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Arnie stood outside the pigpen, arms crossed and rested on the top rail of the fence, and studied a dozen shoats as they grunted and shoved up to the feeding trough. One aggressive young boar alternately ate and snapped at the others, and they gave him the space he demanded. Arnie hit him on the head with the pail and watched his reaction. Selecting a few more at random, he repeated the process until he felt satisfied.
“Which one do you think?” Svez approached and being taller stooped to settle alongside Arnie.
Arnie paused. A direct answer might damage his imagined thread of authority over his younger brother on whom Arnie depended for his existence. He nodded toward the boar he had chosen. Svez would approve because selecting animals for breeding was Arnie’s specialty.
The years eroded each of their unique physical differences. Aging slightly loosened the skin on Arnie’s more rotund face, while excess flesh sagged around Svez’s once taut cheeks and neck. Arnie usually shaved near the end of the week, even though he stayed home Saturday nights and seldom went to church on Sundays. Svez shaved often and kept his small mustache well trimmed. Arnie’s hair changed from auburn to snow-white while Svez’s turned medium gray. Both men wore Oshkosh overalls, Arnie’s jacket was buckskin and Svez’s denim.
Arnie rolled his tongue over his upper gums and dislodged a flake of tobacco from the space between his two front teeth. “Him.” The end of his finger extended from a gnarly knuckle and pointed at an angle missing its intended target. “The one with the spot over the side of his face.” The eye in the center of the spot briefly met Arnie’s, and then the pig continued to chomp into a mixture of ground oats and kitchen scraps. “He’s too busy eatin’ to care when I hit him. I think he’s the one who chewed the ear off the solid one.” An all-pink pig, smaller and missing half an ear, had been squeezed out by two larger boars as they stuck their front feet into the trough. Failing to nose his way back, he wandered to the end of the line. With his good ear erect, he entered the trough with all four feet and ate his way forward and backward, his snout reaching the corners neglected by the larger animals.
“He’s too smart.” Arnie frowned, and slanted lines etched toward his drooping eyelid. “Hard to keep a boar like him penned up.” The skin across his forehead tight and shiny as the jacket he had rubbed smooth with the palms of his hands. “Gotta keep one what just eats and fucks.”
“Remember to separate him from the rest after he’s castrated.” Svez pushed himself from the rail but continued to lean slightly forward as if denying his full height. “Gotta get some weight on ’fore we butcher him.” He put his hands on his hips, momentarily stretched and then resumed his normal posture. “I’ll get the boys to move the one with the spotted eye to the barn so they don’t castrate him by mistake. Jake’ll be good for one more season, and then this one can take over.”
Since childhood, Arnie named many of the animals, especially those kept for breeding. He felt sad for the old boar he called Jake in honor of the hog buyer from Iowa who tried to cheat Svez.
“You got a name for this one?” Svez asked.
Arnie produced a tight half-smile, turned his head and looked up from the rail. “How ’bout Reinhardt?”
“The priest? Liz would kill both of us. You don’t gotta go to church with her like me and the boys. I’ll bust out laughing every time he climbs into his pulpit.” Svez paused and faced the house. “Every Sunday lately.” He shook his head. “She wants me and the boys to go to church every Sunday.” He shrugged. “You gotta think up a different name.”
Arnie considered Svez’s oldest son, George, who bragged about getting served moonshine in the back room at Bud and Emma’s Café but changed his mind. “How ’bout Buddy?”
“Good idea. It’ll get a laugh whenever George says he’s going to have a few drinks with Buddy.” Svez glanced down. “And when Herman and Ralph get the notion, they’ll be nosing up to Buddy’s pig sty like boars at a trough.”
Arnie reflected on the pig with the missing ear and thought about Svez’s youngest son, Iggy, trying to squeeze between his brothers. Would Iggy figure out a way to fit?
“The baby?” Arnie didn’t finish his question but waited for the furrows to deepen across his brother’s forehead.
Svez continued to stare into the hog trough. “Liz’s sister’s baby. Freddie.”
Arnie remained quiet.
“He’s here to stay.”
Arnie grimaced. He already assumed Freddie moved in, but wanted to hear his brother admit it. His hernia, not the new baby, bothered him, and he needed to get his truss tightened. He left Svez standing at the hog pen and walked to the house.
Although separated by a span of ten years, the two brothers had been close since childhood. They worked on their father’s farm until he died, and their oldest brother took over the family homestead. Svez and Liz became free to marry and move to their own farm.
Arnie, then a forty-year-old bachelor asked, “What about me?”
Liz said to her husband, “Let’s take Arnie with us to our new home.”
He’d been part of the family nearly a quarter century.


Liz had been darning socks in the front room when Thelma stopped snapping beans and yelled from the kitchen, “Ma, Arnie’s standing in the porch in his underwear.”
“He probably needs help with his truss.” Liz wanted him to have an operation to repair his hernia, but he found an ad in the Sears and Roebuck catalogue, his source for all items not available at Cunningham’s Implement or York’s Mercantile in Bovine. Arnie, who seldom bought anything in town and never went to a doctor, asked Liz to order it for him. She joked about the cute nurse shown in the ad not part of the order. She teased that it belonged in the women’s clothing section. She reminded him that his rheumatism and arthritis would make it difficult for him to reach the straps in back. But, he remained determined.
When the truss arrived, Arnie managed to get it on but couldn’t apply the necessary pressure to hold his hernia in place. Liz realized it embarrassed him to ask for help, so she offered to take the place of the nurse in the ad. From then on, Arnie came to the house, waited for Liz to help him, grunted approval and headed back to the barn. At night and in the morning, he managed to remove and replace the unit or, as Liz suspected, slept with it on.
Liz faced Thelma through the archway to the kitchen and said. “Help him.”
Thelma glanced out to the porch and grimaced.
Liz decided to spare her daughter this embarrassing task. She scooped up Freddie from his crib near the kitchen stove and yelled to Iggy who had sneaked into his parents’ bedroom searching for Christmas gifts. Liz started buying and wrapping presents early, right after Thanksgiving, and Iggy couldn’t keep away from them.
“Arnie needs help. See what you can do for him.”
Iggy stepped out of the bedroom clutching a long slender package. “Ma, you gotta do it.”
