Kirk was a man with a mustache. I always wanted to drink beer with Kirk.
Regularly, I’d see him in his tiny quarters labeled “ingredient control room,” slicing fat off of huge slabs of raw beef or readying chicken to be pulverized. He once told me he only dealt with raw meat; the other person in the room, a lady, handled all of the vegetables.
It was probably the most appropriate job for a man with a mustache.
I got the impression Kirk liked me – saw potential – and got my jokes. He frequently stopped what he was doing to chat whenever I passed through his room. During the first part of our eight months working together, our conversations began with a gripe about someone or something being substandard in some way. Once we’d talked those topics to death (there weren’t but so many), we moved onto more critical matters, such as his job as a railroad installer when that was done by hand, days as a renegade hot rod racer or time with the Hell’s Angels.
I never knew what was true and what wasn’t. It’s not that I thought Kirk was a liar, but my time as a newspaperman had exposed me to the possibility of such. I once almost wrote a story about a soldier whose disability check – which he got because he nearly crippled himself rescuing other soldiers from a burning tent in Iraq, he said – had been almost completely garnished by the state to pay child support he should not have had to pay, only to discover shortly before it would have been too late he’d omitted a few critical details. Experiences similar to that made me open to the notion that some of Kirk’s stories could be entirely false or, at the very least, mostly untrue. If so, he was good enough at telling them that I at least owed him my attention.
On mothers-in-law, Kirk told me about the time he pulled his to the side of a family gathering and threatened to move to California – his home state – with her daughter if the woman didn’t stop trying to pry him and her daughter apart. On Southern men who don’t say much, he told the story of his father-in-law, who chased down his son’s car after a couple of men stole it from out of the driveway. On dogs, Kirk recounted the way his canine in college used to chase squirrels around trees until they became exhausted, as well as his suspicion a neighbor in South Carolina poisoned his Saint Bernard with antifreeze. On the Hell’s Angels, Kirk never said much – he only acknowledged his time with the group. He beamed with passion, though, whenever he found it necessary to recall his time driving railroad ties with a sledge hammer and watching the dead bodies of men who died from heat exhaustion roll down hills.
I always hoped his stories were true. Hearing them somehow made me feel more significant.
My favorite narratives were those about the land. Kirk apparently made the same decisions I would have made had I been born in northern California 40 years earlier and escaped college without a child. He knew about drinking heavily, breaking the law and the difference between friends and acquaintances that at some point had to be broken. He respected society’s rejects. He seemed to know what mattered. He knew about life.
That’s why I always wondered if he was truly happy about retiring, which he did on one particular Thursday. Retirement must have felt like calling it quits to a man like Kirk. After all, his desire to live was what had given him so many stories worth telling.
I gave him a Robert Day novel I’d always liked the last day I saw him. It was the story of a cowboy in modern-day Kansas who was stubborn enough to lead his herd by horseback to the meat market in Kansas City instead of taking the cows by truck after a series of obstacles triggered by the policies of modern day. I felt like he’d enjoy it, being the secret rebel he is.