The Day After it Happened
“You don’t know me,” I said to the hog.
“Yes I do, Jane,” Gonzalo, the hog, said between bites.
“What makes you think you know me?” I emptied another bucket into the feeding trough.
“By the state of your hands.”
I looked down at my 36-year-old hands; my fingers were caked with a reddish-brown mixture of mud and blood. There were thick calluses resting in my palm at the base of each of my fingers, raised up and proud, formed over years of caring for pigs and horses, repairing fence posts, and driving old tractors with no power steering in the sandy southeastern Washington desert. The orange nail polish on my fingernails was almost completely chipped away.
“You’re a killer.” Gonzalo looked up this time, just for a moment, before continuing to eat. His pink curly-cue tail quivered as he feasted. Gonzalo was the oldest of the bunch, the boar, and had sired many generations of pork on the farm.
“You don’t know me.”
Gonzalo didn’t reply, too caught up in his gluttony, as if his entire purpose in life was consumed with eating as much as he could, whatever it may be.
Three buckets remained. One of them was orange. I couldn’t help but stare at it. The thick contents — shades of red and brown — contrasted with the orange in a hideous way. I didn’t want to look at it, but I couldn’t look away. A finger floated at the top of the bucket. There was a small tattoo of a pistol along the side of it.
My husband, Frank, would be back home from Roslyn in an hour or two. He and I were small time farmers, and most years we barely broke even. On our seven and a half acres, Frank grew vegetables for market and took care of the chickens, and I raised the pigs and cared for the horses. The arrangement surprised people — Frank being the stocky, bearded man, me being the short, thin woman. People always assumed Frank’s and my roles were reversed. When we explained the splitting of duties to folks, men would sometimes look me up and down and say something stupid like, “Well aren’t you a little firecracker?” Sometimes, I’d like to split their heads open, too.
I dumped the second-to-last bucket into the trough, then watched Gonzalo for a moment as he ate. He lifted his face from the slop and gave me a lingering sideways glance as he chewed on something tough. His normally pink snout was a dark red, coated with blood. He dipped his nose back in.
A faint whistle split out of the air, and a moment later a dust devil rose from the ground, cutting right through me. It tossed my hair, hissing and swirling and picking up a cyclone of dust and debris about six feet high. It spun out of control into the muddy pig pen and dissipated.
Gonzalo had been talking to me for several years now, ever since my red heeler Dingo died, a kelpie (Lucy) before him, a rooster named Lawrence, and a few other animals I’d talked to since I was young. From the age of about six, there had always been at least one. As a kid, I thought they were actually speaking, especially after seeing the movie Dr. Dolittle, the Eddie Murphy one. But as I grew older, I realized — maybe accepted is a better word — that they weren’t physically talking. Their mouths never moved and no one else seemed to hear them. It was something in my head. Something was broken up there. But I didn’t care. Talking to them gave me comfort, made me feel less alone. If they ever stopped talking to me, I’m not sure what I’d do. I didn’t like to think about that either. And what did I know? Maybe they were talking to me. Maybe I was special. All I knew was when one animal died, another emerged. None of them had been nice; and some, like Gonzalo, were assholes. Antagonists. Gaslighters.
Long ago I’d disclosed all this to Frank on one drunken, vulnerable night. I figured he’d thought I was crazy ever since, even if he never said it in those words. I appreciated that. He never really seemed to judge me for it, or anything else really. He accepted me at my worst.
I stretched my back and looked off to the southwest. Our property sat on a plateau near Ringold. The sun was just setting behind Rattlesnake Mountain — a big, treeless brute of a ridgeline, roughly the shape of a sawhorse, that rose out of the shrub steppe — clearly visible forty or so miles off across the Columbia. You couldn’t see the river below the edge of the bluffs we were level with, but it was down there. Lazy and half a mile wide.
The breeze carried a spicy, pungent odor. Not a bad smell, but not exactly good, either. A storm had torn through that morning, and whenever that happened, it was like the wind shook something loose in the rabbitbrush, its bitter scent lingering in the air for a while, masking the fading perfume of the alfalfa field nearby that had recently been cut.
The storm was what the weatherman called a haboob — rainless, with howling winds. It was the kind that picks up and carries the dust and blots out the sun and howls and knocks over powerlines and top-heavy trees and rips shingles off of rooves. Ringold seemed to get less rain, more heat, and more wind every year, which produced more dust. I wondered sometimes how much dust I had in my body at any given moment, just by eating, breathing, and simply having a mouth, ears, and nostrils for the particles to find their way into. I wondered if my skin absorbed it, too.
