By Larry Lynch
A highway, not far from where the boy lived with his parents, collected traffic from the winding back roads of their community and funneled it west. At night a distant hum spread from the highway through the tall, yellow grass, and around stunted, little trees to echo off their house. If the boy stood in the darkness facing in the direction of the highway, it was faint. If he turned his back on it and faced the house, it sounded so close. In the daytime it was silent. He thought it was strange.
At night after supper he would watch television while his mother busied herself with small details in the kitchen, frequently looking out of the window in the direction of the shed. She would wash the insides of cupboards and refold dish towels and look outside every time a car passed by or the dogs barked. She would ask the boy if his lessons were done, and ask him to turn to the weather channel to see what the weather was like in Alberta. If by ten o’clock the father had not come in from the shed, she would say to the boy, "Go out and check on your father." After being asked twice, the boy would go out; he’d find his father, as always, sitting on a block of wood, his elbows resting on his knees, and peeling the label from a bottle or sharpening his knife. The boy would act as if he had gone out to the shed of his own volition to torment the dogs or bounce a tennis ball against the wall.
"Yeah," his father would say. It was a catch-all word that his father used, and by the varied tone it could mean either "yes", or "really?", or, "so, your mother sent you out to see what I was doing."
"Your lessons done?" he would ask the boy, and, "What's your mother doing?" Then, "Go on. Tell her I'll be right in."
His father was not a big man. He had narrow shoulders and thin arms, and the hard-hat he wore to work left an indentation across his forehead that lasted a few hours after he came home. He had slender fingers and his wedding band spun freely between his wide flat knuckles. Normally pale, his face was vermilion when he drank, and his eyes seemed not to blink – a constant, gray scrutiny. He passed neither his size, coloring, nor disposition on to either of his three sons.
One night he stumbled into the kitchen earlier than usual. "Take me out home," he called to the boy, balancing himself against the wall. Out home was the house that the boy's grandfather built, but never finished to his grandmother's satisfaction. It was where the boy's father had been brought up, and was only a short drive from where the boy now lived with his parents. The boy's aunt, older than the boy's father and unmarried, still lived at the homestead and tended to her aging and difficult mother.
The boy was sixteen and a head taller than his father, and careful not to sound contemptuous while suggesting he take a nap first.
"YOU can go to bed, or to hell for that matter," his father replied. "And if you won't drive me, I'll drive myself." He would.
The boy stood there.
"Well?", the father said.
The boy's mother put the kettle on to boil and started making sandwiches for lunches in the morning.
"Where are the keys, Ann?"
She didn't turn. "John, you're not ... "
"I said, where-are-the-damn-keys?" He enunciated every word.
She flinched as if struck in the back of the head.
"All right," he said, "I'll find them myself." He pulled the drawers open in the kitchen and began blindly scooping the contents onto the floor. "Is this what you want?" he asked them.
The mother nodded to her purse behind her chair and the boy went for the keys. His father stopped. The boy watched him grow calm, and watched his mother pick the contents from the drawers up from the floor, trying to guarantee the peace. She never made excuses for him and treated his behavior as something temporary, the same way she did with cold weather and misfortune. In bed at night, the boy would often hear them quietly talking, his father placated, and thought, perhaps, his mother was right.
In the small bathroom attached to the kitchen, the father combed his cowlick into place, brushed his bottom teeth, and inserted his top ones. He patted himself all over and dug through breast pockets that bulged with crumpled tissue and a package of cigarettes. "Go out and check in the shed for my lighter," – milder, but not a request.
The boy went outside to the shed, knowing that his mother would add tea bags to the boiling kettle in hopes that his father might drink some. He knew she would ask him to wait until another time to visit his mother. The boy and his mother both knew what was waiting for him there.
