Road Work

When Roxie Buchholtz landed the county job at a man’s pay, she didn’t bother to give the boss at the Pink Pony Lounge two weeks’ notice. She telephoned and left a message saying she was ‘history,” that she wouldn’t be coming in anymore – no reason – and ended with “Happy Trails to the crew.”  Waiting tables, getting leers and her ass pinched by beer-bellied truck drivers who thought they were playboy’s gift to women warranted no crocodile tears, in fact, that low wage labor, didn’t merit any kind of farewell.  She had fought tooth and nail for the highway department job, had threatened to sue the county on grounds of sex discrimination if they didn’t hire her. At forty she wasn’t going to put up with shit anymore – especially with two teenage boys to feed. Now she would be on easy street.

Equal opportunity employer. No discrimination (thanks, of course, to her grit). Equal pay for equal work. She was built like a tank. Men liked her full figure and sassy look. Sure she had a big behind in tight jeans, but men didn’t mind that either. She was one of the guys now.  Beyond the living wage, the health benefits and municipal pension were nothing to sneeze at.

Reporting for work the first week in April, she was assigned to trimming shrubbery and tree branches at intersections with dangerously obstructed views.  She carried chain saws, tree trimmers and ladders and loaded them in the truck bed. They worked in teams. She was paired with a husky, totally bald former tag-team wrestler who had the physique of a contestant on a late-night television match – someone you did not want to meet in person in broad daylight. His peremptory greeting – more like a grunt – followed by curt instructions to get in the passenger side of the truck, let her know he didn’t think much of having to work with the only woman in the department. She would show him that she could hold her own, carry her own weight on the job. She wasn’t going to take any crap from some has-been, cauliflower-ear ex-fighter who supposed seniority gave him the right to push her around.  Professional wrestlers all had overblown egos and muscle-bound brains.

Giving him a sidelong glance in the cab of the truck, she judged his profile hadn’t been all that beat up from his years in the ring, bounced against ropes, his head crunched in hammer locks and his body slammed on mats. His pug nose looked out of place on a hardened face. Small, piggish eyes squinted in crevasses of a craggy skull, although she had to admire the bulgy biceps under his tight gray crew T-shirt. Never ashamed to stare when it came to taking the measure of a man, Roxie feasted her eyes appreciatively on her partner’s brawn. Apparently, he preferred to treat her with silent opposition rather than as an equal partner on the job. He needed to be cut down to size.

“The name’s Ben Dingenberg. My professional fighting name was Mad Dog Dingenberg.” As quickly as he uttered this, he fell back into cold silence, his huge paws gripping the steering wheel and his porcine eyes focused on the road. Its flickering tongue poised to strike, a cobra coiled on his right forearm – the only tattoo visible on the exposed parts of his body. Roxie wondered if there were more on other parts of his anatomy. She decided to set the record straight and not pull any punches with this bruiser.

“Listen, buster. If I have to work with you, you’re going to be more social. I’ve carried more stacks of plates, slopped more food off trays, and lugged more cases of liquor and kegs of beer than guys you’ve thrown out of the ring. So treat me right or you’ll wish you never met me.”

Ben turned his head in her direction, a definite look of respect on his mug along with a twitch of amusement in his fat cheek. “Yes, ma’am,” he said.

He brought the truck to stop, got out and threw “Men at Work” signs on the ground where Roxie stood on the passenger side of the truck.

“Set those up. One in the front and one in the rear.”

When she had finished positioning the signs, he had already lifted the chain saws from the back of the truck. “I’ll get the branches on the trees. You get the bramble along the shoulder.”  He didn’t ask Roxie if she knew how to use a chain saw. The truth was she didn’t, but she wasn’t going to let on to him this was her first experience with that piece of equipment outside of a horror movie. Ben propped the ladder against the tree and climbed easily, one hand on the ladder and the other on the chain saw, to within reach of the first limb overhanging the road, leaving Roxie to figure out the workings of the power tool.

