Emily Sachs

Leaving the Wolves

ISSUE 76 | BAD JOBS | JUN 2017

I’m driving through country roads in rural, far-northern California during early autumn and the inhumane temperatures at the crest of the valley are in their annual moment of the briefest perfection. The deer are grazing peacefully and as I cross a one-lane bridge, I look to one side for a glance of salmon spawning a hundred feet below. There is no sign of humanity (except for me, my car, the road and the bridge, but –) I take a deep breath and thank the world for allowing me to witness it. Upon exhale, reality sets in.

Fuck. This. Place. As soon as I get to the end of the bridge, I’ll take a right onto a dirt road that will end somewhere I dread only slightly less than the thought of coming home to find someone has murdered my dog. I’ve been making this commute for six years and felt this way for least five of them. The incomparable scenery of this tucked-away location does not change the fact that I am isolated with the two most deranged personalities I have ever encountered.

I pull up to my “office,” a small converted barn on the property where my bosses live together, about 200 feet from their house. Before I even turn off my engine, Grace, the woman of the pair, rushes out – already halfway through a recap of her morning activities and yelling because my windows are up and the wolves are howling my welcome. (The wolves are a different story but they’re intertwined with this one. Grace and I found them as motherless pups on my first day here. We kept an eye on them from a distance for as many days as we could bear to watch them die slowly, then nursed them with baby bottles and venison. But Grace could not let them go and they are no longer pups. All six of them now live fenced in a half-acre pen on a property with over 300 acres of open land). I get out of my car and she, still yelling, frantically tells me the tea kettle’s whistle wasn’t normal today and the only possible reasons must either be an astrological shift or the work of a spirit’s hand. I’m sure I cannot say.

She chatters our way into the office and I sit down to work. Grace does not have a job title or any official duties but she does receive a paycheck that’s much larger than mine. My title is “operations manager,” which means that I’m your standard, catchall office girl. I do pretty much anything related to paper or finance. I prepare the owners’ budgets and taxes (business and personal), process the payroll, ensure all licenses and contracts are up-to-date, handle customer service complaints, prepare weekly safety meetings for the crew, order office supplies, un-jam the copy machine, and anything else that sounds like it might be related to these things. I started working here in 2008 when like so many others, I found my career was finished and had to face the fact there was no way I could revive it. Overnight, I transformed from a high-powered business professional into a bartender. I still needed a day job and this company was hiring. I already knew a couple of guys on the crew and they put in some good words for me. They had warned me the situation was tense because it is a family business but I wish they’d told me it was downright insane.

Grace’s partner, Kyle, owns the company with his parents, Dick and Charlene. None of them have any passion for the business, which is not surprising because clearing vegetation around power poles and power lines is not interesting. Charlene only founded the company to reap the financial benefits of being a Woman-Owned Small Business and she has zero interest in anything that isn’t a financial benefit. Dick and Kyle run the crews who do the vegetation clearing for various utility companies in northern California and southern Oregon.

This region has always signified a lot to me about the attitudes of this cohort: we are in the State of Jefferson and I often describe it to outsiders as California’s bible belt. It’s where Sacramento is the nearest “real” city but still a three-hour drive away. Families stay here for generations, republicans and libertarians rule, meth is a big problem, most people never go to college, many never leave the state or even the area, some have never seen a black person, no one seems to know there is a difference between Muslims and Sikhs, and everyone feels cheated by the government. In general, this is a demographic that will later elect the 45th US president. During this story, that name is not on the ballot yet but these people have already been living largely disconnected from most of society for their entire lives.

Seclusion does strange things to people, especially when they can see their thoughts and actions justified by and mirrored in those who are secluded with them. This means people can be racist because there’s no one around to show them their ideas are untrue. Kyle can be an alcoholic because he can’t lose his job; he rarely interacts with his parents, who are the only people with the power to regulate him. Grace can escape into a world of constellations, crystals and spirits because after thirty years of being sequestered out here with Kyle, I’m not sure she has another choice except to completely immerse herself in into clinical psychosis. Her time with me in the office is almost her sole personal contact with anyone in the outside world aside from passing exchanges with grocery store cashiers and gas station attendants.

The phone rings and it’s a crew foreman. He tells me that Dick called the only black guy on the crew “the N word” this morning (again). While I’m on the phone with the foreman, Grace comes over to my desk and instructs me to iterate so many of her opinions to him that he and I can no longer hear each other so we hang up. Charlene calls and asks me to walk her through finding the photos on her computer that she uploaded from her digital camera the month prior. It is not a success but she’s very clear that it is my fault.

By now it’s around 11 a.m., which means Kyle will be joining us soon. I look up and his truck is pulling in. He walks over to the office and orders me to get him something mundane; it could be anything from a screwdriver to a beer, just as long as it interrupts what I’m doing. He only does this to give himself the chance to say he’s “gotta make sure those Jews work for all that money.” I plan to hold my breath as I pass him while he spouts this catchphrase but I miscalculate and get a noxious whiff of gin. As I walk away from the office, I can hear him and Grace shouting angrily at each other about how the malachite bracelet she made for him is not relieving any pain from the tendonitis in his forearm. They promptly shut up when I come back, and I sit down to work in their indignant silence. Soon Kyle turns his attention to me. Aren’t Jews so glad they got Israel – and man, I must hate those Palestinians. And why am I working, anyway? The Jews own all the banks and keep all the money for themselves, so everything he’s paying me is just so I can hoard even more from everyone else. Unriled, I tell him that I work here to help pay my rent because my family does not own a bank, that some Jews probably are glad they got Israel and some probably do hate Palestinians, but I’ve never discussed this with anyone who thinks so. This is not the fury he hoped to provoke, so he goes inside and Grace follows him because it’s time for her to make his lunch. I hear more screaming, cursing and crying coming from the house.

