Amanda Pauley completed her MALS and MFA in Creative Writing at Hollins University. She works at McConnell Library at Radford University. She was a 2012 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize finalist, runner-up for the 2013 Andrew James Purdy Prize for Short Fiction, runner-up in the 2013 Bevel Summers Short Short Story Contest, and the winner of the 2013 Arts & Letters Prize in Fiction.
3rd place - 2015 Raymond Carver Contest
Jack slowed the orange VDOT truck, lurching to a stop in front of the carcass on the side of Route 603. He looked in the rearview mirror and backed up as close to the body as possible. Smaller lurches. Close enough. The warning beeps from the truck stopped.
“God, Jack. First thing is, you’re going to have to learn how to drive,” Rowe said as he swung to the ground from the passenger’s side.
Jack put on the brakes and got out. He surveyed the carcass from several yards away. The deer was completely intact. The back half stuck out in the road. The rest was in the grassy shoulder surrounded by purple and yellow flowers.
“How I got on death duty again, I’d like to know,” Rowe said.
“Aw, it’s not so bad.” Jack looked up the empty road. The July heat bubbled the tar. He focused on the orange-yellow center line that traveled down the middle of the asphalt. He imagined driving the truck across the country on the back roads until the bright line ended at a dock somewhere. “We get out of town, anyway.” He stood still in the road and looked over the trees and the fences and the honeysuckle. A phoebe called, and Jack’s head turned in that direction.
“Well, get your nature-loving ass over here, new kid, and smell what I’m smelling.” Rowe lowered the tailgate. “This your first?”
“Yeah.” The smell of rot in eighty-nine degrees hit Jack then. He snorted air out of his nose and mouth.
“You want the head end or the ass end?”
Something about Rowe’s lopsided smile told Jack this was a test, so he thought before answering. The body was twice a normal deer’s size. It had probably been there for days, cars driving around the part in the road and no one bothering to call it in.
“I’ll take the head,” Jack said.
“All right, grab the front legs. I got the rear. Keep her even. On three.”
Rowe bent over. Jack followed suit. They lifted the carcass carefully into the air, both men straining at the weight and breathing through their mouths.
“One,” Rowe said. They swung the carcass halfway to the height of the lowered tailgate. There was a sloshing sound when it changed directions.
“That thing’s liquefied inside,” Jack said on the retreat swing.
“Two,” Rowe said. This time the body reached the lip of the tailgate before heading back.
“Three,” Rowe shouted. They heaved simultaneously, but one of the forelegs broke off in Jack’s hand. Rowe’s end went into the truck, but the shoulders and head on Jack’s side didn’t reach. Rowe jumped forward to push on the body and keep the whole thing from falling back out. The downward flop of the shoulders and head combined with Rowe’s body weight slamming into the deer’s back on the truck sent a rotten liquid bursting out of the deer’s mouth. It soaked Jack’s legs and ran into his boots.
“We’d of had it. We’d of had it. If it wasn’t for that leg coming off, we’d of had it,” Rowe said, pushing the front half up on the truck.
Jack jerked off his boots and dumped them on the road. He wanted to dump them on Rowe. He considered the idea that Rowe, a middle-aged man with a crusty sense of humor and a pony tail, had done it on purpose, except that Rowe couldn’t have counted on that leg busting loose.
Rowe picked up the leg and tossed it in the truck.
“Sorry man. That sucks. I’ll drive us to where we dump her. We’re not allowed to ride in the back. Lose the socks. I think we got a garbage bag you can sit on up front.” Rowe was clearly fighting off laughter. He held it until he got around the truck. Jack heard him cackling and moving around in the cab.
Jack looked down at his pants and wet feet as the phoebe called again from a nearby tree. He left his socks on the road and climbed in the truck on the passenger side. Rowe took off his gloves and drove with one hand over his nose. Jack didn’t bother. He just sat there smelling like rot, feeling the breeze that made the air cooler but the smell worse, wondering how he was supposed to eat lunch. This was the job that Uncle Dan—rest his soul, as his mother said—had pulled some strings to get for him right before he died of a heart attack last month. This was the job that, his mother said, if he messed up, she would beat him to hell and back with a stick.
