“Dirt Men” by Tim Johnston
Buddy Jr. has no choice but to return home to his late father’s excavating company. Working with the men he’s disliked since childhood is not ideal, and when the body of a woman is unearthed during a routine dig, Buddy doesn’t think it could get any worse. But hard drinking leads to more unearthing when the men let Buddy in on a well-kept secret that changes everything he once believed.
About the Author
Tim Johnston is the author of the New York Time’s Bestselling novel Descent, the story collection Irish Girl, and the YA novel Never So Green. The stories of Irish Girl won numerous prizes, including the O. Henry Prize, while the collection itself won the 2009 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction. Tim currently teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Memphis.
While leveling the land to pave an area that was previously an auto salvage lot, Jimmy Day’s excavator bucket digs up a body. Only the arm is visible, stuck out through the teeth of the bucket, our narrator, Buddy, tells us as he sees it from 20 yards away. “The hand at the end of the arm is open, the fingers splayed, like, Whoa, stay back.” Don Sherman approaches. In high school, he never said a thing to Buddy, and now Don is the foreman over Buddy, and over Garth and Jimmy who are twice their age. The nails are “long like a woman’s and painted some dark shade.”
Buddy is the son of the excavating company’s co-owner, Buddy Knudson. He’s still treated like the kid Garth and Jimmy remember from 10 years ago, still call him Junior. At the VFW lounge, Buddy reflects on his hatred for “fat Garth” and used to imagine running him over with the skidloader. Garth tells the eye-patched bartender to turn up the TV when the news shows footage of the lot where the body was found. Conversation leads them to Buddy’s dad who died of cancer within a week of being diagnosed. Buddy was in school that whole week, on a plane back to him from Colorado when his dad died. He later went back and became a professor. Garth’s input is insensitive because it’s his nature, but does say “Well… at least you tried.”
The news comments on the possibility that the body is tied to the missing science teacher. They say the cars could have had evidence but also if they weren’t hauled away the body may not have been recovered. Buddy suggests uncovered would be a better term, Garth accuses him of being drunk, Buddy denies that. “It’s all right,” Garth says. “Fuck you, old man” thinks Buddy.
Garth is a chain smoker, and as they start to leave, he has a coughing fit. When its over, he asks Buddy what he’s doing here. Buddy says he got fired from teaching and, drunk at this point, starts talking about it. A student of his was an amazing essayist. He loved reading her work. But then one of her essays went on about her faith in God and the college’s determination to force evolution down her throat. His comments are unintentionally offensive to her, and the fact that he asks to meet with her to talk about the essay and assigns no grade. She stops coming to class and he gets in trouble with the Dean for harassment and intolerance of religious beliefs. He feels misunderstood and goes to the girl’s dorm to explain, but she’s gone and he’s fired when the roommate tells the board what he did.
Garth tells Buddy he’s just like his dad when Buddy Sr. hired all the girls for the office. They all knew what was going on, and Buddy Sr. crossed the line with Dolores Schotz, the wife of the other owner, Bill Schotz. That’s why Buddy’s mom left and why Buddy Sr. sold his part of the company, not so Junior could go to college but because he knew someone would tell Bill and he tried to run. “Ain’t nobody gets off scot-free,” says Garth, and Buddy realizes his dad didn’t even have cancer.