Winter 2003, Volume 20.2
Larry T. Menlove
Larry Menlove (B.A. in English, U of Utah) has published work in Arete, Shades, Broken Streets and Words of Wisdom. He works as a proposal writer for a library automation software company in Utah.
A mink broke loose again off Chester's ranch up on Strawberry Canal Road and made its way down to my chickens sometime early this morning. Damn near killed the whole lot of `em, till I got a piece of lead in under its tiny skull and put an end to that instinctual bloodlust coursing through its body. Can't really blame that animal none. Just doing what it felt. Wouldn't the most of us cut loose in a similar fashion, given all we'd known to that point in our existence was a two-by-two foot wire pen and water from an aluminum nipple and cold byproduct for sustenance? Oh yeah, I'm sure I'd be out raiding the hen house myself, no doubt, sinking my teeth into something warm. And before you all start to thinking I'm one of them animals' rights activists let me put an end to that notion right here. I am a man of the Old Testament. Animals are here for our benefit. We are their stewards. And in like, seeing how I'm all elevating myself to the words of the Good Book, I feel an eye for an eye is right good justice, and that's why after I killed that pretty son-of-a-bitch rat I walked straight up through the fields, past the hay bales that were starting to leech off that musty smell sitting there in the morning sun, with a newly dead mink and one of my bloody cold White Dorkings in my left hand and my .22, barrel still warm, in my right. I've known old Chester at the ranch a good long time. Sometimes he's a fair man, but most times he's a real first rate pain in the ass, and always one to dispute. But I had the dead proof this time—and my rifle. Stewardship. It's what this world needs a little bit more of.
I guess Mother must have seen me headed up through the alfalfa field with my dead cache and my rifle and sent our boy, Hog, out to try and put some sense in my head. Mother's always thinking that I'm leaning toward the loony side of things, that I'm a loose ball on a newel post ready to fall off and roll out under the feet of some unsuspecting bastard and ruin his day. Sometimes that woman don't know thing one about the man she married. I'm steady as an ox and fair as the day is long. Shoot. It burns me her inability to see what it is I'm up to most all the time. But now I'm coming off sounding all harsh and stuff towards her. That's not it at all. She's first rate, no doubt, sticking it out with an old coot like me.
About the time I'm leaning on the fence next to the canal road, pushing the rusted barbed wire down, making it creak against the fence posts, giving myself a little crotch clearance, Hog pulls up in his big, black GMC truck. When the dust settles, there's Hog grinning at me through the rolled down window. He's got his elbow hanging out over the door, and he shakes his head, one of those side to center with a little skip and a cluck of his tongue deals. I tell you what, that smile coming from Hog is about one of the best things I've seen in a long time. Can't remember even if he's so much as grinned since the accident.
Hog has been living back home with us since last spring. His wife was killed in a car accident. Blames himself. Lost his good job a lawyering up in Salt Lake City, and now he's back to the warehouse out the other side of Payson. I hear him crying in his room sometimes at night. Says it was his fault Darla died, says they got in a fight that day and he didn't do nothing to stop her. She tore off a cussing in the Bronco, and not more than three blocks from home she smashed right into the side of a school bus, tipped the whole damn thing over. No kids on board, but scraped the poor bus driver up pretty good, and Darla, she didn't have a chance. Steering column went right through her. Saddest damn thing I ever did know. And then come to find out Darla was two months pregnant. Hog, all distraught, took to drinking. I'm sure he went through more liquor than I ever cared to drink in all my days, and I've tied a few on, let me tell you. His boss at the law firm gave him a month's time to bereave but then cut him loose after all Hog's clients up and left him. Eight years of schooling—ten if you count the two years he spent dinking around in Australia—shot to hell. Just a sad deal all the way around. Hog's drinking has trailed off considerable since he moved back in with us.
Sometimes I'll tell him to go out and find himself another wife. What for, he'll say, and I'll say why not, and he won't have anything to say to that, and so that pretty much ends it there.
