By John Mort
It was late March and warm. Jim watched the road.
Sixty years before, give or take, he walked down that road to school. It was paved now, or rather pot-holed; the county would be wise to scrape off the asphalt and run a grader like they used to. Maybe the road wasn’t worth maintaining. It came to a dead end in less than a mile because of the Interstate, curving like a scythe blade through what had been the farm’s only fertile field.
The mail went around three, though there was nothing in it anymore. Jim remembered an Australian pen-pal from age ten—he thought of her as Adelaide, but that was the name of her city. He wondered what had happened to Adelaide.
He always waved to the mail carriers, and many days they were the only humans he saw. There were two of them: one obese female, one obese male. He’d read their name-tags: Doris for the week days, Don on Saturdays and as a substitute. Both Doris and Don waved back.
He liked to watch the birds. Cardinals, bluejays, wrens, doves. Purple martin scouts flew up boldly, almost in Jim’s face, searching for their nests from the previous year, when the house stood vacant. Jim had put up two hummingbird feeders but he’d knocked down the martin nests. He needed a place to sit.
On Thursdays, a woman rode down the road on a chestnut mare, the mare twisting her head as if to cry out to Jim of her pointless and uncomfortable life, the woman with tall black boots, an upright quirt, and an upright back. She didn’t belong here. She belonged in some old book if anywhere. This was hillbilly country, and the land remained stubborn despite the money outsiders threw down. Sooner rather than later, the woman would return to whatever fancy place she hailed from.
Kitty, Jim’s daughter, had banished him to this old place, the home place, and the long porch Jim built twenty years ago. They didn’t get along so well. Jim knew Kitty blamed him for divorcing Sharon, her mother. Perhaps also she blamed him for Sharon’s death, which came not long after.
Jim lived with Kitty for two years after his stroke and fancied he helped her some. He shuffled about and did the cooking—tuna casseroles and chili and tossed salads. When they went out, he listened to her recitation of problems at work, about which he had little to say. Her problems seemed insoluble. He said, “It’ll look different tomorrow,” or even, “You can’t save the world in just one day.”
Kitty was a nurse-practitioner, a hospitalist down in Joplin, and at least she made good money. Her biggest problem was love. Of course, that was everyone’s problem. Even Jim’s, if he could remember so far back.
Kitty went through several boyfriends. Usually, they were gone before midnight, never to return, but one of them, an accountant named Steve, appeared on several mornings. Jim talked to Steve about fishing on Lake Stockton and the Kansas City Royals, and the man seemed affable, though shy and apologetic. Why did young people—well, the accountant was over fifty—assume that old farts such as Jim had never carried on an affair?
Last Thanksgiving, Marlene took stage. She spent the night several times before bringing in her clothes. She and Kitty left for work together, rumpled and weary-seeming in their blue scrubs.
Marlene had enormous breasts. One morning, she came out of the bedroom wearing a lowcut blouse, and Jim couldn’t help but stare. Not from lust—or if he did stare from lust, it was from that primordial part of the brainstem that tells you when to breathe. Thinking it over, Jim believed he’d stared from amazement, as if Marlene were a sideshow attraction. Regardless, Jim was slow to avert his eyes.
“Dirty old man!” Marlene said.
The remark took a moment to comprehend. He wondered how Kitty would react when Marlene complained, which he supposed she would. He’d be happy to leave, if it came to that. He was sick of living in town, trying to be useful.
Over chili, Kitty remembered how, when she was still a teenager, he’d take her out for dinner and flirt with the waitresses. “I was so embarrassed,” she said.
He was lonely in those days. The waitresses flirted right back and maybe some of them were lonely, too. The only dishonest thing about it was that he tipped them well, as if he were an important man and his pockets were filled with money.
Maybe, in Kitty’s estimation, he’d always been a dirty old man. She stammered and couldn’t meet his eyes, finally suggesting he might be more comfortable living at the home place for a while. “You’re a lot healthier now,” she explained.
“Much healthier.” The phrase that popped into his head was, “don’t want to be a burden.” This was his widowed mother’s phrase, and Jim would pat her hand and say, “You’re not a burden, Ma. You do all kinds of stuff for me.”
