What Would I Do With Me? – Thomas Weedman
The boy with the amblyopic squint and his aunt are in the fields, furrowing dirt banks around wilted dwarf apple trees. The sun doesn’t feel millions of miles away. It’s a bright, infernal heat, closing the boy’s lazy eye further. It’s also stressing the saplings plagued with flathead borers. The beetles are eating through trunks, their legless bodies packed in arced layers of sawdust. The boy, with a plague of his own, is stressed by nickel-shaped chancroid ulcers. He chops the ground, hard as cement. The dull hoe bounces and scuds his steel-toe boot. He’d kill for lunch at the ranch house and to wash off the pus and itch and burn, all cooled by pull-chain ceiling fans, chuffing rustic blades. His uncle’s business with the bank manager will be done by noon. They’ll sit at the kitchen table for iced sun tea, ham-and-Swiss sandwiches and his uncle chivvying him that his pretty aunt did the furrowing while he talked her ear off.
“You did, didn’t you, Jimmy boy?” he’ll say, clean-shaven, hair slicked back with pomade, wearing a t-shirt that says GULAG. “You kept fouling up the workflow and coofed more than – what’d that exterminator say we had – Jerusalem crickets?”
Thinking of what occurred in the fields, Jimmy will ask, “Goofed?”
“Goofed with a c.”
His aunt will say, “Roy, you keep giving that boy grief and his Catholic mother’s not going to send him to you next summer.”
Jimmy will think she makes Catholic sound like a salt lick for fifty head of cattle on the Sonora acreage.
“She’ll let Big Brothers father him instead,” she’ll warn. “Find him another priest like the last one to spend fun time with. Or send him to family in Mexico.”
Roy will retort, “It’s good for him here. Isn’t that right, boy? Your Okie dad, God rest his soul, would have loved it here. Tell him, Doreen.”
“Jimmy, did you tell your uncle about your new blisters?” she’ll say, pink pigskin gloves splayed from her back pocket, the way baseball players opera-fashion batting gloves on defense in the field.
“That’s nothing,” Roy will say. “Make a man out of you. Get some blisters. You don’t need sissy gloves. Maybe sunglasses for that lazy-eye squint. Besides, you got some nice Naugahyde jobbies.”
“Nauga who?” Jimmy will say.
“Real shit kickers.”
Jimmy will look at his wide nines, shanked soles thick as a pack of bubble gum. He’ll recall the cobbler saying he wore a man’s boot but still asking for a pair of cleats, remember Roy joking, “Paraclete?”
Jimmy will remember serving Mass back home in an onyx cassock, the homily about the Paraclete. Father George (the priest on sabbatical Big Brothers sent out of the blue, who then had to leave for missionary work after months of bonding), saying it was the Holy Spirit, the helper for humanity, the oxygen of angels.
Finally, Jimmy will remember Roy jiving, “Parakeet? With your lisp, can’t tell what you’re saying. Can’t wear a parakeet on your feet. You like my pithy saying? Got a million. No baseball here, catcher boy. You’re getting work boots.”
+ + +
Wind dusts the hedgerow, coating Jimmy’s boots. He squints, watching his aunt straighten from hoeing. Her rouge cheeks beet under a jute hat. She is curvy and pretties a kind of chest-protector inside her blouse akin to Blue – what everyone in the stands at Little League calls the home-plate umpire (shirted in powder blue), especially when dissatisfied with his calls. Jimmy waits for she says next.
“Don’t wartch me, honey,” she says with an r. “Work.”
Then she says it. “What would you do with McVeigh? Sentence him for life?”
Her question is a change-up. It catches him off-gaurd like an Eephus pitch to a batter expecting a fastball instead of a slow, arcing pitch. Or maybe a dying quail, he thinks in baseball speak. But really, her question is as if Blue were asking his opinion, asking him to make the call. Ball or strike. Life or death.
He squints into the bright heat. Her word floats red across his line of sight: sentence. He blinks and the word dissipates. He feels sentenced to work the fields and ten thousand trees that don’t have any red apples. He doesn’t know why he’s so far from home, Mass, and Little League with a bum knee from catching. But at least away from Coach Earl.
