Irene looked at me, then quickly back at the road.
“Aren’t you going a little fast?”
I had recently decided not to be an asshole so I didn’t point out that she was the one who’d made us late, that I was going slower than anyone else on 89, maybe in the history of 89, that, as Eddie Haskell had pointed out so long ago to Mrs. Cleaver, it’s also dangerous to drive too slowly on the highway. I just eased my foot off the accelerator. “Thank you, dear,” she said, sounding a bit like June herself. I glanced at her watching the road. Her thin blonde hair was up but falling in pale wisps around her shadowed cheeks.
Off the Millers River exit and into the hill country in the angled afternoon light, I started to tense up. Fenced farms, sheared sheep pouring down a slanted field, the slow drive through the kind, green hills, all these you’d think would contribute to a sense of peace.
Then we hit the rutted, rocky uphill dirt road, crowded with trees, a first gear climb. Here’s where it usually reached its height, our nervous duet, with Irene startling at every rise, cringing at every rut, me feeling like a city bumpkin as we drive deeper in. This time was better, my resolution holding out. And Irene, seeming to catch the spirit, wasn’t acting like a cartoon cat with its paw in a socket. I even got the last turn-off right, lurching past the horse barn and pulling into the little clearing with its obligatory four cars, two dead, two critical. A big unattended fire crackled high from its stone nest ten yards away.
Emily came out to greet us, which felt like a blessing. In her pale blue dress and bare feet, with her black curls bringing out the black of her mother’s eyes, she started to explain a number of things as soon as we opened the doors. The new goats. There were goats now, a mother and three kids. She addressed this to me, the lover of farm animals, of dumb affection. There was going to be pie for desert — this to Irene, the lover of pie.
Our tension lifted like a mist as it always did as we struggled, encumbered with salad and booze, out of the car onto the rambling landscape.
“Come and see the horses,” said Emily, slipping her tiny hand into mine.
“Okay.” I handed Irene, who was smiling for my conquest, the bottle of bourbon. As she started up the grassy path to the cabin and Sam’s big hello, Emily and I walked down to the horse barn, newly built, with its elegantly curved roof and gleaming wood. Emily, in her instructional mode, spoke the whole way, pointing out late flowers, dying plants, the new hammock.
“Here’s how you get under,” she explained as we reached the electrified wires strung loosely around a big chunk of the Lydon’s few grassy acres. Smartly wedging a branch under the lower wire, she slipped underneath. I was anxious for her safety as I always am around children. I’ve gotten to the point now where I’m not continually reaching forward in spasmodic catching and saving gestures, but I’m still nervous.
There were the goats to see first, a reddish adult and three kids with nubby horns. The kids leapt back in a little, simultaneous, bounding dance as I scrambled under the wire. Emily laughed. So did I, though I was unsettled by their chaotic eyes — horizontal pupils and bright yellow irises. The mother nuzzled up to me and I rubbed her short-haired forehead, daring to scratch above the long ears and around the horns. As Emily told me their names and the reasons for them, I looked up at the house and saw Andrea through the large single-paned window Sam had built into the livingroom. She glanced down at me and her daughter for a moment before turning away to light a cigarette, her black slack hair swaying with the movement.
The horses were next, Marcy and Charlie. A thick, short, retired workhorse, Marcy stood by the new barn as we approached, motionless except for her circling tail. Emily reminded me to hold the carrot on my flat palm and not between my fingers, which the horse could easily mistake for a couple of pale pink edibles. As Emily held out her palm and big-lipped Marcy took the carrot, I feared the child’s hand would disappear into the slow, powerful, indolent mouth. Emily giggled at the sensation and then turned to Charlie who backed edgily away, his head bobbing. Charlie was a thoroughbred whose care took nearly every other dollar earned by Sam’s masonry and Andrea’s teaching. He was Andrea’s horse, a necessity, the one visible remnant of a Westchester County childhood, this glossy, muscled thing, its cerise coat rippling ominously over the thick tendons of its neck and flanks, its eyes alarmed and gorgeous.
Five-year old Emily stepped up to the animal as I took a couple of steps backward and got stung in the hand by the electric fence. Emily’s curly head didn’t quite reach the horse’s thigh. “Emily, be careful,” I said, wondering if I should stop her. I looked back toward the grownups for guidance. Irene and Sam were by the fire watching the fields, admiring some natural beauty or other, her thrushlike voice fluid and clear, his a congenial rumble. He was occasionally glancing our way, I saw, reassuring me. I waved. Andrea was still in the cabin, standing by the window and almost invisible behind the reflecting glass. I imagined her smiling.