“I’m holding the baby. Besides, this is a man’s thing. It’ll be your chore from now on.” Since talking to Martha’s doctor, Liz had been slowly delegating more and more tasks to other family members, mostly to Thelma. Iggy set the present on the couch and groaned all the way through the kitchen and out into the porch.
Arnie muttered, “Yank on the strap,” unconcerned about who did it.
From the kitchen, she watched Iggy tug and run outside, apparently forgetting about the Christmas gifts.
Still holding Freddie, Liz waited until Arnie hooked the straps on his Oshkosh overalls and then went to him. “I hope Iggy did okay with the strap. I’m sorry my hands were full, and,” she lied, “Iggy wants to be more useful around here.”
Arnie gazed at the child.
“My sister’s baby.” Liz waited for his reaction and it surprised her.
“When Svez was a baby he had dark hair. Ma said I had yellow hair like Martha’s baby. But now it’s white.”
Liz considered the differences between Freddie and her children. All four boys had dark hair, narrow faces with thin lips and small pointed noses. Freddie’s face was round with a small flat nose, similar to Thelma as a baby.
“I guess all children are different, Arnie, but this one’s special.” Liz wanted to continue their conversation, hoping it would encourage him to accept the new member of their family.
“Ma called me her special child.” He reached and pulled back the blanket half-covering Freddie’s face. “Not special no more.” As he walked away, he mumbled, “Not special, just different.”
Liz followed him with her eyes all the way to the barn. “I bet you were her special child.” She reflected on Iggy and said under her breath, “All my children are special.”
Iggy appeared from behind the large oak tree in their front yard and wandered back into the house. “Ma, I don’t wanna help Arnie no more. Let Thelma do it.” He returned to the front room and picked up the curiously shaped Christmas present. His eyes bright with anticipation and his breathing accented with a guttural sound, he shook it and pointed it toward the ceiling.
Liz decided he was a little more special than the others. Same as Arnie? What did Arnie mean, not special, just different? Had he used those differences to survive? She remembered her mother-to-son talk after Svez caught him masturbating. Would Iggy turn to Ida? Her older boys went there and gave a ridiculous excuse about her chores. Could Father Reinhardt save him from Ida? From abusing himself?
“Please don’t make those noises. They make you sound like Podue.”
“Pa says George, Herman and Ralph are tomcats. I don’t wanna be one of them.”
“I’m sorry I compared you to a puppy. Your brothers aren’t tomcats either.”
Iggy clutched the package under his arm. “Is this one for me? I think I know what’s inside. Is it mine?”
“We’ll see.” Liz pointed toward her bedroom door. “Now, put it back where you found it.” She placed Freddie in his crib and returned to her darning. Could her son learn something from Arnie? Could he gain strength from his differences, maybe even power? Or had he already figured that out?
She glanced up at Iggy still standing in the doorway to her bedroom. “Helping Arnie with his truss is your job from now on. You guys all have to pitch in and do more of the work around here.”
“It feels like a shotgun. Is it mine?”


How Bovine, Minnesota, earned its name

Back in 1888, the duly elected representatives of the community known as Skunk Hollow had completed applications, filed sworn statements with the county and state offices, and presented the articles of incorporation to the locals gathered at the Village Hall. Melvin Trask, self-appointed chairman, cleared his throat about to call for the vote, when a tall man, salt and pepper hair sleeked and fastened at a bunch in back, pants and shirt freshly pressed, rose and requested the floor.
Melvin said in a loud and official voice, “The Chair recognizes Walt Cunningham.”
“Everyone recognizes Walt Cunningham,” Hank Sturgis, local dairy farmer, whispered to fellow committee member, Albert Wentzel. “He’s bin a pain in the ass ever since he brung his implement business here.”
Albert, Skunk Hollow’s only blacksmith, whispered back, “If Cunningham’s so damn smart, why don’t he run for the council ’stead of laying in the weeds ’til we gits all the work done?”
Walt Cunningham flashed a glance around the smoke-filled room and cleared his throat. “I feel our new town deserves a better name than what we’ve been calling it since the time of Moses.” He drew a large white handkerchief from his suit jacket and wiped his forehead. “Someday we’ll have a post office, and Skunk Hollow will be the postmark on letters to our out-of-town friends.”
Hank Sturgis and Albert Wentzel faced each other, an expression of wonderment at anyone having such friends.
“My wife’s already embarrassed to tell her family back home where we’ve established our business.” A general murmur rose from the crowd. “Mind you, I’m not complaining about the people. It’s just the name, quite frankly, stinks.”
Those with homes in Skunk Hollow probably agreed, but Cunningham was a newcomer. Most farmers such as Hank Sturgis felt the name quite aptly described the missionary settlement near the banks of the Skunk River. The young priest sent by the diocese to built St. Alphonse Parish a new church hadn’t complained about it either.
“Do you want to state that as a motion?” asked Chairperson Trask, who recently returned from a visit to the State Capital in St. Paul where he observed lawmakers in action.
“Yes,” Walt responded. “I move to change the name of our town.”
“That’s half an idea, and a dumb one.” Ben York, proprietor of York’s Mercantile, a grocery, furniture, and clothing store across the street from Cunningham’s Implement, stood and expressed his opinion of the suggestion and of the younger man who proposed it. “Ain’t that right, Albert?” He hoped the old blacksmith, a fellow businessman, would agree.
“Yer jest pissed ’bout Cunningham beatin’ you at the horseshoe,” Albert taunted back. The crowd burst out laughing.
Earlier that morning, Hank Sturgis, Albert Wentzel and Melvin Trask rehashed last year’s horseshoe tournament over coffee at Bud ’n Emma’s Café. Melvin imitated Ben York’s raspy voice challenging Walt Cunningham to a wager of a full year of coffee at Bud ’n Emma’s.
Albert speculated the addition of pie must have been Walt’s idea.
Hank, whose acreage next to the town had been swallowed up in bits and pieces by townsfolk for their new homes, said, “I heard big amounts of money hollered back and forth. My wife was standing next to Ben’s wife, and Betsy heard Clara say that she didn’t know where her husband would get five hundred dollars if he lost.”
