CHEATING THE HOG:
A Sawmill. A Tragedy. A Few Gutsy Women
by Rae Ellen Lee

Cheating the Hog Cover Excerpt from the novel:
CHEATING THE HOG
A Sawmill. A Tragedy. A Few Gutsy Women.
By Rae Ellen Lee

CHAPTER 1

All I wanted was a job, and now I’m gonna die. Charging toward me is a freaky, huffing sasquatch with a pony tail, and he’s gripping a weapon. Looks like a shovel. Clearly, this goon is on a rampage, and I’m his next victim. Frantic, I crank up my car window and raise my arm to shield my face, expecting broken glass. But the creature jerks up my car’s hood, yells, “God damn, lady!” and heaves a forceful shovel of snow onto the engine of my’68 Ford Galaxie, Rooster. My car shakes his faded red feathers, backfires, and gasps one last breath.

I crank my window back down. Over the hiss of cold snow on hot engine I holler, “What the hell you doin’ to my car?”

“Christ, didn’t ya see the flames?” he snarls, and spits on the ground. “I’m surprised you got here in this piece of junk.”

“Now lookie here, mister. I got some tappets out of whack, the carburetor needs an overhaul, and the fan belt’s loose, but we ain’t never caught fire before.”

He rests on his shovel handle, spits again, and growls, “Don’t tell me you’re the new recruit?” He tosses the shovel over toward a rusty metal shed next to a hand-lettered sign that says, Old Plantation Tree Farm, and leans into my window way too close. “The one with no previous experience on a Christmas tree farm?”

I pull away from his dog-shit breath. “That’s right. I’m Echo. You Craig?”

He scratches his straggly beard, sighs like a radiator, and stands to stare at the rows of trees marching off in every direction.

“Mind advancing me some gas from that pump over there?”

He looks at me, finally. “Yeah, I’m Craig. Just back your Caddy up to the pump. That’s if it’ll start.” Moving around to the front of my car, he slaps a fender like it’s the rump of a horse. Arthritic hinges shriek as he slams down the hood.

This is gonna take a miracle. Before turning the key in the ignition I whisper, “Rooster, please. If you’ll start one more time I’ll buy you a new set of retreads. And this time I mean it.” The old boy screams to life with his usual ticking sound, like a bomb about to go off. I pat the dash and back up toward the gas pump. “What do you say to that, Roost? That knuckle-dragger hippie thinks you’re a Caddy.”

“Appreciate it,” I tell Craig, leaning out my window, watching to make sure he’s putting gas, not diesel, in my car. “Just deduct it from my first paycheck. Hell, charge me some interest, if you want to.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” he says, removing his filthy once-yellow work gloves to light a cigarette next to the NO SMOKING sign. “Before the season’s up I’m gonna be in your pants. You owe me for more than gas. I probably saved your life, putting out that fire.”

“Think so, huh?” I remember what Mom said, more than once—Men, they fool you by walking upright. Then, too, I am pushing fifty. Haven’t been with a man for a while, so I probably got my own set of mechanical issues. Take Liquid Wrench to get in my pants.

“Know so,” he says, exhaling slow and easy from his cigarette. He lifts the nozzle from my gas tank and remembers to screw the cap back on. Leaning into my window again he says, “You’ll be starting out as a shaker with Yates over there.” He stands, points his cigarette in the direction of a woman with long dishwater blond hair climbing up onto a scratched and dented John Deere tractor. “She’ll teach you all you need to know. Yates,” he yells. “Here’s your new helper.”

The woman, sitting tall in the saddle of the tractor, looks at me and then slumps. She hollers, “Well, haul your ass on over here and let’s get going.”

“Park the Caddy next to that truck over there,” Craig says.

I park old Rooster and head toward the tractor. Yates looks like another holdover from the hippie generation—out of style everywhere but up here in this sorry north woods corner of Washington. Or maybe I’m jealous of her long, flowing tresses. My own brown hair is naturally curly and from a distance it looks like the nest of a large, roosting shore bird. One of the meaner boys in high school said, “Anyone ever tell you that you have underwear hair?” Someone else once said, “You have trailer park hair,” and I said, “They’re called mobile homes.”

