Excerpt from Dirt Men by Tim Johnston

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It’s old Jimmy Day who finds it, digging away on a tract of greasy earth that two days ago was an auto salvage lot. (Where
those dripping wrecks ended up we don’t ask: our focus has been on leveling the land so that pavement can get in there and lid the whole toxic stretch with two feet of concrete, pronto.) I was about twenty yards away on my skidloader, pushing around a green goulash of mud and batteries and hubcaps, looking right at Jimmy when he did something you almost never see Jimmy do: he stopped digging. His bucket came up, but instead of swinging over to the dump truck it halted, and hung there, bobbing, then folded up on itself like a stork leg so Jimmy could get a better look at what was inside, and—Holy Jesus: An arm. A human arm, jutting from the teeth. The arm so stark, and clean, and well-formed, it was impossible to think it was real.

Jimmy climbs down and walks his jerky, haywire walk over to it, and I join him there. The hand at the end of the arm is open, the fingers splayed, like, Whoa, stay back.

“Son of a bitch, Jimmy,” Garth Koepke calls, grunting down from his dump truck, “what’d you do?”

“I ain’t done nothin’,” Jimmy says with a body-twitch. “I been just diggin’.”

“Mother. Of. Christ,” says Don Sherman around a wad of chaw, joining us. “Jesus, Rain Man.” Ten years ago Don Sherman and I made it through four years of high school without word one to each other, and now he’s foreman of me and all these old boys twice our age. He calls Jimmy Rain Man because of Jimmy’s way with a backhoe, a machine that is like a twelve-ton drum kit, all pedals and levers, but he’s the only one; Jimmy and his quirks are too old for a new nickname, especially one coined by Don Sherman.

More dirt men come round for a look. Up close we can see the grime in the creases of the palm and under the nails, which are long like a woman’s and painted some dark shade. The air is a bad mix of diesel and river and spoilage, and the bluebottles have come. Seeing just the arm, and a jut of scapula, and a sprig of dirty hair, we all have the same queasy thought, but no one moves: the last gouge marks from Jimmy’s bucket—the deep, vertical grooves from the teeth—hold us back.

“Jimmy,” Don Sherman says at last. “Go on and see if you—you know. Got the whole deal.”

Jimmy’s right arm shoots spasmodically out, up, then down on top of his Cubs cap. “Well, Don. I don’t . . . I don’t—”

“Relax, Jimmy,” Garth Koepke says with a hard glance at Don Sherman. “I’ll go.” He makes his way to the edge of the hole and, lowering to one knee, strikes a kind of pose, as if he is all at once a man burdened by deep thoughts.

“Well?” says Don Sherman.

Garth keeps looking, unmoving, pondering—until at last he stands and comes slowly back.

“Came out clean,” he says, and everyone breathes again.

Except the girl, inside Jimmy’s bucket. All of her in there, tucked into the same shape, the same egg of earth, in which she’d been buried—just the arm extending, the hand open, trying to reach something, someone. No one speaks, and in the silence a few words, a sentence fragment, passes before my eyes like a banner behind a ghost plane: far off as a star and just as small I recognize it. I know its author. My student. My brilliant, tiny accuser.


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  1. March 16, 2010 @ 9:31 pm Forth Magazine | Los Angeles Writing and Art | Fiction | Interview with Tim Johnston

    […] Read Fiction by Tim Johnston […]

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