I wrote this story in February 2003, again as part of a creative writing course. I vaguely remember the dialogue as a joke that got passed around the pub for a short while, then faded. So I wrote it out as a short story and it’s published here for the first time.

photo: Dorothea Lange

Coldwater District north of Dalhart, Texas. Photo: Dorothea Lange

GIVING UP

The yawning day hauled itself past noon and an old yellow hound dog scratched an ear. The sun burned high and relentless. Shade was scarce, and the dry air, hung with dirt, was too hot to breathe.

A scurrying beetle kicked up balls of dust in the scrubby spaces between patches of brittle sagebrush.

Tom Kiddy’s dirty brown work boot, laced up with hemp twine, came down slowly onto the boards of the porch, and the timber gave up a groan. A loose boot heel bumped over the boards as Tom crossed the porch and leaned heavily against a post. His hat was pulled low down over the narrow slits of his eyes, shielding them from the sun, and his chewing tobacco produced a mouthful of bitter juice. A salamander appeared fleetingly on the porch rail just within range and Tom aimed a spitball expertly in it’s direction, sending it spinning.

His mother said, “Hi, Tom.”

A small tough woman with grey hair pulled into a tight ball at the back of her head, Myra Kiddy sat in deep shade, low down in the wooden rocking chair that had stood on the porch for at least two generations, thumbing absently through an out of date dime store catalogue with wrinkled, paper dry fingers. She stared into the middle distance as if waiting for someone to turn up. Her breathing was slow and patient. The rocking chair creaked with every bare movement.

“Hi, Ma.”

Two dozen crows, maybe more, sat motionless in an irregular line on the telegraph wire that looped past the shack. Then one crow, as if in an attempt to make something happen, broke rank, flew off in a broad circle and, with the realization that there was nowhere to go, returned to its place in the line.

“Seen y’ Pa?”

Tom tucked his shirt, the collar and sleeves ripped rudely off, deep into the waist of his denim dungarees. These were his work clothes which he wore every day despite the fact that there had been no work for over a year. A wood axe leant against a saw horse in the yard. It had stood there since the last dusty snows of winter.

“Yep.”

Half a mile to the south a truck threw up a dust cloud that hung above the rough dirt road. The truck slowed as it approached the place where the road split. One way headed west into town and the other turned up towards the Kiddy’s place. In the front of the truck sat Dan Foley and his wife, Edith, dressed in their finest Sunday-go-to-meeting. They were on their way to give up their thanks to The Lord same as last week and the week before that. The engine’s hum and the country music on the radio station faded as the truck accelerated west. Nobody looked up.

“Where is he?”

A hen pecked at the barren dirt of the yard and the dog lifted itself painfully, mounted the porch steps and slumped at Myra’s feet, sending up a stink that hung in the still air for ten minutes or more. Tom kicked the dog.

“In the barn.”

A fly appeared from nowhere and buzzed around the thickening smear of tobacco juice on the rail, finally settling and gorging itself on the spitball. After some moments it started up again, flew across the porch and buzzed around the dog’s rear end. The dog flicked out its tail to swat the fly, but the fly persisted and the dog finally gave up.

“Wha’s he doin’?”

Tom let out a long sigh, pulled a knife from the pocket of his dungarees and absently cut a notch in the wooden post. The edge of the post was saw-toothed with notches cut over the years and the surface was scattered with writing but Tom’s name was the only word spelt right.

“Hangin’ hisself.”

Tom’s attention was taken by a buzzard circling high above the endless Texas flatlands, it’s sharp eyes searching to snatch up some scampering thing. It’s motionless wings kept the bird hanging effortlessly on the thermal, spiralling slowly downward if it so chose and then scooping up again until it was barely visible.

“D’y cut him down?”

Tom walked slowly out to the pump in the yard, the loose heel of his boot dragging in the dust. He bent over the pump and took hold of the handle but it was hot and he spun away cursing and clutching his hand in the crook of his armpit. Then he took a rag from his pocket, gingerly held the handle and cranked it five or six times until it gave up a slim trickle of water. He removed his hat, held his head under the stream and allowed the cool water to fall across his neck. Then he filled his hat, put it back on his head and walked back to the shade of the porch.

“Nope.”

Myra fanned her face with the dime store catalogue, then gave up as it was only fanning warm air and lowered it onto her empty lap. She stood up, letting the catalogue fall to the floor, and pulled at the screen door, the dry hinges creaking as she walked indoors, allowing the door to bang shut behind her. Following her in the hope of some scraps the dog scratched at the door. Then Myra returned carrying a whiskey jar in one hand and a small bag of smoking tobacco in the other. The screen door slammed into the dog’s face and it gave up a yelp of pain. Myra kicked the dog, sat back in the chair, pulled the cork from the stone jar and, with the jar resting against her arm, she took a long swallow of the coarse rotgut whiskey. She wiped her mouth, replaced the cork, and put the jar down on the floor. Then she took a pipe from the pocket of her pinafore, stuffed it with two fingers of dry tobacco, lit it and rocked back in a contented cloud of pungent smoke.

“Why not?”

The sun slipped a few more degrees into the afternoon, but there was still plenty of day to be done. It would be coming on noon in New Mexico. A shimmering heat haze gave up the image of a lake far to the south. Tom couldn’t remember if he’d seen that lake before. Maybe he’d swum there as a kid. He thought about it for some time, then gave up.

“Weren’t dead yet.”

© 2003 by Bill Philpot

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