What God Has Made Crooked
Steve Hansen

 


I didn’t bother making coffee that morning. One habit shitcanned by the heat just left me more time to indulge another, and I stood on the back porch smoking my seventh cigarette, watching the white, pre-dawn moon. I felt the smoke caressing my tar-encrusted lungs and remembered my wife saying cigarettes would be the death of me. But neither of us counted on them being so goddamn slow. I took the cigarette from my lips and studied it a moment before I spat on the glowing red coal, knocked off the ash, then dropped the clean butt back in the pack.

If anyone had any business getting cancer it was me.

On the drive over to David’s, I thought about quitting for good, and I glanced behind the seat at the rifle. My grip eased a little on the wheel as I stared back at the road, comforted in the fact there was work to do, and over half a pack of cigarettes left to get me through the day. Just as I was getting cozy with the idea of an honest day’s toil, a convulsive fit of coughing forced me off the road. When I’d finally stopped hacking, I rolled down the window and spat onto the shoulder. The ball of phlegm plopped onto the oiled gravel and lay there like a decomposing toad blackened by the sun. Patting the pack of cigarettes in the breast pocket of my shirt, I took a deep breath, then turned the key. Quitting, it seemed, was my last best option.

David was on his back in his driveway, his hands folded over his stomach, his head propped up by his plastic milk jug of frozen water. He almost looked peacefully dead, and I couldn’t see if his eyes were open or closed. I stood on the brakes. The truck’s body nearly kept on going despite the axles. The screeching tires made David bounce up like he had a spring-loaded ass.

“Jesus, Bill!” he said in a hoarse whisper. “What the—”

“Sorry, bud,” I said holding up my hands to show him how they shook.

“No coffee this morning.”

“I thought you were going to run me over.”

“I almost got you,” I said, exhaling smoke.

He smirked—not sure whether to laugh—as he climbed in and slammed the door.

“What’s her name again—Tamara?” I teased, pulling in the driveway to turn the truck around.

David thumped his forehead against the dashboard, and moaned something unintelligible. He peeked one eye open as I leaned my forearms on the steering wheel and smiled. He sat up and gave me a frown that was a smile.

“You,” he said, leaning over and poking me in the side, “no coffee. Me!”—he poked himself in the chest—“No sleep.”

We drove a mile to the exit and then it took some time for the Ford to get up to speed. Once she hit 50, her old engine heaved and clanged like a steel barrel full of bricks. David leaped back against the seat, then glanced at me all wild eyed and drool wiping. The air coming in was blow-dryer hot. I shrugged and apologized for waking him, closed my window, and switched the air back on.

* * *

As I surveyed the magnificent willow, I was thinking I’d been lied to or somehow misinformed. The land-management boys had called Sunday night about a large willow that needed taking out on a farm near Independence. I’d assumed it was dead or dying. But this tree was in the fullness of its bloom, and the only thing that needed fixing was the wooden, two-seater swing dragging in the dirt amid the willow’s hanging branches.

“What’s wrong with it?” said David, coming around the back of the truck.

“Everything,” I said, flicking my cigarette into the gravel. A good infantryman polices his butts...except when he doesn’t.

He cocked his head to the side like an unsure dog, so I answered him straight, the way he expected me to, the way—in his youngness—he would understand.

“Nothing wrong with the tree.”

I reached in and picked up my hard hat from the truck bed. With each passing moment, the heat intensified. I felt the sun on my neck like an electric element turned on high. The windows of the two-story farmhouse in the orbit of the big willow’s shadow were black and reflected nothing. Locusts in the cornfield fenced off from the yard scraped in offset rhythms.

David looked at me and rubbed his eyes. “What are we doing?”

“Put out the cones.”

David crunched through the gravel with the hazard cones as I sat on the tailgate and strapped my spikes on over my boots. He set one down in the gravel about a hundred feet from the truck like I had showed him and I stood and turned to grab my pruning pole from the truck bed, satisfied David knew what to do.

“Bill!”

