One early morning, mid-January, Jack Rancocas, entrepreneur, got up, had his coffee, changed into a ratty set of gold Carhart overalls and went outside to split firewood. As soon as he pushed the screen door open he was met with a frigid blast of arctic chill.
“Shit. It’s cold out,” he complained, pulling the hood of his grey Ocean City, NJ sweatshirt over his head. He tightened the drawstring and rubbed his calloused hands rapidly for warmth. A cloud of fogged-up breath followed him as he stepped off the porch and went around back to the shed.
It took some digging, but he found the ax and set off to complete his task.
Tiny, almost microscopic flurries were already coming down from the sky, dark, and endlessly enveloped in a depressing cowl of cloud cover.
A storm was brewing, a nor’easter.
Jack knew about it days beforehand (as it was all they talked about on the news) the radio and social media.
Winter storm warning, winter storm watch.
Yeah, yeah, yeah…
The projected amount of snowfall expected was rising, an inch, with every hour.
They always do this, tryin’ to get ratings for the network. Of course they’re gonna hype it up.
Merely a month ago, the state was in a panic over what ultimately culminated in only a light dusting. Nevertheless, Jack made a few bills laying down salt in the parking lots of local businesses. So it worked out for him, either way.
This storm, though, was more ominous.
A giant octopus sprawled out on the meteorological radars, shades of white and cornflower blue and the signatory purple of mix with a quarter of North America in its grasping tentacles.
The coming days were sure to prove profitable for Jack and his snowplow. He, a man of many bills and many debts.
Perhaps they won’t repo the truck after all. He thought while he swung the axe down to meet the wood and the broad, pocked surface of the chopping block.
The dry log split into halves and fell to the earth with a soft thud.
He collected the chopped wood in a red aluminum basket and hefted it back towards the house. Naturally, once his hands were full again his phone rang, vibrating in his front pocket.
Jack dropped what he was carrying and answered it quickly.
The call was from Jimmy, Jack’s sole business partner. His voice was highly pitched, the reception was rife with static, providing a near-incomprehensible experience for the ears.
“Are ya ready for the big snow?” Jimmy asked, with all-due snarkiness.
“You’d better believe it, buddy.”
“Good. I’m gettin’ myself together. I gotta go out and buy a few things for Ma before I leave.”
“All right. When do ya want me to come scoop you up?”
“2 o’clock would be good.”
“Sure. Find any leads on some new jobs?”
“There’s a few nibbles, here an’ there. I’ll clue you in when I see ya.”
Jack placed the phone back into his pocket and brought the firewood inside. As he stepped in, the wind blew the door shut behind him.
He shrugged it off and put the basket down next to the fireplace.
The ashes, in the hearth, were still smoldering.
At one forty, Jack got into his black 1984 Chevy Blazer and drove over to Jimmy’s house. Which was just off of Route 50 in Mays Landing.
The people on the road were in a hurry to stock up on household goods. An asshole in a blue Ford Focus cut Jack off when he went to make a left at a four-way intersection. So he laid on the horn and flipped him the bird.
“People in this state don’t know how to fuckin’ drive!” Jack exclaimed. “Can’t wait ’till everyone’s off the goddamn road tonight. Maybe they’ll declare a fuckin’ state of emergency. That’d be great.”
He sped up and passed the Focus to vent some frustration, glaring seriously at the offending motorist in the process.
Jack switched on the radio to listen for any updates on the storm. The DJ yammered on about some alleged looting that was already taking place.
“What a load of crap,” said Jack “You’d think it was the end of the world. Eight to twelve inches. Pffft!”
It was not long before he grew irritated and turned to a country station.
As per the norm, when Jack arrived at Jimmy’s– he wasn’t ready.
“Aren’t you gonna at least get changed or shave?”
Jimmy’s beard was an unruly, coarse forest of strawberry blonde only a shade or two darker than his hair. Which was an equally unkempt mop. One that spilled down his forehead and into his pale blue eyes (always kind of squinty).
“I’ll be ready in a second,” complained Jimmy waving hurriedly, at Jack, with both hands.
Jimmy put a different pair of sweatpants on over the ones he was already wearing. Then he fished a puffy waterproof coat out of the hall closet and tucked it under his arm, saying, “Hey, do you mind if we stop at the diner for a bite to eat on the way?”