“What now?” I said to Emily after we’d escaped to the other side of the charged-wire enclosure.
“Hmm,” she said thoughtfully, “We could go berry picking.”
“That’s a good idea, but I think that Irene and your mom want to do that with you a little later, sweetie. How about we visit the hen house and you can show me the eggs?”
She shook her head vigorously.
“You don’t want to visit the chickens?” I said, squatting down on the rocky ground to be on a level with her troubled eyes.
“You want to hear something sad?” she said.
She leaned into my ear and whispered, her lips touching me, “The rooster’s bad. He hurt me.”
“He did?” She nodded.
“Well, that is sad.”
“I bled,” she confided, surprisingly using the correct tense. Andrea, the schoolteacher, I thought.
The rooster, after chasing her every time they’d crossed paths, finally caught up with her one day and clawed her leg. She showed me the long scratches on the back of her calf.
“He did that to you?”
She nodded gravely as I held her tender leg in my hands. They were nasty welts, three parallel strands running from the back of her knee to her heel.
“Daddy’s going to kill him.”
“Yes,” she said, and she smiled happily, stood up, took my hand, and led me back to the fire and her parents and my wife.
“Did you show Peter the goats?” asked Sam rhetorically as we neared them.
She nodded, “And the horses.”
“But not the chickens,” I said.
“No,” said Sam, “I’m not surprised. Emily had a little run-in with that nasty old Gary-rooster, didn’t you, honey?”
“Yeah, she told me.”
“What happened?” said Irene.
And he told the story to Irene and me as Andrea walked up from the cabin in her stained gray sweatshirt and shapeless black denims, stopping at almost every step to scoop down and pull a weed or pick up a toy from the scrubby ground while adding to the tale.
“Not exactly a little run-in,” she’d call out, and “She won’t go out alone anymore,” and “We won’t let him hurt you again, honey, that bad-bad Gary.”
When she got up to the four of us around the cookfire, she waved at me with a stick she’d just picked up. “Hey,”
“Hey to you.”
“Well, look who’s here,” said Sam.
She flipped the stick onto the fire and gave Irene a long hug. With her chin perched on Irene’s shoulder, I noticed the flutter under her eye, an insistent little roll of muscle in her pallid olive skin. Emily ran over to the two women and Andrea hefted up her daughter and they oohed and aahed over the child’s wounds.
“That’s a nasty bird,” I said to Sam.
“Actually,” he said quietly, “I was going to ask you if you wanted to shoot it.”
“Seriously,” he said. “We have to get rid of it. She won’t go out alone.”
“Don’t you want to shoot him?”
“I thought you might want to.”
“Well, yeah,” I said, “I’d like to shoot him. Yeah. Yeah. I’ll shoot him. Are you serious?”
“Yeah, sure, I’ll shoot him. When?”
So, while the females went berry picking along the woody edges of the long, wide field out back, and while Sam finished making the potato salad and enjoyed his bourbon and Coke, I stalked around the grounds with his old .22 in pursuit of the bad-tempered, purplish-black iridescent rooster. Sam helped me make a positive i.d. at the start because, to my surprise and tepid interest, hens also have coxcombs. We didn’t want me shooting the wrong bird. And to add to the confusion, this particular rooster was smaller than some of his mates. But when I saw the party of birds straying around the side of the cabin pecking the ground and chirping in a throaty, quiet way, it was clear who ruled the roost. With wicked speed, the cock would make sudden, dusty sprints into the midst of his edgy harem where he crowed and stomped and scratched. These proprietary spasms alternated with oases of peaceful feeding, feather-ruffling, and cooing. That’s when I figured I’d get him.
He and the five other birds ranged the yard freely in a loose configuration, but not quite loose enough to ensure the safety of the hens when I got to shooting. The gun was an old single-shot weak sister of a squirrel gun with a soft report, something which came in handy when I missed the first three tentative shots. Just getting a feel. The third one did provoke a small explosion of tail feathers, launching one hen into a brief but successful comedic career. I looked around to see if anyone had witnessed my misses. But Sam was on the other side of the house and the women were invisible in the woods. The shot got Gary going, though — he threw his head back and bawled out a series of challenging crows. He seemed, despite having a brain the size of a marble and despite the fact that we were separated by at least twenty yards, to know that I was the source of the disturbance. His small, scary, red-crowned head slid mechanically back and forth as he swelled his chest and started advancing toward me in a slow zig-zag. When he was about ten yards away, I raised the gun.