I dropped the pole and turned, and yelled back, “What?” There was nothing but a small herd of cattle on the opposite side of the road where he stood.

“Come here!”

I let my breath out slow before waddling over in my spikes, telling myself David’s youthful exuberance was a blessing, not a curse. As I got closer, I noticed one of the cows separated from the rest, pressing its face against the barbed wire and panting as thick strands of saliva poured from its jaw.

“What’s wrong with it, Bill?”

“Don’t know.”

“What can we do?”

I shook my head. “Probably nothing.”

“Shit,” he said, kicking gravel as he loped away.

At least he’s awake now, I thought. The delirious cow lowed high-pitched and unnatural and raked its head against the barbed wire. I saw my reflection in the liquid blackness of its eyes as fresh blood flowed down its black-and-white face.

And I remembered:

Sweat and blood in my eyes. A lead-riddled scramble of intestines. A short supply of square gauze. Bullets exploding like lethal popcorn. Machine gun fire. Flies. Jesus God. No death. Three gray A6 bombers streaking over the village and heat washing over in waves. “Fuckin’ kill me, Doc! Kill me!” Capillaries pulsed in his eyeballs. The morphine I’d stuck in his leg wasn’t enough. “Please!” No words. “Medic!” Others on the other side of the wall dying for me. “Medic!” Him knowing I knew. Not knowing who knew it first. Swiss cheese intestines. An unsheathed K-Bar. “Doc, we need you! Now!” came the staff sergeant’s cry through the shredded white smoke. The thwop of chopper blades. The cries of the dying. Me whispering, “OK.” The blade seeming to pull across his throat so slowly, I was sure it wouldn’t even break the skin.

Three yellow butterflies rotated in a cluster, rousing me as they fluttered past. Dandelion seeds mingled with the saturated air. Christ. I patted down my breast pocket. I needed a cigarette.

David squatted on the far side of the road holding his face in his hands. The self-mutilating cow’s voice rattled in its throat. There was no wind; the air was still as glass, but I cupped my shaking hand around the lighter anyway and filled my lungs with luscious smoke before I rocked across the road.

“Get up.”

“No,” he said, his voice muffled behind his hands.

“Get up,” I said in a tone I’d never used with him before.

He jerked his head left then right then back again.

I lowered my shoulder into his, and he landed on his back in the roadside weeds. I pinned his arms with my knees and knocked out his wind by pounding my tailbone onto his sternum. He stopped struggling and gasped for air. I leaned close and found terror in his eyes. I injected my war-faced rage into him with a guttural, clenched-jaw scream. I believed right then he thought I was going to kill him. And I could have. I rolled off of him and laid on my back with arms outstretched in the weeds.

Sunlight passed through my eyelids, and I reinforced them with a forearm. The ash of the cigarette still clenched in my teeth fell onto my face and I brushed it away. Dear Lord, forgive me, for this and whatever other stupid-shit thing I may do...

Fuck it.

I’ll do the tree myself, I thought.

“I know it can’t be easy working so soon after...” said David.

Lying there on the damp earth, I wanted to be whatever existed before the hand of God sent matter hurtling through space in a cataclysmic flash of light. I sat up and squinted in the overwhelming sunlight.

“I’ve got a bucket in the truck,” I said, doing my best to see. “If you want to give the cow some of your water, that might help.”

David ran to the truck. I imagined nothing would do for that cow, but then again, when had a cool drink of water ever hurt anything? A dragonfly whirred by my ear; its wings reflected bright purple. Pollen dust floated in the air. We were late to get started, and we’d have to bust ass to get the tree down before nightfall. As David saw to the cow, I snapped my harness around my waist and then picked up my pruning pole.

“Is it drinking?” I asked as David crunched back to the truck.

“Yeah,” said David, pointing behind me.

“Good morning,” said the farmer as the screen door slammed behind him. “I lost sight of you for a while.”

“Those your cattle down there across the road?” I asked, turning.

“Nah,” he said, pulling an overall strap back onto his shoulder. “Them’s my neighbor’s head.”