“I tell ya, the coffee, the pie, and the money was dropped when the biddin’ got nasty.” Albert scraped away dark residue from under his fingernails with a pocketknife. “We won’t never know ’cause Walt started whisperin’ and scribblin’ on his little black book.” He blew and dark specks scattered across the table. “The one where he figures how to swindle ya on a horse trade.”
“They ain’t never been together here at the café, so I knowed that part of the deal got dropped.” Sturgis bit into a plug of tobacco and a bulge appeared on his left cheek. “Walt wid never squelch on a deal.” He poked his tongue through pursed lips, removed a tobacco stem, and stared at it. “Once I traded him a spavined horse. He got mad, but he held to the deal.” Hank wiped his hand on his pant leg.
“Ben ain’t ’bout to renege neither.” Albert switched his pocketknife to his other hand. “My guess is they called off all bets, ’cept the one ’bout the red union suit.”
“I reported the incident in Scent of the Skunk.” Melvin Trask, publisher of THE JOURNAL, paged through his notebook.
“Yeah, Betsy saved it.” Hank glanced toward the opened page and Melvin slammed it shut. “She got every Scent of the Skunk ya ever writ.”
He stared into his cup. “I kin still see Ben in his long johns, standin’ at Cunningham’s front door durin’ Walt’s open house.” He slapped the table. “Every time a customer walked in, York bent over and lifted the flap.”
“Yeah, but nobody got to see Ben’s bare ass, just a sign that read GRAND OPENING.” Melvin grinned. “I printed it for Walt at my shop.”
With his face flush with anger, Ben York remained standing and quietly waited until the laughter in the village hall subsided. He shook a finger at Albert. “I ain’t got no hard feelings ’bout the wager.” He glanced around the room and back toward Walt. “Your motion’s still dumb.” He sat down.
“Ben’s right.” Chairman Trask tapped the table, fisted the head of the gavel and pointed the handle toward Cunningham. “Come up with a name to replace Skunk Hollow and add it to your motion.”
Walt thought Cunningham Town but remained silent.
Hank rose, scanned the crowd and faced Walt. “If ya can’t hanker to skunks, maybe some other animal, like a cow might suit you. We gots plenty of ’em ’round here.” The crowd chuckled.
When someone shouted Cow Town, Gavin Dowdy, full time harness maker and part time butcher, yelled back, “Bullshit Town.”
Melvin Trask, shoe-in mayor of the new town as well as publisher of the local newspaper, banged the gavel and asked, “What are some other suggestions?”
Walt jabbed his finger at Dowdy. “I’m not even going to comment on your vulgarity, and Cow Town don’t fit either. We’re not part of the wild west.”
“Cow Town sounded okay to me. Farmers raise ’em, and I butcher ’em.” Dowdy reminded those who might need his services at slaughter time.
Walt’s face resembled a beet. “Cows around here are different.”
“Like how?” Hank Sturgis defended the cattle he no longer raised since he made more money selling his land.
Walt responded, “Well, for one thing, they’re dairy cows, not the kind you round up from the open range, brand, and drive to the railhead.”
“How ’bout Holstein Town? Them’s the most common kind.” Melvin grinned. “And, what about the bull?” He prodded for feature material. “The bull and the cow. That’s what life’s all about.”
“Bovines!” Walt scowled.
“Yeah, let’s name the town after one of them bovine critters, whatever they are.” Albert smirked. “That’d keep folks guessing.”
Walt shook his head. “Bovine’s just a fancy name for cattle, and—”
“Bovine, Minnesota.” Trask banged his gavel and people began to leave.
The decision wasn’t considered final until the following Thursday when Melvin Trask printed the minutes from the meeting in his first edition of the renamed BOVINE JOURNAL. He expected responses to his first feature, Bovine Bullshit, but only Walt sent a letter to the editor. Melvin went back to calling his gossip column SCENT O’ THE SKUNK.

David Smith Introduces His Story 1995

Roger Storkamp

When a man with grizzled whiskers sauntered into Emma’s Café, stopped near my table and stared down at me, I realized my homecoming was a bad idea.
“Davie Smith.” He addressed me as if I were a child. “I’ll be damned.” He plopped on the seat across from me, kicked back the chairs on either side of us and gestured toward two men who were filling three coffee cups at the self-serve counter. “Boys, sit down. Today, we’re takin’ our coffee break with Bovine’s favorite author.”
I felt like a stray dog about to be petted—or kicked.
“What brings you back after all them years?”
“Checking on some old acquaintances.” I struggled to recognize the face hidden behind the beard.
“Grins and me is old acquaintances.” He cocked his head toward the older of the other two men, but his eyes remained fixed on me.
The man with the identifiable nickname nodded, then squinted. “You didn’t forget who me and Joe was?”
“I meant neighbors.” If either of them lived near the farm where I grew up, their faces would be more familiar than my vague recollection of them.
“Neighbors like Thelma Rastner and her kooky brother? Those two codgers still live down the road a piece from your old place.”
“As a matter of fact, I am here to see Freddie Tate.” Joe’s mention of Thelma and Iggy Rastner jogged my memory. The Rastner family adopted Freddie as an infant, and Thelma raised him after her mother died. The day before I left town thirty years ago, I argued with Freddie here at Emma’s Café. We’d have fought if Freddie’s wife and five-year-old son hadn’t been with him. My relationship with Freddie might be the unfinished business my therapist wanted me to repair. My muscles tensed as I recalled her note scratched on yellow lined paper following an apology for missing our appointment.
Take some time to explore your roots. Revisiting key events from an earlier time in your life might help build your confidence and develop your sense of self-worth. Focus on relationships that ended without proper closure.
Returning to Minnesota to pursue proper closure wasn’t my style. I seldom even said goodbye when my phone conversations ended. My childhood experiences were unpleasant, and I was loath to relive them. However, after a triad of successful novels and as many unsuccessful marriages, my life was at a standstill. I could neither write another story nor chance a fourth relationship.
Repelled by her suggestion yet desperate enough to try anything, I left the key to my Chicago apartment with my editor and tried to make light of what might be a serious matter. “If I don’t come back in two weeks, contact the Minnesota Highway Patrol.”
He snickered, “I’ll probably be hearing from them, David, if you travel through the Minnesota hinterlands without a bodyguard.”
The tinge of resentment aroused by his comment alerted my defenses, but I chuckled to express agreement. What I discovered at the café in Bovine that morning became no laughing matter.
