It is early evening as Kenny and Ellis sit out and listen to the sounds of dusk in the fields. Crickets and windwaves through the sweetgrass and winter wheat. Kenny, stout, has thin white hair combed over, a bad knee, hobbles around melon-bellied, still smells like a hospital, and has just shaved his twenty-year mustache. He scrunches up his lip to shrug off the air, while Ellis—against her nature—is quiet. She’s picked up a few pounds since retirement, signs of good eating. She’ll live to be one-hundred and three—her last thought on this earth: well, fuck, here we go.
Now though, as buckshot starlight is splayed out above them, Ellis and Kenny are quiet. There’s very little to say.
This lip feels weird. She’s looking at my lip and looking past it. She’s seeing what’s rising like she always does. She knows.
That lip looks weird. And he’s gearing up for something. That something is coming and it isn’t a sigh or surrender, that’s for damn sure.
Then he’s curling over himself, crying. He shakes and wails and Ellis looks on, quiet as the dirt, her hand on his back. Crickets and windwaves through the sweetgrass and wheat.
Kenny shaved because of his father, because he only remembers him with a mustache. He remembers a lot about his dad at the end. The disintegrating body, a half-dead husk. He remembers having to wipe his dad’s ass, the blood and the shudders, the shame and the anger. He remembers godawful mornings when he’d wake his dad up in the hospital, expecting to reach out and find Ephraim’s weathered hand cold and stiff. One day, he did. Remembers his dad in the casket, pulled tight and a face hardly recognizable, stapled in odd places by the mortician. Cheekbones damn near slicing the skin open, sunken eyes, lids closed. No hair. That isn’t a farmer in there. That isn’t a father. It’s something pulled from a hospital room and stuffed into a suit and tie. That’s not a father. The mustache is the only thing even remotely him in that box.
It’s been years and the hospital is no place of comfort to Kenny but there’s blood in the toilet every day now. And here he is, the doctor and the paperwork and a look like he knows too much.
“You have colon cancer, Kenny.” Just like that he’s sent all the way back to his dad, the same damn diagnosis, like he’s inheriting the same suit and tie, like he’s about to be pulled from the same floor of the same hospital to be tucked quietly, comically, into the sheets of the same casket.
It’s anger first, one giant middle finger to the world.
Then he’s in the attic, kneeling over a box of photographs, holding one of his father at the end. It’s one Ellis took of them in the hospital, Kenny and Ephraim sitting side by side. Kenny is in motion, leaning forward, half-blurred, mouth open, his left forearm flexed as he pins the strings on the fretboard of that Guild. It must be right when he bought the thing. He’s singing a song. He’s completely inside of it. You can tell by the veins in his neck and forehead—even in a fading polaroid—that the music is everything, the song is taking him outside of the hospital and the sick. And there’s old Ephraim too, leaning in the wheelchair, mustached, skeletal, singing harmony.
Kenny puts the picture back in the box and breathes again. A metastasizing idea.
In the bathroom that night he carefully lifts the razor to his lip and starts working at the white shaving cream caterpillar beneath his nose. Bit by bit, his upper lip emerges. It tickles. When he towels his face down, he stares at a smooth new face in the mirror. He licks his upper lip, sandpaper up, silk down, and has the funny feeling that his body is not his own. Perhaps he took it out on loan before he could remember. But who’s responsible for the decay? Who has to pay the owner the damages? Surely he’s not responsible…or perhaps the only payment is the body itself. But it’s just cancer, Kenny, a medical reality, just cancer, just cancer, just cancer…
It’ll take him about three weeks to grow the mustache to where he needs to trim and shape it. When it comes to that, he will shoot himself.
Isaac is supposed to be rolling in around seven. It is near an hour later before his headlights finally turn into the driveway.
“There he is,” says Kenny, wiping his eyes as he and Ellis come into the house off the deck.
And in walks their son, wide-eyed, greeted by the dog.
“Hey, Wimble! How are you? Hi! Yes, hi!” the little dachshund licking his legs.
“How was the drive?”
Isaac looks up. “Oh, it was fine. Long and a bit of traffic through the Cities but other than that—Dad. You shaved?”
“Are you hungry? Your dad’s got some kind of mystery on the stove.”
“Yeah,” Kenny chuckles. “There’s some hot-dish if you want it. Go eat.”
“Sure. Let me pee first.” Then they’re all up and moving, Ellis fixes a plate at the stove, Kenny grabs Isaac a beer, Isaac relieves himself, and Wimble sits at Kenny’s feet, waiting for scraps.
