The Work

Jonathan Starke Click to read more...

da8a325406b38490-23Jonathan Starke is a former bodybuilder and boxer.  His most recent piece can be found in The Sun, and he’s published stories and essays in The Missouri Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Brevity, Third Coast and others.  He lives in Corvallis, Oregon.

Trevor Weersta dragged a dead calf across one of his father’s empty fields. He pulled it carefully by the legs, each hand wrapped tightly around the ankle. When Trevor came to the burial ditch at the side of the field, he rolled the calf into the open ground and pitched dirt over the body with a heavy, rusted shovel. When he was finished, Trevor walked back to the barn where he saw his father looking up at the sky, at the sun falling down behind the dry and empty land, and at the frail bodies of the cattle that were roaming closer to the fence. His father was hoping for rain. Trevor saw him drop his head, dig his boot into the earth and watch the dirt rise up, the dust settle on top of the dark leather.

There was no more hay to go around, only one half-empty sack of feed and very little water for the cattle that were limping around the pasture with their pink lips hanging open. The livestock that had once grazed over the pasture in bunches was now dwindled to a handful of thin animals. Trevor watched the cattle, tripping over their own legs, some falling down on their bony knees.

“What are they doing?” Trevor asked as his father walked up by the wire fence and stood with one hand on a slanted post, looking at the cattle on the other side. They were huddled together and shivering, a strange thing to do in the humid Missouri summer. Some of the cattle were lining themselves against the rusted barbs, others struggling to even stand.

“I doubt too many people have seen cattle act like this before,” his father said, spitting at the ground. The cows stepped closer, offering low breathless moans. It reminded Trevor of a sound he’d heard years before, his mother lying in the room next to his, his father on a knee at her bedside, running a wet cloth over her forehead throughout the night.

“Why do they moan?” Trevor asked, walking up near his father’s heels.

“Folks in town will say that animals have no sense, no brains, nothing. But these cows aren’t dumb.” Trevor watched his father’s eyes move from one cow to the next. “They know where they get their feed from. They aren’t dumb to who I am.”

His father stood face-to-face with a steer.

“Can’t we save these last few?” Trevor asked.

Trevor’s father placed one hand over the other on a post and squatted behind the thick piece of wood.

“I may have held out hope for too long,” his father said. His brief laugh afterward caught Trevor off guard. “If there is such a thing as hoping for too long.” His father pointed. “Look at the ribs on this one.” He reached between the barbs and brushed the back of his hand over the side of the steer in front of him. “His shoulder blades are rounded now, and he shakes at the knees when he walks. They all do, if you watch them closely.”

“He could be good again for meat. We can borrow more bales from Mr. Penserum,” Trevor said.

“Don’t start fooling yourself.” The steer his father had been touching let out a guttural moan. His father stood. A few of the others pushed their bodies against the fence and pierced themselves. The animals clenched their jaws, their heads tilting up and back each time they drove into a vine of barbs. Thin trails of blood trickled down their sides, striping their brown and black coats in red. Trevor stepped back.

“What are they doing?” Trevor asked, looking at the shadow of his father in front of him.

“They’re starving. Just dying as creatures do.” Trevor’s father put his hand out as if he were going to grab hold of Trevor’s shoulder, then he returned his hand to his side where it seemed to shake. “It might be barely, only by a little, but they see something similar in us. Look in his eyes, that brown one there. Can you see reason in the eyes?”

Trevor had looked into the eyes of many beasts: pigs ramming into one another in the pen, chickens clucking wildly in their cages, groggy mules he used to pull along by a thick rope. These animals weren’t able to last through the three years of drought. As Trevor looked around his father and into the black eyes of the steer, he could see nothing beyond the black.

“I can’t see it,” Trevor said. He watched his father’s face, the jaw slightly open, creases in his cheeks deep with dirt. His father looked as if he were deciphering bad news, the same expression Trevor had seen a few years ago when he was awoken in the middle of the night.

Trevor had stood with a hand grasping the door frame of the hallway entrance beside the kitchen table, listening to the town priest and doctor whispering to his father on the porch. Trevor brought himself lower to the ground so as not to be seen, his hand sliding down the door frame, his body crouched. His father never spoke, only nodded, stared, tight-fisted, discerning. This was what Trevor saw now in his father’s face, until his father, without another word, walked away toward the shed, leaving Trevor alone, the cows praying to his father through their mouths.

