There was a different morning when he was in the mood to talk. We were waiting for the John Deere mechanic to come move the calcium chloride ballast from the old tractor tire to the new one. I was telling him about drinking vodka and Red Bull the night before, and he asked whether he ever told me about the time in his life he drank nothing but vodka.
That’s when they took my license away for good, he said. I was in a rough spot because I couldn’t get anywhere for work after that, and it was getting late in fall, so there was less and less work, anyway. Old Carroll—the grandfather, he was still alive back then—he came by to speak to me one day and asked me whether I would help him sort scrap metal for the rest of that fall, and over winter. It was a favor. He didn’t really need the help, but he was kind enough to leave me some dignity by not saying so.
In the evenings we drove around and picked up scrap that people put out for garbage trucks or with FREE signs taped to them. Lots of air conditioners and bed frames. Fridges sometimes and a couple of sinks. On Saturdays we went to the dump and paid the guys there twenty dollars to go through the bulk waste and fill the truck bed. By the time the temperatures dropped for the year, we had filled his garage and the yard.
In the winter he’d come pick me up on a Friday if the roads were drivable. We brought what I sorted the week before to the scrap yard before they closed, and I spent the rest of that night and all of Saturday and Sunday sorting. He didn’t care if I drank, so long as I didn’t saw a finger off, and he let me sleep on the couch at night. Those were good times. I kept warm with a coat and the vodka and a space heater that put off a smell like when you burn cheap carpet with a cigarette.
I had just a magnet and an angle grinder, but I got through it pretty quick. By February I had to start slowing down so I wasn’t finished before it was warm enough to let the rooster and his hens out of the coop for the season. I finished near the end of March, and Carroll took stock of everything we got through that winter, and he said if I could get rides to the farm during the week, he could get me paid for helping out. But, he said, you can’t drink vodka anymore. You can’t drink all day with the other farmhands working there and people coming through. And I said all right, because what else was I going to do?
Well, it wasn’t long before I couldn’t see straight and my hands wouldn’t stop shaking. I was out there painting a fence one day and I couldn’t hold the brush. I sat myself down and leaned up against the post, and I saw Carroll driving out to me in his truck. He got out, and he was carrying two tall boys of beer. He squatted down and cracked one open and said to me, We’re going to help you out now, okay? And he put the can in my hands and had me take a few sips. I was still pretty rough, so he had me take a few more sips, and he said, How about now? And I said, I’m getting there, and I took a few more sips, and now my hands were starting to steady. He said, all right, this is what you’ll be drinking. You have a couple of these a day here, and that’ll be all right.
He took his hat off and rubbed the stubble of his hair. His scalp shone white against the tan of the skin below his hat line. I’ve been a beer drinker since, he said, and he stood up to get a pack of cigarettes from his carton in the freezer. He packed the box against the butt of his palm a couple times, then opened it and lit one.
I had never seen him drink on the farm. He drank a Gatorade or two a day, and once a week or so I would see him eat a sandwich. There were plenty of mornings he came in still drunk from the night before, though.
With his cigarette lit, he leaned his hands against the tires, which stood taller than he was, and they didn’t budge against his weight.