A Sawmill. A Tragedy. A Few Gutsy Women.

Excerpt from CHEATING THE HOG – a novel.

My new boss, Leroy, walks like a robot as he leads me across the mill yard, past snow banks taller than we are, and around the side of a metal building. He stops and points up. “Your first job’s out here.”

I strain my neck to look into the darkness, about twenty feet up. I can’t say what I’m thinking, and that is, Yer shittin’ me.

“Logs get sent up that ramp and through the debarker,” he says, hands on hips. “See those L-shaped teeth up there?”

The yard light is dim. I can almost see what he’s talking about.

“Those are called dogs,” he says. “They stabilize the logs on their way up the debarker ramp. At the top, the cedar bark peels off in long strips. Gets all tangled up. Freezes in the debarker and the dogs.” He points to a steep metal stairway, more like a ladder. “Need you to climb up there and remove all that frozen bark.” He studies me. “Okay?”

“Sure.” I say, hoping this is one of those initiation gags, like the one where an old lumberjack asks you to go find the knot-puller, that he’s counting on you.

Leroy hands me a heavy round metal bar about three feet long and yells, “Here’s a chisel.”

I guess the foreplay is over.

Gripping the chisel in my leather gloves, I climb the narrow metal stairs up two flights, and creep along a catwalk in the dim night sky, gripping a handrail with my free hand. Dead woman walking. I step onto the debarker ramp and don’t stop to look around at the stars. With the chisel end of the bar, I stab at a clot of tangled, frozen cedar bark, then lay the chisel down on the ramp and, with both hands hanging on tight to the big tooth called a dog, I kick at the loosened bark. I crawl to the next dog to jerk at strips of bark with my frozen fingers in my stiff gloves, grunting and cussing clouds of steam. Frozen bits of bark break loose and fall to the ground. Only rapists and murderers should have to do this job.

If I’m going to reach the frozen cedar bark underneath the dogs, there’s only one way to do it. I’ve gotta hang from the steel I-beam. If there’s an easier way, I can’t see it, and the job didn’t exactly come with instructions. I lock my left arm around the beam, wrap my legs around that same cold hunk of steel, and lock my ankles together. Might’s well be hanging onto a capsized boat out in the ocean, sharks circling. With my right hand gripping the chisel, I stab at the ice, grunting steam in the frigid air. My safety glasses fog up.

While I wait for my glasses to clear, I think about the stages of hypothermia. Then I ponder the uses for cedar—like cedar siding, cedar chests, a trunk to store your valuables in . . . yeah, like a hope chest. All I ever really wanted was to settle down with Dwayne. Except he’s dead, and now’s not a good time to think about that.

I chisel, claw, and pull until I score another loose tongue and let it, too, drop to the ground. Sore, strained body parts are one thing, but now my imagination runs wild. I picture the muscles of my left arm exploding and ripping out of the socket. My legs fail. Down I go, and since I’m frozen stiff, I bounce when I hit the ground. Pieces of me shatter.

Aren’t there laws against jobs like this? Hell, even circus performers have safety nets. Now there’s no feeling left in my arm, the one holding tight to the beam. If I fall and survive, I’ll end up in a wheelchair. I yell into the dark at my new boss, at all my old bosses, at my life, “I can do this job, don’t think I can’t.”

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