The Frenetic North Woods

For Christmas one year, both boys received the same gift from their father: a bottle of expensive bourbon.  At the time, William was 16 and Frank was 14.  Their father explained that they were not to drink it until each of their bottles had aged properly, which would be around the time the two boys were of legal drinking age.  Daniel (their father) went on to explain that waiting to enjoy something would teach them both a valuable lesson in life: the anticipation of a gift, he said, sometimes brings more pleasure than the gift itself.

Frank’s bottle went “missing” a few months later.

William had more patience.  His bottle moldered in his room; it remained untouched, he assumed, until one wintry afternoon five years later, when he was home from college.  

The snow fell softly on the fields that day.  As he looked out through one of the east windows of the old farmhouse, he could barely see the distant hills through the flurry.  The setting was perfect.  It looked like the cover of a magazine with a name like Rural Hospitality.  Or maybe Pastoral Holiday. 

He called his father and brother into the living room.  The bottle stood proudly in front of a low, smouldering fire surrounded by three tumblers, each with a large cube of ice placed neatly in the center.  After pouring and passing a glass to Frank and Daniel, William made a toast.

“To dear old dad, who taught us that the best things come to those who wait.”

Frank ignored the slight and took a tiny sip while his brother and father threw theirs back.

It took William and Daniel only a moment to realize that someone, probably years ago, had drained the contents of William’s bottle and refilled it with bourbon-colored Listerine.

“Yikes,” Frank said, barely suppressing a smile.  “That did not age well.”

When neither his brother nor his father responded, he added: “Maybe we waited too long?”

***

William never did look back and laugh at that one.  Even years later — after the two boys had grown apart and their father had finally received his reward for a life of deferred gratification, William would frown and shake his head involuntarily at the memory.  It wasn’t his fault, he told himself, Frankie had all the self-control of a puppy let loose in a deli.

William remembered it now as he pulled his Volvo into town again for the fifteenth time in as many years.  He was up from Boston to attend an auction to support his father’s favorite charity.  Though his father had died months ago, Daniel still had some pull over William.  

He drove slowly down Main Street, glancing at the buildings that would never change except to darken and peel and eventually fall in on each other.  Each one, like a scene from a grotesque opera, held the ghosts of his half memories: first, there was the Paradise Hotel, which had ceased to be a hotel shortly after the Civil War and was where a woman once stood on the balcony and looked down at William on the street below and laughed when his cousin pulled down his pants.  Next to it was the hoarder house with the asbestos shingles and in which lived a man they all called Kit Kat.  Kit had fallen off the hayride at the county fair when he was a boy and from that day forward would only communicate by meowing like a cat.  It was as though falling out of a wagon and hitting his head had fixed his mind in time, so that now, as a 67 year old man, he still saw the world through the eyes of a little boy.  Lastly, the gas station — now a Zippy Mart — behind which rose piles of petroleum tainted gravel and in which he and his brother had experimented with girls and alcohol and harder things.

The dinner was to be held at the usual venue, a giant hall that held the stench of six decades of banquet suppers.

Officially, the Town of Waitsville Armory was where the local National Guardsmen assembled to tinker with obsolete machinery and plan their monthly training exercises, which for some reason only happened during hunting season.  This evening, the lot was full.

William didn’t recognize all of the cars, but he noticed at once Frank’s rusty black van and deliberately parked on the other side of the lot.  It was a wonder that it still ran.  More wondrous was that the name of Frank’s teenage band, Redneck Death Carnival, was still legible, painted in a once yellow and now dirty orange scrawl.

The doors to the Armory were propped open with chairs and through them William could see Vermillion Cooper waving him over to the reception table.  Vermillion was not her original name but she had assumed it some forty years ago, when she had declared herself the poet laureate of Waitsville.

“William!  It’s simply sublime to see you!  So glad you could make it.”

“Hello Vermillion,” he said, noting her favorite word, “You’re always sublime.”

She presented her cheek to him and he delivered a quick peck.  Then she asked: “do you have any last minute items for the auction?  It’s not too late to enter something.”

“Nope.  Just me.”

“What’s the starting bid?”

William laughed politely and then turned towards his brother, who was smiling at him from across the room, behind a row of crumpled cans of Natural Light.

“I see you found the bar,” William said as he stepped up to the table.

Frank stood up and hugged his brother.  Then he looked kindly into his eyes, put an arm on his shoulder and then, with the grace of a ballet dancer, slid his hand down William’s chest and latched onto his right nipple.  He squeezed it mercilessly between his thumb and forefinger and rolled it in the rough folds of his shirt.

“Gaaaah!” William convulsed and twisted himself free.  “Why do you always do that?”

