by Jim Kelly

Big Fred’s roughcut sawmill was built on a patch of scraped-raw, hidden-away Vermont mountainside surrounded by miles of deep forest. No signs pointed the way. The tax man and the safety inspector were not welcome. Gouged clean of trees, the land seeped, bubbling spring water all summer long. Pungent thick black bark and splinter-rich mud caught at your boots, froze you if you stopped or slowed. You could call out loud as you liked, who would hear? Millhands only, guys not much inclined to offer help. Transients, they lived in rusted-out trailers that Big Fred let them have rent-free. They were often drunk and would get into fights and wind up in jail. They took off on the spur of the moment to hunt, fish, carouse, or just keep on going. Mostly they didn’t call the mill office to announce their plans. When they came up short Big Fred usually stood them a cash advance, trusting they’d work it off eventually. Not so Miss Caro.

“Everybody lies,” she told me the day I started my stint of summer work. “Kids, parents, teachers, bus drivers, superintendents, all secretaries, every-damn-body.” This, she explained, was what she had learned from forty-two years of teaching math at the local high school. Big Fred’s older sister and a chain-smoker who said little, she lived in two rooms built to her specifications off the back of his new house and kept the books for the sawmill.

Miss Caro worked silence like a water torture. A millhand would shuffle into her tiny office, eyes down, and mumble why he needed an advance. She made them say exactly how much they needed and why. Then she’d stare at them, saying nothing, smoking. They’d stand, twisting enormous frayed ball caps in sunburned hands, shamed and seething. The excuses never changed: kid needed school clothes, new shoes; car needed brakes; wife needed a tooth fixed. “We pay,” she’d say eventually, quick, sharp, and loud so they didn’t miss her meaning, “for hours worked. We don’t pay you for staying home and sleeping off a drunk. We don’t pay you for sitting in jail. And we don’t pay you for running off God knows where whenever you feel like it with your halfwit friends or no-count relations. No work, no pay. Got it? Need me to say it again real slow so you can understand it? Cat got your tongue, Mister Stupid? Get out of my office. I’m tired of looking at you.”

Fresh from these humiliations, but well out of earshot, the millhands bragged about what they’d do if they ever caught Miss Caro when she was out on her own. Beat her with a rock, brick, or club; shoot her dead; throw her off a cliff; drown her in Fred’s trout pond, the river gorge, or Lake Dunmore; squash her cardboard-flat into the mountain mud under the wide bald tires of the mill’s forklift. Three taboos, however, protected Miss Caro. She was a woman, she was an old woman, and she was Big Fred’s sister. Hated and feared though she was, Miss Caro was untouchable.

I made seven thousand bucks that year. Even then it wasn’t much to live on. My employer, a small-town school board up in the mountains of central Vermont, had made a mistake and not taken out enough for tax. It was their mistake but my problem. The registered letter I received laid it all out: I owed the State of Vermont $319.47; I owed the IRS $678; it was fines, garnished wages, pay up or else. How was I supposed to come up with that kind of money? We used the wrong formula, the letter said, nothing we can do about that now. Have a nice summer. Recharge your batteries. See you in the fall.

I taught school with Fred’s wife, Myrtle, and rented half of a two-hundred-year-old farmhouse that they owned. It was across a cornfield from their new place and just down the mountain from the sawmill. Knowing the fix I was in, Fred hired me for the summer, cash under the table, handshake deal. No taxes reported, none taken out, work whenever I wanted. It was perfect for a guy with sudden big debts and bills still piling up.

I had one job: “stickin’ pine”—building drying piles of scrap boards, bark-sided rejects that might be ten or more inches thick at one point and paper-thin farther on. The sawyer rips the length of a log until the surface is flat enough to make boards; those first few cuts, unfit for any building, were hauled off by the forklift and dumped in the mud for me. I laid them out in raft-size layers, put some crossways in between, and stacked them up about shoulder high. They were free to anyone who cared to haul them off, cut them into slabs, and use for firewood. They were Big Fred’s largesse, and part of why nobody on the mountain ever gave anyone they didn’t know, especially anyone driving an official-looking car, directions to the mill.

I worked crazy hours that summer, starting before sunup and keeping at it until well after dark. More often than not I’d be off by myself building drying piles for a good two hours before I saw anybody or heard any sounds of life from the sawmill over the rise. Which is why it startled me so, all of them showing up like that.

I was resting in the early morning dark, blinking drops of sweat off my eyelashes, too beat to wipe them away with my hands, looking down, breathing slow on a halfway-built-up pile of slabs. My boots, dangling just above the mud, were thick-coated and ripe with it. If I kept up this pace, starting before dawn and working late, I could get shut of my debts by late August. Maybe even take a week off before school started back up. Probably they’d all rot where they were, all my teetering slab piles, unseen and untouched—pointless work to pay off nonsense debts. To hell with that, I thought, get up and get back at it. Be daylight soon. Finish this load before they dump another one in the mud.

That’s when I heard the sound of boots moving slow. Boots squishing down, pulling free, squishing back down. My accuser, when he stops before me, has a sunken cheek, chalk-white face, twitchy red eyes, odd little patches of stubble here and there. A long-billed cap is pulled down level with his black eyebrows. Three squirrel tails hang from his belt.

Time stops, balloons out, wide and hollow. Things become intensely clear: glint of quartz, tiny bone-white twig, frozen wave of blue-black bark and splinter-flecked mud. Large sunburned men surround me. Each one holds a lethal something: club, pipe, length of chain. They wait for a nod. My accuser forms the words slowly. “Why,” he asks, “did you call the cops on me, schoolteacher?”

It’s the guy who rents the other half of the farmhouse. One night early on, we had woken to the sounds of dogs and shouting, the scream of bad brakes, bottles exploding off the side of the barn. We walked out into the dark once the men with their dogs, guns, and flashlights disappeared up the mountain. “Jacklighting,” he said. “These guys are hunting deer out of season. I’m gonna call the cops. Go back inside and stay there. Keep your lights off. If they get arrested, we don’t want them finding out who called.”

Now, here he is, setting me up. He must have told them that it was me who made the call—me who got them arrested, jailed and fined, me who got their guns taken away. They want revenge, and there is nothing I can say to stop them, nothing they will believe.

“I made a call that night,” I say at last. “I made a call, but I never called the cops.” Then, I wait, tightening my back and shoulders. Will it come from behind, the first hit, from someone I can’t even see?

He’s speaking now, slow and deliberate. “You didn’t call the cops. Who did you call, schoolteacher?” Chuckles all around.

“Miss Caro,” I said. “I called Miss Caro. I didn’t know what you guys were doing, parking in front of our house, screaming and yelling. It was the middle of the night. All I saw were strangers with guns, dogs, and flashlights. I didn’t know you worked for Fred. I was scared, so I called Miss Caro, told her what I’d seen. She said to get all the license plate numbers and go back to bed, that she’d take care of it.”

Nobody moves or speaks. Single drops of sweat burn down my back, icy cold, red hot. No air moves. My accuser spits, frowns. Shakes his head. Spits again. Pulls, tugs one foot free of the mud. Kicks at the slab pile I’m sitting on. He stares off over my shoulder, blinks like he’s trying to make something out, make something come into focus.

“Bitch,” he says finally. “Bitch.” And then they walk off. Just turn and walk off, ending it.

Published on June 27, 2019