By Ron Kaiser
We called him Damn on account of his swearing, though never to his face. He bent all conventions of grammar to fit the word "damn" into practically every sentence. If it was raining, it was "God damned raining." If it was a kitten, it was a "God damned kitten." If it rained before we got the hay in, James got it. When I accidentally broke the truck windshield, James caught it. Even the animals caught hell. Every living thing on the farm caught hell but me.
Once James summoned the courage to ask, “Why me? It was Disco who broke the windshield.”
Damn put his face so close to his son’s that I’ll bet James could smell the gin blossoms. “Because he’s your brother.”
James and I dreaded summertime. At least during the school year we didn’t have to think of the sun as a lazy bastard, rising a good two hours after us. We got good at balancing on the rusty old hay bailer as Damn towed us behind the tractor, cradling as many cans of Mountain Dew as we could in our T-shirts. Damn would tractor perch up ahead of us on his coiled throne: a torn black cushion topping a single rusty coil that bounced continually. To us he resembled a Jack-in-the Box from Hell.
Before Damn could cut the grass it was our job to walk the field and toss any rocks or branches into the woods. We’d walk up and down the rows talking, James often doing my job for me. I’m a horrible multi-tasker. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve actually tried to take a drink while speaking. Nearly every shirt I own is stained in the front.
At the time I was hot about the idea of Karma. My English teacher had talked to us about it on the last day of school. “What goes around, comes around.” He told us. This was exciting news, because if it was true then Damn was in for it.
I tend to get loud and fast when speaking, especially about things I’m excited about. I’ve been shushed by everyone I know; even little kids. I was in this state of zero self-awareness as we made our way back to Damn, who was draining a Bud longneck and leaning against the tractor. His shirt was off. Damn had a taut, compact chest that puckered out and contrasted sharply with his big, symmetrically round beer belly. His whole torso wore a coat of wolf-gray hair, and veins stood out on his muscles nearly everywhere but his belly.
Squinting in the sun, he said, “What was that now?”
“Oh, just talking about philosophy.” I glanced sideways at James.
“Philosophy’s for pussies.” He pronounced.
Lots of things were for pussies. According to Damn, sunsets, seatbelts, birthday cards, books and even, if one had a column shifter in one’s vehicle, the clutch. When Ma drove our old brown pickup I noticed she’d depress the clutch pedal to shift. Damn simply revved the engine, listened for the right moment, and would slam the column shifter into place. When I asked him why he didn’t use the clutch, he informed me that clutches were in fact for pussies.
It seemed to me that the pussies had it made. Just about everything I expressed interest in fell into the pussy category, so I resigned myself to pussyhood early on. Now James was no pussy. James had bright red chest hair when he was nine, for Christ sake.
But he was every bit as interested in the world of pussies as I was. He was just smart enough to shut up about it when Damn was around. As Damn towed the hay-rake over the field we walked along behind the tractor sipping our sodas.
James nudged me and nodded at the tractor.
“Oh, yeah.” I said. Damn was coming up on the branch had that whacked him last month. It had rained almost every day for three weeks, and Damn cursed the clouds continually until they finally fled. I don’t know too many farmers, but I imagine, like Damn, they hate being ruled by weather. It was the only thing Damn couldn’t control. He owned the farm, the animals, and us, and treated all of these things with equal contempt. I think New Hampshire farmers are particularly ornery because, apart from the maddeningly unpredictable weather, the boulder-lousy soil will either cause you to weep or grow strong. Damn did not weep. He had dug every god damned rock out of that field as a boy. His dead father, whom we referred to as Ultimate Damn, had made him do it. It was hard for us to imagine that Damn was actually conceived. It was easier to think of him of just sort of gradually happening over thousands of years, like fossilization, or the movement of glaciers. I think Damn and his father must have had a Zeus-Cronus type relationship. I wouldn’t put it past Damn to castrate somebody. He did it to bulls all the time.
So up ahead of Damn loomed this skinny branch. A lot of the time he’d be turned around watching the hay rake or whatever else the tractor was hauling, making sure nothing got caught. So he wasn’t looking when the branch had got hung up on the tall black smokestack on the front of the tractor. It bent backward until it finally slipped off the smokestack and smacked Damn a good one right across his bare back. He whipped around and grabbed vainly at the middle of his back, cursing that branch and every tree in the White Mountain national forest.
Now here he was again, turned around as the tractor chugged closer to the branch. But you only get one chance with Damn. He turned around right on time, produced a pair of hedge trimmers and snipped that branch off cleanly as it bent against the smokestack. Then he took the branch in his hands and snapped it.