I climb aboard the tractor, brush snow off the fender, and sink down on the cold green metal. This is the first day of the rest of my life.

“Hang on,” she yells, and drives the tractor between two rows of trees. “Scotch pines,” she hollers over the roar of the engine.

“I know,” I yell back. “I’m from a long line of timber beasts. We know our trees.” I notice that in addition to her long hair she’s wearing dangly earrings that look like fishing lures. Seems like a person with any brains around machinery would hide all that hair up under her hat and ditch the earrings. Probably one of them Californians, migrated here on a lark.

We stop not far from where we started, next to a decrepit piece of equipment on wheels. Looks like the base of a blender on steroids. Yates climbs down off the tractor. “Meet your new friend, the shaker.”

The thing sits in a clearing the size of the dance floor at The Tool Shed back in Hatfield. Chain saws whine off in the distance. She tells me, “Ten of us work more or less together, counting Craig. The crew out there with the chain saws cuts the trees off at the ground and saws the bottom branches off so people can stick them in tree holders. Then they measure and tag the trees for height. That is when they aren’t drinking beer. Shaking the trees is a one-person job, but we work in pairs around equipment. The owner requires it. Something about insurance.”

Yates starts the shaker by pulling a throttle, as if it’s an outboard motor, and it roars to life. I’ve had some noisy temp jobs so I always carry ear plugs, and now I poke them in my ears.

A guy delivers cut trees to us on a flatbed trailer, pulled by a tractor in somewhat better condition than ours. When he pulls up, I have to jump back to keep my feet out from under the tires. Yates yells, “Mickey, meet Echo.” He kills the engine, climbs down to meet me, and smiles a goofy grin while he pumps my hand.

We help Mickey unload the trees, and he leaves for more. Yates and I take turns holding each tree on the shaker, which shakes any old, dead needles from the tree onto us and the ground. Every now and then an empty beer can bounces off one of us. We can’t talk because of all the noise, but when she shuts off the shaker I say, “This place is great. Cans of beer grow on trees here.”

No reply. Just a smirk.

Yates might be forty. Her face looks weathered, either from working outdoors or from a hard life or both. She’s tall and skinny and her eyes are green, about the same color as the Scotch pines. My eyes are hazel, like the color of Hat River during spring runoff. Yates and I are the same height, but I have big bones and I like to think of myself as well-rounded. Her voice is deep and a little hoarse, and she speaks right up. No need to strain yourself to hear what she says, even while wearing ear plugs.

At the end of the day we hook the shaker up to the tractor and drive to the metal shed to park it. As we head to our cars. Yates nudges me with her elbow and points at Craig. “He’s the best hunk of man you could ever get your hands on. You should give him a try.”

“No thanks.” No need to mention that we born-again virgins have our standards. I mean, sex with a Neanderthal? Yates must be hard up.

The next day while waiting for a load of trees to shake, she tells me, “My first name is LuAnn, but years ago someone called me LuLu, as in Boy, that one sure is a lulu. From then on I went by my last name.”

“Lulu,” I say. “Now there’s a name with personality. When I asked Mom why she named me Echo, I mean, it is different for this neck of the woods, she said, ‘I liked the sound of it, and how echoes always come back to you.’ Now I live with her and she jokes that maybe she should’a named me something else.” What I don’t tell anyone is that my name reminds me of echoes in a canyon, or maybe a country & western song written just for me. Gives me hope that I’m not so ordinary after all.

“I like your name,” Yates says. “It’s so odd it’s almost sophisticated, like a porn star’s name.”

“Thanks a lot,” I say, thinking she should talk with a name like Lulu. “Yeah, I’m sure when people look at me they wonder how many X-rated movies I’ve been in.”

“Hey, I meant it as a compliment.”

“I know. When I see kids I went to school with, they like to say ‘Hello, Echo . . . Echo . . . Echo . . .’”

She smiles. “That reminds me of the best job I ever had. Remember that spotted owl business over in Oregon a few years back?”

