“Watchers” by Ewing Eugene Baldwin
How is it I have come to this: day upon sweltering day, merciless sun beating down, bathing me with light. I can’t refuse the cleansing act: being bathed in the sweat lodge of my rusted and dented old pickup truck, tread-worn tires sunk in the hot asphalt. You could detect me, my presence, by the black tire scars, new-formed each day by the softening heat on the south side of Bunker Hill Road. I become like water, a slough of the larger slough of yonder marsh, the truck’s bug-splattered windows closed to shut off the scold of the great blue herons and cattle egrets, the scraping shriek of the red-tailed hawk, the gorge of mimicry from the mockingbird in my silver maple tree. I am awash in my own exhaled smoke of a hundred Camel cigarettes. The neighbors driving past, the country wave, the Hey that strangers pass, the Hey of emptiness. Hey, Hey back: nothing. Who could wave to me as if nothing was amiss, for I am a mess of slime and sweat and unshaven face and matted hair and wild eyes. Who could say Hey to that but the blind? But people are blind in a shadow realm of our own imagining. Weak. It is that weakness that drives us to connive against all. There is no reason outside Eden, just predator and prey, the owl and rabbit, the man and the weaker man: we rob them, beat them, scare them, void their bowels with fear, which is how I came to this, how it is I am a sight for blind eyes. And me: not a talon nor forked tail nor horn nor red skin nor fang, just the red dead eyes, no light. None.
It is others’ eyes that tell me. Ron Miller, Mother’s cousin, his watery cataract eyes—he passes in his pickup, waving, never a query. This passing is to investigate me. His farm is in the other direction, he is seeking a truth, Ron is, and too late will he conclude, will he act. I see me in his eyes: sunken, hollow, my beard black and gray-flecked, my teeth blackened, my cracked, lumpy hands caked with grime, a Folgers’s coffee can filled with my deep-yellow piss on the seat next to me.
My body: this rope of muscle, this bone-bulged thing, this skin bag of pus and piss and putridness. Me sitting in the truck, not a drop of well water, not a speck of soap, and I become fascinated by my own smell, heavy rot and nicotine puke. But the watchers cannot smell the wild animal I have become.
Job Swenson—I dream of crucifying him—always stops. He rolls down a window in his Land Rover, and I have to do the same or I would be seen as acting like a crazy man. Job might tell and one of the local sheriffs, on a lazy day, might get a notion to come take a look at me. After all, I have been sitting below my own house for two weeks, watching the days grow longer, watching the pregnant buds turn to leaves, watching the lilacs burst, longing to smell them. Watching my wife.
Job with that wry grin. “Hey, Todd, how are you?”
How am I, Job? How do I look, you prick?
Tit for tat, I grin. “Good, Job.”
Bad, Job. Bad as it gets.
“You look parched. I got some iced sun tea in my thermos.”
“No thanks, Job, not thirsty.”
Unsure. Unfit. Unhinged.
“I hear you’re staying over by Brighton.”
They are talking about me.
“Where you all hear that, Job?”
“People talk. You know.”
“Yeah, man, I know. At my brother Skip’s place. You know.”
In the Alton asylum, for killing our cousin with a Civil War saber, last fall.
“So I’m watchin’ his place for him, Job. What does a river rat need anyway but a bed, a TV, a can opener, some cans of pork and beans?”
And jimson weed, bringing down visions, floating me beyond the blue horizon—seeing through solid matter, seeing through brains and words, through skulls to the vivid color, which is truth.
Job, he is a decent man, I give him that. He mediates when folks are riled. “Well, it looks like you are watching your place, too, Todd. I don’t mean to pry.”
“No offense taken, bud. Talia Ann and I are separated, that ain’t a secret. But I still got the farming to do. She has the secretary job in Shipman, and my boys…”
The three boys in the Lincoln jail, attempted bank robbery.
“Your family’s going through tough times, Todd. You know, to save you all that traveling, Brice could—”
Job’s son Brice could do my chores: Feed the livestock. Weed. Irrigate.
Guard Talia Ann.
“I got it covered, Job. Just waiting for her to leave, is all.”
I wait for her. I watch.
Job scratches a poison ivy patch on his elbow. “Okay, Todd, I’ll shut up about it. I saw your mother in Gillespie at the Subway yesterday.”
* * *
The night before she abandons us, Mother at the table, the .45 automatic right of her plate, by the knife and fork like it was part of a place setting. She eats and watches Daddy. He sips Jim Beam, watches her, as if a wife with a .45 is a normal thing. Skip, Janie and I stare at our plates, don’t dare watch a thing.
