Steve Werkmeister


Steve Werkmeister was born and grew up in Nebraska, and he is currently an English professor at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas. Steve lives with his wife and kids in Olathe, Kansas, and a lot of his time is taken up being annoyed by the family dogs. Besides fiction, he has written poetry and a screenplay. A list of recent publications (with links, where possible) can be found on his blog at



         All morning long, she didn’t talk about it, so he didn’t talk about it either. He thought about it, but he wasn’t sure how to approach it, so he waited for her to bring it up, but she didn’t. She just kept talking about other things, work things, when she did talk which wasn’t often, and the couple times he worked himself up enough to broach it, she radioed the supervisor, Frosty, and asked rookie questions. Frosty’s real name was Chuck, and Chuck was a fat, fat man, his belly and backfat pushing out the sides of his overalls, the top couple buttons of which he had become too fat to fasten, and the slabs of body that didn’t get much sun—the line at the top of his forehead that marked the limits of his cap, the fleshy underside of his upper arms, the bits of belly or back when his shirts inched up in the grease-stained overalls—were white to a fascinating degree, like the belly of a cave fish you see in a nature magazine, and so they called him Frosty, but only behind his ample back. By around 10:30, her frequent questions must have started to annoy, because he asked if they needed him to come out and assist.

         “That’s a negative. Just wanted to make sure we were doing it right. Over.”

         “Well, if you don’t know if you’re doing it right by now, I’m not sure what to tell you.” Frosty started giggling over the radio, and Constante could almost see the wet crumbs of Little Debbies snack cakes drizzling from his mouth and catching in his moustache and on the plateau of his chest. “Over and out,” he hoarsed out as he laughed. 

         No one said anything for a long time after that.

         There was regular radio, of course, an oldies station that used to be top-40 but had changed a couple years back. Most of the songs were bad, hits from the 50s, 60s, and early 70s, but Constante figured most pop songs from any decade were bad, and you could find good music in almost any era if you looked hard enough. And it wasn’t completely dismal—there was the occasional Dylan or Stones, Buddy Holly or James Brown—but just the really obvious stuff; most of the rest was mush, about as much substance as curds and whey. The kind of stuff his mom liked. The only other “rock” radio station in central Nebraska was the surviving Top-40 station, so it was his generation’s bad music or someone else’s. The oldies at least had the advantage of having someone else’s nostalgia attached to them.

         If they didn’t have to talk, he might have put his headphones on and cranked up the Walkman. He had a few tapes with him in the pocket of his jacket—Midnight Oil, Smithereens, Stooges—but they had to be ready for when she saw a sign. Someone had shot up a bunch of the road signs all along Highway 30. Kerouac had hitched up this very highway forty years before—some of the towns are even mentioned in On the Road, but when Constante brought it up Franklin just shook his head. “You got words coming out of your mouth I don’t know what the hell you’re saying. Just grab a shovel and do your job.”

         He told a few others that summer, but no one thought much of it. The closest positive reaction was “well, ain’t that somethin’? Ain’t gonna help us get these guardrails done, though, is it?” Still, it was pretty cool to think about. Starkweather probably took 30 when he was making his run for Wyoming, too, but no one seemed to know for sure. As Daryl said, “what the hell do you care? You weren’t even born then.”

         “There’s another one,” Noelle said. She pulled the state truck over to the shoulder of the highway, then started slowly backing up. She had one arm up on the back of the seat, her fingers just a couple inches from his shoulders, and her torso twisted around so she could see behind her. He had noticed before that she wasn’t quite comfortable backing up with just mirrors and would turn when she could.  In this position, her shirt tightened against her breasts, and even through the orange vest he could see how perfect they were, like a couple mandarin oranges. Just the right size. He didn’t care for breasts that were too large. As Daryl said, “they’re nice to look at, but you get them in bed and they’ll half-smother you to death if the woman gets on top. Hell, I’ll die fucking any day, but not like that.” Daryl slapped Constante’s back as an exclamation point, his laugh harshly cadenced like a slow-motion jackhammer.

         “Don’t stare, please.”

         “I wasn’t. I was just looking—“

         “Just get your notebook. East bound. School bus. Wait…let me check the mile marker.” Three bullet holes in the school bus sign. The busses brought the farm kids into town until they or a sibling turned 14 and could get a farm-to-school permit that would let them drive way before the city kids; Constante always thought they were bullshitting about eyelids freezing shut at 6 AM while waiting for a bus, but now he could see how horrible some winter mornings must have been—no shelter of any kind, not even trees, the wind constantly blowing because it’s not just a Broadway song—on the plains, the wind swept cold as Dante’s last circle. And the mornings it carried sharp bits of sleet, it could chew right through you.

