Manzano Mountain Review is an online New Mexico literary journal affiliated with UNM-Valencia.

The Flatlanders


by Paul Smith

I sat in Fenderson’s truck waiting for the blast to go off.  His men had drilled here a week in the big rock cut for the highway.  Then Fenderson had them load forty thousand pounds of anfo-P in the section of road cut they called the Crow’s Nest, put stick powder at the bottom of the holes, non-electric caps on each piece of stick powder, then tied it all together with det cord.  Finally, there was the fuse. They did this under an unsmiling Arizona sun.  Now we waited for Carlos to blast it so our scrapers could haul it away.  Fenderson wrestled me away from Renauld so I could see the holes get drilled in the malapai, watch his laborers hustle, feel the hot wind pour through the Hualapai Mountains, “So you can see exactly how it’s done,” Fenderson said. “That’s what they pay us for, to do our best.”

“Renauld says they pay us so we work together.” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. I thought he might take it the wrong way.

He raised his eyebrows. “We do that.”

“Sometimes that’s the hard part. That’s what he says, anyway.”

Fenderson smiled. “The hardest part is the malapai.”

Now Fenderson and I sat in his truck with the air on, watching Carlos.

“Carlos has his truck facing this way,” Fenderson said.  “The truck is running.  You never know.”

You never knew.  You never knew anything.  You never knew if the shot would misfire, although none of Fenderson’s shots had misfired.  He was very good.  His crew had been with him a long time, even before I worked with Renauld in Holbrook.  Some things you did know.  Renauld and I knew we were behind and losing money.  We saw the weekly computer printout.  I told the Tucson people Renauld could turn this around.  Surprisingly, they listened to me, a raw field engineer.  Whenever Renauld came out of the trailer sweat poured down his face till he got in his vehicle.   He didn’t have a truck.  He had a Ford Crown Victoria with a steel plate welded underneath it.

“You never know,” Fenderson said, “If something might go wrong and you might have to hurry out of there.”  I liked Fenderson. He knew all the ins and outs, all the details of drilling and blasting.  He wanted to teach me what he knew, but I had noticed sometimes that guys like Fenderson used their technical knowledge to beat other people over the head with it. Renauld and I had done this already in Holbrook, but he called that job a ‘flatland’ project, and we were ‘flatlanders.’   I liked Renauld differently than I liked Fenderson. Renauld treated me like a grownup, an old hand.

“Now Carlos is lighting the fuse,” Fenderson continued.  “About twelve inches.  That equals about a minute.”  His truck was a mess – Carmex tins, cigarettes, plans rolled up, burrito wrappers, dust.  Dust blew in everywhere.  My apartment in Kingman had a coating of it every night I went home.  Somehow it managed to get in. The only place you couldn’t find it was Renauld’s Crown Victoria.  He took it to the carwash in Kingman twice a week so it was shiny when he visited Las Vegas.

“But nothing will go wrong.  Not with Carlos.  He was a driller.  I made him a powder monkey because I knew he had smarts, like his dad, and could handle dynamite without any problem.   I trained them both.  Here comes Carlos now.”  Carlos’s truck kicked up a cloud of dust as he sped down from the Crow’s Nest and pulled up alongside us.

“OK, Jefe,” Carlos said.  His face was streaked with spittle, as if he’d been running.  He had a salt and pepper beard that covered a jaw busy chewing tobacco.  Carlos had showed me how to pack the hole with the dynamite and anfo, and stem the top with loosely packed dirt.  He showed me how to read slope stakes with a hand level and get the drill depth right. I knew all that.   He also taught me how to swear in Spanish.  “We wait. Esperamos.”

We waited.  I didn’t like waiting for the shot to go off.  The tension built and built.  Even with the air on, Fenderson’s truck got stuffy.  A minute went by.  Nothing happened.  The sun off the windshield went right in my face.  I could hear each tick of the truck’s tiny clock.  I was ready to explode.

