The Stuffed Crust Conquistador
The first chapter of my second novel.
Pain is pain no matter how much money you throw at it. These words blare through the speaker of the sports radio on my workbench. He’s a guy about my age. A retired NFL lineman. That’s all he said when the radio man poked him about the team’s losing record and why the new star receiver isn’t living up to his big new contract.
They were doing the thing where they speak questions to some former player. The DJ’s voice squeaks like a mouse or a cartoon. Not something you’d like to hear, not me at least. He talks words like ‘your boys’ when he means friends and ‘fire’ for something he likes a lot. It’s the way the younger generation says things, I guess.
Today Grody and I are supposed to meet. He wants to rob a grave near a farmer’s field over by Higginsville. We go early in the morning for these sorts of things. Sometimes in the dead of night, but not lately. The last time we went at night we kept stepping into copperheads, which are active hunters during those hours.
The farm situates not far from Hopewell burial mounds. This site he’s robbed before. It’s on a ridge overlooking a creek bed. But me, I don’t rob graves. I’m just a lookout; an extra hand. Grody and I have a deal worked out.
“This one’s a different spot. It might be a set,” he says, all rattled and shaky. He drums his fingers over the steering wheel.
We are headed down Missouri 213 towards Dover. Cracks span over the top of the windshield of his Suburban. A manifold on the first bank of his motor is leaky from a broken bolt, and when you run the heat some of the exhaust fumes make their way into the cabin.
“Can you turn down that furnace?” I say.
Grody clicks off the heater and peeks the windows open. His slender body houses a bit of a belly over his belt buckle. His bottom lip always hangs open, showing his crooked and yellowed bottom teeth. His silver hair runs neck length, curling out from under the edge of his sweat-stained Cardinals cap. He wears plaid flannel and navy Dickies and a Carhart and steel toed Caterpillars that are beat to hell. Half-filled water bottles of spit up Copenhagen slide across the dash on every turn.
This is what it’s like — being raised on tap water and pizza.
Maybe you’re on the menu, but nobody wants to take a bite. You’re the gas station hot dog, forever spinning and broiling to eternity on dirty rollers. One day falling to the floor; kicked into the corner… forever forgot about under the machine to become a dried out mummy without even the company of a stale bun. This is where the both of us, Grody and me, each ended up.
“That farmer is gone on Sunday mornings,” he says, hopeful but unsure. “I checked. It’s always on Sundays that his truck is gone from the house.”
Riding with Grody soaks the air around you with a stale fecal upholstery smell. The trees pass by us in waves of yellow, orange, reds, and greens. Their leaves break off in gusts, tumbling across the road in a yahtzee of dreamliness.
“Are you losing weight? What’s going on with you?” Grody pauses and drops his foot off the gas, looking over at me with his mouth clenched shut and letting the truck drift over the hills.
“Something is different with you,” Grody says.
“You make any sales on your last route?” I ask.
“On the last trip a storm hit me just outside Smithboro and followed me all the way up I-70 to Pittsburgh. What a pain in the ass. I never seen so much hail,” he says, glancing into the rear view mirror. “I still got the Tennessee pots.”
He meant the Mississippian items he dug up outside Lexington. He’d been stashing them in the cab of his eighteen-wheeler whenever he made his dedicated run to Massachusetts. During shows he’d display them at his artifact booth, with hopes of finding a buyer. Sometimes he meets up with collectors at motels. We both do this, actually. Sometimes we go together or link up at a trade convention.
Grody keeps a dirt bike strapped to the back of the tractor on his rig. He welded a mute muffler on it. Sometimes, when he’s near a good spot on his route, he parks the truck, brings out the bike, loots the spot, and then gets back on the road. But he doesn’t care much to go about looting on his own.
We park on land that’s a tree nursery for the local school system. The area itself turns into a flood plain when the rivers swell, as it lays besides the stream that runs down from the ridge. Tailing it up the creek is the safest bet to get onto the property without being seen.