As he tries to answer, a codling moth, pupate and mated, finishes laying larvae eggs. It erupts from the creviced trunk of an apple tree. It circles, it jags, it flies at Jimmy. Jimmy feints left, he feints right. He ducks like a boxer, like Ali. The moth flutters between hand swats into Jimmy’s eye, the non-lazy one. After he swipes the copper wings, it falls to the ground. Jimmy steps on it, turning his foot, smashing it like his uncle a cigarette. (It is the way Jimmy digs into the batter’s box. Or used to.) Jimmy blinks and blinks, rubbing his eye. He hears cawing but doesn’t see a crow. He focuses on lanky pines skirting the field, wavering in a roaring wind scented with fir needles. The tips of the trees are red as matchsticks. Jimmy appreciates that his aunt asks him questions. She argues without roaring or turning red.
Distracted, he considers the latticed, barbed-wire fences with cut pine posts to keep deer out. He wants to breathe in the grass of a baseball field after a mow. Instead, he breathes dust in his clogged nose. He wonders if angels ever have trouble breathing. He feels the sun on his back, neck, and ears. In his squinted eyes too. He hates that; it drives him crazy, makes him kick at dirt. Why does the sun hurt?
He rubs his eye, digging for more moth. His fingers burn from the rough hoe and he feels a new blister coming on.
“Yes Ma’am,” Finally he says. “I know the soldier blew up all those people.” His left eye is nearly closed like a boxer’s without the swelling. “Kids in daycare and people who’d never hurt him.”
“Over a hundred and sixty folks,” she says. “Gone. McVeigh, a Gulf War vet killing his own. And no remorse. Evil as the Devil. How could anyone do such a thing? Isn’t that what you Catholics call enmity?”
Jimmy doesn’t know the word. It sounds close to enemy. He doesn’t want to ask.
She continues. “Couldn’t he have said something first? Maybe he did. Who knows? I understand self-defense, but lashing out? Was he that frustrated? Guess he was mad about Ruby Ridge or Waco or a war over oil. Still, that’s no reason.”
She pronounces oil with an r. Jimmy hears Earl and ducks the geyser of emotional shale. He switches spots in his head. He imagines McVeigh as a red-faced devil with horns, roaring, ripping souls from bodies or blisters from Jimmy’s hand. Jimmy halts as the dying flash in his mind. The horrified faces. He staggers, hearing cries. He sees glass sharding skin, fire torching hair. He steadies himself. “What is it?” she says.
“I’m fine.” What Earl told him to say in the motel months ago, their weekend at the amusement park, Jimmy’s ninth birthday. (His mother approved; Earl gifted with tickets in hand, reservation made.) It’s only a little blood, Earl added. Jimmy felt split and in need of stitches. Looking for tissue in the nightstand, he found and opened a Gideon bible to Sodom and Gomorrah. Pillar of salt, it read. He felt no comfort in the tiny-print words or tissue-thin waxy pages. He put it away. Then he went into the bathroom and Earl watched him shower. Jimmy’s sores developed in days like a plague.
“Really?” his aunt says. “I’m not, I’m parched.”
“What’s that mean?”
He wonders if the Paraclete is ever parched.
They forgot the orange water jug at the ranch house, which they left on foot in the dewfall at dawn with only hoes over their shoulders. The woods smelled petrichor pungent and damp, like the remains of rain after a drought, the air scented with pine, grass, and citronella.
Now, Jimmy thinks of cold water scraping parched throat, welling the core of his belly cool.
“I know the soldier was wrong,” he says and swallows dry air. “He hated the government.” Jimmy recalls the TV news: half the federal building in Oklahoma gone, exploded, guts and offal of floors exposed and hanging limp like newspaper over a fire. Remnants of truck-bomb packed with fertilizer beneath the rubble. He recalls asking if it was the same fertilizer that they put on the apple trees. Shit is shit, Roy said. How’s it smell to you?
Leaning on the hoe, Jimmy says to his aunt, “Couldn’t McVeigh be re…rehab…”
She says, “Rehabilitated?”
“Yes.” Frustrated at his stuttering, he chops the ground, remembers an episode of Star Trek. A rehabilitation colony for arch criminals. A mass murderer escaped. Jimmy naively wondered if the man killed people in church under an arch during Mass. Or was it the nave? The criminal impersonated Spock, same pointy ears, trying to confuse Captain Kirk. There was hand-to-hand combat. Of course, Roy said, the captain won. Or else the show wouldn’t go on.
