By Morgan George
I rolled over in bed and took a good long look at my alarm clock, waiting for my sleepy eyes to focus. It was 5:34 am and the tip of my nose was cold enough to tell me that Katie hadn’t bothered to load the woodstove when we got home. I guess I could have done that, but it’s generally her job so I hadn’t thought about it before crawling under the covers. The night hadn’t gotten any better after the cock fight and the very thinly veiled threat from Austin, so we had pulled out of the snowy parking lot not long after. The bed was so warm and comfortable, as beds usually are on cold mornings that promise nothing more than frozen water pails and hungry animals. At least it was Sunday. I had convinced my old friend Maryanne to cover my shift at the diner this morning, which meant that I could roll back over and sleep for another half hour. Or I could brave the cold floors of the old farm house, make my way down the hall and down the creaking stairs to load the stove and start the coffee brewing. Warm the house and warm my cold aching head out of the seven-beer-two-whiskey hangover that I had. Probably the most practical course of action. Better than hiding under a pile of warm quilts thinking about whether or not Austin was going to come sneaking around looking for a rumored weed stash and “accidently” burn our barn down.
As a kid I had slept in this same room and I have vivid memories of frost on my window panes and water glasses freezing during the night. We’ve added a little insulation and two new floor vents since those days, but I still gasped as my bare feet hit the wide pine boards of the floor. Lucky I had thought to wear my favorite blue flannel pajamas to bed; unlucky that my slippers were on the other side of the room. Missing slippers are one of those details of life that seem so unimportant at midnight and so vital at 5:30 am when your feet are freezing to the floorboards and your head is screaming for coffee. I made it to the slippers; slow, cold, and out the bedroom door, downstairs to the kitchen where I fumbled through counting out scoops of coffee and even remembered to push the start button to “on.” Down the hall to the living room, open the draft; open the stove door; look at the wood rack and curse because it’s empty which means a trip to the porch to bring in enough wood to make it until I am warm enough to exchange flannel pjs for jeans. Even the inside door knob was decorated with a thin layer of frost and at a later hour of the day I would have said it was beautiful, the way the tiny white icicles formed a pattern over the silver of the knob. At that hour it just looked cold, which it was; cold enough that my fingers chilled in an instant, clinging briefly to the metal as I swung the door open.
The air was a million pinpricks on my face as I stepped out on to the porch. I gasped, taking a second to get used to it, feeling the inside of my nose burn and watching my breath hang in a white crystal cloud. The cold seeped through the thin bottoms of my slippers, over my bare ankles and up my legs. The tips of my ears tingled. I stood for a moment, despite the temperature, and watched the dark shapes moving in the pasture across from the house, beside the old barn. In the dim light of early dawn the beef cows were shaggy shadows wreathed in their own breath. They moved in a slow shift around the big round hay feeder that squatted beside the pasture gate. In the silence I could hear their hooves crunching the frozen ground; could hear them chewing, breathing; I thought that I could feel them living, feel them longing for sunshine and grass on the hillsides. I stood only for a moment, just long enough to sense the morning; a cow spotted the porch light and bellowed at me, reminding me of firewood and coffee, frozen water, feeding, and a day that was not yet half started.
With my reverie broken I realized that my fingers were already starting to feel numb. I loaded my arms with firewood and went in, swinging the front door closed on the lowing of the cows. I knew that their calls would wake the rest of the animals, their hungry chorus ready to greet me when I opened the barn door. I dropped the wood beside the stove, hoping the noise would wake my still-sleeping sister from slumber since it was her turn to carry water to the animals, a job that I disliked even when there wasn’t a foot of snow on the ground. I loaded the stove, shut the door, opened the draft all the way to give the few remaining coals enough oxygen to lift small flames, catching the chunks of wood on fire. I blinked and said a quick prayer to the fire-gods that it would catch quickly and warm the house. It was time for coffee. I heard Katie’s footsteps overhead; heard her spit out an expletive with each foot fall, calling the cold floor an array of shameful names.