“Now, you know he’ll thrash and run around even if you hit him dead-on,” said Sam, directly behind me.
“Jesus, Sam. You scared me.”
“Oh, sorry, man,” he said, handing me a drink, “Just wanted to prepare you. You know that expression, running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”
“Yes,” I said, taking the bourbon, while Gary considered the changed odds and started back to his hens. “Shit.”
“Well it’s real. I’ve seen it. You know, you don’t have to do this,” said Sam, his blue eyes as blank as a summer afternoon.
“I want to.” I took a swallow and handed the drink back to him.
“Well, I’ll leave you alone, then,” he said. As he went up one side of the cabin, I — the gun heavy in my hand — followed the hens and Gary in their easy progress around the back and then over on the side, between the house and the out-house. The birds stopped there, skittering around for food. Gary was watchful, still aware of my presence. When I got close, instead of moving off with the others, he did his cock-of-the-walk act again, filling himself with air and stalking toward me. “All right, my friend,” I said, “Make it easy.” Again, he was sort of zig-zagging at me, which gave me a chance to aim at his bellicose pistoning little face in profile.
Sam had spooked me with the image of the headless chicken, its muscular legs pumping, a geyser of blood spurting from its neck. But Gary went quietly, falling over and thrashing around on the ground for just a couple of seconds. Then it seemed there was a hush in the dusky country as if the little pop of the .22 were as loud as a cannon.
“Give up?” said Sam, who was turning chicken breasts on the grill.
“Where should I put this?”
He took the gun, unloaded it, and leaned it against a tree. Then he returned to basting the birds on the fire. “I guess I’ll have to do it.”
“He’s dead, man.” I said as scary as I could.
“Really? You did it?”
“He’s dead, man. He’s dead.”
“Where is he?”
“Over there. By the side of the house. He’s dead, man.”
Finally Sam laughed. “Watch the chicken,” he said, and stalked over to the scene. The hens were clucking around, feeding, as Sam flushed them to get a look at his late rooster. I sat down on a makeshift bench, still a little dizzy from bloodlust.
“Right in the head,” he said as he got back. “Good shot.”
“Well, I was pretty close to him.”
“Still, head’s about the size of a half dollar. Thanks a lot. Emily will be relieved.”
“You don’t have to tell her I killed it. It might freak her out.”
“She hated that bird.”
“Well, whatever.” We’d been watching the berry-pickers’ progress up the long field as we talked. It was slow, with Emily in the lead, Irene and Andrea close together. Irene’s sunblasted limbs looked black in the darkening air against the short sleeves of her pink vintage dress. Andrea was wearing knee-high rubber boots. In spite of her Jewishness and the hidden lush flesh lavishing under her baggy clothes, she was beginning to take on the look of a stringy New England matriarch, spreadlegged on the earth as if her flexed thigh muscles were keeping the land intact.
We ate the scorched chicken outside, the tang of winter already in the air this late August evening in the north country. The dead rooster lay by the side of the house but little Emily had for the moment forgotten her nemesis. He’d been crowded out of her crowded mind by a snake they’d seen berry picking. “Irene screamed,” she said, pleased.
“I didn’t scream, sweetheart,” said Irene. A flake of black chicken skin on her lower lip glittered for a second before her tongue snapped out and swept it home. “I yipped.” We all laughed.
“That sounds like a normal response to me,” Sam said standing to offer potato salad and bourbon to us around the fire. His small surprised-looking blue eyes and sketchy blonde beard glistened in the flamelight as he stretched his long arms. The cuffs of his red flannel shirt rode up his forearms to his elbows — Andrea, the laundress, I thought.
“Mommy picked it up. It looked at her like this,” said Emily, twisting her head around.
“Your mommy’s a brave woman,” I said.
“It was a garter snake,” Andrea said, tossing her head back with a dismissive snort. She got up restlessly and put a couple of sticks on the fire. She stretched, arching her back, her breasts lifting her sweatshirt above her belt so I could see a band of flesh. She saw
me watching and lifted the hem of the shirt a little higher, shimmying her hips for a fraction of a second. When I glanced around, breathless, Sam was serving Irene another piece of chicken.
“A snake,” he said, “is a snake.”
“Here, here,” I said, raising my glass.
We were quiet for a moment, letting the thrushes call and the chicadees peep from the near woods.