The home place was perfect.
* * *
Two weeks later, Kitty brought out five boxes of groceries and a beagle pup, whom she’d already named Lucky. “Dad, I’m sorry,” she said, looking at him with those unsteady eyes. “Marlene is—”
Jim cut her off. “Don’t worry about it, Kitty. All you did was throw me into the briar patch.”
Jim had owned beagles before. They were affectionate and loyal, but they were also clumsy and loved to dig holes everywhere. When he was a young man, Jim might have kept Lucky in the barn, but he needed a pal. So Lucky had the run of the old house, even upstairs where Jim’s weak legs wouldn’t allow him to go. Lucky ate Jim’s food. He slept with the old man.
In April, Jim sat on the porch with Lucky in his lap. The day was warm and a breeze blew through the lilacs like an elixir. The mail ran and Jim waved at Doris/Don. He sat a while longer, mustering his strength, but he could walk half a mile now if he stopped to rest several times.
He hadn’t seen the fancy woman on her chestnut mare and he missed her, but today there was another distraction. The Lamar girls’ track team trotted by, their ponytails bobbing.
The beagle seized this moment to leap off Jim’s lap and run to the road. He scurried about, falling down over his feet, yapping at the strange human machine of thrashing legs. With his littleness and floppy ears, Lucky was close to irresistible to tenderhearted young females, and they cooed and cried, “Aw” and “What a cutie.” But they kept their formation—except for one.
Laughing, the girl bent low.
Jim had begun his slow walk down the driveway, but he understood he wasn’t quick enough to capture the pup and dropped into a strategically placed lawn chair. He called out, “Lucky! Don’t bother that girl!”
Lucky kept yapping. Sometimes, his terrier-like yap went deep, hinting at the sonorous, sonic boom of a bay not far in his future. He crawled on his belly toward the girl, and probably he’d follow her all the way to Nirvana. She picked up the pooch, kissed his nose, then ran to the lawn chair, delivering four sprawling paws into Jim’s arms.
“Sorry,” Jim said. “Lucky’s a great little dog, he really is. But I started out for the mail and, you know, he’s so full of energy.”
“I’ll get your mail for you, sir.”
The girl raced to his mailbox with long strides. He thought of that graceful mare the proud lady rode.
The girl trotted back. “You’re Jim Colson,” she said.
He nodded. His name was on the mailbox.
“I’m Laura Penner. My mom brought me by here for Trick or Treat.”
“I remember,” Jim murmured. It wasn’t a happy time, merely different, and those squirming urchins were indistinguishable. Sharon passed out apples from their Jonathan until a little old man came by, wearing a Marine Corps baseball hat and with a New Testament in his shirt pocket. He said apples could be poisoned and there was an ordinance against them.
“An ordinance against apples?” Sharon said.
“It’s these times we’re livin’ in, Ma’am. In my opinion, these is the Last Days.”
“I get it: apples are evil,” Sharon said. “We’re livin’ in the Garden of Eden!”
They shut off the lights then, rather than pass out that Walmart treacle. There was your poison. Jim grinned, as he often did to memories, and was slow to realize that the track star was still talking to him.
“Come see us run, Mr. Colson,” she said. “We’re really fast!”
Wonderful. He’d been invited somewhere. But he visualized that huge parking lot, how far it was to those hard bleachers, how far back again to a port-a-potty, and knew he’d never watch the girl compete. “I will, Laura. You bet.”
She smiled gently and Jim felt inspired. The country still produced innocent, wholesome girls.
But here was the patriotic question: Could you educate those girls so that they led happy lives? Could those girls ever be happier than they were at this ignorant moment, chattering about their teachers, their boyfriends, and ridiculous pop stars? And . . . what could he have done for Kitty so she turned out happier? Could he, weak and outmoded, a dirty old man, do something now?
Jim closed his eyes for a long time, as if the years would drop away and this old place could be a farm again. He seemed to hear corn rustling across the road, and hogs banging their snouts against their feeders. When he opened his eyes, the world had gone quiet, and the beagle played with a bug in a spot of sunshine.