It must operate like a lawn mower. Pull the cord and get going. Besides she was no slouch when it came to mechanics. She had to learn a thing or two when Joe flew the coop and left her with two toddlers. She had kept her series of jalopies running over the years, not to mention, tinkering with furnaces, water heaters and washing machines at home.

“There’s a tank of gasoline if you run out,” Ben shouted while he stopped the buzzing of his chain saw, changing his position to get at another branch.

Roxie set to work with a vengeance, whacking at the overgrowth of saplings and nettles alongside the road. When they paused for lunch, Ben had gained more respect for her physical stamina. His pace had not been slowed to help her with anything. At the second location where they had stopped that morning to trim trees, she had taken the initiative to set up another ladder and lop the branches of a nasty thick spruce that had completely obscured a yield sign.

Ben drank from a large thermos of coffee between gobbles of a baloney and cheese sandwich slathered in horse radish. He emitted a healthy belch. Such emissions did not disturb Roxie. She had worked most of her life around male bartenders and chefs who were not the paragons of gracious manners or taste. One more belch did not matter in a long line of such eruptions.

They sat eating on the back of the truck, their feet dangling over the side. Ben placed his thermos behind him and crushed the brown paper bag into a ball and tossed it into the back of the truck.

“Believe it or not, I think I’m going to like working with you, Roxie. You got class.”

That was a new one on her. No man had ever told her she had class before. What was class anyhow? A nice ass. Great tits. A raunchy sense of humor. She made a mean bowl of chili. But class, what was that?

“First class, that’s what you are,” he repeated. “I can see you on a women’s tag team–-the best of your heavyweight class.”

Such a compliment meant something. It warmed her heart and might do the same to other regions of her body.

“You’re not bad yourself.” She poked him in the ribs and playfully grabbed his smooth head, pulling it into a hammer lock, which she released right away.

The burly guy was loosening up. Maybe she could get more conversation out of him in the future. Mad Dog Dingenberg didn’t bite. Smiling, he said, “There’s a few other holds I could teach you.”

“Good,” she said. “We can start having fun on this job.”

Ben never turned into a great talker, but he wasn’t as bad tempered as he appeared the first day on the job. First impressions often miss the mark. He proved an amiable co-worker who submitted to her blabbering in the truck en route to their highway work sites.

Their next project was fertilizing parkways. The county wanted these grassy median areas maintained like golf courses. For the job they heaved fifty pound bags of fertilizer into the truck. Roxie held her own in this function to the admiration of her partner. Bag for bag she matched the former wrestling champion of northern Wisconsin. He could have been a lumberjack in the olden days, felling timber into the Chippewa River.

Roxie liked the job. Her teenage boys were eating better. The ratio of meat to pasta had increased in their diet. The house was looking better with new vinyl siding, new screens on the back porch and fresh asphalt on the driveway, for which Roxie had borrowed some materials from her employer. The highway department wouldn’t miss a few bags of fertilizer either that she used to spiff up her front lawn. For the first time a profusion of tulips bloomed under her picture window – the best of the neighborhood of prefabricated one-story houses and the envy of passing motorists. Borrowing a chain saw for a weekend, she removed the maple branches that overhung the roof.  Of course, Monday morning she returned borrowed tools to the highway department’s storage garage. Nor would the extra gallons of gasoline be missed.

Her relationship with Ben over the summer months had heated up in a positive way. She didn’t know exactly how or when they started having sex. However it happened, they seemed to fall naturally into it like healthy animals. Maybe it had to do with working in the great outdoors that made it so instinctual. She didn’t think it was lustful or in any way sleazy – just normal activity like breathing or taking a stretch after a hard morning’s work. They did it after lunch in the cab of the truck. Somehow that felt more secure than rolling in the grass somewhere. They did not engage in any great preliminaries, extended kissing or foreplay. It was quick and easy like Roxie liked it.

She had learned in bits and pieces something of Ben’s history. He had never married, claiming it didn’t mix with being on the wrestling circuit and he had his fill of howling, adoring female fans that always seemed to occupy ringside seats and grab a hunk of his briefs whenever he got to near their flaying arms. Women worshipped his buttocks. Roxie had to admit she adored them too. They were hard as rocks, high grade beef. Flat on her back in the cab of the truck, she firmly clasped them, her head under the steering wheel. He was one mountain of a man.