The boy's grandmother hated liquor. She tortured and belittled the boy's grandfather over his love for it until he died. That much he remembered – that, and a square mocking face, tobacco juice streaked in the whiskers on his chin, and brown quart bottles hidden behind bags of feed in the barn. "Don't play behind the barn," the grandmother warned the boy and his brothers when they were young. "That's where Papa pees." She would lure them into the house for bread and molasses, but she never called the old man into the house, even when supper was ready. When the boy's father didn't visit his mother for days, the aunt would call and say, "Mama wants to know if John's drinking." The boy would always lie. But his mother would tell the aunt, "You can ask him yourself," and send the boy to get his father. The boy never saw his grandmother outside the house, except for the day of his grandfather's funeral. He remembered she needed a coat so she could go, and they bought her one with a fur collar and she hated it.
The dogs barked and rubbed themselves against the boy's legs, and the porch light cast his shadow far into the yellow weeds behind the shed. The grass had finished growing for another year, and a bare path under the clothes line led from the shed to the house.
The shed had a large door with wide boards going from corner to corner with a smaller door cut into the larger one. The shed had been called a barn until the boy was nine, until his older brothers moved west to the oil fields, and his father got rid of all the animals. Now it served only as a place for his father to store odds and ends, as well as a place for him to brood and stack cases of empty bottles against the wall in effigy.
The door was hard to open, and even on calm days a wind seemed to slam it shut once he was inside. Light bulbs hanging from cords provided meager light, and coils of rope and rusty fencing wire hung on nails. Some shovels leaned haphazardly in the corner, some with dung and straw permanently adhered to them. The section of the plank floor where the wood stove stood had been worn smooth by the hooves of a cow. The boy remembered how the cow repeatedly flicked its shitty tail in his father's face while he tried to milk it, and how his father retaliated with one of the shovels. The dogs sniffed into every corner, and after all those years, the boy could not decide if the faint smell of animals was real or imagined.
He remembered how his father put on his rubber boots to clean the pig pen and say to the boy, "You coming?" The boy would get in the pen, staying close to his father, holding a bag of clean wood shavings, ready to spread them around once his father had thrown the last shovel-full of manure out the window of the barn. The boy wouldn't turn his back on the feeding pig though the greedy animal never lifted its head. He was spreading the shavings around when his father grabbed his pant leg from behind and squealed loudly. The boy jumped and struggled not to cry as his father laughed, tipping his head back and the boy could see his toothless top gums.
And while they still had animals, and the boy’s brothers were still at home, the boy's father would, at times, sit with them in the kitchen after supper. He would pour part of his beer into a glass for the boy's mother. "Do you remember when the pig bit you?" he would say to the boy, and laugh as loud as the day it had happened. "Don't tease him," the mother would say, and grin herself, pushing her heavy hair behind her ears with hands soapy from the dish water.
In the shed, the dogs inspected their dishes and stared curiously at the boy upon finding them empty. He hoped his father had changed his mind, or had some tea. He expected neither. The boy found the lighter on the block of wood and put seven empty bottles into a box. He led the dogs from the shed. Facing the house he could hear the steady hum from the highway, trucks changing gears, their tires whining.
The boy's mother was putting tea bags and a spoon in his father's lunch can. "He's asleep," she whispered and nodded toward the living room. He was on the couch with his coat on, and one arm hung near the floor. Deep, unconscious breaths repeatedly drew his bottom lip in to touch his false teeth. "Do you want his tea?" she asked.
"No," the boy said.
"Can you feed the dogs? Do you mind?"
"I will," he said.
She made barely a sound as she washed the dishes, and never once glanced outside. When the phone rang, she outstretched a cautionary arm to him. "Don't wake him," she mouthed. The boy answered.
"Hey, how are ya?"
"It's Kevin," the boy said, and his mother came and stood next to him, drying her hands on her apron. "Not bad," he said.
"Here," the boy said.
"Where's Dad? In the shed?"
"No, he's asleep on the couch."
"Still at it, eh?"
"Yeah. You want Mom?" The boy passed the phone to his mother. His father's lip was still going in and out.
His mother always asked if it was cold there, and if they were saving any money, and when they might be coming home. She twisted her hair into worried gray and black coils. She asked if they ever saw any of the other boys who were from the road who had moved west as well. The boy remembered the call that made his mother cry; Kevin called that time to tell her that John Jr. had a girl friend , from Calgary, and that he and Kevin no longer worked at the same place or lived together.