I looked over at the fence line. Dead bouquets of Russian thistle were stacked up against it. Fucking tumbleweeds. I’d burn them all tomorrow. The wind held a steady breeze, somehow both cool and warm at the same time. A dusty haze on the horizon made the sunset a concoction of pink, orange, and yellow, the hue softening and enlarging the sun that looked almost red in the center, making it seem enormous, violent, and beautiful.
I looked down at the finger one last time, then dumped the last bucket into the trough.
A Week Before it Happened
Brody and I had been hooking up in the backseat of my pickup for about a month and a half now. I met him on Tinder. What a stupid fucking app. The only reason I had chosen him for a fling in the first place was because he was gorgeous. Tall and slender, in a young Clint Eastwood way. The only reason I kept going back was because he knew how to take instruction. He did what he was told and hadn’t asked anything of me. Until that night.
“Jane… Jane… hmm…” Brody had my left hand sandwiched between both of his, rubbing both sides of it. His hands were young and smooth. He was a farm boy, the rich kind. The son of what we called gentleman farmers. The kind who contract their fields out to the custom farming outfits, who mostly employ large crews of Latino migrants for cheap labor.
Brody’s hands had no calluses. They were usually on the smooth steering wheel of his forty-thousand-dollar pickup he got as a sweet sixteen present just six years ago, or typing away on a phone or keyboard. They had rarely gripped a shovel or tossed a bale of hay.
We were in the back seat of my ‘03 Chevy half-ton parked behind a thirty-foot tall haystack on a field-road south of Othello.
“What are you doing?” I said and withdrew my hand. I didn’t really care what he was thinking, or why he kept saying my name and smiling at me while staring at my bare chest.
His eyes snapped up and met mine. “Calamity Jane! That cowboy chick or whatever. Saw her in one of my dad’s old westerns. You’re my Calamity Jane.” He kissed me. “I think she was a blonde, too. I can’t remember.” I didn’t bother to tell him she was brunette, and a lesbian to boot.
Brody’s lips were thick and soft, light freckles splashed over his nose and cheeks. He had a perfectly trimmed blonde beard, and well-conditioned dirty-blonde hair — cut in that new chic-mullet style that I found simultaneously hideous and oddly attractive — that fell off the back of his head in natural swooping curls. In the dark of the backseat of my pickup, I could hardly see any of this. I could just see the glinting reflection of the rising moon in his blue eyes that looked black.
“Calamity Jane,” I said and worked my hand under his balls.
We kissed for a while. Too long. I ran my fingers into his hair, slowly gained a grip, and yanked his head back. He gasped, looking up, his Adam’s apple bobbing. Slowly, I let him return to eye contact, then pushed his head down and leaned back, spreading my legs.
Once I finished, I pushed his head away and pulled my underwear back on. He sat up and wiped his mouth.
“Umm.” He looked down, between his legs.
I sighed, leaned over, and blew him. As soon as he came, I opened the door and spit in the dirt. He put his pants back on.
I stepped out of the pickup, my socked feet sinking into the soil. I felt a gritty feeling between my toes almost right away from the sand filtering through the fibers of my socks. I walked to the back of the pickup, squatted, and peed. A sprinkler on the end of a nearby circle pivot chirped. The air was heavy with the smell of fresh-cut hay; earthy and rich. I looked at the moonless sky and got lost in the milky way. For those few seconds the night sky had me spellbound.
I finished and stood, pulling up my pants. As I shifted my feet a searing pain shot through my left heel. “Shit!” I was no stranger to the wrath of a goat head, but it hurt just as bad each time you stepped on one, like a wasp jamming an over-sized stinger into your foot. I carefully plucked it out of my heel and gave it a flick.
“Hand me my fuckin’ boots,” I said in the direction of the rolled down window. A moment later my pickup seemed to spit the boots out of the window. As they hit the dirt a puff of starlit dust silently exploded from the ground. I watched the cloud expand and slowly dissipate.
Five Days Before it Happened
“You’re a liar,” Gonzalo said. For the past twenty minutes I’d been cleaning the water tank inside the pen with a heavy, wooden-handled scrub brush. I was about halfway done. It was early afternoon and at least a few notches over a hundred degrees, the sun blazing down almost directly above us, the air in the pen thick, humid, and smelling of pig shit. My hair was sopping and plastered to my head. A bead of sweat ran into my eye, burning. I rubbed my eyelid with the back of my leather-gloved hand, not considering that there would be pig shit on it.