Kenny isn’t proud of a lot of things, but his hot-dish is one of them. It isn’t such a stretch of the truth for Isaac to nod and say: “yes, Dad. It’s very good.” Ellis is not so impressed. She’s never liked mushrooms all that much, he doesn’t mix the sour cream in enough, the meat is dry, and the cayennes are too much spice for her. But that’s a bit dramatic, isn’t it. The symptom of a long day, of old feet and the fattened body that they support. He’s tender enough. Isn’t afraid to cry. Loves that little dog. He’s provided, not that she ever asked him to, and at this point, with the way their bodies have gone, he’s the only person she’d ever want seeing her naked. So she fixes the plates and starts eating before the other two even sit down.
“When did you get rid of your stache?” Isaac asks.
“Tonight.” Kenny doesn’t look up from his plate.
“That’s…new, I guess?” gesturing to Ellis, who is sweating, trying to find the bottom of her glass of milk. Her eyes widen as if to say sure, but my mouth is full you dumbass.
“Why?” Isaac asks. Ellis finishes her milk.
“It doesn’t matter why. He hardly has an upper lip. It looks shitty like that.” Ellis has jumped in front of Kenny’s words, taken him by surprise. They look at each other for one tense moment. Kenny’s face changes, surrendering.
“I don’t know. Just to see what it looks like,” he says. “And your mother’s right. It looks like shit.”
“Hi, mom. What is it?”
“You’re gonna have to swing back here some point soon.”
“Is everything ok?” There is nothing on the line. It’s longer than a breath. It’s a hesitation, its own statement, and before she says anything he has an idea of what’s coming.
“Your dad’s sicker than shit. They’re telling us it’s colon cancer.” The line is silent. “Please don’t tell him you know. He wants to tell you.”
There is a dull concentration on the road ahead. Isaac likes to drive in on and off bits of quiet. The hum and blow of the AC and two hands on the wheel. Five hours in, he tears up and has to play something. Some music that is soothing, simple enough that as fence posts flit by they frame each bit of crop row like a stop-motion pastoral, crumbling barns, huge irrigation sprinklers, multi-million dollar GPS-guided tractors, grain silos, treelines, houses behind them with chipped paint, and gravel roads to those houses that come from west of nowhere, another crumbling barn and behind it an endless expanse of corn and soybean. Dad was a farmer. He never wanted me to be one. Another crumbling barn, this one more recently left to rot. Land sold at auctions to bidders out of state, calling in on the phone—like they did for dad with the eastern parcel. A silo uncapped. Skeletons of agricultural entropy. Then Isaac’s thought is shot back around a bonfire with the cousins when they used to come help with harvest. The memory of their talk is a shadow of a feeling. It’s a night that never happened just like this but left this residue on his mind. But his father is strumming his guitar. Maybe it’s a hundred nights coming together in one, not accurate or specific, but still—dad’s hands on the strings, a laugh, a folk song of some kind. That really is a nice guitar, that Guild. He’ll give it to me most likely.
Then more tears. Dad was a farmer. Was. Was. Was.
They are raking the leaves when Kenny tells his son that he’s going to die. The leaves are packed into the lawnmower’s wagon and they will drive them into some bare and open place to burn them. His father will die soon and there is very little to say to that. But Isaac tries.
“How do you feel?”
“What?” leaning down to pick up a pile and toss it in the wagon.
“How do you feel?”
“I feel alright most of the time.”
“Dad, how do you feel?”
Kenny stands up, puts another clump of leaves in the wagon, and turns to Isaac. “I feel fine.” But why the hell should he be raking leaves right now? But what else is he going to do?
He remembers watching Ephraim spend so much time cleaning his garage when he first got sick. Every morning reorganizing. It’s a memory and recurring dream—his father shuffling around screwdrivers and files and pliers into neat little rows in the red tool-cabinet. Back turned and stooping. Kenny never said anything, nor does he say anything in the dream.
But Kenny wants to tell Isaac everything there is about the one plan he does have. Sit him down, walk him through the rationale, list the reasons, make some sort of chart, something Isaac will understand, something he can see, a way to see the grave as clear as it is to Kenny….
All he says though: “you’re going to lose me,” and the leaves get piled and hauled away and burned.
There is very little to say to that.
Isaac is back at college. He stares down a computer screen, a spreadsheet of species-richness calculations in recently burned and unburned plots of prairie. All numbers, no regressions, tables, or figures yet. Each data point is its own reality, dissociated from every other point, unaware of itself. Unaware. It strikes him as cold, which isn’t so bad. Dad was a farmer.
