“I got to go back,” Foster said. “I don’t know anything else.”

“I don’t either,” JeriLou said, staring off at the green streak of the Santiam River below the highway. “But that’s no reason.”

Foster looked over his cup, remembering JeriLou as he’d seen her the first time, pulling two-by-sixes off the green chain all those years ago, not the gaunt woman who sat across from him grasping her coffee in both hands. They always talked about getting out of the mill when Foster drove her down to Salem for her chemo, JeriLou slumped against the door, stocking cap pulled low, him clutching the wheel, looking straight ahead, both hanging on the best they could. It used to be an easy hour’s drive down the canyon to Salem. Today he’d made the ride in an ambulance, blood splattered all over his jeans and sweatshirt, JeriLou right behind in the old pickup.

“What are you going to do?” Foster asked.

She put down her cup, smiled, and opened her hands wide over the picnic table: “This.”

“What?”

“Open one of these coffee carts. Up the highway by our place.”

“Jeri, you make shitty coffee.”

“What do you know? You drink Sanka.”

Foster grinned at her. “Only ‘cause I can’t stand yours.”

JeriLou started to reach across the table for his hands, but stopped at the gauze. “Don’t tease me. I’m going to do it and you’re going to build it for me.”

“Build what?”

“The cart.”

“Jeri.”

“I’m not going back in that mill.”

“A coffee cart?” He checked his watch to see if it was time for a pain pill.

She picked up her cup. “We could do it together.”

“What? Dish out fucking lattes, not too much foam? Do I get my own apron?”

“We wouldn’t have to answer to anyone.”

Foster heard a car pull up to the cart next to them. “Not me,” he said. “I’m not going to be anybody’s goddamn server.”

JeriLou shook her head. “What are you doing in the mill?”

“I’m not asking people whether they want cream or sugar.”

A semi roared by on the highway and JeriLou waited. She said, “You know the mill isn’t going to last. They’re down to one shift. They could shut it down any day now.”

She took another sip of coffee.

“And if I were you, I wouldn’t waste another finger on it.”

That night, after Foster fed the dogs and heated a chicken pot pie for JeriLou to pick at, she asked him for a pencil to make a list of what she’d need for the cart. Foster dug through the screws and batteries in the kitchen drawer, sharpened a broken pencil with a steak knife and found a scratch pad. JeriLou made a list of supplies—candy, chips, packaged muffins, juice, bottled water—and sketched a rough blueprint of a cart with a sliding window, cedar siding, even painted wooden lilacs, her favorite flowers, attached to the wall that would face the highway.

“Never mind those flowers, hon,” she said. “I was just doodling.”

The next day, she called all over the valley trying to find an espresso machine. “Christ, do you know how much they want for one of those things?” she said. Foster didn’t want to know. JeriLou kept looking, and a few days later he drove up to Portland alone, fought all that shitty traffic, and picked it up, a heavy steel box with a stainless steamer wand and valve knobs, emblazoned with the brand name “Grindmaster.” Foster paid cash, twenty-nine crisp one hundred dollar bills he’d emptied from their savings account that morning.

Back home, his sweatshirt soaked under his arms from the long drive, he took JeriLou’s hands and helped her off the couch. “Come look at it, hon,” he said.

The dogs, a fleet of five black-and-white Boston terriers, ran circles around them on the slow walk out to the garage, where Foster had left the heavy machine on his workbench. JeriLou twisted a shiny stainless knob.

Foster asked, “You think you can run this goddamn thing?”

“I don’t know. But if you can calibrate those fancy new laser-guided saws, you can show me how to make a cup of coffee.”

That night, lying in bed, woozy from her pain pills but unable to sleep, JeriLou kept adding to her business plan. “I’ll need a microwave,” she said, “so I can sell bags of hot popcorn.”

The mill bosses gave Foster two weeks of medical leave. Every morning he made a bowl of oatmeal that JeriLou wouldn’t touch and took a mug of Sanka out to the double garage. Even with his injured hand, he managed to frame the walls, cut headers for the window and back door and fit the cedar siding. It took him ten days to turn a Nickel Ad flat-bed trailer into a coffee cart. He jigsawed lilac shapes out of clear cedar and struggled with his left hand to paint in the tiny petals. He washed the streaks of purple off his hand before JeriLou could see them.