Hog's not his real name. It's LeGrand. LeGrand Hawkstead, Jr., after me, LeGrand Hawkstead, Sr. Sometime or other, when Hog was a teenager or thereabouts, the kids in town latched on to Hog. They had called him Hawk for the longest time, but then there was this cleft-palleted kid named Crouch moved in that couldn't quite say it right. Hog stuck good with the rest of them kids around town. It's lasted. Sometimes catch myself calling him that. Shoot, you can't blame me; it's easier to say than LeGrand.
"Where you going?" he asks me.
"Oh, up to see Chester," I say. It's like I'm on any other social call, except for the dead animals hanging from my hand—and the firearm of course.
"Give you a ride?"
I throw the dead ones in the bed and get in the cab with Hog, my rifle between my knees. I look once over at Hog, and sure as hell there's a grin still there, so I ask him what it is in the name of all that's good, bad and indifferent that he finds so damned hysterical. All he can do is shake his head. So I ask him ain't he going to be late for work, and he says no. Just no. Like that. No. Well, what with the smile that no one has seen on his mug for a good long time, and his careless attitude toward his job, I can't help but think he's been after the bottle bright and early this morning, and so I lean over like to see if I can't smell the booze, but I do it sly when the truck bounces a bit over the rough dirt road, swaying over near him and back around. I don't smell nothing, maybe a hint of coffee. Likely was coffee. Reminds me I haven't had anything to eat—straight through skipped breakfast, hunting down mink and assessing the carnage in the hen house and all. And I start playing with the notion that old Chester might be amiable enough to set me down at his table for bacon and eggs.
When Hog pulls the truck down Chester's lane, I know right off something's not quite fitting into the general direction of your typical Monday morning here. Down at the end of the dirt lane there's a pile of old wood with all sorts of nails sticking out of it. It's a good four-foot high pile. We see Chester dragging more material across the scruff of lawn in front of his house and throw it up atop the heap and then head back around to the backside of his house.
Hog kills the truck a safe distance from the pile, and we get out. I reach for the dead hen and mink, but then I hear Chester muttering quite loud coming back around the corner of his house, and I think better of producing my evidence just then.
He's talking nonsense, best I can make of the noise coming from him. Chester's never been one to speak with any kind of a cultured eloquence—mostly two, three words at any one time with an "aw-hum" tagged on to the backside of what he's said, like an extra word that didn't quite get out and was strangled half-way up from his vocal chords. If I'm in the right mood I find it a bit appealing, the way Chester speaks. But he's talking long drawn out blathering sentences and no aw-hums. It has me a bit curious at the least and down right disturbed at best. I leave the mink and hen in the bed of the truck with my .22 laid down beside them.
"…Now what is it I'm a gonna do next winter…I been a holding court that there side a the table long on thirty years…shoot…why in hell these damn nails…minking all these wasted years…just to up and go…both of `em…."
Right along this time Chester spots us, and he has a look of utter surprise on his face—like we caught him with his pants down or something. He drops the boards he's dragging along and stares at us. I'm thinking then he doesn't even recognize his neighbors, me of a good forty years and Hog of off and on twenty-eight some odd. I'm a bit stunned by it all, so I just stare back, a standing there in Chester's driveway, suddenly all very quiet.
"Hey ya, Chester," I offer. And he still stares, his faced flushed and sweaty. His baldhead gleams in the sunlight, and his eyes are as red as pie cherries.
Then it's like some kind of ghost lifts off of him, and he's back to his old self. He looks away and says, "Yeah, aw-hum." He stoops down and picks up the boards and drags them off to the pile. He drops one board and hefts the other up on to the heap and then throws the other one up on top, too.
"She's dead, aw-hum," he says and turns his back on us walking towards the other side of the house. "Back there, in the raspberry patch," he says. "Yesterday, I figure. Heart, I suspect." He disappears around the corner of the house.