Trevor’s father pulled out a glass jug and poured the contents into a tin cup—buttermilk. They had just finished eating rabbit stew, something they cooked often because the meat was easy to come by. Trevor’s father had to sell their only gun a year earlier and borrowed Elias Penserum’s shotgun for hunting smaller abundant animals, the ones who could manage the drought.

Trevor looked at the yolky milk in front of him, always dreading this part of the afternoon meal. He wished the thick liquid would vanish. His father stood and scooted the cup closer to Trevor. The liquid undulated to the rim and back down.

“It tastes so awful,” Trevor said.

“It puts a lining in your stomach. It protects you,” his father said, sitting across from him again. “Your great-uncle Art always said it was good for a man. I trust that.”

Trevor ran his fingers over the table, tapping them as his father spoke. He studied the drink once more, then breathed hard and took the cup from the table, pouring the buttermilk down. Trevor wiped his lips with the back of his hand and looked up at his father who was staring out toward the porch, one strap of his overalls undone and hanging at his waist. Trevor admired the rough cut of his father’s unshaven face, his steady callused hand fishing around in a loose pocket under the table.

“If you need to fill the tank,” his father said, handing over a quarter. He ran his hand through his pocket again and pulled out the key to their truck. “Be home before it gets too late. We have equipment that still needs put away. Tonight better than tomorrow.”

Trevor nodded, eyeing the key.

“Mind the roads. Be careful in that big city.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And put the truck back facing east how I like it.”

After the meal, Trevor drove away from Alanthus Grove toward Pine Creek, a small nearby town. He thought of the farm, almost bare, and the cattle being whittled down so fast. He wondered if anybody, anything would survive.

Trevor came upon the Penserum acreage a few miles down the road. He saw Elias Penserum standing over an old oil barrel in the yard, working splinters of wood and old newspaper inside the barrel in a half-hearted manner. Elias looked up at the truck and tipped his hat. His crops had almost made headway the year before, but a batch of cutworms crawled through his fields, gnawing the roots and tips until there was nothing left. Trevor waved his hand over the hood and pressed the pedal harder. The wind picked up in the cab, and the dust rolled behind him in a solitary cloud. He turned back to look at Elias one more time, watching him slap a mosquito on his skin, brush it off, then put his arms deep into the corroded barrel.

Trevor turned off the narrow dirt road and into town. He was going to pick up James and Danny Blackwell, two brothers he had met while repairing the porch for their father, who was the manager of the bank. Mr. Blackwell was always dressed in full, dark suits. On the day they fixed the porch, James, the older brother, spent the entire afternoon standing over Trevor and his father, watching them as they cut boards and fit them into place.

“Hey, Weersta, what do you think about seeing some fights?” James whispered when Trevor’s father had stepped up into the bed of the truck, getting boards and spare nails.

“How do you mean?” Trevor asked, holding a hammer in his hand.

“I mean you come and pick up me and Danny next Friday afternoon, and we all go to Charles City.”

Trevor looked over his shoulder. James was a dark figure in front of the sunlight, and Trevor couldn’t see around him to his father, but he could hear his father’s grunts and the lumber being dragged off the truck. “Why would I do that?” Trevor asked.

“For the fights, you dummy.”

“What do I want to watch that for?”

“You just sit around that farm of yours with your old man, am I right?”

“Mostly.”

“And you don’t get out, do you?”

“I suppose not,” Trevor said, turning the hammer over.

“Well, here’s your chance. You can get me and Danny outside of Neddelson’s. We’ll be waiting on the east side of the building.”

“Why don’t you get your father to take you?” Trevor asked. He could still hear his own father working somewhere behind James, dropping nails onto the metal surface of the truck bed. James looked over his shoulder and all around the yard.

“Do you think he’d let me go to something like that? Hell no. He’d whoop me with a splintery picket if he knew I went there. He’d whoop me with one in each hand if he knew I was going with someone like you. Look, you’re doing me a favor and I’m doing you one.”

Trevor nodded. He didn’t know why he agreed, maybe something about the idea of an adventure away from the farm. As he watched James walk away, Trevor’s father came over carrying a load of boards. His forearms split at the muscle, creating little ridges up and down the arm, making Trevor wonder what a beating from the hands of his own father would feel like.

Trevor pulled up to Neddelson’s ice cream parlor, spotting James and Danny sitting against the brick wall, Danny scrambling jacks along the ground to begin a new game. Trevor hit the horn, and Danny scooped the jacks and ball into an empty sugar sack, and the two of them came running, glancing over their shoulders with each stride.

