Quantifiable bones, man things, sunburnt houses, Marigold Milton, lumberjack flannel, resisted hospitality, Schlumbergera plants, ambrosial tea, bloated oats, orange-eyed pit bulls, frozen fowl, family acres
& good-hearted men.
The land around my father’s house was forest, dense tree cover, green as a newcomer and bare gray, sweating with frost in winter, except for the pines. My father’s land went out about twenty acres west of the house and ten acres east and behind that was a small lake that they tell you not to swim in anymore. All I did was swim in that lake as a girl. We swam and fly-fished in our underpants, barefooted just like we weren’t supposed to. We did all kinds of things we weren’t supposed to when we were kids, me and my brother.
And it was me who taught my brother how to do all those “man things,” not like in the movies. That was Vonore in the ’80s, and my father never left it. My mother never left it either, but it was always different for her, like she was from another time when women wore long dresses to the grocery. Vonore was different now.
Years later, right around Thanksgiving, my father told me this story.
“I don’t like you going over there,” said my mother.
My father stood at the front door, holding two frozen turkeys, one under each arm. “It’s Thanksgiving, Mama.”
That’s what he called her now. I wondered if I’d call my husband “Papa” in thirty years. Maybe in a hundred.
“Those people are dangerous,” said my mother.
“They’re our neighbors. You treat your neighbors like fine china: take ’em out once a year to remember they exist.”
“Oh, don’t pretend you just came up with that.”
She pressed her hand against the other Milton brother’s belly to gain some leverage. He grumbled, shifting his lite beer to his other hand.
My father adjusted the turkeys in his arms. “I can be real smart when I’m fixing for it.” He put on a thicker Southern drawl.
“You’re a pain.”
“These turkeys are cold. Can I go now, Mama?”
“Just don’t touch anything. Dora Perkins says they sell drugs.”
The weight of the turkeys made my father slump over. One began to slip out of his hand. He struggled to keep it up against his knee. “Dora Perkins is a bitch,” he blurted out.
“OK, you can go now,” said my mother.
The Milton family lived across the way in a white house identical to ours, about four acres across the road. They kept a few pigs and a horse in their front yard behind a creaky, chipped eggshell fence. The house was sunburnt white with gray tile roofing, and there wasn’t any grass left in the front yard, just pockets of mud that the horses slurped up from time to time and brayed, and the pigs scuttled around as if searching for a desert in the middle of an ocean.
Beer bottles lay half-buried under caked-up leaves and dirt and still water where mosquitos banged bodies like small black rain clouds. Piles of horseshit—some dry, some fresh—collected in mosaic patterns.
As my father approached with the turkeys, the dogs barked. The Miltons kept two pit bulls, not the friendly kind—the mangy, snarling kind you see before they get rescued or put down. They had these orange eyes that followed you around the room. Their white hair was congealed with dirt and sticky dark stains like chocolate. They didn’t wear collars.
My father tried the bell, but it just made a squishing sound in the wood, so he knocked. He waited for a good minute, turkeys in hand, dogs barking all bloody hell and the Miltons arguing with one another, something about “visitors.”
Chet Milton opened the door. He was the elder brother. The dogs snapped behind him.
“Shut up!” he yelled, and they did, more or less.
Behind the dogs, the other Milton brother and their mother, Marigold, lay on the torn-up crisscross fabric sofa, their bare, unclipped toes almost touching. Everyone knew to call her Marigold. It’s what she went by. That was important to remember, my father told himself. He stood there, sagging with the frozen turkeys. He and Chet stood staring at each other, the threshold between them.
We swam and fly-fished in our underpants, barefooted just like we weren’t supposed to. We did all kinds of things we weren’t supposed to when we were kids, me and my brother.
My father took it upon himself to speak first, even though propriety said the visitor should never do so. “I brought turkeys,” he said cheerily.
The sky was gray with patches of deep blue behind it. There hadn’t been sun in weeks, only light or dark.
“Who is it?” asked Marigold, without lifting her head.
Chet didn’t say anything. He just stood there, the dogs idling behind him.
“These are pretty heavy,” said my father.
Marigold groaned, rolled off the couch. She pressed her hand against the other Milton brother’s belly to gain some leverage. He grumbled, shifting his lite beer to his other hand.