Mother screams, “That is the last, the last time, hear me. Hear me? I will kill you, you rabid mongrel, you hit me again.”
Daddy stands. Mother strokes the barrel of the .45.
“Sorry to disappoint, Sara, going to watch the TV. Hope I don’t get back-shot.”
Daddy walks into the front room, calm as can be, whistling that Andy Griffith Mayberry tune.
Middle of the night, Janie comes in my bed, weeping, begging me, “Stop him, stop him, Todd.” She moans, little skinny ten-year-old Janie. “Stop it.”
Mother leaves the next day, and all I ever see of her after that is accidental meetings in town, passing by on the highway, her children forever drifters.
* * *
“Why you all care about me, Todd?”
My boys, Dicky-Boy, Deunite, and Eddale burned down two of your barns, Neighbor, stole your four-wheeler, whipped your son Brice bloody all through school. I poached your deer, and you know it, you Land Rover-owning prick neighbor.
“Have a good one, Job. See ya soon.”
This afternoon, to be exact, about the time Talia Ann is due home, Job will drive by to see she gets in the house safe. Brice will come by at sundown, to see she is in the house, safe. As if decent men, by showing their sincere faces, could make anything safe. As if there was such a thing as safe.
* * *
And there are other watchers: the rural route mail carrier, so nervous about the melting man he drops mail on the road and leaves it to blow into the ditch or stick to the hot tar. There’s the endless parade of my relatives, most of which have not spoke to me since we were kids, for my branch of the line is Calhoun County trailer trash.
This is said by a biddy in earshot of my wife and son Dicky-Boy, at the Kroger’s: “Them Brodersen trailer trash, Calhoun County breeds that type. Why don’t they stay there?”
Dicky-Boy, hot with Brodersen pride, follows her to her fancy ranch home in Grafton, up on a bluff on the Illinois River, catches her in her backyard, taking out the garbage by the light of the Hale-Bopp comet, and sneaks up and cuts out her gossiping tongue.
Oh my beloved family.
* * *
My red house on the hill, which I used to smile at when coming around the bend of the road, up from the Illinois River, from Macoupin Creek, and there, half a mile away, below a canopy of high green oak trees, my house inviting me. In this place are your sons—your saplings which extend the Brodersen family tree, the roots stretch all the way to Bavaria—and your wife, your Talia Ann, who, when she was young, when you saw her naked, you thought of peaches, of a perfect peach, and her sex tasted of peaches and salt lick and earth and there was the heat of her.
I am a sixteen-year-old hellion. I have pulled my back baling hay—dollar an hour, working till sundown. I stagger out of the barn, pain shooting down my right hip. This slip of a red-headed girl, Talia Ann Jones, farmer’s daughter, bends over, ninety-five pounds of girl, hands on her knees, and says turn back to back with her, lay back on her, trust her. And I lay upon the back of this gal, my arms limply hanging out from my swollen soaked body, like Christ on the cross of Woman. She clutches my biceps, rises up slightly, until my booted feet leave the ground, until my body begins to stretch out, pulling me back into line. She bears my weight, and I open my eyes and see the blue sky full of soaring scissor-tailed barn swallows, darting, and gobbling stirred-up insect hordes from the hay cuttings. And I am healed.
I lie on Miss Jones, August heat pressing down. This is what I feel: beyond the sun another heat, rising from the girl’s groin, and this heat makes me groan, this sound makes the other hay balers laugh, makes me spring off the girl’s back and limp away before anyone notices my erection. I run into the dark barn and clutch at my middle, in a frenzy.
It is all sex: black loam, groin smell of the marsh, silken parachutes of seedlings across the blue sky, fluidity of women, romance of the moon. We name it love to show we are beyond the rutting cows, the squealing hogs in heat, the endless mounted insects, birds, the pollination of flowers, struts of cocks, the roost of all species, and the colored lures of nature, the cry and song of all that we know as beautiful. It is all sex. The Big Fuck.
One day that fall, I walk home early from school—I have faked the flu and biked to the farm to watch the snake migration up from the marsh to the high hills, the autumnal preparation for hibernation. Instead, I discover my daddy fucking Janie, now fourteen, from behind, in the barn, and I see Janie’s radiance. The Big Fuck.
And I hear Janie’s hoarse whispers, “Yes, Daddy, Yes, Daddy.”