“Oh, yeah,” I say, wondering how my name relates to owls, but what the hell.

“Well, someone thought spotted owls were going extinct, so every damn national forest had to inventory the woods to see if they had any.”

“I remember. We were all afraid they’d turn up in our little corner of the world. You’ve seen the bumper sticker, SAVE A TREE, WIPE YOUR ASS WITH A SPOTTED OWL?”

She smirks again, something she’s good at. “I helped with the inventory and loved it,” she says. “A wildlife biologist taught us to call for spotted owls. And talk about an echo. She told us if there was one out there, it couldn’t help but answer the call.” Yates takes a deep breath and hollers, “Hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo-ah . . yeeyowuhhh. . hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo-ah. . yee-owuhhh!

The hairs stick up on my neck. She takes another deep breath and repeats the otherworldly call for the spotted owl. Sounds a little like opera. And what do you know? Here comes our next load of trees to shake.

“Mickey!” Yates yells. He climbs down off the tractor, unaware that the sky has just split apart thanks to Yates’ owl calls.

We unload the trees and Mickey leaves to get more. Yates and I take turns holding the trees on the shaker, and then flip the switch on the noisy machine to the OFF position. In the quiet, we smoke while we wait for more trees, stomping our feet to keep from getting frostbite. We make small talk. To make a point about what she’s saying, she likes to swing her elbow against my arm.

“You ever think about a career?” she asks. “I mean at your age and all? Something besides these temporary shit jobs?” She whomps me with her elbow. I brace myself so I don’t tip over.

“I’ve tried about everything,” I sigh. ‘Course, it would be my luck to have a sister who’s perfect. Delight—yeah, that’s really her name—sewed at the ski jacket factory for years. I lasted there about a month. On my first day it took me all day to sew in one zipper. One day, one zipper, while Delight sat at her sewing machine and sewed forty zippers in forty coats that day. She didn’t talk and she didn’t smile. She broke records. The boss had the nerve to say to me, ‘We thought you’d be more like her.’”

“So, what’s she doing now, this person named Delight?”

“Calls herself a Life Coach. She actually tells people, including me, how to live a better life.” I mimic Delight. You should quit cussing, you should quit drinking, you should quit smoking. I can help you. “But you see, those are all my favorite things. So I tell her I’ll think about it. ‘Course, she doesn’t even know all my faults. And in a couple weeks Mom and I are going to her house for Thanksgiving. We’ll cook a wild turkey Mom shot off the back porch, and Delight will spout lots of duckie feel-good quotations instead of saying grace.”

Yates is either a good listener or she’s tuned into the spotted-owl channel, so I keep talking. “Delight spent time in Spokane getting trained. Says she’s good at her work, and that her client list is growing. Now she wants to study hypnotherapy.”

Yates throws her cigarette butt on the ground and grinds it into the frost with her boot, all the while shaking her head. “I have heard it all now.”

“Fat chance,” I say. “Did I tell you we’re identical twins and that she stole my boyfriend thirty years ago and then married him? She never even loved him. But I always did. Then he went and got himself killed in a logging truck accident a couple years ago. Me and Delight are not what you’d call close.”

Mickey roars up with a load of trees, and we get back to work.

***

Once I get cold, I’m cold all winter. On Wednesday morning the temperature is ten degrees. While Yates drives the tractor pulling the shaker out into the sea of trees, I cuddle up to the warm exhaust pipe. When we move the shaker to a different location, I drive the tractor, teeth chattering, at top speed—five miles per—into the sub-zero wind. In the afternoon the temperature goes up twenty degrees and it starts to snow. I’m not so cold now, but when I’m surrounded by snowflakes like this I can’t stop thinking about the logging truck accident. The next time I drive the tractor, through the falling snow, I remember this:  after news reached town about a logging truck going off the grade, a few regulars at The Log Drive Café claimed they’d heard the truck slide, and then the impact when the truck dropped to the base of the giant white pine tree. The fools said they’d stopped talking to listen for what might come next. Others said there’s no way in hell those old geezers could have heard anything, so many miles away. Two years later here I am, worried that for the rest of my life I’ll relive the event every damn time it snows, and I’ll wonder again and again exactly when, during his last moments, the man I loved let go of his life. To stop thinking about it anymore, I fix my thoughts on the meal Mom will have waiting, the hot bath I’ll take, and the game of cribbage we’ll play before I turn in early. That’s if Rooster will start and we can actually make it the twenty-five miles home.