“I don’t know, man.  I don’t even think about it anymore.  It’s like the way you always comment on my love of the drink.”

It was a fair point, William conceded.  Maybe he should instead congratulate his brother for being the only one amongst his friends who had confined his drug use to legal substances.

“So do we have to do anything tonight?” William cast a worried look around the room.  “Give a speech or something?”

“Nah.  Just talk to people and maybe bid on something.  Everything is donated so there are some real stinkers for sale.  All the money is going to the youth sports league.”

“Dad loved his sports.”

“Yeah.  Too bad neither of us was any good.”

“You were pretty good,” William said.  “You just didn’t have any interest in it.  What was it dad always said?  Something about how you could pitch like Satchel Paige.”

“Yeah.  And he said you hit like Lou Gehrig.  In his later years, of course.”

“Hey now,” said William, “You’re the twitchy one around here.”  William had noticed that his brother was busily fidgeting with his napkin.  He also appeared to have lost some weight.  Frank looked away.

After the half-eaten chicken had been cleared and the teenage waiters had swept the crumbs off the folding tables and onto the floor, the bidding began.  

William kept hoping that the auctioneer would offer something small that he could cart back to Boston with him, but nearly all of the items were things that could only be consumed in town: a decade of free oil changes at the Zippy Mart, first pick of strawberries at the Franklin Farm, a paired cheese experience at the Kingdom Winery.  Frank won that bid, though he likely couldn’t afford the auction price.

The prize item, which stirred a murmur from the audience, was a calf donated by the Palmer Dairy.  John Palmer, who had not bothered to change out of his cowshit-caked overalls for the occasion, led the calf by a rope and held her tightly with both of his arms around her neck as the auctioneer called out for an opening bid.

“Will anyone give me $250 for this fine holstein?  She was born just this week and has already grown into a fine specimen.”

It was true.  She was enormous and yet her disproportionate eyes and muzzle suggested that she would continue to grow.  How could any creature born a week ago be so large?  If the auction lasted much longer, they might not be able to get her out of the building.  No one raised a paddle to take on this great snot-nosed, eyeball licking burden of bovine flesh.

William felt his brother’s eyes on him.  When he didn’t turn towards him, Frank yelled: “Come on Bill, you gotta bid on something!”

The room was silent as the auctioneer waved his gavel and repeated the reserve price. The whole town watched the farmer and his unwanted calf.  It was unbearable for William.  He could not possibly take this cow home in his Volvo tonight, but even if he could, where would he put it? 

But he also could not bear to watch a dumb animal rejected so publicly.  He must, at least, start the bidding.  After he had built up the energy in the room he would let some local win the prize.

William drained the last of the single glass of wine he had been nursing all night and bellowed: “Twohundredfifty!”

Without pausing for breath, without soliciting a counter-bid, the auctioneer pointed his gavel at William and said softly: “Sold.”

***

William had tried to make out the check as a donation and not ask for anything in return, but the organizer of the event thought that John Palmer, who had donated the calf out of love for William’s father, would be offended.  

Frank offered little help as William led the unwieldy calf out of the building.  Once outside, the calf cast her large, frightened eyes around the growing crowd of spectators filing out into the parking lot.  

“Whatevayer drivin, William, I doan think she’s gonna fit!”  This from Henry Caulfield, a second or third cousin whom William remembered vaguely from their last Christmas party in the old farmhouse.

It occurred to him now that the whole village had been in on this joke.  Of course he would not know what to do with a cow.  In fact, he was possibly the least equipped to derive any profit from the animal.  At the same time, of course he would bid on the cow if no one else did.  William had always been the conciliator.  

For once in the many years since he had moved away, this trip would last much longer than he had planned.

***

It was a moonless night and the streetlights on Route 5 were mostly out.  William drove faster than normal through the dark woods and still he struggled to keep up with the taillights of his brother’s van, which now and then shifted on its axles.  Anyone could see there was an animal inside.

As they rolled into the center of town, the dimly lit buildings emerged from the black night like a stage appearing from behind a curtain.  William assumed his brother was out of gas when he saw him turn on his left blinker in front of the Zippy Mart, but then he pulled past the pumps and around to the back of the convenience store.  The tail-lights of the van grew dim as Frank shut off the engine.  In a moment he was beside William’s car.  William rolled down his window.

“Wait here for a second, bro,” he whispered, “I have to conduct some business.”

“What business?” William asked.

Frank did not answer.

William’s eyes followed his brother as he walked across the parking lot to a dumpster surrounded by the arc of a buzzing security light.  The contrast of the light against the darkness all around reminded William of the bug zapper up at their farmhouse.  In late June, when the black flies were everywhere, their father would turn on the bug zapper and execute maybe a thousand flies in a single evening.  It not only killed the black flies on their porch, but also indiscriminately emptied the wilderness around of moths, beetles, and any other nocturnal flying things that might seek the light.

