a couple of winos
I was in my 20's and although I was drinking heavily and not eating, I was
still strong. I mean, physically, and that's some luck for you when not much
else is going right. My mind was in riot against my lot and life, and the only
way I could calm it was to drink and drink and drink. I was walking up the road,
it was dusty and dirty and hot, and I believe the state was California, but I'm
no longer sure. It was desert land. I was walking along the road, my stockings
hard and rotted and stinking, the nails were coming up through the soles of my
shoes and into my feet and I had to keep cardboard in my shoes--cardboard,
newspaper, anything that I could find. The nails worked through that, and you
either got some more or you turned the stuff around, or upsidedown, or reshaped
The truck stopped alongside of me. I ignored it and kept walking. The truck
started up again and the guy rode along beside me.
"Kid," the guy said, " you want a job?"
"Who've I got to kill?' I asked.
"Nobody," said the guy, "come on, get in."
I went around to the other side and when I got there the door was open. I
stepped up on the running board, slid in, pulled the door shut and leaned back
in the leather seat. I was out of the sun.
"You wanna suck me," said the guy, "you get five bucks."
I put the right hand hard into his gut, got the left somewhere in between
the ear and the neck, came back with the right to the mouth and the truck ran
off the road. I grabbed the wheel and steered it back. Then I cut the motor and
braked. I climbed out and continued to walk along the road. About five minutes
later the truck was running along next to me again.
"Kid," said the guy, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. I didn't
mean you were a homo. I mean, though, you kind of half-look like a homo. Is
there anything wrong with being a homo?"
"I guess if you're a homo there's not."
"Come on," said the guy, "get in. I got a real honest job for
you. You can make some money, get on your feet."
I climbed in again. We drove off.
"I'm sorry," he said, "you got a real tough face, but look at
your hands. You got ladies' hands."
"Don't worry about my hands," I said.
"Well, it's a tough job. Loadin' ties. You ever loaded ties?
"It's hard work."
"I've done hard work all my life."
"O.k.," said the guy, "o.k."
We drove along not talking, the truck rocking back and forth. There was
nothing but dust, dust and desert. The guy didn't have much of a face, he didn't
have much of anything. But sometimes small people who stay in the same place for
a long time achieve minor prestige and power. He had the truck and he was
hiring. Sometimes you have to go along with that.
We drove along and there was an old guy walking along the road. He must have
been in his mid-forites. That's old for the road. This Mr. Burkhart, he'd told
me his name, slowed his truck and asked the old guy. "Hey, buddy, you want
to make a couple of bucks?"
"Oh, yes sir!" said the old guy.
"Move over. Let him in," said Mr. Burkhart.
The old guy got in and he really stank--of booze and sweat and agony and
death. We drove on until we came to a small group of buildings. We got out with
Burkhart and walked into a store. There was a guy in a green sunshade with a
bunch of rubber bands around his left wrist. He was bald but his arms were
covered with sickly long blond hair.
"Hello, Mr. Burkhart," he said, "I see you found yourself a
couple more winos."
"Here's the list, Jesse," said Mr. Burkhart, and Jesse walked
about filling orders. It took some time. Then he was finished. "Anything
else, Mr. Burkhart? A couple cheap bottles of wine?"
"No wine for me," I said.
"O.k.," said the old guy, "I'll take both bottles."
"It'll come off your pay," Burkhart told the old guy.
"It doesn't matter," said the old guy, "take it off my
"You sure you don't want a bottle?" Burkhart asked me.
"All right," I said, "I'll take a bottle."
We had a tent and that night we drank the wine and the old guy told me his
troubles. He'd lost his wife. He still loved his wife. He thought about her all
the time. A great woman. He used to teach mathematics. But he'd lost his wife.
Never a woman like her. Blah blah blah.
Christ, when we woke up the old guy was sick and I wasn't feeling much
better and the sun was up and out and we went to do our job: stacking railroad
ties. You had to stack them into ricks. The bottom stacking was easy. But as we
got higher we had to count. "One, two, three," I'd count and then we'd
let her go.
The old guy had a bandanna tied around his head and the booze poured out of
his head and into the bandanna and the bandanna got soaked and dark. Every now
and then a sliver from one of the railroad ties would knife through the rotten
glove and into my hand. Ordinarily the pain would have been unbearable and I
would have quit but fatigue dulled the senses, really properly dulled them. I
just got angry when it happened--like I wanted to kill somebody, but when I
looked around there was only sand and cliffs and the overn dry bright yellow sun
and no place to go.