         Over the weekend, someone had gone up and down 30, shooting at the signs. Probably a bunch of kids, out drunk, messing with their hunting rifles. There wasn’t a lot of things to do in the area, especially if you weren’t into baseball or needed on your parents’ farm, so a lot of kids spent the summers hanging out at the river, drinking and smoking ditchweed. Hell, even the baseball players and farm kids spent most of their summers at the river, drinking and smoking ditchweed, just around the times they were playing or working. It’s just what people did.

         That’s what Constante figured, anyway. Bunch of kids out drinking, bored out of their gourd, not really meaning any harm to anyone but figuring they’d drive around and shoot up some signs. He’d done the same, once or twice. He never thought it was that big of a deal, but Frosty’s shit hit the fan. All the signs would have to be replaced. Frosty was an idiot, and he was a dick at times, but even Constante could see that Frosty cared about the highways in his district and took a (yes, sad) amount of pride in keeping things safe, smooth and clean for when John Q. Public (one of Frosty’s favorite terms) travelled through his district. John Q. Public was not going to see a bunch of shot-up signs on his watch.

         “Okay. Write down EB. School bus. MM 134 and a half. He’ll know where it’s at.”

         “Got it.” All that morning, Noelle and Constante had been travelling the length of Highway 30, often on what bit of shoulder there was (usually with two wheels in the ditch), recording which signs Johnny Five Fingers would have to replace. Johnny Five Fingers was the sign guy, but with this many damaged, he would need to have an idea of what kind of inventory to load on to his truck so he wouldn’t have to keep running back to the shop. Three-Finger Johnny was the mechanic over in the long bay. Daryl said you can’t trust him. “He flips you off with his mind like a goddamn jedi. Can’t trust a guy you can’t sees mad at you enough to flip you the bird.” Another backslap; another hah-hah-hah-hah-hah.

         In the morning meeting, Noelle protested she could go alone. Frosty wasn’t having any of it, though. “I’m sending Contante with Johnny Five Fingers tomorrow, so it’s better if he has an idea of what they’re looking for. Besides, I ain’t got nothing else to do with him today anyways.” Constante was a summer guy, back home between semesters, one of the college kids. It was his second summer; the department always hired four or five seasonal help, mostly kids back home from college, to do the grunt work—flag traffic, pick up dead animals, drive trucks, help the maintenance people at the rest areas. The work was mindless but good money.

         “You mad at me?”

         “No exactly. Just want to get this done.”

         “You want to talk about the other night?”

         “There’s nothing to talk about.” She didn’t even look at him, just kept her eyes to the road and kept studying the signs. Noelle had always been nice to him, never really teased him like the others did about being a spoiled college kid and not knowing his ass from a monkey wrench. She was another outsider—a woman, younger and quietly beautiful, even, in a crew of mostly men—and she never backed down from anything. All last year he had watched, and they’d throw stuff at her, put her on equipment that was new to her, and if she didn’t know, she’d figure it out. It was sexy, the way she wouldn’t be deterred. And she always took time to show him how to do things, how to run the equipment—simple stuff, like positioning your body over the jackhammer or sharpening the mower blades in the morning instead of the afternoon, like the other guys did, coming in an hour before the day ended, since that would give the grass a bit more time to dry out from the morning dew and you wouldn’t waste as much time during the day unclogging the mower. And they talked—she told him about her husband, a welder for one of the outfits down by the tracks, and her three kids; he talked about his girlfriend and movies and the books he’d been reading and things he’d learned in his classes.  

         She had green eyes and black hair that fell halfway down her back when she didn’t have it pulled up for work. She was an Irish dream, the kind of woman medieval men raised armies for, a fairy queen. She was almost thirty, a husband and three kids in a three-bedroom house, and they wanted more but they did their best. They had had him over a few times, Ron would grill some steaks and Noelle would make some bloody Marys, and they would listen to LPs like Ike and Tina Turner or ZZ Top, Ron’s stereo a small stack lights and buttons hooked up to three-foot speakers, and the kids would play, mostly ignoring the adults sitting on the patio in lawn chairs, talking about nothing, and if they got loud and the neighbors complained, Ron would hand them a beer and invite them to come out back. And they would stand in the grass or bring over their own lawn chairs, and they would talk about people Constante didn’t know, pool league buddies or families they knew from softball, and Constante would sit there listening, and Noelle would give him a sympathetic look and a soft smile or, occasionally, a slight roll of the eyes.  

