Daddy and I were cutting the hay in the fields, trying to beat the sun, when we saw the great big plume of dust. It lifted off the western horizon, between us and the silhouettes of our house and two dilapidated barns.
A truck that wasn’t ours veered off the dirt road and toward us, jerking over bumpy furrows and growth-covered ruts, and onto the fallen crop. It was our neighbor, Randall. He was all dark sunglasses and brown raggedy hair shooting out from under his frayed cap. The gleam shone off his young, cleanly shaven jaw. He was alone. As he parked, I felt my stomach knot. What did he want now?
Daddy puffed on his pipe. His brow dug into his eyes under the bright afternoon sun. He wore his cap and blue work shirt, the kind he wore every day. Even though he drove the old Ford tractor at full speed, it wasn’t as fast as we would have liked. Neither of us had said it out loud, but I knew it would take days to get the job done.
I sat behind him on the sickle bar mower. Its sharp teeth scraped back and forth, seething in the flat arm that lay to the right. They shocked the stalks in a tight frenzy before each one fell on top of another in our wake.
It was the tail end of the summer of 1990, a few weeks shy of eighth grade. We had passed over the perimeter of our property, half a mile square, about five times so far. It had been a few hours since we started, my sweaty feet aching in my dingy boots, and already the outer circles of fallen hay were a dull, crisp husk.
Randall stepped out of the truck onto a cushion of hay. He squatted down and ripped a stalk from the ground and twirled it between his fingers, the seed head spinning around. Then he stared us down, waiting for us to come closer.
Daddy had told us that Randall was a pain in the ass and itching to get more land. Wouldn’t it be great for Randall to merge his farm with ours? Randall, on behalf of himself, his family, and the local cronies, would take back the land that, according to them, was rightfully theirs, and banish the out-of-staters who’d bought it. Why the Jewell brothers had sold the farm to us must have been a great mystery to Randall and the old guys, who had nothing else to do but park their asses on stools at the Village Market in the town center and run their mouths all day, bitching about this and that. I don’t swear out loud, but that’s how Daddy told it.
We pulled up beside Randall, and Daddy shifted the tractor into neutral and turned it off. The flap atop the vertical exhaust tap-tap-tapped, and the tractor hissed, coughed, and sighed to a hush. The mower stopped gnashing its hungry teeth. Daddy looked down at his lap, anywhere but at our neighbor.
Our 160-acre farm was half wooded and half an irregularly shaped open field. We were in one section of the field, by the dirt road that served as the boundary between our farm and one of Randall’s. His field already had rows and rows of sprouting green buds, potatoes that would be harvested in a month or two. Other farmers around here hired kids for fifty-five cents a barrel to pick potatoes from daybreak to late afternoon during the school’s harvest break. But Randall had enough money, it seemed, to forego child labor and instead used a big, fancy harvester.
We sat there for days. The absence of the hot thrusts of machinery rang in my ears. The lazy sun slung red beams at us. Hayseeds floated in the air. I sneezed, the first to break the silence.
Randall, still squatting, glanced quickly at me then across the field of timothy swaying in the late afternoon breeze. He called out to Daddy.
“You’re really doing this.”
Daddy didn’t move. He was still looking down, and, with his head turned slightly, I caught sight of a small beleaguered smile. “I guess I am.”
I let go of the handle that laid the track of teeth down to the ground and put my hands on my lap, then under the metal saddle. I never knew what to do with my hands.
Randall stood and snapped a stem of hay in half, using one end as a toothpick. Randall was a lot younger than Daddy, but both had leathery skin. Daddy’s was red with grey whiskers, Randall’s was tanned, smooth, and shiny. Randall kicked one of the tractor’s small front tires. Dust and dirt fell.
“Well, hell, that’s an itty bitty tractor.” Randall laughed at the sight and shook his head like he couldn’t believe it. “How many times you think you’ll go around the field with this thing? A hundred? A thousand? And what in the name of Jeezum Crow do you have behind it?” He leaned my way, eyeing the contraption I was on. “You pick this up from the dump?”
Daddy banged his pipe on the grey fender of the back wheel and let the ash fall out. The tractor was built in 1944, the same year he was born, and they were like a boy and his puppy that had grown up together. In truth, Daddy had only owned it for a couple of years. He’d seen it listed in the Bangor Daily News and couldn’t resist. “Both of us are still sputtering along,” Daddy told me once with a sheepish grin.
“Tell me what I owe this pleasure,” Daddy said.
