Today is the day, Jim thought.
The day he’d come into the world fifty-six years ago and, instead of presents or celebrations, his birthdays were now marked by a new pain that punctuated his age. That was the way it was since forty, a new pain in a new place, sometimes a revisit with an old one, but it always happened on the day of his birthday. Superstition, maybe.
Jim called it shitty luck and everyone knew that shitty luck was better than no luck at all because no luck meant the universe had given up on you and at that point you might as well start digging your own hole, you’d be in it soon enough. There’s no place in the world for a man with no luck at all.
At forty it was the sprained wrist from a game of basketball with the boys at the gym. Forty-three was a broken big toe, courtesy of the steel leg of his coffee table. Forty-six was a big one, he’d fallen twenty feet after stepping on a faulty scaffold plank that snapped in two. Lucky for him, there was a pile of full garbage bags sitting below, bags that should have been taken out that morning but the laborers were too busy smoking in the porta-johns to be bothered with cleanup. It turned out alright for Jim, he ended up with a snapped tibia and six weeks of X files reruns, rather than dead.
Yes, thats the thing about shitty luck, there was always a silver lining and nothing could go all wrong. Had Jim been a man with no luck at all, the bags wouldn’t have been there to break his fall and, if they hadn’t been there, then Jim wouldn’t be here to celebrate fifty-six years of shitty luck that’s kept him alive, barely at times, to see himself get old.
It was six in the morning when Jim pulled his dirty pickup to the Shell station. November had it’s way of sleeping in and so did the people in this city, Jim thought as he put the shifter in park in front of the glowing convenience store.
The sign outside the station said the place was a twenty-four hour establishment but Jim didn’t need that sign to tell him what he already knew, he’d been coming here for six-months now, ever since he started working on the new prison up the road, and it was here that he bought his morning provisions.
The truck door squealed in the lonely chill outside the convenience station, Jim lifted the door on it’s hinges to close it securely. He’d been meaning to fix those hinges but it seemed there was never enough time to pull the door off and do it, and there was no way he was going to take it in to one of those overpriced shops in town that rape you with labor charges while they give pennies of what they make to the illegals working in the garage. No, sir. If there was one thing that was worse than being too lazy to fix things yourself, it was paying someone to do it for you who turned around and took money right out of the pockets of men who were too scared to stand up for themselves.
The swinging glass door to the front of the store jangled far too cheerfully for the kind of day it was shaping up to be on the other side of the glass, looked like rain and wind and so cold you wished it would just snow but it wouldn’t because it never did.
When the three bells tinkled, Jim smiled in spite of himself almost as if the bells had wished him happy birthday, it would be the first of the day if that was true. Roger saluted Jim as he walked in.
‘Allooo my friend.’ Roger said, too cheerily for six in the morning.
‘Aye, Roger.’ Jim waved, and quickly began his route through the three aisles of the shop, each filled with their own fucked up science experiment of food, which was both appalling and delicious at the same time. Like a fat hooker, Jim thought, you wouldn’t want your buddies to know about it but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t be fun, even if it did leave you feeling ashamed and sick afterwards. But Jim was a creature of habit and its hard to stop something once you decide you like it, and Jim liked the provisions he found here. Pick something you love and let it kill you, Jim thought ironically and chuckled at himself as he grabbed the apple pie that was wrapped in waxed paper and shaped more like a hot pocket than pie. Let it kill you.
There were two more things he would need to get through this day, a bag of the Jalapeño sunflower seeds and coffee. Jim pulled up in front of the second item, feeling a bit nostalgic in the middle of his morning ritual but was immediately ripped from it when he saw the vacant hook on the shelf. Blood was rushing up his neck, the way it always did when he knew his routine was in danger of collapsing before it even began.
‘Roger!’ Jim said loudly toward the register, keeping his voice just below a yell.
Roger scuttled from around the counter and waddled his short round frame toward Jim, his brown face and mustache twitching nervously as he tried to smile at his seeming distraught customer.
Roger wasn’t his real name, but thats what Jim started calling him when he couldn’t pronounce the Ethiopian name on his badge, but Roger liked the name Roger so much that he took it on as his own, shortly after changing his name tag to its English counterpart of his former name.
