© 1998 Jess Mercer

Ill Wind

I've always heard it's an ill wind that blows no good, and the hurricane winds have certainly been ill, for the devastation is pretty widespread most everywhere east of I-95. To be honest, it's not so much the wind as it is the result of the flooding the winds brought when it blew the waters up from the sounds and the heavy rains that came. I'm fortunate, for despite flooding in other parts of town, I have no damage except several tree limbs and lots of twigs and leaves all over the yard. If it ever dries out enough, I can rake those up, but at my age, that's more than enough to take me several days.

I'm standing in the front yard surveying the mess when a voice behind me says, "You need some help, mister?"

I turn and see a boy in his mid teens with a backpack looking at me. He's a nice looking kid with a sorrowful face. His left arm ends just below the elbow. It has to be a birth disorder for there's no scar from an amputation. His right arm is well developed. "How much an hour?"

His face brightens. "Is five bucks too much? I'll pick up all the big stuff and clean up your yard real nice."

"You can do that?"

"Yes, sir."

I look at my watch. "Aren't you supposed to be in school at this hour?"

He shakes his head. "Schools at home are still closed cause of the water. They made me leave where I was living, but that shelter was a bummer, so I took off to see if I could make a little money. I doubt there's anything left of our house."

"What about your family?"

Tears come to his eyes. "I lived with granny cause she was all the family I had. She had a heart attack when they come to rescue us. They told me she died on the way to the hospital, so now I got nothing. One of them rescue trucks give me a lift here."

"I'm so sorry. It's almost noon, though. Would you like something to eat before you start?"

"That would be good, mister. I didn't have nothing but a cup of coffee this morning."

He follows me around to the back door, carefully wiping his feet on the mat before coming into the kitchen. He sheds his backpack and pulls out a chair at the table, while I begin to take food from the fridge. Fortunately, I have a roast, mashed potatoes, and green beans left from yesterday. Living alone, I seldom cook so much to avoid eating leftovers for days on end, but I had gotten in the mood for a roast.

When everything is hot, I serve our plates and sit down to eat with him. "My name is Jack. And yours?"

He smiles. "Ty, sir."

"Eat up, lad."

He does and takes seconds when I offer.

"That was sure good, specially after the sandwiches they give us in the shelter."

"I'm glad you enjoyed it. Ready to work?"

Whatever reservations I had vanish when he sets to work, for instead of taking a handful at the time to the street as I expected, he uses his stump to balance a bundle almost as large as I can carry. My back won't let me bend much, but I use my chain saw to cut the larger limbs into manageable sizes which he puts into the garden cart and effortlessly pulls out to the street to pile for city pick up. After two hours of this, he begins to rake the worst of the small trash up while I start the mower and pick up what's left with the bagger. Even with both of us working, the afternoon vanishes before I'm aware. As dusk sets in, I call a halt.

Ty puts the tools away and asks me if there's someplace cheap he can stay tonight. I know well every motel room for miles around is full of people escaping the flooding, and tell him so.

His face falls. "Could I maybe sleep on the backseat of your car, sir?"

One look at this hardworking kid who has lost everything breaks my heart. "No, Ty, you can't sleep in my car." He looks crushed. "But you can sleep in my spare bedroom. Go get a hot shower, and we'll go out to eat. Besides, you haven't finished your work for me yet."

His answer convinces me. "You don't know me, sir. I could be anybody."

"You aren't afraid of work and, even with having lost everything, a job is all you've asked for. That proves a lot to me. Now come on in."

"Thank you, sir."

I shower in the other bath.

He comes out in ragged cut off jeans and T-shirt. No way I can take him out dressed like that, unless it's some place like Golden Corral where other kids will be dressed the same. At least they have an inexpensive buffet and this kid can eat, though I'm not surprised considering what he's been through.

He looks at the steak and shrimp combination, but turns away to look at something else.

"Get the steak if you want." I tell him.

"Won't be able to cut it."

"So? I'll do it."

He smiles and orders one. I also help his plate when he selects veggies and a salad, then fill mine. He eats heavily again so I go back to help him when he goes for more. When he's satisfied, he gives me a smile. "You know how to help a guy and not make him feel different. Thanks."

"No problem. Don't you have a prosthesis?"