* * *
In early May, Doris the mail carrier delivered one hundred Leghorn chicks in a flat box with breathing holes in the lid. Jim carried them out to the sagging barn and released them in the long concourse where he’d parked the Oliver tractor years before.
He’d already set up a brooder stove with chicken wire around it, so the idiot chicks couldn’t burn themselves, and placed another ring of chicken wire, twenty feet across, around the stove. The Leghorns were helpless fluffs for the moment and wouldn’t run much except to try to reach the heat.
He sat, day after day, with the radio on to the Kansas City Royals. He read slowly from an old book about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. It had set on the mantel since he was a boy.
In three weeks, when the chicks showed pinfeathers, Jim climbed a straight ladder and washed off the dirt from two windows. The chicks ran back and forth in the sunshine, cheeping mightily, the little flock swerving in the long concourse, splitting into two streams at the tractor, piling up. Jim dragged a chair where the stove had been and sat with Lucky, who wasn’t a pup anymore. When the dog wanted to leap down and chase the chicks, Jim held him back. “Nope,” Jim said. “Don’t need you chasin’ our chickens.”
In another two weeks, pullets writhed around Jim’s ankles, and he set the dog down. The pullets stared cock-eyed at the dog, who walked peacefully among them. That night, Jim left Lucky in the barn, and at two in the morning Jim heard a baying that might or might not be Lucky’s warning to a possum. In the morning, no harm had come to the pullets.
His leghorns would begin to lay at seventeen weeks. There was plenty of lumber around in the several buildings, and Jim brought it in a board at a time, and began building nests in what had been the feed room. It was difficult holding up the boards though he could drive nails all right. He drove two or three, then rested his arms.
Kitty hadn’t visited for several months, though she e-mailed him regularly. She tried to call but he never carried the phone. He shuffled down near the Oliver and sat on an overturned bucket. His chickens gathered around like an audience.
“Layers?” Kitty asked. “What will you do with the eggs?”
“Give you some. Sell the rest.”
She smiled. “You won’t get rich that way.”
“The other thing is, I wonder if I could give you some money, and you could bring me in a battery for the Oliver.”
“And then we’ll need to hook up the disk; it’s out there in those pokeweeds.”
“Wanna raise tomatoes. Wanna raise a lot of tomatoes. Eggs, tomatoes—people will stop for those.”
“People.” Kitty nodded gently, like her mother used to. Once in a while, at least. “I understand.”
“Went up to the Senior Center in Lamar. Sat in a big, soft chair with all those old folks in their own soft chairs. You know you’re old when you sit around all day with a blanket over your knees. Murder, She Wrote was playing, and then Matlock, and then Murder, She Wrote again. This may not be hell, I said to myself. But it sure looks like purgatory.”
“I can drive the tractor. It’ll be fun. By the way, Dad—”
Lucky ambled up, whining happily, and threw his paws against Kitty’s abdomen. He tried to pull himself into her lap. “He’s so big now!”
“Lucky watches out for our chickens. By the way what?”
“Marlene left,” Kitty said. “She found a job in Arizona.”
He remembered Marlene, the woman with enormous breasts. Because of Marlene, he’d come home again. “She didn’t seem very happy to me.”
“No.” Kitty glanced at him, then stared at the Oliver. She swallowed. “I don’t believe she was, Dad.”
John Mort’s first novel, Soldier in Paradise (1999), was widely reviewed and won the W. Y. Boyd Award for best military fiction. He has published seven other books, including two readers advisory works, two novels, and four collections of stories. His short stories have appeared in a wide variety of magazines, including The New Yorker, Missouri Review, the Chicago Tribune, the Arkansas Review, and in Sixfold. He is the winner of a National Endowment for the Arts literary grant, the Hackney Award, and a Western Writers of America Spur for the short story, “The Hog Whisperer.” In 2017 he was awarded the Sullivan Prize for his short story collection, Down Along the Piney, which was published in 2018 by the University of Notre Dame Press. Mort served with the First Cavalry from 1968 through 1970 as a rifleman and RTO. He attended the University of Iowa, from which he earned a BA in English (1972), an MFA in writing (1974), and an MLS (1976). He worked as a librarian, editor, and teacher. He lives in Coweta, Oklahoma.