That was the first day we saw the auburn mare. Damn had gone on to cut another field that didn’t need clearing, so Kev and I were throwing crab apples at trees, waiting for ma to come pick us up. We heard branches snapping beyond the mossy stone wall bordering the field, and then the bushes were rustling. I jumped to my feet ready to run like hell in case it was a bear, but James just sat there staring. Then the rusty colored horse head appeared, nodding good naturedly as if to say, “What’s up, fellas?”
Horses scare the shit out of me. I won’t even try to sugar-coat it. Their massy heads and teeth the size of chalk-board erasers are just too huge for my liking. But James stood up, grabbed a crab apple and walked over to the horse with his hand outstretched. The horse swished its tail as James approached, just standing there, and reached out and with it great lips delicately snatched the apple. I was waiting to see if James was going to pull back a bloody stump instead of a hand, but everything seemed in tact. The horse even seemed amiable; his tail flicked in a friendly fashion, I thought. I picked up a crab apple, swallowed hard, and began taking baby steps toward the horse, my shaking hand outstretched. I got within about five feet, my heart pounding, and the thing made this “chuff” sound and I ducked behind James. He thought that was pretty funny. I felt like the horse did it to make James laugh, because it was flicking its tail even more and even seemed to be smiling, like it and James were sharing this joke. I wasn’t going near that horse again I can tell you.
Some fathers like to fish, some bowl, some even still play with model trains. Damn’s hobby was to task James with something damn near impossible, and then beat him when he failed. It was sort of a rolling abuse system, where there was always something in the queue; some justification to beat somebody always coming down the line.
Damn had this way of emphasizing all the words he knew you didn't want to hear. He came up to our room on a Sunday in the first week of July during that hot summer.
"James, I want you, to pull every God-damned boulder out of that riverbed, before I get back from Concord. Now get your ass out of bed!" He made no mention of my responsibility to help James. Indeed, since he wished for James to fail, I'm sure he would have preferred for me not to help.
We made the best of it, getting out of bed and frying up fresh bacon and eggs before we set out. There were some advantages to living on a farm, at least. We were passing Grammy, who was sitting in her powder-blue nightgown in the sunroom with her black cat Bootsy on her lap. James stopped, held a finger up to me. He quietly pulled his shorts down around his knees, exposing his substantial white ass. He then proceeded to slowly back up until his pock-marked ass was only inches from Grammy's nose. As she had only just woken up, her black glasses were on the table next to her, and her tiny eyes seemed to disappear as she wrinkled up her nose.
"Oh, what's that smell?" She asked in a confused voice. I had to burst out the front door to let my laugh explode outside, and James followed close behind, barely able to walk in his convulsions. It was the least she deserved for bringing Damn into the world, we rationalized.
We were soon up by the river, among the dry pines by the northernmost border of the farm. We’d come up here before because in the shadows of the murky boulders hovered rainbow trout. We knew how many boulders were down there and we knew we wouldn't be able to pull them out in time.
James' girth cut the pellucid river gracefully, and I sliced in after, found him clutching a boulder on the murky river bottom. Among stirred up sand he squatted, and released a gargling scream as he stood and uprooted a massive boulder. There was nothing I could do to help. The boulder was too awkward for both of us to carry, and too heavy for me to lift myself. I surfaced, and saw James's head slowly rising streaming out of the water like some long sleeping dinosaur, bearing slowly his burden.
"I'm sorry James, I don't even think I can help."
"S'ok". He was out of breath.
"Wait, I have an idea!" I said, and I sprinted barefoot over the dry pine needles.
I returned a short while later and dove into the river, where James was rock walking. He'd moved 4 or 5 rocks, with 15 or so to go. Damn was due home within the hour. But luckily, I’d found a rubber belt type thing hanging in the garage. I sliced through the water past James. I looped the belt around a rock, then began pulling and walking backward, stopping to adjust the belt so it stayed looped round the rock. I got my boulder to shore at the same time James did.
"Good idea!" He said with a smile, the first I'd seen in a while.
We got all 20 or so boulders out of the riverbed, and arranged them in a line along the pine needle strewn bank. Damn could even sit on them to fish. If he ever stopped working.
Damn came out from among the dead trees, found us sitting there, beaming proudly on our line of rocks. He stopped before us, marveling at the line of boulders before him. Then his eyes moved to the rubber belt in the dirt, which had snapped while I was pulling the final rock. He took a step and cuffed James viciously on his ear, toppling him into the dirt.
"Take my God damned timing belt into the river boy?" He shouted down at his son. James held his ear, and did not move nor speak.
"Damn!" I shouted. "I mean Dad--“
He whirled and snatched the broken belt up off the ground. He held the belt, folded, beneath my nose. "You watch your mouth, or I'll tan your hide." He spun, disappeared into the darkling trees.
I laid down in the dirt next to James, saying nothing. He spoke up.
"No, why doesn't he ever blame you?" James asked, eerily calm.
