STACHYS PLUCKED A WASP from the ambrosia salad Ma had set out too early and let Molly lick it from his fingers. She yipped at the sting, gave him those good-girl eyes and thumped for more.
“I told you I don’t need no special treatment,” Stachys said. It’s not like he was going off to college or basic.
“And I told you go get me the punch bowl.” Ma filled the sink with hot water.
In the attic, Stachys found the bowl—cut glass, like Thanksgiving’s cranberry dish, but heavy enough to split a head. Under the bowl was a bin marked in Ma’s writing: Stachys Baby—SAVE! Tape crumbled when he peeled it back and popped the lid. A John Deere tractor stitched to a yellow sweater, tiny leather hunting boots, a clip-on tie that fit in his palm. There were pictures of him wearing that tie, nooked in Pop’s arm out front of church his first Easter. Stachys dug deeper into the bin. He held a snap-crotch plaid shirt by its empty shoulders. He helped camo footies on their first steps, little arms stretched up, the ribbed cuffs small and flat between his fingers. Touching his baby clothes was like holding ghosts. Stachys folded the tiny things back into the bin, fingers fumbling all knuckle and hangnail—worse even than the first time he’d touched Gemma’s bare stomach—and kicked it deep into the shadows of the eaves.
Downstairs, the stink of Clorox pinched his nose. He handed Ma the bowl. She eased it into the filled sink and splashed disinfectant into the grooves of glass.
“Stupid to save them old baby clothes.”
“You’ll thank me when yours is wearing ’em someday.”
“I didn’t ask you to save ’em. I don’t want ’em anyway.”
Ma slammed the faucet on too hard. Water sprayed off the belly of the bowl all over her apron and onto the floor.
“When’s Gemma getting here? Maybe she can fix your rotten attitude.”
Stachys hadn’t said anything about Gemma not coming to the graduation party. He didn’t want all the whys and wheres. Gemma was going fancy-pants in the fall. Carnegie Mellon. For photography. Ma didn’t think they’d last past the first few weeks of that adventure and so much the better, she didn’t mind saying. Stachys didn’t need 5×7 glossy prints, he needed a farm wife and farm babies.
“She’s a regular one-armed paper hanger these days. Busy, busy. People’ll be here around three. I laid out your nice clothes.”
His only nice clothes were funeral clothes. “Nah, Ma, I got work to do. Rain’s coming. There’s first cutting to bale and Cass is set to freshen.”
Their land rolled away to the west, arable right up to the Damas River. So much of it that they’d had to hire Ledman, after Pop was gone. He wasn’t young and he wasn’t quick – something wrong with his knee so’s he’d swing the stiff leg forward and step up with the good one to meet it – but he was cheap. What kind of farmers only bothered to have one kid? Stachys steadied the John Deere through rows of raked alfalfa. Ledman arranged the bales as they kicked up into the wagon.
It was 11 o’clock and happening now. Gemma said she’d text when it was done; he checked every phantom vibration. He should’ve been there. Married? Was he crazy? She’d snorted soda out her nose, laughing. “What, like it’s 1950 and we’ve got daddies with shotguns? Yours is dead; mine’s the only pacifist in Babson County.”
Ledman whistled while they unloaded into the hay barn. Swallows swooped in and out of packed-mud nests. Pigeons cooed in the rafters. Sunlight shot through gaps in the barn wall. Dust spun through focused beams of light like smoke, as if the bales of hay were on fire. Sweat soaked their long sleeved shirts. Flecks of alfalfa and dirt stuck all around their necks and pricked behind their ears, an irritation that would last for days. Haying without Pop was like sleeping without a pillow.
“Led, enough. You ain’t working for Snow White.” Stachys flipped open his phone, slapped it closed. 11:45. Still no message. After the first appointment – she’d let him come that one time but only as far as the waiting room – he’d asked her how long it would take. As long as it takes, she’d said.
“You’re itchier than my neck. What’s your vexation?” Ledman grunted the last bale off the wagon and stiff-legged his way down to the ground.
Stachys piled it with the others. “Said I wouldn’t tell nobody.”
“Well, bully for you, I’m somebody.”
Stachys couldn’t swallow the moth wing flutter in his throat. It was coming up or he would choke.
“Gemma’s, well, she’s, you know.” He rocked his hands in front of his stomach. “Or was. Or maybe she didn’t do it.” He grabbed a shovel from its nail on the wall. The blade was worn at an angle, its handle stained dark in two places from years of being held one way, doing one job: scraping across concrete, moving shit and sawdust from one place to another.
