by Byron Bailey
Thomas Sutton bent down and studied the paw prints running through his fields. Canine if he wasn’t mistaken. He scowled, his lips pulling back to reveal a set of teeth not exactly straight, not exactly crooked. Probably wild dogs. It was a common story. Urban folk just passing through dump Rover on the side of the road. Rover finds Fido, forms a pack. The pack rampages. Those trying to make an honest living from the land suffer like usual.
He opened the door to his emerald green, Mao Kung pickup truck. His daughter Mary sprawled over the seat like a reclining Cleopatra impatient for a slave to drop a grape into her mouth.
She slid over then stared grumpily into her glass of homemade vanilla shake. Thomas couldn’t understand today’s kids. If a meal didn’t have at least four tablespoons of sugar in it, then they wouldn’t eat it. At least the milkshake had actual milk in it. No one was ever going to say that his daughter lacked strong bones.
“What’s taking so long?” Mary asked.
“Nothing to worry about. Just some varmints eating the steak crop.”
“Yes. Don’t worry about it. We’ll go into town and sign for a few drums of Varmint Varnish.”
Her nose crinkled. “That stuff makes the fields smell like fingernail polish.”
“Well, then don’t go outside.” When she was seven, the way her nose crinkled whenever she caught a whiff of what it meant to be a farmer was kind of cute. It was just another affirmation on what a tough life he had. Farmers weren’t born; they were forged and the forging process took longer than a mere seven years. At sixteen (seventeen?) years of age, though, the forging process should have been nearing completion. Not in Mary’s case. Must have been a bad load of ore — probably on her mother’s side.
He drove into town, parked in front of the local Agriware House. The building squatted on the ground like a turtle with its arms and legs curled into its shell. No one would mourn when the next tornado sent the bricks flying. Inside, it was even less pleasant with endless drums of chemicals stacked one on top of another. And then there was Talbot.
Talbot smiled warmly at him. Thomas tried to smile back. Smiling at Talbot was always difficult. How could anyone not be suspicious of a man who could wear a suit in the most sweltering of drought conditions and not be touched by a little healthy perspiration? A little grime like the rest of the human species would have been even more convincing. Talbot couldn’t be human. It was nothing new. Farmers had been making deals with devils in one form or another throughout the ages. Rip out your daughter’s heart with a ragged flint knife or the sun won’t come up. Strangle your daughter with a horsehair noose and press her body into the bog or the barley won’t rise. The tricky party in making the deal was in keeping your daughter and your soul.
"What can I do for you?” Talbot asked.
“I need me some Varmint Varnish. It’s paw prints galore in my fields.”
Talbot looked down sadly at his fingers like he was imagining the crisp coldness of a lost contract. “I’m real sorry. But my hands are tied, shackled, and just plain bound. Worthless wolves wandered on down here from Michigan. There’s no getting rid of them now that the government says they’re endangered. They put a county-wide ban on Varmint Varnish — $50,000 fine and three years in the barn if you break it. What has this country come to?”
The devil! That was the answer. The country had gone to the devil. Not the devil. Thomas Sutton didn’t believe in the devil as a goat-hoofed bastard with nothing better to do than check errant vacationers into the hotel with the fiery beach front. It was just typical for superstitious urbanites with a phobia of meadows and cow shit to imagine the ultimate evil as a man with a goat’s feet and horns. If a farmer had invented the devil, the legs would have been insect, maybe beetle or locust and there would be six of them, spindly, dripping green mucus. Her skin would have glistened with patches of green and blue mold. Dandelions would sprout like early season corn atop her head. That was an image worthy of the devil.
Still, the actual concept of ultimate evil wasn’t wrong. He could feel a malevolent presence hovering over him like a black helicopter at a cattle mutilation, staring, plotting. It was always strongest whenever he went to inspect the fields. It probably wasn’t a single source of evil. Instead, it was layer stacked upon layer: the IRS, EPA — hell! — the entire government. But it was more than the government. It was the bankers, the weather, the bugs, the weather, the varmints, the weather — did he mention the weather? It was nearly the entire world aligned to crush the farmer into the dust.