“Like that murderer in Star Trek?” Doreen says.
“Yes,” Jimmy says reluctantly.
“So, since we can’t rehabilitate him, what do you do?” She props her hands on her lower back; her hat tilts up, and soft brown curls drip out.
“I don’t think he should die though,” he says. “That just makes us like him. Aren’t we supposed to forgive no matter how much it hurts?”
“Sugar. It doesn’t work that way. Not when you kill. The penal system isn’t Catholic.”
“How does it work?” He knows how Earl’s penis works.
“Not like that.”
Jimmy looks up for the Paraclete. There’s only a pall of hot mountain air, the blue sky bleached by the sun. He prays, Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. “Peas,” he says aloud and steps on the dull blade of the hoe. It won’t go through the boot. He tries harder, like on a school test or a bully dare.
If it does, there’ll be no peace, just pieces of toe – what Roy has said. Have to call you a toe truck. Back to work, boy.
Toe truck, Jimmy laughs.
Doreen says, “I don’t want to have to pay for prison for the rest of his life. You know how much that costs the taxpayers?”
It sounds like tax prayers. “No, Ma’am.”
“We have enough around here to pay for.”
He doesn’t know if she’s talking about him, the new equipment, the trucks, the water, the carbaryl insecticide that isn’t working, or the trees that haven’t produced any apples. He’s never had a job or money to pay for anything. How much do I cost? He tries to think of an answer.
They continue working. Some trees have kerfs and limp leaves powdered with frass – what Roy calls bug shit. Jimmy thinks of skubala, what Father Joe let slip was the Greek for shit. Jimmy hoes too close to the trunk. Another tree falls.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “Some saplings are gone. How did that smart exterminator describe those borers?”
“Inextirpable. I call them hungry. Like you and me. Keep going. We’ll spray tomorrow.”
Time seems extra important; Jimmy hurries. Something terrible will happen if he doesn’t hurry. They work in the bastard heat. Bastard is a word Roy uses when bill collectors phone or a ranch hand calls out sick. Doreen works faster than Jimmy. Thinking slows him down. “Work,” she says. “Don’t think.”
Breathe less, Roy has added. Work more, boy.
Jimmy wonders if the Paraclete talks to Angels that way. Then, disoriented, he says, “Blue, do you really think McVeigh should die?”
She is ahead by five trees, each spaced by three feet. Jimmy feels the lack of space between the sores under his sac. He wears them like a cilice or sackcloth and wonders if he’ll die from them. At lunch, in the indoor rustic outhouse (dark as a wood-paneled confessional or heavy-curtained motel room), he’ll scratch and bleed worthy of leeches.
He catches, edits himself in the heat. “Do you really think McVeigh should die?”
“Yes,” she says. “They ought to strike him down, then crucify him. He’s got to pay for his sins.”
He wonders how bad of a sin it was grabbing Earl’s penis like a baseball bat.
His aunt labors to straighten. She places the hoe handle against her slight belly. She props her hands on her narrowed lower back, arch arching. Jimmy wonders why she’s working; she fell off a tractor, cracked a vertebra, spent last year in bed. She finishes her row, trees neat, ordered, round furrows consistent and flat on top. What Roy has said: Boy, look at her work. Like Hoover Dam, hold that water right in.
Jimmy wonders where the dam is. He’s heard on the TV news it’s leaking. He imagines slabs of cement sliding, the whole thing crumbling. Water gushes. There is almost a cooling solace.
“Jimmy,” Doreen says. “Quit daydreaming.” She hoists her hoe and says, “I’m gonna head up to the house.”
“The wold?” What she calls the wooded hill the ranch house sits on.
“The wold,” she repeats with an r. “I’ll warsh up,” she says, “start lunch, see if the bank manager agreed to refinance our garden of Eden.”
“Okay. I’ll finish my row,” he says in a servile way but wants to go with her. He is dying for the bathroom.
“Hurry up, or you won’t get any pickles. You know how Uncle Roy likes to nab your pickles when you aren’t looking, then complains that you eat more than two growing boys. Sneaky devil snake, that ol’ pickle picker Roy. Scupper your supper, I tell you what.”
He recalls Roy saying he’d replace Jimmy’s pickle with a pickerel moth or a pileated woodpecker. Roy ran out of p’s, Earl’s veined, pickle-shaped penis never running out of Jimmy’s mind.