I poured two cups of coffee as Katie made her way downstairs. The mugs warmed as I filled them, the hot coffee steaming in the cold kitchen air. I filled mine to the brim and left it black; filled Katie’s and left room for milk and sugar. We used the same mugs every morning, an old habit carried over from childhood, a time when we would have been punished for using any cup but our own. Katie’s was a big mug I had found at a yard sale last summer. I had given it to her as a birthday joke, a laugh for the most decidedly single person that I knew. It was bright blue and proclaimed in bold red letters: I GOT THIS MUG FOR MY HUSBAND—A GOOD TRADE, RIGHT? My mug was a gift from Maryanne, given to me four years ago when I came home from college and started waitressing with her again like I had the summer after high school. It was simply a white diner-style coffee cup with thick sides to hide the fact that the cups never hold quite enough coffee to make it through breakfast. She said she knew I loved work so much that I’d want to think of it on my days off. Of course I had to drink my coffee black—my mug didn’t have room for milk. I was still using it, refill after refill, because Maryanne had been thoughtful enough to have it customized with a pot leaf and the words “Buy Local”. Almost six years of college and I was growing weed and waitressing for a living. Sharing a house with my grumpy spinster sister and feeding sheep before work every morning.
Katie sat down across from me. Her hair was sticking up in every direction and she was wearing an old brown wool sweater, the yarn unraveling at the neckline. I could see the thermal shirt she had on underneath it through the moth holes. We didn’t talk. I realized that my own hair probably looked the same and instead of fixing it I got up and walked to the foyer, picked up a grey knit cap and pulled it on. Back in the kitchen I picked up my mug and nearly dropped it when the shriek of the phone made me jump. I glanced at the clock. 5:57 am. Maryanne. I sighed, resigned to one less refill of hot coffee. I grabbed the phone out of its cradle on the counter and started talking.
“Hey. What’s up?”
“Danny! I am going to work, I promise—but Dad’s having another—you know—thing. He’s freaking out because Black Ace got hit by a car last night and Mom doesn’t want to drive up to take him to the vet. And my car won’t start.”
“Need me to come get you?”
“Can you? I can get Black to the vet later when it warms up—after work. He’s not really hurt but I have to take him so Dad will relax.”
“Yeah. I’ll be up in fifteen.”
I hung up before Maryanne could get carried away about her father, a man perpetually on the edge of one breakdown or another. I let out a lengthy sign and rolled my eyes at Katie who had been watching me as I talked.
“Can you start the morning feeding so I can get Maryanne to work?”
“Sure.” Katie stood, stretched, and picking up both mugs turned to refill them,
setting mine down on the table. “So much for a day off. What’s up with Maryanne?”
“Joey acting up again?”
“Yeah—and her car is dead. Not surprising—it’s wicked cold out there.”
“Her mom coming up this weekend to look after him?”
“Nope. Maryanne said last week that Peggy’s had enough. Filed for a divorce finally.”
“Really? Huh—why bother at this point? Oooooo, maybe she met somebody new.”
I laughed at that. Maryanne’s mother, Peggy, was a dried up old bitch with a voice that made nails on a chalk board sound friendly. I was never sure if life with Joey had made her that way, or if it was life with Peggy that had made Joey crazy. Maryanne claimed that Joey had always been a little left of center but his years has a unground martial arts fighter had pushed him close to the edge of oblivion. One to many unprotected kicks to the head.
“Nah,” I said to Katie, “I think she’s just tired of paying for him. Figures if she divorces him he’ll just be a ward of the state. Or Maryanne’ll get stuck taking care of him all the time.”
Katie looked pointedly at the clock. “You better get moving. I’ll get the truck warmed up for you while you get dressed.”
