I took on a new project for this summer, regrading some roads out west. Southwest of Minot. It’s out of my district but there’s not much going on up here right here. Farm country is pretty quiet right now. And out west they’re cranking up for a lot of heavy trucks moving around. I guess they’ve figured out a way to get the oil out of the shale out there, and they’re going to be bringing in a lot of big equipment like pipe and drilling rigs and I don’t know know what else. I sat in a meeting in the office in Minot and a geologist was project slides on the wall and talking about shale and oil and water, like it’s all just sitting over there in a pile, waiting for someone to come pick it off. Then I drove over to some of the area he was talking about. The land is hillier over there than it is right here. Not so flat. But it’s still prairie. The roads are in pretty bad shape. Some of the land is reservation land, and they don’t put so much into the roads there. Nobody drives on them. Nobody that matters, I guess. I drove out to where the road climbed a hill and pulled off and sat for awhile on the tailgate of the truck. The prairie is still hard and brown from winter. Not much sound, except the wind, that sound that hollows out everything else. I could see a lot of birds flitting in and out of the prairie grass, probably nesting, but you couldn’t hear them call. The wind erases all of it sometimes.
I sat and thought about all the stuff the geologist had talked about, all the shale and oil and rock. It’s like when the geologist comes out here, he sees a totally different world, full of totally different things. He’s thinking of what’s a few thousand feet under everything. I wonder if he sees the folds in the land, the low rises and the draws down to the creeks and rivers. Everything covered with grass. Heck, grass is probably just an annoyance, something in the way.
My boss told me to think about it. There didn’t seem to be much to think about. You go where the work is, at least I do. I didn’t grow up learning to farm, where maybe I could have stayed in one place my whole life, not had this motel life I go and do from time to time. I told him, “You know I’m going to take it.” He said, “Just sit on it for a few hours. Think about Lizabeth. And your girls.”
Lizabeth says, “What about the girls? They only have another year left.” They’ll probably be working all summer, babysitting, at the drive-in. I don’t think they get anything from me. They want allowance is what they want. That’s why I work. And, just for the record, we don’t really give allowance. That’s why they work.
I think, saying that, Lizabeth is talking about herself. Matty is gone, off at college. Probably will work somewhere this summer. Nobody wants to come home. Including me, I guess.
There’s a thing here everybody needs, but nobody knows how to fix it. Any time we sit down to dinner, there’s an empty chair there. For awhile, there really was an empty chair. I kept thinking we should put one of our chairs somewhere else, so we wouldn’t think of it. I put it in the living room for awhile, but at mealtimes, Lizabeth would bring it back in and put it by the table. I said something about it once, and she said, “We have six chairs. This is where they go.” But I knew why she was doing it.
There always seems to be something reminding that Chris is gone. He should be here but he’s gone. And he already was gone. He had been at UND for more than two years already. Worked in Grand Forks all summer, didn’t even come home the summer before the accident. Nobody missed him then, put out empty chairs for no one to sit on. We think about it differently now, now that we know there’s nothing we can do about it. Now that we know he won’t be back.
I don’t know what we do about that. I guess I get pretty frustrated that I don’t know. I like to fix things. I’m a pretty simple guy. You have a road that’s cracked? The grading is settling and now the pavement isn’t smooth? The shoulder is eroding away? I can come out and fix those things. This stuff, all these pains and this sadness we can’t fix, I don’t know what to do with it.
I don’t know what to do, I get frustrated. Then sometimes there’s anger, yelling. The summer after the accident, there was a lot of yelling. I didn’t like it, but it kept happening. Sometimes I would drive out on my way to work and stop somewhere, yell into the wind. Let it blow it away. Then it doesn’t leave any marks, just blows away over the land. We don’t need any more yelling. Maybe that’s why I’m taking this job. It’s what I know how to do. I can fix something. And there may be silence, but at least there won’t be any yelling.