When they called, she would get the boy to flick the porch light off and on. The boy's father would come in and sit and listen to her talk to them, and she would repeat to him what they were saying. When the father talked to them, he'd say, "Yeah...Yeah...Is that right?...Yeah...Well, here's your mother," and pass her the phone and go back outside. The father never asked her how they were doing, but always listened when she told him, and she always did.
THE SPRING BEFORE John Jr. graduated, the sow was to have a litter of pigs. The boy's father worked shift work; sometimes night shifts for a week at a time. He asked John Jr. to watch the sow, and when she had the litter to move them away from the mother and put them under the heat lamp. The lamp hung in the corner of the pen – it was a red mushroom-shaped bulb with a tin pie plate reflector. After the father went to work, John Jr.'s girl friend arrived. They watched the bloated and listless pig lay on its side, and flies swarmed around its uneaten food. John Jr.’s girlfriend clamped her hands over her face the whole time they were in the barn, and the two of them disappeared into the house and into his room until she left. After she went home John Jr. checked on the sow – he found two pigs connected to teats, and four more suffocated under the mother. The boy and John Jr. watched as the sow had three more, and he moved all nine under the lamp.
The next morning as the boy readied for school, he could hear John Jr. saying he was sorry, and hear his father swearing and striking him. The boy walked past his brother's room and looked inside. His brother’s face was wet and he dabbed at his lip.
"What the fuck are you lookin' at?" he said to the boy.
"You swore," the boy said.
"Get outa here you little fuckin' tattle tale," he roared.
"John..." his mother warned from downstairs.
Before going to school, the boy went to the barn with his father and watched him feed the sow and place the feeding piglets safely under the lamp again. She was ravenous and hung heavy with milk. The father picked the dead ones up by a hind leg and placed them outside the pen with only a casual glance from the mother. The boy stared at them on the floor, and wondered if the mother had heard them, wondered if they made a sound or just trusted she would rise and save them.
"You go catch the bus," his father said, "you can come out after school." His father climbed out of the pen and shut the door behind the boy as he left. All day at school he could see the compressed staring piglets, see their soft, little tongues in their open mouths, wanting to breathe, to feed, to squeal.
Each day the school bus let the boy and his brothers off at the gate. The boy went straight to the barn; his brothers went into the house. The top rail of the pen was eye level to the boy and the pails of water and feed were too heavy for him to lift into the pen and pour into the trough. When his father worked nights, his brothers would argue over whose turn it was to do the barn work. The boy stood on a board half-way up the front of the pen, leaned over and watched his father. The fattest pigs were attached to the fattest teats near the mother's hind legs.
"Watch this," the father said, and numbered the feeding pigs in order with a felt marker. He took them away from the mother, then let them go scampering back. They reattached themselves in the same order, and on the same teats: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. The boy laughed and asked him to do it again. His father confessed to learning that from his own dad (he rarely mentioned him since he died), and for a moment stared blankly at the pigs, listening to them suckle, with his own mouth loose and open.
"Did you show John Jr. and Kevin?" the boy asked.
"No," the father said. "You can climb in and show them after I go to work." He grinned. The boy thought not. The boy's father said the pigs would be ready for sale when they were eating on their own. Except the dead ones, the boy thought - 6, 7, 8, and 9. "Bev will take one," his father said.
Bev Allison lived up the road. He was taller, wider, and several years older than the boy's father. His face was pale and puffy, and folds of skin drooped under his distended eyes. Bev kept a large number of animals, and had a sour smell of smoke, manure and liquor. The father would call him when he was not sure of something – anything. "I'll be right up," Bev would say, and drive his truck to their house. He never talked much on the phone, just got in his truck and came to their house. The father had come to expect that, and always kept a bottle in the barn for him. Bev had known the boy's grandfather and helped him in much the same way, as well as sharing his love for the barn and for the bottle. The boy's grandmother detested him.
