Born to Ramble
BORN TO RAMBLE
Robert James Russell
Issue No. 2 – December 2013
He had been searching since dawn for the origin of the small dark plume of smoke and by breakfast Eldon Painter found it: an abandoned campsite at the back of his property, a dell thick with basswood and hackberry and bur oak. All that was left were the smoldering charcoals of browned fallen brush stuffed in an old Folgers’ can — an Army trick — and a couple fast food wrappers half-buried nearby. The site had been pitched under a cluster of knotty honey locust whose branches roped together about fifteen feet up creating a natural covering from any inclement weather. He could just about make out indentations in the ground where two bodies — boys, possibly — had been arranged.
Eldon stood like that for a while in the cold morning, wondered why in the hell anyone would be camping back on his lot, who they were and when they had taken off. He let the forest noise absorb him, tried to listen for anything unnatural, anything that might not belong. But there was nothing. It was only he that didn’t belong here. He kneeled and fingered the charcoal in the can — there was paper too, pages of a magazine from the looks of it. He felt something at the bottom and pulled out a spent .30 caliber casing. Eldon blew the soot out of it, smelled it, rolled it between his fingers for a while. He dug around a bit more, and finding nothing, placed the casing in his flannel shirt pocket, stood and left.
A few minutes later he was at the edge of his property looking for downed fence-posts, gaps in the barbed wire where the mystery campers may have slipped through from Rabkin’s land, and followed it along for a good quarter mile into the densest part of his acreage, where storms often castrated limbs of trees that fell and severed the boundary a handful of times a year. But he found none — it was all in-tact.
He worked his way back to the campsite where he inspected further, hand to the ground where the bodies had been, ruminating on exactly why anyone would be camping here, on his property anywhere (Itinerants? Poachers? Wayward teens?). He tried hard to tap into those earthly skills taught to him when he was a boy, mostly forgotten, and surmised that this site, this can, had only been used once. That whatever this was, whoever had been here, perhaps they had only stopped on their way through. But what about the bullet? It couldn’t be hunters — Eldon hadn’t seen signs of deer on his property in years. Maybe, then, the bullet was a memento, a found object and nothing more left behind in a hurry as they packed their things.
Still, it didn’t sit right with him.
Walking back toward the house he cut through a large field and heard mourning doves cooing, chasing each other, and remembered being told when he bought the land how this used to all be corn. Now…just a vast stretch of blue-joint that did as it pleased, risen up to just below his waist — there was no stopping it. When he was younger he’d work the harvest on his granddad’s land with the seasonal Mexicans, but never took much shine to it. Appreciated it, respected the hell out of it, but he saw the quick decline of farms, generations thinking they were too good for the family work — the hypocrisy not lost on himself — and didn’t see much of a future in it. Still, there were times he’d come up and admire the soil, strong soil. He’d daydream about flipping this bit of land to alternate corn and soybean, but quickly squash the notion as fast as it popped up: no equipment, no hands, no money. Besides, he had fashioned himself the other sort of outdoorsman long ago, the hunting and building sort, the kind that knew all the grasses and trees on his land, the mating habits of the various creatures that inhabited them, and that had always been good enough for him.
Eldon plucked a tall piece of grass and put the end in his mouth, chewed and sucked on it, then massaged his cramped hands together to relieve the pressure. Cicadas buzzed around him, calling to one another loudly. He looked back to the ring of trees circling the field, rising up to the already slate-colored sky, and knew there’d be rain later.
He took his time back to the house and was up at the porch half past eight. He skidded his workboots on the mat at the end of the porch, striking them clean, and looked back down his drive, followed its winding path down and sharply up where it met County Road Twelve, the small pond it bisected almost bone-dry — it seemed to be hanging on as long as it could. Eldon had never seen it so low, a dry summer leading into a dryer autumn. And it was exactly this kind of unforeseen burden, the kind of thing you can’t control, that made him thankful he didn’t work the land for profit.