Daddy wasn’t no tough guy, no matter how angry he’d get with me or the rest of us. He’d rather not talk with Randall, not now or ever. He’d opt to demand Randall off his property, so he could use it as he damn well pleased; he didn’t need anyone niggling about. Even if Randall was one of the town’s newest, no doubt youngest, selectmen.
Randall chewed on his sprig of hay. We were spitting distance, but he and Daddy hadn’t looked straight at each other yet. Daddy wiped away the dust from the gauges on the tractor dash. Randall squinted at something far behind me, probably at the trees that stood on the eastern horizon, a couple of miles away in Canada.
“Come on, Mo,” said Randall. “My offer to help still stands.”
“Your help?” Daddy peered back at me, a look that I couldn’t decipher, a quick bulging of the eyes and a tweak of a corner of his mouth. “He wants to help.” Then, finally, he faced Randall. “Help with what?”
Randall set an unlaced boot on the front wheel. “What are you gonna do with all this hay, huh, Mo?”
Daddy squinted toward the shadowy shapes of our two barns, our house on the horizon. Between here and there, a field of fallen hay that the sun would burn and rot, because we had no baler, not enough animals to eat it, and too much pride to sell or give it away.
Randall went on. “You don’t have no cows, you don’t have no horses —”
“I’ve got pigs,” Daddy said, not at all defensive, like he was telling the truth but knew it was kind of funny at the same time. “They need straw to sleep on.”
“You got pigs,” Randall said, bobbing his head, looking around at the cut hay. “Some pigs! They must be pretty darn demanding, wanting all this here hay.”
We had five pigs. They did not need eighty acres worth of hay. Randall saw my snigger and acknowledged it with an upward nod. I felt guilty. I should have known better than to reveal something that Randall probably could have guessed. We were not equipped to make full use of this field. We were wasting it. All our farm equipment was made to be pulled by horses, not tractors. Daddy had spruced them up, replaced the wood panels, wire-brushed away the rust, and painted the metal bright colors. The machinery was in OK shape, but it cost money to upkeep, money we didn’t have.
“Your pigs will have more hay than all the cows here in Monticello. Seems like you’re tipping the balance of supply and demand, and I gotta tell ya — just my opinion — I don’t like it too much.”
Daddy sighed and looked away. I couldn’t tell if he was actually considering it or not. I wished Daddy wouldn’t humor him and would just tell him to back off.
“Look, Mo, I’ll tell you what. I can get my crew to come out here first thing and whip this field into shape. And I got none of this rinky-dink horse-drawn shit to cut it all up neither. My outfit’s bigger and wider, and it’ll take no time to cut this field. We could harrow it after lunch and bale it all by this time tomorrow. We’ll load them all up and get them off your hands by sunset or maybe the next day. You needn’t do a thing but sit with your smoking pipe and read the classifieds. And you’ll get a pretty hefty check in your hands by the end of it. Hell, I’ll even throw in a few bales for you and those pigs of yours.”
Daddy unfolded his tobacco pouch and scooped his pipe through the dry leaves. He found his matchbook, one of many that he used also as a notebook, writing down notes and reminders inside the flap, which he now closed and ripped the match across the strip. He took his time, not in any rush to respond to Randall. He sucked in the flame, one, two, three, four times, until it caught. He hacked his smoker’s cough, a gagging cadence that sounded off every time he started a new batch. You’d think his lungs would be used to it by now. Daddy started smoking when he was 12.
Looking back, his dilemma was a tough one. Daddy didn’t have any cows, but that was not how he wanted it for us. He wanted Holsteins roaming all over his land, eating the hay, providing us milk and a means to earn money. But we weren’t there yet. We had just moved here, from Pawtucket, a huge city in Rhode Island, only three years ago. We were still living in the basement. The barns were old and falling apart. They were dirty, dusty, and filled with cobwebs. A hayloft would have caved in by now if it weren’t propped up by tall jacks. Pigeons nested on trestles under the roof and provided us with piles of shit down below. In addition to the pigs, we had a small army of chickens and rabbits. And while Daddy was out looking for a job, I had to feed them all, and clean up the rabbit poop, the pig shit, the chicken shit. Daddy enjoyed this idea of his that we’d be a father-and-son team. We’d be side by side, milking the cows, selling the cream, milk, and butter. The cows would lick our hands with sandpapery tongues in appreciation.