Marigold kicked the dogs aside and slid Chet over like a screen door. She wore matted pink house slippers and a long white cloth gown that revealed her varicose ankles.
“Well, whatya know.”
“I brought turkeys,” my father said.
“You sure a shit did,” said Marigold. “Better come in, then.”
My father accepted the invitation. The dogs followed the turkeys as they entered the room.
“Chet, say hello to our neighbor.”
“Hey,” said Chet. He scooped the turkeys out of my father’s arms and lugged them to the yellow tile kitchen. The dogs followed and jumped a little when he slammed down the frozen birds on the linoleum table.
The living room centered around the television, which was small and stood on a plastic stand that looked like duck’s feet. The TV itself stood on a much older box television, and a half-dead Schlumbergera plant sat atop everything like a hat.
The wallpaper was shiny gold with a bronze crucifix pattern. It reflected the incandescent light from above. The whole room smelled of saliva and fur. My father hoped it was the dogs’ saliva. There was a dark-wood coffee table directly under my father where some old hunting magazines had collected and plastic baggies lay clouded with powdery residue.
The house was sunburnt white with gray tile roofing, and there wasn’t any grass left in the front yard, just pockets of mud that the horses slurped up from time to time and brayed, and the pigs scuttled around as if searching for a desert in the middle of an ocean.
“Why’d you bring the turkeys?” asked Chet.
The dogs remained in the kitchen, fixated on the birds, which put my father a little more at ease.
“It’s Thanksgiving tomorrow,” said my father. The other Milton brother snorted from the couch, moved the beer over his belly.
“You like our dogs? You keep eyeing them,” said Chet.
Chet was short with shoddy falcon tattoos down both arms that looked more like pigeons. His face was red and bloated, and he’d done a poor job shaving, my father noted.
“They look hungry,” said my father, trying to keep up a smile.
“That’s ’cause we don’t feed them,” said Chet. “Everybody’s gotta work. They work better hungry.”
My father nodded as if he understood. His eyes darted around the room, looking to change the subject. Framed, glossy pictures hung on the walls—mostly horses and one or two of Jesus or someone who looked eerily like him. Two shotguns and a box of red shells lay atop a dusty stationary bike along with some large bras.
“Ah, you’re hunters. Good duck season.”
“Nope,” said Chet.
“Mr. McHugh’s been our neighbor for near fifteen years now,” said Marigold. “You boys know that?”
Chet stayed silent. The other Milton brother moaned a kind of acknowledgement and slurped his beer.
“Anyway,” she said, “thanks for the turkeys.” She cleared a path to the door.
“Oh, well, hope you enjoy, Marigold.”
“Don’t call me that.”
My father left quickly without saying a proper goodbye to the Milton brothers. He had a strange feeling as if they didn’t appreciate the turkeys, but he knew they didn’t have much money, and right is right.
The horse in the front yard brushed up against him as he passed as if trying to relay a message. My father locked the gate latch behind him. It needed oil, he noted. The horse sniffed the ground, and my father looked back. He counted its bones like something that had already been consumed.
W hen my father got home, my mother was waiting in the kitchen, drinking a cup of chamomile tea. He walked in and sat down on the leather couch in the family room. My mother toddled over with her tea. She loomed over him until he lifted his head.
“How did it go with your little turkeys?” asked my mother. She waited for a moment, but then added, “You all right?”
“Right as rain,” said my father.
My mother furrowed her brow and sipped some tea, just a little off the lip of the cup. “So what was it like over there?”
“Oh, same as any other family, I guess.” He stared out into the yard at the grass and the mower and small patches of mud from the recent rains. He rubbed his hands together, cold and stiff with the absent weight of frozen fowl.
The next day was Thanksgiving. My father liked to walk the grounds around the house. He referred to it as the “family acres.” He often walked with a hunting rifle and a green metal canteen filled with black coffee that clanked against his belt. He mostly used the gun butt like a walking stick when the trail got uneven. He was about to begin one such constitutional when we arrived, a little earlier than expected, in my hybrid car.
I got out, lowered my glasses to see his rifle better. “You ever actually use that thing?”
He came in quick and hugged me and kissed me on the cheek.
“I like knowing I don’t have to,” he said.