“Bet you haven’t ever seen anything like these fights,” James said into the open window of the cab. He slapped his hand on the door. James and Danny got into the truck, Danny scooting his body into the middle, giving James the window seat. James pulled shut the door, and the glove box fell open at his knees. “Nice heap you got here,” he said with a laugh.

The navy paint had chipped off the sides, and the tailgate was kept in place with chicken wire. The driver’s side door could only be opened from the inside, using an aggressive push with the shoulder, and the cap for the gas tank had been lost visiting family in Nebraska the year before the drought set in, the year before Trevor’s mother fell ill. Trevor couldn’t remember much of it, but he could sometimes conjure up that feeling in his stomach, the tingling he felt behind his ears when his mother, on long rides like that, would put his head on her shoulder and run just one finger in swirls through his hair.

Trevor drove slow and steady. He was uneasy and kept feeling an itch at his neck.

“I thought you country boys were wild,” James said. “Let’s see you push this thing.” But Trevor only clung tighter to the wheel. He looked over at Danny sitting between them, shaking the sugar sack, watching the jacks tumble inside.

Danny looked up and said, “How many fights do you think they have tonight?”

“Probably three or four,” James said. “I can’t wait to see somebody get pounded.” When nobody responded, James elbowed Danny in the ribs. “What are you—a sissy?” James turned to Trevor. “Don’t you want to see some blood?”

It took Trevor a moment to realize James was referring to human blood. “Sure,” Trevor said.

“You must be one useless hand out on that ranch,” James said, balling his hand into a fist and releasing it.

Trevor wiped at his brow, trying to ignore the words. James’s collar was open, and Trevor noticed bruises on his upper chest and collarbone, the color of healthy grapes, outlined in black. When James saw him staring, Trevor looked out the window as if he’d caught sight of a rabbit scampering along the road.

“Kind of guy that’s out there daydreaming and guiding saddle-reins, and when the horses come around, whammo, he gets trampled right under,” James said and laughed.

“He looks okay to me,” Danny spoke up, his head tilted toward Trevor.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” James said.

They were approaching Charles City and buzzards circled overhead. Trevor watched them dip down and snatch at pieces of a deer carcass, but he only looked for a moment, then turned away as they passed. Trevor wanted to stop, to get out of the truck and walk through open space and thick air.

Trevor jammed on the brakes.

“Jesus,” James said.

Trevor let up on the brake and pulled the truck over on Locust Street. It was the main road, and it ran right down the middle of Charles City, alive with people and automobiles.
“Don’t park here. Drive us farther in,” James said. Danny was quiet, and James thumped him on the chest.

“Yeah, farther in.” Danny said.

Trevor put all his weight into the door, and it was stiff in swinging open, calling out with a screech. Trevor left the door open and turned to the brothers. “We’re walking from here,” he said.

“You’re loony,” James said. He pushed Danny across the truck’s bench, until Danny almost fell out. Then James followed and slammed the door.

Trevor walked down the paved road on Locust, not bothering to see if the boys were behind him. He looked instead at the awnings overhead as he passed the local shops. They were dyed in vibrant colors he rarely saw: emerald, magenta, fuchsia, soft reds and yellows. Shop signs had names he’d never heard of before: Swift & Taylor’s Baked Goods, The Stitchery, The Charles Ray Saloon, Pike’s Grocery.

“It’s going to really be something. I saw women fight there once,” James said from behind.

“You did not,” Danny said.

“Like you would know the difference,” James said. “Weersta, what are you doing up there?”

Trevor had stopped under the emerald awning above Hebert’s Fine Metals and was watching a woman across the street, who wore a billowy, powder-blue dress with frills at the cuffs.

She carried an umbrella that was light brown at the stem, and the hook at the bottom, which she covered with her small hand, was made of solid bronze and blinked in the light.
“Weersta,” James said.

Trevor watched the woman’s three little children and imagined them as brothers and sisters he never had the chance to have. As people came down the street, the children weaved through them like thread, giggling all the while with chocolate and candies in their hands. The people walking by smiled and sometimes tried to pat one of the children on the head.

James punched Trevor in the shoulder. “Knock it off. Didn’t your father teach you not to stare like that?”

“It’s un-polite,” Danny said, walking up behind James.

“Impolite,” James corrected. “Christ.” He looked at Trevor. “So, what’s the big deal here?”

Trevor didn’t look at James, but focused instead on the procession of sharp, dark automobiles that sputtered down the road. Several of them beeped their horns, and passengers waved from the windows with fine gloves on their hands.