He turned toward the house and saw it right away: the front door ajar and spits of mud leading in from the porch. He shuffled closer, slow and quiet, balling his fists. He was only in his early sixties — which folks today claimed was still quite young — but he felt old. His body was wiry like a greyhound (he had always been that way), and his walks and chores and the pulleyed free-weight set he had rigged up in the basement kept him in relatively good shape. But he was a visage of his former self, the young man who once rightfully claimed could not ever be knocked down, and in his growing isolation over the years he had found himself more aware of the aging process, more prone to flights of fear. Tasks he was once able to do deftly were now Herculean in scale, and others he gave up completely — the house was the main benefactor of this neglect, aluminum siding growing spurts of green mold, cracked or missing completely in others, the few shrubs he had flanking the porch mostly cut down to nubs and not seeming to care to one way or the other if they grew back. The whole place, his whole lot, had become dingy-looking, more so than it already was.
The over-abundance of elm that grew around the house — soaring trees with trunks of shaled bark whose branches didn’t fan out until at least thirty feet up — cast so much shade that the house itself barely got any sun, and nothing could grow on the ground but dirt and mud. Eldon had always liked this, and it was one of the reasons why he bought the place so long ago. Up on the County Road like a fast-moving aqueduct that ran adjacent to his front acreage you could only just make out a house buried in the trees and dark — and not much else. It was perfection.
Eldon pushed the door open and waited again before entering, listened, heard a bit of a scuffle inside — upstairs — awkward footsteps following. Relief.
“Hey,” Eldon yelled out at no one as he stepped in, getting a waft of that faint tobacco smell, already knowing who it belonged to. “I was out at the back.”
“Hey,” Ken said stepping down from the stairs.
Eldon watched his youngest son emerge wearing a week’s worth of stubble and a fresh-shaved head that made his eyes look the size of dinner plates. He crossed the room and lumped on the sofa, his foot jogging up-down as if he had no control over it. His clothes were baggy, ill-fitting in general and they smelled musty — Eldon could smell it across the room. He had his father’s height and lanky build, but Ken was no fighter like his old man, wasn’t much for confrontation. Ken had discovered early on that women were drawn to him so he ended up down that path—the fighters fight to get the attention that came naturally to him.
“What were you doing up at the back?” Ken said cracking his knuckles and only making fleeting eye contact.
“A walk. Just checking out the fencing.”
Eldon shook his head. Thought of telling him about the casing, but decided against it. “All good.”
“There’s a storm supposed to hit today. Later this morning, I think.”
“Yeah, I smelled it coming.”
“Smelled it, right.” Ken laughed and plucked his phone from his pocket. “There’s whole programs that tell you the weather now, Dad. Probably a helluva lot better than you can.”
Ken smiled crookedly, thin lips barely able to contain all those teeth — took after his mother that way.
Silence, then Ken laughed, fell forward over his knees and guffawed.
“What?” Eldon asked.
“That’s all you got to say? Haven’t seen you in weeks.”
“No fault of my own.”
“You going to blame me for this? Or Linda? Or…the kids? They want to see their granddad, you know.”
“You made it very clear,” Eldon stopped, controlled himself. “You should bring them over sometime, then. You want coffee?”
Ken shook his head, followed into the kitchen. Eldon picked a mug up from the drying rack, dumped two large spoons of instant coffee in it then filled it with cold water from the tap.
“I think it’s meant to be hot.”
“I don’t mind it like this.”
“Well, alright,” Ken said sitting at the cramped kitchen table, flipping through stacks of mail, old newspapers.
“What were you doing upstairs?”
“Oh,” Ken touched the back of his neck, then: “Nothing, just poking around my room.”
“Thought you had it pretty much gutted?”
“Thought maybe there’d be something for the kids. Something I’d forgotten about.”
“Find anything?” Eldon said drinking, meeting his son’s gaze, the two staring like that for a few moments before Ken broke, smiled, ran a hand back over his scalp.
Eldon walked to the small window, studied the drive again. “Didn’t see the car.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing. It’s fine.”
“Then why didn’t you drive? You go home last night?”
Ken tapped his foot on the floor, louder and quicker as if he had lost total control. “You keeping tabs on me now?”
Eldon finished the coffee, set the mug in the sink. “You hungry?”
“Just got sandwich stuff.”
“Fine. That’s alright.”