It was Bev who found the old man dead in the barn. And it was Bev who smoked a soggy cigarette in a cold drizzle waiting for the ambulance to arrive. He knocked on the door, and told the aunt what he had found. She came out, but went no farther than the doorway of the barn. The old woman pushed back the drapes in the kitchen window and looked out only once.
One afternoon, the boy could hear the squealing from the end of the lane when he got off the bus. In the barn, the father held one of the squirming male pigs tightly under his arm, and Bev stood poised with a razor blade.
"Go in the house," his father said. The boy stood there – the pig squealed.
"Let him stay, John," Bev said, squinting to keep smoke from his dangling cigarette out of his eyes.
The father looked at the boy and then resignedly at Bev. "Go ahead," he said.
Bev pinched the pig's scrotum so the testicles bulged between his fingers. He cut the scrotum and squeezed the testicles through the slit. He pulled them, cut the cords attaching them, and rubbed his hands on his pants. Pig #3 was still squealing, but no louder than before the boy came, as Bev dabbed iodine where it was bleeding
"You wanna try?" Bev asked the boy. He laughed and appeared to enjoy it more than seemed reasonable – a light-hearted perversity – something the boy knew his father wasn't capable of. He finished his cigarette with his bloody fingers close to his face.
"You gonna do the next one?" Bev asked the father.
"You're doin' fine," the boy's father said.
That summer the pigs had all been sold, and John Jr. graduated and moved west. His mother lied (a little) about how much the bus ticket was, and the father paid. She started the next day knitting socks and mitts to send to him. Kevin would follow a year later. The boy was still unable to lift water and feed into the pens, and his father still worked shift-work, and grew more irritable.
The fall that Kevin left, the boy saw a truck from town come and drive into the pasture, and take the cow away. The truck returned a week later with boxes of meat which the boy helped his mother carry to the basement and arrange in the freezer. After school on another day, he counted a dozen or more heads on the ground behind the barn – chicken eyes wide and anxious, reddened neck feathers. And one afternoon while getting off the bus, he saw the sow hanging headless in the frame of the large door of the barn, saw it's entrails hit the ground shiny and intact, and saw Bev wipe the blade off on his pants.
NOW, THERE WERE only the two dogs, and the boy fed them as he had promised while his mother talked with Kevin on the phone. He filled the dishes and set them at opposite ends of the shed so the dogs wouldn't fight – they would eat quickly and look for more in the other's dish. The boy took his father's place on the block – it's top was worn smooth from sitting. A bone-handled knife that had belonged to his grandfather hung from a nail. Some of the rivets in the sheath had fallen out and been replaced with shiny copper ones, and the blade was narrow and shapeless from many sharpenings. The smooth beige handle had deep red stains, darker near the hilt. The father would whittle with it, and file it needlessly. The last time Bev used it was the last time it saw blood. "Your old man could put an edge on this thing," Bev would tell the boy’s father.
The father had told the boy of the brutal way the boy's grandfather butchered pork. He said he would throw a rope over a rafter above the pen and tie a slip knot in the end. The rope was heavy, yellow nylon with the ends melted to keep them from fraying. Once the pig bit the rope (pigs are stupid, the father said) he would pull his end tight, like he was instructed, and the knot would cinch around the pig's snout and hold his head up. His father would insert the knife--he knew just where--and blood would pulse out into a plastic bucket. The pig's front legs were the first to buckle. It was a long six or seven minutes-the squealing, the rope reddening his hands-- until the pulses weakened and stopped. They would take the boards off the front of the pen, and drag the animal out to be dressed and immersed in a barrel of boiling water so the hair could be scraped off. The boy asked why his grandfather did it like that. The boy’s father shrugged and said he didn’t know, and that he’d grown sick of blood pudding long ago.
The boy fingered the blade of the knife.
"Don't cut yourself." The father came into the shed, and the dogs ran to him. His jacket was rumpled and he squinted. The boy put the knife in its sheath and stood.
"Were you talking to Kevin?" the boy asked.
"No. Your mother is still on the phone." He stroked the dogs' heads. "You comin?"
"Where?" The boy asked.
"I guess." He put down the knife. "Still want me to drive?"
Cold wind sucked through the door and the dogs rushed outside.