Roger was sweating mildly, as he normally was, when he pulled up next to Jim.
‘What is it sir?’ Roger said in abbreviated english.
Jim was pointing a finger at the empty space on the shelf, where there should have been at least two or three jalapeño flavored sunflower seeds. Jim’s finger trembled a bit, not out of anger, but lack of caffeine which he was already overdue for because of this hiccup in his morning route. He should be tasting fresh coffee against his lips right now but instead there was this.
‘Where are they?’ Jim demanded.
Roger followed Jim’s pointing finger to the space on the shelf, then back again to the disappointed gray face which was a striking contrast to Roger’s younger chocolate face.
Roger was inscrutable, the roundness of his face seem to throw all of his expression into varying degrees of smiling. Jim had learned to tell the difference between one smile to the next because they ranged from angry to happy and everywhere in between. Roger was smiling in a concerned way now.
‘I should check in back.’ Roger said kindly but remained standing there as if it was a question rather than a statement.
Jim and Roger eyed each other for a nervous moment, not quite sure what to make of things but, finally, Jim nodded, realizing this was in fact a question.
‘Please check.’ Jim said.
But Jim knew, from the look that Roger had given him that there were no more of his favored flavor of seeds in the back, and the admonishment of that fact sent a shiver of discontent through Jim’s bones.
It happened from time to time, this break up in the normal cycle of things, but it always felt like the first time when it did and Jim didn’t like that.
The way Jim saw it, the sun rose every morning and the stars came out every night – if it wasn’t cloudy, which it was most nights – other than that, there weren’t many things a man could count on each and every day. In a way, that was why he had a routine, that was why he protected it and made sure nothing got in the way of that but if the convenience store, which never ran out of his seeds, ran out of his seeds, which were a substantial factor to his morning routine, then what things could you count on in a world like that? Nothing thats what and Jim would be damned if this wasn’t a rough start to turning fifty-six. They say that blessings come in threes, well, for Jim, it was always the opposite. Shitty luck came in threes, two of them insignificant before the big one hit, like the strong winds preceding the hurricane, little warnings before absolute fucking disaster.
Jim felt his palms growing cold and moist.
Enough of this, Jim thought, I can’t go down that rabbit hole today.
Roger emerged through the colorful bead curtain that divided the store from the back room, waddling quickly and sweating even more than he was before, as if he’d torn through the entire store for the Jalapeño seeds, and his hands were empty.
‘Sorry, sir. No more. But these are very good.’ Roger said, pointing to other bags like peppered or salty or whatever other flavors that might as well have not existed to Jim because he was already walking away.
Will just have to do without, Jim thought as he grabbed the extra-tall paper cup and stuck it under the coffee spout. He pulled the lever, watched as the black liquid filled the cup, and the cloud of steam carried it’s spicy scent to his nostrils, perking his mind. It was like foreplay, Jim thought and laughed at himself, as if the coffee was coming on to him. Which it might as well cause nothing else had in quite a long time.
Jim walked up to the register with only the pie and the coffee, minus his seeds. To some, this missing piece of his morning might not seem like a big deal but to Jim it might as well have been like knowing you wouldn’t get another drink of water for the rest of the day. Why? They were the only thing that kept Jim from smoking for the past seven years, it gave his mouth something to do when he should have been putting a cigarette to his lips, and he’d had those seeds every day for the past two-thousand five-hundred and fifty-five days, thats why.
Jim glanced at the multicolored, rectangular packs behind the counter, the fleeting desire to buy one and start smoking again flashed across his mind because it seemed to him if you couldn’t have one then you might as well give in and have the other, going without either might as well have been like asking himself to hold his breath for the rest of the day or until he could find a store that did carry the seeds.
Tough start to fifty-six, Jim thought, tough start.
Roger scanned the items and in a few short wordless moments, Jim was on his way out the door, the tinkle of the bell seemed a little too cheerful now, given the scope of things.
Jim’s mind was already thinking of what would happen next, it was better to be prepared than to get blindsided by whatever the universe was stirring up for the path ahead, there was no telling what it might be but Jim knew that one unlikely thing was like the first bead in a necklace and beaded necklaces always had more than one bead.