The next morning, JeriLou didn’t want to get up for breakfast. Foster came in and sat on the edge of the bed. “It’s ready,” he said. Foster led her out to the garage, her old bathrobe hanging from her narrow shoulders, hiding her missing breasts. He went inside and switched on the lights, then raised the garage door.

“Ta-da!” he said, voice cracking.

The hand-painted sign read “JeriLou’s Santiam Canyon Coffee & Expresso.”

JeriLou smiled, put her arms around Foster’s neck and kissed him. Her breath smelled like the smoke off a steel grinding wheel.

“It’s perfect, hon.”

.  .   .

On chemo day, he had to half-carry her out to the driveway and boost her up into the truck.

“Watch your hand,” she said. “God, we’re some pair.”

Her blouse rode up her back when Foster boosted her onto the seat, and when he walked back around the truck all he could see was that pale bruised skin.

They rode in silence the first few miles, then JeriLou glanced across the seat. “You ready to go back to work?”

“I guess.”

She looked out her window at the fir trees lining the highway. “I wish you’d help me open the cart.”

“Jeri, we been through this.”

She shook her head. “It’s different now.”

 “What’s different about it?”

“Well, look at me.”

Foster kept his eyes on the highway.

“I can’t do this without you.”

“Jeri, what’s the hurry? It’ll sit ’til you finish your treatments, get back on your feet.”

She smiled at him across the seat. “You’d make a mean latte.”

“I wouldn’t know the first fucking thing about it.”

“If anybody gives you trouble, you could do what you always do.”

“What’s that?”

“Give ’em a finger.”

JeriLou was still talking about the cart when they got to the cancer center, but one look and her doctor was on the phone to the hospital. That night, she twisted and bucked on the bed until a nurse throttled up the painkillers, Foster holding her hand as she eventually slipped into a coma. Foster spent two more nights in the chair by her bed, listening to the rasp of her breathing and the soft footsteps of the hospital staff. There was no last, convulsive breath. No sound. Things just grew quieter and quieter until a nurse came in.

Foster wandered out of the hospital into a bright mid-day sun, clutching the plastic bag that held JeriLou’s clothes. He walked up and down row after row of vehicles before he finally found the pickup.

Foster slowed automatically as he approached the gravel pullout near Stayton, but thought of sitting alone at that table under the poplars, stomped the accelerator, and drove up the Santiam Canyon, following the river home.

Pulling into town, he drove to the mill to stop by the office and tell the brass he’d be back to work first thing in the morning. Jeri would understand. He slowed alongside the yard where the log deck used to tower over the highway; the few dozen skinny logs scattered over the field of bark looked like a nearly-finished game of pickup sticks. It was quitting time, and Foster parked outside the gate and watched the few dozen workers straggle out of the mill. Most were guys he’d worked with all his life, but he didn’t want anyone to see him; he couldn’t face their questions. The men walked slowly to their trucks, beat-up metal lunch boxes dangling from their hands. Somebody threw the main switch in the mill and the whine of machinery died away.

Foster shook his head and glanced down at the clothes on the seat.

“Okay, Jeri,” he said softly. “I’ll try.”

.  .  .

The terriers raced alongside the pickup when he came up the driveway. He opened the door and four of the dogs leaped up at him, yapping. The fifth dog, a bitch with a gray muzzle, sat on her haunches and peered around Foster into the cab.

“She’s not coming home, Lil,” he said.

Lily was Jeri’s favorite. She’d bred the bitch four times. It seemed a new litter of puppies was always tumbling around in the unused tub in the bathroom. Foster kept a broom behind the door because Lily would snarl and lunge at everyone—except JeriLou—who came in to use the john. “If this cancer gets me,” JeriLou had said, “I’d really like to be buried with Lily. I want her with me.”

The dog stared at Foster. He glanced back in the pickup, where he kept a pump-action twenty-two rifle behind the seat. He turned back to the dog, whose dark eyes were locked on his.