And I hear the crazed hogs running madly across the feedlot, excited by this fucking, wanting to fuck Janie, to fuck the sows.
And I hear Daddy yell, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”
And Jesus yells, “Jesus.”
* * *
The year after Talia Ann and I marry, Job Swenson comes speeding along Bunker Hill Road, a mile ahead of a portable saw mill on wheels. “This guy is offering two hundred dollars for old oaks, men, we must save the oaks. Some of our trees three hundred years and older: bur oaks, pins, whites. Don’t fall for easy money, men; picture your land without the century trees, the songbirds and the shade. Newly planted oaks would take many generations to mature, to covet.”
Job tells us the Sioux Indian saying: “In our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decision on the next seven generations.”
“Two hundred and ten years,” Job tells us. “What do you want your legacy to be?”
Me thinking, Fuck the world. The Big Fuck.
Legacies are for men in Land Rovers, for land developers, for lawyers and moneyed liars. River rats born along muddy streams, who are told by a government when they can hunt and trap, what crops to grow, how many fish to catch, what is endangered, and to love our black and brown and yellow and red neighbors, even as they rape and rob you, men like me, endangered from birth, we have no legacies.
The sawmill finds willing businessmen in overalls. Ron Miller sells one grove of bur oak; Hans Dieter Miller sells an acre. Janie Brodersen, father-fucker, sells an entire savanna.
I say of mine: “Take ’em all.”
Job weeps. “Jesus wept.”
Talia Ann Brodersen had disobeyed me and gotten a secretary’s job and stopped being a proper farm wife. This night, she would behold, high above our red house, empty space, ghost oaks. Decades of brimming garbage bags, rusted hulks of cars and pounds of broken glass and old furniture we threw amidst the trees, rust piles and junk heaps now nakedly revealed. The tall green canopy a wavering ghost, and she would see the consequences of disobeying.
And she does, Lord yes.
She is so shocked she drives the car off the road into our corn field. She screams. She runs down the road, arms open wide as if to embrace the trees the way she once thought of me. She wanders among raw, leaking stumps, a cloud of gnats surrounding her. She mourns. She sees that all is meaningless.
I, her teacher.
Our raped road: wild raspberry bushes and buckthorn filled in the spaces; the land thorn-infested, my boys stabbed by cow parsnip and stinging nettle. All of us scarred and marked by stigmata, scabbed by the new life that armed itself against us.
And Job doesn’t say an unkind word.
Talia Ann Brodersen goes to the Baptist church and finds Jesus Christ. And then she finds Jimmy Hagerman, Sunday school teacher, counselor, and—though I didn’t know it then—seducer of unhappy women. She attends Sunday services, Wednesday night prayer service; she visits the sick and shut-ins—in the waking hours beyond her job. Sister Talia Ann.
An old boy I know said he saw Jimmy and Sister Talia, back seat of a car on the river. That night, I drive to Layman Hagerman’s house and watch the shadows fuck.
I rage. I hear a great horned owl mocking me. I trap and kill eighty-five great horned owls and hang them from cottonwood and willow trees in the marsh, and Job Swenson, not knowing it was me, takes me to the marsh to show me the carnage. He sobs, and I sob—not for dead owls, but for all the empty trees that have no hanging owls. And I am more powerful than infinite blazing suns. And I re-find God.
And this is the first time I tell anybody who will listen: “She serves me divorce papers, I will kill Talia Ann Brodersen.”
Some card laughs, “Alert the sheriff.”
Some fisherman tying flies: “Take heart, son, Hagerman don’t hang on to one woman long, soon you all be in harness again, complaining like the rest of us. Yep.”
I won my peach tree called Talia Ann. I planted her in my red house on the hill, and I spent twenty-five years pruning her, shaping the bitch.
* * *
I stalk my wife day after day, melting in my old pickup, in choking smoke, and in the blasting sounds of twenty thousand, one hundred and sixty seconds, which come to two weeks, fourteen drive-bys of Ron Miller, twenty-six coffee cans of piss, fourteen tracks of the moon, four days of clouds, one day of rain, eight days of searing sun, thirty-two flights of vultures, seventy passing freight trains, six dances of sandhill cranes, and the rising, by half a foot, of corn and soybeans and hay.
Talia Ann Brodersen, day after day, getting ready for work. She pats the hound dogs in their cages, drives down the hill to the road, passing by me in the truck, not so much as a glance.