. . .
By the time Jack got home that evening, he was dry, but he was tired and frustrated and didn’t call a greeting to his mother as he sometimes did. He headed straight for the bathroom to shower and opened the door. A container of suppositories sat on the bathroom sink, and his forty-eight-year-old mother was standing slightly bent over and pushing something between her butt cheeks. Jack jumped back and put his hands over his eyes and howled.
She shrieked. “What the hell, Jack? Can’t you knock?”
“Holy….” Jack kept his hands over his eyes.
“Goddamn it. Do you have to embarrass me like that? You’re twenty years old. Have some respect. There are two of us in this house.”
“It was an accident. Sorry, I—”
“What is that smell?” By now she had her pants up and was washing her hands.
Jack looked out from between his fingers but didn’t take his hands away from his face.
“I got dead animal on my clothes. I need a shower.”
“You start outside with the hose. That stinks to high heaven!”
Jack stared down the hallway into the semidarkness, trying to think of a good argument before he turned quietly to go outside.
“Jack, our rent is due, and your mail is on the table,” she called after him.
“Our rent?” he mumbled.
Two doors slammed shut.
After a yard-hosing and a half-hour shower, Jack sat on his bed and opened a letter addressed to him with only a P.O. Box that he didn’t recognize for a return address. He moved his lips as he read silently, slowly: Jack L. Nicely, you have been named as a possible father of a child belonging to Leona Ray, born on … you will need to come by our office at … a paternity test on ….
The word paternity made him think of his own father. Jack never knew him. His mother said that his father was a real loser and that they were better off without him. Uncle Dan had stepped in by the time Jack was ten years old, and somehow Jack eventually lost interest in a man who had never really seemed to exist anyway.
He sat still for a few minutes breathing through his nose as he often did when he needed to make up his mind about something. Leona? He didn’t remember a Leona. He remembered a Lilly. An Angela, a Teresa, a Morgan, a Stacy, but no Leona. Sure, there were probably a few whose names would never come back to him, and some he never knew to begin with.
“Bitch should’ve been on the pill,” he said and stuffed the letter under his mattress, rolled over and buried his face into sheets that smelled halfway clean and much like his own hair. He inhaled deeply, thought about the way Route 603 looked in the summertime, and went to sleep.
. . .
The letters kept coming, and Jack continued to stuff them under his mattress. One day, a month after the first letter had arrived, he was in the backyard with Joel, a guy from the road crew. They were about to pop open a couple of his mother’s Pabst Blue Ribbons from the fridge. He would have preferred a better brand, but he kept spending his money going out on Friday and Saturday nights to Eighty-Six It, Four Flavors, and Blue Taps.
Joel’s cell phone rang and he punched Jack in the arm.
“There she is. Just like I said, huh? Didn’t I say she’d call?”
“You said she’d call.” Jack laughed. Both of them were starting to look like tanks from their physical labor on the road crew. Just enough chest to out-shelf the small beer bellies they were also growing. Jack considered himself better looking than Joel, but Joel had the confidence that girls loved. Jack didn’t mind. They made a good team.
“She was all over me at Four Flavors.”
“She was hammered at Four Flavors.”
“She’s calling me.”
“Pick it up, dumbass, before it’s too late.”
“I can’t look like I’ve been waiting for her to call.”
Jack handed Joel a beer and picked up his own. Condensation ran down the can and between his fingers. He popped the top. Joel answered the phone with a casual, yeah, just as Jack’s mother came outside followed by two police officers.
“What did you do?” Jack’s mother asked. Her dark roots glared around her bleached hair in the sunshine and her black eyebrows arched fiercely.
