The Straw Between My Teeth: A Short Story

Well if I’ll be the most goddamned son of a bitch ever born on two legs with a stick of straw between his teeth. Twenty goddamned years working these fields, slaving in the sun during the summer, locking myself away in the winter. Twenty goddamned years.

It was my daddy’s farm first, maybe his daddy’s before him too. But we grow, we always have. I don’t think I ever remember a season when we didn’t have a full harvest. We always had enough money for a good Thanksgiving dinner that kept us stuffed until next harvest.

My brothers and I started helping our daddy when we were just we biddy kids. I remember how goddamned jealous I was when my older brother got to learn to drive the tractor. I wanted so bad for my daddy to teach me to drive it too. He kept telling me that I was too young but I kept hollerin’ and cryin’ till my daddy had to grab me by the arm and drag me back to the house for a good lickin’. That shut me up real quick.

Was probably for the better I never learned to drive that demon-machine. My older brother drove it for no more than a week before losing control, turning hard so he wouldn’t hit a neighbour’s dog, but fell off and ran over his own goddamned legs. Right at the knee, flattened and split open like the coyotes along the highway. I still remember the colour of red the fields turned. It’s a colour that you can’t get out of your mind. With it comes the screaming again. My daddy didn’t give him no lickin’s for his crying, but he did beg him to stop.

We stopped using that machine after that. With my brother not walking anymore, it was my turn to learn how to chop the fields. My younger brothers still just ran water and fixed us sandwiches, but I had to learn to use the scythe. My daddy explained that’s how farmers cut their fields before machines started doing all the work. He said this work would be good for me. Make a man out of me and maybe finally put some hair on my chest.

It was a lot slower and we had to start working a lot earlier in the day, but when I got through a whole field, when I finished a whole harvest, and I looked at my bloodied, hard hands and feel the burns along my arms I knew it was worth it.

That’s how it’s been done for twenty some years. Since my daddy died, too soon to say who got the farm, but disease took my older brother’s leg, then his life shortly after that. My younger brothers both enlisted in the army to fight Natsies in Europe. Only one came back and when he did he wasn’t quite right. He tried to work on the farm, stayed in the house for two weeks. Kept waking up with nightmares, screaming about mortars and krauts, I had to throw water in his face to snap him out of it. On the last night, the water didn’t work and he kept screaming for his sergeant and crying and screaming “die fucking kraut scum!” I grabbed him by the soldiers and tried to shake him out of it. He clipped me with a decent right hook across the jaw, knocked my senses out of me for a minute. He tried to choke me out and that’s when I knew I had to fight dirty or die by my little brother’s hands. I kicked him between the legs and clipped him underneath his jaw. Knocked him off his feet and he hit his head against a wall. I wound up burying him next to my older brother and my daddy on the edge of the canola field.

That was a few years back. I adjusted to living on the farm on my own, got myself a good work day going and a nice daily routine. I didn’t mind spending my days outside, hacking along at my fields, talking to myself and setting daily goals for myself for how much I would chop that day. Some days I break records, some days I’m too tired and the sun’s too bright and hot.

It was a particularly hot day when a fancy car pulled up to the house. A black car with four doors that didn’t have a roof. A gentleman got out wearing a black suit with clean hair slicked back and molded into perfect shape. He had a black vest on overtop his white shirt. A gold chain ran along the front of his chest and into his pocket. I found it peculiar that he didn’t have a tie on, but it was a particularly hot day.

I stood at the side of the house while he walked up to the front door and gave it a knock. I watched him, curious how long it would take before he turned his head and saw me staring at him. City folk, always need a finger to point where to piss.

I folded my arms and leaned against my house before calling out to him. “Ya lost or something there sir?” I asked him squinting at the bright sun.

He stumbled back a bit, I guess the rumbling of my voice scared him a touch. He finally turns his head to see me staring back at him with my head tilted. He swallowed hard and reached into his pocket for a stack of white cards. I’m not a gambling man, so I thought they started sending betting games door to door to make a quick buck. But the man handed me a card and told me who he was.

Told me his name was Randy Lewis.

*****

My office is so goddamned hot. And it doesn’t matter if you open a window, there’s no breeze coming through. The air just stays put, stays stale, and smells of the perspiration of every human that’s walked through here.

The fan on my desk stopped working about a week ago. When it used to stop, I would give it a couple of taps with my pen and it’d kick back on again. Then a couple of taps turned into a couple of whacks with my hand. Then I whacked the stupid things so hard I whacked it off my desk. The cage is all bent, the blades wouldn’t be able to turn even if the damned thing started.

That’s just this stupid office. If it’s not the fan, it’s the hole-punch getting jammed, or running out of staples, or paper getting caught in my typewriter. It’s always something.