Already, he could see $500,000 disappearing like the buffalo — they weren’t bringing the buffalo back, too, were they? No Varmint Varnish meant varmints running all over the fields, their worthless hides growing thick and glossy on his steaks. The image made him sick. Fat, furry varmints with glossy hides taking over his farm.
* * *
He dug through the attic until he found the family gun. Great, great, great grandfather Elijah Sutton knew the day would come when the South would rise again and when it did, those who cared for the preservation of the Union would have to march. No one took great, great, great grandfather Elijah’s warnings seriously. Still, the gun was religiously passed down through the generations, more on account of the conversational value of having a civil war rifle musket hanging over the mantel than anything else. The gun started being more of an embarrassment, though, when the rest of the country declared independence from the South without nary a shot fired. Sure, Chicago burned, twice, and a few Southern Baptists got strung up. But for the most part, it wasn’t violent and great, great, great grandfather Elijah’s gun was retired to the purgatory of the attic.
Thomas lifted the gun in his hands, felt the cold, dead weight settle in his palms. Grimly, he began to polish the barrel.
* * *
When the new steak vines first came onto the market, Thomas realized the implications immediately. No more Brazilian beef — long live the rain forest! And more importantly, cholesterol-free, low-fat opportunity begging to be picked off the vine. The Spanish conquistadors were almost right when they believed that the warm climate in the new world was particularly conducive to the growing of gold. It wasn’t the shiny, yellow stuff that was the true value, though. It was the other gold: the potato, tomato, cacao, and coffee — not to mention coca and tobacco. Always it was the nature of gold to change. Textiles. Emeralds. Platinum. Now uranium, information, and steaks. The conquistadors had their El Dorado. He had his fields. The only difference was that his steaks were actually going to pay off.
He propped the gun across his knees and loaded it. Powder, wad, ball. Wasn’t that the proper order? He fiddled a little more with the gun until he thought he had it right, then peered angrily into the nebulous bluish black of night that enveloped his fields like a spreading bruise.
Mary came out to him. She wore a long, brown skirt and a voluminous blouse that made her look more like a nun than his daughter. Varmints in his fields and now his daughter dressing funny? The omens were all bad.
“Are you coming inside?” she asked.
“No. I got to watch the fields.”
“But this is a very special day,” she said.
“Yeah, I know. The IU-Purdue game. Don’t worry. I got the radio.”
She stormed back into the house, her skirt flaring with each stride like a snake puffing itself up to strike.
Still, he stared wistfully towards the porch, through the window at the television screen flickering green and orange. The game was always better on TV. He puckered his lips. The pre-game would never be green and orange. What was she watching? Must be the Vacation Channel.
He always wondered who were the people who actually watched the Vacation Channel. He once watched it for an entire afternoon and not once did they even mention the fine state of Indiana. He couldn’t understand it. Indiana had far more to offer than New York City, Bermuda, or some Italian village with a crumbling winery. If a vacationer wanted history, then Indiana had lots of it. For God’s sake! Abraham Lincoln lived here before he moved to Illinois, the move being one of the earliest examples of the “Great Hoosier Brain Drain.” Beaches? Indiana had over fifty miles of beaches stretched along the southern tip of Lake Michigan with a lot less discarded hypodermic needles washed up on shore than many tropical hot spots. Gambling? Indiana had Indian Bingo and its own state lottery. Vegas be envious! The Vacation Channel had to be blind to not take more notice of Indiana.
The fields were silent except for the soft rustle of leaves, lots of leaves. Steak vines were thick and bushy, the leaves covering the plant like a bad wig with the hair crammed so close that even the envious bald could tell at a glance that it was fake. A lot of chlorophyll was required to produce a single steak. Stalks of corn could be long and regal, disdaining the simple reality of fighting for sunlight. Not so the steak vine as it spread out like a fisherman’s net hungry for every minnow. If he wanted to grow the prime meats then he actually had to get on his hands and knees and start lopping. He couldn’t have more than four or five steaks per vine. Otherwise, all the steaks on the plant would be stunted, tasteless chunks of meat destined to be sold as “Dummy Steaks” to Tyson Foods for a miserable three dollars a bushel.
The gun felt proper as he cradled it in his arms, the barrel pointed towards the sky. This was what it was like back in the old days to be a farmer, guarding the crops from enemies foreign and domesticate, mostly domesticate. Great, great, great grandfather Elijah would be proud of him.
