Table of Contents
Also by Jim Heynen
illustrated by Gaylord Schanilec
The Boys' House: New and Selected Stories
Why Would a Woman Pour Boiling Water on Her Head?,
Cosmos Coyote and William the Nice
The One-Room Schoolhouse
You Know What Is Right
The Man Who Kept Cigars in His Cap
Standing Naked: New and Selected Poems
A Suitable Church
How the Sow Became a Goddess
The Funeral Parlor,
Notes From Custer,
prose poems to accompany photographs
Sunday Afternoon on the Porch,
text to accompany photographs by Everett Kuntz
prose poems to accompany photographs
One Hundred Over 100
Writing About Home: A Handbook for Writing a Community Encyclopedia
In memory of Anne Paine Williams (1933â2010)
patron of the arts
lover of literature
defender of the natural world
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less apart of the body.
1 Corinthians 12:14-17
I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible.
Alice Marie Krayenbraak was standing on the screened porch when she heard shots coming from a neighbor's farmâone loud blast after another, the sounds of a twelve gauge. Each time she thought the shooting had stopped, it would start again. Some shots were followed by moments of silence, but others were followed by guttural squeals, like pathetic last-second objections. Sometimes a new blast came before the last squeal stopped. The time between shots got shorter, as if someone was hurrying to get this done.
The kitchen door opened and Alice's father stepped onto the porch with her.
“You don't have to hear this,” he said.
The four-foot sections of screens were gray from the summer's dust, giving a hazy view of the feedlots and beyond them the corn and soybean fields that extended in the direction of Ben Van Doods's farm. The buffer of trees and dusty screens might have absorbed the sounds, but instead it caught the blasts and flung them back into the air for a second life, like an echoâor an aftershock. Alice could see the cupolas of Ben's tallest barn and the green domes of trees in his grove, but she could not see the scene on the ground.
“Aldah sure shouldn't hear this,” said Alice's father. “Go inside and have her watch some television. Play piano for her or something.”
“What's going on?”
“Today's market report.”
“What's going on?”
Alice stepped closer to the screen, which prompted her father to move in front of the screen door to keep her from stepping outside and closer to the gunshots.
“Ben must figure it's cheaper to shoot them than truck them to market.”
Her father's shoulders twitched with each blast. If Ben was doing this by himself, he was getting faster and faster at it. Now there was squealing before the gun blasts, frantic squeals as if animals were trapped in a corner. The ones that were left must have known what was coming.
“Go take care of Aldah.”
Alice didn't move. “She probably can't hear it,” she said. “Mother is probably covering Aldah's ears.”
“Your mother is covering her own ears,” said her father. “Get inside.”
Alice obeyed and walked into the kitchen, a space that to Alice felt cluttered in spite of its generous size. The round oak table in the middle was the room's center of gravity, but surrounding it were contradictory imagesâthe brick-patterned linoleum on the floor did not harmonize with the white metal cupboards or the plastic food canisters and cookbooks on the counters. In one corner sat her father's wooden swivel chair, which looked like a respectable piece of antique furniture, but anything respectable was diminished by a scattering of dime-store paintings and plaques with quotations that were supposed to be either edifying or clever on the off-white walls. Some might say the room's decor was eclectic. In Alice's mind, it was a pathetic hodgepodge.
Her mother stood across the round oak table with her back toward Alice. She was leaning over the sink and staring out one of the room's two windows. It was not open, but Alice could almost see the sounds of the gun blasts rapping on the windowpane. As if responding to the sounds of gunfire, all the scattered pieces of the room came together into a harmony that made it feel like a comforting refuge.
“This is just the beginning,” said her mother and kept her back to Alice while staring across the lawn toward the gravel road. “Things aren't much better here.”
The matter-of-fact coldness in her voice was all too familiar to Alice. The chilly flatness of it.
This was her mother's way of making reference to the millennium. The world was starting to end, one little chunk at a time, one dead hog at a time, one sour thought after another.
Her mother's shoulders looked narrow from behind and sloped
steeply from the edge of her graying hair, which she had let hang loose. She was clearly in one of her dark moods. Alice could not see her hands. Might she have them folded over the sink as she looked out? Alice wondered. Was she praying for Ben? For the hogs? For the Krayenbraak farm?
“At two o'clock in the afternoon?”
“It doesn't make any difference to her.”
Her mother still didn't move. The white cupboards that rose up from both sides of the sink framed her shoulders and made her slim body stand out in sharp relief. The spine of
Joy of Cooking
met Alice's eye where it sat wedged between other cookbooks on the kitchen counter. Alice could almost smile at the irony because her mother's cooking was too much like the perfect storm: it looked bad, it tasted bad, and it was bad for you. The way a lazy doctor might prescribe penicillin for every ailment, her mother prescribed a can of mushroom soup for any dish that needed help. She didn't have those cookbooks because she liked to cook; she had them because she liked to read.
Alice walked to the window that faced the hoglots. “It obviously doesn't make any difference to you,” she said and turned to go back onto the porch with her father. He still stood in front of the screen door, all six foot four of him. Alice stepped next to him, all six foot one of her. In her peripheral vision she caught the grim tightness of his lips and thought that her lips looked the same. She had an urge to take his hand but didn't.
“Think we should see if Ben's all right?” she asked.
“He'll be all right.”
They stood beside each other, looking out, breathing in unison. “What if he does something terrible to himself?”
“He's too mad for that.” Her father took one of his deep breaths that made his shoulders rise. “Maybe we could just drive by,” he said and stepped back from the screen door.
Alice drove the Ford 150 pickup with her father beside her, easing off the Krayenbraak farmyard in a reverent manner and driving slowly down the gravel road toward Ben Van Doods's farm. She kept her speed
at a steady thirty so she wouldn't draw attention by slowing down when they passed his farm.
What Ben Van Doods had done was all too clear: eighty market-ready 250-pound Chester Whites lay strewn across his cement feedlot like scattered white tombstones. A few were clustered, a whole mound of them, in one corner. These must have been the last ones, the ones that knew what was coming.
Over the next few days, Ben was seen driving to town and getting groceries as if nothing was wrong, but he didn't move the carcasses.
“He's trying to tell the world something,” said Alice's father. “He's trying to show what's happening to us.”
Alice had the reputation among her friends at Midwest Christian as a straight talker, somebody who faced the facts and looked reality in the eye. She lived up to her reputation a few days later when Ben's Malibu disappeared in the distance and she drove over to his farm to have a closer look at the carnage. She expected to see flies swarming over the white carcasses, but there weren't many. There were more hornets, some hovering like little copters around the snouts and some crawling into the caverns of the ears the way a honeybee goes into a flower. And sparrows, fluttering flocks of them, landing on the bloating bodies and pecking bits of dirt from the forest of bristles.
Numbness swept over Alice at the sight of the bulging pink bellies and all those limbs jutting stiffly out like table legs. She returned a day later, thinking that if she looked again, the horror would diminish. The scene had changed but only for the worse because starlings and crows had moved in and were pecking into the rotting flesh.
She stood with her hands folded and looked at the awful sight. She didn't feel disgusted or angry. She didn't even feel sad. She felt scared. As she stood staring, her clasped hands tightened and her shoulders gave little shudders. The fear that had come over her, as best as she could understand it, was that this was just the beginning. Her mother's doomsday fantasies might be coming true.