“Ain’t you heard?” Joe scooped sugar into his cup. “Freddie killed hisself and his wife. Long time ago.”
Shock and anger erupted inside like the aneurysm my doctor predicted if my stress level weren’t reduced. My disgust for Joe peaked when he described the effects of a shotgun blast on the human body, as he poured cream into his coffee.
When Joe took a long slurp, the younger man said, “Freddie woulda blowed his kid away too, but Teddy was at school.” He glanced toward Joe, then Grins. “Ain’t that right?” Our eyes met. “I knowed Teddy. Me and him was in kindergarten when it happened.”
Joe swiped a sleeve across his beard and moustache. “If you want the full scoop, talk to Thelma and Iggy. They still live at the home place.” He winked. “Just like they was married.” A smile emerged between dark bristles. “Freddie didn’t do the job there. He blew his head off in Henry Tate’s old barn.” He gestured toward Grins. “Me and him drove out there after work. God-awful mess.” He shook his head and grimaced. “Got the wife in the kitchen while she was eatin’ lunch.”
I wanted to tell him her name was Doris, but my voice faltered. Throughout my high school years, I bussed dishes at Emma’s Café and she waited on tables. I visualized the pained expression etched on her face years later when she apologized for her husband threatening me. I hadn’t seen or heard from them since.
With dirt-encrusted fingernails, Joe penetrated his thick beard and scratched his chin as if in serious reflection. He asked, “Didn’t you and Freddie go to the same country school?”
I shook my head. “Freddie finished the eighth grade the year before I started.” The muscles in my face began to relax. I smiled. An incongruous reaction to our discussion, but a safe haven from my past emerged.
Two columns of children faced each other on a playground in front of a white schoolhouse. I was a five-year-old who escaped the confines of my back yard to join the kids during recess.
Children’s voices chanted, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send the little kid over.”
The girl next to me shook her hand free from mine and said, “Red Rover is calling you.” The others shouted, “Run, Davie.”
They directed me to charge through the line of the opposing team who waited, hands linked. Trying to impress them with my best speed, I ran directly toward the tallest boy at the end of the line. I broke through and he dropped to the ground.
“Wow! For a little kid you sure are tough. You knocked me over.” He extended his hand. “Help me up and you can be on my team.” Freddie had imitated an adult imitating a child by falling down to please me.
That was my image of Freddie Tate, but Joe continued to assault my selective memory.
“Say, weren’t you with us the night we toppled Rastner’s outhouse?”
“Oh, no. I’d have been too young to hang with you guys.”
“Too young, hell. You worked here at the café when me and Grins dropped out of the ’leventh grade. As a matter of fact, you told us Freddie’s ol’ man kept their outside privy. Shortly after Freddie and Doris got hitched but before he made her quit her waitress job.” He furled his brow. “Remember how the little witch giggled when we told her what we done?”
Joe had penetrated my defenses.
“I remember ’cause you said they saved it for more important bowel movements.” His eyes shifted to the younger man. “Davie actually said bowel movements.”
I began to hate him.
Joe returned his attention to me. “It tickled the shit outta me and Grins.” His deep throaty laugh developed into a hack. Spittle sprayed across the table, and he wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “I meant to say, it tickled me and Grins ’til we almost had bowel movements.” He made a fist and flung it inches from Grins’ face. “Ain’t that right?”
His appropriately named buddy rubbed his chin. “Yeah, Joe, you’re right.”
My self-image as champion of Freddie’s honor was shattered by my own youthful indiscretions.
Joe added to my guilt by reviewing the details of our caper. “We drove past the farm a couple times with our headlights out ’fore we parked behind some hedges along the ditch.” His eyes rolled toward the ceiling as if a picture of the Rastner farm were displayed there. “Studied the situation a bit and then rushed the outhouse from behind.” He pointed, nearly touching Grins’ nose. “When we toppled it, this clown almost fell into the hole.” Laughing, he slapped him alongside his head and knocked off his cap. Grins merely smiled and put it back.
“The funniest part was Freddie sticking his head out through the hole and yelling his head off. Got a bit scary when Iggy busted out of the house and blasted his shotgun.”
Joe leaned back, pointed an imaginary rifle over my head and faked its recoil. “Probably the same gun Freddie used to blow hisself and his wife away.” He pursed his lips and released a gust of foul breath into the approximate area where the end of the barrel would have been.
He stood and pointed his make-believe gun at my head.
“Bam.” He laughed and aimed it at each of his two buddies. “Bam. Bam.”
I reacted with a stony wall of contemptuous silence.
Wordlessly declaring victory, he extended his hand, but my fingers remained gripped to my coffee cup. He rerouted his arm and adjusted his John Deere cap. “I’d hang around and jaw with you, but some people gotta work.” He pulled a brochure from his shirt pocket, unfolded it and tossed it in front me.
“Out behind Cunningham Implement, we’ve set up a game of Bovine Bingo. Stop by. The heifer might shit on your lucky number.” He stuck his thumbs under his belt, hitched his pants over his protruding stomach and walked to the counter, his grinning and groveling yes-men close behind. They paid the cashier, armed themselves with toothpicks and sauntered out the door.
I glanced at the paper on the table and a graphic depiction of a cow, teeth displayed in a sardonic grin, leered back at me. She stood on a grid drawn on the ground and defecated onto a single square. Dollar signs splattered in all directions. I felt insulted and humiliated, my emotions as drained as my empty cup.
I took a deep breath, stood and walked to the pay phone next to a bulletin board peppered with notices of farm auctions. From a phonebook spewed open like an accordion, I found the number I wanted. I readied a coin above the slot, and when I heard a raspy yet vaguely familiar voice on the other end of the line, “Rastner Residence,” I dropped it into the slot.

Chapter One (two chapters added each month)

(Fall 1933)

“Aunt Martha’s here. Go help her and Freddie into the house.”
Thelma realized her mother blamed Martha’s husband, Henry Tate, for her sister’s illness, but as a sixteen-year-old girl, Thelma avoided him for other reasons. “Henry scares me.” Neither she nor her brothers ever called their aunt’s husband uncle. “Let him do it.”
“He embarrassed me at the hospital and insulted Martha. I don’t want him in my house.”