“What are you, afraid of those big old cars? Can handle a steer and a mule, but you’re scared of a box on wheels? Shoot, Danny and me have been here a hundred times. A thousand.

It’s a bore. This city’s always been a bore and it always will be.”

“I kind of like it here,” Danny said. “They have a fair in the spring with a Ferris wheel that touches the clouds almost.”

“It’s boring,” James said. “Ferris wheels are for prissies.” With that, James walked up the street.

“We better follow him,” Danny said. “I don’t know how to get to the fights.”

“Okay,” Trevor said, but he didn’t want to leave. He followed behind Danny, but kept losing him by a pace. Trevor couldn’t stop looking into the shop windows, and he ran his knuckles across the smooth, painted letters on the glass. He watched the people inside weigh bread loafs in one hand and then the other, spread fingers over ceramic cups and saucers, children dip into wooden candy barrels and come out with a hill of sweets, the kinds of things that could really last. Trevor wondered if he would ever know that feeling again, maybe not happiness, but contentment with the world he lived in with his father.

“Catch up, Weersta,” James said. Trevor looked ahead and saw James and Danny waiting for him at the end of the street, James pointing down a side road.
When Trevor reached the brothers, they were talking about the fights. “It won’t be too hard to watch, will it?” Danny asked.

“Don’t be such a wimp,” James said. Danny turned from James, crossing his arms in front of his chest. James put out a hand and squeezed Danny’s shoulder. “Jeez, you’ll be fine. You’ll love it, I swear.” Danny smiled a little, but closed it up fast as if he didn’t want to show it. “Let’s move,” James said, and he headed down the road.

Trevor could only think of Locust Street. He wondered where all the denim overalls were, the soft straw hats, the cracked and dirty boots and matching hands. He wondered if his father ever thought of selling the farm, or abandoning it and coming to the city, some place like Charles where the going seemed good, and where the people talked to each other and smiled and took the time to call each other by their names. There were people here, lively people, and more than just two, more than just him and his father and a dwindling herd of cattle on a patch of decaying land.

“So, what happens at these fights?” Trevor asked James, not wanting to think of the farm anymore.

“I’ve seen women fight here. Sometimes these old coots fight cocks and hounds too. But people fighting is what makes it interesting. They don’t even give them gloves or anything, just knuckle to jaw the whole time.”

“There isn’t much blood, is there?” Danny asked, closing his eyes when he said the word blood.

“What do you expect?”

“I hope not much blood,” Danny said.

They had moved beyond the street and into open land. The only thing in the distance was a giant warehouse, where a line of men spilled from the big open doors. Trevor and Danny followed behind James as he walked across the patchy grass and over to the line of men. Trevor looked at the warehouse entrance, tall and wide, and noticed the paint along the outside had faded, like the clothes of the men who stood there in front of him. The cloth at their knees and shoulders was worn and poor, almost hanging on by mere stitches, and their straw hats bore a scattering of small tears. Trevor was surprised at how relieved he was to see these farmers, to look at their dirty work shirts and stained hands. He noticed James and Danny watching the men with anxious faces, staring at the sweat as it rolled down the backs of the farmers’ brown necks, causing dark stains in their shirts. These men put Trevor at ease, knowing some of them had traveled as far as he had, from the same dirt roads and cracked fields.

For a moment, behind one of the men and through the big open doors, Trevor caught a glimpse of the face of a woman in the darkened warehouse. She looked like his mother. Trevor put his hand above his brow to block the sun, and just as he stepped forward to see if it was really her, alive again in the shadows, two men crossed in front of him, shoving one another to pick up a nickel that had fallen in the dirt. It caused such a commotion that other men jumped on the pile, and Trevor couldn’t see anything but body after body fighting for a coin.

Seeing that face, the semblance of his mother, reminded him of what life had been like when she was around, of how it felt to live on a flourishing farm. He tried hard to squash these thoughts when they came, but the memories were so vivid and he couldn’t help himself. Just then he could see the leaning stalks at midday and hear the squeal of head-butting pigs, fighting for position at the trough. His father was there, too, dumping seed over the fence as the wind blew and shavings floated up in the air. And Trevor could see his father pause for a moment, amid the whirlwind of horses neighing and feed falling and the dinner bell ringing and a child playing in the dirt, to look up to the shed where his wife stood, waving down to him.

