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“Welcome back” – Jack’s dog – the Fly, the Fly – 
Less than a two-Point-five –

“Welcome back.”

Jo lifts a hand, a shadow among shadows. Rubs her eyes, fingertip and thumb, pinches the bridge of her nose.

“Had us worried, girl. Come on. Sit yourself up. Water? Jack, fetch us a water.”

Footstep, creak of springs, a slithering thump. “Careful, Jack,” that voice, pitched high, creaky with smoke, or age.

“Ma’am,” another voice, the young man. She opens her eyes. She’s laid across a small and rumpled bed, legs bent over the side of it, feet somewhere on the floor. The space is long and narrow, dim despite the windows in every wall, for every curtain’s drawn with differing colors and prints, reds and yellows for the cowboy hats and boots, purples and greens and blues and pinks for floral sprays, browns and oranges for squatly happy mushrooms, all backlit by daylight without. Someone’s sat on the bed beside her, a dumpy woman, cardigan, what light there is catching rims and frame of heavy spectacles over her eyes. Jo sits up with a grimacing hiss, leaning over on one elbow, reaching to press a hand to her breast, rubbing, a soothing stroke.

“Here we go,” says the woman beside her. That young man in denim’s stood before them, holding out a short plastic bottle of water, cap of it already off. Jo takes it with a nod, sips, then drinks it down.

“Better?” says the woman. Jo holds up the empty bottle, but no one seems inclined to take it. “Where you headed?” says the woman.

“Away,” says Jo, leaning forward, looking to set the empty bottle on the floor, maybe, but the floor is covered, piled with magazines, dozens, hundreds of them, neatly stacked here, collapsing in drifts there, Jack with his feet planted in some of the only cleared space available, a marginal meander from the bed in its nook up past a booth to one side under wide windows curtained with palm trees in pinks and yellows, a terribly compact kitchenette the other, and every available surface laden with more magazines, a helmeted warrior, an iceberg, a close-up of an eagle’s head, a hedgehog curled in someone’s hand, an astronaut, someone holding a pair of binoculars, someone scowling else, hand tucked in the jacket of his uniform, The Battle of Waterloo, The New Europeans, Wild Pets, Is Anybody Out There?, The Tallest Trees, Planet or Plastic, Becoming Jane, Why Birds Matter, and all of them each of them every single one of those cover photos set in the framed by the same thick border of brightly jonquil yellow. Jo sits up, reaches past the young man, Jack, who twists aside, she seizes something from a scrap of countertop behind him, knocking off slippery flap a handful of magazines, “Careful, girl,” a warning tone from the woman next to her.

“This is mine,” says Jo, hitching up so she can tuck away the binder clipped about two dollar bills in a pocket, patting the others, “my phone,” she says, looking about. “My phone?”

“You were flat on your back, dead to the world,” says the woman next to her. The lenses of those heavy spectacles wrap around her eyes, lightlessly opaque. “Had no idea if we’d be calling 911, or what.” A jerk of her head for Jack, who nods, leans over to fetch something from the magazines stacked on the table of the booth, hands it to Jo, her phone. She thumbs it on. 15:34, the numerals floating over her face, and Ysabel’s. Quickly off again. “My bag?” she says. “The knife?” Holding out her hand. “The knife.”

“You sure you’re okay?” says the woman. “Collapsing out there like that.”

“I’m fine, I’ll be fine,” says Jo, hand still out. “The water helped. Thank you. My stuff.”

“Because I know it can’t have nothing to do with Jack’s cute little dog.”

Jo’s hand lowers. “Dog,” she says, looking up to Jack, stood there in the meander. Behind him, up at the front of the space a single window, a windshield, curtained as well with plain dark burlap, a couple of captain’s chairs, a steering wheel. Shadows render whatever expression his face might hold unreadable.

“Oh, Jack’s got him done up all funny, sure. But he wouldn’t hurt a flea, that dog.”

“I promise,” says Jo, “I won’t tell anybody about Jack’s,” a sidelong look for the woman beside her, “dog. Okay?” Sitting forward, feeling for a clear patch of floor with her feet. “Just, give me my stuff, I’ll get out of your hair, you’ve got nothing to worry about. Okay? Nothing.”

“You sure?” says the woman. Jack’s already leaning over the booth again, hauling up the nearly empty duffel, something heavy in it dragging one end. “You don’t need anything else?”

“Water,” says Jo, taking her bag. “Another water, if I could.” Zips it open, roots about inside. The woman nods to Jack again, but he’s bent over, peering through a gap in the curtains. Voices, indistinct, back and forth somewhere out there.

“Who is it?” The woman’s gone from sitting to perching. Jack shrugs. She gets to her feet and somehow a step here, a step there, nimbly she’s past him and headed up front without disturbing a page. A scrabble up there, one of the captain’s chairs swinging about as she nears it, a flicker of colors, the unicorn’s laid on the seat of it, legs awkwardly dangled. She leans over to scritch that brilliant mane. “Get her that water,” she says, “but stay inside. Won’t be a minute.”