On Thursday during the lunch break, Yates heads for her truck and yells to me, “Hop in.”

The country store where we go is heated by a big honkin’ wood stove. We hang out near the warmth for a few minutes, and take our time choosing cheap twelve-packs of beer.

“I’m buying mine with money from recycling the beer cans we shook out of the trees,” Yates says. “I’ll share.”

“Yeah, well, I’m spending every penny I have,” I brag. “I’ll share, too.”

Back at the tree farm Craig builds a pile of wooden pallets a healthy distance from the gas pump, sloshes gasoline on the heap, and tosses a match on top. I hand everyone, including Craig, a beer. Good thing we get paid before we leave for the weekend.

Thanks to the beer and the heat from the fire, we’re all having a good time, laughing at nothing much. The four guys who cut, trim and tag the trees before we shake them share the rest of their beer, too, and the party is on. Here we are, a scene out of a goddamn Norman Rockwell painting. By now, of course, I know how so many empty beer cans got into the Christmas trees. Where else can we hide the evidence from the owner of the tree farm?

We end the day in one guy’s mobile home near Filmore. I use his phone to call Mom and tell her I won’t be home, and then slouch in a tattered overstuffed chair with dirty arm rests. I smoke, sip beer, and watch the action all around me. The others are telling stories, most of them not very funny, and everyone’s laughing so hard they snort. I’m warm, I’m mellow, and I’m safe here in a corner of the living room, wrapped in the arms of this beer-stained overstuffed chair. Yates is sitting on Craig’s knee at the kitchen table with three other guys in a cloud of marijuana smoke. She looks over at me and gets up, a beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other.

“I’m beginning to think you don’t like men,” she says, taking a seat on the arm of the chair.

“They’re okay, just not all created equal.”

“Amen,” she says. “You ever married?”

“Yeah, once. When Delight stole the man I wanted, I married a guy from out of town and then got to know him. Turned out he wanted a mother, so after a couple of weeks I had to divorce him. At least now I can say, ‘Yeah, I was married once.’ It’s like having the mumps. I was immune after that. What about you?”

“Yeah, I was married once, too. He left me a while back.”

“Yates, come on back here,” Craig yells. “You gotta hear this one.” Yates gets up.

“Loan me a cigarette?” I say.

She tosses me a half-empty pack and returns to Craig’s lap.

Sometime after midnight I’m snoozing in my chair when Craig comes over and says to me, “I think I love you, Echo.”

“Hah! I don’t think so,” I snort. “You don’t even know me.”

“Well, I let you have your party, now it’s payback time.”

“Don’t think so,” I repeat, wondering what the hell he’s talking about. My party? But just to be on the safe side, I stay awake most of the night guarding my pants.

***

Today I’m working at quarter speed, if that, after the party last night. No one else is breaking any records, either, and then, right in the middle of the frigid afternoon, Craig checks up on us and Yates stroll off into the woods with him. Here I am freezing my ass off, hung over, and shaking a load of trees all by myself, while they’re getting it on in next year’s Christmas trees. To tell you the truth, I feel abandoned.

At quitting time we get our paychecks. It’s a slow, slippery drive home, but me and Rooster finally make it. All weekend long I stay close to the stove, leaving it now and then to add wood to the stove, help around the house, eat, sleep, and play cribbage with Mom.

On Monday morning I make it down the road and onto the highway in the new snow, following my neighbor’s tire tracks. Out on the highway Rooster slides around the first bend, so I slow to a crawl. The roads are slicker than snot. It’ll take a couple hours to get to the tree farm, and Craig will dock my pay for being late. To make the trip even more fun, the heater is on the fritz and I could swear hypothermia is setting in.Or maybe rigormortis. But I keep going. Someone’s gotta help Yates shake the Christmas trees. I barely touch the gas pedal, moving forward no faster than if I was in a parade. Off to the right is Eagle Creek Lumber Company, all lit up in the falling snow. Good thing Weldon has four-wheel-drive. I heard him drive down the road while I was eating breakfast. He’s probably already at work.