Thelma stepped out to the porch and glanced through the window as Henry brought the Model A Ford to an abrupt stop but continued to hold on to the steering wheel as if it were the reins of a team of horses. He stared straight ahead and showed no concern for his wife or his infant son. Thelma’s father suggested she overlook Henry’s annoying habits like everyone in the family did with Arnie, her other uncle. But Arnie lived with them and was her father’s brother, a blood relative. She took a deep breath and pranced out the door, through the gate and up to the car. She waved at the driver, stepped to the passenger side and opened the door.
“Hi, Aunt Martha. Can I carry Freddie?” She had no intention of offering to help her aunt walk to the house as her mother seemed to think was necessary. She’d been back from the hospital a week, time enough to recover from having a baby.
Martha extended her arm marred with black and blue streaks between wrappings of gauze around her wrist and elbow. The bundle pressed to her chest and eyes peering from sunken sockets, her hand quivered, dropped and dangled over the edge of the seat like a piece of loose clothing. She slid a foot onto the running board but the other wouldn’t follow.
Her aunt’s legs splayed and face distorted from pain, Thelma couldn’t recognize the woman whose facial features everyone said she and her aunt shared. “Two times ugly”, Henry had said during one of his ornery moods at a monthly family dinner Liz hosted and he resented. Thelma averted her eyes.
“Help me.”
The weak voice from the once strong woman stirred Thelma’s compassion. She lifted Martha’s other foot, turned her body toward the door and pulled on the hem of the faded housedress in an effort to cover her knees. She slid the limp arm around her neck, reached around her aunt’s waist and lifted her from the car. They struggled to the house where Liz waited.
“I’m so sorry, Martha. I hadn’t realized how weak you’ve become.”
“Don’t worry, Liz. Your daughter has the strength of both of us. We’re doing just fine.”
The arm holding Freddie began so slacken, and Liz grabbed for the baby. “I’ll take him.”
Martha began to sob. “I guess, that’s why I came.”
To leave her baby? Thelma suspected something strange when the crib she once used to put her dolly to sleep appeared in the kitchen between the wood box and the cook stove, where her mother said each of her five children spent their first few months of life, Thelma her last baby. Until now? What she overheard her father tell her mother—that a woman can’t take another mother’s baby like it was a stray calf—began to make sense. But Pa was out in the field cutting corn for the silo with her brothers. Should she remind her mother of what Pa had said?
Arnie, the uncle with strange habits but a nicer man than Henry, came from upstairs holding up his overalls. He stopped to glare at the women, pulled the straps over his shoulders and hooked them to buttons on the bib. Thelma knew what he needed, but her mother seemed in no mood to help him tighten his truss. He trudged into the kitchen and out through the porch.

Henry didn’t release the steering wheel until Martha and her brat of a niece disappeared in the house. He envied his brother-in-law for having a strong daughter and a healthy wife. Svez don’t ever have to eat cold leftovers after slaving out in the field all day. And he’s got four grown boys to do most of his work. Henry fought back a thought that had been haunting him. Some little fieldwork during haying season ain’t what made Martha sick. Doctor said cancer runs in some families. How was he to know she was pregnant? Her smart-ass sister better not blame him.
Henry wiped at the moisture on the windshield from steam escaping the radiator, but it was on the outside. He got out and leaned against the hood to capture some of the heat radiating off the engine. He studied the length of his shadow and then checked the level of the sun above the horizon. Days were getting short. Frost last night put an end to the growing season. He pinched the peak of his felt hat, lifted it above the suntan line on his forehead and brushed back a shag of hair the color of year-old cobs. Gotta get the corn into the silo before the snow flies.
He spied the chopper, its snake-like neck reaching up and into the rusted dome on the top of the silo and listened for the chug and whirl of the gasoline engine. He couldn’t have heard it over the noise of dogs barking, chickens cackling and a gander extending his neck and trumpeting at him. On a distant hill behind the barn, he spied Svez and one of his boys, probably Iggy, loading corn stalks. The boy weren’t quite right, but Svez got a lotta work outta him. Ain’t fair, him getting his work done while Martha’s using up daylight visiting her sister.
He glanced toward the house hoping his wife would come right back as she promised. He shielded his eyes from the low-lying sun and recognized the figure ambling across the yard. Svez’s bachelor brother, Arnie, lumbered toward the barn. Liz musta tightened his truss ’cause he walked like he’s got a corncob up his ass. Why Svez put up with the old bastard all them years made no sense.
“The Missus gotta talk to her sister.” Henry rehearsed aloud what he might say when Arnie stopped and squinted back with his one good eye. He muttered, “Keep movin’. Me and you don’t got nuthin’ to talk ’bout. Bad ’nuff makin’ conversation when the wife drags me here for Sunday dinner.”
Arnie fidgeted with the visor on his cap and then rubbed his hands on the sides of his buckskin jacket already shiny as glass from manure, milk splatter and calf slobber.
Henry sent a spray of tobacco juice toward a gander and muttered, “Can’t tell the difference if it’s summer or winter by the coat he wears all the time. They’s goin’ to bury him in it.” He glanced toward the field and then the house. “I gotta get out of here.” Suddenly, he regretted allowing his wife to give up his son. He married her to get more children and to raise his other two school-age boys after their ma died.
“Now she’s gonna die on me too.” He slapped his hand against the hood of his car. He and the boys coulda raised the kid. Or, he would find another old maid who’d be needing a husband. Afraid someone heard him, he scanned the yard and barn. The louvers in the cupola flapped, and he suspected Arnie was watching him.
Liz had just placed the baby in the crib when the noise outside distracted her. She went to the porch to see if Svez and the boys had returned from the field, but the silage chopper sat idle alongside the silo. She was glad. Maybe Henry and Martha would be gone before they got back. She reckoned Svez would accept her decision to take Freddie, but he hadn’t agreed to it. When they talked about Martha dying and wondered what would happen to her baby, Liz hinted that she might take him. Filling the silo and getting the farm ready for winter kept everyone busy, and she didn’t have an opportunity to convince him there was no other option. Maybe the doctor was wrong, and she’d just keep Freddie until Martha got better.
She glanced toward the car where Henry stood rubbing the palm of one hand with the other. His cursing wasn’t audible, but his expression left little doubt he was angry.