He reached into his pocket, took the Tonyman out. He knew the channel, 1350 AM. The deep voice of Caxton Morgue crackled over the static. “Purdue up by fifty-seven, Indiana in possession. Packen passes to Newman. Newman dribbles, spins, and shoots. Two points! Wait. There’s a foul. The officials hunker. Charging against Newman. The point is taken away. Possession given to Purdue. I don’t know. That didn’t look like charging to me. What a tough break. Wait a minute! Bobby Knight XXXVII picks up a chair.”
Thomas turned the radio up, cocked his head in anticipation. The Butcher of Bloomington was about to do his work.
“He shouts at the referee. Can’t quite hear what he’s saying, but his face is red like a beet or a patch of cherry gelatin. I would even say blood but we all know that I’ll need to use that word later. No! Don’t do it Bobby. There’s all ready thirty-five other clones in prison. Don’t make thirty-six.”
That Bobby Knight, a coach who didn’t put up with anything, a demigod immersed in an ocean of incompetent mortals, a heavy hitter who had single-handedly transformed the little known martial art of chair combat into such a popular sport that it even had its own network. Golf, wrestling, boxing, chess, table tennis, and chair combat. Everyone knew who the master was.
“It don’t look good folks. The tension is rising. Bobby’s neck bulges with restraint. Man oh man, this will be the fifth clone this season. There it is. The glazed look as Bobby finds the Zen-like stillness inside of him that signals an impending attack. The referee backs away, not quite fast enough. The chairs flies through the air like a bullet. The blood. See. Didn’t I tell you that there would be blood? Yes, I did. Well folks, I guess it's time to take a commercial time out while Bobby XXXVII is carted away, funeral arrangements are made, and assistant coach Bobby Knight XXXVIII is promoted to head coach. You always know the fireworks are going to fly at these IU-Purdue games.”
Thomas turned the radio off. The commercial breaks could take a long time and everyone knew that IU was going to lose anyway. Indiana University hadn’t won a game in decades and probably never would again, not when they couldn’t recruit people who knew how to play the game. Instead, they only got people wanting a rigorous passage into manhood, people who needed to prove that they could endure abuse heaped upon abuse. The few, the proud, the IU basketball team. In short, they recruited those who would have volunteered for the marines in an era when the marines did more than pass out condoms and rice rations at refugee camps. Still, Indiana University didn’t need a winning team to bring in the crowds. They only needed the Bobbies. The original Bobby would have been even better with all of the unpredictability of the clones mixed with the ability to actually win games. Unfortunately, he was fired ages ago.
He suddenly heard a distant howl and then the rustle of steak vines. He jerked his gun to a level position, cocked it. Varmints. He sure wished he could see them. Only a few miserable stars twinkled through the holes in the cloud cover. There was nothing to see unless he were an owl... or a varmint. The flicker of the television in the distant window helped a little. Peach and pink. The Porno Channel? ABC? He didn’t want any daughter of his watching that TNT, not with all those obscene commercials telling her to buy sugar-coated products that only rotted her brain and gave her cavities.
There it came again, a howl. So close that he could almost imagine a frosty breath across his back. It would be just like a wolf to sneak up behind him and bite his neck off. Mangy varmints. He wondered if their hides were worth anything. Endangered ? His tractor! Given half a chance, though, he could make them really endangered. Another rustle! He aimed, couldn’t see what he was aiming at. His breath was quick and sharp, the breath of a man ready for action when the opportunity presented itself. He waited for the tell-tale flash of gray fur, a glimpse of paw, anything to show he wasn’t merely shooting at vine. One lead bullet in a steak and the FDA would probably ban his entire crop, make him attend a month-long lecture on the proper treatment of produce. They would probably have him memorize a three-hundred page long list of banned chemicals, too. That’s what they did when Herman Zeems smoked a cigarette in the fields. Can’t have the corn exposed to second-hand smoke, they said. Feds. Couldn’t live with them and they couldn’t live without you. Hardly seemed fair.
When dawn arrived without a single shot fired, he dragged himself back to the house. Desperate times required desperate measures. He hooked up to the internet.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2004 by Byron Bailey