“Fuck,” I muttered and took the gloves off. I stuck them in my back pocket and pulled the neck of my t-shirt over my face, rubbing off the shit and sweat. I put my gloves back on, and still breathing hard, I turned to Gonzalo. “What?”
“You’re a liar.” Most of the pigs were huddled in the shade under a lean-to that came off the side of the barn, but Gonzalo sat out in the open, in the muck, staring up at me, squinting his beady eyes in the sunlight. His hooves and ass were coated in mud, the rest of his body bright pink, almost white in the shine.
“What are you talking about?” I sighed, annoyed. I put my gloves back on and continued scrubbing algae from the inner wall of the tank. A couple minutes passed and he didn’t say anything. I finally glanced over. He was staring at me, looking me up and down. I could have sworn his lips were upturned slightly, in a smile, or smirk. I stopped what I was doing and turned, tossed the scrub brush into the tank. I wiped the sweat from my forehead then upturned my hands. “Seriously, what are you talking about? How am I a liar?”
“You tell me.”
I stared at him for a moment then gave an exasperated laugh, shaking my head. “I’m not gonna’ play this fucking game.” I turned back toward the tank and picked up the brush, about to begin scrubbing again.
“Are people’s lives a game to you?” Gonzalo asked.
I stopped and looked up at the vast sky for a moment. It was an endless sea of blue, no clouds. I turned back around, scrub brush in hand. “Whose lives?”
Gonzalo said nothing.
“Are you talking about Frank?”
He nodded. “And…”
He just stared at me. “Who?!” I yelled this time. He remained silent. I felt that old familiar anger rising up in my throat. “Answer me!” I cocked the brush back, ready to sling it at him. I knew he was talking about Brody. But it was bullshit; Brody was just as much in the wrong as I was.
Gonzalo just smirked again. I wanted to walk over and beat his head in with the handle of the brush. After a few moments I calmed enough to lower it from its cocked position, eventually tossing it back into the bottom of the tank.
“I’m not lying to Frank.” I sat down on the tank ledge. One of the other pigs walked up next to me, rooting in the mud. I took off my glove and reached down, petting its shoulder, the coarse hair catching on my calluses. “I’d tell Frank if he asked.”
“Isn’t withholding lying?”
“I don’t know.” I refused to look at Gonzalo. My head was down, focused on the nameless pig I was petting. “I do feel bad about it, you know. I feel awful.”
“Of course!” I looked up at him now, glaring. “I love him. He’s my husband.”
We fell silent. The only noise was the shuffle of the other pigs and the light ruffling of the cottonwoods that stood at the eastern edge of our property. I thought of Frank. Our marriage had never been perfect, but for the first eight years or so, we had been content. What more could people in the real world hope for than contentment? Frank had always known what to say to calm me down, to abate my anger. Somehow, he’d always been able to do it with kindness. Calm and collected, he rarely raised his voice or got visibly angry. I was never sure exactly what he saw in me, but he told me it was my determination and toughness. He felt safe with me. He also liked the way I rubbed the top of his bald head. That always seemed strange to me, and I’d ask him, “Really? That’s why you love me?” He’d just nod and say yes, and pull my hands back to his head as we lay on the couch, his head in my lap. I always wondered if I reminded him of his mother, who was strong, and had a violent temper, too. I said that once, and he said he didn’t believe in that Freudian bullshit. I didn’t know anything about Freud and wasn’t the type to read much, so I took his word for it. Maybe it all just came down to the old saying, ‘Opposites attract.’ Frank and I were opposites in almost every way, other than our love for the farm.
But things had changed about two years ago. Frank had an episode with his heart. I never totally understood what that meant, even though I sat with him through all of his doctor’s appointments. Either way, he had to start taking a heart medication that made him impotent. The whole next year we kept trying to have sex. Oral, hand stuff, and some other things; we got creative. But it all became about me, about me getting off. I’d always been the one to lead the way in bed, but once it became impossible for me to bring him to completion, I slowly lost interest. If I know one thing about men it’s that there’s nothing they love more in this world than to come, and Frank telling me he still liked the sex even if he couldn’t finish was a load of horseshit. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, believe it. I wanted to, but I just couldn’t. Eventually I stopped letting him pleasure me; I almost stopped letting him touch me altogether. I couldn’t explain why, it was just the way things had to be. Each time I turned away from a touch or a kiss the pain grew deeper. I could see it in his face. My guilt and shame grew, and I hated myself a little more each day.
