To top the morning off, the ax-handle broke, twisted into splinters up by the head when he hit the stump with a wild swing. Looked like a broken neck. The chainsaw was still busted even though Joe said yesterday that it would be put back together by “tomorrow.” That left him with just the pickax to chop out roots, which was like pissing in a pop bottle–he hit the ground a hell of a lot more than the target. Typical fucking Joe. Tomorrow wasn’t for another week, at least.
Kiyoko had turned on the radio or the TV. He could hear tinny voices through one of the windows even though they were all closed. She had taken a shower earlier–he could hear that, too–and he’d wished the window to their bathroom wasn’t so high up, so he might’ve gotten a look at her in there. She was from Asia someplace–Japan, he thought–but she wasn’t short or skinny like most of the Asian girls he’d seen on campus. No fish and rice for her, he bet. She’d eaten American food her whole life. American hips and breasts, that long black hair. She’d come out back this morning, after he’d been at it about an hour and his shirt was already soaked through and hanging on the back door to dry. She was wearing this short dress with flowers all over it and looked damn good for probably just getting out of bed. She told him she’d filled a pitcher of water and put it in the refrigerator in the garage. He thanked her and went back to work, but if he hadn’t already been mad at those goddam stumps that wouldn’t come out of the ground, and at the goddam heat, and if his boots hadn’t been so heavy with mud, he might have walked over and talked to her some more. Maybe talked her into staying out there in the yard with him. She could have sat in that hammock in the shade in her swimsuit and told him about Asia, Japan, wherever, while he worked.
There was always one goddam root that twisted around down there and wouldn’t let go. He’d have to dig all around it and try and swing the ax underneath the stump to bust it. And the fucking ax was broken. He swung the pickax and hit dirt. Thud. A plain, dull sound, solid and disappointing. The sound of dirt. Shook the bones in his arms, the muscles in his shoulders. The sound of work. Thud.
Joe and Kiyoko were his upstairs neighbors. He rented the basement and they rented the rest of the house. Joe was sort of responsible for the house’s upkeep. All the cedar bushes around the house were causing some sort of problem, so Joe paid him to tear them out. He’d cut them all down with the chainsaw yesterday and now he was pulling out the stumps. Eight of the bastards on the back side of the house alone. Joe was an OK guy. Joe was going to set him up with some sort of work for the physics department, moving lab equipment or something. Joe didn’t look like a physics grad student. More like he should have been on TV, reading the sports or weather. Kiyoko painted or drew or something.
He could hear the radio inside. 110 degrees. God damn. It was air-conditioned in the house, though the air upstairs worked better than in his apartment. But his place stayed cooler since it was in the basement. Yesterday he’d gone inside to ask if they’d mind the noise if he ran the chainsaw. It was as cool as a department store in their kitchen. He thought no one was home, it was so quiet. The kitchen table was set with good plates and flowers. They had all sorts of stuff, toasters and blenders and fryers, and new furniture. Maybe they were married. He doubted it. He looked in the living room and Kiyoko was asleep on the couch, her hair hanging off the cushions onto the floor. He watched her chest move up and down underneath her leotard. Her legs were almost the same white yellow as her shorts. He watched, then decided not to wake her up. He didn’t want to track mud on the carpet. He’d already left some on the kitchen linoleum.
That third stump moved around like a loose tooth. He jumped up and down on it, but it didn’t give any more than before, and now his feet hurt. He jumped down in the hole and tried lifting up on it. His arms got muddy and scratched up, but he ran his fingers under there and found that last goddam root that was anchoring the bastard. Grabbed the pickax. Knocked at the dirt around the stump until he saw the root. Thick as his wrist. He lifted the pickax high, swung underhand hard. It thudded in the dirt. Again. Thud. Again. Thud.
He believed that sometimes Kiyoko watched him from their bedroom window while he worked. Swing. Thud. He was in better shape than Joe. Probably better than any guy she knew from wherever she was from. Swing. Thud. Goddamit. He saw those guys on campus. Most of them looked like they’d never worked a day in their lives. Swing. Thud. But he didn’t know that for sure. He didn’t know them. He didn’t know what they did back in Asia.
The room where Kiyoko and Joe slept was right above his bedroom. Swing. Thud. The pickax hung up on the root. He was up to his ankles in dirt clods. Lift. Swing. Thud. He would hear them every couple of nights. They must have slept on one of those low, wooden things. Swing. Thud.
Knock, knock, knock, it bounced on his ceiling.
Swing. Thud. Swing. Thud.
Knock, knock, knock. Thump, thump, thump.
Swing. Thud. Swing. Thud.
That should have been him up there knocking. Maybe one night. He’d go upstairs while Joe was at the lab, he and Kiyoko would talk. They’d sit real close on that couch. Swing. Thud. She’d kiss him. Swing. Thud. Run her hands over his sunburn. Swing. Thud. He’d pull her shirt off. Swing. Thud. Swing.
Whoa, shit. Lift.
Swing. Thud. See those beautiful breasts. Swing. Thud. Feel them in his hands. Swing. Thud. They’d go back to their bedroom. They’d get down on that wooden thing.
Knock, knock, knock.
Swing. Thump, thump, thump. Swing. Thud.
Knock, knock, knock.
Swing. Thud. Swing.
Knock, knock, knock.
Swing. Thud. Swing. Thud. Swing. Thud. Swing.
Yes, goddamit, yes! How that root split open, a little blossom of yellow wood. Slivers of purple.
The back door was open. Joe and Kiyoko were outside. They were dressed up. She was wearing a tiny black dress. He was scared she’d get dirt on it out here, a smudge of yellow clay along her hip.
“Man, you got a lot done today,” Joe said. “But it’s getting pretty hot. You ought to knock off for now.”
“I’m going to finish this one first,” he said.
Joe nodded, put on a pair of dark sunglasses. Kiyoko went back inside. He felt a little dizzy. “We’re going to Indy for the afternoon,” Joe said. He held up a couple of bills. “Lock up the garage when you’re done. What should I do with your pay?”
He would throw the pickax. Send it flying end over end like in a lumberjack’s contest. The iron tip would puncture Joe’s heart. He’d laugh at the look of surprise on Joe’s face, the red bloom under the suit coat. The pickax, free of the stump, balanced in his hands, hummed for flight. Sunlight flashed gold off the frames of Joe’s sunglasses.
On the roof, a dragon chattered over the shingles. White scales edged in red. Iron claws on its feet and two flat golden discs for eyes. Like something from a Chinese restaurant wall. It twisted along the gutters over Joe’s head, watching. Sounded like a million newspapers in the wind.
He knocked the pickax against his boot, busted some dirt clods off. The dragon jumped over the roof’s peak, farted out a firecracker as its tail disappeared behind the chimney.
He pointed to his shirt on the doorknob. “In the pocket.” He didn’t want to put it in his sweaty jeans. It would get soaked, and if there was anything he hated, it was wet money.