Suddenly a bridge abutment flies past within inches of my window. Snowflakes are flying sideways. Crap, I’m going in circles! When I skid to a stop, I’m facing the wrong direction. At least I’m off the road enough not to get hit. I hold my breath. My heart bounces around in my chest. My breath escapes in a gust of steam, and I can’t stop shivering, from the cold and the fear. I grope in my coat pocket for a cigarette, find my lighter, and light up. Smoke drifts around me. The wipers scrape one way, then the other, across my cracked windshield, back and forth, back and forth. Fat, fluffy snowflakes drop onto the hood of my car, melt and trickle down into the crack of the hood. By the time I crawl on the icy roads the last five miles to work, I’ll be over an hour late. Then, too, on my paycheck Craig had deducted the cost of the gas the first morning, which I expected, but he also cheated me out of four hours’ pay. If you ask me, that’s pretty steep interest on a tank of gas.

I sit in the dark, cold car staring at the snow falling in the beam of my headlights, feeling trapped in a snow globe of sadness. It’s all so hopeless. I bite my lip. I will not bawl or lose control. Watching the windshield wipers flop back and forth, back and forth, I make a decision. Hell with it. I’m not going to shake beer cans out of trees today, or ever again. I gun the engine and crank the wheel in the direction of the skid. Rooster’s tail feathers swing around, and as his bald tires search for traction we bounce off one snow bank, and another, and then we head for home.

 

CHAPTER 2

Snow will be icy fact of life for the next six months. It’s falling now, outside the window of the unemployment office where I stand waiting, watching. Snow makes the world look all soft and clean and pretty. So it’s a crying shame that every damn time it snows I can’t stop the accident from playing out in my head. It’s sort of like gravity. You drop something, it’s gonna fall.

I mentally brace myself for the picture in my head of his loaded logging truck skidding sideways through big, fluffy snowflakes, skidding down and down and down that steep mountain grade. I watch Dwayne stomp the brake pedal over and over, cussing the early season snowstorm. He begs and makes deals with God. He cranks the steering wheel to pull the truck away from the edge, and he keeps doing it even after the truck flings itself into the silence and soars above a clear-cut, wheels spinning. The muscles in his arms bulge as he turns the wheel one way and then the other. His eyes are as big as door knobs, staring straight ahead, looking for an opening, and then his truck takes aim on the single giant white pine still standing on the mountainside.

Parts of the scene are filled in by details the newspaper reporter made up from what he heard around town:  An axle caught on a branch as thick as a lumberjack’s waist and, for just a second, the truck hung there like an ornament. The branch snapped and the truck, the driver, and the logs dropped straight down onto the steep slope and then tumbled all the way down the mountainside to the headwaters of Hat River. I always add: ass over teakettle, spraying logs all over hell. In my imagined avalanche of snow, splintered wood, and truck cab I search the shattered windshield for a sign of the man I love, and every time I don’t see him I panic, knowing I will never see him again.

“Echo, you’re back so soon.” Leland startles me back to reality.

“Nice to see you again, too, Leland.” Still stunned from my trip down memory lane, I follow him in slow motion to his desk, located in a maze of cubicles.

Leland’s been my caseworker at the unemployment office for years. He’s plump and soft, with clean fingernails—the opposite of the man I lost. Leland probably doesn’t even heat his house with wood. We go back a long way. He knows I remember that time in third grade when he wet his pants.

“A mistake on your paycheck is no reason to quit,” Leland says. “I can try to get that fixed.”

I shake my head. No need to tell him I’m still suffering freezer burn from my most recent brush with employment, if you can call shaking Christmas trees a job. And I won’t bother telling him that driving twenty-five miles each way with bald tires on icy roads to earn minimum wage won’t steer me out of the black hole I dug for myself trying to gamble away my grief. Sometimes the less said the better. “If I’m sitting here, Leland, you know I won’t be going back to the Christmas tree farm. I need something better.”