“You don’t even like Brody,” Gonzalo said, his words cutting through my thoughts.
“What’s your point?” I asked.
“You’re a walking contradiction, Jane.” Gonzalo sneezed, then went on. “Everything you do, everything you say, is the opposite of what it should be.”
“What are you even talking about?”
He just laughed and said nothing.
“I hate you.”
A magpie squawked and flew past, catching Gonzalo’s attention. I watched him watch the bird. “Did you hear me? I said I fucking hate you.”
“I know.” Gonzalo sighed and met my gaze. “But you need me.”
I stared at him for as long as I could stand it, then turned back to the tank. I scrubbed hard, in a furious almost panicked frenzy.
Two Nights Before it Happened
This time we met outside Mesa, behind a potato shed with a burnt-out security light. We’d done the usual — went down on each other, got the poison out. I was leaning on the bed of my pickup, looking off toward the dark cornfield that crawled right to the edge of the gravel lot we were parked in. The pivot circle was running on the opposite side of the field, yet the far-off sound of the water falling against the corn’s coarse leaves was like the whooshing sound of an old television that couldn’t find a channel.
Brody was leaning on the opposite side of my pickup bed, dragging on a joint in a satisfied way. I felt his eyes on me.
“Calamity Jane.” He looked at me from the corner of his eye, smiling.
I’d never particularly liked the smell of pot, but it seemed to make me salivate, nonetheless. I walked over and grabbed the joint from him and took three drags in succession. I held it in for quite a while before releasing, slow and easy.
“You know…” Brody took the joint back. “The oral stuff is fun and all, but when are we finally going to, you know… fuck?”
“I told you, I don’t cheat on my husband.” The sprinkler continued to chirp.
Brody laughed and shook his head. “So, what do you call what we’re doing?”
I thought of Frank bent over in the garden, picking beans or zucchini, the olive skin of his balding head shining in the blazing Columbia Basin sun. My face went hot and I felt sweat collect at my brow.
I turned and kicked Brody in the shin with the point of my boot.
“Fuck!” He started hopping around, clutching his shin.
My anger slowly began to subside. I couldn’t help but snicker now, watching him hop around, cussing, rubbing his leg.
“What the hell?” He slowly eased weight back onto his other foot. “What was that for?”
I said nothing and grabbed his belt, pulling him in close. The weed was beginning to hit me now, that soft pressure settling in behind my closed eyes. Brody wrapped his arms around me, reluctant at first, then finally softened. I kissed him, slowly, running my hands up and down his back. His breath became ragged. I felt him swell against my thigh.
He laughed. “You’re a tease.”
“Frank’s going out of town on Saturday night. Going to have the house to myself.” I reached down and placed my hand over his crotch. “You should come out to the barn after dark.”
“Okay,” he said, hardly able to get the word out.
I laid my head on his chest and felt his lungs rise and fall.
“Can I tell you something?” Brody said.
I didn’t reply.
I looked up at him. He opened his mouth, then closed it. He was nervous.
“Jesus Christ.” I pushed him away and dug a cigarette from my back pocket, lit it. “Get on with it.”
“I like you. Like, a lot.” He let out a great exhale as he pushed the final word out. He looked hopeful and insecure. It suddenly struck me how young he was. Still a boy in some ways. A pang of guilt knotted my stomach.
I laughed a little, shook my head, and said, “M’kay.” I shrugged and looked away.
“I mean, I think I might be in love with you.”
“Jesus.” I couldn’t help giving him a small eye roll.
“That’s all you’ve got to say?”
“You don’t love me.” I stared at the end of my cigarette, the tip glowing red as I inhaled.
“That’s not for you to say.”
“Brody. You’re twenty-two. You don’t love me.” I scratched at my ribs. “I’m just your MILF fantasy playing out in real life.”
He didn’t say anything for a while. I glanced over and saw the hurt on his face. “Cheer up! This is supposed to be fun. Relax. Enjoy it.”
“You’re not just a fantasy,” he said. “This is real.”