“Hang on a second,” Joel said to the girl on the phone. “I got to hear this.”
Jack stood up and the officers spread out, one in front of the back door, one moving off to the side. The yard was enclosed by a six-foot-high wooden fence, rotten in one place that Jack knew of, but not rotten enough for him to bust through.
“Are you Jack Nicely?”
“You’re under arrest for failure to comply with a court order. Place your hands behind your back.”
Jack hadn’t even noticed the second officer moving in on him. He was already being handcuffed and patted down.
“What court order?” His mother crossed her arms. Sweat ran down off her forehead.
“You have the right to remain….”
While being escorted back into the house, Jack looked back at Joel. He heard Joel ask the girl on the phone if she wanted to do something tonight.
“If you lose that job your uncle got for you, I’ll—”
The door of the police car shut. The two officers got in front. Looking in the rearview mirror, Jack thought one officer looked familiar.
“Do I know you?” Jack asked.
“We went to high school together.”
. . .
Jack spent the night in the Bradford City Jail. He dreamed about getting into a fight at Four Flavors. It may have been more of a memory. He wasn’t sure when he woke up. Breakfast wasn’t half bad except for the company. Alejandro kept asking Jack if he could stay with him when he got out. He said he would make it worth Jack’s while, if he knew what he meant. Then Alejandro would put his thumb and pointer finger to his lips and feign smoking weed as if Jack might need an illustration.
Jack and Alejandro both wore orange-and-white-striped jumpsuits. Jack noticed some of the others had green and white and wondered about the difference. He kept to himself as much as possible. At three o’clock a deputy came to the block and called his name. He got up and approached the door.
“Need you to come with me,” the deputy said.
“Where are we going?”
“The lady from the lab is here. You have to get swabbed for the DNA test.”
“They do it in here?”
“Yeah. Doesn’t take a second.”
The deputy took Jack to another room and told him to sit down. While he waited, he tried to remember everything that happened over the last night so he could tell Joel about it later. He wondered if Joel had met up with the girl on the phone. A middle-aged lady in an ugly business suit came in.
“Okay, Mr. Nicely. I just need for you to open your mouth.” Her face was calm, but her eyes dared him to make a smart remark.
Jack opened his mouth, noticing his own breath. They’d given him a toothbrush the night before, but he hadn’t bothered to use it. The lady leaned in close to swab his mouth. Jack breathed out long and slow. He saw her nostrils flare as she removed the small stick and placed it in a clear plastic bag and sealed it.
Jack was released two hours later with a summons to appear in court for failure to comply with the original court order for DNA testing. He would be notified of the DNA test results by mail. Jack was surprised when his mother answered the phone and agreed to come pick him up. She fussed all the way home. Jack’s head was pounding by the time they pulled up in Uncle Dan’s old Plymouth, partly due to her constant yapping and partly because he was dehydrated. He had been afraid of drinking out of the cups in jail and hadn’t had water since the day before.
“I called your supervisor and told him you went into the emergency room with food poisoning. You stick to that story, you hear? You lose that job your uncle got you, and I’ll….”
Jack quit listening and followed his mother inside, glaring at the back of her head and calculating whether he could afford to rent a place of his own and still go out every weekend. Shit, he’d still have to pay her rent, too. His mother got under his skin, but he couldn’t bear to think of her out on the street. With her sleep apnea and a bad back, she rarely held a job for more than a few months at a time.
Inside, she said, “I’ll fix bacon and eggs in the morning before you go to work.”
“We have bacon?”
“Okay, eggs and toast.”
. . .
Several weeks later, Jack was into his second day of working with a jackhammer. The crew labored in a precarious place on a bypass with traffic flying by. Rowe was the spotter and stood opposite Jack, watching for oncoming traffic that veered too close. Two VDOT trucks were parked before and after the work area, creating a cushion between the men in the fluorescent green vests and death. The warning signs should have kept people down to forty-five, but every now and then a car or truck would come barreling past at sixty miles an hour about two feet away from where Jack stood, his entire body vibrating with the jack. The wind from the passing traffic cooled him off, but the speed, proximity, and the thought of what leaning in the wrong direction could mean, kept him on edge.