They are walking along the stream on the south side of the property, Wimble sniffing at something but not far behind. Ellis is out of breath and Kenny’s knee is really bothering him. He’s got some stubble now.
They sit under a sugar maple, on a bench Kenny chainsawed out of a fallen basswood. Windwaves in the sweetgrass on the streambank. Crimson and crumpled leaves.
Kenny finally says, “You should sell the land.”
“We really should’ve sold it already. Prices dropped this year.”
“Then sell when you think it’s right.” Kenny can’t look at her. She sees what’s rising and she knows. He leans down and picks Wimble up and nuzzles his face in her neck.
“That little dog won’t get any table scraps from me,” she says. “That’s for damn sure.”
Kenny looks at her and laughs.
A pause. Ellis shakes her head. “You’re going to do it. Aren’t you.”
Kenny is picking at his thumbnail. “Yeah,” he says. A muskrat cuts across the river downstream and slips under the water.
They’ve been fighting about it for a week. Ellis broke a wineglass a few days ago. Threw it on the floor. He’d found his father’s gun and was cleaning it out at the kitchen table. The look on her face when she came in and saw the gun was the same as when she found Isaac smoking pot by the west tree-line. She screamed at Kenny. She screamed something awful. Something she’ll regret. And when he went back to cleaning the gun, she picked up a wineglass from the sink and slammed it on the tile. But Kenny knows under this maple tree that that look, the same one that broke the wine glass, is eroding.
She unloads her shopping-cart at the register and the items slide down the conveyor: Bird-feed, dog food, canned cream of mushroom soup, a four-pack Winchester .38 special round, chicken breast, shredded beef, cucumbers, bell peppers, oranges, coffee grounds…
“Your total comes to—
Kenny has stopped filling the bird feeders. He used to go out in the morning with buckets of thistle seed, sunflowers, and a block of suet. Now he eats and sits by the window. This morning though, he enters the kitchen still half asleep and sees Ellis walking off of the deck with a bucket in each hand. He pours a cup of coffee and shuffles outside.
“What are you doing?” he asks. She’s across the yard by now, unhooking a hanging feeder from the maple.
“What the hell does it look like? I’m feeding the birds.”
He hobbles back inside.
By the time she comes in, he’s frying eggs. He looks over his shoulder and smiles. With the mustache and the light it is very hard to look at him and not cry. His eyes are different.
“You don’t need to keep doing that,” he says as he turns back to the eggs.
“Feeding the birds. You don’t need to keep doing that.”
“Yes I do.” Then she is sobbing into his shoulder over crackling eggs.
It is somewhere between one and two in the morning. Kenny and Ellis are holding each other and it’s cold enough outside that frostfingers creep up the windows. Kenny rolls out of bed and puts on his bathrobe. He goes to the bathroom and turns on the light, grabs a comb, and begins fluffing his mustache. Ellis gets up too. She walks to Ephraim’s antique trunk, unclasps it, grabs the fresh-cleaned Model 36 from inside, and loads a Winchester .38 special round into the cylinder. Kenny is trimming his lip-line. He lathers and shaves the stubble along the edges of his mouth and takes a scissor and clips the hair on the underside of his nostrils. Ellis is sitting on the bed, making sure a loaded cylinder is in line with the hammer. Kenny towels down his face and looks in the mirror again. He walks to bathroom door and sees Ellis on the bed. He sits down beside her and looks at her but she doesn’t look back. He gets up and moves to the corner and picks the Guild up off the stand. He takes it and lies back down on the bed, fingerpicking for a few minutes. The guitar rises and falls with his breathing. He looks at the ceiling and Ellis looks at him. Then he sits up and leans the guitar against the wall.
He looks at Ellis. “Well?”
“Well what?” she says, face back at the wall.
“Well, fuck, here we go.”
She looks at him and they kiss before she slides the revolver into his hand. Wimble is at their feet.
Kenny limps across the room, down the hallway and stairs, and out the door. Ellis hears the door shut behind him—well fuck, here we go—and he crunches across the grass until he is standing where the yard turns to field. He takes a few steps out from the grass onto the tilled dirt. I was a farmer. Ellis watches out of the window from the bedroom. The shed-light traces Kenny’s silhouette at the edge of its radius, a bodyline of light and a long shadow at the rim of the deeper fields and gravel roads heading west of nowhere. His mustache is trembling. He can see his breath and hear his heart. He thinks about birds. He thinks about his heartbeat, the nervousness in it. He breathes in deep and closes his eyes, purses his shaking lip, and in one motion lifts his dad’s gun under his chin and fires.