“Nah. I need to get somethin’ in my stomach as well. I reckon there’s a long night ahead of us.”
They arrived at the diner, sat down and ordered a plethora of greasy food and hot coffee.
“I talked to Sammy,” said Jimmy. “He’s got a job for us down off’a Unexpected Road.”
Jack’s eyebrow raised in a combination of interest and suspicion. “There ain’t nothin’ out there though.”
“Not true. Sam’s great-uncle Merle has a house about three miles down, way off by the wayside. Sammy sez you’d never even know. Guy don’t have a mailbox; goes to the post office to pick up his letters.”
“Coulda fooled me. Unexpected is a desolate stretch of forests and dirt trails. Y’know they used to have Klan rallies out in them parts.”
“Oh, really?” replied Jimmy sarcastically. He whipped out his phone and gazed at it in disinterest.
The waitress brought their orders: French toast with powdered sugar and maple syrup for Jack and a Western omelet consisting of eggs, diced green peppers, fried onions and tomato with a side of corned beef hash for Jimmy.
They hungrily shoveled the food into their mouths with haste.
“How’s your Ma doin’?” asked Jack. “She been alright since surgery?”
“Yeah. She’s gettin’ better real quick. Doc sez she can eat solids again soon.”
“That’s good. Tell ‘er that I wish ‘er well.”
Jimmy smiled back with has falling out between his lips.
The snow picked up as they ate– collecting on the ground and on the hoods of cars parked outside. Jack gazed at it wistfully. Then he accidentally dropped a syrup-drenched forkful of toast into his lap. He quietly cursed and wiped it on his overalls.
“Where’s your head at today, Jackie-boy?”
“It’s still in the game. I got to lookin’ at that snow though and my mind started to wander.”
“Best hope that mind of yours ain’t be wand’rin when yer runnin’ that plow tonight.”
“Yeah, yeah. I got you.”
They finished up, nervously cleaning their plates of any crumbs that were left. Jack paid for them both and they set off toward their first job of the day: laying down salt at the Italian grocer in Hammonton, then at an orthopedist’s office, in Folsom.
Jack ran the spreader on the back of the Blazer while Jimmy pushed a small cart that threw crystals of salt around in a 360-degree angle. It did not take much time at all before his sweatpants were spattered with blue granules dripping down beneath his knees.
Upon the stroke of five the storm kicked into high gear.
Two inches of snow now covered the ground.
Wind gusts of thirty miles an hour (and rising) blasted blinding, sudden sprays of ice into Jimmy’s eyes; at which point he donned a pair of clear, protective glasses.
Jack pulled up beside Jimmy and rolled down the window. “You doin’ all right out here?”
Jimmy hustled over to the passenger side and got in. In what seemed a full-body spasm, he thereupon shook his white coating off. The little particles were instantly blown, to the backseat, by the force of the heat radiating, from the vents.
“Oooohhhh…it feels good in here,” said Jimmy as he unzipped his jacket and took out a pack of smokes. He unplugged a USB phone charger from the cigarette lighter and pushed in the element that was located in the ashtray.
When it was ready it popped back out and Jimmy lit up, sighing.
“I wish the junk business’d pick up. Not too long ago we was sittin’ pretty.”
“Don’t remind me,” muttered Jack.
“Used ta be a good racket before everyone started ta do it themselves. I hear they stealin’ manholes over in Ohio, people so desperate for metal.”
“People’ll steal anything that ain’t nailed down if ya give em half a chance and turn your back to em.”
The engine of the Blazer hiccupped and sputtered.
Jimmy turned to Jack and eyed him, solemnly. He took another drag off his cigarette. “D’ya think that people are born evil or do they learn it as they go along?”
“That’s a good question. What, you pick up a book lately?”
“Maybe I did and maybe I didn’t.”
“Well, I think that some people are just born sour, with a chip on their shoulder and a fire up their ass. Then again, I know a few folks that went down the wrong path at one time or another. Nice as hell up until high school or jus’ after. Maybe they’d get caught up in a bad crowd or they was driven to desperation and got locked away by the police. Now they in county or at the state pen.”
“A man’s mistake don’ ness-uh-serry-lee make ‘im evil though.”
