David works for the city, the water division. He spends his days driving around Pine, Oregon, in a pumpkin-orange Chevy Astrovan. He’s done the math: every day, on average, he puts a hundred and fifty miles on the odometer. That’s an eight-hour day, five days a week, for the past ten years.
He clocks in at seven each morning. He drives around until ten. Then he selects a hydrant and cranks it open, letting its water rush into the street. This is called hydrant flushing, and it’s necessary because rust and sediment settle at the bottom of the pipes that interlace like veins beneath the ground. He does four or five hydrants a day, and each job takes only ten minutes or so. While the water roars—thousands of gallons coming out brown, then yellow, then white, then clear—he waits in the van, reading the newspaper. He reads every page, even the classifieds. When David wrenches off the water, a hush falls over the street. The only sounds are the drip and gurgle of water, the distant blaring of car horns, and the squeak of his shoes as he returns to the van and settles his weight into it. Depending on the time, he may hunt down another hydrant, or take his lunch break, or just drive around some more.
It’s a job. And at fifteen dollars an hour, it’s a good one, giving him more than enough to cover the rent and pay for the Coors that runs down his throat every night when he sits in front of the TV, watching nature shows where big animals tear apart little animals.
Joe is his supervisor. He’s an old guy, closing in on seventy, with a pack-a-day habit and too much weight piled on his small frame. His nose and eyelids are a mess of broken blood vessels and his cheeks permanently carry the beginnings of a white beard. For four years he’s been threatening to retire. Instead he sits in his office with the blinds closed. He smokes cigarettes and reads old copies of Field & Stream and listens to talk radio.
Today he waves David into the fluorescent buzz of his office. David hesitates a moment, and winces. The last time he went in there was nearly six months ago. It looks much the same. Stacks of newspapers yellow in the corners. A nudie calendar, several years old, hangs from a nail. On a desk in the middle of the room there’s an unfinished game of solitaire, a Yosemite snow globe, and an ashtray piled high with cigarettes.
Joe pulls out a rumpled pack of Marlboros. “Smoke?”
David shakes his head, no. He is wearing a Trail Blazers ball cap and he pulls on its brim, bringing a shadow to his face. Then he sits in a chair facing Joe and spreads his hands flat on the tops of his thighs. Out of nervousness—wondering why he is here—he drums out a song with his fingers.
Joe shakes out a cigarette for himself, lights it, and says through a cloud of smoke, “You know Johnny Franklin, right?”
He’s talking about the fire chief, a broad-shouldered guy with gray mutton-chop sideburns.
“He’s got a son,” Joe says. “Just finished a twelve-month deployment with the Army National Guard in Iraq. Now he’s back. Johnny asked me to do him a favor. I said I could help.”
“You’re letting me go?” David’s voice comes out as a croak.
“No, no.” Joe neatens the cards on the desk and smiles. “I’m giving you a partner.”
David leans back in relief, and when he raises his hands their sweat leaves two gray prints on his jeans. He smiles, but the smile fails a little when he realizes that he will have to share his life with another. He feels like an only child whose parents have announced the imminent birth of a brother. “Thing is,” he says, “with the work I’m doing, I don’t know that I need somebody—”
Joe cuts him off. “I told him to show up at seven-thirty.” Smoke tusks from his nostrils. “Should be here any minute. You’ll show him the ropes for me, yeah?”
“Sure.” David nods his head and mumbles through his lips. “I can do that for you.”
“That’s good.” Joe gets up heavily from his swivel chair and they shake hands.
A birthmark obscures the right side of David’s face. His whole life, when he walks into a room, it seems like everybody swings around at once to give him a long stare, heavy with curiosity and disgust, the way you might look at a broken leg or a homeless man shouting at a cat.
The purple skin is raised and coarse. It looks like blood spilling down his cheek from a gash in his forehead. He walks around with his head ducked, his ball cap pulled low, trying to keep his face hidden. It’s a little like being held hostage, riding in the Astrovan with the right side of his face exposed.
The man seated next to him, Stephen, has a boxy jaw and a blackish buzzcut that glistens like a wire brush. His skin is deeply tan, and his shoulders are rounded with muscle.
They’ve been tooling around Pine, with the radio filling the silence between them. David isn’t used to talking. He is used to driving. So he answers most of Stephen’s questions in an abrupt barking way, concentrating on the road before him as if this were an unfamiliar city.
“So this is it?” Stephen says, all the vowels stretched out in a Central Oregon drawl, each word a lazy sort of song, clipped off by a hard consonant. “We just drive around? Every now and then flush a hydrant?”
