Michael Lambert

Driving in Circles

     Five summers running, I worked for the public works department in the village of Dickeyville, WI. Home base was the wastewater treatment plant, which, as you may well imagine, was a foul smelling group of pools and pipes nestled on a hill near the outskirts of town. The office was housed in corrugated metal with a large shop connected. Cheatgrass and patches of gravel covered the unpaved portions, edged and tame.

     My job every morning was cleaning the big circular pool with a long-handled screen, garden hose, and five-gallon bucket. They called what I brought out of the water grease but it had little to do with the stuff one might in the 1950’s, say, comb through John Travolta’s hair.

     Tampon covers, condoms, flushed baggies—it’d all end up here, in this circular pool, and, ultimately, in my bucket. Sometimes small animals would mistake the pool for a new home and we’d have to collect them, too.

     After a bucket was filled, I’d carry it to the dumpster and, very carefully, yes, steady-handed, drop it upright into the bottom.


     It was during these mornings that I learned to leave my body. I wasn’t really there, I mean. Physically, yes, there I was. But, while performing tasks that generally required a thoughtless human being, I’d listen to Dostoyevsky read in translation: body in the gutter, mind in the sky.


     Other days, better days, we’d mow huge fields of grass. One public park, in particular, took no less than three straight days of said mowing.

     My sole companion during this time was a friend I’d known since Kindergarten. T and I were stoned, mostly. Heard about the job in Dickeyville that nobody applied to and showed up at the door. Much later, we’d live together in a California apartment, drive to New Orleans in my father’s old pick-up, and generally take part in any and all formative experiences that the world we knew could offer.

     Our supervisors: two men, cousins, bald, wore powder blue shirts tucked into dark pants even on the hot days. The one everyone called “Digger” especially left an impression.

     A thick mustache sat on his upper lip and a cap on his crown. He smoked Winston 100’s. His gait was slightly off rhythm, an ungraceful beat he presumably gained from years of manual labor and obesity. Rather than a belly, he possessed a large bag. I no-shit watched him down Arizona silos in a single go.


     On the days we spent mowing the grass, T and I would switch between riding the tractor and trimming the small stuff.

     We spent enough time out in those fields that by late summer, we’d have dark tans and raccoon eyes from the safety glasses we wore. Other items of our required regalia included steel-toed boots and…

     “No shorts, boys.” our boss Daryl would say.

     This was before he showed us an underwater porno he’d received in e-mail and after we’d signed the contract to start.


     The first step in our mowing process was cutting the outermost laps, which are important. Fuck them up and there goes the whole shebang. To get as close as possible to the edge and make it easier on your partner, start with the clippings shooting towards the center of the field. Make three consecutive laps in this direction then switch.


     The bad days were mid-summer, high fucking heat and humidity. It would rain every morning and burn by noon. We’d get a truck-full of hot asphalt with Digger behind the wheel and fix the roads. Of course, before we could start there was certain protocol. For example, before we could perform what is known as “crack filling,” we would pull the weeds from the pavement with putty knives.

     After about a day of pulling weeds in this manner, one finds him or herself in a certain specific state of mind. By day three, we were sharpening our putty knives like jailhouse shivs and fantasizing.


     The inhabitants of Dickeyville are nothing short of a story, themselves. Each possessed a most strange and comforting quality: whenever we’d pass by in the beat-up city pick-up, they would wave.


     The third step in mowing a large field of grass is much like the directions on the reverse side of a standard shampoo bottle.

     Day after day, we’d find ourselves driving the tractor in circles, drifting. You wake up and the field is done.

     Robin’s eggs hatch, swallows skirt the wind, the ground squirrels perform their usual dance of stand and run.


     The next step was filling the cracks. The fill was derived from large blocks of melted tar.

      Step 1: load the tar blocks from the storage shed onto the truck, from the truck into the four-legged heater, and attach a torch. The blocks soon become a viscous, reflective fluid.

     Step 2: with a cautious hand, open the valve at the base of the four-legged tub and fill a handheld tube with the liquid tar.

      Step 3: pour the tar into the cracks in a more or less artful manner. Like a tourniquet on a head wound, these techniques aren’t a permanent solution. The cracks come back. The weeds and grass will grow anew.


     Grass cut, weeds pulled, cigarette breaks inhaled. The cycle has a hypnotic effect. Thing is, nobody thinks they belong at a shitty job pulling weeds with a putty knife. One day you’re driving a tractor in circles, the next your hands are mangled and there’s no jelly where there should be jelly in the knees.I think of Digger plowing those streets in the winter, cold but feeling necessary. I think of what it would be to have to perform these tasks for a long, long time.

     I see the circles.

     I see the silly shit people flush down toilets.

     As if to say, “Hello” or “Good morning” or “I brought this here for you.”


Michael Lambert lives and works in Brooklyn. In 2012 his work received the Thomas Hickey Creative Writing Award from the University of Wisconsin—Platteville and was nominated for the Carson Prize. His poems have most recently appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Utter, and Unshod Quills. This is his first published short story. His first collection of poems will be published by Red Bird Chapbooks in 2013. He lives online at: michaelvaughnlambert.tumblr.com.
 Michael Lambert