I leaned over the payload to inspect my chainsaw. “One of them’s in bad shape.”

The farmer spat and adjusted his John Deere cap. David pulled the gas can from the truck bed and slung a rope onto his shoulder. I finished filling the saw’s reservoir with oil and screwed on the cap.

“Maybe you could phone your neighbor,” I said.

“Whooee!” whooped the farmer. “It’s hotter ‘an a pistol.”

No brother’s keeper here. I lifted the saw from the truck. “Why do you want this tree down?”

“I believe,” said the farmer, “that’s my business.”

David gathered his gear and stamped back to the tree.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“You ain’t got to know.”

“I know.”

“You know why?”

“No.”

“You know why?”

The sun was gaining strength and the day drafted in its wake. We needed to get started.

“I better get to work then.”

“Because,” the farmer said, “it reminds me—”

He paused and I turned away from him and walked toward the tree. I didn’t want to know. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that it was likely more to do with the broken swing tied to the tree than the tree itself.

“Don’t forget this,” said David, handing me my ground rope.

We couldn’t cut the tree down from the ground because no matter which way it fell there was a chance it would roll into the fence or, even worse, the house. We’d have to dismantle it from the top down using a support rope and a kind of tree limb block-and-tackle system that made the tree an accessory to its own destruction.

The light-brown bark was smooth and warm where I rubbed it.

“And what do you want to do with that swing?” he said, kicking at the wooden loveseat.

“Good question,” I said, tying the ground rope through a strong nylon loop in my harness. “Cut it down and put it over by the house.”

He took out his buck knife and did as I told him.

“What would you do without me?” he said, jogging back.

“The question is, What would you do without me?” I replied, rubbing the tree one more time and shaking my head. “Remember this one thing. All is vanity.”

I gouged the sharp metal spike protruding from the instep of my right foot into the living wood, then stabbed the tree with my spiked left foot, and thereby dug my way slowly up the tree.

Three quarters of the way up I flung the short nylon cord attached to a heavy steel clip on the front of my harness around the trunk of the tree, then caught it and attached it to the same steel clip. Now I could plant my spikes firmly in the trunk, lean back, and have the use of both my hands. Without having to be told, David had tied the pruning pole to my ground rope and tugged to let me know it was ready. I pulled it up, untied it, and let the ground rope fall back down to David. I hung the pruning pole from a branch where it was out of the way, and the tug of the ground rope told me the chainsaw was ready so I pulled it up, attached it to a nylon cord that I unwound from a pocket inside my harness, and let it hang. The next tug of the ground rope let me know the support rope was ready to be brought up. Halfway up, the two ropes slipped apart.

“Doggone it, David!” I said. “You’ve been tying square knots all summer.” I let the empty end of the ground rope go and watched it straighten as it fell between the branches.

“I got stuff on my mind, too.”

“All I’ve got on my mind is work!” I shouted down at him. “Tie it again.”

This time the knot held. I let my ground rope fall back down as I held on to the business end of the support rope. David would wrap the other end of the support rope around the tree trunk and use it to drop the treetop down right where I wanted it once it swung clear. I studied the trunk in front of me for the best weight-bearing bough. I had a feeling, and jerked my head around toward the house. The farmer stared up at me from an upstairs window. Sweat trickled into my eyes as I tried to see through the greenery. I thought I saw him draw his index finger across his throat. I snapped my head back around and patted down my shirt pocket.

“Can you handle the whole top?” I called down to David.

“You think?”

“Sure.”

“Well,” he said, “if you think so.”

I made a noose at the end of the support rope, grabbed my pruning pole, and hung the noose over the outside of the pole’s hook end. I dropped the hook end of the pole across the sturdy branch I’d chosen to be my fulcrum and then took the rope and flicked it as if I was flipping a fly line beneath an undercut bank. The coil floated up the rope like a breaking wave and released the noose from the pruning hook with the forward momentum it needed. The noose dropped down over the thick bough and before it stopped swinging, I snagged it with the pruning hook and pulled it back to me.