A few minutes later, Jim was in the dark, gravel lot where all the workers parked. Jim’s truck was the first of the pack it seemed, that was the way it always was, because, to him, if you weren’t at work at least a half hour before work began then you were late, and Jim was never late but no one else shared his fever for punctuality.
It was a couple minutes past six, the customary time for him to show, but today felt different and it wasn’t cause of his birthday, no, it was the absence of the seeds that he should be throwing a handful in the side of his cheek right about now but he wasn’t.
That’s when his cell rang.
Jim looked at the caller ID hoping it was a telemarketer so he could silence the phone and return to his pre-work contemplation but it wasn’t, it was his boss.
‘Aye, Mike.’ Jim spoke into the receiver.
‘Jim. Hey, sorry to bug you, are you here yet?’ Mike asked.
‘Just parked, whats up?’ Jim said.
‘Do you mind suiting up? The pumps failed sometime last night and the south end of the facility is under two feet of water and I need someone to start dewatering down there so we stay on track for concrete this morning. We’ll use the backup generators while we wait for the electricians to get here and figure out what the hell happened to our power.’ Mike said.
‘Sure thing, boss.’ Jim said.
‘Alright, thanks Jim. You rock.’ Mike said happily.
Jim hung up.
Mike didn’t have any idea it was Jim’s birthday, no sir, but it wasn’t like Jim made it public information either. Still, Jim wished the first call of the day would have been a birthday wish from his kid or maybe his brother. It wasn’t that Jim had anything against Mike, he was a good boss younger and smarter, it’s only that he didn’t much care for him being the first voice he’d heard over the phone this morning.
It was the trouble with growing old when you’re alone, when your kids are gone and the wife packed her bags a long time ago, that you stopped hearing voices you wanted to hear, rather they were only voices of people who acknowledged your existence. Which, for Jim, it was alright because being needed was good enough, a man who wasn’t needed was soon dead. We’re all beasts of burden and if there’s no more burden, the beast withers away soon after. Right now, Mike needed him, the whole project needed him, and that gave Jim purpose.
Thats why you show up early, Jim thought, because sometimes theres an emergency to be taken care of and being there in time did more than just make you look like a hero, it padded the wallet too. That’s what Jim was taught when he was a kid by a man who’d been as old as Jim is now, early bird gets the worm.
Jim left the warmth of his truck, welcoming the chance to get a jump on the day, and braced into the chilly November wind. It was amazing the water wasn’t frozen in a day this cold but Jim knew the temperature was just a few degrees above freezing because it never got that cold, not anymore.
As Jim walked to the job shack, which was a shipping container converted into a living space complete with a heater and a microwave, he didn’t think about this as unlucky, because it distracted him from the start of his day and he was glad to do anything to take his mind of the fact that he had the urge to light a cigarette and there were plenty of men on a construction site to bum them off of too.
Jim didn’t stop to wonder if this was another wind that precedes the disaster he’d anticipated, even as he suited up into his rain slicker and rubber boots, but he should have.
The prison construction site was a large one, shape like and L, stretching east and west with a little extension toward the south from the east side of the building. That’s where the lowest point in the structure was, it was also the muddiest because they hadn’t laid down concrete in that section yet and it was November, which meant it rained damn near every day.
Two feet of water was a lot, depending on how far it stretched, Jim knew before looking that it would be the footing trenches that were underwater because thats were all the water collected in the same way mountain water gathers in a deep, low spot forming a lake. Thats what the footing trenches turned into when you didn’t keep the pumps going, they turned into a lake except there weren’t any ducks or fish swimming in these, only rebar and wood formwork.
It took Jim all of ten minutes to get three pumps in place along the hundred and twenty foot edge of the building site, it was the trenches that were flooded, just as Jim had guessed. A few minutes later, Jim connected the generators and the pumps throbbed to life in the brown water. It wouldn’t be long before the water was gone, Jim thought.
Rain began to fall in a drizzle, gathering on Jim’s safety glasses and hazing the view in front of him under the glow of his headlamp. The clouds were turning purple above him, the way it did in November when the sun came up but there were too many rain clouds in the way to let the golden light through.