He shakes his head. "Not at what those things cost. Besides, I never had all my arm, so I do fine without it. Just things like these serve yourself places give me any trouble."

When we arrive back home, I ask him if he has any other clothes. He shakes his head. "Got another pair of jeans and a shirt they gave me, but they're dirty. What I have on is my last clean ones."

"Then give them to me when we get home and I'll put them in the washer."

"You don't need to do that. I'll find a washermat when I've finished working for you."

"Nonsense."

I'm not surprised when he goes to bed early. I'm tired and my back is hurting from doing too much, so it's not long before I'm in bed, too.

I awake about nine the next morning, but when I pass the guestroom, I peek in. He's still asleep, so I don't bother him. With the way he's worked and having been in a shelter for who knows how long, he deserves a good sleep.

About nine-thirty I hear him moving about in the bathroom, so I start breakfast. I'm normally content with a cup of coffee, juice, and a sweet roll, but luckily I had company recently, so I have eggs, bacon, and bread on hand, so I can give him a good breakfast.

"Oh, man, I slept good last night, but you should have got me up. I didn't mean to keep you waiting."

"You needed a good sleep."

"Never slept in a bed so good before."

As soon as he's eaten, I hand him his clean clothes which I had taken from the dryer and folded. "Put these away, and we'll finish up the yard, if you're ready."

"Yes, sir."

By lunchtime, my yard looks as if there had never been a storm. He's done all I could ask and more. When he dumps the last load of trash on the street, he puts the cart back in the storage room and looks at me expectantly.

"A shower for us, Ty, then we'll have some lunch. Hope you don't mind leftovers again."

"No, sir, that was good."

I give him a bowl of ice cream for dessert. I seldom eat it, except a small bowl on an occasional hot evening.

"By my count, I owe you for ten hours work, so that's fifty dollars. Is that what you figure?"

"Yes, sir. But it was more like nine hours, and you fed me and gave me a bed."

"Still you worked hard. Here." I hand him three twenties.

"I don't have ten dollars to give you, sir."

"Forget it, you deserve that and need it. Do you have another job lined up?"

He shakes his head. "I hope I can find some more jobs cleaning up like I did for you." He looks at me sorrowfully. "I sure do hate to leave here, you've been so nice and all."

"I happen to have a young friend who might need some help. Would you like me to give him a call?"

"I sure would. Thanks, sir."

I give Jim a call. He's well fixed and I happen to know he's a devotee. He'd love having this kid around to look at, but being the cautious type he's not about to let a stranger in his house. I'm just hoping the attention doesn't spook Ty.

"My friend says he does need someone to clean up his yard. I'll take you over there and when you're finished for the day, ask him to call me, and I'll come get you."

"For what?"

"You have to have some place to stay and I know you won't find a room anywhere. You've already slept here, so you can come back each night as long as you're in town."

He looks at me tearfully and shakes his head. "I didn't know folks good as you existed."

"We all should be, but most of the time it takes a disaster to bring it out." I grin at him. "Oh, yes, Jim's a tight bastard, so ask him for ten dollars an hour. He'll scream and cuss, but he can afford it. After he sees what a good job you do, he'll pay it."

"I can't do that, sir."

"Why not? You need the money and he's got it. He spends plenty on himself, so it won't hurt him to share a little of it with someone who really needs it."

"Doesn't seem fair."

"You'll think so after he follows you around telling you how to do everything. That alone is worth the extra five, besides he'll be watching you constantly."

Ty sort of bristles. "I ain't no thief, sir. No need for 'im to be doing that."

I grin back. "It's not that. He loves to watch amputees. I expect he'll be making some videos of you while you work."

"Weird. You sure he's okay to work for?"

"Of course. I wouldn't send you there otherwise. Pay no attention to him at all, just do a good a job for him as you did for me. Let him take pictures if he wants, and everything will be fine."

Ty shakes his head. "Gonna be spooky feeling, but I need the work."

"Okay. Leave your stuff here, if you want, and remember to tell Jim to call me when you're done. If you're ready let's go."

When we arrive at Jim's, Ty stands looking at the big house in disbelief. The yard is a mess, a good two days work for the kid if Jim doesn't get in his way too much. I open the back door and yell, "Your help's here, you stingy bastard."

