He's new on the site. The older guys like him because he makes them laugh and he always shows up. He pays attention to what they're doing and can usually pick it up the second or third time.
Xander's been asked to go for after-work beers a couple of times. He begs off. He's got somebody to go home to and they're saving their money.
But one sweltering day, near the end of the project, Ray, master carpenter and foreman, says that he thought he owed himself a beer. A few of the crew shout, "Tick-Tock time", the name of a near-by bar. Ray looks around and says "Xander?"
Xander says, "Sure".
Xander likes Ray. He's foreman and doesn't put up with much bullshit, but he's fair. Once he saw that Xander wanted to do good, Ray went out of his way to help him, putting him with the good workers who weren't assholes. Xander was on the job for a couple of weeks before he realized who Ray reminded him of. His grandfather.
They both had that thin, sinewy body that Xander didn't inherit. They both had that air of competency, as if they could do anything they turned their hand to, and do it well. Xander always felt himself becoming a little calmer, quieter when he was around Ray, just like he was with Bub, his grandfather.
Xander spent the summers with Bub. He remembers the drives to Oklahoma, taken as soon after school closed as his parents could manage. It's always pretty much the same. The trips start with his father in a decent mood that gradually sours as he's forced into spending long hours with his family. His mom does the smoothing-the waters thing, the chirpy-distracting thing, the accepting-the-blame thing. That's her usual order in placating, but sometimes she mixes them up. Xander learns to bring plenty of comic books with him.
They arrive. Xander's grandfather hugs his daughter and gives a casual "hello" nod to her husband over her shoulder. He grabs Xander, swings him up to eye-level and say, "Look at you, boy, you're growing like a weed."
His parents stay the night. Until they go, the air in the house seems heavy and the sounds muted. There's polite catching up with news. Jessica and Tony laugh at each other's jokes. Tony talks quite a lot about the gas mileage he gets in his car and the route they took from Sunnydale to Checotah. Xander's family is one for tradition. The annual Christmas Eve fight and the uncomfortable trip to grandfather's house are two of the most sacred.
In Bub's house, Tony pulls his punches, literally and figuratively. He's like Tony-lite. Seeing the guy walking on eggshells, his son grasps that there are places his anger can't touch, places where his word isn't law. It changes Xander's outlook on a lot of things, once he works out that Tony is afraid of his father-in-law.
Bub lived alone. He used to be married, a couple of times. Three, actually. His wives were always like beautiful-plumed birds that rested for a while with Bub but then chafed and fretted, finally flying off. Jessica's mother was the first. She stayed around until her daughter's sophomore year. One morning her family found a confused note she left, something about always wanting to see the Everglades, and discovered she took off with a trucker she met working the counter at the 7-11. Xander could always judge when fights between his parents were winding down. Tony would throw that abandonment in his wife's face. She'd scream and slam doors or weep, depending on the amount of alcohol involved. But usually, things quieted down after. Xander came to think of the flung insult as the last out of the ninth inning.
Xander knew only his grandfather's third wife. All he really remembers now was how good she smelled, her tiny wrists, the way she'd run her hands through his hair and say, "Hey, brown eyes". She had a nice laugh, too, that she used a lot. But one summer he came to visit and she was gone.
It was just Xander and Bub from then on. They'd work on the truck, which always needed tinkering with. Xander's eyes were about level with the motor when the hood was pulled up. He'd patiently hand his grandfather tools from a set neatly laid out on canvas at his feet. Bub would talk about what he was fixing, and why. Xander would talk about his friends at home and the stuff they did, and the time would gently slip past. When Xander began to wilt, leaning on the truck's bumper or slipping down to lie and stare at the sky, Bub would say, "Well, I think that's done it. What 'bout lunch?"
After packing up and putting everything away. Only a fool doesn't take care of his tools, boy. The both of them would troop off to wash up. Xander can still see the long, wide fingers on the freckled, veined hands as his grandfather went through the cleaning ritual. Now, you got to get under the nails. No excuse for dirty nails, not when you got soap and water. Xander would follow his lead, scrubbing away. Even now, his hands don't feel clean until he does a scraping through under his nails.
They'd go, then, for lunch to the kind of place Bub favored. Friendly and where a man wouldn't be hurried. The waitress would joke with them, taking a few extra minutes to lean resting against the table and pass the time of day. There'd be hamburgers and Dr. Pepper. It'd be different than eating at home because, here, the adults didn't either ignore Xander or ask, Jesus Christ, can't we go one meal without you spilling something? Or, Jesus Christ, can't you eat like a human being? Or ask a general question of the universe, or maybe, to Jesus Christ, what the hell is the matter with this kid?
It's in Oklahoma that Xander learns to swim. His grandfather takes him to the lake a couple of times a week, sometimes just the two of them, though sometimes there's a "lady friend" (that's what Bub calls them) along. The days are hot and long and perfect. Once, they leave early as the sky turns dark and the radio warns of a tornado. Xander told the story to Willow when he got home. Sometimes when he told it, he had the twister chase his grandfather's truck down the highway.
Bub kept a bike for Xander in his garage. The first one had training wheels, and his grandfather ran along beside him the first couple of times he was on it. After that, Bub just sat on his front step, smoking a cigarette, and watched Xander go back and forth on the tree-lined sidewalk. There was another bike waiting for him when his legs got longer. It was second-hand, but Bub had painted it glossy black with Xander's name in silver with what looked like real flames coming out of it. It was about the coolest thing he'd ever seen.
Xander rode that two-wheeler all over town, even insisting they put it in the back of the truck when they went to the lake. His grandfather made the joke that he'd sleep with it if he could. When the visit was coming to a close, Bub and Xander put the bike up in the garage. Bub said, "Now, if you don't grow too much over the winter, you can use it next year. Otherwise, we'll have to get you another one. How much you planning to lengthen this year?"
But it turned out, it didn't really matter. That next February, on Highway 40, somebody sideswiped Bub's truck and sent him spinning into a tractor-trailer.
The next trip Xander took to Oklahoma was a short plane ride to Tulsa. That stands out in his memory because it was his first time flying. He stared out the window listening to his mother sniffle every once in a while and his father occasionally speculate about who was going to get the truck.
Xander thinks he must have cried at the funeral or maybe later, but he doesn't really remember too much about it. It must be almost ten years now. His parents wouldn't let him take the black bicycle back with them, though they gave him his grandfather's watch.
His summers were spent in Sunnydale from then on. He and Jesse and Willow trying to find what fun they could during the long, hot days.
He works construction, now. It suits him, and he's getting good at it. He sits at a table in a bar, scraping the label off a wet bottle of beer with his thumb as he listens to and laughs at the stories his foreman, Ray, tells about jobs he's been on. And in the back of his mind, Xander thinks about Oklahoma.