Stuck in the Muck

A short story that acts a reminder that what goes around, comes around…

by: T.E. Cowell

On James’s first day back on the job in months, one of his old coworkers, by way of a greeting, or in lieu of one, said to him, “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I’m here to make some money,” James replied.

“That doesn’t answer my question. What the hell are you doing here?”

The conveyor belt between them, James looked at his coworker’s —or former coworker’s, now, to be precise —face. In the unblinking blue pools that stared back at him, James detected anguish, hostility, possibly even anger. Then the eye contact was lost, and Rick hoisted a durable brown bin with the words Property of United Parcel Service off the belt. The bin was filled to the brink with packages, most of them probably early Christmas presents.

James continued towards the office to grab a time sheet. He wondered what Rick had meant. He had a reputation of being something of a loose cannon, so in all likelihood it was nothing. But it left an ugly feeling in James all the same.

The next morning after walking through the employees’ only door, Rick stared at him and said it again: “What the hell are you doing here? You didn’t answer me yesterday.”

“I did,” James said. “I’m here to make some money, just like you. Just like everyone here. College is expensive.”

The conveyor belt between them again, James held Rick’s eyes. He wasn’t afraid of Rick; it was more that he found the man repulsive. Rick was always rushing about, always moving frantically. He chain-smoked cigarettes and shook his head a great deal. He stared at people he didn’t know as if they were his enemies. He grumbled to himself and cursed out loud on a daily basis.

Rick was just stressed out. Anybody could see that. He’d made a royal mess of his life. Before Rick became a delivery driver, he’d gotten by laying carpet, and before that James didn’t know. Rick had a wife and a kid in middle school, and in the past, maybe a year ago, James would sometimes hear Rick complaining to another coworker about the unbelievable expenses of raising a kid. Once or twice Rick had said to James back then, “Don’t ever have ‘em. They ruin your fucking life. Seriously. Wear protection.” That was back when Rick respected James, when he’d treated him like an equal. That was before James quit his job, deciding it was high time he went back to college.

Rick laughed and shook his head after James said college is expensive. It wasn’t really a laugh, though; there was no pleasure to be had in it. “You quit,” he said. “You quit and now you’re back. Who does that? You’re like a boomerang. Make up your mind, man.”

James felt like laughing, but something about Rick’s look stopped him.

“You think this is funny,” Rick said. “You think I’m coming across as a joke. You quit. You quit and went off to college, and now you’re back. Like nothing ever happened. Do you see what I’m getting at?”

“Not really,” James said. “Actually no, not at all.”

Rick scrunched up his face. “I thought you were smart,” he said, “or at the very least, not stupid.” He looked away from James, hoisted another bin crammed with Amazon packages off the conveyor belt. James watched Rick turn, walk over to his van, drop the bin onto the back end of it, then pick up another bin full of packages and drop it on top of the other one. James didn’t like being talked to in such a condescending way, he wanted to say something back to Rick, though he wasn’t sure what. In the end he shook his head before continuing for the office. He figured it was better, if he could help it, not to stoop to Rick’s level.

All that day at work, James couldn’t get Rick off his mind, what he’d said and how deadly serious he’d looked while saying it. He figured he sort of knew what Rick had been getting at, but at the same time, not really. He thought it probably had to do with how Rick was stuck in life, out of options while he, James, wasn’t —at least not yet. Rick felt threatened, James decided, threatened and possibly jealous. James had no wife, no kids of his own. And now, of course, he was in college again. He was only a part-time delivery driver now, a seasonal employee.

Over the weekend James hung out in the house he’d grown up in and caught up with his parents. He played ping-pong in the garage with his mom and went on a bike ride when it wasn’t raining too hard with his dad. It seemed to James like it was raining a lot so far this December, more than it had previous Decembers. Rain was better than snow though, for a delivery driver. Snow turned the job into a nightmare, and was the one word James’s former supervisor, Brenda, didn’t want anyone to say. If she heard you say the word, she’d literally kick you in the butt with her Doc Martens boots, or else give your shoulder a clock with her fist. She’d been with the company for twenty years and had more than her share of horror stories involving driving in the snow, getting stuck in the snow, or getting the tow truck driver stuck in the snow.

James talked a little of college with his parents, of what it felt like to be back in school after so much time away. He couldn’t believe he was a student again after having finished his first semester in seven years.

Monday while out delivering, around lunchtime, James heard over the walkie-talkie he’d brought with him: “Brenda, ya copy? It’s Rick.”