“Lily,” he said. “Your momma is just going to have to wait.”

In the house the only sound was a dripping faucet. He let in the dogs, relieved by their nasal breathing and the clatter of their nails on the kitchen linoleum. He filled their bowls, sat heavily in a chair, and watched them scarf their food. He tried to remember when he’d last eaten. He thought about a cup of Sanka, but his eyes kept going back to the small bag of Jeri’s clothes on the counter. Finally, he stood and took the bag into the bedroom. Next to the unmade bed, he thought about hanging up Jeri’s blouse, but instead carefully slid the entire bag under the dresser. On his way out, he grabbed a pillow and their heavy brown corduroy bedspread.

The garage was cold and quiet, the air thick with cedar. Holding the bedspread and pillow in his arms, Foster stood in front of the coffee cart. The dogs outside sniffed at the door. The lilacs looked black in the dim light, and for a few moments Foster couldn’t take his eyes off her name on the sign.

He opened the cart door and stepped inside. He dropped the pillow and fixed the bedspread on the floor. Still in his boots, jeans and sweatshirt, he crawled in and pulled the brown corduroy over his shoulders. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw JeriLou smiling across the picnic table. A long time later, he finally fell asleep.

At daylight, he awoke to the dogs scratching at the garage door. After he fed them, he hopped in his truck, backed into the garage, and hitched up the cart. He wandered around the trailer, studied the side that would face the highway, and shook his head. He went to his tool bench and fit a Phillips screw-drive into an electric drill.

“Sorry, hon,” he whispered.

The drill whirred, and the first of the wooden lilacs came off in his hand. In a few minutes, he removed them all. He set the drill on the cold floor and stood in the silent garage holding the stack of flowers. He carried them around the garage, pausing in front of his cluttered workbench. Finally, he set them in the kindling box.

Foster eased the truck and trailer onto the highway and drove past Scotty’s Tavern, where a small cluster of pickups were nosed like feeding kittens around the squat concrete block building. They were guys from graveyard still living the night-shift schedule, drinking beer with their scrambled eggs, months after the mill cut their shift and laid them off. He wondered if any of them was looking out of the smudged glass of the front door just then. He knew what they’d think, a former logger and millwright, a man who could barely tolerate his friends, let alone strangers, preparing to open a roadside coffee cart: no fucking way.

The rain started in as Foster pulled the cart onto the wide gravel lot right across the highway from the mill. The trucks used to idle there, waiting turns to back up to the yard and drop their old-growth fir and hemlock. But there was plenty of room in the empty yard to park and turn around. Nobody would give a shit if he used the gravel lot.

The rain fell on his bare head as Foster blocked the cart’s wheels, and his right hand throbbed as he fumbled with the trailer hitch. The day shift had started in an hour ago; the machines he greased and nursed for decades thrummed across the highway. He unloaded boxes of candy, chips, microwave popcorn and two ten-pound bags of coffee he’d picked up at the Salem Costco. Foster lugged a generator around back of the cart and plugged in an extension cord. He climbed inside and threw the switch on the Grindmaster.

The steam hissed as he practiced heating milk and making foam. JeriLou had tried the machine before, but mostly he’d let her struggle with it, thinking he’d never have to use the goddamn thing. “What am I doing wrong?” JeriLou had asked as the milk boiled but refused to turn to foam. She nodded at the frothing post. “Is it in too deep?”

He peered into the pitcher. “I’d say we all are.”

The first pitcher he tried in the cart boiled over and burned his wrist. “Shit,” he muttered, wiping his arm on the chest of his sweatshirt. “Oh, this will be easy for you,” JeriLou had told him. Foster turned down the pressure, swirled the milk, and watched the foam climb up the sides of the pitcher. He switched off the machine. He was as ready as he’d ever be. He put the cardboard sign he’d drawn with a felt pen—OPEN!—in the sliding window.

Foster put on the coffee and poked at the still-frozen pastries as though trying to bring them to life. He slugged down a bottle of water. His hands shook as he arranged and rearranged the candy and chips in a basket. He mixed himself a Sanka and sat on a stool, warm mug in hand, listening to the tap of rain on the roof.