Hog and I look at each other like a couple of idiots—truth is we're both a bit befuddled. We hear nails shrieking, being torn from wood, and the echo of boards falling on one another.
Now we both start moving back toward the raspberry patch, slow like, as though we haven't got a care what Chester's a talking about, this "She's dead, aw-hum" business. Chester's not always been the stablest.
He's got a wife, named Naomi, quite a lot younger than him; I'd say Chester's got a good fifteen years on her, pretty little thing she is, shy as a blue jay on the porch, though. I'm hoping beyond hope that Naomi's not dead back there in the raspberries that are big and black, falling off the thorny branches, littering the ground. And I see just her legs sticking out in the middle of the row about half way back. The soles of her red Keds are pointing up. Her ankles are a dusty gray beneath tight blue pedal pusher pants. And I think she's just resting or hiding from Chester. I stare at her feet and will them to move, by-god to stand, to quickly carry her off into the house like they always do when I show up to say hey to Chester. But those feet, those legs, they're dead.
Hog slips past me, reverent, in no hurry, just fixed on confirming what we know already. He reaches through the raspberry branches and lifts her arm. It makes the whole body tilt to the side; a little skuff of dirt kicks up from her stiff foot, and a bucket of raspberries spills over onto the ground. The raspberries are all clumped together like one living, shaking mass that breaks apart and collapses at Naomi's side. A hundred black pieces briefly scatter and are still. Hog lets go of her arm, lets her kind of plop back. He stands there straight with his back to me, unmoving, looking down. Then he lifts his head, rubs his hand against his cheek and slowly turns around.
I see it in Hog's face as he walks back up the raspberry row: It's all bad. Any gained ground in that smile back in the truck is gone for sure.
Hog walks right past me, deliberate, towards the back of the house, like a man with purpose. What that purpose is I'm not at all sure, but he's got a task. I can see that much. A black streak goes off under Hog's truck. A mink peeks around the back tire, looks at me, at Hog, who's headed now back around the house. I guess that mink figured this was as good a time as any to make a run for it, and it slinks off up the drive, low to the ground, quick as lightning. I think for a second about getting my rifle and taking a shot at it, but then here comes old Chester and Hog, dragging boards.
I say to Chester don't he think we ought to get a doctor, call someone, start doing what needs to be done, but he says, "No, aw-hum." Just like that. And Hog doesn't even back me up. He's already headed back around the house again.
I'll be damned if I don't want to know what it is the two of them's all set on dismantling there and dragging over here. So I go take a look.
Chester's old mink shed sits about thirty feet off the house. It's been there some twenty—shoot, maybe thirty years now. I remember the summer I helped him build it. I was out of work, and Chester gave me the handout. Didn't pay me much really, a cold beer here and there, but he let me have all the milk, eggs, and vegetables that I needed. Got Mother and me through the rough time, Chester did.
That was right about the time Chester married Naomi. She was here from Bountiful visiting family when Chester met her down to the Wee Blue Inn. I know Chester was first rate, never coming back again, taken by the exotic, not-from-here demeanor about her. How he managed to even get her to talk to him I don't know, but they got hitched three, maybe four weeks later.
I remember it was Naomi's idea to raise mink. She'd read some article in one of them New York magazines about how mink ranchers were cleaning up back East, and so she figured they could raise themselves some mink and maybe their standard of living to boot. I believed Naomi just didn't care much for cows nor the few moth-eaten chickens Chester had roaming round the place. Like I said, she was shy, but she had some high-minded ideas. I was worried she might change old Chester. But, other than the mink ranching, he's not changed much at all. Come to think about, it's Naomi that'd been touched by our simple ways around here.