Jack was trying to concentrate on the jack, the pattern he was working in the asphalt, and the trucks, but he kept coming back to the words from the letter that had arrived yesterday. DIZEN Inc., DNA test results … the probability of paternity is greater than 99.9% … DIZEN Inc., DNA test results … the probability of paternity is greater than 99.9%…. His fingers had almost lost feeling from the vibration of the jack. A piece of asphalt flew up and cracked against his hard hat. Rowe waved his arms signaling for Jack to move, and as he stepped back, a truck flew by barely missing the space he had just occupied. Jack stood still for a moment, waiting for the adrenaline to subside. He resumed working the jack, the vibrations rattling in his skull, and that was when he remembered more specifically which girl Leona was.
Cute, but not pretty. But she knew what she was doing, and after a few drinks, she had made it clear that she wanted to be with someone, anyone, for the night. Jack had complied, and with the swipe of a credit card at the Econo Lodge, they had a room. In the dark, with only a lamp on, she had dark brown eyes and a better body than face. Now, he remembered liking it. And despite having had a number of drinks, he had worked past the alcohol, gotten the job done, and had a good time to boot. The next morning, she was gone and his memory of her was blurry. He hadn’t seen her since that night.
Jack stopped the jackhammer and looked at Rowe. “The credit card,” he shouted.
“What?” Rowe yelled back.
“The goddamn credit card from the hotel. That must be how she found me!”
Rowe’s face crinkled into laughter. He was barely able to signal with his hands for Jack to move. “Truck!” he yelled.
Jack slid over and another truck blew past.
. . .
On a Saturday late in August, six weeks since he first read the words, named as a possible father, Jack sat at the kitchen table with a pay stub in his hand. His mother was trying to rest in her room. Joel had stopped by and was helping himself to the Blue Ribbon.
“Let me see it,” Joel said.
Jack handed him the paper. “I didn’t know they could just start pulling that shit out of your pay.”
“They can. I’ve seen it on other guys’. Would you believe some people actually request they do that?”
Jack made a noise of disapproval. “It’s a lot, man. I’m not sure it’s worth working there if they pull that much child support out. I ain’t even met the kid.”
“Do you want to?” Joel asked sarcastically.
“I’m twenty years old. I don’t need a kid. I’ve got things I want to do. Besides,” he gestured toward his mother’s bedroom and lowered his voice, “I’ve already got one to take care of. I want to be free, not add more baggage.” His eyes fell to the open magazine on the table. He’d been looking at an article about the Navy. When Jack was fifteen, his uncle had driven him and his mother to Virginia Beach. They had stopped at the Naval Base and taken a tour of a ship. Jack thought there was nothing more magnificent than those giant gray ships. Like floating islands. Separate worlds in the sea. Power and guns and missiles.
“You still thinking about joining the Navy?” Joel looked at the magazine too. The photo was of the USS Wisconsin before it was decommissioned. In the photo, the ship floated in the sea, no land in sight, just a gorgeous sunset.
“You know they’ll follow you there too? They’ll still get their money.”
“It’d be different though.” He pointed at the sea in the magazine. “Out there it’d all be worth it somehow.”
“What are you waiting for?”
“I don’t know.” Jack didn’t say that as much as he wanted to ride on one of those ships, he was scared he’d actually end up in combat. “I just know I’ve got to find another job.”
“Those child support people will find you as long as you work legit. You’ve got to get off the grid. Work odd jobs. Try Landry’s Construction. He’s always hiring under the table. When he can’t find enough Mexicans, he takes white guys.”
“Shit, some bitch out there is ruining a good thing for me. I had vacation days and retirement.”
“You’re twenty years old. What do you care about retirement?”
. . .