“Carlos,” Fenderson snapped.  He rolled down the window.  “Que pasa?” Fenderson said.

“Yo no sé.”

“Carlos doesn’t know,” Fenderson repeated.  We looked at each other.  I sure didn’t know either.  What do you do when forty thousand pounds of ammonium nitrate does not explode as planned and the deep highway cut you’ve been working on just sits there holding its breath?  It beat me. “This never happens.”

It beat Fenderson, too.  He fumed behind the steering wheel.

Fenderson got on the radio and called Renauld’s number.  “Yes?” Renauld asked.

“Would you come up to the Crow’s Nest?  I want to show you something.”

“Sure.  What’s up?”

“Just please come up here.”  Then, aside to me, “I love doing that.”

Renauld’s Crown Vic pulled up.  Dust swirled.  Brakes squealed.  Renauld got out.  He was an imposing looking guy, with broad shoulders, curly black hair and a wicked smile the girls liked.  Men didn’t go for him that much.  He was teaching me road building.  Fenderson wanted me to learn the part of it he did.  I think both guys wanted an apprentice they could say they taught.  Other guys Renauld’s age had screwed with me.  He came straight to Fenderson’s truck.

“Shot didn’t go off,” Fenderson said.

Renauld peeked in the truck.  When he saw me, his eyebrows went up a little bit.  It was an acknowledgment.  “You’re using fuse, not electric, right?”

“We never use electric,” Fenderson said.

“Uh-huh.  Carlos light it?”

“We never use electric because there are thunderstorms in the afternoon.  Yes.  Carlos lit it.”

“Dumb question – does fuse have an expiration date?”

“That’s not a dumb question.”

“Well?”

“Det cord does not have an expiration date.  What should we do, boss?”

I saw what Fenderson just did, but said nothing. Renauld looked up in the sky, past the mountains, past the haze that was a cloud of dust blowing upwards from the arroyos and the draws, across the cattle pastures that popped up unexpectedly, and the unforeseen meadows of saplings growing by creeks that ran dry when the rain didn’t come.  He seemed to take in a swallow of the friable mountain air and let it rest in his lungs.  He was trying to smell if rain was coming.  “Carlos,” he said.  “What do you think?”

“I don’t know, boss.”  Carlos shook his head.  We all looked at where the shot was laid out, a quarter mile away.  It still could go off.  This peaceful, treacherous moment could be cracked open by a lazy fuse that reluctantly went to the cap that went to the dynamite that went to two truckloads of ammonium nitrate.  I studied the rock slopes that we had blasted so far.  They had been scaled clean and stared back at us unblinking.  Renauld walked away from us.

“Hey, Bud,” Renauld said.  “Come here.”  I got out of Fenderson’s truck and walked over to him.  Renauld’s face was sweaty as usual.

“What the hell?” he said.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“What’s he say?  Has he been talking Spanish over the radio with Carlos again?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I haven’t been paying attention, either.  I was wrapped up in those cost reports.”

I stared at him. Expiration date!  Like he was buying a quart of milk!

“You ready?” he asked me.

“For what?”

He pointed towards the Crow’s Nest. “We have to take a look.”

I swallowed hard.  “Sure,” I said.

Renauld and I approached Fenderson.  “Bud and I are going to have a look,” he said.  Then we turned to the Crown Victoria.

“Wait!” Fenderson called.  “Hey, wait!”

We got in Renauld’s car and drove up the grade to where the shot was laid out. I looked back. Fenderson and Carlos followed in Carlos’s truck. “He didn’t think we would, but I have to see that fuse.”

“Maybe something weird happened. A drop of rain or something.” I was trying to be logical.

 “We did shale at Ruby Wash.”

“Shale is actually harder, you have to stem it.”

“He knows that.  It’s just that malapai rings out harder in compressive strength, so it means he is harder. And he wants you as his understudy.”

I never understood the big deal about malapai. Rock was rock, whether it was malapai or granite or shale. There was work to be done removing it, whether it was in Holbrook or here near Kingman. Work had an intrinsic value, whatever that was. “Carlos is teaching me to swear in Spanish,” I said.