Jim was the only one at this side of the job site, his boss was probably in morning meetings up at the field office some hundred yards away, and since it was still forty minutes till shift start, no one else was around. The low growl of the generators and the distant drone of the freeway were the only sounds that broke the hushed silence of the drizzling morning that was quickly turning to a steady pour. In a sense, it was a perfectly normal day in late fall, except today was the day Jim had been born, fifty-six years ago, but nothing else was any different that almost any other day.
As the water level receded, Jim watched and lost himself in thought.
Jim was still waiting to find out what kind of pain would mark his birthday this year and thought briefly that he might be out of possibilities for new pain, he chuckled, but it wasn’t true. There’s always room for more pain.
Jim wondered if his little girl would call him today, she did most birthdays even if she didn’t call much otherwise. She wasn’t really a little girl anymore, Lisa had turned into a young woman, now married with a kid and a life of her own somewhere down in sunny California where it didn’t rain. She never did take to the rain, Jim thought, even thought she was born here, the rainy season hung over her like a heavy weight around her neck. Jim was glad she’d found a place where she felt more at home, even though he didn’t see her much anymore because of it, and it seemed like the sunshine state was good to her.
Unlike his daughter, Jim liked the rain. It felt good to be standing out here in the predawn, with raindrops rattling against his hard hat and rain jacket, it was nature’s embrace. Water is life, Jim thought, and we just have more of it here than most places.
Jim wondered about a lot of things during the twenty minutes it took to pump the water out of the ditch, to where the formwork and rebar was clearly visible again, because watching machines work doesn’t do much to occupy the mind and the only thing left is self contemplation, which Jim wasn’t fond of. Self contemplation was a cousin of self pity and regret comes after, thats why Jim liked to work with his hands and stay busy because it left little time for him to think about things that he didn’t like to think about.
Jim began walking the length of the ditch to inspect it for anything out of sorts, something he could alert Mike to, because water could break or move things out of place and you couldn’t put concrete in formwork that wasn’t right. Sometimes boards broke or rebar shifted or the edges of the ditch caved in. Mike would be certain to ask Jim if he’d seen anything and Jim would be damned if he didn’t have a clear answer when the time came.
Jim walked along, the circular glow of his headlamp cutting a path through the darkness and the falling rain, glancing at the ditch every few feet. The water wasn’t completely gone yet, there was still a foot or so in some spots which were lower than others. Jim made a mental note to move the pumps to those low spots, once he’d finished walking the length of the ditch.
Jim saw it toward the east end of the ditch.
Something unfamiliar was protruding from the brown water, on Jim’s side of the formwork. He leaned down for a closer look but between the darkness and rain and beads of water on his glasses it was hard to get a clear image. When he saw it at this distance, he still didn’t believe what he was seeing, so he took off his safety glasses just to be certain.
Only two inches of the sneaker, pointing toe first, was breaking the surface. Kids and trouble makers, druggies and transients, often threw things over the south fence, which ended up on the job and sometime landed in the formwork like this, but this was strange, because if it was only a sneaker, it would be floating or laying sideways or anything other than toes up, perfectly still in the water.
That was the troubling part, the stillness, because the water, even though it didn’t look like it, was being pulled toward the pumps and loose items would follow the subtle current. But the visible part of the sneaker didn’t move.
Jim hopped down in the ditch for a better look, trying to talk himself out of what he thought he was seeing because he didn’t want to believe it. So, he just told himself he was going to pull the shoe out of the water, because it was only a sneaker and sneakers had no place in the formwork and that was that.
When he grabbed hold of the sneaker he realized two things. The first was that the shoe was not empty, as it should have been, something inside of it didn’t allow the material to give when Jim closed his fingers around it that felt distinctly like the grooves between toes. The second thing, the more important thing, was that the shoe wasn’t alone, there was another shoe right next to the one he’d first seen and neither of them were empty. And there was a third thing, when Jim pulled on the two of them he realized they were attached to something much larger.
Jim was a practical man. Two plus two equals four, if you eat too much of Aunt Rudy’s pie you’re bound for a stomach ache, when dark clouds are on the horizon its going to rain. And when theres two sneakers in a ditch, underwater, and they aren’t empty or floating, it can only mean one thing.