“Five cents a-piece,” the man said when the boys approached. He was guarding the door with his boulder-chest, his fat chin dangling over the small bit of light coming from inside. It was growing dark behind them, and the brothers very casually dropped coins down the hole, the bucket thanking them with a ching. Trevor pulled out the quarter his father had given him for gas and traded it for nickels. A rush of guilt seized his hand as he held one of the nickels over the can, watching it fall into the bucket.
Trevor stepped inside and looked around. The place was stocked full of boxes and pallets. A few mops and brooms leaned against the opposite wall. Many of the pallets had been pushed aside to form a makeshift fighting ring in the center. Four lamps were stuck on poles, designating the four corners.

There were a few women in the crowd, but Trevor couldn’t spot the one he’d seen before. He wondered why women would show up to such an event, scarves pulled tight around their heads. Trevor noticed a man holding his son up on his shoulders. The man’s pants and shirt were clean, and the clasps of his suspenders shone golden off the light from the lamps. He rocked his son back and forth as the small boy grabbed the man’s hair in fistfuls as if attempting to guide the reins of a runaway horse. There was something wrong in their interaction, something missing as the man tried time and again to explain to the fearful little boy why they were there. “It’s for the fighting,” he kept saying. “Don’t you want to see the fighting?”

Trevor took a seat next to James and Danny atop the stacks of boxes, their legs swinging over the side, heels brushing the wood. Trevor sensed something familiar about the inside of the warehouse, the way the beams along the ceiling were aligned and chipped like the barn back home. The swallows had even nested in the same places—two nests to each corner beam—and the air inside smelled of sweat and whipped hay particles.

James put his fists up, punching lefts and rights into the air. He pushed at Danny to play along. Danny shook his head and pulled back.

“Such a dump,” James said, still weaving left and right like a prize fighter.

“It’s not so bad,” Trevor said.

James turned his punching game toward Trevor and took a real shot at his arm. “No reflexes,” James said.

“Knock it off,” Trevor said, rubbing the burning in his shoulder.

“Don’t blow your top,” James taunted, but put his hands down and adjusted his position on the box.

Trevor looked over at a commotion of men in the crowd exchanging coins and paper money with a loud man collecting bets in his fists. Another man walked from behind a curtain drawn between box pallets on the far side. The first two fighters followed him. The fighter in the gray had a sharp unshaven jaw. His cotton shirt was torn as if slashed with a knife and he was wearing faded blue jeans. He walked out with confidence, alone, without expression or emotion. Trevor thought he recognized the man and tried to figure out where he had seen him before. He had the look of a field hand, muscular and full of veins, but Trevor was sure he had never seen him on any ranch. The other fighter had a pale face with a skinny dark mustache and wore no shirt. He had on dark shorts that came to his mid-thigh and showed his pale, bony legs. He was followed by what looked to be a manager, a gentleman with a nice watch, a suit and fedora. They spoke to one another in German. Trevor recognized the language because Elias Penserum used to hire extra field hands when the crop was good, and many times these men were burly Germans who didn’t speak a word of English.

Trevor lifted one leg up, tucked it into his chest and rested his chin on his knee, looking over both fighters. The two men were gloveless, just as James had said, baring their knuckles to entertain. The man who had walked the fighters into the ringed area raised his arms, signaling the start of the fight. The crowd of men clapped and stomped violently. The wood vibrated beneath the boys.

The German fighter kept his arms loose at his sides, his bare fists clenched at his hips, his feet moving quickly beneath him. The fighter in the gray kept his left arm stretched down like he was measuring something and lifted his other just under his chin. They danced in their dark leather boots, the German with a polished shine, and the fighter in the gray with muddy scuffs.

The fighters took time in sizing each other, in closing distances and retreating. When one moved to the left, the other moved around to the right, neither making a move to strike and each step countering the other as if balancing the unseen ring. Minutes passed, and the crowd started to hiss at the hopeless fighters, and then the German took a step forward and threw a fast right hand, missing the fighter in the gray. The crowd gasped and awed.

Heat seemed to be rising in the old warehouse. Trevor undid a few buttons on his shirt and looked around to see if he could spot the woman somewhere in the fog of fist-pumping men. He didn’t see her. He wondered whether or not there truly was a woman who looked so much like his mother or if it was only a silhouette and he had filled the face in himself.

The German drew back, bending his head to the right and left, touching each ear to a shoulder, over and over. The fighter in the gray stayed on his toes, balancing. When the German lunged forward with another straight right hand, the fighter in the gray side-stepped, tucked his chin to his chest, and blocked the forthcoming punch with his right arm pressed against his skull. Trevor noticed James cheering, waving his arms above his head.