Their last assignment, which occupied the summer until the shit hit the fan in August, was patching potholes – hot, sweaty labor with the stench of tar and oil still in her nostrils when she got home, smelling them still when she was watching pre-season football on television in the evening.

She supposed potholes were like roaches, always popping up when you thought you had gotten the last of them. She took turns with Ben pouring the asphalt and raking the patch.

If it weren’t for Ben, she would have become bored with the road work. The benefits and Ben kept her at the highway department. She intended to retire from the job. Sometimes she thought she had sold her soul for job security. She passed her three-month probationary period, receiving a good performance review and anticipated a long career with the county.

Throughout the summer Roxie and Ben continued to top off lunch with sexual calisthenics in the highway department truck. They prided themselves on not exceeding their allotted lunchtime break and getting right back to patching potholes as soon as Ben zipped up his pants and after she stuffed her butt into her jeans and strapped herself back into her special order, full-figure bra, which she retrieved from over the gearshift. She pulled her T-shirt down, which had been curled around her neck, and was back to work none the worse for wear.

A week before Labor Day, the shit hit the fan. She was called into the supervisor’s office. A skinny, limpet-faced guy in his late fifties, he had a smoker’s grating voice and sported a small moustache that looked as it was pasted on his upper lip. Because he couldn’t hack road work anymore, complaining of sciatica, he had a cushy office job, giving the impression that he deserved the indoor administrative position for his many years of loyal service. He sent underlings most of the time to inspect work sites and to draft preliminary reports, which he rewrote to pass off as the product of his efforts and personal investigations.

“I’ll get right to the point, Roxanne. I have a report that you and Ben are fucking on the job.”

“What?” I feigned outrage at the accusation and affront to boot with his word choice. “And who the hell’s business is it what I do on my lunch hour? It’s my time.”

“It’s the department’s truck. Therefore, it is my business.”

“Your fucking truck, is it? It belongs to the county.”

“Inappropriate behavior in any case.”

“What’s the harm in a healthy screw? You ought to try it. Ben and I work well together. There’s nothing wrong with our work. I get outstanding appraisals. We complete all our assignments well and in half the time anyone else takes.”

“Standards of conduct exist even during lunch hour.”

“Who ratted on us? Hah . . . was there a hidden camera in the truck? I bet you enjoyed every bit of the video.” She chuckled sarcastically.

“It was a jogger in the neighborhood who happened to catch a glimpse of Ben’s bare butt and came closer for a better look.”

“Damn peeping Tom.”

“Just a citizen concerned about his tax dollars at work.”

“Who’s the bastard? I’ll teach him.”

“I can’t reveal the informant’s name. Besides you have admitted your malfeasance.”

“What the hell is that? Speak English.”

“Misconduct, Roxanne. You can resign now before I terminate your employment.”

She stood up. “Fire me, will you? Well, you can take this job and shove it where the sun don’t shine. I quit.”

She was so infuriated that she could not look at that smug beanpole a moment longer and refrain from slugging him. She wouldn’t take crap from him or apologize for what she and Ben had done. She was out of the office in a flash. When she was outside standing in the storage yard surrounded by heaps of sand for the winter, her head cleared a little. What had she done? She just quit the job that she had coveted for so long and had fought to obtain. No unemployment checks, for she had voluntarily left. Maybe she should go back and see if an appeal process existed, grovel even, beg forgiveness, promise never to do it again. But her pride would not let her return. Screw him! Screw the job! Screw Ben. She could return to waitressing before she ate humble pie.

Ben. She stopped short in her lunge toward her battered Ford pick-up. What about Ben? Was he going to lose his job too? She bounded back into the supervisor’s office.

“Well?” the supervisor queried over the rim of his glasses. “I thought our discussion was closed. Your last week’s paycheck and any accrued vacation days will be mailed to you.”

“What about Ben?” she blurted. “Is he canned too?”

“Ben has three year’s seniority. He’s a permanent appointee. He’ll get three month’s suspension, after which he can return to his position.”