He studies me. “You have a nice smile.”

“You flirting with me, Leland?”

The corners of his mouth twitch upward. The start of a smile? “There is a temporary job, Echo.” A pink hand holds his place in the stack of job descriptions available to someone like me. “I think you’d be good at it.”

I wait him out.

“How would you like to be the Salvation Army bell ringer at the mall?”

“Jesus, Leland. Ain’t that a job you give homeless people?”

“The county’s poor, Echo, you know it yourself. But the one thing we don’t have is homeless people. They’d freeze to death out there. In fact, the money collected helps keep people in their homes. You’d be doing something good for mankind.”

We stare at each other. It don’t take a mental giant to weigh my options. “Sure,” I say. “I’ll do it.”

This new job’s not exactly a get-rich-quick scheme, either, but at least I can feel good about doing it. Might tide me over until the New Year. After that we’ll be in 1999, the big millennium eve year. Mom’s convinced the world’s coming to an end, which she probably read in The National Enquirer. What if it’s true? Poof! There goes my gambling debt.

I’m wearing a red Salvation Army windbreaker over two wool sweaters on top, flannel-lined blue jeans on the bottom, and thick wool socks in my Sorel pack boots. At an outside entrance to Hatfield’s mall, I ring the little bell. I visit with anyone who’ll risks stopping. Some people won’t even make eye contact because they don’t want to put money in the pot. Others I haven’t seen in a long time stop to chat and reach into their pockets for change. I find myself using social skills I didn’t know I had. If I can’t remember an old guy’s name, even though his face is familiar and he was probably a friend of Dad’s, I just say, “How’re you doing, you old coot?” I listen to what they say. A lot of people are lonely. If someone’s had a bad year I give ‘em a hug. It’s not so much that my social life is picking up; it’s that I now have one.

My nephew, Justin, stops by one afternoon and stuffs a few dollars into the red pot. “Auntie, I see you found your career niche.”

“Yeah, the Santa Claus job was taken.”

He stands close by a few minutes. I hand him the bell to ring, which he does with confidence and heart. Justin could have done or been anything, even gone to college, but instead he stayed in Hatfield. He’s one of the lucky ones, though, with a steady job at the sawmill.

“How’s your mother?” I ask. I’ve always been grateful Justin turned out to be such a fine young man, in spite of Delight. What if Dwayne had married me instead of her? Since Delight and I are twins, would our son have looked like Justin? As it is, I love searching his face for similarities to his father. He doesn’t know I do this. He doesn’t know about me and his father.

“She’s baking cookies,” he says, handing me back the bell. “I’m here to buy vanilla at the IGA, so I gotta get going.”

“Bye, Sweetie.” He walks away, so tall and strong and good-natured. So much like Dwayne.

***

Hatfielders call the place a mall, but really it’s only a few odd stores under one roof:  Ben Franklin, IGA, a pet shop, and probably the smallest K-Mart in the world. There’s also a home decor shop with log furniture, wreaths of peacock feathers, silk flowers, and candles that stink real good. This shop’ main customers are the out-of-staters who bought up farms and ranches along the river. All these stores open up to a common area, just like the real malls in Spokane.

On a good day I take in a lot of money. One evening the red pot is so full that bills stick out of the slot. I poke ‘em down inside. A man comes over and says to me, “Why don’t you just take some of that money?”

“Why would I do that?”

“You don’t need money?”

“Well, sure, but I like to earn it. I lost my job and I’m lucky enough now to work for a good cause.” Okay, so I quit my job after a week and my feet are still cold, but this is different. I get paid minimum wage for an eight-hour day, but if people keep putting money in the pot I like to stay an extra hour or two.

December is especially cold this year, so I stand just inside the main entrance where the discount stores are located. It’s warmer, and it’s where I collect the most money. Then, too, when times are slow there’s the parrot, sitting in a cage on a table near the pet shop. He’s lime green, and his head is yellow.