“Yeah. But keep makin’ those mistakes over and over again and ya end up losin’ the benefit of the doubt.”
Jimmy nodded gruffly and threw his lit smoke out the window. Then he pulled out a tattered brown leather wallet. He shook the contents into his hand: thirteen cents and a small plastic bag folded many times over in on itself.
Jack turned his head slightly and noticed it out of the corner of his eye. “Speakin’ of bad ideas…”
“Heh, heh, heh. I know, I know. Shit’s good though.”
“Ya get it from Bandit?”
“Nah. Fuck that guy. I met up with Joey C. He’s lookin’ ta get ridda a couple ounces,” said Jimmy, popping open the glove box. “You gotta C.D. case or somethin’?”
“There should be one on the floor.”
Jimmy raked at the trash pile at his feet with his fingers until he found an appropriate surface: a copy of Let it Bleed by The Stones. The packet was unfolded and unraveled and a good portion dumped upon the album’s iconic multi-layered cake, creating a type of frosting Keith Richards could really set his watch to. Instead of powder, the cocaine came out in soft, translucent chunks. Jimmy eyed the small pile hungrily and cut out some lines with a Wawa gift card.
“Some kid died for this,” said Jimmy.
“Whaddaya mean by that?”
“Shit got all fucked up. Kid named Roy was handlin’ it. Someone must’ve opened they fuckin’ mouths. The deal was a coupla blocks from Trump Plaza in A.C. He got the package an’ even before the poor bastard had time to think m’fuckas rolled up on him tryin’ to jack the shit. Roy took off runnin’ and caught a bullet in the back.”
“He made it home with the stuff. But he died soon afterwards, wasn’t much older than seventeen. ‘nother kid, eight years old got hit by a stray bullet. Went right through the door or the car he was sittin’ in.”
“That is rough, man.”
“Yeah, so, ENJOY.” Jimmy picked a receipt out of the sea of litter and rolled the paper into a tube. He did his line and passed it over to Jack.
Jack eyed the portion hesitantly before having a big snort.
A rain of crumbs fell from Jack’s nostrils and got stuck in his handlebar mustache.
“It’s good. It’s good. It’s good,” repeated Jack. “Buuuuuuuut, I don’ think it’s worth dyin’ for.”
“Don’t get ‘er twisted,” said Jimmy. “People’s gon’ kill each otha over anythin’ worth a coupla dollas. Jus’ so happens it’s a lot easier to grab and run a couple grand’a blow or jewelry than it is to steal it in toilet paper unless you thought ahead-a far enough to bring a forklift. Know what I’m sayin’?”
“No. But, yeah, I think I get you,” replied Jack, snorting loudly, face going numb.
Jimmy lit up another smoke and offered one to Jack.
“No thanks. It’s been great bein’ able to breathe again since I quit.”
“All right. Guess I’ma git back to work.”
“Put some more fucking salt in the hopper when you get out there. Ain’t try’na keep runnin’ it dry over and over again. Know what I’m sayin’? IT’S GOIN’ TA BLOW UP, ONE’A THESE DAYS.”
“Kiss my ass,” replied Jimmy, laughing, with his back to the wind.
They both continued on, plowing and spreading down the line.
The storm grew in its intensity. The decision was made to head over to Merle’s, their second to last stop of the evening. Now, Merle wasn’t answering his phone.
“You sure you know where this godforsaken place is?” snapped Jack, gripping the steering wheel tightly.
His knuckles grew white.
“Of course,” Jimmy said.
“The way they told me, it’s like a map in my mind.”
The Blazer made a right off of Route 54 onto Unexpected Rd.
“Hope that his fucking dirt driveway ain’t covered up too much. Call him up again. Make sure the old timer’s got cash in hand. Prob’ly don’t even remember talkin’ to ya. How old is he?”
“Eighty-seven, give or take a coupla years. Hold on, lemme dial him up.” Jimmy clumsily dialed the number of the old man, not taking off his gloves as he did so.
He had to go back and delete a few digits before he got it right.
“Lemme put ‘er on speakerphone.” Jimmy pressed the corresponding button. The cab of the vehicle echoed with a hollow, metallic ring.
It went on and on.
“The sonofabitch don’t got voicemail?” cursed Jack.