“Cause’ I’m your brother."
We laughed. Even James could admit there was something darkly humorous about his situation. He always got punished, and I didn't, though I deserved it.
We walked through the quiet wood of dead, dry pines as the light fled. It was almost time to feed the chickens and cows. But when we crested the grassy hillock overlooking the barnyard, Damn was already walking into the henhouse with a bucket of chicken feed. He was feeding them early, but doubtless he'd say we were late in doing it, and hold it against us. What could we say? It was his farm. So we plunked down on the hillock, and watched Damn as he exited the coop. Suddenly the little red bantam rooster, which we called the banny, appeared. The stealthy creature darted right at the backs of Damn's heels, noiselessly.
Or so we thought. Suddenly the seemingly oblivious Damn swung the empty feed-bucket backward, right into the banny, knocking the crimson rooster straight up, as Damn spun and snatched it out of the air by the neck.
"Grrr!" Damn growled, as he shook the foolish creature. He walked over to the water barrel and plunged the bird in. Just when we thought it might be dead, Damn withdrew it and flung the soaking thing back toward the coop. It ran squawking inside. Damn turned and regarded the brown and white Guernsey cow Bessie, who had ambled near. She languidly flipped her tail around, regarding Damn. It was feeding time, and the cows never left well enough alone. They liked to badger anyone who got near them close to feeding time by good-naturedly butting them with their massy heads. But not today.
Damn stared Bessie down, with a look that said, "You next?" Her primitive instincts guided her well, because she walked backward a few steps, then pivoted around to rejoin the other three cows.
At dinner that night the micro-magic cheeseburgers went to my head somehow. I felt good-natured and stuffed, and I told Damn about the red mare. Damn fixed me with an infuriated look, as if I had made it come to pass simply by mentioning it. He looked from me, then to James, who chewed thoughtfully, staring at his plate. Damn seemed to be trying to work out a way to justify beating James for the horse's effrontery. Failing this, Damn looked at me.
"Guess we'll have to pay ol' Gus Jacobson a visit tomorrow morning, won't we?"
The three of us put off haying in the morning to transport Damn's wrath to the Jacobson's. We rode the tractor just to show we were there on business. It was only a quarter mile up New Hampton Road. When we arrived Jacobson was coming out of the stable with his boy Jack, a perpetually cowboy-hatted boy our age.
"Hey there Sunder!" Gus cried out good-naturedly.
"Hey yourself!" Replied Damn, not so good-naturedly. He walked right up to the taller man. I swallowed hard and exchanged a look with James. Damn reserved a special spite for anyone taller than him, which was just about every man and adolescent boy we'd ever known.
"Gus, you got to keep that goddamned red mare under control! It goes up the fields when I'm hayin' and eats my goddamned apples! I'm gonna cut the god-damned hooves off that thing if I see it up there again!"
Jack examined his boots.
"Sunder, you know that horse ain't worth a lick to me anyhow. Jack had all he could do to bring it back here last night, after a three-hour search. Ain't a man out there that can tame that horse. I got her for Jack to ride a year ago and it bucks him every time! God, she's wicked ornery!"
"Can't be ridden?" Asked Damn.
"Uh-yuh." Replied Gus. James and I exchanged a faint smile.
Damn lifted the steel gate-latch and shut himself in the paddock. The auburn mare stood regarding him, tail flicking. He strode right up to the horse without hesitation and put one hand in his denim overalls. He produced something I'd not seen before; a flimsy black stick. It was a blackjack. I caught James looking wide-eyed at the instrument, then I looked down in shame. He'd obviously seen it before, and likely on my account.
Damn snatched the red mare's reins. She stepped nervously and pulled backward but Damn held tight, and placed the blackjack along the mare's nose, right beneath her wide, brown pupil, where she could plainly see it. He then reached up and put a foot in the stirrup with some difficulty, and pulled himself up into the saddle. Damn looked at Gus with raised eyebrows. Suddenly the mare bucked and launched damn like a child. Only he had those reins tight, and he contracted his sinewy arms so that he righted himself and swung down by the mare's head, and landed on his feet. The mare whinnied and stomped, but he held it fast. He produced the blackjack again, and laid it along the mare's nose. Suddenly his arm was a vicious windmill that ended in a loud "crack!" between the mare's eyes, like a shot from a .22. Down she went.
"Jesus Christ!" Cried Gus. "I coulda done that Sunder! I didn't want you should kill her!" Jack turned and walked quickly into the house, hands shoved deep in his pockets.