By early November, Jack was working for Landry’s Construction. He stood high up on a ladder against a house that was getting a makeover. He was painting the trim in light olive. Maybe painting wasn’t all that different from swabbing a deck, but somehow swabbing a deck seemed more glorified, more honorable. At least painting trim was easier than working a jackhammer and smelled better than rotten animals. Landry paid him in cash and used him about three days a week. Jack nailed shingles, planed wood, laid brick, whatever. Now he ran a small brush between the claw-like knuckles of some gothic troll on an oddball Victorian house on the West Side. He could hear music playing inside, not all that loudly, but heavy on the bass, and he imagined someone his age or younger was inside listening.
Landry had told him to watch his p’s and q’s. Something his mother would say. He laughed to himself remembering the fit his mother had when she learned he quit his VDOT job. Her hands had waved and she had turned red. That’s when he had handed her the rent check. He was learning. Hand her a rent check. That shut her up every time. Finally she’d sat down hunched over on the couch, much like this gothic troll crouched on the edge of the roof.
The music grew louder and Jack realized that a window below him and about six feet to his right had been opened. A girl leaned out the window. She wore a tiny T-shirt and had tiny boobs. Twelve years old, maybe thirteen. Oh Lord, he thought. That’s all I need.
“Hi,” she said, cocking her head and smiling at him.
“Hello,” he answered.
The head disappeared and he heard giggling. There must be another one in there. He painted faster.
Jack had gone to court back in September. He had figured that he’d better show up to keep the cops from dropping by his house again. Jack had a long wait until his turn. He watched the DUIs, the wife beaters, and a couple of guys who hung out with the underage crowd get sentenced before he realized he was in the wrong courtroom. In the right one, he was informed of a fine he’d have to pay for not cooperating with the first request for a paternity test. Now that his paternity had been established, the judge warned him about what happened if he did not pay his child support. He could tell the judge meant business, but somehow it still seemed unfair. All of this was because of consensual sex. The fact that there was a child seemed, not only accidental, but unreal.
“Hey, how you doing?” Another childish head leaned out the window, this one more like fifteen. She chewed gum and lit a cigarette.
“Hi,” he said noncommittally, painting furiously. After the last touch on that gargoyle, he moved down the ladder carefully. He looked back up at the window just as the older girl pulled her shirt down her shoulder revealing a bra strap and light skin, and then he got out of there fast, loading Landry’s tools in his truck.
It was early afternoon and Jack drove by where Landry was working on another house. Landry paid him in cash as usual, so Jack stopped by the bank on his way home. He wanted to go out that weekend, and he thought he might need more than what the five hours of work had earned him. In the drive-through, he asked the teller to check his balance and give him fifty in cash, sending his driver’s license up the tube. While he waited, he ate a Slim Jim and watched a mother unload her child from a car in the parking lot. The mother smiled and talked to the child. Jack strained to hear what she was saying, but couldn’t. The child responded with a ridiculously huge smile. Jack wondered if his own child’s eyes were blue like his, or brown like Leona’s. Or if the child had his blond hair. If it spoke like him. Or if it was a girl. Suddenly, the child he had been watching spit up on the mother’s silky looking shirt. Jack flinched.
“Eighty-seven dollars and twenty cents is your current balance, Mr. Nicely. Will two twenties and a ten be okay?”
“Sure. Wait. Eighty-seven? That’s not right. Not even close. Can you check again?”
“Yes, sir.” There was a pause.
Jack looked toward the glass windows, but could not see in.
“Eighty-seven dollars and twenty cents,” the voice on the speaker repeated.
“Can you tell me the last few transactions? There’s no way.” Jack racked his brain. How many withdrawals could he have made?
“Sure, just a moment. Okay, a withdrawal of fifty last week on 11/4. A withdrawal from DCSE for seven hundred and seventy-five dollars and sixty cents on 10/28….”
“DCSE? DCSE? Who the….”