The mink shed is about fifty feet long and twenty wide. It's made of wood—good solid pine that's lasted and weathered quite nicely over the years. There's an angled roof with tar shingles, and down the length of both walls is about two foot of mesh wiring that lets the breeze through it in the summer time to cool the mink. Chester tacks down plastic sheeting over it in the colder weather. Seeing how it's late June, the plastic's all down now. Ordinarily, you can see through the mesh and see the mink he's got in there, but now I see there's no mink in the pens, and three quarters of the front of the shed is gone. A big gaping hole. I can see the dust mites floating around in the sunlight inside the shed, and there's Chester yanking at a board, tearing the thing down, and Hog's on the other side just around the corner with a big old nail-puller popping nails out like it's nobody's business. They got a fair pile of boards building up, and I just stop and watch.
As it is wont to do, standing here in Chester's back yard, my gaze wanders off up the slope of Dry Mountain that heads up just a hundred feet from Chester's back fence. I look at the oak and rabbit brush up along the ragged gray rocks that dot the slope on up to the cedars draping Molly's Nipple. The heavy grasses on the mountain are starting to yellow ever just so as summer takes hold.
A great creak and a thunk brings me down off the mountain to the business at hand, that of tearing down the minking shed. The corner post is standing there, laid bare, holding up the roof truss. Way back when Chester and I spent a whole day putting the four corner posts in, we dug holes two feet deep and set the old, long railroad ties in with concrete. That day Chester was going on about how four solid corners make the building, aw-hum, foundation and so forth, aw-hum. And here he was tearing down that building, even now pushing against the corner post, grunting, reworking his footing. It wasn't budging.
I walk up casual, square an eye at Hog, who doesn't look at me, and say to Chester, "What you doing, Chester?" Maybe that's a boneheaded thing to ask, but damn it, I'm really struggling with everything that's going on around here. What with my dead chickens, Chester's dead wife stiffening up in the raspberry patch, rogue mink running round the countryside, the pile of lumber building in the drive, this here shed (that I do happen to take some pride in) being dismantled, and my own son, who should be at work out to the warehouse right now, working up a sweat, ripping nails out of Chester's old mink shed. Good hell almighty. What is it?
"Done with the mink."
"Aw-hum," I add under my breath.
That's all he's going to let on at the moment, so I walk in through the open back door of Chester's house. It's hot as damnation in the kitchen. Smells of cantaloupe and spoiled milk. There's dishes piled on the counter. Two or three bowls are upended on the floor, and bread slices and empty cans and I don't know what all else is scattered everywhere. Looks like Chester's had himself a food fight. I walk on into the front room. A gray, (that'd be sable, I guess) mink darts off down the hallway and rounds the corner into one of the back rooms. Scares hell from me for a second, makes my hands jump from my side and my heart chug. Blankets are draped over the couch, balled up, knotted. An empty bottle of Jack Daniels lies on the coffee table. Oreo Cookies scattered across the beige carpet. I'm guessing Chester got into the sweets after Naomi passed. I don't know that I could create this much havoc in two days, set free in my house, but then Chester's not quite himself at this point either. Poor bastard.
Suddenly I've got a lump in my throat. I'm thinking of Mother. Ah hell. Her name's Renay. I'm seeing her face down in my corn rows, just three feet high now, and I'm wondering what it is exactly I would do if I found her dead that way. And I'm feeling it work its way up from my chest. This tightness welling up, making my face get all kinked, and my shoulders start jerking. I'm crying. Been so long I think there's something seriously wrong with me. I mess with the fear that at my age it could give me a heart attack or a stroke or one of them aneurisms. At the very least I feel like I might throw something out, sprain my neck. Hell, it's not something I'm used to. I got misty eyed at Darla's funeral, but that's all. This is like debilitating. Lord. For the life of me, I feel like all my long-earned control is gone. I'm a worthless mess of snot and tears. A blubbering old man, down now on his knees, clutching one of Chester's blankets, fumbling for balance.
