- Misunderstanding a good deed.
Saying I wake up upstairs is redundant so stupid too. Where fucking else would I wake up? That’s where the bedrooms are, dummy. But what maybe ain’t so obvious is what wakes me up being a sharp dewy cold and a pale piercing light—if that makes any sense—besieging me through the uncurtained windows. And let us not forget the strong hairy scent of beast. I make to pull the blanky to my chin but there ain’t no blanky, just me on a bare striped mattress. It’d appear I slept with my clothes on again. In their socks and shoes, my fire ant feet itch and burn. I don’t want to know what’s flavored my mouth so. Downstairs’s got the racket of occasional scrapes and thunks like luggage getting dragged and dropped. Heavy sounds. It’s round about this time I begin to wonder where I am.
- Adventures in unemployment.
Cows are in the living room. They are in the kitchen as well. Such distinctions do not merit much of their concern. They would likely be in the cellar too except down-going stairs are never a cow appeal. Lana can see this all from where she stands frozen, gritty-eyed and sour-bellied, on the steps descending from the upstairs bedrooms because all the plaster dividing the rooms has been knocked or fallen or rotten away from the walls. Exposed two-by-fours and wire mesh crusted with paste-colored crumbs. The bloat of stains resigning blackly across the ceiling. Cows. Reeling, Lana tries to make sense of the evidence at hand: this is a house she is in. A cow in the bathroom laps water from the tub, its thick tongue slugging lurid and slow. Through the open windows: acres of green, spanning vibrant sill to stop.
- Repairs versus compassion.
Lana would like to shit out some of this poison riding heavy and low in her gut. But that is not going to happen here. Even if the cows feel no compunction themselves about shitting on the floor. Which ultimately is what spurs Lana out of her catatonia: one tawny beast turns its ineffable gaze upon her standing on the stairs, blinks its wet-tender eyes with perfect tender lashes, and sets loose its streaming fecundity slapping to the floor. Unacceptable. Stumbling on her heels to the bottom step, she shouts at the animals—“Out! Out!”—slaps their high bony rumps—“Out the damn house!”—pushes their heavy flanks toward the open front door. But the beasts are unmoved and she slips in fresh shit so her left sneaker is now completely gunked in warm brown. Cud-chewing, another cow invites itself through the front door. Yet another clops in through the back. “Ah hell with it.” No doors hang from the hinges.
- The family consequences of adultery.
Fuck those cows. This is the old house anyway. I get that now. I get where I am. Someone must’ve took me here. Outside the pastures fumble on in every dicky direction with fences and windbreaks over here and over there and way the hell up and gone in a little dip is the new house. The new house, still the new house, the one Papi built after getting caught bopping Tia Dot in Mama’s marriage bed. Why do hangovers always taste like growing up? Living in the new house with Mama while Papi ended his days up here. Fuck those cows. Fuck their flawless lashes. That don’t explain shit as to why I’m up here now. The cowshit has thoroughly ruined my shoe—oozebombs is what JJ’d call them when we were kids, as in “Don’t go skidding through an oozebomb, Lana!”—and I don’t need to check to know there ain’t no hose and no water in the outdoor spigot and sure, I could go back inside and slosh my foot around in whatever foul water’s collected in the tub but fuck it, that’s cow water, so I take off my shoe and leave it by the door or anyway, where the door used to be. Far off across the fields is the new house and new barn that I start heading toward and hell, is that my brother standing by the chicken run? Is that him stock-still with a bucket in his hand, looking at me like I’m maybe the Resurrection? Is he shaking his head at what he sees?
- Night sounds and cardiac arrest.
Goddamnit, Lana. Go back go back gobackgobackgoback.
- Anyone can make a mistake.
Gait uneven for her solo shoe, Lana crosses the rolling unmade bed of pasture toward the house where she long ago grew up, head swimming with whatever blank shape last night is proving to be and oblivious that behind her, first one then another then several red cows step out of the derelict farmhouse with neither a low nor snort to follow her lead single file, bellies swaying, through the grass.
- “Anyone can make a mistake.”
I’m just about there, kicking new mushrooms and dodging oozebombs crusted grey when finally I see, between the house and barn, my pink Cruze wrapped around the monster oak lording over the front yard. Well shit. It’s like some weird timeline with my crunched Chevy at one end and me at the other and my asshole brother’s shaking head smack dab in the middle like the point no one intended to plot. And are those empty Beam & Cola cans strewn outside the open driver’s side door? They most certainly are, Lana. They most certainly are. Quit shaking your head, JJ, I get it already, fuck. Be glad I didn’t tear up the grass on my merry way into the tree. Clearly braking was no consideration. I was supposed to give that Cruze back, too. I hope I didn’t hurt the tree.
The chickens ruffle and burble complaint, eager for their granular feed. A red squirrel races from the oak across the rumple of the Chevy’s hood, followed closely by another red squirrel. They drop and give chase beneath the chassis where a steady drip collects in the dust, then skitter once again up the tree. In the house, one upstairs window’s curtain moves aside and a pale full moon face appears long enough to frown matronly before disappearing again behind the curtain falling back in place. Faintly from the kitchen comes the spit and sizzle of the radio weather report and JJ—work-booted and soft-jawed and hands like claws whittled out of callus fisted around the feed bucket’s grip—JJ watches in mixed horror and amazement as his sister lurches ever closer across the field, one-shoed and whiskey-eyed and a yellow stain of vomit on her jean jacket from where she wiped her mouth on her shoulder, haggard and drained and leading a train of seven red cows that do not belong to him, closing the distance from the abandoned house of their father’s defeat to where JJ agog stands. He would rather be anywhere, doing anything, than this here now. And when at last she is close enough, Lana smiles then flinches, as if by smiling she discovers the teeth she lost in the night. As quickly as it came, he can see, the concern vanishes from her eyes. All teeth or no teeth, she is still a beautiful woman. No number of wrecks can ever take that away. Long lashes dark like with mascara but never once needing mascara. She has no idea the cows have her back. Coughing dryly from her side of the fence, Lana asks if she can use his toilet.
© Douglas W. Milliken
[This piece was selected by Valerie O’Riordan. Read Douglas’ interview]