We unpack our tools from the rear: lightweight shovels, a pickaxe, garden spades, paint scrapers, pillow cases, CB radio antennas, and our own backpacks. We ditch our boots and thread our legs into river waders. Grody eases the trunk doors shut and we begin to walk.
“Anyone ever caught you on the bike?” I ask.
We push our way through the brush at the tree line, crossing over into the woods. Thickets and thorns and dead timber snag and trip you along the way. It’s best to stay away from dead wood as it harbors deer tick nests — vermin of which are smaller than a pinhead. You’ll wonder why your freckles are moving. They’re hard to get off and carry lyme. And if you get lyme, then your days of eating bleeding steaks are over.
“One little kid saw me once. He was playing in the woods or shooting birds or something like that.”
“Yeah?” I say.
We reach the creek and shuffle down an embankment, entering on a wide sand bar. He kicks a rock over, splashing it into a shallow puddle.
“He ran back toward his house and I booked it out of there,” he says and spits. “Scared the hell out of me. Didn’t matter, really. Didn’t find anything there anyway.”
Grody works as a single owner operator and calls the shots on all of his jobs — what trips he takes, what loads he hauls, for who, how far, and so forth. The artifacts he sells started out as a side venture but have grown more fruitful. I myself do not sell authentics. My business involves selling fakes. But Grody has come to be known as an expert in this field and earned himself a name in the collector community. He certifies artifacts to be authentic.
Grody. The professional rust bucket. The tuxedo hampster. The stuffed crust conquistador.
There are things I know about Grody that are unbenounced to others. As such in our partnership, I let him verify my fakes with a certificate of authenticity. Any time one of my fakes sells, the profits are split with Grody fifty-fifty. In return, sometimes I help him with these looting jobs.
“What’re you knapping lately?” He asks. “We got some money coming?”
We begin wading into thigh deep water. It’s clouded and you can’t see the floor, making it easy to stumble on boulders and downed trees. Our boots sink into the mud bottom like hands in Play Dough.
“Mostly dovetails and calf creeks. Some hardins,” I say, flashing the bandages wrapped over my hand. “I’m quitting on clovis for now. They keep breaking on me and I’m tired of bleeding.”
An authentic clovis can fetch fifteen grand.
Spear points are my specialty. They are easiest to fake. Much easier than slapping together clay pots or pecking out axe heads, of which I have crafted both. But let me tell you that mostly none of this is possible without an authenticity. It’s much harder to sell fakes without a certificate. Much harder. And less money.
Grody lacks any sense of my financial predictament — or where my priorities lie for that matter. Forget my mortgage. My restorative procedures done by the plastic doctor are the only thing in the world I care about now.
We reach the bank just below the ridge and quiet down. Between the branch flutters you can hear turkey calls from downstream. Next we work ourselves into a feeder ravine and then claw our way to the top of the hill.
“It’s over there,” he motions toward the northern side and stuffs his thumb up the inside of this nose. Before we had dug on the south side and he came away with quite a haul.
We land at two elms that have soil erosion along their roots. “Right here,” he’s whispering now.
Grody takes the CB antennas from his pack and hands me mine. We begin probing the ground. You can tell when you hit a root or a rock. Rocks give a glass scraping noise against the steel rod. Roots tap with a dense, more dampened sound like a door knock. Bones make a sharper noise than roots, but they’re smoother than rocks. Bones sound like the tooth doctor’s metal pick sliding over the bacterial-caked enamel under your bloody gum-line.
We had been poking around long enough for Grody to re-up his chew when I hit a rock. I pulled up and dipped back down several times, hitting more rocks. Deep — almost an arm's length down and not a common occurrence. Hitting a group of objects — that’s what you want. And not only did we have a group of rocks, but there seemed to be other material of a different type along with it.
You hit spaces where you get no sound at all. Then you move a couple steps and dip back in and hear a new noise. A tapping noise. This one almost has a hollowness to it. I pull up and move over and dip back down into the rock group.
Grody comes and sets his pack down. I take mine off as well, leaving my antennae plugged into the ground rocking back and forth like a playground horsey. The magic marker scribbled cross the broom handle sways left then right then left then right:
He starts to dig.