 A tan SUV slowed. Foster saw its blinker come on, and a couple with three kids pulled up. Here we go, he thought. Three snowboards and two pairs of skis were strapped to a roof rack. A family headed for Hoodoo Ski Bowl, another hour up the road. Foster slid open the window and almost smiled at them. “Howdy,” he said.

The kids bouncing in the back seat called for hot chocolate. The guy driving said, “Coffee, black for me.” The thin blonde in the passenger seat leaned over and said, “I’d like a grande nonfat latte. I mean a large,” she quickly added. The guy driving shook his head. Foster poured the coffee, handed it out the window, then started heating the milk for the latte and the chocolates. The milk boiled and the chocolates were steaming when Foster handed them out, taking back a twenty from the man.

“Hey, these are way too hot for the kids,” the man said.

“Sorry ’bout that,” Foster said.

“Give him a tip, honey. A tip,” the woman said.

 “He doesn’t have a tip jar.” He glanced up at Foster, who was holding his change out the window, cupping it with the three fingers of his left hand.

“Keep it.” He put the SUV in gear and hit the highway.

Tips? Foster thought, staring at the change, wondering what to do with it. He glanced around the cart for something to use as a container. Finally he just stuffed the money in a front pocket of his jeans.

The rain let up, the hulk of the mill rising out of the mist with the rotting piles of bark in the empty yard, the rusted crane frozen overhead, and the solitary light at the office like a last open eye. For more than three decades, Foster had stopped there every Thursday for his paycheck, the routered sign behind the receptionist’s desk proclaiming Oregon the “Wood Basket to the United States of America.”

A black sedan drove up and Foster slid open the window. “What’ll it be?” he asked the twenty-something guy. A yellow lab in the back seat stuck its nose under the guy’s arm.

“Nice place,” the guy said, looking over the cart. “Are you new?”

“Yeah, first day.”

“I’ll have a Snickers,” the guy said, pushing the dog back. “Nothing for him.”

Foster searched the basket of candy and chips. “I think all I have is Milky Way, Butterfinger, Baby Ruth, and Reese’s.”

“You don’t have Snickers? Everybody has Snickers.”

“How about a Milky Way?”

The guy shrugged, handed in a dollar and took the candy. “Hey,” he said. “Do you know that’s not how you spell ‘espresso’?”

“What?”

“It’s with an ‘s,’ not an ‘x’.”

“No shit,” Foster said, closing the window. After the guy and the dog drove away, Foster went outside, looked at his sign and felt his cheeks warm.

Back inside, he stirred himself another cup of instant. A red compact pulled up to the coffee cart. Inside was a woman and a little boy, about six, who leaned in from the back seat and stared up at Foster as he waited for them to order.

“What happened to your fingers?” the boy asked.

“Arlo!” his mother said. She looked up at Foster, smiled, and said, “Sorry.”

“It’s okay, ma’am.” He looked down at the boy and then nodded at the mill across the highway. “I lost them over there.”

The boy’s eyes widened as he looked at the shuttered mill. “What is that place?”

“It’s a sawmill.”

“What do they do there?”

“We cut logs into lumber.”

“What for?”

“So people can build houses.”

The boy paused, then pointed at Foster’s hands. “So how did you lose your fingers?”

“Arlo,” his mother tried to interrupt.

“I wasn’t careful enough,” Foster said.

“Did it hurt?”

Foster turned to the mother, “Do you want something?”

“He’ll have a box of lemonade,” she said. “I’ll have a caramel macchiato.”

“Caramel,” Foster said.

“Two pumps.”

For Christ’s sake, what’s that? he thought. “I can make you a latte,” he said.

Arlo interrupted, “Did you ever cut down trees?”

Foster nodded. “Sure.”

“A latte sounds fine,” the woman said.

“My teacher says trees let us breathe,” the boy said.

“Arlo,” his mother said.

“Tell your teacher—” Foster started. He turned away and spun the knob on the espresso machine, saved by the loud hiss of forced air. Moments later, when Foster handed out the drinks, he aimed a tight smile at the boy.

