September Web Feature by Frank Haberle
Frank Haberle’s novel-in-stories, Shufflers, about minimum wage transients during the Reagan era, is now available from Flexible Press (https://www.flexiblepub.com/shufflers). His short stories have been featured in many journals including Rosie, featured here, in El Portal in 2015. Frank’s stories won awards from Pen Parentis (2011), Beautiful Loser Magazine (2017) the Sustainable Arts Foundation (2013) and the Rose Warner Prize for Fiction (2021). Frank is a volunteer workshop leader for the NY Writers Coalition. He lives in Brooklyn and works in The Bronx. More about Frank’s writing can be found on his website www.frankhaberle.com
ROSIE by Frank Haberle
From the back of the truck, Danny watches the first shafts of sunlight paint the side of the mountain in brilliant orange. The beam spreads above him, picking up floating ice crystals that swarm around the trees. The snow lights up, then turns to black water and dribbles down the slopes in big black stains. This is so beautiful, Danny thinks. This place is so beautiful. If only—
Bang! The truck hits a rut on the hard dirt road. Danny bounces up, then down on the toolbox. Kenny pulls the little cab window open and grins at him. A plume of cigarette smoke puffs out the window. “You still holding them propane tanks?” he asks.
“Yes,” Danny says. He is holding in his frozen hands a steel cable that loops through the eyeholes of a dozen propane tanks, leashed to the truck’s side rail. They are tight and cut into his palms, but he can’t let go. He’s been told what happens if he lets them go. “Fireworks,” the boss once told him. “Happened to the last rental,” he said, holding his hands up and giggling under his bushy moustache. “Look ma, no hands!”
Kenny drives straight into town and pulls the truck up in front of the McDonald’s. He climbs out of the cab and slams the door shut. “Come on.” He waves an unnaturally long arm at Danny. Danny follows him through the glass door to the counter. “Boss says I should buy you breakfast.”
Danny sits down across from Kenny. Two stacks of pancakes in Styrofoam containers sit on plastic trays between them. “Boss wants me to talk to you about not being a rental no more,” he says. A knot of homesickness clutches Danny’s throat. He can’t swallow his pancakes. He pushes the tray away. “He just wants me to ask is all. It’s a good job once you go permanent.” Kenny finishes his pancakes and sticks a plastic fork into Danny’s. “Once I went permanent, they started paying me for all the overtime and all that. And nobody treats you like a rental no more.”
“Thanks,” Danny says.
“All Boss wants you to do is think about it is all,” Kenny says. Somehow he stuffs the pancakes into his mouth while still smoking. “Let him know by tomorrow. Today he told me to bring you and the propane and them tools over to site four. They screwed up so bad they need a rental to come clean it all up.”
The big truck turns out onto the flat paved road that runs through downtown Bend, then spills out on the road toward the river. Through the trees, Danny can see the neat little cluster of houses and stores around the old mill. He can barely make out smoke rising from chimneys, steam rising from a plant, and the roof of a diner. All he can think of now is that tray of pancakes they left there. He misses them. He is sad he didn’t eat them.
Kenny pulls the truck in front of a two-story shell of a building in the woods. Through the woods next door, cars inch slowly through a drive-through window. Danny can’t make out if it’s a Wendy’s or a Burger King.
Kenny sticks his head back out the window. “Well, we’re here, I guess. Get your ass off the truck. Check in with a guy they call Rosie. Jest pull off four of them tanks. And don’t lose them tools.”
Danny enters a cinderblock fortress. A half-dozen workers with burnt faces and shaggy blond beards drop long steel bars onto a cement surface. They glare at Danny, then go back for another bar.
“You know where I can find Rosie?” Danny asks one.
“Nope,” this one says, putting his large hands on his hips.
“Can you point me in his general direction?”
“I can,” he says. “But let me ask you something first. Where you from?”
“Site seven,” Danny says, nodding back toward the big truck. “From the site seven worksite. They told me to find Rosie.”
“No, I mean, where you from.”
The man turns and spits on the bar he just dropped.
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “We heard all about you.”
“Up here!” A voice comes from somewhere high up in the building’s half-constructed skeleton, but Danny can’t see anyone up there. “You come on up here! Don’t pay them no mind.”
A new bar clangs down. “Who’s that?” another one asks.
“Shuffler,” the spitter says. “They sent him over here from seven to do some poop work.”
He spits again.
“Course, now we don’t need us no poop worker. We got us here a shuffler.”
“Up here now,” the voice from above comes again. “Get on up here.”
Danny looks up again at the roofless turret of the castle. Scaffolding made of planks and rope weaves through the top ledges. The sun has just started to bleed through the trees, blinding him. He sees the silhouette of a small man above him, waving a large forearm. “I guess you’re looking for me,” the voice says. “You must be that shuffler they sent. Get on up. There’s a ladder out back. Grab that toolbox. Get on up here.”
Danny climbs over a pile of half-shattered crates and broken cement blocks, through the frame of what might someday become a back door. Danny ascends the ladder with one arm, moving the heavy toolbox up against his stomach. He climbs over the ledge and lands softly on the wet wood of the scaffolding, which creaks under his weight.
“Y’ever see anything so screwed up in your whole life?” the voice asks.
Danny turns around, and Rosie is standing in front of him. His face is very difficult to look at. One eye is clear blue and stares right at him, and one has no pigment at all and stares down and away. There’s a nose that’s been broken so many times that Danny can’t really tell where nose starts and forehead ends. The whole right side of Rosie’s face drifts away from him. He’s short but wide; two twisted arms dangle loosely out of a sleeveless Rebel Yell sweatshirt.