After cooking a steak for Kyle and making a salad for herself, Grace comes back to the office, tear-stained and outraged. She bought the wrong kind of bread. And for the umpteenth time – no, she cannot go have drinks with her friends. She cannot go into town at all unless it’s for or with him. He is infuriated that she can’t understand this simple concept; she loyally defends his position. It takes me a couple hours to calm her down. I hug her and tell her she should be able to to see her friends and Kyle is lucky to have her because she puts his worth before her own. She cries some more, says she’s going to leave him, then talks herself out of it by concluding that he only behaves this way because he loves her and his actions are only protecting her. Then Kyle comes back. He’s slurring and boasting lies about how wealthy he is. It never seems to occur to him that since I do his books, I know precisely how wealthy he is not. I want to tell him this but I hold my tongue.

That’s pretty much a normal day.

But today is different. Kyle and the crew have been working out of town all week. It’s Friday and I know they got back last night. When they work out of town, I don’t talk to Kyle until about 4 p.m. and his inebriation is even more delightful by that hour. When we spoke yesterday, I emailed him a report. He was sure he didn’t receive the attachment. On my end, I could see it had been sent (and opened) but of course I sent it again. He said there was still no attachment. My brain was beginning to shift into dealing-with-drunk-assholes mode when he said, “You fucking Jew bitch!” He went on a hateful rant but I only really remember that first sentence and something about what a stupid woman I am for believing the Holocaust happened. I listened to his voice but tuned out his words; I tend to do that when I’m being verbally attacked, especially when the attack is coming from someone I already have so much experience tuning out. A strange calm came over me, I politely told him we’d talk tomorrow, hung up, and went home.

No one has ever spoken to me that way before and I’m floored by how much it hurts. It can’t only be the antisemitic comments because he makes those all the time. Even though I wasn’t fully attentive to what he said, I think I heard hate in his voice. Genuine, pure hate. As much as I’ve heard from him, I heard this for the very first time.

That was yesterday. Today, there’s no question I have to quit. I’m not sure how to handle it without endangering my safety in a place where no one would hear me scream. I call Rich for advice. When he quit, he did it by punching Kyle in the face. Rich is normally even-keeled, so he regrets it now but I still think Kyle deserved it. Rich’s advice is simple: he suggests I go to work, go inside the house and walk up to Kyle while he’s still drinking his breakfast, then tell him I’m recording our conversation and record it. Kyle is also a paranoid conspiracy theorist. He would never purposefully misbehave in any way on record because “They” would use it against him. From Kyle’s perspective, the recording app on my phone is a direct line to the NSA and he is a priority interest.

Well, here goes. It’s today. I’m at the end of the bridge and turning onto the dirt road. Fuck. This. Place. I pull up to my office and Grace rushes out with a story about how at breakfast, she divined her scrambled eggs as if they were entrails (she swears she’s vegan) and since that confirmed her daily horoscope, it would be too risky for her to leave the property today. She hasn’t noticed we’re walking up to the house instead of the office and I approach Kyle. He speaks first.

“I’m sorry about yesterday. I was tired and cranky.”

“I’m recording you right now, and I quit. So is there anything you want to say?”

“Yeah. I wanted to say I’m sorry. I would be willing to get on my knees and beg you for some understanding.”

“I’ve worked here long enough to understand the situation, and it only continues to get worse. So. Bye.”

I turn and walk back to my car. I’m shaking with the anticlimax of what just happened and halfway expecting him to tackle me from behind at any second. I’m fully aware of, and feeling very guilty about the abuse that Grace will likely receive in my stead. Even if she manages to get away from Kyle, it truly is a shame she thinks the universe doesn’t want her to leave her home on any day. My heart hurts for her but I can’t be here anymore. I pass the wolves’ pen and they are nothing like dogs but at this moment, they’re all near the fence, watching me with concern. I catch the eye of my favorite and he stares back long enough for me to will my remorse that our meeting cost him his freedom. He aims his snout toward the sky and begins his song. His siblings join in and I feel like they’re bidding me farewell. I’m angry at myself for failing them and for abandoning Grace but glad the confrontation was uneventful and ecstatic it was not violent. A weight is lifted because I am leaving, but hovers just above because they are all staying. My soul becomes ill as I resign to the truth that apparently, I will only save myself this round.

And once again, I’m driving through country roads in rural, far-northern California during early autumn and the inhumane temperatures at the crest of the valley are in their annual moment of the briefest perfection. The deer are grazing peacefully and as I cross a one-lane bridge, I look to one side for a glance of salmon spawning a hundred feet below. There is no sign of humanity (except for me, my car, the road and the bridge, but –) I take a deep breath and thank the world for allowing me to witness it. Upon exhale, reality sets in: Fuck. This. Place. Except this time, I never have to come back.

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