“Tell your teacher we’re still breathing out here.”

For the next hour, Foster sat on his stool and watched cars flicker past on the wet highway, hardly slowing as they burst through town and past the mill. The posted speed limit in front of the trailer was forty-five, but these days the state police troopers and sheriff’s deputies hardly ever made an appearance in town. Slow down for what? Almost everything was gone—the shoe store, the burger joint, even the last gas station. Somebody cut down the speed limit sign at the west end of town a year ago, and nobody thought it worth the effort to put it up again.

Across the highway a whistle blared, and Foster grimaced and stood up from his stool. Break time. All morning he’d braced for this.

Three men stood across the highway looking over at the cart. The tall guy in the middle was Bob Melvin; he and Foster had started in the mill on the same week. The others were Pete Stimson and Landry Davies, guys he’d known most of his life. The men strolled across the highway. Foster took a deep breath.

Melvin looked in the window. “Foster, what the fuck you doing?”

“Hey, Bob,” Foster said, nodding at the others.

“This place is real cute, Fost,” Melvin said.

“Always knew you had another side to you,” Stimson said.

Foster forced a smile.

“Been looking for a Plan B,” Melvin said. “Should I bring by a resume?”

“If I need any fuckups, Bob, I’ll be sure to call,” Foster said.

Foster poured three cups of coffee and handed them around. The men stood around the window, the mill looming across the road behind them. The cars whizzed past. The rain started in again, fat, cold drops, and the guys edged closer to the trailer, under the eight-inch overhang.

Melvin pointed at the sign. “Says this is Jeri’s place. Couldn’t she find anybody better than you?”

Foster shook his head.

“I’ve wondered that for years,” Davies said.

“She’s dead,” Foster said.

“What?” Melvin leaned into the window.

“Yesterday,” Foster said.

The three men closed tight around the window.

“Jesus Christ, Foster, why didn’t you say anything?” Melvin said. “I’m sorry.”

“Her cancer?” Stimson asked.

Foster nodded.

“Didn’t know it was so far along,” Davies said. “Really sorry, Fost.”

“Jeri was really something,” Melvin said.

The men fell silent; the rain drummed on the metal roof. More cars swept by on the wet asphalt.

Melvin sipped his coffee. “Did you promise her or something?”

“What?”

“That’d you do this.”

“No.”

“Gonna come back to the mill then?”

“I don’t know.”

“You can’t make a living selling coffee and candy bars.”

“Now you’re a fucking job counselor?”

Melvin sipped his coffee and studied Foster through the open window. “Easy, Fost,” he said. “Didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Yeah, well, worry about your own job.”

Davies nudged at the gravel with his boot. “Heard lumber prices are going back up.”

Melvin said, “Pretty soon they’ll bring back the other shifts.”

“Right after I run Starbucks out of business,” Foster said.

The mill’s whistle blared. Davies and Stimson reached in and shook hands with Foster, murmuring condolences. Melvin lingered as the other men sauntered back across the highway.

“Really sorry about Jeri, Fost,” he said. “If there’s anything….”

“Appreciate you coming by, Bob.”

Melvin crushed his empty cup in his hand and peered in the cart. “Jeri would have been good at this thing. Don’t suit you at all. But damn it, she’d have loved that you’re out here.”

As Melvin walked back to mill, Foster closed the window, sat back on the stool, and listened to the rain beat on the roof. After a few minutes, he switched off the espresso machine and yanked the cardboard “Open!” sign out of the window, tossing it on the shelf next to the basket of candy and chips. He hitched up the trailer and loaded the generator into the back of the pickup. By the time he pulled onto the highway, the coffee cart bouncing over the lip of the asphalt, his sweatshirt was soaked and his face streaked with rain.

The windows of his house were black rectangles when he pulled up the gravel drive, the barking dogs surrounding the truck. Foster swung around and backed the cart into the garage. He hopped out of the pickup and flicked on the lights. Rain dripped onto the concrete as he reached into the kindling box next to the cold stove and gathered up the lilacs.

He stood in front of their cart holding the pale purple flowers in his battered hands. Then he reached for the drill and the screws. The job was over in no time.