"It's about time. I suppose you worked his ass into the ground yesterday, so he won't be worth a damn today."

"Damn right I did. He's worth every penny, too, so don't give him any shit. You're going to like what you see. You can tell Marge to fix him some lunch; it's too damn far for him to walk anywhere to get something to eat. Come on out and meet Ty."

Jim sees Ty standing by my car. He stops cold on the doorstep, his mouth drops open. "He's an amp!"

I have to laugh at him. "Knew you wouldn't miss that. And before you ask, it doesn't slow him down a bit. He's a good kid and a hard worker. Look, buddy, the kid was driven out of his home by the flood waters, and he's lost everything, so go easy." I may tease him about being Scrooge, but Jim's a soft hearted man if you know how to reach him, and I do. He'll trust my word.

Ty gives him a shy smile when I introduce him to Jim, and is ready to work. While Jim is explaining what he wants done, as if it weren't obvious even to an idiot, I look over at his neighbors' yards. If Ty can satisfy Jim, I expect the kid'll have several day's work in the neighborhood.

When Jim calls me late in the afternoon to pick up Ty, he's bubbling over. "How the hell is it you're always the lucky bastard finds cute young amps first? Just wait until you see the videos I made of him. But, hell, you don't even care."

"Maybe that's why. How'd Ty work out?"

"Wish I could keep him permanently. He's not half done, but the place looks the best it has since the landscaper left. I know damn well you told him to screw me, but he's worth every penny."

"Yeah, I did. Any more complaints?"

"Damn right! Marge gave him twice as good a lunch as she gave me. When I asked her why, she told me he was working and deserved it."

Jim's cook is a crusty old gal, so Ty must have gotten to her. Also, he's got to have done a perfect job if Jim's not screaming about the cost. And when I arrive, I have to agree. The front garden is perfect.

I can't believe it when Jim shakes Ty's hand before he gets in my car and says, "Tomorrow?"

"Yes, sir. I don't quit no job 'til it's done."

"Good man."

"It sure is nice of you to come get me," Ty says when he's in the car.

"Not at all. How was your day? You got a lot done."

"Weird. I thought you was kidding when you said he liked people like me, but he sure spent all day following me around with that camera of his. And every time he wanted to tell me something he'd hold on to my arm and rub the end with his thumb. Nobody ever done that before. You sure he ain't queer or something?"

"He's not married because he's afraid some woman will marry him, then divorce him and get a lot of his money. But he's not gay that I know of. He just gets a kick from amps. I expect you're going to be filling his fantasies for quite a while."

Ty shakes his head. "Never thought I'd be sexy looking just cause I only got half an arm."

"And the looks to go with it. Anything else happen?"

His smile is quick. "Four of his neighbors already asked me to work for them. They'll pay what he told 'em I was charging, too. I really thank you, sir. Guess I'll have to find somewhere else to stay now, cause I'll be here more 'an a week."

"You aren't happy staying with me?"

"You been really good to me, sir, and I appreciate it, but I can't stay and let you do all you're doing for me without paying."

"Let me worry about that, Ty. You've got a home with me as long as you need it."

I see him turn away, his hand dip into his pocket for a handkerchief.

Driving him to his work and picking him up after is no problem. It gives me something to do. I like getting out, but I hate aimless drives alone. His presence gives me an incentive to cook wholesome food again instead of grabbing something from the freezer and nuking it. Ty is quiet and pleasant company, finding ways to amuse himself, mostly watching TV. He doesn't talk a lot, and I wouldn't presume to intrude on the private grief I occasionally see in his eyes.

When he finishes work at Jim's at mid-day, he has Jim call to tell me he's going to begin work at one of Jim's neighbor's. I can tell he's using Jim's cell phone, so I tell him I'll pick him up immediately. When I arrive, Jim yells at me to come in and have lunch. It seems Marge refused to let Ty leave without eating. So I join him and Ty at the kitchen table. Ty must have really gotten to Marge, for lunch is one of the best I've ever eaten and she's a good cook as I've said.

When we're ready to leave, Jim hands Ty a stack of twenties. "I wish I could keep you, Ty, the place has never looked so good. You're worth what Jack said."

"Thanks, sir."