Some days, before heading inside for dinner, Daddy and I would sit in the cab of his truck, and he’d purge whatever was eating him up. Lately it was about Randall and his motives. But what could I do? I was just twelve and a half. Who was I to tell Daddy what to do? I just sat there and listened, hoping there would be a lesson to learn somewhere.
It took me a few more years to understand his reluctance. It more or less went like this: Daddy feared an outright takeover just as much as a slow surrender. Today we could agree to give Randall the hay. Tomorrow he’d ask us if he could plant potatoes. Next week he’d cut our forest down for lumber. By next month he’d have such a stake in our land that Daddy couldn’t use it even if he had the means, and soon there’d be an offer on the table to buy it from us. Or worse, as Daddy had started to suspect around this time, if there ever was a rental agreement to use his land, there would be some fine print or overlooked clause that construed the rental as a lease, or a rent-to-buy, or an outright sale. His eyesight was as bad as his legal knowledge. All he had to go on was an eighth-grade education and his gut. He didn’t trust himself enough to trust Randall.
Daddy shook his head.
“No?” Randall said. “No what?”
Daddy looked straight at Randall. “You can’t buy me. I know what you’re trying to do. This isn’t your land. It’s mine, and someday soon it will be his.” He jutted a thumb back at me.
“He doesn’t even want your land, Mo.”
I didn’t know how Randall knew that, but I kept quiet. I crossed my arms in defiance, but more out of nervousness.
“Ah, fungool.” Daddy jerked his arm toward Randall’s truck. “Get the hell out of here. I’ve got work to do.”
The tractor coughed back to life, a black exhaust spewing into Randall’s face, and he stepped back with disgust.
Daddy steered the tractor around a long curve of forest and faced north where there was more work to be done. As Randall climbed into his truck, I turned toward the house, trying to see if my sisters or Mamusia were in the yard. I wondered how long it would be before I saw them.
We had made five more loops, driving nonstop through dusk, until even the moonlight couldn’t help us see the edge between where the hay stood and where it had fallen. Finally we aimed for the barns, for the usual spot to park the tractor, but at about 500 yards out, the engine choked and sputtered and died. Daddy jumped off and looked at me, but I could barely see him in the dark.
“Out of gas?”
“Yeah. Quittin’ time.”
I was starving. We hadn’t stopped for dinner, and I was looking forward to whatever scraps were left over. I got off the saddle, and we headed home. “We were so close,” I said, swatting at mosquitoes.
Daddy gave a hmph, more than I expected he’d say.
The last job he had, a year prior, was supervising the town dump. When he wasn’t showing where household trash went and where metal and furniture and old tires went, he’d sit in a shack all day, twice a week. When the pile of old brush and branches got too big, he’d start a fire and pray no wind would pick up. Sometimes, he’d rummage the metal for machinery parts. He’d bring home pieces of junk that someday would create a whole machine.
He lost that job, on grounds that some locals claimed he was stealing their trash. Randall was up for re-election then; he even stuck a campaign sign by the culvert at the end of our driveway. When the school bus dropped me and my sisters off that afternoon, Daddy was driving down the driveway to meet us. He promptly heaved the sign from the ground and tossed it to the back of his pickup. We drove to the dump, which was closed. He unlocked the gate and flung Randall’s sign into the large, empty trash compactor that was buried in the ground. We stood overhead, Daddy letting me watch the compactor slowly scrape shut, bending the legs and frame of the sign until it disappeared.
Now, he and I walked past the barns and made our way to the basement. We scratched our boots on the welcome mat, which Daddy and I had made one day out of the steel rods from a conveyer belt of an old potato digger. I kicked off my boots in the mudroom and let the bright light and sounds of the television help me find my way through the cavern of the unlit basement. I sat at my place at the kitchen table.
Mamusia was washing dishes by a dim light over the sink and watching TV, a small box atop the counter in the corner. Are You Being Served? was on, an old British comedy and a household favorite. My sisters Bella and Natasha, sitting at but away from the table in their pajamas, were watching too. I’d forgotten it was Friday night. Red Dwarf, another Britcom but set in the far future in space, would be on later. Usually, when its opening montage screamed into view, my family would bolt and let me be. I was obsessed. I taped every episode with our hand-me-down VCR.
“Wow-wee,” Mamusia said, wiping dry a casserole dish. “What was you doing all this time? You done? All cut?” She had gone to night school when I was really little to learn English, but she still didn’t get it all right — mispronounced words a lot, but we let it all slide.
Daddy placed his hat on the beige wood stove in the center of the basement and sat down at the head of the small wooden table.