The boy did not drive often – his father was nervous. One was the reason for the other. The boy drove slowly as darkened turns absorbed the car, and dense fir and spruce trapped the head lights in their tangled branches. The boy was doing fine and his father relaxed.
"He's coming home," the boy's father said.
Kevin was coming home. "Why?" the boy asked.
"I don't know. Slow down," he said and pointed to the lane.
The lane was crowded with alders, some of them whisking the side of the car. The kitchen lights were on and his aunt pulled aside the curtains when they drove in the yard. The place had not changed much since his grandfather died. Though clean white siding covered weathered shingles, and green shutters added needed color, the house appeared only scantly more modern. The oil barrel that stood out like a boil at the front of the house for years had disappeared, and the porch still smelled of cooking grease and wet dogs. The only hint there was ever a barn was a fertile, grassy mound behind the house. The old man had chosen to die there, and after the funeral the grandmother wasted no time in having it bulldozed.
The boy's aunt had been taking the pins out of her mother’s hair, getting her ready for bed. The old woman held the pins in her lap and her hair on one side hung crinkled over her shoulder. Something between annoyance and self-consciousness flickered briefly on her face. The boy's father pulled a chair to where she sat. The aunt joined the boy in the kitchen.
"Are you hungry?" she asked him.
"No, thanks," he said.
"Is he drinking?"
The boy knew that was her real concern. "Some," he answered.
She stood with an ear turned in the direction of her brother who sat awkwardly before their mother. She turned off the radio that was buzzing in the kitchen.
“Kevin is coming home,” the boy said.
“Why?” she asked.
The father pulled his chair closer to his mother, and tried to cup one of her withered hands. She fretted with her hair. "Are you drinking, John?" she asked.
"Yes, Mama, but I'm OK."
"It's late you know," she said and she stopped patting the back of her half-unpinned head and allowed him take one of her hands. He held it tight and stroked the back with his thumb.
THE DAY OF THE grandfather's funeral, the old house was filled with food and children and incredulous family. The boy was seven. His grandmother showed little emotion and people swarmed around her, touching her. His aunt made tea and set out plates of sandwiches. Everyone pretended. "Can I get you something?" the aunt asked her mother. "Do you want to go lie down?"
The old woman just sat there.
"DO YOU WANT TO GO TO BED, Mama?" The aunt approached where the boy's father was leaned forward, clutching his mother's hand.
"In a minute," the old woman said.
"John," the aunt said, "why couldn't you wait?" and she contorted her face in disgust.
THE WOMEN SAT WITH CUPS of tea in their laps, and tissue balled into their fists. Other men stood in semicircles talking, and the boy’s brothers stood by themselves, shifting from one foot to the other, and watched their father slump in a chair next to his mother. The boy went outside to the barn, to play where he had never been allowed.
Sunlight splayed through cracks in the wall, and flies darted in and out of the dust-filled rays. They buzzed in the cooling air, searching in the still present stench of straw soaked with shit and urine; but there were no animals, just the smell, and bags of feed and dusty quart bottles lying in the corners. The boards were off the front of the pen and a yellow rope was heaped on the dirt floor. The boy picked up the dirty rope and untangled it. He played with it, stretched it out, saw that it had been cut in the middle, and found an intricate knot in one end. He studied the knot, and pulled on the free end to find the loop growing smaller, tighter. He tightened it around his arm, testing the strength of the curious knot. He could hear his aunt calling him.
"Where'd you..." She came into the barn carrying some sweets on a napkin. "Oh my God," she shrieked. "Don't touch that!" and she shook the boy until he dropped the rope, and she covered her mouth with a trembling hand. A lemon square and some macaroons fell and were covered with dirt.
THE FATHER PAID no attention to his sister standing next to him. His thumb stroking the supple, aged skin. The boy fingered the car keys.
"I love you, Mama," he said.
"I know, John," she said. "I know."
His shoulders rounded, and heaved as he sobbed.
"I love you, Mama," the boy heard his father say again.
"I know, John. I heard you," was all she could answer.
Copyright, 1997, by Larry Lynch