Aunt Tish surrounded herself with things she didn’t own. The house belonged to Farmer Milt, whose forearms were like bowling pins. The Buick belonged to a man named Gar, who wore a safety pin in his ear. And she had me to watch over everything in ways no one else could. She called me her “dead sister’s son.”
Days: I watched Gar’s dog, Bastard, follow shadows through the yard and pant his body free of heat, staring at Farmer Milt’s chicken coop with a sad want in his eyes, like an old man remembering glory days.
Sometimes I hosed him down when the day got too hot. Inside the house, Aunt Tish dozed in different places until noon, when she condemned herself to the staircase, thumping slowly up to her room, only to thud back down and emerge in floral underwear with new life, her hair like a bouquet, her fingers twitching with the medicine she’d taken. She looked like Eve emerging from the garden, full of sin and happy about it.
Every afternoon we watched Wizard of Oz on a broken TV. When Dorothy opened her door after the tornado took her away, nothing much changed. But I knew just the spot to smack and lend the screen a few moments of color. Aunt Tish rarely wore more than underwear during the day. She cooed to her cat, Coathanger, while I watched a frozen pizza change color in the oven.
At nine years old, mouthing the hot cheese off a piece of pizza, I’ve never felt so wonderfully wrong in my life staring at Aunt Tish in her underwear.
Gar sounded like a kid in a kitchen full of pots and pans whenever he worked in the garage. He spent whole weekends in there with the stereo buzzing through the metal siding, leaving me to tend to Aunt Tish. He only left the garage when he went fishing. He took me along a few times. Once, he loaded a lumpy potato sack into the trunk, put the fishing poles in the backseat, and drove me to the unfinished bridge up the road. We parked on the dike and walked down to the river, Gar sidling close behind me, stumbling down the dike, his arms full of sweaty beer cans. I fished from the bank, baiting my own hook with corn kernels. Gar took off his shirt. Sunlight made the river look like tinfoil.
“See that?” Gar said. He pointed to the bridge with his cigarette. “They call that falsework. It’ll all be gone when the bridge is done.”
Gar’s marred arms—blue with tattoos and bulging veins—were proof he knew things like that.
I looked to where he pointed, at a web of wood too intricate for anyone to want to take down. It looked like it took longer to build the falsework than the bridge itself.
For a while, Gar cursed the flies for biting him and the fish for not biting his bait. He sank can after can into the river, the bubbles rising from the opening until the can dropped to the muddy river bottom.
Back on the dike, Gar fitted the poles into the car. I stood on the road watching him, my shirt full of wind. Clouds roved overhead, casting shadows the size of ponds. He pulled the potato sack from the trunk, set it on the road, and told me to get in the car. So I did. With the window down, I heard him over the bugs’ buzzing, cupping handfuls of rock from the road into the sack. Then he synched the top, walked to the unfinished bridge, and slid it through two I-beams, letting it fall to the river with a splash.
He told me not to tell Tish what he’d done, which was another easy task, since I didn’t know the secret.
But then he said, “We got enough cats as it is.”
And then I knew what was in the river now.
In the time it took the workers to strip the falsework away, piece by piece. A tornado wrestled a giant metal irrigator to the ground in a nearby field. Dr. Barnes told Aunt Tish she was pregnant. And Gar burned Aunt Tish’s medicine in the barrel out back:
"It's something she wants,” he said to me, “not something she needs."
Bastard got something he wanted. The next day, he killed one of Farmer Milt’s chickens. It happened in the dark hours of the morning. Just as I was leaving the house for the day to find a new adventure, I heard Farmer Milt storming from his coop.
“You mutt!” he shouted, his massive hand dragging Bastard across the driveway.
In his other hand, he held the dead chicken, which he dropped just outside the gate. Then he threw the dog over the fence like a bag of trash. Bastard landed on his back, then whined away into the shade of a blighted evergreen.
“You tell Gar to tie this chicken ‘round that dog’s neck,” he said. “Leave it there till it rots. You hear me, boy? He won’t kill no more my chickens then. And if he does, I’ll return the favor. You can take that to the bank.”
Farmer Milt stood there a moment, panting and glaring at me. Then he opened his black mouth and let fall a wet wad of tobacco, tonguing it out from his lower lip. It fell at his feet and exploded on the gravel.
I felt like I’d been thrown into the midst of a life that was not my own.
With Gar gone on a long weekend job and Aunt Tish laid up for want of medicine, I felt like I was in charge. When I walked into the house to tell Aunt Tish what Farmer Milt had said, I found her balled-up on the couch with a corner of a blanket in her mouth. She shook like there were crickets in her bones.
“We’re supposed to tie a chicken to Bastard,” I said. “That way he’ll leave the coop alone.”
The cords in Aunt Tish’s neck shivered and tiny sirens sounded in her throat.
“You do what he tells you now,” Aunt Tish said. “Farmer Milts a good ol’ boy.”
I walked outside and pretended the basketball backboard had a rim, chucking the ball up there over and over. The chicken sat in the sun, its talons like two twigs, its feathers twitching in the wind. I prayed that thing would jump up with new life the way Aunt Tish did most mornings, before she got pregnant. Bastard licked the blood from his jaw and whined at the bird from inside the fence.
Finally, I unwound the bailing wire that held the empty bird feeder to the porch and wrestled the bird onto the dog. Bastard shook and growled and bit at it, and when I fitted the bird to him, he tried nipping at his neck but only bit at the air. He writhed on his back for a time, until he realized he couldn’t shake free of his punishment. Then he strutted about the yard with the chicken, wearing it with pride like a new fur scarf, acting as though it didn’t bother him. Throughout the day, his moods pendulumed. He loathed the chicken one instant; then he calmed himself the next, hating it a little less later. Finally, he laid out in the dark grass and I thought to myself, “Job well done.” It hadn’t been that hard after all.
Gar's headlights gave life to the yard later. I was digging holes with a garden trowel in the tractor-tire sandbox. The rocks under his tires sounded like ice cracking. He got out and headed for the fence, a beer in one hand, a cigarette stub in the other. He opened the gate and entered the yard, flinging the cigarette into the night. I watched it spiral like a lame firework.
"What's that?" Gar said, pointing at the punished dog. He stalked over stiff-legged to Bastard and knelt down. "Did you do this to him?” he asked, not giving me a chance to answer. “You think that's funny? Come here, boy.”
I stood up from the sandbox, but backed away from him, stammering.
“Farmer Milt said—.”
I held the trowel tight in my fist and stopped walking backward, defeated yet somehow empowered. I let Gar come to me. I let him smack me to the grass so hard that the trowel went flying. I let him untie the chicken from Bastard. I let Bastard lick my stinging face. I let Farmer Milt kill him a month later. I let storms twist in the sky for the rest of the summer. I let Dorothy find a colorless Oz. I let Aunt Tish have her medicine back and her baby three weeks early. I let it be a boy. I let him lay in a glass box for six days. I let him be so small that the ring from Gar’s celebratory cigar fit around his right leg.
For that short time, I felt in control, back when things happened one at a time, until suddenly they happened all at once, and it was as though I’d crossed to the other side of somewhere.
About the Author: Nick Bertelson’s work has appeared in the Cortland Review, The Coe Review, The New Plains Review, The Raleigh Review, and elsewhere. His poem, “Instead,” was a finalist for the James Hearst Poetry Prize and will appear in the Spring Issue of The North American Review. He currently works on a farm in southwest Iowa.