Eldon went to the fridge and pulled out a flesh-colored tube of sandwich spread wrapped in plastic and a loaf of bread and yellow mustard. He pulled out two slices of bread and spread it thick on both, added the mustard, slapped them together and cut diagonal. “We’ll share,” he said handing half to Ken.
Eldon watched Ken as he ate, free hand playing with a button he found on the table. He had always heard folks say no matter how old their kids got parents could still only see them as the kid, not as an adult. But Eldon never felt that way. Ken grew quick, much quicker than Mike, and he had always been one for trouble. This conversation they were having now, that was about the extent of every conversation they ever had since he was fifteen, and all he could see was this man vaguely resembling someone he once knew as a child — someone he had helped bore into this world and clothe and feed until he was old enough to take care of himself. He didn’t want the worst for him and in fact loved his grandkids dearly with that special love reserved for grandparents, but they were strangers that just happened to share genetics, and there wasn’t much else to say beyond that.
Eldon finished his half of the sandwich and then a glass of water that had been resting on the counter from earlier in the morning. “I have to go down and feed the girl. You want to come?”
Out on the porch, Eldon — now wearing a rain jacket and a baseball cap with a local union insignia on it — grabbed a large white plastic bucket and they descended the slope of the drive toward the pen tucked at the drip right before the pond.
“How’re the girls?” Eldon asked.
“They’re, you know, fine. Everything’s just…fine.”
“Jesus.” Ken kicked the ground, spit off to the side. “Chatty chatty.”
“How is she?” Eldon asked again, ignoring.
“She’s fine, Dad, alright? I’m fine, they’re fine, you’re fine. Everything is fine.”
As they approached the pen the smell became stronger, harder to ignore, and when Eldon unlocked the gate Dolly ran out from the converted stable and greeted him, bashing her head into him, wherever she could land a spot, showing affection the only way she knew how. She didn’t reach for the bucket and he admired that, that she’d learned, and he stroked her soft head, her long eyelashes batting as if communicating themselves. He smiled, didn’t say a word, just appreciated this moment between them. Then she set into her singing, that chittering he’d grown accustomed to, and he scattered the contents of the bucket on the ground — name brand ratite feed mixed with the rest of the alfalfa pellets. Dolly fluffed up, excited, then got to it, pecking like some big chicken, making sure to get it all, stopping only occasionally to eyeball Ken.
“I see she’s still chummy.”
Eldon looked at Ken leaning against the wooden beams and chickenwire that couldn’t really keep her out — but she was smart enough to know there was no where to go anyway, and had never tried.
“Your smell, I think. Bothering me too.”
Eldon smiled. Years ago this was his venture, emu meat. But now, all his birds were dead. All but one, anyway. A fungus had come up and killed them off one by one the second year. The vet that came out called it Aspergillosis, said it was probably transmitted through moldy hay Eldon had bought cheap for the bedding and he hated himself for that. No one else to blame. Waited too long to call the vet in the first place too, which didn’t help.
After the diagnosis he started separating out the ones that showed signs, the ones the vet identified, fed them antibiotics just in case and tended to them best he could, but it had spread too far by that point — the medicine did nothing. And being the man he was of the mettle he was made of, he didn’t want to just watch them suffer, so he got the okay from everyone involved and soon enough he was leading them almost daily to the field of blue-joint to put them down. A nice place, he thought. But putting a bird down — a big bird, one smart as a dog, day in and day out — is about the worst thing he had ever had to do. Eldon found out early on how loving they were, and they’d hug him whenever he came in the pen — even without food — just wanting some attention was all, even the sick ones. Nothing more. So when he would lead them back to that field, the birds slamming their heads and long necks into his chest every chance they got, just wanting to be close to him, starting up that deep-throated drumming and sing-songy chittering they did, the sounds of complete trust, it killed him a bit inside. Got to the point he had to hire the work out to the Rabkin’s teenage son, Brian. Just couldn’t face them any more, what had to be done.
And so he’d sit on the sun porch, solemn, watch as Brian lead them away past the house like some executioner parading a prisoner about, and he’d turn and head back to the kitchen, drink some tea or a beer, depending on the day, and wait until he heard the 12 gauge’s echo catch up to him — when he knew the dirty work had been done.