Opening the door, a sudden flare of sunlight. The unicorn snorts. The door closes up the light again.

“Dog?” says Jo.

Jack shrugs, looks back over his shoulder. The unicorn’s perked up, looking up and over, the voices outside rising, a shout ringing over that creaky rasp.

“The hell?” says Jo, getting to her careful feet, “Wait,” says Jack, but crumple slippy rippering step she’s leaning against the tiny closet to reach “Jesus” for the counter past him lurching to brace himself against the ceiling, “You’re gonna,” but “Shut up,” she snatches a curtain-corner, drags it ringing aside.

Another back-and-forth of voices without, lower, but as heated.

“Shit,” says Jo Maguire, letting the curtain fall. Pulling the straps of the duffel up about her shoulder. Setting off tipping to lean from countertop to booth-table, making her way up the meander, eyeing all the while the captain’s chair, and the unicorn sat upon it.

“May said stay inside,” says Jack.

“Don’t sweat it,” says Jo, reaching for the door-latch. “I got this.” A shrug. “I know these guys.”

Yanking it open, into the light.

The first rolls of stuff high, ungainly wide, slick black plastic stiffly thick, creaking as they’re wrestled into place under the aloof blue sky. A gentle “hupf!” not so much from any one of them but all at once they’re tipped over, thump-thud, crunch on the grey pea stone. A breath of a pause, another, sharper “ho!” and they’re off, slowly at first with the weight of them, pressing forward, unrolling to score wide black lanes side-by-side down the grey gravel length of the roof.

Even as they’re still unrolling the second wave is setting up, more stiff ungainly rolls gallumphed to the gaps between lanes. Christian’s wrenching his around, eyeing the placement when “hupf!” shoved over crackle and thump, he’s wrestling the one end of his, checking the angle, hauling it back, “ho!” they set off, unrolling more plastic to overlap the first, Christian a little behind the others, filthy blue running shoes slipping and one long sliding step that leaves him on one knee on the stuff, scrabbling. Some of the others already returning, back over squeak and crack plastic to heave and let fall long green sacks of gravel from off their shoulders, weighting those unrolled strips. Christian steps off the plastic, up to a dwindling levee of gravel-sacks, and squats to get his knees under one, lifting with a scowl the weight of it, staggering back onto footsteps carefulling plastic past sacks already dropped, there, there, he lets his fall as soon as he can and bends over it, hands on his knees. Straightens. All about him they’ve set to ripping open sacks with shears, multi-tools, daggers, claws, spilling gravel out. He looks around, at his own bare hands, the long green sack on the plastic before him, weightily stuffed, of thick cord tightly woven. Here comes Charlichhold, hook-tipped knife out and ready, and Christian steps back, again, managing not to stumble over the drift of gravel already loosed behind.

Stripped to the waist, he kneels upon the grass.

Shaking his head he brushes gravel dust from the shoulder of his hoodie, making his way toward the other end of the unrolled plastic where tools have been piled, shovels, rakes. “The fly, the fly, the fly,” someone’s chanting, Trucos there by the small crane leaned out over the edge of the roof, and Getulos, “the fly, the fly, the fly,” the two of them working the winch of it, muscles bunching and releasing across bared shoulders glossy with sweat, “the fly is on the turmut!” Christian takes up a push broom and joins the others, raking and shoveling, spreading the gravel, flattening out those piles over the plastic. “Was on a jolly summer’s morn,” someone’s singing, “the fifteenth day of May,” more joining in, “Jim Turk!” someone shouts, and a guffaw from Big Jim in the midst of them all, he took his turmut hoe, and trudged off on his way! For some delight in haymaking, and some they fancies mowing, but of all the trades we do like best, give us the turmut-hoeing!

Stripped to the waist he’s knelt there, on rich green grass, lifting up his head.

Push broom turned over, bristles up, wooden head of it press and scrape, back and push. The gravel’s more varied in color, generally brown, larger than the pea stone still visible, a pale strand of it lapping the base of the back brick wall, the reach of it left to stretch away the far end of the roof. For the fly, the fly, the fly be on the turmut! they’re chanting, bent over with rakes and shovels, brooms, spreading the gravel from parapet to parapet until the last of the plastic’s buried away, and it’s all my eye for we to try to keep fly off the turmut!

And now come some, arms laden with stuff, rolls of speckled grey felt they drop and kick over, unrolling across the gravel, but also blankets and sheets, ratty old quilts shook out, even sheets of cardboard, spatchcocked boxes tossed onto the rocks, now the next place as we went to work, it were with, and someone shouts above the others, “Brether Nedrick!” and general laughter, and a rough deep voice booms out, “An I vows an swares, an dizz declare, yar wiz an farst-rate hoer!” and the laughter then redoubles as they toss and stamp, flatten and spread. He steps back, nearly bumps into the Flynn, turns about, cardboard crumpling underfoot. Stripped to the waist he topples forward, hands and knees, clutching the trembling grass, “Shit,” he hisses, trying to get himself out of the way, for it’s all my eye as we do try to keep fly off the turmut!

