The Potholes of Jefferson County
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The Potholes of Jefferson County

Thornton L. Ray

               People from upstate New York made plenty of jokes about the potholes of Jefferson County. “You could drive down Columbia Street and rattle like a cheap amusement park ride,” they would say. Rusty Smith was the man responsible for filling them. His process was to skim through the email of new potholes the county sent him, but ignore it and just drive around until he found one. He would finish the day when he felt he had done enough. After eight years of this, and winter quickly approaching again, the city council was fed up and appointed a new city manager who had a conversation with Rusty one Friday afternoon.

                “So, am I the city manager or not?” she repeated.

                She had her fingers interlaced, hands flat on the table, leaning over her desk squinting, waiting for Rusty to respond.

                “...Yes” he said.

                “So that makes me your boss, correct?”

                “Well, technical—”

                “Stop, yes I am. Don’t worry about Steve. As far as you’re concerned, I am at the top of your food chain. So, don’t come stomping into my office when you find out I’m accepting applications for your job. I don’t care that you’ve been here eight years. I like you personally Rusty, but you’ve screwed us professionally--well, the city anyway. You got me hired.”

                Rusty unfastened his jaw but kept his lips together. No one had ever spoken to him like this; this woman made this large, bearded man feel small. His body tensed up like a lion about to pounce. She saw that he was getting angry and it reminded her of how he looked in high school; a flood of memories came to her. She sighed.

                “Rusty, why did you take this job? Why do you still want it?”

                “Well, uhhh.” He was thinking about his answer, what he really thought and felt and balancing it with what she wanted to hear. He looked around at all the half-opened boxes and partially put-together bookshelves in the office. He saw their high school colors on the wall. “It helps me take care of my mom.”

                The city manager let this sink in before she responded.

                “So, here’s what’s going to happen. I believe competition solves most problems, so I’m not going to fire you, but let you compete. The terms are your territory will be everything in the county west of the Square and your competitor’s will be the east. Starting Monday, you have one week and whoever has the most potholes filled will get the job.”

                “That’s not fair!” he erupted. “The east side has all the traffic and everyone knows that the streets between State and Franklin flood.”

                The councilwoman was unaffected by this plea. “You know what’s not fair? A single mom who lives paycheck to paycheck who needs to take her car to the garage because the potholes she drives over every day gave her a flat. Or the high school football coach of 20 years who dies in the back of an ambulance because the paramedic can’t stay steady enough to give him the injection. These aren’t stories but real lives that have been affected. After you told me your ‘process,’ I have little sympathy for you, Rusty. I’d recommend taking the weekend to think about how you’re going to tackle your problem.”

                He’d lost and knew it. He got in his beloved work truck, a 2001 Toyota Hilux, and went home to take care of his mom.

                When he wasn’t filling potholes, and sometimes when he was, Rusty thought and worried a lot about his mother. She was nearly 300 pounds and in poor health. He loved her dearly and showed it by frequently bringing her something, usually a flower that he picked from someone else’s yard, and always looked forward to driving her to bingo. When he came home he saw her sitting on the couch watching Jeopardy and he plopped himself beside her.

                “How was your meeting sweetie? Make any friends?”

                “No, mom.”

                “Oh, that’s alright. If we made new friends every day, we’d have new friends all the time. And that’s expensive at Christmas.”

                After a few minutes, he looked at her and saw how much she was enjoying her favorite show. She then looked at him with the most loving eyes. “I love you mom, I’ll go make dinner.” When he got up he kissed her on the cheek and went to the kitchen.

                He ripped from the freezer the TV dinners stuck in the ice, but with this sharp tug the ice machine bolted out and crashed onto the floor. It looked like a bucket of jewels was dumped into the kitchen. I’ve always been better at destroying things rather than repairing them, he thought. After dinner and a few NCIS reruns, Rusty helped her to bed.

                “Rusty, remember when me, you, and your dad would go for rides on Sundays after church? He’d show us all the potholes he’d fill that week.”

                “Yeah mom,” he said with a knot in his throat.

                “It came to mind this afternoon for some reason. It’d be nice if you and I could do it this Sunday.”

                “Sure mom.”

                As he was walking out the door, she called him.

                “Rusty, I’m proud of you. Thanks for helping to take care of me.”

                He quickly said thanks and left the room, trying to hold back tears.

                Instead of going to bed, he went to his weekly Friday night bowling league. He told Mark, Mikey, Jeff, Dan, and Corey, his friends for as long as could remember and groomsmen in his wedding, about the injustice from earlier. When he went to order a beer, he told the woman behind the counter. He told the high school kid he tipped to polish his ball. After the games, Jeff, Corey, and he walked out.

                “I’ve never seen you bowl so well before Rusty. If you could have only hit those 7-10 splits, you’d have the record. All you need is a little more finesse,” Corey said.

                “What I need is 10 pins with her face on them.”

                “You know she’s always been out to prove something” Jeff chimed.

                “Yeah, most of the time it feels like she’s trying to prove something to me.”

                “Ha, Rusty. It’ll be alright. I’m sure you’ll cream the guy in the competition,” Jeff said.

                Rusty smiled and slapped Jeff on the back.

                Monday came and Rusty felt ready for it. He thought that if he could get 30 holes filled that would put him in the lead. He still didn’t pay much attention to the email, he thought just driving faster would do the trick. At the end of the day he learned that his mystery competitor filled 50 holes, a number he thought was impossible. For the first time in his life he felt like a loser; the speeding ticket he received didn’t help either. The next day he lay in bed listening to his alarm blare country music; he contemplated not getting up. An image of his dad popped into his mind and ignited his last vestige of duty and got him out the door. He tried going even faster, but the second speeding ticket made him come to terms that it wasn’t working. Anger, confusion, and frustration mixed and mingled and boiled over. He let it all come out on Facebook.

