Big Ugly Punch
Static danced along the barbed wire, blue grasshoppers leaping from barb to barb. The skin on my arms prickled as the sky slowly grew darker, the dust and dirt coming in quickly from the north. A rolling wave of dark grey, almost black — that Kansas dirt, worse than the Oklahoma red or Texas yellow. Everything’s worse in Kansas.
My father leaned against his shovel, watching the fence. He was drunk. Mid-afternoon, turning to midnight, and he was halfway through a jug of whiskey bought with surplus wheat. He was a thin man, thinner recently, his receding hairline marked by red, peeling skin. The dust in his pores made him look like a scarecrow, with his overalls hanging off him like moss on a willow. His eyes had withered to slits — snake eyes, Timothy called them, but he wasn’t old enough to know why Father frowned whenever he said that.
“It’s gonna be a rough one,” Father said. His voice slurred only slightly. “I guess it’s been a couple days.”
He coughed. Mostly it was just old folk and children who took sick with the dust, but since Timothy had caught it, so had Father. The two had spent so much time together in the past few days that I figured it was inevitable. Dr. Carson said it was medically impossible, but that maybe it had something to do with the mind. I didn’t know anything about that, but I knew that Timothy and Father looked exactly alike, and Mother had said they acted alike, too. One always imitated the other, so it made sense to me that Father would get sick, just on principle.
“You sure the cattle are secured?” Father said, when the coughing had passed.
We only had three cows left, and they weren’t good for anything except poking with a stick. I nodded, even though Father wasn’t looking at me. I didn’t trust myself to speak.
“Don’t wanna lose the bastards,” Father said. “Government’s gonna pay us to kill ‘em. Probably buy our land out from under us too. How’s that strike you, Joshua?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. He turned to me, anger flashing across his face for just a second. I’d seen it before, but it took me aback, and I swayed on my feet, unsure if I should run or not. I looked from him to the approaching storm, and by the time I looked back, the anger had passed, and I saw nothing but pity in his face.
“Tell me, boy. The government wants to purchase your grandfather’s land, not as valuable property but as trash. What do you think of that?”
I swallowed. There was no saliva in my mouth, just dirt. I said, “I reckon we need the money, sir.”
He laughed, a harsh, rough sound that took his body by surprise — the shovel shifted beneath his weight, and he came close to toppling over.
“Damn straight we do,” he said. “Damn straight, boy. It ain’t exactly raining money these days, is it? Ain’t raining anything at all. Not a damn drop.”
I saw a few rabbits and birds running ahead of the storm. Normally they stayed put; they were more used to the shifting landscape than we were. The animals kept further away from the fence than my father. They knew better. The static could knock a man back ten feet. A couple months back, an old woman in town had died from it. The heat could kill, and so could the cold. The dirt. The wind. I tried to think of one aspect of the land that couldn’t kill you, and I came up with nothing.
“I hear Burt Robertson’s pulling up stakes,” Father said. He laughed again, but it was quieter. “Taking his wife and kids and hitting the road.”
Billy Robertson was a friend of mine. He’d told me just the day before that they were leaving. He hadn’t known until plans had already been made. Said no matter how hard he fought, his father’s mind was made up.
“How about it, boy? You and your brother want to hightail it out of here?”
“No sir,” I said. No hesitation. I wasn’t sure if it was what I wanted, but I knew it was what I wanted to say.
He nodded and glanced my way again. This time, he didn’t say anything, and I couldn’t read his face. He was looking past me, towards the house, not thinking about what I’d said. I turned too, saw Timothy on the porch, watching us against the backdrop of the storm. I waved, and he waved back. His movements were sluggish, as though he had to think before completing the action. As I watched, he bent forward, almost entirely doubled over. He shrank into a tiny ball, a speck against the wall of the house. We were too far for his coughing to reach us, but I heard it anyway: jagged, paradoxically wet, as though his body were trying to rid itself of moisture. I tried not to picture the tiny crimson drops that would be gathering in the dust on the porch. I hoped Timothy kept his eyes closed so he wouldn’t have to see them either.
“Part of me’s glad your mother’s passed on,” Father said. “It’d kill her all over again to see this.”
I’d heard him talk like that before; the whiskey did it. I had no reply. I wanted to agree with him, but I couldn’t.
On the porch, Timothy straightened himself. He wiped a tiny hand against his mouth, watching us. I waved again, to show him that everything was all right. He didn’t wave back.
Dr. Carson had given us a deadline. He’d delivered the news in a monotone, looking down into his bag, as though stating something we were already supposed to know. I’d wanted to beg for some hope, but the doctor had left without a positive word spoken. His usual polite manner no longer had a place in this world. Everything now was stripped away to the bare essentials: life and death. You had one or the other.
Timothy turned on the porch, going back inside. He paused in the doorway, and I thought he would look back at us, but he didn’t. His body hesitated, halfway in the house, as though time had frozen momentarily, a single heartbeat skipped. Then he continued inside, the door swinging closed behind him.
The church bells in town began to ring; their clatter drifted softly towards us, fading away like a spirit as it reached our ears. I pictured the townsfolk scrambling for cover, shoving last-minute cloth into the cracks around windows, pulling masks over their faces, sheets over their children and elderly. Precious water wasted in dampening the walls and windows, a vain attempt to keep out the perpetual will of nature. I remembered when I had acted that way myself and smirked. The skin drew taught across my face, threatening to crack.
“Fucking dusters,” Father said.
The wind started to pick up. Too late to head back. The pressure sucked the air from my lungs. Father swayed against the wind, watching the darkness approach, and I watched him. The storm bore down, and we waited. It was the only thing we could do.