“Hey, sweetie,” Sam said to Emily, “You know what Peter did when you guys were all berry picking?”
She shook her head, her eyes rounding with the portentousness in her father’s tone.
“He took my gun and he shot that nasty rooster for you. He didn’t like to see you scared of that old rooster. He was so mad at what Gary did to you that he took the gun and he killed him dead.”
“Jesus, Sam,” I said. “Calm down.”
Andrea looked at me and mouthed, “You did?” And I nodded humbly and proudly. Irene seemed surprised, too, and solicitous. Emily wouldn’t look at me, not even in my direction. She said to her father reverently, “Show me. Where is he?”
“Okay, honey.” And Sam stood up, his hand swallowing Emily’s.
“Sam,” warned Andrea.
“She should see it,” he said.
“She’ll be frightened,” said Andrea.
“She’s probably right,” I said.
“I’m frightened,” said Irene.
“Show me,” said Emily.
As they started down the incline toward the side of the cabin, I said, “She’s going to hate me.”
“No she won’t,” said Irene, rising. “She’ll be grateful.”
“No, it’ll give her the creeps. It’ll scare her. She’ll connect me with death. Great.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Irene said, “I’m going to make coffee.”
“Oh. I’m sorry,” said Andrea, but she didn’t stir.
“No,” said Irene firmly, “I know where everything is. You stay here.” Swaybacked and smiling, she swung down to the cabin door. Andrea looked at me.
“Well, I’m grateful, that’s for sure. Thanks. Sam couldn’t do it.”
“No, he can’t kill his own animals.”
“No. It was really good of you. I know it must’ve been hard.”
“It wasn’t. I enjoyed it, really.”
She laughed. “You’re so funny.”
“And you’re crazy.”
"Touch me," she said.
"Nooo," I said, firm but friendly, "Not now."
We sat for a few more minutes, whispering as the dusk turned into dark until Emily burst around the side of the house, her pale dress fluttering as she made for the screen door, which slapped shut behind her.
“See,” I said, “Traumatized for life.” Andrea stood and started in her graceful, heavy gait, after her daughter. When Sam appeared, he tried to intercept her with a shooing gesture, saying, “She’ll be okay. She’s fine.” But Andrea walked by him and into the cabin. I lit a cigarette.
“Can I get one of those?” said Sam as he reached me.
“You bet, buddy.”
He looked amused in the flash of the match.
“Well,” he said after a couple of long, inexpert puffs, “I gotta admit you were kind of right. She is a little bit upset, I guess. But I’m sure it’ll pass.”
I snorted quietly and ruefully. “What did she say?”
“Well, she’s glad the rooster’s gone. That’s for sure. She made me poke him with a stick, turn him over a couple of times before she believed he was dead.”
“Then she ran in terror into the house.”
“Well, no, not terror. She didn’t want to come up here, though, I guess,” he said squatting on his long haunches in front of the dimming fire, the cigarette in his mouth. He threw some sticks in.
“Because of me.”
“She said you had blood on your hands.”
“Yeah,” Sam stood, looking abashed. “More bourbon?”
“She actually said I had blood on my hands?”
“Yeah,” he said, pouring into my outstretched glass.
“How biblical of her. I’m impressed.”
“I don’t think she meant it, um-” he paused.
“Figuratively. I guess she meant it literally.”
The screen door’s report seemed to help Irene’s progress toward us, burdened with the tray of pie and coffee, cautious and myopic in the thickening night. Sam threw some branches on the fire and everything was orange.
“Thanks,” she said.
“I’m going to talk to her,” I said.
“She’s pretty upset,” said Irene.
“What’d she say?”
“I don’t know. She’s upstairs with Andrea.”
“Is she crying?”
“No, she’s talking so fast, though, I couldn’t tell what she was saying.”
The light started to glow in Emily’s room. I couldn’t see the child but watched Andrea as she bent a couple of times, tidying up while she spoke.
“Oh, well,” I said, flicking my cigarette in a pleasing arc. “The only person in the world who liked me doesn’t any more. Oh, well.”
“I like you,” said Irene in the dark.
“I like you,” said Sam.
ALEC SOLOMITA has published fiction, poetry, and criticism in the Mississippi Review, the Boston Book Review, the Boston Phoenix, Eclectica, and the New York Sun, among others. His illustrations have appeared in Tikkun and the Harvard Gazette. This is his first appearance in the Adirondack Review. He lives in Somerville, Massachussets, where he is currently at work on an erratic novel.