In the foyer by the front door Katie took her heavy coveralls from the coatrack and slid them on over the long underwear she had apparently been wearing as pajama bottoms. She picked up her boots from where they lay in a puddle of melted snow and manure, the same spot where she had kicked them off after barn chores last night. I saw the holes in the toes of her socks as she stuck her feet into the boots. Katie had never been one to care much about how she looked, but I noticed that it got worse the longer we farmed; her hair was rarely combed, her socks never matched and she had taken to wearing over-sized men’s sweaters most of the time. I’m not sure if it was a symptom of our limited budget, or if the budget was a good excuse for Katie to slip into the easy comfort of being a bit of a slob. She stuffed her messy hair under a hat, and grabbed the truck keys and a pair of gloves, stepping out and slamming the door tight behind her.
Right. Time to move my own ass or I wouldn’t get Maryanne to work in time for her 7:00 am shift, which would get us both in trouble with Charley, the old crank that owned the diner. First I stopped to check the woodstove; flames were lapping at the wood and heat rolled out when I opened the door. I added two more chunks, packing it tighter in the hopes that it would last the few hours that it would take to get Maryanne to work and animals fed. I headed back upstairs, dragged a brush through my hair and put my knit hat back on. I threw on jeans, clean socks, and a hooded sweatshirt that was sitting on the top of the dirty laundry pile, figuring it was just going back to the barn. Back downstairs I grabbed a jacket off the coatrack and stuck my feet into my winter boots. They were cold on the inside, but my feet started to warm them as soon as I put them on. I scooted back to the kitchen and grabbed a coffee mug out of the cupboard—one that I didn’t care about—and dumped my lukewarm leftover coffee into it. Gloves in hand I was out the door, through the cold and into the warm cab of my truck.
My cell phone was sitting in the console of the truck, where it had sat since last night. I turned it on and checked the time: 6:37 am, just enough time to drive the two miles to Maryanne’s and get her back to town in time for work. The sun was just starting over the hill tops, breaking rays through the black branches of the winter trees. Snow blew free of the pine trees as I drove over the packed ice and gravel of the back road; it skittered through the air, across the hood of the truck, and across the road, drifting into waves and gullies on the shoulder. Near Maryanne’s house a deer stopped in front of me, pausing long enough to bring me to a halt; she looked at me, twitching her ears back and forth and puffing out warm white clouds of breath. She started and took off; maybe she heard a branch break or decided that the truck wasn’t a hulking woodland friend.
Maryanne lived in an old single-wide trailer right next to her father’s place. Her place was as spare and neat as his was run-down and rambling. Her little redwood deck had a snow shovel on it and that was all. The only thing in the yard was her battered Honda Civic. Joey’s trailer had two porches and three additions, all made out of pallets, plywood and roofing paper. A vintage ford flatbed truck that hadn’t been run since Joey lost his license sat on flat tires in the yard. As I pulled in to Maryanne’s driveway three dogs came running from Joey’s to greet me: two came from under the trailer and one ran out from under the truck. I knew them all by name and called out to them as I got out of the truck. White was a huge husky cross; she was pale grey and white fur over solid muscle, and she had beautiful pale blue eyes. Jenner was a retired redbone coonhound, grey fading into red on his muzzle and paws; he was all bark and kindness, his years of chasing anything well behind him. Mia was a German shepherd, cross and growling with the other dogs, protective of her home and of Joey, but a sweetheart once she knew your scent. They circled me, sniffing, knowing me and happy to have a friend to add some little excitement to their day. I noticed that Black Ace was indeed missing from the pack.
As the dogs settled I heard shouting from the yard behind Joey’s trailer; Maryanne’s voice high and agitated followed in answer by Joey’s, his sounding like a petulant over-grown child, deep and whining. I couldn’t see either of them yet but they were yelling loud enough to carry clearly from the back of the trailer to the driveway. Maryanne’s voice escalated as she tried to make her father listen to reason.
“You have to come out of the fucking tree, Dad! I have to go to work.”
“Don’t have to do nothin’. Stop bitching at me—you’re bad as your mother—always bitching at me. My dog is dying! I’m asking the gods to save him!”
“Jesus. Ace is FINE. He just ate breakfast. He has a limp. Sitting in the fucking tree isn’t going to help his limp. I’m going to take him to the vet after work! I HAVE TO GO TO WORK!”