He watched Dolly and thought of all the others — the last one, he figured, the one he wouldn’t be using for meat, she deserved a name — and leaned against the fence near Ken.
“Can’t figure why you even came today,” Eldon said. “You don’t want to talk. Can’t be on account of the food.”
“Yeah,” Ken said looking up at the sky, then up to the guardrail lining the hilled road overhead. “Been thinking lately.”
Eldon shifted, cleared his throat. “Oh?”
“All sorts of shit, I guess. But mostly her. More than usual, anyway. And I’ve been feeling lately like every goddamn bad move I’ve ever made’s coming back to haunt me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just can’t escape it.”
Ken turned to Eldon, ground his teeth then looked up at the road, back down to the ground, then jumped up in place laughing, muttering incoherently. Then, audibly: “Just feel like I’m being hunted down, you know? Fuck. I mean, you can’t escape it, you know? You can’t motherfucking escape any of it.”
Eldon grabbed him by the shoulders, held him in place. “Now you tell me truthful. Everything alright? You in trouble?”
Ken stood there, raw, open, looked like he was about to burst forth with something, spill some deep dark bit, but then closed his eyes, relaxed in his dad’s grip: the temporary bout of mania had passed. “No, everthing’s fine.”
“You have to tell me.”
Ken slipped out of his hands, wiped his eyes clean and scratched his jaw. “Swear on Mom,” he said. “I just needed…I just needed to see a familiar face. A friendly face.”
Eldon studied him, looked for lies building up, but couldn’t find anything. “You sure?”
“Jesus, yes, alright?”
The two returned to their positions, watched Dolly scraping the dirt for the rest of the food. “You hear from Mike?”
“Not really. You?”
“Been a while.”
“Well, fuck him, living out in the desert. Who gives a shit.”
Eldon did, but couldn’t find the words to escape him. Mike moving out west, away from this all…couldn’t blame him. Good job, had a life out there, something new, something he wished for Ken at every bad turn that popped up.
“Picking up some hours at Galveson’s few days a week.”
“With what Linda brings in it’s fine. Everyone’s fat and happy, alright?”
Dolly perked up, saw the two men, made a deep guttural sound and then shit. Relieved, she approached Eldon and hugged him again making sure not to step too close to Ken.
“Good girl,” Eldon said stroking her head.
“I think that’s my cue to jet,” Ken said climbing the fence and straddling it at the top before jumping down the other side. He stood there, looking through the chicken wire at Eldon and Dolly, studied them, and laughed again, that guffawed laugh from earlier. “Just forget everything I said, alright? Really don’t even know why I bothered.”
“I’ll stop by soon. Next week, maybe.”
“Right,” Ken said landing on the ground. “Wouldn’t that be something.”
He watched Ken walk up the drive. “Where you headed?”
“Buck’s, maybe. Then home.”
“Why not home first? Why not see the kids?”
Ken stopped, turned, hands jammed in his pockets. “Why don’t you just mind your own, alright?”
Eldon didn’t respond, just petted Dolly’s leathery head and neck and watched Ken hike up the drive and disappear on County Road Twelve headed west. He thought at that moment of calling Linda, telling her he had stopped by, was acting off, but didn’t want to get in the middle of anything. Didn’t want to put anyone in a bind. He then remembered the casing in his pocket and felt for it, made sure it hadn’t fallen out. He rolled it between his fingers again and quickly tucked it back away.
As Eldon walked back toward the house he felt the first bit of rain on his hands and he stopped and looked up at the swirling gray clouds now the color of tempered steel and heard thunder in the distance and couldn’t help shake the feeling it was the harbinger of something bad coming his way. Something he figured was long past due.
Robert James Russell is a Pushcart Prize nominated author and the co-founding editor of the literary journal Midwestern Gothic. His work has appeared in Pithead Chapel, Crime Factory, WhiskeyPaper, Joyland, The Collagist, Gris-Gris, and Thunderclap! Magazine, among others. His first novel, Sea of Trees, is available from Winter Goose Publishing. Find him online at robertjamesrussell.com.