“Yeah, like I was saying,” Rosie continues. “Some screw-butt contractor said we do it his way or whatever and git it done before the first snowfall, and guess the hell what else is new. So what’s it do? It snows. And it all just fell out, the first frost, it just frigging cracked out, man. Set us back three weeks easy. We’re screwed, man. We screwed this job up good.”
Danny pulls his gloves on; they have grown stiff and cold in his pocket. “What do you need me to do?”
“I don’t care what the hell you do,” Rosie says, still staring at his ruins. “I ain’t the boss man.” Rosie turns to walk back to a corner where he dug a hole between two steel beams. Then he marches straight back to Danny, almost bumping up next to him. “But I guess if I was the boss man, I’d want you to take that sledgehammer over there and start breaking up the rest of that crap wall so we can reset it all over again. I’d probably want this whole job dug out and redone and set before it freezes out again.”
Danny’s arms and legs ache with hunger. He picks up the sledgehammer. It’s heavy, and it hurts his hands still cracked and sore from yesterday, when he dug a foundation trench out at site seven. Rosie starts digging through the toolbox. Danny starts swinging. The cracking concrete feels good. It drops in little triangles onto the scaffold boards. He peeks down at the floor below; he can still hear the clang of the rebar men working, but he can’t see them. He follows the lines where they interlaced the bars together.
“You ain’t gonna get nowhere, just tapping at it like that,” Rosie says.
“Don’t have to apologize to me none,” he says, still pulling out tools. “Like I said, I ain’t the boss.”
Rosie screams out something like a whoop. It is so loud that Danny loses his grip on the sledgehammer. He traps it with his leg before it plummets off the scaffolding. He turns back to Rosie. He guesses Rosie must have hurt himself, but he is staring out over the precipice.
“Oh, baby,” Rosie says. “Oh, baby. Will you look at that. Oh, baby, baby. Will you look.”
“Look at what?” Danny asks. He peers over the edge. He can see the fast-food restaurant. There’s a woman pulling the door open. She’s wearing a green pants suit, like a flight attendant or a rental car agent. Her hair is tied up in an off-green scarf that matches her suit.
“Will you look at that,” Rosie says. “Hmmm, hmmm. Oh, baby.”
Danny picks up the sledgehammer and swings it fiercely. A square foot of the wall becomes sand; it slides down the wall of the building.
“Let me ask you something,” Rosie says behind him. He waits for Danny to turn around. Danny takes off his work gloves, pretending to adjust them, so he doesn’t have to look at Rosie. Then Rosie comes right up into Danny’s face again.
“You got yourself a woman?”
“A woman! You got yourself a woman?”
“Yeah,” Danny says, “I guess.”
Danny starts to pick up the hammer again when Rosie makes a gesture for him to stop.
“I got me the best woman in the world,” he says. “But she’s in the big house right now.” Rosie pulls a wad of something wet out of his sweatshirt pocket and stuffs it in the sagging side of his mouth. “It’s all account of me she’s in there too.
“Thing is, we were climbing out the back window of this here liquor store, and we set the alarm off, and the cops came in the front door. And you know what she said? She said, ‘You run, Rosie.’ And I said, ‘No, sir,’ right to her face I said it. ‘No woman of mine’s gonna take one for me.’ And she said, ‘You run, mister! You got a prior!’ And she turned and shot one over their heads. That was enough for me, and I ran like hell. I just ran and ran, and when I turned around, she weren’t there. She got eight years, and she’s still up there, and she never once told nobody I was with her. Not once. I ended up in there later for something else, but I only got two years. Now I go up there and visit her sometimes ’cause she was so loyal and all that.”
Rosie is still staring out at the fast-food restaurant. He spits a string of brown tobacco juice out onto the snow.
“Even though I pretty much got women anytime I want now.”
Danny picks up the sledgehammer and swings it with such force that the whole wall collapses in a cloud of powder; when the dust clears, Rosie’s still there.
“Now let me ask you something,” he asks Danny. “You got a woman that would do something like that for you?”
Danny doesn’t get to answer. The workers on the floor are screaming up at him; he has to go down and clean the rubble and plaster he’s just poured down into their new foundation.
By the time Danny is done, Kenny’s come back to get him. When Danny climbs down the ladder, Kenny stands there staring at him, his arms hanging at his sides, surrounded by the other workers.
“Looks like he pretty much screwed this job up worse,” one says to Kenny.
“Stay away from them sledgehammers,” one of them yells to Danny when he climbs into the back of the truck.
Kenny drives Danny back to the center of town.
“So you got to meet Rosie,” he yells above the wind howling all around Danny.
“Ain’t he something?”
Kenny pauses to light a cigarette.
“He tell you he used to be the boss man?”
“No,” Danny yells back. “He didn’t tell me that.”
“Yeah, he used to be the boss,” Kenny says. “Then he got all messed up, did some time. When he got out, the company still hired him back. Only he can’t be a boss no more. For all the obvious reasons, I guess. But it goes to show you. This company takes care of its own,” Kenny says. “When I heard that story, I signed right up.”
The big truck pulls over on the town’s main street, just across from the McDonald’s.
“See you in the morning,” Kenny yells. “You go right in and talk to Boss.”
Kenny pulls the little cab window shut. Danny climbs off the back of the truck, which roars off out of town, its tire chains ringing on the pavement. The sky goes dark, and it starts to snow again; big white gobs float down like feathers. Danny stands for a second, not sure where to turn; then he can’t help himself. He stares in through the plate-glass window of the McDonald’s, now closed. He looks at the table he sat at, where the pancakes once steamed in their Styrofoam tray. He has some hope that they are still there. But the table was wiped clean many hours ago.