“The Department of Child Support Enforcement, Mr. Nicely.”
“How the hell did they get in my account? Who authorized this?” Jack was shouting. Drops of spittle appeared on the steering wheel and the backs of his hand.
“Sir, that is something beyond our control. DCSE can do that. It happens all the time.”
“You’re supposed to protect my money. How can you just let people take money from my account without my permission? I thought you guys were insured or something. What the hell’s wrong with you people?” Jack floored the gas pedal not even waiting for the teller to send his driver’s license or his fifty dollars back. His tires squealed as he turned onto Main Street. He was halfway home before he made an illegal U-turn and sped back to the bank, parked the truck in the bank parking lot, and charged into the lobby. He bypassed the line and went straight to the counter where he could see the teller that was working the drive-through.
“I want my money out of this goddamned bank right now,” he said, enunciating almost every syllable.
No one from the line interfered. Two ladies drifted toward the door and disappeared. He turned to see a man in a suit crossing the lobby toward him. The remaining faces in the teller line watched him like cats watched bugs in a windowsill.
“I’m the manager, sir. Can I help you?” asked the suit.
“Somebody had better help me. I want to withdraw the last goddamned eighty-seven dollars and twenty cents, and I want my account closed since you can’t watch my money any better than that.”
“Okay, okay. Ms. Hawley, would you please assist this gentleman?” he said to the teller operating the drive-through. All of the other tellers had customers. Ms. Hawley left a three-car line and came over to the counter.
“Sir, if you would sign this and this.” She handed him a withdrawal slip and a form.
Jack didn’t look at either one. He glared at the teller while he wrote on both, the scribble on the second form ran off the edge and finished on the Formica countertop, leaving Nicely, for someone to wipe off later. The teller didn’t say anything, just took the forms, made some nervous movements over a computer keyboard and began to count the cash.
Jack grabbed the bills mid-count and held out his hand for the change. She dumped it into his dirty palm. He turned to leave. “Get yourselves something else to look at, dumbasses,” he snapped at the line of people watching him.
Back at home, he put a twenty dollar bill under his mattress, in between the stack of letters, for an emergency. The rest he stuffed into his pocket. He went to the kitchen and called Joel.
. . .
The next morning, after a night of Budweiser, tequila shots, and sweaty bar dancing, which for Jack meant standing next to a girl and bobbing his head to the beat while she gyrated around him, Jack woke up next to Morgan, a girl he’d gone out with before. He vaguely remembered looking around the bar and wondering if Leona was there. Ever since this DCSE business had begun, he looked for those dark brown eyes wherever he went, hoping not to see her, unsure if he’d recognize her, but hoping, too, to see her before she spotted him.
Jack was starving. They were in Morgan’s room, and he hoped she would wake up and offer to make him breakfast. He needed something in his stomach. He watched the back of her head on the pillow. She was face down, her bra was gone but her panties were somehow still intact. Jack’s stomach growled. The room was too warm even with the windows down and an oscillating fan blowing. When the fan passed Morgan’s body, the smell of alcohol, cigarettes, and peach shampoo moved around the room. Jack found it pleasant, but after waiting for twenty minutes, he leaned over and whispered.
“Hey, I’ve gotta go. I’ve got to get to work.” He really didn’t know if Landry would need him today or not, but he knew he’d better try to get some work.
Morgan rolled halfway over. “Okay, see you later.” She reached out and squeezed his hand lightly as Jack slid away.
Outside, he checked his pockets before climbing into his truck. Jack was surprised to find four one-dollar bills left. He headed straight for McDonald’s. He needed a restroom so he went inside. By the time he got his food, he was so hungry he pulled it out of the bag and had most of it eaten by the time he got out the door and into the parking lot. With a coffee in one hand and a mouth so full he was having trouble swallowing, he stopped on a dime at the sight of his truck. A boot had been placed on the front tire of his truck. Property of DCSE was stenciled around the circle and the boot was baby girl pink.