He stuffs a hand in the pocket of his hoodie as they’re stepping past, sprinkling water over cardboard and cloth from pots and jugs with ladles and cups and thumbs over spouts, dripping, dampening, dolloping, when we was ower at yonder farm, they sent for us a-mowin’! But we sent word back we’d take the sack, nor lose our turmut-hoein’! Over by the crane they’ve hauled up one pallet laden with plastic sacks that say FoxFarm and Sun Gro and Black Gold, and they’re busily hauling up another with great wrenching twists of the winch, the fly, the fly, the fly! He’s pulled his hand from his pocket, thumb-tip absently stroking grains of brightly gold against the blue-brown crease of index finger, shaking away a trailing thread from the frayed cuff. Suddenly elbows and wriggling Christian shrugs his way under and out of that hoodie, dropping it onto a patch of gravel, steps back with a nod as water’s flung onto it, grabbing a handful of gravel to weight it down with the rest.

Stripped to the waist, a half dozen or so of them crouch and kneel, bared backs shining brown and glistening pale, ruddily bronze, jeans and dungarees, corduroys, work boots and knobbed bare feet, filthy blue running shoes, they spread and evenly scrape, tireless, chanting become a rolling thrumming nearly wordless hum-de-dum, the fly, the fly, the turmut as they press and tamp, rumpled and hillocked soil tumbled and spilt on the dampened cloth and cardboard mulched into the gravel spread over the plastic below, it’s all left smoothly glossy in their wake, a rich black even field. There at the crane Getulous and Trucos, and Jim Turk with them, it’s all my eye, it’s all my eye as they winch up a pallet of turf-rolls, richly brown, coiled with startling green. Spread and scrape, press and tamp, shake off the sweat and breathe and blow, smooth and tamp and spread until, until, until shirtless he rolls onto his back in all the gingerly unfolding grass, under the high blue sky.

He sits up, utterly alone in the midst of that high new lawn. Not even a broomstick left behind, but his shoulders bare, and his jeans heavy with wet dirt.

“Hello, good evening. My name is Arnold Becker. I’m calling on behalf of Barshefsky Associates, an independent market research firm. This is, I assure you. This is not a sales,” he closes his eyes, and rocks the handset back into its cradle. Sighs. Taps the tab key, toggling radio buttons next to listed items on the screen until he gets to Refusal (Hang Up). Presses tab again, to Refusal (Definite), then on to Disconnected, then back to No Answer at the top. Strokes his scratchily stubbled cheek. Reaches to press the enter key, but takes hold of the mouse instead. Moves the pointer on the screen to press the radio button next to Refusal (Hang Up). Sighs again. Hits enter.

A new number appears on the screen, ten digits, numerals bold and large. He reaches for the handset, rocks it forward off the cradle, and a dial tone leaks from the earpieces of his headset. Adjusts the mike of it with one hand while he taps the number on the phone with the other. Tips back his waiting head.

A click, followed not by the burr of a ringing phone, but the howling piercing gurgle of a modem, testing its connection. He slaps the headset from his ears to bounce against the keyboard, knocks the handset back into its cradle, cutting off the noise. The woman beside him spares him a scowl of sympathy, but she’s speaking to someone on her headset, “no sir, not a sales call at all. Yessir. Jessie Vee. Well, that’s great! Okay. And I know this sounds a little weird, but I have to ask, would you say you’re the person who makes most of the financial decisions for your household?”

He lifts the headset off the keyboard, flicks it toward the back of his carrel. Pounds the tab key, down, down, until the radio button by Disconnected is lit up.

“And would that be all of the financial decisions, at least half, less than half, or none of the financial decisions for your household? I know, I know, it’s a little weird. Trust me. It gets better.”

Becker pushes back his chair, bends down to scoop up his messenger bag. Settles a dark grey meshback cap on his head as he gets to his feet. Rolls the chair carefully back into place before the narrow carrel, just enough room for the phone, the keyboard, the monitor waiting patiently for someone to confirm the status of this phone number.

“Becker,” says the kid at the desk, “hey, Becker? What’s up?” Voice pitched to carry just enough under the clatterous murmur of numbers dialed, questions asked, data entered. Becker’s steps stutter, he shifts the strap of the bag on his shoulder, tightens his grip. Looks the kid over, his blue on blue check shirt, thick-knotted tie of brown and purple paisley. “You’ve only got six in the bag,” says the kid. “That’s less than a two-point-five. Becker? Becker!”

Becker pushes open the door, steps out into the cramped lobby, empty but for a couple of leather armchairs, the large copper letters of the logo on the wall, and, when the door swings shut behind him, so very quiet.

Table of Contents

Controlling interest in the National Geographic magazine has been held by the Walt Disney Company since 2019. Turmut-hoeing,” traditional, within the public domain. FoxFarm Soil & Fertilizer Co., founded 1984 in Humboldt County. Black Gold® is a registered trademark of Sun Gro Horticulture, acquired by 1582956 Alberta Ltd. in 2011.

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