Martha appeared in the doorway, grabbed the wall and clung until Thelma rushed to grab her. Their faces now cheek-to-cheek, a repeat of family traits Liz and her boys escaped, small gray eyes shielded by caterpillar-like brows and wide noses underlined with thin lips. Too homely to marry anyway, Martha’s father said of the daughter who remained home to care for her dying mother and later to run his household. Until he found a young bride and no longer needed a second housekeeper. Henry Tate, left with two boys to raise, had been in no position to be fussy.
Liz shook off her anger with her father, held her sister and told Thelma to look after the baby in the Kitchen. Martha grasped the pump handle at the washstand and stared out into the yard. “He said he approved but I know he don’t. Said he’d find another wife to raise Freddie. I wouldn’t want that.” She touched one of her emaciated breasts. “I got no milk.”
“It’s okay. We’ll love Freddie, and when you get better . . .”
“It’s not going to happen,” Martha sobbed. “I have to go.” She glanced toward her husband and then back into the kitchen. “If Thelma will . . .”
“Did you call me?” Thelma carried Freddie, his blanket dragging on the floor. Liz covered him.
“Yes, please.” Martha touched a tear tracking a line etched in her face. “I need help.” Liz reached for Freddie, held him against her shoulder and patted his back. Martha released her hand from the washstand, touched the blanket covering Freddie’s head and then clung to her niece. “I can’t do this alone.”
Martha’s legs buckled as Thelma helped her back to the car, lowered her to the seat and lifted her feet onto the floorboard.
Thelma ran back to the house and stood alongside her mother. Liz waved with her free hand. Martha lifted her arm but it fell back out of sight. Henry got into the car, slammed the door and started the engine. He held the steering wheel with both hands and faced straight ahead. Martha braced herself against the dashboard as the car lunged forward, maneuvered out the driveway and onto the dirt road. Liz waited to see her sister glance back but a cloud of dust obscured her vision. She stopped waving and pulled her daughter close. She held her arms around what were now her two youngest children.
Arnie’s head poked through the hayloft door and then melted back into the dark interior. A team of horses trotted from the field toward the barn. Svez leaned on a pitchfork atop the wagon loaded with corn stalks, and Iggy snapped the reins.
“The rest of the boys won’t be far behind.” Liz peeked into the blanket. “They’ll be wanting their supper soon, and we got a lot of work ahead with a new baby in the house.”
Iggy kicked at a chicken as he strolled across the yard. He yelled, “Whatcha got, Ma?”

Chapter Two (two chapters added each month)


“You guys better let the baby alone.” Thelma whispered her threat, brandished the broom handle and shoved the bristle-end toward her four brothers clustered around the crib. “Ma, they’ve eaten breakfast. Make them go outside so Freddie can sleep.”
“When he wakes up, he’ll be hungry.” Liz didn’t scold the boys. “Don’t forget to skim off some of the cream from his milk and add a teaspoon of syrup after you warm it.” She opened the medicine cabinet above the kitchen sink, moved a shaving mug and held a bottle of Watkins hair oil up to the light from the window. She put it back, grabbed a same-size bottle half-full of a brown liquid and mumbled, “Martha will probably need this.” She turned back toward Thelma. “His little tummy can’t handle much food yet.”
“What about these guys?” Thelma glared at them and with a swish of her broom, knocked all their caps onto the floor.
“Take off his diaper soon as he poops.” Liz lifted the metal plate from the top of the cook-stove and stoked the fire. Sparks flew and flames briefly surged. “The boys won’t hang around when that happens.”
“You hear?” Thelma hooked George’s cap with the broom handle and pinned it to the ceiling. “When Freddie poops, you guys gotta leave.”
“Keep his diaper off for a while so he don’t get a rash.” Liz pointed toward the sink. “Be sure Iggy dumps the slop pail and not right outside the porch.” She opened the refrigerator door, peered in and closed it. “Make the guys sandwiches for lunch and heat up leftovers for supper. If you need me, send George because Henry hasn’t got a phone.” She glanced toward their telephone, a wooden box attached to the wall above Svez’s desk, shook her head and removed the shawl draped over it.
“George put it there.” Thelma stuck out her tongue at her oldest brother. “Made it look like Father Reinhardt’s sister, Stella.”
“She holds her nose up like the mouth piece, and she don’t blink just like them two bells,” George said as he grabbed for his cap and missed.
Herman and Ralph scooped theirs from the floor and held them to their chests as if they were in church, but Thelma stomped on Iggy’s as he grabbed for it. She felt a surge of anger as her mother walked out and closed the door.
George grabbed his cap off the broom-handle, hooked it to the back of his head and pulled the visor low over his brow. “Heard Freddie peed all over you yesterday when you took off his diaper.” He squinted down at his sister. “I’m gonna hang ’round to watch.” He stuck his face into the crib.
“Freddie peed on Thelma. Freddie peed on Thelma.” Iggy danced around her.
“Good grief. Act your age.” His age gave her an idea. “Okay, let’s set some rules.” She raised her index finger. “Only one of Freddie’s brothers at a time can be in the house.” She referred to Freddie as a member of their family. “George is oldest so he gets to be first.” She started sweeping the floor, each swipe a step closer to her brothers as they backed away. “The rest of you, scat.”
“How long ’fore I can come back in?” Herman peered at her through a screen of black hair. “I’m next oldest.”
“Twenty one minutes ’cause that’s how old George is.” Thelma set down the broom and picked up a pencil and a Co-op weight-slip from her father’s desk. “I’ll mark it down on this scrap of paper.” She pointed the pencil toward Herman. “Then, you can have twenty minutes, and Ralph gets nineteen minutes.”
“Not fair.” Iggy counted on his fingers. “George gets four more minutes than me just ’cause he’s oldest.” He pursed his lips. “You’re the youngest, but you get to stay with Freddie all the time.”
“Look at Iggy.” Ralph faced his older brothers and winked. “His mouth puckers like a hen’s ass after she’s laid an egg.”
“Eggs don’t come out from a chicken’s ass,” Iggy said as he covered his mouth with his hand.
The door opened and a crispy oak leaf whisked across the kitchen floor. “I’m the oldest in case no one around here noticed.” Svez nearly filled the doorway as he walked into the kitchen and plopped onto his chair at the head of the table. “I’ll give you guys sixty minutes to get your first load of cornstalks back from the field, chopped and into the silo.” He gestured toward the stove with his cup.