Jack didn’t have money for a cab. Wouldn’t have spent it if he did. Morgan had looked halfway unconscious. Joel was at work already. There wasn’t a chance in hell that Jack would call his mother again. Jack downed his coffee, urinated in the bushes by the dumpster, and then made the forty-five-minute walk home. Then he got out the twenty dollar bill from under his mattress and put it in his pocket. He sifted through some of the letters. He hadn’t even bothered to read some of them before putting them under the mattress. He skimmed them now; court appearance on … flag on your credit report … revocation of driver’s license … deduction of funds from your checking…. Jack remembered his driver’s license just then. He’d sent it up the tube at the bank drive-through and hadn’t remembered to ask for it back when he withdrew his money. He managed to find that funny. The joke was on them, he thought, his license was useless anyway. Then he heard his mother’s voice.
“Jack? Is that you? Are you home? Jack? Where’s your truck?”
. . .
Jack spent the next three days trying to figure out what to do next and how to explain things to his mother. And trying to explain things to himself. The more he said, the more mixed up he got. The truck broke down. Landry borrowed the truck. Landry got in trouble. Doesn’t have the business anymore. Got to figure out a ride. Borrowing his mother’s car was not a permanent solution. Yes, he knew the rent was due.
On the third day, Jack started looking through the classified ads. Underneath the newspaper he could feel the magazine still on the table with the article and the photo of that brilliant gray ship in the ocean and a recruiter’s phone number in bold print just below. His mother sat across from him. Scared of actual combat or not, Jack decided he would see if he could enlist. Someone knocked on the door. His mother got up to open it in the same moment that Jack looked out the window and saw the patrol car.
. . .
Jack kind of liked the chemical smells in the Rehabilitation Enterprises Paint Plant, where he was in his second month at Braxton Work Correctional Institute. He had just finished his training. He and thirty-nine other inmates made traffic paint and interior and exterior paints used by state and local governments. Jack earned fifteen cents an hour. None of it went into his inmate account though. DCSE was still pulling his funds. Leona was somewhere, getting about twenty-five dollars a month for the kid.
Jack rotated between the dry materials loading area, the liquid additives hose room, and the fill and packaging area. He preferred the latter, where he was today. The cans moved along the conveyor belt, orderly, shiny gray, and clean. The machines rolled the cans in glue, wrapped a label around the can, and sat them back up just in time to be filled with paint. Then a lid was pressed onto the can and a handle added. Jack and two other guys stood by to pull and weigh random cans and to monitor the machines in case of a problem.
He lifted a can out of the moving line and set it on the scales. The can of paint was marked with a photo of that orange-yellow color he’d seen so many times on the highway. That color, both repulsive and festive, he thought, turned the asphalt into a ribbon heading eternally forward and backward. He wondered who’d come up with that exact color. The can weighed out and he hit pass and clear on a keypad and moved the can to another slot. He looked up to see Daniel pulling a can that didn’t weigh out right. Jack headed over without being asked. This meant they had to pull all the cans around it so see if there was a bigger problem.
“Visiting day tomorrow. Your mom coming?” Daniel asked.
Jack made a face. “I’m afraid so.”
“You don’t mean that. A visitor is a visitor.”
“Maybe you want to visit with my mom?” Jack laughed.
“No thanks, man. My old man’s coming tomorrow. You know your dad?”
“Nope.” Jack didn’t offer any more. Daniel took the hint and didn’t ask. They went to weighing cans in silence. The conveyer belts hummed while machines clinked and popped and sucked hydraulic sounds.
“Looks like that one was a freak o’ nature,” Daniel said. “The others all weighed out right. I’ll note it and pull the one.”
“All right,” Jack said. He went back to his position and pulled another can. He looked back up the line at those shiny gray cans moving by the hundreds toward them. The lights reflected off the cans and the metallic smell made him think of navy ships somewhere on their way across the shining seas to places he would never see.