He thinks of food. He knows there’s honey ham and peppered pastrami for lunch. Stoneground mustard, too. He watches his aunt walk out of the field toward the flume where they fill up the tanker. Her almost lumpy behind sways in blue jeans like two bulldogs in a burlap sack – what Hawkeye says in M*A*S*H, suggesting Hot Lips lose weight. Roy says Doreen is prettier than Hot Lips. Jimmy agrees. Still, Doreen is always trying to lose weight. She tries this diet and that diet. Problem is she can cook. She’ll cook you, Roy has told Jimmy, if you keep standing there like a dead dullet.
“What’s a dullet?”
Back to work, boy.
Still wondering what a dullet is, he watches her lift a butt cheek. She lets the almost plump rump drop. Disgruntled as a player called out by Blue, she kicks dirt, then walks along the boreen – what Roy calls the bulldozed road, says it rhymes with someone he knows.
Jimmy wants to scratch inside his pants. Instead, he rubs the peach-fuzz on his dirty face. Then he lifts a butt cheek, the back pocket where he keeps Father George’s rosary and lets go. There isn’t a drop, but he remembers Earl’s hand there.
Jimmy hoes. He thinks of his nap after lunch, when it’s the hottest, when the sun is at its zenith, when maybe even the Paraclete seeks shade. Then Jimmy will cool off in the creek. After pot-roast dinner with string beans and larded potatoes (and the secret piece of bacon an the bottom of the pot), they’ll walk behind the tanker, hefting coned fire hoses, filling a thousand furrows. They’ll finish around midnight. Uncle Roy will supplant Aunt Doreen. Lineup change. Jimmy imagines them exchanging roster cards with Blue before a World Series game. He bets he can rip a walk-off over the trees and corner post he helped poleax, two-hundred feet away. The ball is hooking foul. He waves it fair once, twice, three times. He jumps like Fisk, the Red Sox catcher, wishing boots were a pair of cleats. The crowd roars. Jimmy’s knee buckles. It’s a crippling pain, like a crushed bone, a reminder of no more Little League games.
The scrotum ooze is unbearable. Jimmy hurries. As he furrows around a tree, he hears chirping. He chops and hears it again. He drops the hoe, kneels with a wince. Under pokeweeds, in a nest of twigs, a quail chick gapes a hungry beak. Its head, fuzzed with yellow stripes, is bloodied, nearly severed at the rust-colored neck. Moribund, it tries to scamper, tridactyl feet paddling air.
“Oh, God. No. No, no,” Jimmy says, an echo from the motel. He stares in disbelief. He gets to his feet, the sun roaring down on his head and ears. Frustrated, in a fit of rage, Jimmy lashes out and chops with enmity.
In a moment, the severed chick stops chirping, an angel without oxygen.
Call you a toe truck…
Jimmy marauds for the covey. Finding no dwellers, he chops the ground, cleaving denticulate, pea-size stones and clay. He cairns the dullet and offal a foot from the trunk. He packs the bank with the back of the blade until the furrow is stacked. Then, turning the scuffle, he manages to golf the needled nest, spraying the air with twigs and leaves.
He finishes the last tree and carries the hoe over his shoulder out of the field. He struggles to close the tension gate, scraping his blistered fingers on the hot metal hasp.
The boreen seems a million miles long, swarming with black blowflies and compunction. Locusts buzz in the brush skirted with scree. Jimmy limps up the wold, squinting in the sun, unable to see the blue sky. He reaches the oak trees and shade and feels a lump of dirt in his Naugahyde boot. He presses his toes. He hears the creek rinsing rocks and boulders and remembers washing off in the motel. It’s just blood. Wind gusts, dusting veins of leaves and branches and shoots of sunlight needling the shade. He hears cawing, and scared, presses again. Forget McVeigh, he thinks. What would I do with me?
Thomas Weedman has a BA in English from Notre Dame and an MFA from Lindenwood, where he was an assistant editor on the Lindenwood Review. He’s been a seminarian, a forklift operator, truck driver, a barista, barkeep, and a professional gambler. He is the author of Dreaming of Apples in Eden and Tainted. His stories have recently appeared in the Acorn Review, online at TheWriteLaunch.com, and forthcoming at The Paragon Pres