“He prob’ly don’t know how to set it up. My own father died without ever bein’ able to fix the time on the V.C.R., can’t imagine what’d happen if I got’m a cell phone or God forbid, hooked’m up to the Internet.”
Through the blinding, ceaseless curtain of falling snow, Jack did thereupon witness a small figure standing, swaying, in the road.
“What the hell is that?” He said, pointing ahead while slowing his roll.
And there he was, upon the straight swath of asphalt parting the Dead Sea between the pines– a small child, barefoot and seemingly unaware of his surroundings.
Jack let down his window and spoke to him.
He was only about nine or ten, dark of skin, with closely cropped hair, wearing a gold pocket watch hung suspended from a chain (on his neck).
The boy turned and glanced at the Blazer; his features frozen, unmoving– his eyes, glazed over and unseeing.
Jimmy leaned out the window and yelled, “Got out the goddamn road or ya’ gon’ get killed!”
The Blazer crept by the kid a ways.
“Bet he thinks we’re fixin’ ta do somethin’ stupid’s why he didn’t say nothin’,” said Jimmy, putting the window back up, turning his head away from the ice and wind whipping at his face.
“Didya see that antique watch he had on ‘im?” mentioned Jack. “My gran’pa used to have one like that. Weren’t half as nice as that one though.”
A fierce storm gust struck the Blazer from the right side; it threatened to lift the truck and push it over.
“Holy Jesus she’s wicked out there!” said Jimmy. He turned his head and looked over his shoulder. “Heyyyy. Where’d that kid go so fast?”
“I don’t know,” said Jack. “Why don’tcha try callin’ Merle, again? See if he feels like answerin’.”
And you know what? Jack was right.
Merle didn’t answer.
The phone rang twenty-three times before they reached the entrance to Merle’s driveway. It was comprised of a harrowingly long, crooked, winding path– obscured by the elements.
They came to a spot, in the path, where an old pine tree had recently cracked and fallen.
“Think we can move ‘er Jimbo?”
“I reckon we can. Trunk’s all dried out an’ dead.”
Jack picked up a small, square control pad in his right hand and pushed its stick downwards. As the plow descended, it initially groaned, in mechanical protest, before it kicked into gear. Jack moved the stick to the left. The plow met the wood and pushed it over into the brush.
“How the hell would ya get a fire truck back here?” asked Jack.
“Don’ think ya would.”
“Place’d fuckin’ burn down ‘fore they’d make it through.”
“Might be a good spot to grow weed. Go off the track a ways, find a clearin’ facin’ east. There’s a lotta little streams out here in the summertime. It’d be nice,” said Jimmy, as he removed his gloves and played with the glassine packet, in his fingers, before asking, “You ready for another one?”
Jack shook his head. “Nah. I’ve been sittin’ on the edge of my seat for so long my back’s all tweaked.”
“We shoulda brought some liquor,” said Jimmy. “That’s what the problem is. Good ol’ fashioned medicine.”
In the distance it appeared– Merle’s house, huge and looming, an old and decaying three story structure, with one lonesome light illuminating a window– one blocked off by a sheet of plastic.
“What a friggin’ shit-hole,” said Jimmy. He paused and snorted a bump straight out of the packet, saying, “I say let this place stay fucking buried.”
They uneasily pulled up, out front.
The second they stepped out, a maddened, starving mutt, chained to a rusty pole, in the yard, went nuts. Snow dropped from around its neck with each and every menacingly harried bark.
“That poor dog,” said Jack. “What a jerkoff, keepin’ an animal outside in this type of weather. I should call animal control.”
“Not if we wanna get paid,” added Jimmy.
Out of the corner of his eye, on the second floor, Jimmy spotted the dim outline of a lithe figure glaring out a window.
They walked up to the front porch, panting, with crunching boot steps.
Jack got up to the porch first and beat at the door.
After a couple minutes, someone finally answered.
Merle, a short, squat man, barely able to hold himself up, on a creaky walker, opened the screen door. He had no hair except for the white of a five o’clock shadow on his face and terrifying bushy eyebrows. He was wearing a tannin brown terry-cloth robe, with (more likely than not) nothing on, underneath.
“You’a the snow guys? I guess?” Merle gasped, one lazy eye loosely rolled, in its socket.
Jack said, “Yep. That’s us.”