Ledman twisted an imaginary key at his lips and threw it into the gutter behind the few cows that weren’t out to pasture. “Your mama’d drag you off to St. Ig’s, have you down on your knees, saying Hail Mary, Amen till you expiated yourself.”
Stachys scraped damp bedding from under the cows. Poppy relieved herself, a gush of piss splatted on concrete, leapt toward his boots. Ammonia fumes stung his eyes so that he had to cover them.
“Relax; I’m sure the offense has been ablated.” Ledman shoveled grain into the manger.
Where’d he get those five-dollar words of his? Them la-di-da magazines from New York City, like the ones at that Dr.’s office, had all kinds of fancy words. Cartoons that weren’t even funny. But what else was he supposed to do while he waited for Gemma? He’d thumbed pages until he got to that one picture: an old-timey, black and white of an automat full-up with sandwiches and pies, cellophane-wrapped, locked behind glass. He ripped the picture from the magazine. He’d show it to Gem when she came out. They’d get in the truck and go find it. It had to be somewhere. All those choices vying for attention, waiting. Drop your change in the slot, press a button and there it was. No way to put it back.
Stachys squeezed between Cass and Poppy, both near due. Heat seeped from their sides into his. Cass pulled away from her food and swung her head toward Stachys. She reached for his sleeve with her long, rough tongue. Her chain rattled across the stanchions. Strings of saliva and silage dangled from her muzzle. Stachys cupped her jutting hip. He traced the arc of her wide ribs.
“I know, I know,” he whispered to her radar ears. Her skin shivered under his hand like he was a cluster of flies.
“Gentlin’ Cass ain’t gonna assuage you.” Ledman leaned on his shovel and pushed back his hat.
Cobwebs hung down everywhere: from broken windows and whitewashed rafters, from the sockets where bare bulbs glowed at night. Gemma had taken pictures of ones like them last summer, dew caught and gleaming in the broken silk. Won a prize, even. In the car after the appointment that day he’d pulled the stolen photo from his pocket, laid it on her lap and smoothed the folds. “I don’t get it,” she’d said. It wasn’t a joke, though. The picture needed a person; that’s what he was waiting for her to see. She held the edges of the page but looked at Stachys instead of the photo. He tapped the page. “Can’t you see what it needs?” How could she if she wouldn’t even look? She glanced at it for a second and pushed it away. “This was taken ages ago, Stach. You can’t change it.”
Through the barn window Stachys watched the distant highway where it cut across an old pasture. People made a lot of money selling off their good land. Chunk here, chunk there till nothing was left but cash in the bank. Maybe that wasn’t so bad. The noise of cars and trucks so far off was no different from the wind— forgettable, background— unless he forced himself to watch one vehicle as it sped along to someplace else.
Ledman rapped on Stachys’s hat like he wanted to come in. “What’re you lookin’ for out that damn window, astral knowledge?”
That one sounded familiar. Put him in the mind of future-telling. Stars and planets lined up around every collection of atoms. Stachys atoms and Gemma atoms, growing then gone. Pop atoms breaking down into ghosts. Atoms in a picture, atoms of rubber in the Chevy tires, atoms in the blacktop road.
“She’s apt to freshen today,” Stachys said.
“Lay your ear on her; auscultate her womb.”
“For chrissake, Led, this ain’t college. Go on home and clean up for the party. I got this.”
Molly yipped long after cars stopped pulling up the drive, so many people to sniff, dropped potato chips to eat. Ma’s laughter barked at him through the barn window. They were just fine without him. Gemma must be, too: still no text, not even phantoms. He’d stay till Cass calved. Cows mostly didn’t need people fussing over them, unless something was twisted-up breech. But this was Cass’s first and what if. The V of her back-end was a gorged arrow of flesh. He forked clean straw into the gutter behind her. He waited for the calf’s front hooves, crossed and clean and tender, to pierce the world.
Jennifer Audette’s work has appeared most recently at Tin House‘s Open Bar and Fiction Writers Review. Earlier short stories can be found in Crack the Spine, Stoneboat and Fiction Fix. If she had to choose just two books to read for the rest of her life: Infinite Jest and Beloved. Please don’t make her whittle it down to one. She lives with her husband in southern Vermont, and you can reach her at email@example.com.