Jim stood in the water, the dirty brown stuff came up mid boot but his rubbers kept his feet dry, and he looked at the shoes for a few minutes, while the water slowly descended, revealing bit by bit what the sneakers were attached to.
First it was jeans, then a muddy gray sweater that had brown stains all over it, above was a bloated face with the jaw cocked open slightly and the eyes were open, as if the person was trying to say something or maybe they were screaming.
The image sent a shiver through Jim.
The rain intensified as the water descended around the body, leaving it open in plain view, but Jim had yet to acknowledge what this meant. Jim was in a state from seeing such a horrifying face and his hands were trembling, this time it wasn’t because of a lack of caffeine.
The body was tied to the rebar and formwork, which kept it from floating to the surface long ago, with the hands together in front as if the person was praying or pleading. Underneath the hands was a plastic card, like a flash card, with writing on it.
Jim needed to do something or call someone because thats what you did when you found a person in the bottom of a ditch that had obviously been placed there against their own free will. But Jim had never seen a body on a job site in all the thirty years he’d been laboring and it struck him that they never covered something like this in orientation or safety talks, maybe they would now.
Jim reached for his radio and called Mike.
‘Go ahead.’ Mike said, clearly annoyed and clearly in the middle of morning meetings.
‘Theres something out on the south footing you have to see.’ Jim said.
‘Can’t it wait? In a meeting right now.’ Mike said.
‘It’s a body.’ Jim said.
‘Now’s not the time to be messing with me, Jim.’ Mike said. Which was warranted, Jim infrequently pranked the team because thats what you do when you’re older than your management and its the only way of showing that they weren’t entirely smarter than you. But this wasn’t a prank.
‘I wish I was messing with you, Mike. Should I call 911 or do you want to do it?’ Jim said.
‘I’ll do it. Stay were you are Jim, we’re coming out.’ Mike crackled over the radio.
Mike didn’t have to tell Jim to stay where he was, he’d lost feeling in his legs a long time ago and wasn’t quite sure if he could climb out if he wanted to, until the wave of alarm passed.
Jim leaned down over the praying hands of the body, his eyes looking toward the card that was between the fingers and the sternum of the body, the words were obscured by a thin layer of mud and Jim couldn’t quite make them out. Jim thought of wiping the mud away but he’d seen enough crime shows to know that would be tampering with a crime scene and he wouldn’t want his finger prints on the card or body or any of this.
Jim felt the overwhelming need to read what the card said, as if the fact they they were partially visible was its way of taunting him, and he couldn’t turn away before following through on the impulse. So, he took another route and pulled off his hard had and filled it like a bowl full of water from a puddle to the side, then poured the water on the card. The water swept the dirt from the card’s plastic surface and the black typewriter font was clearly legible on the white background.
Lonely are the nights
Lonely are the days
Lonely am I, in so many ways
It was just a poem. But the combination of the bloated body and the lyrical consequence of the words brought hairs up on Jim’s neck, as if they were written for him but he supposed that’s just how poetry was.
Jim found feeling in his legs again and started to move away from the body, even if just a few feet. He could hear excited voices coming his way and looked to see reflective vests and headlamps bouncing his way from the direction of the field office.
They would take it from here, Jim thought.
Jim tried to not to think about the body and the words on card or the fact that the kid had obviously been murdered, the tie downs to the rebar cage ruled out suicide, Jim knew that from the crime shows and it was only logical.
What Jim did think, was that it turned into a bad way to start year fifty-six and it was the first morning of his life when the first person he saw at work was a dead person.
Yes, it was a rough way to start off any day and an even rougher way to start a new trip around the sun, Jim thought.
Jim didn’t think about the whispers of the troubled wind that precedes the storm, the one that was coming for him, no. He’d forgotten completely about the seeds that nearly derailed his morning before this happened, and he forgot about how trouble always comes in threes, but even if he had remembered, he would have added this event incorrectly and wouldn’t be ready for what was coming for him.
But Jim had already forgotten all that, because there was only one thing on his mind now.
As the management team approached the scene and clamored with alarmed voices, sirens wailed in the distance, and the only thing Jim could think about was how badly he wanted a cigarette.