One day I waltz into the pet shop, careful to keep an eye on my red bucket, hanging from its tripod. I introduce myself to the owner, a woman even older than I am named Betty. She’s slender, and today she’s wearing a tweed pantsuit. Her bottle blond hair is done up in a twist. “What’s the parrot’s name?”

“Moose.”

“Strange name for a parrot, ain’t it?” Smile, I tell myself. It’s what Delight says to do when I ask a question. That way I won’t sound pushy.

“He’s an Amazon, and his name is spelled M-o-u-s-s-e, like the dessert, not the animal. I named him that to celebrate the lemony color of his head.”

“Where are you from?” I ask.

“New York. We moved here because my husband likes to hunt and fish.”

“Oh.” This worries me. Too many hunters already, and more and more accidents. Just the other day a hunter from out of state shot another hunter he thought was a bear.

“He’s happy here,” she says. “He got his first elk this year.”

“That’s good,” I say. “If you need some recipes, I can get a few from my mom.”

“Oh, we don’t eat the meat.” She says it like the meat would taste bad, as she sprinkles food into a fish tank. “We donated it to the food bank.”

“Oh,” I say. “Well, nice meeting you. Guess I’ll get back over to my pot, see if I can get someone to feed it.”

The walls inside the mall are decorated with murals of Santa, his sleigh, and eight reindeer. Foot traffic flows around either side of the big Christmas tree in the middle of the hallway, surrounded by piles of empty boxes wrapped in green and red paper. It’s downright festive.

Later in the day, a little boy walks past with his mother, crying wahhhh, wahhhh. The parrot screeches wahhhh, wahhhh, and the little boy shuts up.

I stroll over to the parrot to get acquainted, then can’t think what to say except, “Moussie want a cracker?”

“Shut the fuck up!” the parrot growls in a low monotone voice, his head down, his beady black eyes glaring at me.

“Same to you, you little shit. If I could get a hold of your lime jello neck I’d choke you. It’s Christmas, for chrissake. Why can’t you be nice?” I make a bee line for my red pot, where I’ll be safe from the parrot, but I trip on one of the boxes near the Christmas tree. I pick myself up off the floor and walk the rest of the way with my head held high.

Tinkle, tinkle, tinkle. “Hi, how’re you doing?” I do my job and smile, even though the parrot threw cold water all over my good mood. When someone is especially nice, I speak up to be heard over the bell, “If you know anyone who needs food, tell ‘em they’re giving away elk meat at the food bank.” If someone has little kids, I warn ‘em, “Don’t get too close to the parrot. He bites.”

A few days later I try again to make friends with the parrot. First I visit with Betty in the pet shop. “Parrots make excellent pets,” she tells me. “They live longer than we do, which means they don’t die on you and break your heart, the way cats and dogs do.”

Back outside the shop entrance, I approach the parrot slowly, so as not to seem threatening. “You really are a handsome bird,” I say. “I don’t care what anyone says.”

He lowers his head and ducks it back and forth while lifting his little parrot feet, first one then the other. Suddenly he freezes, stares into my eyes, and in his evil, low monotone repeats exactly what he said yesterday.

“You know, for a parrot you sure have a piss-poor vocabulary,” I say, glaring at him.

He squawks like a vulture on a road kill.

I don’t cover my ears. Don’t want to give him any satisfaction for being nasty. Inside the pet shop, Betty is arranging boxes on a shelf. I toy with the idea of blowing the whistle on the parrot, but decide to let it go, for now.

After that little event, I ring my bell with less enthusiasm. Betty must think I’m tired, because she brings me a folding chair, says I can use it any time. All I have to do is return it to her shop before I leave for the day.

My gig as a bell ringer was going so well, but being verbally abused by an X-rated parrot reminds me of something I’ve known all along:  I won’t be allowed to be comfortable and happy. For almost fifty damn years, I’ve lived life on the skinny branches, always close to falling off. And I’m still working at crappy odd jobs, earning minimum wage. Goddamn parrot.

Dad always said, “It’s easier to push a pencil than a broomstick.” Even though he only finished the eighth grade, he meant that me and Delight would be real smart to get an education, that life would be easier if we did. But we weren’t brave enough to leave. Hell, look at all those immigrants who made it to America. They had what it took to move to a better place. But then we do have that river. Most everyone around seems attached to it, which is just plain strange, when you think about it.

