Tuesday Snippet – The Fatted Calf

Prodigal Son, Thomas Hart Benton, Dallas Museum of Art

Prodigal Son, Thomas Hart Benton, Dallas Museum of Art

The Fatted Calf
(First Scene of a Short Story)

It had been a decade since Sam had rented a car. He always had his assistant arrange for a limousine. Those days were gone – long gone.

At the rental counter the first three credit cards were rejected but the fourth went through and after a short, polite argument he was allowed a subcompact car. Red-faced he took the vehicle out onto the old highway – the one he remembered from his childhood – now gone over to cracked asphalt and weeds creeping over the edges. He blared the radio and tore down the rough road with the windows down – looking across the bright green bristles of spring wheat at the lines of huge trucks on the newer Interstate – parallel – a mile distant.

He remembered his mother driving him to the airport twenty years earlier – his small bag packed. His mother teared and resigned – her wet eyes locked on the road ahead. His father was plowing the east forty. Sam could see the cloud of brown dust raised by the steel blades slicing and turning the dry soil. He watched the distant tractor stop – the dust cloud blowing past and leaving the huge machine alone and tiny in the distance. Sam had to imagine his father watching the pickup flying by on the road clear past the end of the field carrying his son away.

The hamlet was closer to the city than Sam had remembered and he drove down the main street before heading out to the family farm. Everything was so familiar – nothing had changed in the two decades – except it all seemed smaller somehow. Smaller and quieter – the streets deserted and more than a few windows boarded up or taped over with paper.

It was like driving through a miniature model of his childhood memories – perfect in detail, yet missing something essential – a soulless reproduction.
This strange living mutation of what he remembered frightened him. He accelerated, squealing his tires in the dust that leaked in thin waves onto the streets, and turned off the paved highway at the edge of town. He drove down the familiar washboarding sanded country lane – the hedgerows on each mile section taller than he remembered or often taken out altogether, leaving a gap like a missing tooth.

As he approached the farm he felt his heart beating like a fluttering bird – his breath coming with some difficulty.

At first he didn’t recognize the place. The weeds had grown high across the yard – once kept cropped short by a small herd of sheep – now gone riot. The familiar barn to the left of the drive was gone. Sam looked closer and saw the expanse of scorched earth where the wood and stored hay must have burned. The encroaching weeds were greener and taller here – fertilized by the ash.

The house – always a clean white wash – was speckled with a gray peeling – revealing the weathered old wood underneath. The windows, which Sam remembered as bright rectangles showing his mother’s colorful handmade curtains were now bare shadow pits adorned only with crystal scythes – shards of shattered windowglass.

Although it was obvious that the place was uninhabitable, for some reason Sam took his suitcase – no larger than the one he had left with two decades ago – out of the trunk after he climbed out of the tiny car.

For a long time, he stood in the remaining bit of sandy road, trying not to touch the invading weeds, with his hand on his jaw, trying to comprehend. Off to the side, behind a few strands of rusted barbed wire, was the skeleton of a cow, now bleached by the sun to a bright white. He wondered if this was the calf he had left behind –the one he had been getting up before dawn to feed. It wasn’t of course – those onerous chores were twenty years in the past – that calf was hamburger long, long ago.

The skeleton seemed to pull Sam out of his reverie and, looking past the house, he saw a structure still intact. It was the old windmill. Green vines climbed the four metal struts that supported the structure, but the zinc-coated blades were still creaking, spinning in the breeze.

Sam pushed his way through the weeds and found the path that ran from the kitchen to the windmill. The well below was too shallow – the water too contaminated and salty for humans to drink, but the cows and sheep seemed to like it fine. A series of troughs, now twisted and junked, ran from the pump attached to the mill to a half dozen watering stations that the farm animals could use.

It had another use, though. The farm was too far out for city utilities, and potable water was precious. Halfway up the tower was a tank that could be filled by the windmill, and underneath that a compartment, about the size and shape of a phone booth, was constructed of galvanized steel. A big old-fashioned shower head hung below the tank like a drooping sunflower.
Sam had hated going out to the windmill and taking his shower before school – especially in the winter. It was humiliating even when it wasn’t brutally uncomfortable.

Staring at the mechanism now, Sam was oddly drawn to it. He reached out and yanked a few stray vines out of the way and then pulled the familiar lever. Sam jumped back when the pump arm let out a huge metallic groan, but it started to move again and he heard rumbling and the telltale splash of water starting to fill the tank. As if on cue, the breeze picked up and the blades began turning faster.

Sam looked around at the vast expanse of nothing, nobody. It was silent except for the clicks and hissing of insects moving through the weeds. The sun was directly overhead and the day had turned hot – Sam felt the streams of sweat trickling across his face.

As the tank filled, Sam pulled off his suit and hung his clothes on the old hooks that ran up the windmill strut. As he waited for the tank to top off he stood naked, leaning back in the sun. As a child, he was always shy and would dash from the house with a towel held firmly, but now he didn’t care. There was nobody within miles anyway.

He reached out and pulled on the rusty handle that opened the valve to the shower head. At first there was only a hiss, then some lumps of old mud-dauber wasp nest tumbled out, followed by little more than a thin rusty trickle. It did not take long for the pipes to clean themselves and the stream gained in strength and clarity. Soon the water was pure and strong, and Sam stepped into the shower, ducking his head into the cold liquid, sparkling in the sunlight.