I go up to the house after she leaves and rummage through her underwear drawer, a pile of neatly folded panties that I bought for my viewing pleasure, now they’re just something to wear. She washes Hagerman’s cum out of them, smoothes and folds them—and there is this note:
I know you come into the house. Have the decency to bathe before you handle my things. I am moving to my folks’ place next week, from where you stole me. I do not fear you.
* * *
Yesterday morning, driving by me, Talia Ann rolls down her window and flings a sheaf of papers onto the road. I wait until she drives off before retrieving the papers. I scan the words until I find the key word: Divorce.
That night, the moon a bloodshot eye, Me-god shoots Janie and Daddy with the .45. They are sitting up in Daddy’s bed, watching Hardcopy. Me-god watches a minute of it, enough to know they will be—their corpses will be—on Hardcopy before the week is out. Me-god shoots them to pulp, shoots the screaming out of them, the shit out of them, the sex, until Daddy is Janie is Daddy, the mix of torn flesh like thick red porridge.
The next morning, seven a.m., Brice Swenson drives by and stops. “Morning, Todd.”
“Hey, Brice. How you?”
“Okay. You’re out early.”
“So you. Kinda busy here, guy.”
“I’m driving up to Peoria, to interview for Bradley University.”
“Good luck. Brice?”
“If going to Bradley University helps you see one-tenth as clear as I see this minute, you will be a wise man. You all take care.”
Brice is terrified. What does he see, looking at me? Blood-flecked arms.
I mentally check my surface; feeling for change, discovering that I am smiling crazily. Me-god leaking out of my mouth like vapor. I cannot pull my mouth shut, I am too purely happy.
Brice drives west to the bend in the road and stops. I watch him in the rearview mirror; see him pick up a cell phone. I start up the truck and drive backwards, straight at the Land Rover, the pickup nearly turning over from swerving, the coffee can of piss spilling, forming a putrid-smelling puddle. Brice peels off toward the river.
I throw the truck in drive and head straight for the red house on the hill. An alligator snapping turtle the size of a platter comes out of the corn—I have lifted that bastard out of the road a thousand times, for we are kin, but this day I hit him. He spins up from under my back tire, lands upside down, twirling like a carnival ride.
Talia Ann Brodersen, in a blue business suit and white tennis shoes, stands at the top of the hill.
I brake, grab my .12-gauge Remington, climb out of the cab and march up the hill.
“Is this about Jimmy Hagerman, Todd? If it is, he dumped me, like all men have dumped me. And I shall never have another.”
No, you cunt, you won’t.
“Men need firearms to be warriors. Women are the true warriors. We endure, without weapons, without superior physical strength. We split our insides open to let children break free, and we endure. We watch our bodies wither and our men lose interest, and we endure. We nurture, we live in the shadows, and there is nothing between our acts and the grave, and you are a coward, Todd Brodersen.”
Who is Todd Brodersen?
“And I do not fear you.”
She turns her back on me, and in that moment I see her the night we separated: naked from the waist up, her usual way around the house after the boys were jailed, and I come to get my things. She makes no move to cover herself. It is hellishly hot; she carries a plastic spray bottle and mists her drooping breasts, fine spray runs down the front of her and her breasts glisten with tiny drops of dew. I walk up behind and take her fallen breasts in my hands and lift them, and we sit in the rocking chair, her on top of me, back against my stomach, and she peels off her shorts and we rock and fuck, my hands on her ribs. And she tells me what possessions to take, what to leave, even as she rides me, even as she whinnies like a horse. She wishes me good luck and stands, her body pulling off mine with a sucking sound. This was the end. One lip of her cunt pasted against the inside of her leg, my seed dripping down. This was the end, like frogspawn in the marsh, jelly and ooze. This was the end.
She opens the car door. I fire from the waist and her right shoulder explodes, splatters of blood on hot metal and gravel. She falls to her knees, her back to me, a run in her stocking, a sluice of blood spurting from an exploded artery. She does not pray but looks up the scarred hill where lightning once cracked and smoked a tree, where our innocent infant boys played soldiers, where we had picnics, and on winter nights, where we smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, where we were young lovers in the oak Garden of Eden, and where we once climbed seventy-feet into the crook of an oak and watched bald eagles soar in the winter wind across the valley.
Where now it is the rotted, fetid, regretted Garden of Gethsemane.
Talia Ann Brodersen gasps, “Oh God, my God. Please kill me.”
I fire again, in the small of her back, smoke rising from bone, and some organ purple and throbbing in the fist-sized hole in her back. Beneath skin we are nothing but gut, bone, gelatinous compost, and she drops down in a sea of blood and moves no more.