“I can teach you that. And in French.”

The slopes we passed were deadly silent, their malapai inclines blazing as the Crown Vic crawled up the haul road. The haul road was actually the new highway profile we had built so far, a deep cut in the mountain that had to go deeper still.  Fenderson’s men drilled and blasted it.  Renauld was project manager, so his scrapers excavated the blasted material and hauled it to the fill where it got compacted.  Renauld’s bridge crews built the bridges.  Fenderson did not like project managers.   In front of us was the crisscross of det cord and small piles of drill spoil alongside the loaded holes.  My lungs felt light enough to float away, reaching up into the shrill blue sky.  We got out of his customized Crown Vic.

Renauld closed the car door carefully.  I followed him to the twelve inch fuse. 
We hovered over it.

The fuse had burned about a half inch and then stopped. The end of it was charred.

Fenderson and Carlos approached behind us. The four of us stood over the fuse.

“Well, look at that,” Fenderson said. “A misfire.”

We stood gawking. Fenderson finally spoke up, “Well, let’s get the cars turned around. Carlos will relight it and we’ll be done with it.”

“If that fuse was no good the first time, it won’t be any good now,” I said. Renauld seemed to agree, raising his chin up like he was smelling the air.

“Maybe the fuse was no good. Fuse has an expiration date,” Carlos said. “Like burritos.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Fenderson said. “It just sputtered out.” Here is where Fenderson screwed up.

 “Bill,” he announced to Fenderson, “Bud is right. If that fuse misfired once, it’ll do it again. Go to the caphouse and get a fresh fuse. This one’s no good.”

“Cord doesn’t expire,” Fenderson said. “Just light it again, Carlos.”

“This is fuse, not det cord,” I said.

“Sometimes this happens,” Fenderson said. “Let’s light it. It still has eleven inches.”

 “Carlos,” Renauld spoke up, “Go light that fuse. Go light it. It’ll burn.” Renauld seemed to have caught on.

So Carlos went in his pocket, pulled out a lighter, knelt by the fuse, lit it, and then got up.  We all piled in our vehicles and drove down the hill. Then we waited again.

It was different waiting in Renauld’s car. It was immaculate – not a speck of dust. It had a pine smell due to a little green tree hanging from his windshield mirror. It said ‘Royal Pine.’ His leather upholstery glistened. “I hate waiting. You?” he asked. We were both watching the shot, but Renauld’s eyes wandered down the slope to where we’d set up the trailers. Fenderson had tried confusing us, thinking Renauld and I did not know the difference between det cord and fuse. But we did. We’d worked in Holbrook on shale.

Again, the anticipation of the shot going off any second made my body tense up.

“Yeah, just get it over with,” I said. Renauld was smiling.

A minute later there was a loud boom as half the mountain went up in smoke. It was a deep boom, the kind you get when all the powder finds rock to push against and none of its might gets sucked into pockets of sand in between slabs of malapai. It was a satisfying boom, unlike the previous silences up on the subgrade.

We went up the road again to look at the dynamited rock.  It had a big hump in the middle of the pile, showing the delays worked. I didn’t see one boulder. Ordinarily everyone would have been pretty happy. The ammonium nitrate smell hung in the air. We were OK with it, but still trying to understand why the shot misfired the first time.

“Did you catch that? Fenderson said det cord instead of fuse?” I asked finally Renauld.

“He said det cord, but meant fuse.” Renauld even gave him the benefit of the doubt. Fenderson would not have done that had it been the other way around.
Renauld ‘s mind was somewhere else. When we got to the trailer, I saw what it was.