“We did maybe ten circles around the field,” I said. “We have way more circles to go.”
“Are you hungry? A long time ago I made dinner. Natasha, come on, get the plates for them.”
Natasha made a show of sliding on the red oven mitts and pulled our plates from the oven.
“And you still have some coffee left.” Mamusia fiddled with the percolator and plugged it back in.
Daddy drank six cups of coffee a day. Maxwell House. Good to the last drop.
“Well?” Mamusia said.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, waving her away, watching TV.
Mamusia looked at me and back at Daddy. “Did something happen outside?”
“Can I watch the program? I’m missing my program.”
“Jeesh.” Mamusia didn’t swear either. She poured a cup of coffee for Daddy. “Here.”
She sat with us to watch the show. A senior salesman of the men’s clothing department was questioning the lack of respect of a younger colleague beside him.
“We saw Randall today,” I said.
Mamusia looked at me, followed by Bella, who was a year younger than me and feistier. Natasha, the youngest and the quietest, turned her head too. Then Daddy.
“What? Randall?” Mamusia looked at Daddy. “What was he for?”
“What do you think?” Daddy said.
“What did you say? Jeeze.”
“I told him to fuck off.”
The TV audience burst into laughter. Mamusia turned to catch what happened, but her whole face, her shoulders, her whole body frowned. She bit her lower lip. She returned to Daddy.
“What’s the big deal?” Mamusia said. “We need the money! And you’re not using it.”
She meant the land.
“I don’t need his money,” Daddy said.
“Oh,” Mamusia said in a tone that meant yeah, right.
“Yeah, ‘oh’,” Daddy said. “He can stick it up his ass. He’s not touching our land.”
My sisters and I were listening to them but looking at the TV. It was like watching a badly synced translation broadcast from Quebec.
“What are you doing with it?” Mamusia’s arms flailed out. “Nothing.”
“I’m keeping the hay for myself. For the animals.”
“Oh, the animals. What about us?”
“What about us?”
“What about the house? We can’t live like this forever. I feel like a prison in here.” Mamusia gestured toward the small, horizontal windows that seemed to prop up the ceiling. They were so high up we needed a stool to open them. They swung inward from hinges on the top of the frame. My bed was in the far corner of the basement, and I had a little white curtain over my window. From my bed, the only thing I could see through my window was the top of an oak tree on the other side of the driveway. The only way to tell if someone was visiting was either by the small vibration of the knick-knacks hanging on my wall as a truck rumbled up the hill, or, if you were in the kitchen during the day, by seeing car wheels roll into view.
With each birthday, I got a better perspective on what the farm was, or was not, able to offer. Some days, I wondered if the perspective itself was the whole point. Had we lived upstairs already — had the construction of the house been completed — we wouldn’t have known what it meant to strive. Life would be easy. Had we lived upstairs already, I figured, we would be content more often, as that’s what people who actually lived in a house were like. Right? Mamusia and Daddy would argue less often. Daddy would have found a job or the balls to really tell Randall what he thinks of him.
But Daddy couldn’t find a job. He kept getting stonewalled by the likes of Randall, who’d rather see local resources reserved for Mainers, not us.
The closing credits began to roll.
“Aww, see, you made me miss my program,” Daddy said.
“Let him cut the hay,” Mamusia said. “We can use the money to finish the house.”
“It could buy us some time,” Bella said. Natasha looked at her wide-eyed, as if surprised she butted in. Bella was heading into the seventh grade and sick and tired of being too embarrassed of our underground home to invite friends over, and, well, so was I. Natasha was the only one who’d invited her whole class a year ago. Mamusia always loved to tell that story, when some of Natasha’s classmates lined up in the kitchen to have ice cream: Neapolitan, chocolate mint, coffee. Lined up on the counter were chocolate jimmies, rainbow jimmies, colored sugar, chocolate sauce, butterscotch, and maple syrup. Whenever Mamusia tells the story, it’s to deliver the punchline — how one boy stared at this assortment with wide eyes and said, Wow, you guys have everything! — and she laughs, laughs, laughs.
“Buy us time for what?” Daddy asked Bella.
“Until you get a job.”
“I don’t need his help,” Daddy said. He found his pipe and pouch of apple tobacco. As he gagged and coughed, I breathed in deeply, inconspicuously, hoping for a whiff of the scent. I couldn’t understand how something so bad for you could smell so wonderful. Then he turned to me. “You’re awfully quiet about this. What do you think?”