“That’s a crock of shit.” She didn’t know whose neck she wanted to ring more – the supervisor’s or Ben’s, who as far as she was concerned, was getting off Scot-free. Hardly a slap on the hand for getting in the cookie jar. She wanted to tar and feather him and then run him over with a road grader.

“That bastard. I’ll kill him. The first decent job I have and a man manages to screw me out of it. I was set for life. I’ll fix him.”

The supervisor removed his glasses and set them on a stack of papers.

“You fixed each other.”

“You guys never wanted a woman in the highway department,” she shouted. “This is a frame. I know it.”

“It’s nothing of the kind.”

“You’re assholes. All of you are assholes. Do you think I want to work with assholes? I’d rather flip burgers, you mealy-mouthed weasel.”

“I suggest you leave before you get more abusive and I have to have you forcefully evicted. Your conduct toward a superior alone now is enough to warrant dismissal.”

“I’ll go with pleasure.” She turned on her heels to leave, then swiveled and said, “And you can tell that bastard, bonehead wrestler Dingenberg, to go straight to hell.”

Roxie could not breathe without huffing until she pulled the tab from a can of beer and plopped into her leather easy chair in her cluttered living room. Gradually, her breathing evened and she could plot her vengeance with composure. She cast all the blame at Mad Dog Dingenberg. Well, he would find out what a mad dog Roxie Buchholz could be. She was a bitch and proud of it. This bitch bared her canines. She swilled some beer and wiped her upper lip with her tongue.

By her age she should have learned not to mess with men. She swore off sex for the rest of her days. Who needed it? She didn’t. Not this old bitch. She had enough for the rest of her life. What exquisite pleasure to press Ben’s balls between the handles of a nutcracker, squeeze and hear him cry for mercy. That would show him what a hammer lock couldn’t do.

When she heard a knock at the door, she had lost count of her trips to the refrigerator for another can of beer.

“Woof, woof,” she said on wobbly feet and let Ben enter.

“I’m sorry about your losing the job.”

“Sorry, my ass.”

“I am.”

“Kiss my ass.” She bent forward teetering and then collapsing against his arm. Through blurred vision, she recognized the cobra on the forearm supporting her and sank her teeth into its head.

“Damn!” Ben backed off and tried to pull Roxie’s head away from his arm, but she stuck like an Amazonian centipede.

“Roxie, what the hell are you doing?”

She released her grip and blood rose from the pricks her teeth had left on his skin.

“Don’t worry. I’m vaccinated.” She grinned foolishly. “You deserved it.”

“You fight like a girl. Get me some iodine and a bandage.”

A docile drunk, she went like a well-trained dog to retrieve the items from the medicine cabinet. Roxie never had been a belligerent, abusive drunk. When she had more beer than she could handle, she became the popular jovial tippler, back-slapping and joke-telling.

“It’s nothing. Just a friendly love bite,” she said as she fumbled to remove the backing from the adhesive side and affix the bandage to his arm.

“I was really pissed with you, Ben. Always the woman gets the short end of the stick. She’s always flat on her back taking more shit from a man who doesn’t care one dry turd whether she lives or dies.”

“That’s not true. I love you. Marry me, Roxie.”

Roxie’s eyes goggled like a disbelieving frog at a dragonfly.

“Are you shitting me, man? I’ll deck you if you are.”

“I’m serious.”

“Holy shit! A proposal.”

“Yep.”

“I’d offer you a beer but there’s none left in the refrigerator.”

Never a man for many words, Ben surprised her with the plan he had worked out in his mind during his drive to her house.

“I go back to my job in December in time to start snow-plowing and sanding the highways. You pack my baloney sandwiches and fill my thermos with hot coffee. We’re a team, Roxie. We’ll still work together.”

Roxie wasn’t mad at Ben any longer. That was the weakness of a woman, to blow up and then soften. She liked the big brute and couldn’t live without him. At least one of them still had a job at the highway department. And she’d be waitressing again, but this time for one man in her own kitchen where she would be in charge of the ass-pinching.