I came around the corner of the trailer, the part that was an addition made out of wooden pallets covered over with particle board and Tyvek wrap, and what did I see but Joey sitting totally naked, except for his work boots, in the branches of an apple tree. His dark hair stood on end and his beard stuck out from his face like he had been running his fingers through it. Maryanne spotted me.
“Do you SEE this? Do you SEE what I am dealing with this morning?”
She was tall and skinny, a girl who looked like she didn’t eat and hadn’t seen the sun in years, all pale skin and jet black hair, a combination that came from her Italian father and Irish mother. We’d called her Olive Oil in junior high when she’d shot up to 5’9” without gaining more than twenty extra pounds in the process. By the end of high school the novelty of meanness had worn off and she had become close friends with Katie and me, a friendship that had lasted into adulthood. Her shoulders slumped into her over-sized parka as she looked from her father back to me.
“I don’t know what to do with him. I threatened to call the sheriff. He’s going to freeze to death! Selfish asshole.”
“What’s he covered in—dirt?”
“Oh, Dad! Danny wants to know what you are covered in! Do you want to tell her? That, Danny—that is goose SHIT that he is covered in. Apparently the gods like GOOSE SHIT. It also apparently has healing powers because Black Ace is smothered in it too.”
“Goose shit? I don’t get it.”
“You don’t need to. He drank two thirty packs last night and spent two hours scraping up all the goose droppings in the yard.”
Some variety of dirty woodland spirit was what Joey looked like perched on his branch; he must have been working hard not to shiver in this weather. Or maybe he was just too drunk for his body to notice the temperature. He was nodding off as he sat there; his chin slowly lowered to his chest and we were standing close enough to see two thin lines of drool drooping down his beard from the corners of his mouth. I put a sympathetic arm around Maryanne’s thin shoulders.
“You’re going to miss the start of your shift. Do you want to borrow the truck and I’ll stay to deal with this? I can probably muscle him out of the tree now that he’s passing out.”
“Call the sheriff. He needs some time again. I think. Yesterday—even before the trouble with Ace—he was calling Lowes and ordering material to build a bio-dome for an alligator farm. And he called mom to tell her that he gave her a STD that he got from a gas station hooker.”
“Gotcha. Get out of here—I got this for ya. Just stop at the farm and tell Katie I’ll be along after they pick Joey up. Oh, and grab my cell phone so I can call.”
“You going to walk home?”
“Nah. Eddy’ll give me a lift.” Eddy was the local deputy and a regular at the diner; he was gay, but his brother was sweet on me, so Eddy always made sure to let me know that he’d take care of anything I needed.
“Thanks Danny—if he wakes up any tell him that I’ll spring him a week or so, and that I’ll take care of the dogs.”
Maryanne disappeared around to the front of the trailer and reappeared with my phone to her ear; I could hear her talking and assumed correctly that she figured it was only fair if she dealt with calling Eddy herself. She tapped the front of the phone and tossed it to me.
“All set. Eddy’s just coming into the village now; he’ll be here in ten minutes. Thanks again. Oh! There’s a blanket on Joey’s couch—you know—to cover him up.”
She disappeared again and I heard the truck pull out of the driveway. I stood for a minute looking at the disheveled man in the tree; even in sleep his gnarled fingers had a death-grip, a reminder of his days as a fighter; his back leaned against the rough bark of the trunk as one leg hung down on either side of the branch. I turned to the house, whistling for the dogs as I went to collect the blanket. I figured I’d save Eddy from being accosted and check on Ace at the same time. In the distance I heard the faint wail of a siren and chuckled at the thought that a man covered in goose shit was an emergency.
Born and raised in Upstate NY, Morgan bases her writing on the “stranger than fiction” world around her. Her short fiction offers up small tales of the everyday lives of a wide selection of rural people. She is currently working on a longer work, Ordinary Days, a novel in short stories that chronicles the lives of two young women and their adventures in country living; most of which are less than pastoral. Morgan holds an MA in English and Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University.