I stabbed my left spike then my right spike into the trunk to get a few feet higher, then undid the noose and tied the support rope directly to the trunk. My cut would have to be well placed so the treetop would fall on the side nearest the house. David would wrap his end of the support rope around the trunk and hold his ground as the treetop arced over him. In my mind, it worked just fine, but if the cut was wrong, I’d crush us both.

“This sonofabitch is going to be heavy,” I yelled down to David as I hung the pruning pole on a lower branch. “Wrap it four times around.”

“You sure?”

“Wrap it four times and don’t drop it until I tell you!”

“You’re the boss,” he said. It took a moment, and then he yelled, “Ready!”

“The wedge is going to drop on the house side!” I slid the safety glasses attached to my hard hat down over my eyes, then pulled up the chainsaw dangling from between my legs. “Hold on!”

After two pulls the chainsaw screamed to life. I chose my angle and the saw dropped an octave as it bit into the wood. Shavings swirled around me like a swarm of bees. I idled the saw, pulled out the blade, and made the bottom cut, being careful not to cut the rope that would swing this mighty chunk of treetop, God willing, out and away from myself and David. I squinted at my fulcrum: a good five-inch-diameter branch, maybe six…or four. It’ll damn well hold, I thought. The chainsaw tore into the wood and the shavings flew. The thick wedge dropped down and thumped the ground.

“Hold!” I screamed, killing the saw and scrambling to the “less than” side of the cut.

Locusts scraped and the cow wailed in the distance.

“Did you cut it?”

“Hell, yes!” I warned the boy. “It doesn’t make any sense!”

The deep cut exposed the dark, time-hardened heartwood. I leaned back in my harness and held my breath as I gazed at the wound. Any second, and again. Any second. What the hell was holding up that tree? I checked my watch. Before I could pull the saw up, the trunk started creaking. I dropped the saw and scrambled to the safe side of the trunk as the treetop broke off with a crisp, loud crack and spun off to the side.

“Hold it!” I screamed as the huge pendulum whooshed beneath me, bowing the rooted trunk to which I clung. Down where David labored—despite the great friction of the quadruple wrap—the immense weight of the load stripped bark and the rope was slipping. I saw the purple veins on David’s forehead as he gripped the rope and his body strained.

“Another second!”

The bough seemed to swing so slowly away from the house toward open ground. David arched his back and his hard hat fell off. The tree groaned under its own weight as it swung clear…

“Drop it!”

…and continued on toward the fence separating the yard and the cornfield.

“Let it go!”

“I did!” screamed David, waving his hands in the air for me to see.

The rope had tightened enough to where it wouldn’t slip at all. Four times around was too much friction. The bough arced over the fence and started back.

“Bill! What do I do?”

The I.Q. of a panicked boy automatically drops 50 points.

“Unwrap it!”

“What?”

“The rope!”

He darted down and flung the rope opposite of the way it was wound around the tree. Bark flew as the rope sang.

“Move!”

He dove. The earth shook as the bough hit the ground.

My canopy was gone, and the sun beat down on me like a woman scorned or, more precisely, like a mother who has just learned her son was crushed to death while under my supervision.

“David!”

He had come to a sitting position from out of his flying roll. His shoulders shook, and he hung his head as if looking at something between his outstretched legs. I thought he was crying.

“David?”

He screamed gleefully, kicking his heels in the dirt and mussing his hair.

Sometimes you laugh because it’s better than shitting your pants.

We spent the morning wading through tangled willow vines with our chainsaws, cutting the huge bough into manageable pieces and hauling the pieces to the truck. It was hot, close work. The chainsaws jammed continuously on the tough foliage and gas fumes hung in the air, smelling like napalm. Little by little, we cleaned up our mess. Every now and then, when both saws were down, we could hear the cow braying in the distance. I always hurried then to start my saw to drown out its misery. By lunch time we were done.

Paul Harvey told us the rest of the story on the transistor radio I kept on the dashboard as we sat in the cab and ate our sandwiches. But I wasn’t listening.