But the fighter in the gray had absorbed the shock of the blow and threw an immediate left-hook, landing flush with the German fighter’s eye socket. He then took a stride forward and landed a stiff right to his opponent’s jaw. The German’s head snapped back like a tree branch and the crowd roared again. A small ache grew inside of Trevor as the German tried to step forward and regain his balance. He threw a few jabs to gain distance, but failed as the fighter in the gray dodged each, weaving, and swung a heavy right-hook that landed on the other cheek and split the German’s flesh open under the eye. Blood sprayed across the floor like a tear in a hose line, and Danny put his hands over his face. Trevor noticed James flinch and turn his head for a second, and then look around to make sure Trevor and Danny hadn’t seen him. Trevor set his eyes forward when James looked at him, as if he had seen nothing.

With each strike of the fist, the ache inside Trevor grew.

“Is it done, is it over?” Danny asked above the noise of the crowd.

The fighter in the gray stepped forward once more as the German stumbled back, putting his hand to his face, feeling for the open wound. The German hunched over for a second, and the fighter in the gray threw an uppercut under the German’s down-turned chin, knocking a tooth from the fighter’s mouth and sending him to the dirt floor. The crowd went up again as the fight came to an end. The German was out on the ground, his arms stiff at his sides, his legs shaking involuntarily. A few men ran up and patted the fighter in the gray on the back, but the fighter in the gray did not acknowledge them or what they were cheering for. He kept his head low and his chin tucked, something desperate to his face as he walked behind the curtain.

Trevor looked over at Danny still curled up and using his hands to block his sight.

“You can take your hands away,” Trevor said, “It’s okay to look now.”

“Don’t worry about him,” James said. “He’s afraid of everything.”

Trevor stared at the curtain as if he could see through the purple cloth to where the fighter in the gray was walking, fingers tipped with blood, head low and out of sight. Trevor jumped down from the box and pushed through the crowd. He didn’t know where he was going, but he knew he needed to get out of there. He could hear James yelling from afar as he left, could hear his bully chants until he walked into the cool, open air and kept moving, feeling the beat of his boots on the patchy grass.

Trevor found it somehow louder now on Locust Street. The evening was coming on, and the streets were filled with more people, mostly men in suit jackets and fedoras. The women were generally gone, and there were no children running around to weave between the people. Trevor was almost run into by a man with a thin mustache who carried a newspaper under each arm. The man turned his head and swore at Trevor as he passed by. Trevor didn’t know what it was that he did besides just being there, walking along the street at night.
Trevor decided to stay close to the storefronts after that, avoiding anyone who moved along the street.

He heard a loud whack and stopped to look through a shop window. He was so close to the glass that he wasn’t able to read the large, colorful print, but saw a very thin man inside with an apron smeared light pink. The man was making precise, hard chops at a thick cut of beef on the table in front of him. It was beef, Trevor knew, because of the way each rib bone was spaced by a quarter-inch, the length of the bones, how they curved more at the top. Trevor had never watched a man butcher a cow before as he and his father only raised the cattle and sent them to the slaughterhouse when the time was right.

Trevor watched the butcher, knowing he should look away, but couldn’t get himself to do it. The butcher chopped, then rotated the slab and came down again with the thick knife. With each swing, Trevor saw the patch-colored faces of the cattle at home, their pink tongues dangling, their rocky knees.

A glass shattered in the distance. It spooked Trevor to the point of jumping away from the butcher shop window. He looked down the street toward the sound and realized it came from the direction where the truck was parked. Trevor heard a piano playing up ahead. The music was coming from the Charles Ray Saloon, and Trevor walked that way, a little nervous about it, but he was itching to get back to the truck. Men were outside the bar with glasses of beer and tumblers of whiskey, and they stood holding their drinks at their stomachs. Trevor saw a barman on his hands and knees, sweeping the broken pieces of glass into a pile. One man put his maroon fedora on a thimble-nosed woman and took it right back off when she reached for the top of her head to adjust it.

“Well, a young boy,” one of the men shouted as Trevor drew closer to the bar.

All of the faces outside turned to Trevor. They seemed like mean faces to him, men with dark moustaches that covered so much of their face their mouths couldn’t be seen. Their eyes couldn’t be seen either under their pulled-down fedoras. Trevor’s father had always said you could know a man from the first meeting if you could get a good look into his eyes.