Ellis flinches when she sees a bloodpuff and a head and neck whipped backwards and then rebounding and a dead body sliding slantwise to the ground. Wimble is barking. She walks downstairs to the door and calls the dog inside.
When he is older, Isaac will always keep a joint somewhere within reach when he’s at home. He reaches for it often. He will study the effects of climate change on prairie ecosystems, wander remnant tallgrass prairies, surveying invertebrate biodiversity, temperature-dependent hatch cycles. When he gets home and plops in his recliner, he will reach for a joint he’s taped under the footrest and he’ll read scientific literature until his eyes hurt.
One evening he will be reading an article about how the salmon in a certain population are having a more difficult time returning to the streams of their birth. The water is often too low for them to get back to where they would instinctively go. Isaac is so uncomfortably high by the time he reaches the Discussion section that he fixates on a single sentence. “This disruption of the salmon’s imprinted spawn route may prove detrimental to spawn success.” This disruption….salmon’s imprinted spawn route…imprinted spawn route…imprinted…spawn…route…imprinted…route…detrimental. What’s this? He picked up the article but it seems like it’s picking him up. His pages are turning! Imprinted route, imprinted route, imprinted route…And is he nodding-out now? Imprint. Asleep. He’s swimming in the river, following directions he cannot see or dictate. Not really following. Coming up out of the water but still swimming. Swimming in the sky over fields of turned prairie. Monoculture corn and soybean tattooing the curve of Earth with long and slight parabolas, a harvest sunset lighting the atmosphere on fire, light bouncing off of billions of dust particles which he can see in detail. Then, in some lost transition of the unconscious, dark—night. The dust become stars that seem to hang in midair, slung low enough that this salmon can swim among them. And then…there! A little farmhouse on a gravel road heading west of nowhere, a stream winding along the south side of the property and on, snaking in a twisting of cottonwoods, maples, and oaks. He knows this place. He descends with his swim bladder. Or is it a flight bladder now? He’s still pretty high up but can make out a man standing where the farmhouse lawn turns to field. Then the hard K of ignited gunpowder splits open the air. A bullet flies from under the man’s chin, up through the brainpan, up through the night sky, shredding the salmon’s tail. Oh. OH! A tailspin through Autumn cottonwood and sugar maple branches and a splash into the stream. Rising bubbles turn into sound, music he recognizes and then…splash. He will be up in his recliner again, looking around him as his playlist froths through the living room. He will think of his father, confused and still very high.
Then he will answer his phone and agree to take his mother to Kenny’s grave in the morning. He’ll never have been there and won’t particularly want to go but Ellis won’t be comfortable driving anymore. When morning rolls around, he will pick her up, drive to Buffalo Church Cemetery, and kneel down to pull the wilted flowers away from the epitaph and replace them. Farmer, Father, Husband, and Friend. He will stand and his mother will wrap her arm in his. She will look up at him, his hair tossed in the wind, and then look back at the flowers.
Ellis will tell people many important things. She will tell them that in the end she knew he was going to do it, how they would talk about what needed to happen logistically, emotionally, and so on. She will say that they both agreed that the crying must be done before, that everything must be in place, that when it did happen it would be a simple transaction with fate.
Still, she’ll take some things to her grave. She will not say that in those last weeks they never once made love, but just lay awake holding each other, not talking, just quiet. She will not say anything about the wineglass and the thing she screamed at him before she broke it. But what use would telling people those things be anyway? She’ll say nothing about how she loaded the gun and handed it to him.
Eventually people stop asking about it anyway.
At her end, Isaac will be in the hospital room holding her hand. Other people will be there too, friends and family, no grandkids. But it’s Isaac she’s looking at. That mustache suits him, that grey in it. Then she’ll look out the window where a harvest sunset will come down later in the day, after her body is taken out. She’ll know she’ll never see this one and that will make her sad.
And as she breathes for the last times, she’ll be quiet. Then the air coming in will be weaker, the light too. A harvest sunset after all. One just for her. And the last breath will pull in and the light and the heat go out and she’ll know there is not another. She’ll be tired. Just quiet.
“Well, fuck, here we go.” Did she say it or think it? She can hear Isaac chuckling. She definitely said it. Shit, those are going to be my dying words. Then she will think it again. Her heart will stop, and so will the quiet. A guitar is playing somewhere.
Well, fuck, here we go.
Author Bio: Jeffrey Lackmann is a graduate of Luther College who grew up on a farm in Moorhead, MN. In addition to writing fiction and poetry, he writes and performs music.