                “Most people don’t know a good, honest day’s work. Very few today have felt the satisfaction of working with their hands. It may not be much but I’m proud to fill potholes. Some people might not respect my work, but I do the best I can. My job was put on the chopping block but I got it so I could compete for it. Like a real man. See if anyone can beat me at my own game. I have the streets west of the Square and my enemy has everything east. Try to see if he can beat me! You can’t keep a good man down!”

                Rusty felt a little better after the rant. He decided to call it a day and went home; tonight was bingo night and he had to get his mom there on time. He brought her a box of her favorite donuts, just because.

                On Wednesday, he discovered that many of his potholes were already filled, although rather poorly. He was overjoyed with this stroke of luck, then it occurred to him that someone could be trying to sabotage him. He became infuriated. He crossed the square to find the fiend. With each click of his odometer, his rage grew, visualizing the words and fists he would throw. He searched for hours trying to find him but to no avail. Suddenly, he remembered the list that was emailed to him. He pulled out his phone and closely looked at all the places he’d already driven past and discovered there was one unchecked place nearby, on the very edge of the county. Immediately, he went there and found what he was looking for: in the middle of the road was a truck with traffic cones, the unmistakable mark of a pothole filling truck.

                Rusty got out of his truck, slammed the door, and marched to the truck to lay his hands on what he thought was the source of all his problems. When he rounded the truck, he saw Jeff from his bowling team—one of his groomsmen—filling the hole. It ripped a hole in Rusty’s heart. Jeff turned around to see Rusty and his face turned orange like the traffic cones. Jeff babbled.

                With clenched fists, Rusty yelled, “What the hell?!” Jeff started mumbling some explanation but Rusty turned and slapped his hands on the hood of Jeff’s truck.

                “I thought you were my friend,” Rusty said.

                Jeff found his composure and responded, “I just need a new job. Things ain’t working at the body shop. I was going to tell you at bowling but…you’ve always said you hate the job and would leave when you had the chance.”

                “But I don’t have a chance! You motherf--”

                “Rusty, I’m sorry but I have to do this. With the economy and another kid on the way, I need good, steady work.” Rusty grabbed a traffic cone and threw it at Jeff.

                “Fine, but stay out of my territory!”

                Jeff dodged the angry projectile; rage flooded his eyes. He charged and spearheaded Rusty onto the cement, landing Rusty’s back on a large, jagged pothole. They brawled and while Jeff held his own, Rusty was the better of the two and landed a few punches that nearly knocked Jeff unconscious. Suddenly, there was a pause. Rusty realized what he was doing and jumped off Jeff. Jeff wheezed to catch his breath, then asked “Wait… what… do you mean, stay out of… your territory?”

                Rusty was wheezing too, “I me--an… you can betray… our friendship but… that doesn’t mean that you need… to sabotage my chances.”

                “I’m not sabotaging… anyone. It takes all I have… to get my job done. How could I sabotage… you?”

                “I… don’t know. Just stay away from the west side.”

                Rusty got back in his truck and drove away, gripping the steering wheel as if he was trying to squeeze something out of it. He went straight home where his mom tended to his cuts and bruises.

                The next day, Rusty found more potholes filled. He decided to stay up all night to see who it was that was trying to either help or hurt him. He looked at the email and a map and strategically filled all the potholes to funnel the person into a street where he’d be waiting. He surprised himself with how thoroughly he was thinking about this. After taking care of his mom, he parked on Route 125 and waited.

                He awoke Friday morning as the sun climbed over the horizon, angry that he slept the whole night. He looked and didn’t see anything. His mother would be waking up soon, or perhaps was already awake, so he needed to go home. He turned the car on, but when the lights came on he saw someone down the road. They noticed him too and started to move to cover. Rusty saw that he had his answer a few hundred feet away, so he quickly shifted his truck into drive and sped down the road to capture the culprit of a crime Rusty created. Rusty quickly approached his nemesis, bearing down on the wheel and leaning towards the glass full of heat. The person was too slow to escape the truck which travelled down the road like a charging bull. Suddenly, Rusty swerved and lost control of the truck when he realized that he was about to crash into his mother. The truck flipped over and skidded across the pavement making a noise that erupted from some sort of mechanical hell. There was a pause when the truck came to a halt.

                A loud cry broke the silence, “Oh, my boy!”

                Rusty’s mom made her way to the truck and when she got there, Rusty was climbing out of the exposed passenger’s side. He came out miraculously unscathed. Perhaps he was better at surviving disasters than avoiding them. Mother and son stared at each other with a shared awe.

                “How did you…?” Rusty stammered.

                “I used to help your dad. How do you think he filled so many holes all those years? I helped when I was pregnant with you. You and I have been partners for a long time.”

                “Why did you help me?”

                “Martha at the city council told me about the competition and when I saw your Facebook post, I couldn’t help myself. I needed to help my son.”

                “Ha, thanks mom, but the potholes look like crap.”

                “Well, what do you expect from a 300-pound woman? Asphalt art?” Rusty’s mom smiled but her eyes started to droop from the physical and emotional fatigue. Rusty helped her to his father’s truck in the distance just like he helped her to bed every night. They drove away leaving Rusty’s truck to be cleaned up another day and all the potholes to be filled by someone else.

                Rusty moved on from filling potholes with a calm demeanor that the Rusty from two weeks ago would have found appalling, but he felt free. He found a day job on a demolition team and night work as a bouncer at a bar. He couldn’t be happier: he found work that rewarded his bad habits. Rusty started to find peace.