“Come on over, boy,” another man said. Trevor put his hands into his pockets and crossed the street to the other side. As he crossed, the crowd outside the bar hurled swears and boos in his direction, but Trevor kept on toward the truck, hoping his back would be a strong enough wall to keep the people away.

Even a few hundred paces away, Trevor could still hear the laughter of the men outside the bar. It was too loud and rude and overwhelming for him, all of it spilling out of the bar and into the street.

Trevor was relieved when he got back to the truck. He felt optimistic about the city in the day, but believed it had turned on him with the night, had put fear into his chest that rumbled down to his stomach. He sat on the truck bench and considered putting the keys in the ignition and driving away without James and Danny. He thought about it, but only briefly, because he knew his father wouldn’t back out on a promise, a deal, and though he was ready to leave, he couldn’t make himself go.

Trevor got out of the truck and pushed a thumb into the side of a tire and checked the pressure. He knew he needed to get home, and it was already darker than his father would have wanted. Trevor thought of his duty to his father, of the fact that though he sometimes wished to be anything but, he had been brought up a farmer and would die that way. He walked to the back of the truck and unwound the chicken wire at the hatch and wound it back tighter. He looked at his father’s kerchief that served in place of the gas cap, ran his hands over the kerchief and smelled the tips of his fingers. Something about the smell of gasoline fumes, the lost cap years ago, made him think of his mother, but he turned away, as if from the thought, and walked to the driver’s side of the truck where he sat down in the road, leaning up against the front tire well for support. He tried to draw a bicep in the dirt with his finger and make the muscle bend and break apart like the fighter’s did, but the lines were too thick for detail. Trevor brushed over his attempt and picked up loose pebbles instead and shot them across the road with his thumb.

In the distance down Locust, he heard the rants and calls of James and Danny. He saw the brothers skipping up the road, throwing punches through the air. Behind them, Trevor could hear faint laughter and yelling and the sounds of the people of Charles City having one too many drinks at the Charles Ray Saloon. And just behind all of that, beyond the music and the people and these two brothers coming at him so fast, their voices louder and their movements bigger as they drew closer, he could see his father at home, wringing his hands together, mumbling things to himself about rain and cattle and rooftops, and waiting patiently for his son to return home.

As Trevor drove back toward Alanthus Grove, the brothers went on and on about the fights. They talked about a fighter who had a wooden leg, about a spectator from the city who jumped into the ring and started beating a fighter with a cane because the loss cost the man a lot of money. James talked about blood and broken bones and swollen eyes. Trevor nodded all the while, but the stories didn’t interest him. He kept thinking of the fighter, trying to place him somewhere in his memory.

The engine started to click as if a small stone were rattling around inside. Trevor’s father had told him it was nothing to worry about, just one of the odd quirks that came with the truck’s personality.

“What is that?” James asked.

“It’s nothing,” Trevor said.

“Sounds like you have a broken-down engine.”

“It’s nothing.”

“Too bad you can’t afford a new truck. Pops said your stalks have been dead for years, and your cattle aren’t far behind. Your old man probably doesn’t know how to prepare the ground right. I set and tilled my mother’s garden in one afternoon a few years ago, and she said she’d never seen such rich vegetables in her whole life. He probably just doesn’t have the touch.”

Trevor lowered his head and gripped the steering wheel with his left hand. They were a few miles from the turn where he would drop the brothers off in town. He looked over at
James sitting next to Danny, his arm hanging out the window.

“You hear me?”

Trevor placed his hand over the stick shift, squeezed hard, pumped the clutch and pushed the gas, changing into higher gear, shuffling back and forth as he increased the speed.
He thought of James’s hand coming at him, up and over in a fist. The gears shifted. The wind was the only thing hitting him in the face.

“What the heck are you doing?”

Trevor breathed the cold night air, moved his head from side to side, avoiding James, avoiding everything that was coming at him. He came to a familiar turn in the road and knew the stretch exactly. He shut off the headlights, confident he could maneuver in the dark, and pushed the engine harder, racing past the fence posts.

“Jesus, are you crazy?”

Trevor punched the shift forward one more time, flying along the road as he pushed on the clutch and over to the gas: left, then right, left, then right. He could see very little in front of him and nothing behind him.