“Good,” said Merle. “Looks like we’re gettin’ pounded out there like an old beat got-DAMN gypsy whore. I needyas to clear out a path to the road.”
“Yeah?” Jack replied. “O.K. Gonna take us a while. You got the money, old-timer?”
Merle fished around, within the elastic of his drawers, and withdrew a stained fifty-dollar bill.
Jack’s face scrunched up, seeing where that bill came from. “You’ve got to be kidding! We’re gonna be at this all night.”
“Take it or leave it.”
Jack held out his palm, anticipating the money.
“Uh-uh!” threatened Merle. “Not ’till yer done.”
“You lousy bastard,” mumbled Jimmy. “Say, there was a little black kid out in the road by yer house. Wasn’t wearin’ a coat or nothin’. No pants ‘r shoes, even.”
The old man’s expression was unchanging.
“Don’ know nothin‘ ’bout NONE’A that,” said Merle, transitioning into a fit of loud rattling cough spasms.
Minuscule flecks of sputum and lung blood alit upon the visitors.
Jimmy’s lips were chapped and he licked them, reflexively, getting the taste of a little bit of dried cocaine in his mustache.
“Well, isn’t that something? All right,” said Jack, having had enough. “We’ll take care of your driveway and be on our way.”
After they started the plow, the two experienced a minor setback when the wires on the truck’s control panel came loose.
“I told you them wires weren’t gonna stay where they were!” said Jimmy.
“Oh, shut up! Will ya, Jimmy? Willya GET OFF MY BACK, HERE, FOR ONE SECOND?”
Jack pulled the lift gate down in the back and unlocked the window running perpendicular to the bed to find the tools.
A clump of snow fell from the pine boughs and landed on his head.
“AGHHGFTTTB!!!!” Jack sputtered, as he shook off snow, ears turning bright red with the unforgiving sting of the winter wind.
Underneath some old soiled clothes and loose convenience store plastic bags there lay the bright orange toolbox. Jack pulled it over closer to him; in doing so, he was entranced with a distinct feeling of déjà vu.
He hesitantly opened the box.
Inside was a gold pocket watch.
Without thinking, Jack took the watch into his hand.
And with that, visions EXPLODED in Jack’s mind. Violence. Brutality.
He saw a man, Merle, in his youth, driving a powder blue Ford farm truck home, drunk. The snow was coming down, much like it was moments before.
Jack saw the young black boy, hand-in-hand with who Jack could only assume was his mother.
He saw them, walking home, at night, in the snow.
He saw their eyes, frozen, in fear, as the car caromed off a road barrier and struck them both.
He saw Merle, step out, into the wind, standing over their bodies. They were not dead, but, Merle finished the job, with the blunt end of a shovel.
He saw Merle throw their corpses into the back of his truck.
He witnessed Merle, as he buried their bodies, in the pine barrens.
“What’r ya doin’ back there?” uttered Jimmy. “You’re takin’ forever…”
With a heavy sense of trepidation, Jimmy stepped out of the truck, to see what Jack was doing, only to see Jack’s boots, sticking out, lying horizontally in the snow.
And that was ALL that was there…
Jimmy shook his head in disbelief. There was a human-shaped indentation left on the ground, the boots and a peculiar gold pocket watch.
“What in holy hell…?” uttered Jimmy, brushing a fresh dollop of cocaine from underneath his nose.
“Boots?” said he. “A watch…?”
Jimmy knelt down and grasped the watch chain.
There was A FLASH.
An immense tightness in the chest. Overwhelming nausea. Everything started spinning.
Jimmy couldn’t help but clutch his chest as his vision drained away.
The next day, Merle was out walking his dog.
He stumbled upon their vehicle, out there. Its doors were wide open and the battery was dead.
It was no surprise, to him, that both Jimmy, the watch AND Jack’s boots were gone.
Alexander Antonio Manzoni has been writing for over twenty years. In September 2014, he moved to Spokane, Washington from Newfield, New Jersey. His work has been published in several online magazines & websites (In Parentheses, Verse-Virtual, EveryWritersResource, FIVE), and in print: Spokane Writes: A Poetry & Prose Anthology. He is the political correspondent for Headline Poetry. And is the host of the “Manzoni in the Morning” spoken word podcast.