I guess maybe I'm feeling like the odd man out here. My Renay's still alive. But then I start to doubt myself. I know she was alive this morning when I charged out to the chicken coop. She was there standing in her chiffon housedress by the back door, hair mussed and flat on the right side of her head, on account she can't lie on her left side from the bad hip. I can still see the dried mucus in the corners of her eyes, and I can smell her kind of sour lemon scent.
I'm panicking now, searching for a phone, remembering Chester has one on his bed stand. Two, three mink scatter and make indiscernible shrieking noises as I scramble into the bedroom. One of Chester's chickens, its head near eaten away, is on the floor. I kick it out of the way and pick up the phone.
"Hello," she says. And, of course, I feel like a total dipshit.
"Oh…" I say. "Um, Hog and me, we're up to Chester's. He's had a bit a trouble." Strangely, that's all I want to say to her right now, and after telling her not to worry, and yes, it's all right she goes into town with her friend Adelade to buy some specials at the Thriftway, I say goodbye. I sit there on Chester's bed for a spell, listen to the nails shrieking and the boards falling outside.
I wander into the front room, look around a bit, nothing in particular, glancing over the mayhem. Then my eyes focus on a picture over the end table beside the couch. It's a small picture, no more than a wallet-size photo in a fancy frame, all swirly on the corners and such. Light from the lamp shines faintly up through the top of the shade and on to the photo.
As long as I've been coming out here to Chester's I don't remember seeing this photo on the wall. Of course, most times were spent out on the porch shooting the shit with Chester. I lean in close to see who it is. A dark-haired boy about eight years old sitting on a red tricycle with a big nothing-but-teeth smile looks back at me. It's Naomi and Chester's son Dalan. Cruelty every damn place in this here world.
Dalan got leukemia way back when, soon after this here photo was taken, I'm guessing. He was the same age as Hog, little classmates in Mrs. Dimple's third grade class. Damn poor kid, all shriveling up to nothing, not knowing what in hell's happening to him, carted off to this doctor and that specialist; all he knows is that he's gone bald and mom and dad are beside themselves with grief and desperation. Ah hell. I don't pretend to know the sorrow. I don't know what death is. Lord. I'm lucky to get along in the living let alone the after. I do know what it can do to a man to lose someone close. Shoot. And I've seen enough reminders for one morning, by god.
If Chester wants to tear down his mink shed, push against a corner post, while his wife lays there in the raspberry patch, I guess I don't care, if that's what he's wont to do. And Hog. Lord-Amighty. Him, too.
I walk out to the truck, get the rifle from the bed, get in the cab and start her up. We're from the country. Don't no one put their keys in their pocket after they shut off a truck. Not even Hog, who's been around some. I back down out of the driveway and onto the canal road and head for home.
I walk in the kitchen. Adelade's come by and picked Mother up already, and it's quiet. Not eerie quiet, just no one home quiet. I can hear that confounded cat clock on the wall a ticking, its tail switching back and forth while its eyes are doing the same, hands in its belly let me know that it's going on eleven. Realize I haven't done a thing productive-wise to think of yet today.
I make myself a sandwich, 'cause I'll be damned if I'm not long for breakfast. I pile slices of the ham leftover from yesterday's Sunday supper between two slices of Mother's white bread slathered in mayo and mustard. That first bite sticks some in my throat. I wash it down with milk, whole. And I eat it all. I wipe my face with one of the napkins Mother keeps in a holder she made at one of them meetings of hers: two pieces of wood glued to a base, painted nice, little figurines holding a sign says "Good Morning, Sunshine!"
Out in the shed behind the house I put away the rifle and find the good heavy chain, sturdy straight-linked, what I used for pulling the black locusts stumps up along the ditch last fall. I drag it to Hog's truck, drop the tailgate and throw it up in next to the chicken and dead mink.
Driving out on the canal road, slow, avoiding the bumps and the pits, I think that sun's mighty high in the day, and I roll down the window, hang my elbow out in the breeze, and pay no heed to the black mink up ahead that just disappeared like an afterthought into the dense undergrowth beside the road.