         But this morning she was avoiding him, and he was avoiding it, and they just kept driving up the highway slowly, recording the shot-up signs.

         She pulled the truck out on to the highway and sped up.

         “We going back to the shop for lunch?”

         “That’s the plan.”

         “We should go to Mormon Island, have lunch there.”

         “Why would we do that?”

         “I don’t know. We could talk. I like you, and I don’t want this to be…you know…like a thing.”

         “You just think if we go to Mormon Island you can walk me into the pines and hump me on a picnic table.” She had started out as a summer kid, too, going to school in Kearney. She had met Ron her second summer at one of the summer parties the Knudsons threw a few times each year out at their farm, huge blowouts about ten miles down a country road from Grand Island with multiple kegs and some local band. For some reason, the cops never busted any of their parties, which made it feel safe. Kids said the Knudsons had a deal with the sheriff’s department, that the deputies could show up late in plain clothes and have their pick of the girls who got a bit too wasted for their own good, and that’s why the parties never got busted. It was always like a friend of a cousin’s, though, or someone someone’s older sister used to work with, so Constante was never too sure how true it was, but he always made sure any girl he knew there was set up for a ride home.

         Noelle met Ron one early June, a not-very-good local band doing Loverboy and Foreigner covers across the farmyard, and they didn’t let each other go until the summer was over, and in late September she realized she was pregnant. He imagined her in her dorm room, dirty socks and an old blue robe wrapped to her chin, cheeks streaked with tears as in a hicuppy voice she told her mom over the phone why she was quitting college and coming home. But he just imagined that part. She had never told him what it was like, that parental confession. She just said she moved home, had a quick and quiet wedding, and did their best. More than once, she mentioned that the only good thing to come of it was Frosty calling with an offer of a full-time job as soon as the baby had come.

         “It’s not like that.”

         “Derek, you’re a nice kid, but I’m not your summer vacation.”

         “I was really drunk the other night and it was probably stupid but I was serious about what I said and I think if you just—“

         “What was that?” She glanced in the mirror and suddenly slowed. Her eyes kept jumping from the windshield to the center mirror to the passenger side mirror. “Did you see it?”

         Constante bent forward to get a better angle in the mirror on his door. There was something just off the highway on the shoulder, a kind of brown lump.

         “Is it a hat? Like a kid’s hat?”

         “Not likely,” she said, turning the truck into the parking lot of the nasty strip joint about five miles out of town. Strip joints weren’t allowed in city limits, but this one was in the hinterland without any ordinances and had a reputation for the erotic depravity of its dancers. Constante had been there a couple times, but it was honestly hard to stomach. The dancers were old, most of them pushing forty and with cottage cheese thighs and a roll of fat hanging over their hip bones, not exactly the kind of women you would want to take their clothes off, even if the club’s iffy lighting meant details were hard to make out. It just depressed him, really. It might have been one thing if the women looked like they were having fun, like they were into it, but they made halfhearted attempts to find the beat in the music and they looked at the clock hanging over the bar more than at the clientele, though Constante couldn’t necessarily blame them for that. And even the nasty stuff with pipes and vegetables and dildos seemed glum, like they were trying to remember the steps from the instruction sheet. Rumor was that one of the dancers, a woman named Dorine, did a bit with a freeze-dried bull’s penis, but nothing like that happened when he was there.

         Noelle slowed down and pulled over, looked across the road. Constante couldn’t see, but he heard her say “oh shit” under her breath. When they got a break in traffic, she swung the truck around to the other side of the highway.

         “It’s a kitten.” She pulled over, parking so that the small pile was just a few feet from the front fender. She checked her mirror for traffic, then opened her door. “Grab the shovel,” she said just as she was stepping out.

         Constante plucked the shovel from the back of the pickup. His stomach had tightened and he felt a wave of apprehension. When he came around to the front, Noelle was on one knee, gently prodding the kitten with a gloved finger. It was black and white, almost like a Holstein, and it couldn’t have been more than a few days old. There was blood around it muzzle, and its neck was turned all wrong. The one eye Constante could see was still open. Wind tousled its coat.