“Poor cow,” said David.

“I know,” I said, swallowing my bologna. “Life’s a bitch.”

“And then you marry one,” he said, then jerked his head around. “Sorry.”

I wished he wouldn’t have said that. I’d made it clear to him I didn’t want to talk about it. Suffer fools lightly and suffer.

“Bill?” he stammered. “I—”

“Forget it.”

“No,” he said, forging ahead. “I think she’s pregnant.”

I took a slug of water and swished it from cheek to cheek.

“That’s my guess, too.”

I put down the jug and wiped my chin.

He looked at me with a smile that was a frown and said, “How’d you know?”

“Probably a breach that got stuck.”

“How’s that?” he said.

“I was thinking about taking the rifle down there and putting her out of her misery.”

David braced himself against the dashboard, shook his head, and burst out laughing.

“You think I mean…,” he gasped and banged his head on the dashboard, “…the cow!”

Then it dawned on me, and I had to laugh or otherwise be obliged to shit my pants. It took us a minute to wind down, then we shut up and David rolled his forehead on the wooden dashboard as if he was flattening pie crust.

“Tammy’s a month late.”

This was no laughing matter, but not necessarily a killing offense. My marriage had started with a discharge from the Southeast Asian jungles and a discharge of another kind that hit its mark in the backseat of a '68 Chevy Impala. Christ, we were just acquaintances from high school. My second night back in the States and I’d already fucked up. When she called me and broke the news two months later, I couldn’t remember her name. I remembered quick and we said I do, and thereafter was the 20 best years of my life. Eighteen anyhow. The last two were a blur of sterile waiting rooms, insomnia, and the numbness that comes of hope gradually being gutted by despair.

“And I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said.

I took the last bite of my sandwich and wiped the sweat off my brow.

“I don’t know...”

“I know it’s like a bad dream for you,” I said over his words, knowing as I spoke nothing I could say would rid him of that hollowness he must be feeling. “But a month doesn’t mean she’s pregnant.” I paused long enough to swallow and then said, “And if she is, well, if that’s the worst thing that happens to you in this life, you can count yourself lucky.”

David rested his head on the dashboard and closed his eyes. “It must seem pretty small compared to what you’ve been through.”

We had a rule that we’d not talk about it. Fucking kid, we had a rule. I drank from my water jug and contemplated the willow that was nothing now but a free-standing source of lumber. The wail of the dying cow cut the dead calm like a whale song radiating outward through the sea.

“Sorry,” said David. “I shouldn’t—”

“God’s will be done.” I reached behind the seat, picked up the rifle, and stepped out of the truck. “Lunch is over.”

It had been clear to me now for some time I was put on this earth to kill. There are those who would say I was an Angel of Death and others who’d call me a murderer. Man’s judgment is of little consequence to me, as God’s judgment is etched across my heart plainly as the mark bestowed upon Abel’s brother Cain. Who am I to deny it?

“Bill!” shouted David.

The sun heated the wooden stock and metal barrel and the rifle felt alive. More alive than the withered hand I’d held onto as I leaned across the rails of the hospital bed and kissed my life goodbye. Hope was gone, like the warmth fading from her fingers, like the light retreating from her eyes. And when I looked into those eyes I saw that I was only barely there.

“Bill!”

I looked down the sight with my finger on the trigger, and muttered, “What.”

“What are you doing!”

I didn’t remember how I had gotten so far down that road. Foam bubbled from the cow’s jaw as it lay panting on its side. I opened my left eye, straightened my head, and lowered the rifle.

“Maybe you should,“ sighed David as he kicked gravel into the roadside ditch. “Maybe you should do it.”

Footsteps crunched behind us, and I turned.

“What are you waiting for?” said the farmer, carrying a shiny-stocked Remington 306 that looked as though it had never been fired.

As if sensing the mood in favor of its execution, the cow tried to bellow, but could only wheeze—a wheeze that died a wet gurgle in its throat as the foam bubbled from its nose like shaving cream.