“Oh my god.” I turned to him. “Are you deaf or just stupid? I told you that’s not what this is. So drop it —”
He backhanded me. His knuckles raked right across my mouth, knocking my cigarette to the ground. I didn’t look up at first, I just stared down at the cigarette laying in the sand, smoldering. As I stood there, processing what had just happened, I realized I had shrunk in on myself, made myself smaller, my arms pulled tight against my body, my legs zipped up against each other. In my mind I could see my mother standing in the old kitchen after any of the countless times Dad had beat on her for whatever reason. Sometimes for no reason at all. I was standing just the same way. When I noticed, I took a deep breath and forced my body to relax. I released myself from the contraction of my own muscles and took up more space. I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of thinking he had scared me, though he had. I felt the same fear that I’d felt as a little kid watching my parents.
Slowly, I stooped and picked up the cigarette, sand sticking to the filter, and took a drag. I looked him up and down through squinted eyes. I could feel the grit of sand in my teeth.
“Jane.” Brody looked surprised at what he’d just done. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean —”
I interrupted him with a kick to the groin, as hard as I could. A sucking gasp came from him, like life itself was trying to escape his body. He dropped to his knees and moaned.
I got in my pickup, cranked over the engine until it grumbled to life, and gunned it, throwing gravel until I pulled onto the dirt road that led back to the highway. Looking in the rearview mirror I saw him yelling and struggling to his feet, one hand waving, the other holding his balls. I lifted my middle finger out the window and pressed harder on the gas pedal.
I fought back tears and wringed my hands on the steering wheel. I thought of Mom, the night she put an end to Dad’s abuse. Being five years old at the time, my memories of that night were like shards of glass from a broken mirror. I could still see his body lying on the kitchen floor, and I could see her standing there, her bright blonde bobbed hair wild and frizzed with sweat. She stood differently that night. Taller than normal, her chest expanded. She looked like something had opened up inside of her. I remember the smell of burnt pizza and cigarette smoke. She held a bloody butcher knife, her hand bright red and glistening in the yellow of the light above the sink. I remember her glancing over at me with widened eyes, not realizing I’d been standing there. She came and picked me up, stepping in Dad’s blood on her way across the kitchen. The last thing I recall was looking over her shoulder and watching the bloody footprints grow fainter with each step she took on the warped hardwood floor.
I took a deep breath and pushed away my memories of that night the best I could. I wiped my eyes with my wrist and lit another cigarette. I felt the wind in my face and the rumble of the tires on the dusty washboard road.
When I got home, I walked down to the barn. Gonzalo was laying with the rest of the pigs. He was twice the size of most of them, and they all huddled around his warm mass each night. When he saw me, he rose, scattering four or five pigs, and met me near the feeding trough.
We sat in silence for a moment before he finally said, “Do you remember Lester?”
Lester had been a yellow lab on my uncle’s farm down in Oregon, near Pendleton. Mom and I had lived there for a few years after Dad died.
“Yes,” I said quietly.
“You liked Lester, didn’t you?”
“He was a good dog.”
“Lester didn’t talk to you though, did he?”
“No.” I thought about Lester, then laughed. “That dog was a gopher killing machine.”
“What happened when he started killing chickens?”
I took a deep breath. “Uncle Gary beat him with a dead hen.”
“And what did Lester do?” Gonzalo asked.
“Kept killing chickens.” I tapped the toe of my boot against the fence post.
“Then what happened?”
“We started tying him up.”
Gonzalo stared at me, said nothing.
“He got off the chain.” A cricket started chirping somewhere behind me. “Killed the rooster.”
“Right.” Gonzalo sat down. “Then what’d Uncle Gary do?”
I leaned down over the fence and poked a finger gun between Gonzalo’s eyes, pulled the trigger.
“And when you asked him why Lester had to be put down, what’d he say?”
I paused for a moment. I could see Uncle Gary in my mind — rifle in hand and a wad of tobacco in his lip — standing over Lester’s body. “‘Once a dog gets a taste for chickens, only way to put a stop to it is a lead headache.’” I cleared a lump that had formed in my throat.
Gonzalo looked me up and down. “Brody certainly seems to have a taste for you.”
“Shut up.” I hissed the word at him and stormed away.
The Night Before it Happened
I stepped into the mud room to the smell of fried chicken and the sound of clinking dishes.
I’d just finished feeding the horses, and after taking off my boots, I made my way toward the dining room, stopping in the doorway. Frank stood at the kitchen island, loading a few pieces of chicken and mashed potatoes onto the two plates in front of him. The coveralls he was wearing made him look even shorter and stockier than normal. I noticed his salt and pepper beard had gotten a bit wild lately, too. I watched him for several moments before he noticed me.