“What’s up, Rick?” Brenda said.

“I’m stuck. I’m stuck in the goddamn muck.”

“Where’re you at?”

“Bayview. I’m at the very bottom of this god-awful road.”

“Do you think another driver could get you out or should I call for a tow-truck?”

“I don’t know, Brenda. I really don’t. I’m just on the side of the road in some tar-black shit — pardon my French. Moved over to let some schmuck drive past and what d’ya know? I paid the price.”

“Is there a tow strap in your van? It’s big and yellow with clamps on both ends.”

“Nope,” Rick said a few seconds later. “No tow strap.”

“James?” Brenda said. “James, do you copy?”

James hesitated. He knew why Brenda was trying to reach him. Of the other drivers, his route ran nearest to Rick’s. She wanted him to try and tow Rick out. James didn’t want to though, not after the way Rick had been treating him. Still, he was getting paid by the hour. Being back in college was definitely doing a number on his savings. Getting by in the world was so damn difficult. If he wasn’t so old he’d accept his parents help, but to accept their help at the age of thirty-three seemed to James incredibly shameful.

He pressed the button on the walkie-talkie, said, “James here.”

“Did you hear all that?” Brenda asked. “Rick’s stuck at the bottom of Bayview.”

“Yeah,” James said, “I heard.”

“Do you have a tow strap in your van?”

“Affirmative.”

“Could you try and tow Rick out, please?”

James sighed, then said, “I guess so.”

“Thank you, James,” Brenda said. “I sure do appreciate it. It’d save us a lot of time and money. Don’t want to call for a tow truck if we don’t have to.” She sort of sang out the last sentence, she’d said it so many times before.

Rick was standing outside the van smoking a cigarette. It was raining pretty good, but the thick cluster of trees overhead, of Douglas firs and Western red cedars, prevented some of the rain from further splashing the muddy ground. A lot of the roads James delivered off of were unpaved, slick grass and dirt, riddled with mud puddles. It was only a matter of time in such conditions before someone got stuck. Of course it had to be Rick, though. Of course.

James put his van in park four feet from Rick’s front bumper, then watched Rick flick his cigarette into the muck two of his tires were stuck in. James opened the door and with tow strap in hand, stepped out.

Rick glared at him. “Anyone but you!” he said. “Fuck me!”

While driving over, James had expected Rick to act civil for a change, to even thank him for breaking route and coming to his aid. He’d even imagined the two of them becoming something like friends: he’d pull Rick out of the mud and Rick, thankful, would offer to buy James a beer after work. Now though, James saw how wrong he’d been to assume such a pleasant outcome. He looked at Rick and for the first time ever he felt pure hatred.

“What the hell’s the matter with you?” James snapped. “Calm the fuck down.” The force of his voice tickled his throat and made his eyes water.

Rick’s eyes went wide, then narrowed to angry little slits. He pointed a finger at James and started speaking some more nonsense. James was hardly listening now. Feeling his heart beating hard, he focused on Rick’s eyes and the finger he continued to jab in the air like a weapon. He watched Rick take a step towards him, then another, followed by another, still running off his mouth and pointing a tobacco-stained finger James’s way. Spittle shot from Rick’s mouth, and soon James caught a whiff of the cigarette smell that always stuck to the guy, finally of Rick’s sour-smelling breath.

James dropped the tow strap to the ground when he deemed Rick too close for comfort, figuring if he didn’t do something then Rick might —he didn’t want Rick to make the first move. He took a step towards Rick with outstretched arms, and his hands made contact with Rick’s shoulders. Rick immediately stopped talking the moment James touched him and he stumbled backwards, arms flailing like windmills, before falling into the same patch of muck his tires were stuck in.

James was shocked — he hadn’t thought he’d pushed Rick that hard. Then again, he’d pushed with all his might. Maybe he didn’t know how strong he was. He hadn’t pushed anyone in years, not since he was in middle school and a kid was bullying him.

Feeling foolish for pushing Rick, also afraid that he might press charges, James stuck out his hand to help Rick back up. Lying flat on his back, Rick stared at James with obvious hatred, at first refusing to accept his help. Then he reached out a hand, and after James grabbed hold of it Rick’s face tensed up and James was yanked forward so violently that he felt something pop in his shoulder before he fell into the muck alongside Rick. The landing was soft, and surprisingly not too unpleasant. James lay facedown for longer than he originally intended to, closing his eyes and thinking how easy it would be to stay like this forever, he and Rick both.

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