“How could anyone let one of his animals die like this?” said David, walking through the weedy ditch to the barbed wire.

The boy was still innocent enough to know almost nothing of the ordeals he’d have to survive to earn such an ultimately useless knowledge.

“David,” I said, “we’ve got to kill this poor bastard and get back to work.”

But he’d already got one foot on the top strand and was steadying himself on the fence post. The farmer laughed as David landed on the other side. I remembered the farmer drawing his finger across his throat earlier, and I wondered how much killing I’d actually end up doing this fine day.

“Maybe we should shoot ’em both,” the farmer said.

David knelt beside the cow and laid his hands on its neck. “There, now. Easy. Where’s it hurt?” He moved his hands down the cow searching for any lump or disfigurement, just like a doctor would a patient whose pain is a mystery. The cow was too weak to protest, and only switched its tail.

“Fuck!” shouted David, having worked his way down to the cow’s flank. “Jesus Christ, Bill, there’s hooves.”

If it’s a breach, I thought, Lord knows what internal damage it caused struggling to survive. I walked through the ditch, laid down the rifle at the fenceline, and climbed over, leaving the farmer standing in the road.

“Whadda we got,” I said, squatting down to inspect. I pulled the tail back to gain a better view of the animal’s posterior. Yes, indeed. Judging from the hooves, it was a breach. Not a pretty way to go, suffocating in your mother’s womb. Thing never had a chance. Now, the problem was how to separate the living from the dead.

“Weren’t you a medic or something in a war?” asked David.

“A long time ago,” I replied, holding the cow’s tail. “But now, that don’t mean nothing.”

As the farmer attempted to climb down off the fence, the crotch of his overalls snagged on a barb. The rip as he fell backward was like a very long and manly fart. His breath upchucked from his lungs right after his shoulders hit the ground.

“Dad gummit!”

The barb that ripped the farmer’s overalls stuck in the heel of his boot, and he lay on his back as if in traction. He tried to shake free. The denim, cut from inseam to cuff, fell to the ground, exposing his white leg. The cow raised its head off the ground and snorted, and dropped it back to earth with a thud. In the haze of dust from the impact I saw a pearl-white skull there, bleaching in the sun.

“Help him out, will you,” I said to David.

As he undid Farmer John, I studied the unborn calf. What did you have to look forward to? The shock of an indifferent world where you are not the universe’s center; hot and cold; separation; and two years from this day, more or less, a bullet in the brain.

“You’re better off like this,” I said, touching the sharp perimeter of one of the hooves as the cow’s tail twitched in my fist.

I saw the nasty welt running the length of the farmer’s leg as he walked, his torn pant leg flapping open, but I knew his red face spoke more about what was most bothering him. I nodded solemnly as he approached.

“You lay down over the cow’s chest,” I instructed him. Before he could take issue, I turned to David. “Immobilize those hind legs, if you can.“

David knelt between both sets of legs and laid down on its hind flank. The cow responded with a weak spasm as David settled his weight. The farmer had distributed himself over the cow’s chest, and was looking away. The cow’s tongue lolled thick in the dust like a scaleless, pink snake.

Who can straighten what God has made crooked? No mortal man, as far
as I know. But we’ve all got problems of our own.

I touched my breast pocket, spat on my palms, squatted, slid my hands around the hooves, and squeezed.

“On three, boys,” I said.

On two, I rocked forward, and on three I jumped back with all the teeth-gritted might I could muster. My arms jerked against my shoulder blades and my body recoiled. The dead calf would not budge. I threw my head back and screamed. The cow twitched as if being electrocuted. David and the farmer hunkered down onto the re-energized cow and filled the air with their own screams. The body began to move. The suction gave and the seal was broken, and then the rest of it all came so easily: the back legs, then the body, the front legs and the head, followed by a geyser of fluid that drenched my boots as I stumbled backward with the calf. The cow found its vocal chords and wailed like a room full of trumpets jamming on one note. I fell onto my back and the calf landed on top of me, knocking out what little wind I had left.

