After an uneventful show and lackluster Q and A, everyone complained. The runners complained of too much dust; Archie complained that Jack wasn’t taking him seriously
as a mole; and Larry complained about the booths opening early to, as he put it, “redirect profits directly from the Border Run! enterprise.”
“Nothing is being redirected, Larry. These are the people who helped us build the Run in the first place, and they’ve been invited here to set up their booths. You’re acting like they’re stealing from us.”
“Set up their booths, yes, but open them a day before the Busk? They’re not stealing from us, exactly, but it’s pretty damn close I’d say. They should at least be giving us a cut.”
Larry was in a mood, and Jack knew he had a point, so he didn’t want to argue. He looked out the window and saw the visitors loping around the parking lot and gathering before most every booth but the Gift Shop. So there it was: when people had a choice, they had no interest in Larry’s selections. Larry was probably just trying to cover up his embarrassment. The tall, bald man stood, arms folded and a whistle around his neck. Larry was married to a short, almost completely silent women with a gaunt, muscular face and impossibly large breasts. They’d married when he was seventeen and she was three or four years younger, and Jack didn’t have the impression they provided one another with much besides help around the house. But maybe that was enough.
“Your concerns are valid, Larry. But it’s too late to do much about it now. Why don’t you write up a proposal and we’ll consider it for next year, okay?”
Larry nodded, vindicated. His was a drive toward incremental improvement, and he probably wouldn’t know what to do with a windfall anyway. Jack looked across the weary faces of his employees. They worked hard, he knew, but did they like their work? Out here you simply can’t refuse a job, so in an important sense they were fortunate, but such circumstances also took the choice from it, and there might just be an amount of resentment, Jack imagined, a slight moral rebellion that was necessary to maintain one’s pride. They clearly felt something was wrong, and he couldn’t help but feel it was something harder to articulate than the dust levels or the gift shop revenue. Jack absently wondered what they’d think about the imminent Che Guevara immigration—Would they welcome some dramatic change? Would they join a revolution?—and watched through the window as the tour group slowly climbed back on the bus. When the bus pulled away, it revealed the booth being set up by the Double Barrel. There was a veranda stretching out over the counter, under which tables had been set out along with a few oil barrels standing on end. It was the most elaborate booth on the property. It was almost nice.
“Alright, folks,” Jack said, surprising himself. “Drinks are on me.”
He pushed through the momentarily confused group, then walked out the door and straight toward the temporary bar. To his right, Jo was directing the bus back out of the crowded lot in an improvisation on her task; she was running back and forth, shouting commands to both driver and booth crews, and Jack stopped a moment to watch her. Angel appeared by his side, behind him most of the other employees, and watched too.
“She was always a good worker,” Angel said with fondness.
“She was certainly clever,” Jack said. “Needs to work on her loyalty, though.”
At the bar, Jack ordered a round of whiskey from Dale—a recent transplant from Bisbee who wore dreadlocks and ropes of tiny skull beads around her neck—and made a toast to his employees. He said he was lucky to have them, and that it was an honor to work along side such dedicated men and women. As he was speaking, he began to think he was overdoing it, that it would come across as insincere, but he kept his tone low and authentic, and infused his words with feeling.
The first round went down in silence. Jack’s team looked around at the work being done; it seemed strange at first to be watching the labor of others, sweating and pissed, throwing together the last bits of their booths before dusk. But after Dale poured the second round they began to loosen up, and by the time Jo and Micah sat down they were all on their third, and the tables were alive with talk and jostling bodies.
Jack gave Jo a buzzed smile as she approached the table, but she walked right past him and sat down across from Angel. It was Micah who grabbed the seat Jack had been saving. He waved to Dale, pointed at Jack’s drink and then at himself.
“I like this place,” Micah said. His face was smeared with dirt, and glowed with an easiness Jack attributed to exhaustion. Jack was glad he’d put them both to work.
“It’s not always like this,” Jack said.
“Oh yeah? Black tie dress code normally?”
“Well, it’s casual, sure.”
“Just the way everyone is straight forward,” said Micah, who leaned back to let Dale drop two drinks before them. “And competent.”
“I worry about your standards.”
“Jo and I aren’t together, you know.”
Jack looked at the man, now drinking, who sat across from him. His back was to the parking lot, and over his shoulder Jack could see Jesse standing at Marci’s table, holding a coal-black wooden shard up to the setting sun.
“Is that so,” Jack said.
“I just don’t want there to be any misunderstanding surrounding the issue, since we’ll be working together.”
Jack sipped his drink. He didn’t like the sound of “working together.” From where he stood, there was little choice in the matter. Still, he was surprised by how indifferent he was to the whole thing, how, after the first smack of shock and disbelief he’d adapted to the idea, to the fact, to the future. Then again, maybe it just hadn’t sunk in yet. He forced a smile.
“I appreciate your saying so,” he said. “But Jo is free to do anything she pleases.”
Micah raised his glass. “To freedom,” he said.
Then the two people sitting next to them, brothers named Jesse and Geraldo— both field crew—turned and raised their glasses too. Before Jack knew it, the whole table was standing and clinking their cups to freedom. He stood with them, caught up in the moment. Jo was at the far end of the table, and stayed in her seat.