“You ain’t sixty, Pa.” Thelma grabbed Iggy’s cap from the floor, tucked it under her apron and poured her father’s coffee.
“No, but that’s how long I ’spect to take for breakfast.” He splashed the black liquid into a saucer, raised it to his lips and slurped. “Get out there and harness up two teams. Arnie’s probably got his wagon half loaded already.”
Only Iggy hesitated. He stared back into the crib, wiped his nose with his sleeve and moved closer to Thelma.
“Well, whatcha waiting for?” Svez demanded.
“Thelma’s got my cap.”
She pulled it from under her apron and ran around the table. Svez kicked out a chair and Iggy ran into it. He began to pant but with his lips clamped tight, his breath gurgled and whistled through his nose. Thelma mussed his hair and stuck his cap on his head, visor facing back. He frowned, then grinned and finally laughed with Pa and Thelma until Freddie stirred.
“Let Iggy get the baby. Soon’s you get my breakfast, me and him can follow the boys with the second team.”
“But, Pa, you said sixty minutes.” Iggy turned his cap forward without lifting it. “A whole hour.” He faced the clock and backed into Freddie’s crib.
“You only get seventeen minutes.” Thelma took the paper from her apron pocket and scratched off George’s name.
“We ain’t going by age no more.” He reached into the crib and hesitated. “Which end do I pick up first?”
“Go sit at the table.” Thelma pointed and he obeyed. “I’ll bring him to you soon as I get Pa’s bacon into the pan. She lifted Freddie, sniffed and set him back down. She took off his diaper, wiped his bottom with a wet cloth and laid him on a towel in front of her brother.
“He’s a boy baby just like Podue’s a boy dog.” He pointed to Freddie’s tiny penis.
“Podue?” Svez asked.
Iggy rolled his eyes up toward Thelma.
“Yesterday, Harry Gross said he found a puppy in our mail box.” Thelma returned to the stove and cracked four eggs into the sizzling skillet. “He brought it to the house and claimed that there was postage due, so me and Iggy named him Podue.” She set the pan with eggs still bubbling in bacon grease in front of her father and pushed Iggy’s hand away from Freddie’s penis. “I think Larry Collins put him in there as a prank, but Iggy wants to keep him.”
Svez grabbed the pan by its handle and scraped bacon and half-cooked eggs onto his plate with his fork. “I ’spose we can use another dog around here.”
Thelma and Iggy jerked back as a small stream arched from between Freddie’s legs. Thelma ran to the sink, Iggy put his hand in his pocket and Pa laughed.


Iggy crouched under the eves of the house and peered through a small crack between the shingles on the porch. Svez sent him up there to chase out squirrels from nests under the rafters, and he found a tiny opening. He saw the pump, the basin on the washstand, and if he squinted he could see the hole in the floor where the mice came in. Mice weren’t so smart. Pa set his traps by their hole. Thelma weren’t so smart either to chase him outside so she could wash up in the porch when the kitchen got too hot.
Iggy wiped his mouth with his sleeve. He grinned when his sister glanced out both windows but not up toward his peephole. She returned to the sink, loosened the towel from her naked body and let it drop to the floor. He silently exhaled as he waited for her next move, something different she’d been doing since Freddie came to live with them. She cupped one of her breasts and pulled on the nipple like a baby would suck. She don’t got no milk, and it won’t do the baby no good if there ain’t nothing for him to drink.
He tried not to think of how babies were made and longed for the time when such things weren’t important to him, back when he and his sister could swim naked in the creek behind their barn. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the games of cops and robbers he and his friend, Larry Collins, used to play. Once he climbed up into the branches of the oak tree alongside the creek, but Larry spotted him right away.
“Robbers don’t climb trees.” Larry pointed and laughed. “They hide behind rocks and things.”
“I didn’t think you’d find me.” Iggy scrambled to the ground.
“Well, I did. It was too easy.”
Iggy kicked a stone into the water. “When I hide too good you quit looking and go home.”
Larry shrugged. “Sometimes, I get tired of the dumb game.”
“Let’s do something else when the game’s not fun no more.”
“It’s already not fun. Let’s swim.” Larry swooped his arms as if he was either flying or swimming and ducked out from under his shirt when it ballooned in the wind. He unsnapped his pants, spun around and kicked them into the air as they fell to his feet.
Iggy slowly unhitched the straps on his bib, let his overalls drop and stepped out of them. While unbuttoning his shirt, he felt Larry’s stare.
“You don’t got hair like me.” Larry puffed up his chest and put his hands on his hips.
Iggy brushed a few strands from his face.
“Not up there, stupid. Down here.” Larry held one hand over his penis and pinched thin strands of pubic hair with his other. “I got hair down there, and you don’t got none.”
Iggy covered himself with both hands and wished he hadn’t undressed.
“Let me see.” Larry shoved Iggy’s hands aside. “I thought so. Nothing. Wanna see what else I can do?”
That day down by the creek, he wanted Larry to stop but was too astounded to speak. He wished he hadn’t shown Larry his pubic hair when it began to grow. He worried Larry would ask him if he ever jacked off or even make Iggy prove it while he watched. But Larry only shrugged.
As Iggy crouched between the roof and the rafters to watch his sister explore her body, thoughts of games with Larry Collins faded. Touching his crotch, he glanced around to make sure Pa and his brothers were still in the barn. He remembered the time Pa caught him masturbating, and he made Iggy feel bad by laughing and shouting something to Arnie. Arnie who seldom laughed chuckled, and Iggy cringed. The next day his mother, not his father, demanded he confess his sin to Father Reinhardt. A year later, he still hadn’t told the priest.
He did tell Larry Collins while sitting on the bank of the creek. “Remember what you told me to do?” Iggy pointed at his crotch, then shoved both hands into his pockets.
“One time we went swimming.”
“We gone swimming a lot.” Larry pulled a blade of grass and slid it in and out through pursed lips.
Iggy’s face reddened. “When I showed you I had hair too.”
“Yeah, what about it?”
“Ma wants me to confess to Father Reinhardt ’bout what I did.”