“Whooee!” whooped the farmer as he pushed himself to his feet. “You did it!”

David stepped into view, blocked out the farmer, and asked me if I was all right.

I tried to say, “Yes,” but could only gasp.

David leaned over then, and slapped my face hard. The shock filled my lungs with air.

David shook his hand as if he’d hurt himself, then nodded at me. “Maybe I’ll be OK then, too.”

David gave the rest of his water to the cow. I told him he’d need it, but he said he was willing to make that sacrifice. The cow was standing up and licking its self-inflicted facial wounds with that serpent-like tongue. I passed the calf’s body over the barbed wire to David, and he walked down the road with it borne across his shoulders like a yoke. He laid it in the truck on top of the willow branches. We’d cover it up with the willow that was still left to bring down.

The willow came down easy after that. The process of vertically dismantling trees is pressed into me like grooves in a vinyl record. After he’d dressed his wound and changed, the farmer helped us haul the green twists of brush to the truck. I offered to haul the swing to the dump in return, but the farmer refused. We worked until the sun was a red ball on the horizon and the sky a deep blue. I turned my back on the wail of David’s chainsaw as the boy cut what was left of the tree down to a stump. I made my way to the back of the truck and sat on the bumper.

* * *

The top of the molten sun undulates as it sinks fast over the horizon. I knock a cigarette loose from the pack, then slide the yellow matchbook out from between the cellophane and foil. I keep the matches for when my lighter runs out of fluid and to convince myself the infernal smell of sulfur really isn’t that bad. Three more cigarettes and then it’s done.

David’s chainsaw cuts off and the last of the willow thwumps the ground. To the cutting down of trees there is no end.

“Bill,” says David, walking up from behind, “can you get me a six pack on our way out of town?”

I stare at the ground and dig gravel with my toe.

“I’ll buy,” he adds abruptly. “Of course, I’ll buy.”

I flick my cigarette and watch the ash slowly fall.

“I know we gotta work tomorrow,” he continues. “But tonight, I gotta get drunk.” He drops his hands. “You know what I mean?”

“You think that’ll solve your problems?”

“It might help me think,” he says, scratching his head of matted hair.

“Shit, boy.” I grab him by the collar of his grimy t-shirt and stare him in the face, the ash of my cigarette inches from his nose. “Let me tell you what I think.”

He just keeps smiling, and I see something in him, someone still there in me.

My grip relaxes on his t-shirt. “I think you better not rat me out if you get caught.”

“Hell, no,” says David, shaking his head so fast that it blurs. “Hell, no!”

“OK,” I say, making my decision and letting him go. “But you gotta buy me some cigarettes then, too.”

“Deal!” David slaps me on the shoulder and stomps back to the truck to stow his gear. “Bill, you are the man!”

I blow a ring into the stillness, and it’s torn apart by a puff of wind. I had a notion to quit for good after this pack. Vanity, indeed. But as long as I’m around, so is she. The locusts aren’t so loud now, and slow suicide is fine.

 


Steve Hansen lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with his wife, Pam, and two dogs, Boo Boo and Daisee. He’s been published in Muse Apprentice Guild and Samsara Quarterly, both web publications. He volunteers as an assistant fiction editor at the e-zine Small Spiral Notebook.


In high school, I had a job cutting down trees with a Vietnam veteran named, coincidentally enough, Bill. I remember one day in particular during the dog days of summer working to clear some overgrown brush from power lines somewhere near Eldora, Iowa. It was freaking hot and sticky, the sun was mercilessly beating down on all of creation, and there was this cow across the gravel road that was acting very erratically. I was concerned that it might be dying. Bill, in his enigmatic way, told me not to worry about the cow and concentrate on the job at hand. Later that afternoon, Bill called me over to him, and as we leaned against his old truck, we witnessed the cow giving birth. By the end of the day, the calf was just starting to totter around on its unsteady legs. I think Bill knew all along that the cow wasn’t dying, but in the process of giving birth. It just was not in his nature to let on. I guess you could say that day gave birth to this story.

 

 

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