Hanging with Dolphus

April 25, 2013

Excerpt from “Never Met a Stranger,” my next book, a work in progress:

When I read his obituary in the Athens (GA) Banner-Herald a few years back, I swear that I broke out in a sweat and my back started to hurt.

He was the hardest-working man I ever knew. The frequency with which I was assigned to work on his crew gave me the sneaky feeling that the management of the town’s sanitation department had my own horrible death set as a goal in their black and shriveled hearts.

Dolphus was a hard, lean man, all knots and roots and ugly as a skinned weasel, and carried about him a strong smell of sweat and chewing tobacco. A tangle of thinning blond hair under a bleached out gob hat helped shade flinty little eyes that never seemed to acknowledge how hard he or anybody else had worked. It was never hard enough. He never said so. You just knew.

I would like to write that one of Dolphus’ virtues was that he was killer accurate with his tobacco juice, but that would be an exaggeration. Dolphus’ brown trajectories would have been good examples for an anti-predestination clergyman to describe the random nature of the universe. Dolphus’ blue city dump truck had long brown streaks running down the driver’s side.

Not on the doors, though. The department head (reference “black and shriveled hearts” above) removed the heaters and doors from our trucks so that in the winter we would not huddle in the trucks to keep warm.

Not that keeping warm on Dolphus’ crew was a struggle.

Dolphus ran a brush crew, which meant that he and two helpers wandered from street to street picking up brush, fallen limbs, and chunks of trees left by residents on the curb to be picked up, and stacking them into an old blue dump truck, of which Dolphus was the Lord and Master.

Normally, those of us engaged in this effort loaded the dump truck up to a nice mound of brush and headed off to the county landfill, which gave us about an hour’s break. Most of us thought three loads was a fair day’s work.

So did Dolphus. Trouble is, Dolphus had a different idea of what constituted a load. To him, a load was when you couldn’t get any more on. That does not sounds like a big deal, unless you are one of the ones trying to jam one more branch, one more tree trunk, onto that teetering mass that loomed over the cab of the truck.

We were a sight to see. More often than not, the height of the stack in the truck was greater than the length of the truck itself. People used to just stand on the roadside to watch us pass. The load was stacked so high that one of us had to sit near the top and use a length of 2×4 lumber to lift the electrical wires out of the way while Dolphus eased us through. It took forever to get to the landfill that way, but somehow, Dolphus always managed to haul in three loads a day.

The one on top of the pile was usually me. Dolphus was the official driver, and there was no way on Earth either I or Frankie, the other helper, was going to get to drive that truck.

That was just as well in Frankie’s case, since he was usually stoned. He grinned a lot. Giving him the wheel of an overloaded dump truck stacked 20 wobbly feet high with logs and such would have been unwise. Also, Frankie was given to talking to people who were not actually present in any corporeal sense, and we all feared he might try to dodge around some of them if he was driving.

Perching him on top of that load did not seem like a kindly thing to do, either.

Dolphus didn’t talk to people, invisible or otherwise. He’d hand you a tree branch 12 feet long and bent six ways from Sunday and tell you “Here.” At the end of the day, if he said anything, it was “eenin,” which was the word “evening,” as in “good evening,” filtered through a Deep Southern accent and percolated through about a pint of tobacco spit.

Too bad he’s dead. I would like to say that Frankie and I came to a kind of pride that we could hang with Dolphus all day without suffering severe bodily injury or staining by gummy arcs of masticated Red Man. In the grand scheme of things, it was not a minor triumph, but I’ll take it.



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