“Reinhardt don’t need to be told nothing.” Larry pulled the frayed stem from his mouth and grinned through teeth stained green. “Better yet, just tell him you jacked off.”
Iggy giggled, but he knew he could never say that to a priest. Larry wouldn’t either, but his mother hadn’t forced him to confess it. If Father Reinhardt agreed it was a sin and he must stop doing it, he would have a bigger problem. He avoided telling Larry about his lie to his mother. Larry would laugh but Iggy didn’t feel good about his dishonesty.
Kneeling beside his mother during Saturday evening devotions at St. Alphonse, she nudged him and pointed to the confessional. “Go tell the priest all your sins.”
“Awe, Ma, not now.”
“Go. I’m trying to say my Novena.”
Iggy stood behind three other people in line. He felt his mother’s eyes on him, yet every time he peeked around the pillar she had her head lowered with her hands covering her face. When his turn came, he tiptoed inside and fumbled with the curtain that protected him from probing eyes outside the enclosed cubicle. A window slid open and the priest’s head became faintly visible.
“I teased my sister.” He whispered a sin that wouldn’t rile the priest like telling a lie or missing Mass on Sunday. But, if the priest asked him to explain, he’d have to admit he watched her take a bath. He panicked and quickly added, “That’s all, Father.” The priest asked about additional sins, but Iggy just repeated the line he remembered from catechism class. “That’s all, Father.”
When they left the church his mother asked, “Did you tell the priest your sins?”
“Yeah, Ma. I told him.” He put his hands in his pockets, turned and stared up at the steeple.
“Did you tell him the one we talked about?” She touched his shoulder.
He nodded and faced the ground.
“Did you say your penance?”
“Yeah.” Next time he was forced to confession, he’d include this lie with the bigger one. He hated whispering secrets, listening to little bits of advice and being told to say Our Father and Hail Mary. He didn’t know all the words to these prayers, and when the priest recited them in church he didn’t understand what they meant.
She said, “You can drive. And, let’s stop at Emma’s Café for ice cream.” She slid onto the passenger seat and clutched her purse. “You did good tonight.”
When they got to the café, Iggy rushed in and sat at a booth near the front window. His mother joined him carrying two dishes of ice cream. He felt her eyes on him while he ate.
“You don’t go to Ida’s, do you? You know, to do chores and stuff.”
His face flushed, and he heard his breath as it passed though his nose and mouth, something he usually got scolded for. “No, Ma. Ralph helps her when George and Herman are busy. She ain’t never asked me to help.”
He knew something was not right about going to Ida’s, because whenever his brothers mentioned her in front of Thelma she told them to shut up. He knew why his friend went there, but Larry never talked about helping with chores.
“Pa thought you might.” Her eyes fixed onto his. “I don’t want you to go there.”
“Even if she asks for me to help? Her pa’s dead, and George said her brother’s too crazy to do any work.”
“She never asks. The boys just go.”
Iggy watched a man leave his booth, pay at the counter and walk out. Two boys got up from the same booth and followed. He licked his spoon and held it like a lollipop as he stared at them through the window. They jumped onto the front seat next to the man.
“Do you ever hang around with Ozzie?” She guided his hand with the empty spoon back onto the table.
He lifted his dish, slurped out the chocolate colored liquid and mumbled, “Who, Ma?”
“The man who just left. I hope you don’t ever hang around with him.”
“I don’t know who he is. I never come to town, ’cept with you or Pa.” He wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
She brushed a shock of hair from his eyes. “You’re just like your brothers.”
“I think so but Thelma doesn’t.” He grinned and a dark trickle appeared from the corner of his mouth.
“She’s probably right. You’re different, but you resemble them with wild black hair always hanging down your forehead. You should get Thelma to cut it shorter. I hope you don’t ever take a notion to grow a mustache like your brothers. They try to look like Pa.” She shook her head and shuddered. “With your dark eyes it’d make you look like the devil.”
“I wanna be a vampire. Larry said I’d make a good one. Will you make me a black cape sometime? Larry said all vampires wear black capes.” He held up both hands, shaped them into claws and bared his teeth.
“Please, don’t do that. It makes you look silly.”
“That’s how vampires act. Larry got this paperback and we read about it.”
“At least, stop those gurgling sounds when you breathe. I’m sure it’s not something vampires do.”
“What sounds, Ma?”
“Never mind. It’s something you do when you’re excited. Try to breathe without making noise.”
“Do you like Father Reinhardt?”
“He’s all right, I guess. He don’t get mad like Father Busch did.”
“Father Busch was getting senile.”
“Just old. He wasn’t in his right mind any more. Father Reinhardt’s much nicer, don’t you think?”
Iggy nodded. “But he scares me.”
“You keep telling him all your sins, and he’ll help you be a better person. You did tell him everything, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, Ma. Can I eat your ice cream?”
“Yes, but I’m afraid you’ll have to drink it.”
“I’ll lap it like Podue.” He showed her his tongue.
“Don’t you dare.”
He sucked it back as she reached with her thumb and finger pretending to pinch it. He enjoyed his mother’s teasing.
Memories of ice cream, vampires and Father Reinhardt disappeared when Thelma moved from his line of sight. He awaited her next move and bit his lip to keep from crying out.
She returned to the mirror, held her flowered nightgown over her head and glided it past her shoulders and over her breasts. It stopped below her knees. He had watched her sew the nightgown from old flour sacks and wondered if she wore anything under it. Since learning her secret, he imagined the soft cotton cloth against his skin.
Saliva gurgled through his nose and she glanced up. He edged his way down from the rafters and plopped onto the dry grass behind the house, his legs too shaky to run and hide. Thoughts of Thelma chasing him in her nightgown excited him, until he realized how mad she’d be for his spying on her. He didn’t feel safe again until the light came on in her bedroom.
He felt lonely and wished his friend was with him. They shared their sexual fantasies, but Iggy never admitted to any including Thelma.
Once, after describing Ida’s shapely body, Larry added, “. . . not all humpty-dumpty like your sister.”
Thelma broken into pieces like the egg in the nursery rhyme was funny, but Pa and Arnie laughing at him was not.
“That’s not what it’s ’sposed to be for,” his father had scolded.
But, what it’s ’sposed to be for is what he wanted to do with his sister. Animals from the same litter tried, but his pa always kept them apart. Iggy never understood why.