"Nice to see you parting with some money cheerfully for a change, Jim."

"Not much more than I pay those bastards usually do it. They always rush, this guy doesn't."

"What! You mean you're paying hourly and you like a slow worker?"

He punches me on the arm. "I like things done right, and that's what I've gotten. I'm serious, Ty, if you decide to stay here, I'll hire you for weekly yard care."

"I don't think I can stay, sir, but if I do I'll let you know."

I tell Ty he has to come home with me and rest for the rest of the day. Tomorrow will be soon enough for him to begin work again. He hands me the three hundred dollars Jim paid him. "Will you keep this for me, sir? I don't want to lose it."

"You haven't a bank account at home?"

"No, sir. Never had this much money at one time before."

"Very well. Ask any time you want some."

He finds work to last nearly two weeks; the people at each place he's worked enthusiastic about keeping him on. Though several times he mentions something about finding somewhere else to stay, I insist he remain with me. I've become so fond of him it will be a wrench when he leaves.

One evening the TV local news announces that the highways are finally open. He says he would like to go back home to see if there's anything he can salvage. Despite his protests, I decide to take him, to see for myself. It's only a ninety minute drive and tomorrow is forecast to be beautiful.

In spite of what I see as we drive along, I can hardly take in the devastation. The odor is most unpleasant, especially in the smaller towns that were totally inundated. A few have been erased from the map, only the foundations of buildings showing they once stood.

In the town where Ty lived, a policeman stops me and asks why we're here. Ty tells him, and we're given an hour. With so many landmarks gone, Ty gets confused for a moment, then in what was a poor section of town he tells me to stop. I look around, but all I can see is a pile of rubble.

Tears are streaming down Ty's face as he gets out and walks over to it. He kicks at a board, then bends and begins trying to move some of the lumber. I've just gotten out to see if I can help him when he suddenly jumps back a few feet.

He grabs my arm. "Don't go no further. They's snakes in there. Guess they come up from the river."

I take a step sideways to see. There are several water moccasins under the edge of the pile of wood. I take him by the arm and lead him back to the car.

"There's not much you can do now, Ty. I'll bring you back later on when it's safer."

He lays his head on my shoulder and I put my arm around him to comfort him as he sobs. He's about cried out when a young policeman looks through the car window. "That you, Ty?"

He looks up. "Not much left is there, Tom?"

Tom puts his hand on Ty's arm and shakes his head. "Water done got clean over the top of your house, Ty. Not much need to try looking for anything, cause it's most all gone."

Ty nods. "I was goin' to, but they's snakes in there."

Tom shakes his head. "They're everywhere. We got a crew of men out killin' 'em. You got a place to stay?"

Ty wipes his eyes. "Jack here is lettin' me stay with him. He brought me over from Riverton. I don't know what I'm gonna do now."

Tom shakes his head. "Lot of folks in your place. I don't know what to tell you, 'cept you might leave an address at the city hall so they know where to reach you."

"Was the school damaged?" I ask the officer.

"Not much. It's still a shelter, so there ain't no school."

"Will the principal be there?"

"I 'spect so. You need to see him?"

"Indeed I do. Thank you for your help."

"Wish I could have been some. Ty's a good boy; his granny raised him right. I was sure sorry to hear about her, Ty."

"Thanks, Tom. You always been somebody I could count on."

"I guess you better move on now. You been here over an hour, that's how come I was sent to see where you'd got to."

"Thank you again, officer," I tell him and start my car.

Ty asks why I want to see the principal when I ask him to direct me to the high school. I pull over and stop to talk to him. "Ty, you need to be in school, son. If you would like, you can continue to live with me and go to school in Riverton. You don't have to work, but if you want to, you can take care of a few yards on weekends for your spending money. It's your decision."

He looks at me for a moment, then starts to cry again. I pull him against my shoulder until he's composed.

"You ain't kidding me, are you?"

"No, Ty. You've been through too much. I know it's going to be hard starting over in a strange town and a school where you'll have none of your old friends, but I like having you around. I've never married and have no family of my own, but I'd like you to stay as my son. I have enough from retirement to take care of both of us. What do you say?"

He doesn't have to give me a verbal answer, his expression says it all as he grabs me in a hug.


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