He helped me and my husband unload the car and insisted on carrying the heaviest bag. It was only a hundred feet, but I think he liked knowing he still could.
M y mother made too much food. There were three different kinds of beans, but it was unclear exactly how they were different, and white and dark meat and a loaf of bread in the shape of a pilgrim, which my husband said he found slightly distasteful but couldn’t say why.
I could tell through the mashed potatoes that my father was distracted. Our house looked exactly the same as it had growing up, except my mother put dried corn and colorful turkey iconography on the tables and between the pictures of me and my brother.
“Everything all right, Dad?” I asked.
“Right as rain,” he said, staring out into the front yard. It was a mantra of our childhood.
“You sure? Because you’re using the mashed-potato spoon like a fork.”
He inspected the oversized serving spoon in his hand like a Biblical artifact. “Yeah, I just had an odd experience at the Miltons’ yesterday.”
“Oh yeah?” asked my husband, chomping on some dark meat. “What kind of odd?” He licked grease off his thumb and wiped it on his lumberjack flannel. He thought I didn’t see, but I did.
“They’re our neighbors. You treat your neighbors like fine china: take ’em out once a year to remember they exist.”
I always see him do stuff like that. I really don’t care. I just wish he didn’t feel like he had to hide it.
My father plopped the serving spoon back in the potatoes. “Just funny how some people live. I wish I knew a writer or something. They’d make a great tale.”
“Dad,” I said, “I’m a writer.”
My husband patted my leg under the table, something he did when he knew I was agitated.
My father chuckled. “Oh, honey, I mean a real writer.”
I crinkled my nose like when I was a girl.
“You can’t very well write a poem about a family like that. Poems are short. This would be long.” He said this with great finality, then jiggled some cranberry sauce onto his tongue as an exclamation.
“When you’re right, you’re right,” I said.
W e left early in the morning to beat the traffic. My husband loved beating the traffic. Sometimes it felt like beating the traffic was his ultimate goal, and if it weren’t for me he’d just be living life from one dawn to the next, on the lam from an ever-present logjam.
My father was already awake, black steaming coffee in his hand, guarding the window as if silent lightning whipped out in the distance, lightning only he could hear.
“You two lovebirds have a safe drive and don’t let big New York take the drawl outta you,” my father said as he hugged me. To be fair, he didn’t really have much of an accent anymore either.
“He’s from Massachusetts,” I said, poking my husband.
“Well, then, don’t let them take the bean outta you.”
“I have no idea what that means,” said my husband. They shook hands.
“Well, it’s a long ride. Think on it,” said my father.
Sometimes it felt like beating the traffic was his ultimate goal, and if it weren’t for me he’d just be living life from one dawn to the next, on the lam from an ever-present logjam.
When we left, my father settled back down into his armchair by the window, inspecting the mist. Then, after some time, as if he’d known all along, something appeared in the distance. It was on the edge of the property, toward the road. The sun cut slightly through the mist, and a shadow appeared beneath the tall, spiny tree at the edge of my father’s land.
At first, he couldn’t tell what it was. It was lumpy and dark, and it dipped in and out of view. My father got up and left the house without even putting on his coat. He walked toward the figure. It stopped, rose up and moved toward him. Under the spiny tree, in a clearing of mist, the figure charged in and took form. It was a large black horse, dirty, its ribs protruding. It galloped only for a moment before skimming down once again, chomping up the brown grass.
“You hungry, big guy?” said my father. He’d always liked horses, ever since watching Howdy Doody as a kid.
The horse continued to eat, indifferent to my father’s presence, thrashing its frayed tail, gnashing its boxy teeth. My father decided to take a walk over to the Miltons’ to inform them their horse was on the loose. After all, he couldn’t very well ride it over. It had no reins or saddle, and it was in such sad shape that the poor thing might collapse into a pile of hide and bone.
Even half an acre down, he spotted the Miltons’ broken fence—splintered where the horse had finally pushed through, emboldened by starvation. The pigs roamed the roadside, scuffling and snorting at my father’s arrival. My father hopped his way through the muddy yard, not wanting to dirty his morning loafers more than he already had. He knocked on the door, foregoing the squishy bell. The dogs barked immediately. This time Chet answered right away.
He feared for the pigs in the road, their small pink bellies bare.
