That wasn’t his legal name, in case you were wondering. That was just what we called him. (That would have been an uncanny coincidence if that had been his real name.)
I recall a hot and humid day in early August. The air itself felt heavy.
We were working in the entrance to a gated community. We were responsible for cleaning the neighborhood’s common areas, as well as for mowing the strips of lawn that lined the road leading in and out.
Crew Leader Carl was stomping around like a cantankerous Sasquatch. I could tell he was irritated — even more so than normal — and I was pretty sure I knew why.
Stan, who was in his late twenties and one of the newer members of the crew, was always asking Carl questions — most of them inane. “How short should I cut the lawn, Boss?” “Is this a weed, or a flower?” “Am I watering this plant too much?” “When can we eat lunch?”
Normally, Carl would ignore Stan, or bark a one-word response — or even tell him outright to shut up — but today, Stan seemed to be on a roll. The questions just wouldn’t stop coming.
“Hey, Boss,” Stan said, as he sauntered up to Carl. “There’s a dead squirrel in the street.”
Carl closed his eyes. “So?”
“So do you want me to pick it up?”
“Hell yes I want you to pick it up!” Carl said. “This is a luxury neighborhood, isn’t it? These people don’t want to look at fresh roadkill as they drive in and out!”
“Can I just scrape it with a shovel, instead of picking it up by hand?” Stan asked. “The guts are kind of gross.”
“Yeah, sure,” Carl said. “Use a shovel. Who cares?”
Stan wandered to the truck to fetch a shovel. A moment later, he reappeared at Carl’s side.
“Do you want me to toss the carcass in with the lawn clippings, or should I fling it into the vacant lot across the street?” he asked.
“Don’t fling it across the street, you dumb bastard!” Carl said. “Just chuck it in the back of the truck!”
“Are you sure?” Stan asked. “We don’t want to get maggots and guts all over the truck.”
“Stan,” Carl said, speaking slowly, his voice low, “I don’t care if you eat the son of a bitch. Just scrape that damn squirrel off the street!”
“Right, Boss.” Stan walked away, but then circled around and reappeared. “You don’t think I could catch a disease from a dead squirrel, do you?”
Carl’s neck muscles tightened. “You’re going to catch a fist to your mouth in a second, you clueless bastard!”
Stan held up his hands. “Sorry, Boss. I’m just trying to do things right.”
“Stan, listen to me,” Carl said. “There are two types of people in this world: those who take charge and forge their own destinies, and those who constantly look to others, waiting for direction. Which type are you?”
Stan clucked his tongue, his head tilted as if he were deep in thought.
Finally, with a bright and earnest grin — as if he’d just thought up the ideal response — he looked at Carl and said, “Which type would you like me to be?”
Like a cobra striking, Carl reached out and wrenched the shovel from Stan’s hand. He reeled back and chucked it across the job site, then turned and marched toward the truck.
Stan was left standing there. He looked over at me, his lips trembling.
“Gee, what got into him?” he said. “All I did was ask a simple question!”