Up until Dwayne’s accident, Delight liked to say, Echo, there are no accidents. Of course, she held a sizeable life insurance policy on him. Yeah, Delight and Dwayne. I’m sure no one would understand the chain of events that allowed our relationship to continue in secret. After the funeral Delight even confessed that she didn’t love him, said it was a relief when he got himself killed, said she’d no longer have to wonder where he was at night. As usual, I suffered her meanness in silence. But then, I knew exactly where he’d been.

 ***

“Yates!” I yell when she comes stomping through the entrance to the mall.

“Echo!” She slaps my shoulder with her wool hat. “Missed you at the tree farm after you quit.”

“I was going to call.” I remember to ring my little bell and nod to people walking past. “What’re you up to?”

“The tree farm hired me to sell Christmas trees here. We’re set up in the parking lot outside.”

“I’ll come see you. We’ll catch up.”

“Glad you’re here, girlfriend,” she says, nudging me with her elbow.

“You’ll want to go over and say hello to the parrot before you leave. His name’s Mousse, that’s M-o-u-s-s-e, and he has a pissy attitude. Maybe you can cheer him up.”

Yates glances in the direction of the pet shop and sets off to meet the parrot.

Tinkle, tinkle, tinkle. “Hi, how’re you doing?” I smile. I nod. I do my job. When I look over at Yates, her head is inches away from the parrot’s cage, and they’re glaring at each other. I don’t think Yates liked what he said to her, and I can’t hear what’s being said now. But suddenly the parrot straightens up and looks surprised. And afraid. He lifts one foot and then the other, like he’s trying to escape. Yates maintains her position.

Tinkle, tinkle, tinkle. Coins drop into my red bucket. “Thank you. Have a good day.”

Yates struts past me toward the door. “See you later, Echo . . . Echo . . . Echo . . .”

My days at the mall go better, now that Yates is around to smoke with once in a while. And the parrot never insults me or anyone else again, far as I can tell. I don’t know what Yates said or did to the parrot, but I’m telling you, I never, ever, want to get on her bad side. Once in a while the parrot tries to engage me in conversation. When there’s no one around I hear him say to my back, “Hi, how’re you doing today?” But I never turn around to look at him.

A few days before Christmas the Salvation Army is so happy with my work, they call The Hatfield Weekly News, and send out a reporter to interview me on the job. He takes my picture standing next to the red pot, me smiling, ringing the little bell, my hair doing its imitation of an osprey nest. On Christmas Eve a feature story, with my picture, appears on the front page.

ECHO SPANGLER RINGS FOR SALVATION ARMY

Christmas shoppers entering Hatfield Mall this year were greeted by the timeless tinkling of a Salvation Army bell and the smiling face of Echo Spangler.

“She brought in more money than any other bell ringer in the history of the county,” said regional Salvation Army coordinator, Syd Norton. “And there’s a good reason. She’s friendly, outgoing and takes the time to chat with people. Too, she’s extremely dedicated to the Salvation Army and its good works.”

“It was very rewarding,” Spangler said. “It’s amazing to find out how many people the Salvation Army has helped. Men from the wars, including my father, often talked about how the Army was right in the front lines helping out.”

Spangler was born in Hatfield, one of two daughters of Gus and Mabel Spangler. She now lives with her mother, Mabel, a few miles west of Hatfield. Her sister, Delight, and nephew, Justin, live nearby.

Like most natives to the area, Spangler hunts and fishes. Her love for family, the area, and her belief in the Salvation Army programs made her a delightful reason to pause this year at the red bucket. She was a bright and friendly reminder of the meaning of Christmas.

I wish Dad could see it. He loved the newspaper, even though he called it The Weekly Blabber, and when he reached for the newspaper he always said, “Guess it’s time to read the front word.” Well, now I’m the front word.

 End of Excerpt

I hope you enjoyed this sample of CHEATING THE HOG.

To find out what happens next . . .

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