“What?” He wore long boardshorts and no shirt. He had uneven sunburns on his chest as if he’d just slapped on oil with one hand. You could still see the white fingerprints. He’d shaven his head clean and some fresh blood bubbled up on his skull.
“Your horse—” My father tried to speak over the barking dogs, but they drowned him out.
“Shut the fuck up!” said Chet, and the dogs quieted but kept growling. “Yeah, what about it?”
“It’s on my property.”
Chet just stared straight ahead as if the words had no meaning. They hung in the air, shapeless.
“Also, I think your fence is broken.”
Both men examined the mud, then shifted to the shattered eggshell fence, its parts splintered and strewn out over the yard.
“I’ll get right on that,” said Chet.
“OK,” said my father, a little baffled.
As Chet closed the door, he heard Marigold.
“Who’s that?” she asked.
“Some guy. Horse is gone,” said Chet.
“Oh,” she said, as if the horse were a houseguest whose stay had ended.
As my father walked back, he wondered if he now owned a horse and what that would mean. He feared for the pigs in the road, their small pink bellies bare. Cars always came too fast down that road, he knew. The pigs were slow and camouflaged by mud, and for whatever reason, he felt like the big one’s eyesight wasn’t very good.
He crossed the gravel road, stepped back onto his property, which felt good even though there wasn’t much difference between the two down by the roadside. He admired his big white house against the gray sky and the ice blue of the unswimmable lake, and he immediately realized it as the color palette of home. Somewhere, in the thick woods to the right, the black horse roamed, finally unfettered.
My father crossed the lawn and returned home. My mother sat watching one of her shows, a cup of Lemon Zinger steaming on the coffee table. My father plopped down next to her. He tried to watch for a second, but he didn’t really like her shows. Each one seemed interchangeable with the last. There was always a man and a woman and a hospital bed. This, he was convinced, was the formula. If he knew a writer, he could tell him just what to write and make a pretty penny, too.
Two shotguns and a box of red shells lay atop a dusty stationary bike along with some large bras.
“Mmmh—” She kept her eyes on the screen.
“Do we have any spare oats?”
“Oats?” she turned to him. Half distracted, she searched for the word. “What on Earth for?”
“Hope it doesn’t get too cold out there,” said my father. He rubbed his hands together.
“Why don’t you calm down a bit. Would you like a cup of tea?” My mother held up her tea like ambrosia.
“I’m gonna run to the store real quick.” The wind picked up outside and beat against the tall grass, and the windows rattled. The spiny tree shivered and moaned.
“Now? For spare oats?”
“Foodstuffs,” said my father, a word he had never used before in his sixty-three years.
“Well, pick me up some of that cheese I like.” My mother returned her attention to her show. There was, indeed, a hospital bed.
“Aye-aye,” said my father.
He drove his truck into town and tried a few stores before he found just what he wanted. When he got back, he put out a well bucket filled with Jenko quality Australian stock oats. The man at the store, who seemed to know a thing or two about horses, recommended them. He also bought that cheese my mother liked.
That evening, my father switched on the porch light and watched the oats through the window for a couple of hours, but the horse never showed. He nodded off and slept on the couch because his nose was a little stuffed from the cold, and if he snored my mother would oust him from the bed anyway.
The next morning, my father woke up to watch the sunrise. It was a little pink over the water and broke the mist. He filled his canteen with strong coffee and grabbed his rifle for a walk along the grounds to the south. Before he left, he checked the bucket one last time, hoping some of the oats would be gone, but the oats had became mushy with rainwater and overflowed. A disaster. He imagined being alone in that wet, cold wood at night. He shivered. Horses know how to be horses, he told himself. This made him feel a little better.
He walked for a good ten minutes. The sun wasn’t too high yet, and it was cold and damp in the pines. He wore an orange vest so he wouldn’t be mistaken for a deer.
My father kept the lake on his left so he knew he was still on the family acreage. At the very end of it, there’s a red ribbon the landscaper had tied to a tree. My father liked to walk to that ribbon to make sure it was still there. He ran his hands along the pines and the bare gray birch bark, the spiny, spindly trunks of the damp trees. His canteen clinked against his belt, warmed his thigh, and he leaned heavier on his rifle butt because the ground sunk in around his boots like quicksand from an old black-and-white.