I wasn’t expecting that. I tried to think of what to say when my favorite show started. Why did his problems have to interfere with my program? Distracted, I sputtered out some uhhs and umms before he preempted me.
“It’s fine,” Daddy said, unbuttoning his shirt. “It’s fine. Things will work out. Applications are out there working for me. I can put a few calls in on Monday. We’re fine.”
“And if you don’t find a job? Then what?” Mamusia’s hands were fidgeting with napkins.
“Will you be quiet? You’re interrupting his show. He loves this show.” He pointed to the opposite end of the basement. “I’ll look in Bangor if I have to.”
At that, Bella started to cry, trying to muffle it with her hand. Mamusia and Daddy talked recently about the possibility of Bangor, two hours south down the highway. She never liked the idea of Daddy being so far away.
Nobody moved or said anything as Daddy headed toward his bed, pulling off his work shirt. Then I remembered the pigs.
“We forgot to feed the animals!” I stood and reached for a sweatshirt. Daddy started to put his shirt back on. “No, I got it,” I said. “It’s OK. Go to bed.” I grabbed a flashlight and ran out the door.
“Wait!” Mamusia called out. I waited just outside the basement door, shivering in the late-night cold, in time with the chirping crickets. “Give them this.” She handed me a plastic bag with dinner scraps.
The stars were bright pins holding up the cover of darkness. Finally, peace. I tugged open the huge barn door. The pigs started grunting, and the chickens lifted themselves off their roost to scurry close. I turned on the light, and a pigeon flapped its way back to its nest. The awful smell of chicken shit hit me between the eyes, and I was glad there was no cow shit here, or bull shit either.
I went to the far corner first, opposite the chickens, where there were no animals. Daddy and I had cleaned this space in the spring, removing piles of old equipment and nuts and bolts and dust and dirt and who knows what else, so that the cows could live there. We had screwed in four eye-bolts into the walls, where we could leash each one for the night. We had plans to cordon off part of the field so they could graze, but fence posts were expensive. So were cows, apparently.
I fed the clucking chickens first to quiet them down. Then I fed the rabbits, each in their own cage. I saved the pigs for last. I bent over the wooden fence that separated me from the pigs and touched their wet snouts as they tried to bite.
“Hi, guys. Did you know you were the center of attention today? I bet you had no idea.”
Grunt, grunt. Give us something to eat.
“OK, OK, keep your chin on.”
I pulled out a half-eaten apple from the bag and ate as much of it as I could. I chucked the core and emptied the rest of the bag into their trough. Their snorts and grunts filled the barn with sounds of satisfaction. I shoveled in some grain to top it off, then rested my head on the fence and watched them greedily devour dinner. Their pen was filthy, with that undeniable sharp stink of urine, but it was too late to clean it. My body ached from the day’s work and my stomach growled for more food. I grabbed a pitchfork and teased out a generous thatch of hay before tossing it on top of a pile of pig poo in the far corner of the pen. It was a quick fix.
Slowly, I eased the pitchfork down into the pen until the tines brushed back and forth through the sparse short hairs and against the largest pig’s back. It was the greedy one, the one that inched the others out of their share. It squealed and tossed its head. I pushed harder against the skin, trying to poke the tines deeper until the skin gave way to the metal tips.
But pig skin is taut and tough, not like mine. I couldn’t do it. I was afraid. Not for the pig, but for myself. When help came knocking at our door, the door was slammed shut. My head began to itch, and I scratched and scratched until it hurt too much. Somewhere in that little boy mind, I reckoned that no matter what I did, no matter how long I worked Daddy’s fields, this land would bleed me dry. The sun would sear my skin and the wind would dry up my soul. Little by little, they would all wear me down — the farm, family, the Randalls of the world — until my bones ground to dust and I blew away.
Stanley Dankoski has more fiction published at Literary Orphans and The Great Smokies Review. His first published story landed on the 2016 Wigleaf longlist. Having spent most of his life in New England, he now writes from Asheville, North Carolina, and is working on a linked collection of stories.
One Big Shoe is New York-based playwright and street photographer Sean Pomposello. Specializing in the stolen moment, One Big Shoe’s candid glimpses of the New Yorkers he encounters serve as a character development tool for his dramatic work, which has been recognized by theatres and festivals nationwide. With a background in television and advertising, One Big Shoe brings a love of aesthetics, a keen interest in street stories and the ability to identify and chronicle drama in the everyday.