“Hey, sweetheart,” Frank said.
I walked to him and touched his shoulder, then poured us each a glass of homemade hard apple cider, the dry kind.
I sat down, Frank coming out a few seconds later with plates. He set mine in front of me. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and a biscuit.
“Sold the first picking of zucchini today,” Frank said as he sat down with a grunt.
“Good.” I took a bite of potatoes.
“Said they’d take the melons when they’re ready, too.”
"How was your day?" Frank spooned out some honey, spreading it on his biscuit.
The next minute or two the only noises in the room were the sounds of us eating and the relentless whirr of the box fan in the kitchen window.
“Dad called today,” Frank said. “Said everything’s ready to get his sawmill set up. I’ll head towards Roslyn in the morning.” Roslyn was a couple hours west, in the eastern Cascades.
“Yeah, I remember.”
He nodded and said okay. After a few moments he sighed. “You’re quiet again.”
He took a bite. “I was up when you got home last night.” He never asked where I went at night, and I never offered a story. There was some silent, unspoken understanding. I didn’t want to talk about it, and maybe he didn’t want to know. “I saw you talking to the pig again."
“It’s nothing.” I snapped at him. "It's like talking to a dog. I've told you that."
Frank took a bite of chicken, chewed, and thought. I could see the wheels turning in his big bald head.
Before he could open his mouth, I added, “And I’ve told you, he’s a boar. Not a pig. I butcher the pigs, keep the boar to sire.”
Frank ignored my correction. My knee started to bounce under the table, acting for the anger inside me like a relief valve on an irrigation line.
“Does he still answer?” Frank asked.
I briefly met his eyes then looked back to my plate.
Frank nodded. “Is he nice?”
“No.” I sighed, slumping in my chair a little, swirling my cider. “He’s honest, though.”
“That’s good.” He paused, staring at me. Finally, he shook his head lightly, set his fork down. “I think you should give Dr. Allman another try.”
I stared at a rotating bit of apple debris caught in the cyclone I’d created in my cider glass. “I’m not crazy.”
“I don’t think you’re crazy,” Frank said. “This isn’t really about the pig. You seem miserable all the time, which makes me feel miserable.” He took a drink of cider, shook his head. His voice rose an octave as he added, “Jesus Christ, Jane. I just want you to be happy. Is that such a bad thing?”
“Happy?” I snorted. “God. Why do you always have to bring happiness into things?” I paused and tried to focus on my breath. I tried not to explode. “There’s just highs and lows. Vibrations and shit.” Both my knees were bouncing, gently shaking the kitchen table. My chest grew hotter and my throat tightened.
“You know what I mean,” Frank said.
My relief valve couldn’t take the pressure any longer. I exploded. “Fuck what you mean!” In one smooth swipe I sent my plate flying across the dining room, the porcelain crashing to pieces as it hit the hardwood floor.
Frank looked up at me, his eyes wide in surprise. The expression slowly dissipated as he shook his head for the third, fourth time tonight by my estimation. His eyes returned to his plate. I continued staring at him from across the table. He wouldn’t look at me. After several moments the heat in my chest subsided and my breathing slowed.
I downed the rest of my cider. “I’m sorry.” I looked at the mess on the floor. “I’ll clean that up.”
“It’s okay.” Frank got up and walked to the kitchen. “I’ve got it.” I watched him pick up the chicken and mashed potatoes and broken shards of plate. I knew the only reason he’d jumped up to clean it was to make me feel bad.
One jagged piece of plate lay under the China hutch that stood against the far wall. I didn’t point it out.
“I’m sorry,” I said again as he returned to the table.
Frank waved a hand through the air. “It’s fine.”
I picked up my napkin from my lap, folded it, and set it in front of me. “I need to take a shower.”
“Sure you don’t want more?” He motioned toward the kitchen.
I said no and stood, started for the hall.
“Before you go,” Frank said with a mouthful of chicken. He worked at it for a moment, swallowed, then said, “Talked to, umm, what was his name… Brody. Yeah, talked to your friend Brody today.”
I froze there, staring at Frank, who still hadn’t looked up from his plate. It took me a second to process what he’d said. He seemed unbothered as he took another bite. I had no idea what to say.
“He was at the market. Said he knows you from the pork auctions,” he gave me the smallest of glances then took another bite, talked from the side of his mouth. “Said you’ve sold a few pigs to his dad. Seems like a nice kid.”