James reached for the wheel, and Trevor stomped both feet onto the brake pedal, sending the truck skittering along the gravel at an angle, almost flipping the vehicle. James and Danny were thrown against the passenger door, and Trevor braced himself, pushing hard on the steering wheel and using the strength in his legs to hold himself against the seat bench. They were a mile from the drop-off, but when the truck was finally at a standstill, the dust rising up all around, James threw the door open, pulling Danny along by the wrist, cursing Trevor and all farmers as the brothers ran off the gravel road and onto dry pasture land.

The rest of the drive was quiet. Trevor passed Elias Penserum’s land, but nobody seemed home, and the corroded barrel stood alone in the dark yard. When he got to his father’s property, he took his time rolling down the road, looking at the wooden posts as he passed them. He followed the barbed wire that traced the borders of the farm. Trevor tried to imagine it as it used to be: golden and swaying, the three square fields next to one another like the start of a natural quilt. As a small child, he used to wander beneath the stalks, dreaming of when he would be tall enough to reach the top husk. Now Trevor noticed a place where the fence needed mending, something his father mentioned but hadn’t gotten around to fixing. Trevor drove past the worn place, and then stopped the truck and got out.

The moon was high and bright up above, almost entirely full except for a small sliver, blocked on its edge by an unseen cloud. Trevor walked until his feet hit the hard earth on the edge of the field. He went back to where the fence needed mending and stopped. Trevor set his hand on a fence post as he had seen his father do on so many occasions, only this post was bent far out of its placement hole like something had knocked it real hard. He thought of what his father would be doing the next morning, ramming one of his bad shoulders into the post so it would stand up again, holding together its part of the fence.

As he continued along the bank of the road, Trevor saw about ten feet of barbs and cable hanging down, twisted around the straight pieces of wire. Trevor set his hand out to touch the wires, untangle a few so his father would have less work in the morning. He collected a little bit of the cable in his hands, careful not to cut himself, and was reminded of the bloody fingers of the fighter. He could see the fighter with a shovel in his hands, going around the dry land and digging holes in indiscriminate parts of the fields. Trevor saw him for the first time in a panic, his forearms splitting and un-splitting with each strike of the shovel, the tips of his bruised and bleeding knuckles, spending the energy of an entire day moving from one field to another, one patch to the next, scooping up dirt and creating holes, filling them back in when they didn’t reveal anything. What are you doing that for? The fighter looked up with sweat dripping from his straw hat, one strap of his overalls undone and hanging at his side. “There has to be water down here. It’s there, I know it. If I ever knew anything, I know it’s down there.”

Trevor drove the truck up near the house and pulled it in backward, the square nose facing east as his father had asked. He left the windows down so the night air would float in.
He walked along the side of the house and over to his father’s tool shed. He thought of walking into the house, but the fighter was still on his mind. Trevor brushed his hand along the side of the shed, thinking it was late enough, and his father would be in the house having coffee at the kitchen table, pretending to read the paper.

Down the hill, Trevor heard a low moan. He followed the sound a little ways then stopped and retreated to the shadow of the shed. Under the blink of the stars, he saw his father standing at the barn, Elias Penserum’s double-barrel shotgun leaning up against the outside wall. Trevor watched his father as he dragged a small metal trough across the ground, and he felt guilty for leaving his father. His old legs trembled, and Trevor could see a curve to his father’s back as he grunted and knelt down to lift the trough. His father shook as he pulled the trough into his stomach, brought it up to his beltline and carried it into the barn.

His father breathed in deep as he closed the heavy doors, one at a time. A late-night fog was forming around the barn and the lower fields like a curtain, and his father took his hat off as if he had just realized it was dark and there was no reason to have it on anymore. He set it on a post along the gate and arched his back, his chest pushed toward the moon. His father went to the side of the barn, picked up the last grain bag and began dumping it over the fence, little kernels tumbling to the ground like golden teeth. He then made a clicking sound with his tongue, incorporating a soft whistle. Out of the darkness and the fog, the cows staggered over to the fence, some flopping down on all fours to eat.

Trevor’s father took off a leather glove and reached through the fence, walking down the line, his arm carefully set between the strands of barbs, running his bare hand over any steer within reach. Then his father walked to the barn and stood near the shotgun. There was a small open box on the ground at his feet, and he bent down, pulling two shotgun shells from the box and rolling them in his hand. Trevor watched closely, trying to feel the ache of his father’s muscles, the age of his bones, all that was his father. Trevor found himself moving forward, just reaching the front of the shed when he hit a patch of uneven dirt. His step faltered, and he kicked loose gravel against the wall, sending an echo down to his father, who looked up, startled, and closed his hand over the shells.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Discussion