The First Spark

Darrell had lost over $1600 in online sports betting since the first of March and now he was fucked. If he was just given a chance he could bet a four team parlay and be back in the black but none of his teams were playing. He knew more about basketball than he did about his ex-wife and kids. Player injuries had gotten him into trouble and instead of cutting his losses, he doubled down on the Pistons, but they hadn’t shown up to play. He always had March Madness to fall back on but last week the whole thing got cancelled because of this Corona thing. He frantically searched the ESPN app on his iPhone for other games to bet on, but sporting events had been put on hold all over the world. (Except for a couple of cricket matches in India, but he didn’t know shit about cricket.) Why was this happening to him? Why did things always happen to him?

            He’d been laid off six weeks ago but he still hadn’t told his girlfriend Madison. She was spending money faster than he could earn it. Gucci this and Prada that. But she was way out of his league and fifteen years younger and his ex-wife Brenda couldn’t stand to see him with a twenty-three-year-old, so he found a way to keep paying the bills. The Pekingese puppy she picked up from that breeder in South Lake Tahoe was killing him. $600 plus shots and clothes and​ the bejeweled carrying case. And then the surgery. A deviated septum. The fuck? So what if the dog snored? He​ ​ snored, and she dealt with it. But for a dog, he has to pay $1000 to enlarge its nasal opening? The vet in Sacramento looked very somber, like the Pekingese was one of those African kids with a harelip. “Corrective surgery”. It’s a Goddamn dog! He should have put his foot down...but the way Madison looks on his arm when they go dancing at the Ore Cart Tavern...you can’t put a price on that.

            Sirens in the distance. Police. Three cruisers by the sound of it. No ambulances and no fire trucks. Interesting. He knew his sirens. Twenty years with Cal Fire and he could tell what emergency vehicles were responding to a call just by listening to the variations. Even up here, with his window partially rolled down, he could tell there was trouble in town. 

            He’d been parking above Milton Falls Monday through Friday, working on sports betting instead of working at the jobsite. He had been hired on by a buddy he knew from Cal Fire to hang drywall. He’d never hung drywall in his life, and it sucked. Fighting fires was his passion. It sucked too, but when he came rolling into a mountain town with dozens of his brothers, decked out in their gear, ready to save the world from a wildfire, he felt like a hero. And when it was all over, his hair stinking like a campfire, there were always local ladies happy to thank him in the best ways possible. 

            But now it was March. And rainy. So he was furloughed until things warmed up. In the good old days his savings would carry him through the winter, but the divorce lawyers and a greedy ex-wife and two growing kids were expensive. And then Madison seduced him with those eyes and those curves and bought a money pit of a dog and soon he was busting his ass eight hours a day sheetrocking the Sequoia Grocery expansion. Until he got fired.

            Gary, the foreman, was a prick. He was a little guy with an attitude problem, and he didn’t like that Darrell was six foot eight. It wasn’t because he was lazy or because he left a couple thousand dollars worth of sheetrock out in the rain. It was because Gary couldn’t tolerate big guys ever since his wife had cheated on him with the local assistant high school basketball coach. That​ guy was only six foot three. Imagine the damage an extra five inches could do. 

            Everybody on the crew was a local but this Gary guy had only moved to town five years ago. How do you expect to get a crew to listen to you if you’re not even from around here? And then you lose your wife to an assistant basketball coach? Who could blame Darrell for not listening when the pathetic little man warned him that it was going to rain? He didn’t know Gary was a meteorologist and​ ​ a foreman.

            And Darrell would have just joined another crew but everyone in Milton Falls had it in for him. His buddy Nick who got him the job was his last construction contact and that was because they went way back with the Clampers. You drink that much with anyone and you’re bound to be buddies. But the rest of these construction companies were too uptight. Expected him to be there at 8 a.m. when he knew he’d get just as much work done if he rolled in by 9 or 10. One expected him to call him “sir”. No way. That wasn’t happening. Another couldn’t even read the blueprints and when Darrell tried to explain to the boss why there had to be a retaining wall or the whole house would fill with mud, he got told to mind his business and just do his job.

Swing a hammer and shut up. We didn’t hire you to think. 

            He got kicked off that jobsite too. Every other​ crew he’d worked for had been fine with drinking beer on the job. He showed up with a case of Natural Ice and was about a third of the way through when the foreman acted like he’d just killed a kitten. Yelling about liability and injuries and lawsuits. Bullshit. Darrell proved that he was sober by pulling back the safety and shooting a happy face with his nail gun. They called the cops. Said he was threatening people with a deadly weapon. For Christsake. The world was full of snowflakes.

            Madison threatened to leave him if the money dried up. She made it clear that he was a downgrade from the kinds of guys she usually dated but that his height made up for his average looks. So he grabbed his lunchbox each morning and hid out above the falls. No one ever drove back there this time of year so no one would tattle on him to Madison. He bundled up with extra blankets, turning the truck on from time to time to warm up the cab but not so often that he’d have to spend more than usual on fuel. And he’d work from 9-5, researching the players and the games, putting money down when something was a sure bet. Then he’d drive home, not tell his girlfriend about his day (she never asked and he didn’t expect her to start now), ignore the phone messages from his ex and his kids, go to bed, and start over again in the morning.

            If only the clouds would part so the sun could dry out the world. Then he could get back to fighting fires. He’d make his own work. Overtime for days. All it took was a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He’d done it before, back in 2016, when things were getting rocky with his ex Brenda. He knew he needed to squirrel away as much cash as possible before she filed for divorce. Plus the time away from home gave him a break from her bitching. So after battling a monster blaze in Oklahoma he visited an Indian Reservation outside Tulsa and bought an obscure brand of native made cigarettes. 

            When he got back to Milton Falls he flipped one over, drove into the Mendocino National Forest, lit the flipped cig, and tossed the pack out the window. He was careful to set fire to a secluded area. He didn’t want to burn down any houses, even though they did help to fuel a fire. He repeated the cigarette trick six times that summer and had enough cash to keep him flush through the divorce and into the next fire season. But that money was long gone. He still had thirteen packs of native cigarettes left. Virtually untraceable. But with all this rain, there was no use. He’d have to find some way to keep the bill collectors at bay until June. Mid-may if he was lucky. 

            He checked out the weather forecast. 

            A glimmer of hope. 

            It was raining today but the sun would come out tomorrow...

Bryan Starchman's fiction has recently been featured in The Saturday Evening Post and his nonfiction article about his most recent road trip appeared in last October's edition of  ROVA Magazine. His essays have appeared in The San Jose Mercury News, The Monterey Herald, The Fresno Bee, and The Mariposa Gazette.