I still couldn’t speak. I just nodded, shrugged, forced a small smile. He saw none of that though, his eyes fixed on the chicken breast he was working on. I walked over and kissed the top of his sun-spotted head and left before he could say anything else. I made my way to the bathroom, undressed, and got in the shower.
I squeezed cocoa butter conditioner into my palm and stared at the silky shades of beige goo for a moment before working it into my hair, my scalp. I turned the water as hot as I could stand it and stood with my back to the showerhead, letting the near-scalding water beat on me. It hurt, but I breathed through the pain.
As I closed my eyes, trying to clear my mind, Gonzalo's words kept echoing in my head: Brody certainly seems to have a taste for you. The tears came slowly at first, trickling down my cheeks, lost quickly in the water on my face. I thought of Frank. I could imagine his smiling, oblivious face as some young, shaggy-haired kid, a head taller than him, approached him. I could also see Brody’s closed-mouth smile in my mind, one corner of his mouth upturned a little more than the other, gaining some satisfaction out of cuckolding this man who was three decades his senior.
I felt bad for lashing out at dinner. I knew Frank just wanted what was best for me. I felt awful. For that, for the cheating, all of it. But there was this other part of me, too — a part that was loud and protective. It told me his tenderness and love was just a way of taming me, as if I was some feral horse in need of discipline.
I sank down and wrapped my arms around my shins, the water now beating on the top of my head. I stayed that way until the water ran cold.
The Night it Happened
I stood at the corner of the barn, leaning against the wall, waiting for Brody to arrive. I glanced over and saw a June bug on the window ledge to my right. Carefully, I stroked his back, running my finger with the direction of his white pinstripes. At my touch he huffed out a hiss-hiss-hiss.
Frank had left for Roslyn that morning and wouldn’t be back until the following afternoon. I’d texted Brody earlier that day and told him not to come out, that we were finished. I’d said a lot more than that, but the gist was that between him hitting me, his feelings of love, and talking to Frank, our fling was over. He’d told me he was coming out anyways, that he was sorry, he wanted to talk, that he needed to see me. I’d told him he’d better not show up. He never texted back. I figured that meant he was going to show up anyway.
A sliver of a moon cast a dim silvery sheet across the barn and the pig pen and the neighbor’s potato field at the edge of our property. It was warm and a little humid that night. The no-see-ums and mosquitoes were out thick, buzzing around my forehead that was clammy with sweat. I swatted them away in regular intervals. Still in the midst of first cutting, the smell of freshly cut alfalfa thickened the air. It was the calm before the haboob that was gathering steam in the west.
Gonzalo lumbered over to the fence post I was leaning against and sat down. We sat silently for several minutes.
“Lester was insatiable.” Gonzalo broke the silence. “He wouldn’t have stopped killing chickens for as long as he lived.” He was staring at the moon and blinked like a child blinks when they’re sleepy.
I remained silent, but I felt that familiar heat in my body coming on.
Just then, Brody’s pickup bounced down the dirt driveway. He cut his headlights, driving by the light of the crescent moon and stars. He saw me standing by the pig pen. He parked and got out.
I didn’t say anything as he approached.
“I knew you’d be waiting for me.” He smiled. As he saw my expression went unchanged, unsoftened, he shifted on his feet and looked down. “I’m sorry I hit you. And I’m sorry I talked to your husband.” He paused, seeming to wait for me to say something. When I didn’t, he added. “And I know you told me not to come.”
“Yet you showed up anyways.”
He met my gaze for a moment, and I thought I saw a hint of a smirk on his lips. It was dark enough that I couldn’t tell.
“I did something for you.” He walked closer, holding out his right pointer finger. There was a fresh tattoo of a six-shooter down the side of it. “Calamity Jane’s gun.”
I stared at the tattoo for several moments and became angrier. I shook my head and looked away, off toward the corn field. This kid wasn’t going to stop, he was just going to keep pushing. He wasn’t going to do what he was told. My face grew hot, my muscles tensed. I thought I might scream.
Just when I felt I was reaching my tipping point, a light-headedness washed over me, followed by a cool sensation that flushed through my body. I grew oddly calm. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I felt a slipping of control over my actions.
“Come on.” I motioned for him to follow me, and he obliged. I led him into the dark barn. Not a light was on inside. We walked past the horse stalls, only able to see by the patches of starlight coming in from the side windows. I felt a small, almost subconscious fear as we made our way deeper into the barn. I felt it in my ears that seemed to pull back. Not a fear of Brody. A fear of myself. It was strange. It was almost like I was watching myself, wondering what I would do next.