In the morning mist he searched for the ribbon, but as he neared the edge of his property, he stepped in something slick and mushy. He lifted his sole. It was fresh steaming shit.
“That’s ’cause we don’t feed them,” said Chet. “Everybody’s gotta work. They work better hungry.”
He whipped around excitedly, hoping the horse hadn’t gone too far. As he did, he made out two figures up on a ridge, shadows against the sun and the water. They were much smaller, stockier, than the profile of a horse or a man. Their heads flung up at the sight of him, and for a moment he and the two figures stood absolutely still, each releasing small puffs of breath in the damp cedar woods. Then, as if signaled, they charged. Out of the light, my father saw exactly what they were. He saw their orange eyes and the foam along their jowls and gums. It was the Miltons’ pit bulls. He stepped back. Something was wrong; he’d seen this gait, this look, before, as a boy when he and my grandfather stayed up all night to catch the coyote who’d been killing the neighbors’ cats.
No, this was the look of the hunt. This was predatory. He felt it in his bones.
The sun rose up in the gray sky and the mist fell out into the lake, and he watched them bounding in. He took his rifle up from the wet earth, raised it to the sky and fired a shot. The dogs did not react.
It was as if their hunger drove them, insatiable. One of them, the male, came on faster than the other, hard charged, full sprint. My father aimed the rifle. He breathed. He thought of the horse in the pines, only a shadow now—hide of bark and bone.
He breathed. Breathe, he said, and he fired. The lead dog crumpled into the leafy, needled earth; a puff of pink blood misted out from his white, mottled fur. His hind legs twitched. The other dog stopped, not out of care but of fear.
Horses know how to be horses, he told himself. This made him feel a little better.
My father took a few steps back. The female didn’t move, but watched each footstep, hair on end. He lowered the rifle and started back home. He tried to calm his heart with long breaths. Behind him, he heard the faint crush of leaves. He thought of me and my Bostonian husband, unfamiliar with the wild. He thought of my brother’s kids and of Mama and of Vonore, Tennessee, in 1986 when we all swam like bandits in the lake behind the house because this was our family acreage—this was the land of our father.
He circled back to the male dog’s body. It no longer twitched—just a bindle of flesh. The female stalked the perimeter. My father raised his rifle. Her orange gaze filled his scope. My father is a good man.
He fired two shots. One caught her in the belly, and she keeled over and bled, and he walked over very deliberately and fired one more into her skull, looming over her. A mercy kill like with my grandfather when they finally found that coyote. It was only hungry, my father thought as a boy, just before the shotgun blast.
He got a shovel from the shed and buried those two dogs under the pines and spiny gray bare trees at the edge of the property. The ground was hard and cold, and it took him several hours to break through and bury them deep enough that nothing could dig them up.
M y father took his time getting back, dragging the rifle and shovel through the woods, guzzling coffee. He kept the lake on his right. Before he got in, he emptied the well bucket, dried it and filled it with fresh oats.
He hosed off the shovel and stored it and the rifle in the shed. When he got in, my mother was sitting in his armchair, reading a Victorian romance novel. She licked her finger and made a few attempts before finally flipping the page.
“Want me to get up?” she asked.
My father balled up his fists. They ached. He released, watched his fingers fill back up with blood. “No, you stay.”
“How was your walk?” she asked.
Silence settled over the wallpaper and the chairs and the fuzzy carpet.
“You were gone for a while. I thought I heard some shots out there.”
My father rubbed his sore shoulder. The spiny tree shuddered against the sky, and small fat raindrops dimpled the mud puddles just outside the window. He breathed nice and hard. “Just making sure it’s all still there.”
Matthew Di Paoli received his BA at Boston College, where he won the Dever Fellowship and the Cardinal Cushing Award for Creative Writing. He was nominated for the 2015 and 2016 Pushcart Prize, won the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize and the Prism Review, 2 Elizabeths and Momaya Press short-story contests and was featured in “Best of the Net” by the Great American Literary Magazine. Matthew earned his MFA in fiction at Columbia University. He has been published in the Fjords, Stockholm Review, Post Road, Neon, Cleaver and Gigantic literary magazines, among others. He is the author of Killstanbul with El Balazo Press and teaches English to at-risk high school students in New York City.
Lead image: Sebastian Pociecha