I hear Brice up the road, screaming like a girl.
I say to my wife, to my peach, “I told you not to divorce me.”
I drop the shotgun, walk back to the pickup, climb in and drive past Brice, who is running for the red house. He will learn things up there that Bradley University cannot teach him.
When I get to Carlinville, I walk into the coffee shop and my waitress Erma, wincing because of my stench, brings me heavily creamed coffee and tomato juice. The good old boys stare at my blood and filth, can smell the sweat and piss. There is a word for all of this: murderer.
Erma brings the check. “Todd, I am going to bathe you, darling, you keep coming in here like this. You been deer poaching? You look like a homeless man, and you gonna drive away all my customers.”
I pull money from a pocket.
“Hundred dollar bill, Erma. What’s it look like?”
“I can’t change no hundred, guy.”
“It’s yours to keep. I got no use for it—not where I am going.”
I cross the street to the police station and stand for one last free moment. A lot of law enforcement people are about to have busy days. I approach the front desk. The uniformed man there, “England” written on his brass nameplate, looks at me like I am the apocalypse.
England adjusts his gun. “Help you, bud?”
“Hey there, Officer England. This place has held me and my brother Skip, on several occasions.”
“Is that right. Your name is?”
“You all must be new, or you’d know that.”
“I am fresh out of Desert Storm, sir, this is my first post.”
“God bless you, Officer England.”
“Thank you, sir. Your name?”
“I was in the bad war. Nam.”
“There ain’t no good war, sir. Name?”
“I disagree, sir. My name’s Todd… Me-god.”
“I have just killed my daddy, my sister, my wife.”
The officer nearly topples back out of his swivel chair, groping for his sidearm.
“I have just killed my daddy, my sister, my wife.”
I hold out my blackened hands, as if pleading. England finally gets the gun out and levels it at me. “Sergeant Birch, get the hell in here! Now!”
Sergeant Birch runs in, gun drawn by the force of his partner’s voice, probably.
Me-god thinks: Time to go.
Me-god recalls the secret forest glade where Todd futilely dreamed of a life the way storms purpled up and swelled over the valley; his own purple storm, and how he cherry-bombed fish and ripped and raged and flattened. Talia Ann, the girl-tree whose belly, at the first birth, Todd listened to for the sound of dreams stirring in seed and egg, train whistles slicing through loneliness, men on the moon, which the family watched on TV with popcorn and chocolate bars and glasses of root beer—the ruination of the moon; little Janie squirming on Daddy’s big lap; loss. Loss and sorrow.
“We will, buddy, you move.”
Me-god holds out his arms, leaden and paralyzed, movement nevertheless, but—just like Todd’s mother—they don’t shoot.
Officer England, his hands on his gun shaking. He would shoot a foot off, is all.
Sergeant Birch aims with his eyes closed. Me-god could kill them both. Instead, he raises his hands, like Todd did when he was baptized, like he did when Skip scored four touchdowns, like he did when Daddy saw death and squealed and shit and pissed. He smiles at Officer England.
“Where you live, Mr. England, sir?”
“Why you want to know that, sick sonofabitch?”
“Listen to them cicadas, man. I live for them.”
“Is that right?”
Me-god says to Officer England, “Where you live—you all have oak trees?”
Ewing Eugene Baldwin has had 20 short stories published and 15 plays produced, including Off Broadway in New York and at the former Body Politic Theatre, in Chicago. His play, “Water Brought Us and Water’s Gonna Take Us Away,” about the Underground Railroad in Illinois, was commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service and produced at Prop Theatre and Columbia College. A commission by the U.S. Department of the Interior allowed him to act as Chicago producer of the National Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project. “Watchers” is one of 12 short stories in his new book, “Nothing Ever Happens.”
To read Ewing Eugene Baldwin’s comments on Dan Reiter’s “The Day Laborer,” click here.
Notes from Chad Peterson, Managing Editor
“Watchers” was, for me, a particularly powerful piece that grabbed hold of me quickly and never let me go (and gave me a vigorous shake every now and then for good measure). From its bold, audacious opening through to its equally bold (if disturbing) end, it drags readers along on its odd journey, whether it’s a trip they want to take or not. There’s some gripping language, great metaphor and wonderful use of implied dialect, but what sold me on this story more than anything was the fact that I could let go and completely immerse myself in it. That’s a valuable thing (and a difficult one to achieve).
Filed under: "Best of" 2011, Uncategorized | 3 Comments