We passed through a heavy sliding door, which led to another door, this one steel that had a heavy seal. There were no windows in this room, it was pitch black. I walked by feel, I knew my slaughter room well. This was the dirty room, the next one over was the clean side where I prepared the pork to ship out. The dirty room was where the killing happened, where the hair, the blood, and the guts came out. Even in the pitch black, I knew exactly where every table, hook, and tool was.
“It’s dark in here,” Brody whispered.
“What’s that smell?”
“Iron and bleach. You kill enough pigs in one room, the blood smell doesn’t really go away no matter how good you clean it.”
I turned on the fluorescent lights. They flickered to life, revealing the cement floor, off-white walls, stainless steel tables, gambrels, and a pegboard wall filled with tools.
I went on about the blood. The words came as if I weren’t the one speaking them. “The blood, it gets embedded in the floors, the walls, the ceiling. Your clothes. When I slaughter, I wear different clothes.” I pointed at the rubber apron and blood-stained flannel on a coat rack in the corner. “I keep these clothes out here, have a separate washing machine for them. The smell gets stuck in the fibers and threads. Wash your kill clothes with your Sunday duds, they’ll start smelling like iron, too.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Brody said.
At that moment I heard something. Singing. It started faint, but now I could hear that it was Gonzalo, just outside the barn, singing in a rich baritone. Something led me to the wall. I pressed my ear against it and closed my eyes.
“What are you doing?” I heard Brody take a step toward me.
“Can’t you hear him?” I whispered.
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
Gonzalo continued to sing. I recognized the song from my childhood, listening to it in the kitchen at Uncle Gary’s. It was a Blaze Foley tune, “The Moonlight Song.” I felt a smile form on my face.
I opened my eyes and Brody was standing close to me, his brow furrowed.
“Are you okay?” He placed his hand on my arm and started to pull me toward him.
As soon as he touched me my hands started to tremble and my chest flushed hot. I knocked his hand away and slugged him in the gut, sending him reeling.
“You bitch,” Brody snarled and started towards me, fist cocked back.
I reached for the closest tool hung on the pegboard. It was a hatchet. I swung, and in one smooth motion brought it down in the top of his head. He fell to the ground. No dramatic stumble, no wide-eyed blank stare. He just dropped into a heap, right next to the floor drain.
I stepped back, stared at his body for several moments, and grew nauseous. I stumbled out of the room, feeling almost drunk. Whatever part of me that had taken over was fading into the recesses of my mind. My hands began to shake. I wasn’t thinking about anything other than needing fresh air more than I ever had before.
I exited the barn into the star-washed night. The smell of alfalfa grounded me. I was still unsteady, but I no longer felt nauseous. I breathed deeply and walked to the pig pen.
Gonzalo was waiting. “Do you feel bad?” He asked.
I was quiet for a while. I stared off at the field on the other side of the pig pen, breathing in, and out, in, and out, waiting for my heartrate to slow. Finally, I answered. “Yes.”
Gonzalo snorted and shook his head.
“What? Isn’t this what you wanted?” I shook my head and peeled a layer of skin from a callus on my palm. “‘Brody certainly seems to have a taste for you.’”
Gonzalo said nothing, looking smug.
“I’m not crazy.”
“The butcher said to the boar.”
I stared at him. He wouldn’t meet my gaze, looking past me at the stars instead. I could see them twinkling there in the reflection of his eyes. I glanced to my left. A pitchfork was propped against the wall of the barn. I could kill him. Right here, right now.
The hiss of another June bug caught my attention. I turned to the fence post to my right, a few feet away, and there sat the inch-long beetle, his back shield softly reflecting the glow of the moon.
I sighed and wringed my hands, looking back to Gonzalo, who was nosing at something in the mud. “Goodnight, Gonzalo.”
Gonzalo oinked, then turned and shuffled away.
I started back toward the barn. I had work to do, no sense in letting it sit. I opened the wooden door and stopped for a moment, my shoulder still caught in the moonlight. I inhaled the warm night air again, the perfume of the hay lingering there in my mind, then ducked into the shadows of the barn.
Ω Ω Ω
Brent is a fiction writer who lives outside Pasco, Washington. You can find him on Instagram for nature photography, writing stuff, and other things he finds cool or interesting: @brent.atkinson