She was tall and curvy, wearing a red dress. It was a dress so red it would stop a bull in its tracks. Her heels made her seem bigger than anything around – bigger than the mountains, brighter than the basalt-colored slopes glaring back at us, louder than the ‘boom’ we just heard. And her car was red, too - a red Porsche convertible with the top down. Dust refused to settle on its interior, either out of respect or fear. She stood there with one of her heels slightly cocked as if to show she was tired of waiting in this sun. Her lipstick was red. Her nails were red. She was a danger sign that made dynamite look tame. “You forgot to remind me how late you work,” she told Renauld.

“Well, I have this arrangement – I work, and they pay me for it.”

“They pay me, too. But I don’t drive out to the middle of nowhere.”

“I’ll follow you back to town.”

“There’s a hundred miles after that. You know how hot it gets in the afternoon.”

She held out her hand with a key ring and waited for him to approach so he could take it. His step was brisk as he approached her and took the keys.

“I got tied up, like always. I’ll see you later tonight.”

“Then I’ll be working late.”

“The drive back is easy at night. I’ll come straight here.” Renauld approached her and tried holding her hand, which she yanked away from him. “You have no idea how pretty the mountains are when the sun comes up. They start out blue, get red, and finally settle on purple. It’s almost like a woman changing dresses till she finds one she likes.”

“You like this dress? I got it yesterday.”

“You look perfect.”

She smoothed the dress with the palms of her hands, sliding them both down its length before pulling them away from the silk and holding them outstretched. “I’m thinking about taking it back.”

“Late in the afternoon,” Bill said, “The mountains get purple again, like it was their true color. And they get angry at us, too. We keep blasting holes in them for these roads we build. We’re like two people who fight, have a truce, and then get used to each other. That’s what keeps us doing this, the earth changes for awhile and then goes back to what it always was.”

“That’s what I’m doing, going back. You can follow me, if you like.”

Then the two of them just stood there, looking at each other in the heat. I waited, wondering who might do what. Renauld obviously liked her a lot and was thinking about leaving work for the rest of the day to follow her. She was ticked off at him for inconveniencing her and wanted to let him know it. She had been kept waiting. Nobody likes waiting, but maybe there’s a purpose to it. Maybe waiting for something is just a test of our character so that once we get it we’ve proved we deserve it. We’d waited for Fenderson’s shot to go off. It didn’t, so we waited for Fenderson as he played games testing Renauld with a piece of fuse Carlos had snuffed out with his thumb. We all got what we deserved. Then she’d waited for Renauld, but he decided he didn’t want her as much as she thought. He was not a gigolo or a kept man or a skirt-chaser. He was a flatlander here in the Hualapai Mountains. Her red heels dug into the parking lot gravel, twisting and turning.

But Renauld didn’t move. He watched her climb back in her sports car and take off down the gravel approach that led to the asphalt. Carlos and Fenderson had been watching from Fenderson’s truck parked next to the vans we stored tools and equipment parts in. I could see them as shapes in the glare of his windshield, a pair of heads bobbing up and down. The sun was bright and I was looking its way, but the two silhouettes were shadowy in the glare. Renauld watched, too, then he squinted at the dust devil that spun up behind the Porsche.  There were a few beads of sweat on his forehead, but his teeth gleamed like Turtle Wax. He came over to talk. “All Fenderson wanted was for me to come out of the trailer. You caught him mixing up fuse with det cord. We didn’t let him play his little game with us. Now this,” he waved at the Porsche disappear headed west.

Now this. Carlos and Fenderson went to the powder magazine to count how many bags of anfo they’d used. Renauld closed the door to his office and probably told Tucson the shot went off alright. Then he’d busy himself with cost reports. I pegged the level I used to set slope stakes before going inside my end of the trailer, hot as a broom-closet. There was a coating of dust on everything. The mountains got purple around five o’clock, just like Renauld said they would.

    

Paul Smith is a civil engineer who has worked in the construction racket for many years. He has traveled all over the place and met lots of people. Some have enriched his life. Others made him wish he or they were all dead. He likes writing poetry and fiction. He also likes Newcastle Brown Ale. If you see him, buy him one. His poetry and fiction have been published in Convergence, Homestead Review, Literary Orphans and other lit mags.