David tends to notice the ugly things about people, itemizing them in his head, creating a checklist that brings him some kind of comfort. Now he takes note of Stephen’s hands. The palms are yellow and callused, the tops hairy, knotted with veins. They look like hands you might dig up in the desert, long buried.
Stephen studies David too—not so subtly.
“You ever watch any of those Dr. Phil shows?” Stephen says.
David jerks his head to look at Stephen straight on, wondering if this is the lead-up to a joke, but Stephen appears sincere, his forehead puckered with concern. “That’s one of the things I missed most. TV. No TV over there. Ever since I got back, I watch everything. I can’t get enough of it. Even the Food Network. Can you believe that shit? I don’t even cook. The other afternoon, I’m watching that Dr. Phil show and I see somebody had the exact same deal as you. They zapped him with a laser, cleaned him right up.”
David feels his hand, like something separate from him, rise to his cheek. He traces his fingers along the birthmark, shielding it partially from view. “Really?” he says in a half whisper.
“Just like that. Clean as can be.” Stephen’s hand polishes an imaginary spot from the air. “Like they wiped wine off a counter.”
David isn’t sure how to feel, until he realizes that no one has ever been so direct with him. It puts him at ease, unlike those people who look at him out of the corner of their eye, their mouths pressed into self-conscious frowns. He glances at the road just long enough to say, “Could never afford something like that,” and then his eyes shyly meet Stephen’s again.
“It’s free. The show does it. Can you believe that shit? And hey, hope you don’t mind, but you should look into it. You’re not an ugly guy, you know. Under all that.”
David says, “You think?” but Stephen doesn’t hear him. He’s talking about some guy named Cody—a first sergeant from Tennessee. “Prettiest man alive. Truly. Looked neat even in his fatigues. Anyway, one day, routine patrol, IED rips his Humvee to shit. Flames everywhere. Humvees look tough, but they burn like crazy. Thirty seconds and you’re up in smoke. That’s what happened to Cody. Poof. God knows how, but he ends up living. Third-degree burns—or whatever the worst degree is?—first-degree maybe. You know what I mean. The kind of burn where you can’t tell muscle from skin. I went to see him in the CSH. Downtown Baghdad. Dude was fucked up. Looked like a skeleton glopped with red paint.” He goes quiet for a minute, and when he speaks again, his voice comes out soft, gray-hued. “What I’m trying to say is, you got a birthmark, so fucking what? You know?” Stephen punches David in a desperately friendly way. “You know?”
David feels his mouth curl into a smile, tentatively, and he gives Stephen a tiny nod, the smallest of movements.
The next few weeks, things get better, not all at once, but incrementally, so that the change doesn’t really register with David, like the air that slowly cools as September turns into October. He doesn’t feel happy, not precisely, but he does feel something new, a sting, a want.
They drive along North Avenue to Seventy-sixth Street, to Kenwood, and up into Pharaoh Butte, where retired Californians live in three-story homes, set back in their own spaces of lawn with wraparound porches and American Beauty rose gardens surrounded by Japanese maples. River-rock pillars flank the front doors. Chandeliers hang in the entryways.
“You ever visit Saddam’s palaces?” David says.
“Nah,” Stephen says, as if he wishes he had, not wanting to disappoint. “Drove by one once. Real nice place.”
“A regular Taj Mahal.” Stephen nods at the homes sliding past their windows. “So what—lawyers, doctors—what do you think these cocksuckers do?”
“Don’t know,” David says. “Important stuff, I guess.”
They turn around and drive along Grand Avenue to the Parkway, to Mayfair Road. They dip under a rust-stained bridge and zip past the dump, where seagulls and crows circle the pale wash of the sky. In Moccasin Hollow, a collection of trailers hidden among the pine trees, Dobermans, tethered to the ground by chains, bark when they pass. Children in soggy-bottomed diapers throw pinecones as if they were grenades. A three-legged deer leaps awkwardly across the road and they swerve to avoid it.
They know a week in advance what hydrants they will flush, and part of their job is contacting local businesses and residents, letting them know the water pressure will drop, advising them not to do laundry during this time because stirred-up rust can stain clothing. This week they’re assigned to the Moccasin Hollow neighborhood. They knock on doors and talk to a bloated woman with five squalling children, a war vet with a mechanical hook attached to a putty-colored stump, an ancient man with hair growing off the end of his nose, and a big Indian who chases them off his porch with a ball-peen hammer.
“Jesus,” Stephen says at the end of the day, “I hear Baghdad’s nice this time of year.”