"Aw she ain't killed. Just you wait." So we all stood somberly, watching Damn watch the mare. Her great reddish flank still rose and fell evenly, and no one said anything. Then suddenly the mare kicked her great, muscled legs, trembled, and righted herself. She stood shakily as if just born, and shook her head, as if she was trying to disbelieve what just happened. Damn walked up and once again showed her the blackjack, then took the reins and mounted her. He nudged her with his boots. Nothing. He produced the blackjack again and laid it alongside her nose so she could see it. He nudged her, and wouldn't you know it, she began prancing around that paddock like a goddamned blue ribbon show horse. Damn commanded James to open the gate. He pranced that horse right out to Gus, hopped down, and handed him the reins and the blackjack.
"You're welcome." He said. We left.
When we got back Damn picked up his customary six-pack of Bud bottles and we rode behind Damn, balancing on the bailer up to the fields. I swear I saw a flicker of movement among the dry pines, but with the waves of heat rising up from the asphalt it was hard to say. James had one hand down in the teeth of the rusty bailer, picking out strands of grass. Although the bailer was over fifty years old, it was horribly efficient. It's hungry, rusty teeth swallowed up everything it could. Once in a while a canny field mouse would suddenly pop up out of the grass, barely missing being shredded by the blades of the vibrating cutter bar that stood out on either side of the tractor. The mice often run along the cutter bar, and climb right up the tractor like they'd been there before. Sometimes they'd even make it back to the bailer, only to get too close to those rusted, demonic teeth and get shredded and packed into a hay bail.
When we got to the field James and I automatically dismounted and began our circuit down the first row. We found only a few sticks, tossing them into the woods. Meanwhile Damn drained two beers atop his throne. Then the tractor began chugging along, with the bailer squealing and whirring away behind. We walked, our backs to Damn, down the next row, looking for sticks and rocks. Suddenly James stopped.
Damn was standing up, cursing. He was shaking his fist at something we couldn't see. We jogged over to the edge of the field and saw that it was the red mare, munching grass and swishing her tail. Only she was just past our field’s boundary, at the beginning of the forest, munching the uncut grass. Damn began guiding the tractor off our field toward her over the rough ground. My throat tightened, and I wanted to yell. But I watched helplessly as he bore down on the mare.
“Fuck!” Growled James.
Suddenly sparks leapt from the tractor’s cutter bar, and a horrible grating noise competed with the tractor's din. The ground there had never been cleared, so there were rocks. Then I became conscious of another noise, separate from the scraping and the motor's din and the bailer's growl. A creaking.
I saw that branch, the clipped oak branch, was caught on the tractor’s black smokestack again, but this time the whole live branch was caught, thick as my thigh. Damn was turned around reaching down, pulling up on the cutter-bar lever to save it from breaking against the rock. The horse raised its head, turned and scampered off. Wide eyed I watched the branch bend back on the smokestack as if it were a giant winding up to throw a pitch. But I said nothing.
Suddenly James's scream split through the din. "Dad!"
Somehow he heard it, because he looked up, saw us, and whipped round just as the smokestack broke and the branch slapped him like a child's doll right off his coiled throne and into the rust-toothed mouth of the bailer.
James blew past me sprinting but when he got close he stopped and clutched his red hair with both hands. The bailer was chugging still, the tractor rolling forward. I ran forward, saw the wet, red mouth of the bailer. As the tractor closed with the stone wall I jumped up onto the still bouncing coiled seat and jammed the kill switch. I could not bear to look down into the wet mouth of the still-running bailer, looming behind me like a satiated smile. I hopped down and ran up field, toward James, who was walking away with his hands cupped over his face.
The funeral was set for that Friday. Ma wanted to just have the whole bail of hay Damn ended up in buried in a coffin, but the police had to conduct an autopsy. I think they just wanted to see what a bailed human would look like. So the police took care of it, and it slowly settled on everyone that he was gone. Even Grammy’s slumped shoulders seemed to settle a bit, and loosen. There were no tears, only the numbness of slow realization.
The scene later that night in the living room was surreal. It was as if nothing had happened. Ma was smoking and watching a game show, and James and I sat watching the fire. We hadn't really needed one, but we needed something to fix our attention on so we didn't have to look at each other.
As I lay in bed that night the house that night was still, and it was a little scary to think Damn wasn't there with all his rage to protect us. Then I noticed a sound from down stairs. It was a high-pitched, white noise kind of sound, like when a T.V. gets turned on. I crept downstairs, half-expecting Damn’s ghost to take me by the scruff of the neck. I tip toed into the kitchen and I could see the light from the T.V. in the sunroom. I could see the white puff Grammy’s hair; she was seated in her armchair, and on television a man was sawing a can in half with a knife. Then I noticed Grammy's black glasses were on the little table next to her. I crept closer, till I was right behind her chair. I could see now that Bootsy was perched atop the T.V. with her eyes closed in an attitude of meditation. Her yellow eyes opened.
I heard Grammy say, "Awake now, kitty?"
Causes Ron Kaiser Supports