Only way Billey could be sure of getting water was if he filled a few old coffee cans and headed down to the hole before Elwood woke up.
That wasn't too hard because Elwood never got up early and he had more old coffee cans than he and Otis could count, even if Otis used his peter after he ran out of fingers. Elwood kept screws and bolts and rusty bits of odd hardware in the cans back by the kerosene and the rest of the smelly stuff. Seemed like he had enough junk to screw just about anything in the world to anything else. Trouble was, he didn't have anything worth screwing.
Most of the cans were only half or a third full. As Billey dumped one into another to free some up, he thought it was funny that he could never remember seeing his daddy drink all that coffee.
"I'm a night person," Billey heard Elwood shout from the window one morning while Otis scratched himself in the driveway. "So shut that gah-dam mouth of yours afore I make you say 'good night' permanent."
Billey usually wound up baby sitting Otis any time the big man came over before Elwood was up. That wasn't too bad either, because Otis didn't talk about his peter so much when Elwood wasn't around.
"How ya doin', Billey boy?" Otis said as he tramped around the back of the shack.
Billey set down the can of brackets he was holding. "I dunno," he said.
Otis bent over and pulled a six-inch bolt out of one of the big cans. He straightened up and held it at eye level, turning it around and around, squinting. Billey imagined a little can opener working away inside Otis' head, trying to pull out a peter joke.
Finally Otis just snorted and dropped the bolt back into the can with a clatter. "So what are ya doin' here, Billey boy?"
"Nothin'." Billey shook his head. "But I live here. What are you doin', Otis?"
Otis looked around and tapped the can of big bolts with the toe of his ratty gym shoe. "You got that smart mouth from your daddy, didn't you?" he said. "Why don't you go in and fetch your daddy so's I can do my business?"
Billey glanced around the corner of the shack to make sure they were still alone. "He told me never to come in the house 'less he tells me," he said. "'Sides, I don't want him to get up."
"'Cause he'll whup me for getting him up." Every time Billey figured he knew how dumb the Otis was, the man surprised him. "Why don't you go in there, Otis?"
"Oh, I'll just let him sleep a bit, then." Otis shrugged and looked back at the coffee cans. "Ain't you supposed to be diggin' today, Billey boy?"
"I'm gonna. I gotta get ready." Billey wished that Otis would leave so that he could keep the water a secret. He emptied the hardware from some more cans to stall for time.
"Yer daddy said you'd do the diggin'," Otis said, puffing up his chest. "That's how we 'greed. I'd be the brains and you'd be the brawn. I find the tank. I find the gas. You dig the hole. That's how we 'greed."
"So what does my daddy do?"
Otis looked high up in the sky, as if he'd forgotten where the sun was. He rubbed the raspy whiskers under his chin with the back of his hand and said, "Why don't you go in there and fetch him?"
"Don't you remember what you just said?" Billey looked up at Otis like the man was crazy. "You're the one's gonna wake him up. That's how we 'greed."
Otis stood there wheezing a moment before he clapped his hands against his sides. "I swear your daddy should send you to law school," he said, turning to go back to his car. "I don't know why I ever try to be nice to you."
As soon as Billey heard the door shut on Otis' bugmobile, he began filling cans with water. He and Black Wolf made the long walk back and forth to the hole, carrying cans until he figured he had enough to drink all day long.
He hid the cans over the slope of the creek bank in case Elwood came by. He hadn't even started working when he realized if he drank that many cans of water, he would have to sweat and pee that much by the end of the day. He felt a little better when he realized he would sweat and pee that much whether he drank or not.
Billey had known thirst and he didn't like it. So he finished off one can before he started to work. He killed another and then another before he swung the kinks out of his arms. He lifted the shovel, hopped into the hole and jabbed the hard earth in the tank's shadow.
The blade balked and scraped, but Billey pushed harder. The ground fought back, jerking the shovel in his hands. Billey couldn't tell who was winning, him or the dirt. He looked over at the hill that had been half scooped away by the miners or the dinosaurs or whatever it was. It seemed like the dirt had been there a lot longer than Billey. He propped the shovel against the edge of the hole and scurried over the creek bank for another drink of water.
By the time Billey got down to some serious digging, the tank didn't have any shade left. Elwood still hadn't shown up, so Billey figured he must have driven off to see Otis.
Black Wolf waited down by the water cans while Billey soaked his shirt with sweat.
Billey never used to worry much about where he peed. But having been so thirsty so near the creek, he didn't want to make that water any worse than it already was. He thought about peeing in the hole to soften the ground a little, but he figured he'd probably wind up stepping in it. Since he'd pulled up every weed in sight, there was no place left around the hole that wouldn't just leave a big old messy puddle. But he sure had to go somewhere.
Elwood and Otis had staked a couple of old ropes over the tank so that it wouldn't blow away if a big wind came up. Billey was awful tired of working the shovel, so he grabbed one of the ropes and tried to walk up the side of the tank. He got about half way before he found himself on the ground with a sore butt.
Billey spanked the dust out of his britches and tried again. He got a bit further this time, and managed to break his fall with the rope. His feet and hands shot out for safety and pounded a deep, echoing sound from the tank. Each time he tried, he made it a little further up the smooth, round side of the tank. It was hard work, but nowhere near as hard as shoveling.
He learned about strength and balance and determination as he inched higher and higher. Billey finally made it over the hump before his feet lost their hold. He pressed his cheek against the hot surface and tried to gather strength. With feet, knees and hands working the cord, he managed to drag himself to the top of the tank.
Billey sucked in great quantities of air before he felt steady enough to see where he was. He raised his head to take in distant horizons.
The hill the dinosaur had scooped away had become a tiny mound of dirt. Far, far away, he could see trucks no bigger than match boxes on the big road. He could see how the dead catalpa dwarfed Elwood's house.
Billey rose to his knees, then stood cautiously at his full height, spreading his arms out for balance. He looked in every direction and his eyes took in the farthest reaches of the world. He pulled the air deep into his lungs and wanted to throw it back out in a mighty roar.
He crouched down and inched over to the spout that stuck out from the top of the tank. He eased himself back up to his full height and listened to the deep, satisfying resonance of his pee as it filled the tank.
If Otis could see him now!
Go back to Chapter 1 of Stress Test.
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