         “It’s dead,” Noelle said, though Constante could see that. She gently touched the mouth, looked at her glove. “Blood’s still wet.”

         “Think it got hit by a car?”

         “Not likely. Something this small would have been crushed on the road. I’m guessing it was thrown.”

         “Jesus. Why would anyone—“

         “Probably teenagers. Probably a litter the parents wanted to get rid of, kids were bored and thought it’d be fun.”

         “You think there’s more?”

         “We’ll see. We’ll keep an eye out on the way back to the shop. We’re going to be late for lunch.” She stroked the dead kitten softly on the cheek with the back of her finger, then flicked the back of her hand towards the few flies that were hovering.

         “Pick it up with the shovel and walk it over to the tall weeds. Just make sure it’s out of sight. Don’t throw it, though. Some idiot will think you’re playing with it and call us in. I’m going to let Frosty know we’re coming in late.”

         “Bury it?”

         “No, just get it out of sight. It’s pretty small and the smell won’t last for maybe a day or so. Let nature take care of it.”

         Frosty was pissed. He said they did the right thing, but to mark down the mile marker for each cat they found. He was going to alert the patrol and the sheriff’s so they could be on the look-out. If anyone saw anything, if they got lucky and caught these assholes, he would personally escort their asses back to the spots and have them bury each kitten themselves, each and every last one.

         They found the next a half mile up, and then another a quarter mile past that. Noelle waited in the truck. She didn’t even say anything, just pulled up, shifted into park, and started to figure the mile marker. Highway 30 didn’t have posted mile markers, so Frosty had spent one entire day in his pickup, measuring out each mile and creating a map with landmarks to make things easier for the crew. He then spent a Saturday at Kinkos making four dozen copies, having them laminated, and using a label maker to mark each newly minted map with the ID number of each vehicle, distributing them that Monday morning. The guys laughed at it, “Frosty’s Treasure Map,” but it came in handy.

         So twice more, Noelle pulled up, put the truck in park, and pulled the pencil from behind her ear. Constante got out of the pickup, grabbed the shovel from the back, and took care of the kitten.

         Another mile closer to town, they came across the fourth. For a few moments, Constante was hoping they were at the end of it, that there was only the three. Or if there were more, maybe they had bounced into the weeds and they wouldn’t have to stop, or that whoever was throwing them misjudged and a kitten or two had landed in the tall grass, bruised maybe a bit and scared, but even now picking its way along the railroad embankment, maybe chewing on a grasshopper or beetle, trying to make its way back home.  Just maybe. But there was a fourth, all black this time. And when Constante got to it, shovel in hand, it was still breathing.

         The side of its head, the pavement side, looked crushed, but the other eye was open and it was definitely breathing. He could see its ribcage rise and fall with each raspy breath, its eye slowly revolving as if trying to find something to focus on. Constante walked to the driver’s side door.

         “What’s wrong?”

         “It’s still alive.”

         “Goddamn.” Noelle got out of the truck. She knelt over the kitten, turned its head a bit with two fingers, then let it fall gently back to the ground. She stood up, grim, looked at Constante directly for the first time that morning.

         “You’re going to have to kill it. It’s not going to survive. Just…your shovel. One quick crack on the skull with the base of your shovel, then carry it into the grass with the others. Don’t overdo it. Just enough to put it out of its misery. Nothing else we can do for him.” Constante didn’t say anything, just kind of nodded. She made her way back to the truck. Just as she was getting in, she called over to him, “You can do this, right?”

         Cars and trucks were flying by, some fast enough that their passing gusts knocked him unsteady, but just for a second. He nodded. He steeled himself. He always thought it was just a phrase, something you read in yellowing books or heard on black-and-white movies, but now he knew what it meant. He forced everything inside to go cold, to stay in place—his stomach, his breath, thought. He was nothing but a thing that performed basic actions, a series of verbs—shovel up, shovel down quick, shovel scraping the gravelly highway surface, steps to the grass, quick stabbing motion to slide the carcass off. Then, a few feet away, rubbing the shovel in the tall grass to clean away some of the blood. Water would clean the rest once they got back to the shop. Climbing into the truck. Sitting.

         “You okay?”

         “I’m fine.”

         “Shit’s gotta be done.”

         “I know.” There was another one, a half mile up, but it was already dead so it took Constante only a few seconds to remove it from the gentle eyes of John Q. Public. He hoped but didn’t know if it was the last one they’d find, obviously, and later he didn’t know if knowing it was would have made him feel better or worse. Or if it would have mattered.