My boss walks by and plops a beige file on my desk. I keep my head down as he walks by, but I still know it’s him. His stink is very distinct. It smells sweet. Like if all the frosting from the donuts that fat bastard eats seeped through his pores with all the other sweat. There’s a distinct rhythm to his waddle too. Like he has to think after every second step. Thump thump… thump thump… thump thump…

I open and the file and checked the residence I would be visiting. I never read the name first, always where I’m going first. Some farm about half an hour south out of town. Issues with pests and rotting crops. Hasn’t sold a decent harvest in close to twenty years. The farm has no official owner: the last name it was registered to has been dead for around ten years. I hate these mystery cases. It’s always some reclusive nut-job who’d just as soon my cut throat as he would accept any help from me.

I don’t want this case. I know that there had to be around twenty other easy cases, I’d take them all just to get rid of this one stupid case that’s going to take me hours of inspecting, measuring, testing, and explaining to try and deal with. If only these stupid, slack-jawed yokels would learn what they’re doing.

I walked into my boss’ office and plopped the file back down onto his desk. He left the door open but the sickly smell still filled the room like a noxious gas trying to choke me to death. He rolled up his sleeves showing the sweat dripping off of his arms, soaking down the dark hairs along the top. Son of a bitch had more hair on his arms than on his head.

I tried to explain to him that I was swamped with work and there were plenty of other people in the office who could take this on. I had at least a dozen other trips to make this week alone, I didn’t know how much more driving in the sweltering heat I could take.

He pulls a cigar from his desk and sticks it between his teeth like a farmer with a piece of straw. He flicks open his lighter, like a greaser kid standing next to his hot rod, and slowly puff puffs the cigar as he lights it. The cigar slides between his index and middle finger as he takes a long, slow puff, and puts his elbow on his desk, pulling the cigar away. He exhales slowly and points at me with his cigar, his right eyebrow cocked upward.

“Lewis, I gave you that file because you actually know how to talk to those farmers, they like you, for whatever bizarre reason, so I need you to take this file. The last one of the week, I promise.”

I’ve heard that one before, but he has a point. For whatever reason, these illiterate, tractor driving troglodytes like me. I think they see through my suit and tie and just know I come from a blue-collar family. My dad worked a GM factory until his hands seized up. He wanted me to work with him when I was in high school, and a spent a couple of summers doing clean up jobs and running mail there, but I wound up taking a different route. I’m not built for manual labour, and if ever these farmers realize that they’re going to eat me up like a steak and potato dinner on a Sunday.

I try my ultimatum, offering to take a few more easy ones to get rid of this hard one, but I can tell he’s in no mood to hear me trying to barter. Without a word he hands me the file back and points me out of his office, like a school principal trying to get rid of an over-enthusiastic taddle-tale.

Fuck me, I guess I’m stuck with this.

*****

He put out his hand like he wants to my friend but I know better. Suits never come here for no good reason. I stay leaning ‘gainst my house until he realizes I ain’t touching his grubby hand. Son of a bitch would probably just wipe his hand with the rag in his pocket after he shook mine anyways.

He tells me he’s from the department of whatever with some fuckin’ branch of the gov’ment. He tells me he needs to see this and test that to make sure my farm ain’t no hazard. From the way he’s looking around and breathing heavy, I can tell he’s already made his decision.

He keeps rambling on about safety and some other shit when I finally get fed up.

“Listen, my daddy, and his daddy, and my brothers, we all worked on this farm our whole lives. I know how this farm works better than anyone else. You ain’t takin’ this away from me.”

He steps back a bit again; I guess I scared him a bit. He looks up at me, wide-eyed and concocting some scheme to get my guard down so he can take away my land. But I’m on to him.

“Look, mister, uh,” son of a bitch looks into the file he’s got in his hands. Didn’t even learn my name before he came. “Mister Joseph, I’m not here to take anything away from you. I’m just seeing about a couple of complaints from people driving by and living close by, probably all wrong anyways, right? I’m not here to take anything…”

“You’re a lying, Godless asshole and I won’t have you butter me up!” I yell at him.

I keep walking into my field and grab my scythe. I’m going to keep working on my farm even if it kills me. I start chopping at the wheat, cleaning the dread leaves and looking out for water snakes and gophers. Mister fancy stands behind me and keeps talking.

“Hey, I have no reason to shut your farm down, or take anything away from you.”

And I start chopping harder.

“I know what you’re thinking, that I make some fat bonus for every farm I take away from a hard working guy like you, but I really don’t, I get paid just the same for telling my boss a farm’s in great shape and it should keep going.”

And I’m giving full arm swings.

“As long as your farm’s in good shape, you have nothing to worry about. And besides, if you’re farm’s in as bad of shape that the guys above me need to step in, is this somewhere you really want to be working?”