Every now and then the railroad company would rip up the old ties and
replace them with new ones. They left the old ties laying beside the tracks.
There wasn't much wrong with the old ties but the railroad left them laying
around and Burkhart had guys like us stack them into ricks which he toted off in
his truck and sold. I guess they had a lot of uses. On some of the ranches you'd
see them stuck in the ground and strung with barbed wire and used as fences. I
suppose there were other uses too. I wasn't much interested.
It was like any other impossible job, you got tired and you wanted to quit
and then you got more tired and forgot to quit, and the minutes didn't move, you
lived forever inside of one minute, no hope, no out, trapped, too dumb to quit
and nowhere to go if you did quit.
"Kid, I lost my wife. She was such a wonderful woman. I keep thinking
of her. A good woman is the greatest thing on earth."
"If we only had a little wine."
"We don't have any wine. We gotta wait until tonight."
"I wonder if anybody understands winos?"
"Just other winos."
"Do you think those slivers in our hands will creep into our
"No chance; we've never been lucky."
Two Indians came by and watched us. They watched us a long time. When the
old guy and I sat down on a tie for a smoke one of the Indians walked over.
"You guys are doing it all wrong," he said.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"You're working at the height of the desert heat. What you do is get up
early in the morning and get your work done while it's cool."
"You're right," I said, "thanks."
The Indian was right. I decided we'd get up early. But we never made it. The
old guy was always too sick from the night's drinking and I could never get him
up on time.
"Five minutes more," he'd say, "just five minutes more."
Finally, one day, the old man gave out. He couldn't lift another tie. He
kept apologizing about it.
"It's all right, Pops."
We got back to the tent and waited for evening. Pops layed there talking. He
kept talking about his ex-wife. I heard about his ex-wife all through the day
and into the evening. Then Burkhart arrived.
"Jesus Christ, you guys didn't do much today. You figure to live off
the fat of the land?"
"We're through, Burkhart," I said, "we're waiting to get
"I got a good mind not to pay you guys."
"If you got a good mind," I said, "you'll pay."
"Please, Mr. Burkhart," said the old guy, "please, please, we
worked so god damned hard, honest we did!"
"Burkhart knows what we've done," I said, "he's got a count
of the ricks and so have I."
"72 ricks," said Burkhart.
"90 ricks," I said.
"76 ricks," said Burkhart.
"90 ricks," I said.
"80 ricks," said Burkhart.
"Sold," I said.
Burkhart got out his pencil and paper and charged us for wine and food,
transport and lodging. Pops and I each came up with $18 for five day's work. We
took it. And got a free ride back to town. Free? Burkhart had fucked us from
every angle. But we couldn't holler law because when you didn't have any money
the law stopped working.
"By god," said the old guy, "I'm really going to get drunk.
I'm going to get good and drunk. Aren't you, kid?"
"I don't think so."
We went into the only bar in town and sat down and Pops ordered a wine and I
ordered a beer. The old guy started in on his ex-wife again and I moved down to
the other end of the bar. A Mexican girl came down the stairway and sat down
next to me. Why were they always coming down stairways like that, like in the
movies? I even felt like I was in a movie. I bought her a beer. She said,
"My name is Sherri," and I said, "That's isn't Mexican," and
she said, "It doesn't have to be," and I said, "You're
And it was five dollars upstairs and she washed me off first, and then
later. She washed me off out of a little white bowl that had painted baby
chickens chasing each other around the bowl. She made the same money in ten
minutes that I had made in a day with some hours thrown in. Monetarily speaking,
it seemed sure as shit you were better off having a pussy than a cock.
When I came down the stairay the old guy already had his head down on the
bar; it had gotten to him. We hadn't eaten that day and he had no resistance.
There was a dollar and some change by his head. For a moment I thought of taking
him with me but I couldn't take care of myself. I walked outside. It was cool
and I walked north.
I felt bad about leaving Pops there for the small town vultures. Then I
wondered if the old guy's wife ever thought about him. I decided that she
didn't, or if she did, it was hardly in the same way he thought about her. The
whole earth crawled with sad hurt people like him. I needed a place to sleep.
The bed I had been in with the Mexican girl had been the first I had been in for
Some nights earlier I had found that when it got cold the slivers in my hand
began to throb. I could feel where each one was. It began to get cold. I can't
say that I hated the world of men and women, but I felt a certain disgust that
separated me from the craftsmen and tradesmen and liars and lovers, and now
decades later I feel that same disgust. Of course, this is only one man's story
or one man's view of reality. If you'll keep reading maybe the next story will
be happier. I hope so.