         They never found out who killed the kittens or whether those were the only five. He never really talked about it, either. When his friends swapped stories about their summer jobs, in Lincoln at a house party or FAC at the bars, he spoke of many things horrible and amusing, but that morning never came up.

         As they made their way back to the shop, slowly, he was silent. He just stared out the window. Friday afternoon, they had all gone down to the White Horse after work. It was Three-Finger Johnny’s birthday, his 60th, and they had all gotten paid the day before, so a bunch drove over straight from the shop, drank a few and then a few more, and soon it was 9 and there were only the stragglers remained. They just sat around a large table, about a half dozen, laughing and bullshitting each other and gulping at their beers. Constante wasn’t at the table when Noelle left the bar. He had gone to take a piss, but Stobbe was on the toilet and the bathroom reeked like hell’s kitchen. It had been a joke all summer, the way Stobbe was constantly polluting bathrooms, and it wasn’t until the spring when he killed himself that they found out he had stomach cancer. He didn’t want to tell anyone for fear of losing insurance.

         Constante has slipped outside to piss in the shadows around the corner of the building. He was just coming back when Noelle almost ran into him, making her way to her car. He put his unwashed hand up, touched her cheek, then when she didn’t flinch, slipped it around to the base of her skull and with a rush of relief on both sides, they kissed. He felt the bodies closing in and he was just letting go to inevitability when she said stop. She said I have to go and kind of pushed him back and scrambled into her car.  He thought maybe she would call over the weekend, but she didn’t. He wanted to call her, to talk it out, to see if they could meet but he was afraid Ron would answer. It wasn’t until on their way back to the shop, on their way back to a lunch he would be able to bring himself to eat, that she finally broke her silence.

         “I know you want to talk about Friday night, but nothing happened. You have to understand this. We’re not going to talk about nothing.”

         He looked at her, small lines etching themselves around her eyes and mouth, her hands beaten rough by the job, the skin on her neck burned a bit too roughly by the sun. He wanted to say he

         He wanted

         He wanted to say

         All he got out was “okay.”

         “No, I need to hear you acknowledge it. Say nothing happened.”

         “Nothing happened.”

         “Alright,” she said. “Good. It’s done with then.” They were pulling into the shop, passing the crew parking lot. “I’m going to pull the truck over by the hose. Wash the shovel, then go inside and eat your lunch. I’ll be in in a few. I want to wash out the truck bed. I doubt if there’s any blood or anything, but it’ll make me feel better.”

         The guys were just coming out as he was making his way to the breakroom. A couple said hell of a deal and Frosty just asked if they got it all cleaned up and said it was the worst part of the job, dealing with other people’s bullshit. Daryl said “so I guess that proves kittens can’t fly, huh?” and laughed, though no one really joined in. Some of the guys played pitch every day, and they had left their cards on the table. Frosty would be pissed. They would hear about it as they were leaving today and first thing again in the morning. He liked a clean breakroom. Constante grabbed his lunch and sat down. Frosty came in a few minutes later.

         “Hey—this whole cat thing’s got Noelle a bit shook. She’s going to take the afternoon. I need you to go back out to 30 and pick up on the signs where you left off. She showed you how to use the map, right? Just mark down the mile markers best you can. You’re going out with Johnny Five Fingers tomorrow, so you should be able to find them even if the log is off. Take her truck. If you get done in time after you’re done with the signs, come back in do a quick maintenance. Change the oil, lube the joints, whatever there’s time for. I don’t think it’s been done in a while.” As Frosty was walking out, he muttered “goddamn cards. Every goddamn day.”

         Constante just sat there, alone in the otherwise empty breakroom, staring at his sandwich, deli ham and American cheese, mayo that smelled just a tad suspicious when he was spreading it on the bread that morning, though that may have just been the hangover. He figured he could sneak a joint later in the afternoon, once he was away from the shop. It had already been a long summer, and it wasn’t even the 4th yet. He didn’t want to be there, holding on to the end of a shovel, living again in the town where he grew up. He didn’t want to be there, but he didn’t want to go back to school, either. He’d smoke a joint, then it wouldn’t matter. He’d just focus on the signs. Noelle was right. It was nothing. Nothing comes from nothing. It doesn’t really matter. You can cry or moan or yell all you want, it all ends in silence.


© The Acentos Review 2017