And I’m swinging so hard I’m digging into the dirt and throwing it in the air, pieces flying all over like a bottle with a shotgun slug cutting through it.

“And remember, it’s not me who makes the call, I got people to answer to too..”

And I’m fucking sick of listening to this mother fucker flap his gums. And I spin to give him a piece of my mind.

“Listen here you piece of shit…”

And I stop myself when I notice the streak of crimson across some of the wheat, like the red in the grass when the tractor ran over my brother’s legs. I guess I turned a little too fast and a little too hard. My scythe looks like it just gutted a pig and mister fancy-man is holding his neck, hacking and choking, spitting up all over himself.

He drops to his knees and topples over. He stops himself with his hands letting the wound in his neck pour out like a Thanksgiving turkey we’re draining and getting ready for dinner. He keeps hacking and his head hits the grass, covering his face in all the crimson that just poured out of him. A few seconds later he stops struggling and stops breathing and starts stinking.

*****

I decide to wait until the next day before I visit this hefty case. I finished up all my other files so I can take my time with this last one. I drive home in hopes of a hot meal ready to go. I arrive home to my wife passed out on the couch again. Empty bottle of wine still rolling on the floor. She must have just finished it.

I slam the door behind me and startle her awake. She looks around like she had no idea she’s been out cold like some useless wino on the street.

“Friday night start a little early for you?” I condescend.

She stumbles as she stands but she thinks she’s keeping her composure. She’s not as bad as the last time when she got up only to fall on the broken bottle and needed stitches in her hand. She tried telling me it was an old bottle and only had half a glass left in it but the way she bled out like a coke bottle that clipped the edge of a table I knew that only the first bottle she polished off had only half a glass left in it.

“What are you talking about, dear?” she smiles. “I was just finishing up the vacuuming and must have fallen asleep from working so hard on your house today.” When I think I’m being condescending, she goes out of her way to redefine the word.

I walk over to the fridge hoping to God there’s something in there I can cook and all I can think about is that stupid drive I have to do tomorrow and deal with more of this kind of bullshit.

“I’m quitting my job tomorrow,” I abruptly announce with my nose still in the fridge. “I’m not even going to do my last file, I’m fed up.”

I hear the click click click of her hears slowly creeping up behind me. I understand that I’m not just quitting my job, I’m threatening her booze funds, and she’s not about to take that lightly.

“Listen here, you useless twit,” she snears and hisses from behind me. “The only thing you’re good at is that…” she pauses for a moment and I hear her earrings jingling as she shakes her head. “… Whatever the fuck it is that you do. And believe me when I say it’s the only good things that you do and you’re lucky that I don’t try to find a real man that can do it better for me because there are plenty of eyes on this block that try mighty hard to see through my blouse.”

I stand and let the cool air from the ice-box linger in front of me, the first relief from the heat I’ve had all day. I stand and I think about the hairy-armed sugar-beast I have to deal with back at that office, the drunken harlot I have to deal with here, and the morons who are too stupid to figure out how to clean a piece of farming equipment. A single bead of sweat runs down my cheek and lands between my lips. I turn quickly and give that bitch a piece of my mind.

“You’re right, I’m finishing that last file tomorrow, why? Because it’s the only opportunity I get away from you. I going to work tomorrow, and I’m not coming back.” I turn back to the fridge, grab a beer, and slam the door. “And I hope every set of eyes on this block gets a look at what’s under that blouse, maybe they’ll realize why I gave up so quickly.”

I walk out of the house and lean against my black car. The roof’s up and I lay my head against it. I think about how many miles it is to the closest beach and how sweet the ocean will sound. It won’t be my bosses voice or her banshee screech, just the calm ocean.

For the first time, I look forward to finishing up a file and getting through the next day.

*****

I make rough guesses where I buried my brother and my daddy before I stuff the spade into the ground. I don’t want to be digging up one body just to stick another one in.

I haven’t had company stick around for this long in years and I find myself talking to mister fancy-dancy; he’s better company when he can’t talk back.

“You know, I almost feel bad that this is where I’m sticking ya,” I start but need to catch my breath. Digging is hard work. “I bet you had a lot going for ya. You had a job, probably a good woman at home, you got a decent car, shoot I bet you even had a working fridge at home keeping you cool on the hot days.”

I dig down a good three feet before I spot to dump my company. “I mean, you were only doing your job, I get that. But you gotta understand, this farm’s all I got. I can’t have nobody snooping around and trying to take it away. In the end, I guess it was either you or me, I just beat you to the punch.”

I dump the load into the ground and start laying the dirt back on top. Once I got a decent hump going, I smack it a couple of time with my spade. “All I hope is you wind up somewhere better than you started out this morning.”

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