William watched his brother approach the small crowd beside the dumpster.  He expected to hear muffled laughter, but he saw now that this was a serious transaction.  Something small changed hands between his brother and a tall giant of a man.  William parked, shut off his car and quietly stepped out onto the asphalt.

Frank was surprised to find his brother in the driver’s seat of the van.

“I’d like to drive the Death Carnival for a bit,” William said.

“And leave your car here?”

“I can pick it up in the morning.  I’m thinking maybe you shouldn’t be driving just now.”

“Suit yourself,” Frank said.  He walked around to the passenger side and got in.

Although the road was familiar to William, navigating the van was not without its challenges.  In that part of the country, the only roads with any real traffic on them are the ones that lead to the Canadian border crossings, but even the back roads were littered with wild turkeys.  Though William had driven this particular road many times before, he had to correct his steering several times because with each turn the lumbering animal in the back repositioned itself.

Finally the road straightened out.  After a short piece, William asked, “what are you going to do with the farm?”

“I don’t know.  I thought I could get some money for the timber, but they cut down a few sample trees and they were all rotten in the middle.  Did you know that pine trees rot from the inside out?  They look fine, even if you walk right up to one of them, but they’re all dead on the inside.”

Although the calf had now settled itself, the hot air inside the van was humid from her respirations.

After a moment, William asked, “So you’re using now?”

Frank considered this for a while and then said softly: “Naw…just a gift for my bro.  I thought you might need to relax a little tonight.”

“Ah,” William said, relieved, “so you picked up some pot?”

“Pot?” Frank laughed, “The 80s called and they want your drugs back.” He pulled an orange plastic medicine bottle from his pocket and shook it, which surprised the calf and made her fart.  “This, my friend,” he said, shaking the bottle again, “is a prescription for fun.”

“Jesus, Frank.  What is it?”

“The prescription on the side says it’s vicodin.  And inside you’ll find little pills that look exactly like vicodin.”  He dropped his voice to a whisper.  “But it’s not vicodin.”

“The fuck is it?”

“It’s texmex.”

“Texmex?”

“A mix of heroin and fentanyl, packed in Mexico to look like pills and packaged right here in town.  Not like the old days when you’d buy a rock in a ziplock bag and you had to, like, cook it on a spoon or something.  This stuff is real discreet.  You know you can buy these empty prescription bottles on Amazon?  And we put labels on them so they look like legitimate prescriptions.”

“Wait.  You’re in on this?”

“I get the friends and family discount.  And yes, practically the whole town is in on this: Bobby, Charlie, Mike B.”

“All the local geniuses, at least.  So you sample your own goods now and then?”

“Only when I need a little pick-me-up.  Dad just died for chrissake.  I’m depressed.  I’ll probably stop after this one”

“The hell you will.”

William turned into a narrow break in the woods.  Silence enveloped him the moment he killed the engine.  The calf shifted uncomfortably as William stepped out of the van.  He walked instinctively past the house he had grown up in and across the field to the shore of the large lake beyond.  He stood on the dock smelling the cool breeze from the water.  A loon called out but was unanswered.  Across the lake, the Canadian wilderness slept.

Behind him he heard his brother shouting.  He turned around and saw the van rocking back and forth as the cow clumped around.  He walked back to the farmhouse and as soon as he was within talking distance, his brother said: “Help me get him out before he tears my Chevy apart.”

“Can’t we leave him there for the night?”

“Hell no,” Frank said, throwing the back doors open.

The calf looked up at them with mournful eyes and licked her nostrils.  She stood unsteadily and stared out into the night.

“C’mon girl,” Frank said.  Then he whistled.

The calf snorted and backed further into the van.

“Jesus, Frank,” William said, “she’s not a dog.  You scared her.”

“She scares me!  I thought she was gonna kill us this whole drive.  Flatten us or something.  Every time she shifted back there I could hear my damn shocks giving out.”

“Well get her,” William said.

“You get her.  I prefer my beef on a bun.”

William stepped cautiously into the van and pulled at the halter around her head, but she would not budge.

“Hold on,” Frank said, “step on out for a minute.  I’ve got an idea.”

Frank got into the front seat and turned on the radio, full blast.  The calf immediately jumped out the back of the van, tripped and fell hard against a tree.  

She commenced lowing until Frank had turned off the music.  William tied her halter to a post that their dad had installed the last time Frank backed his van into the propane tank. 

Once inside the farmhouse, Frank offered William a drink.

“Do you have any red wine?” 

“I have a bottle of mom’s dandelion wine.”

“Mom died ten years ago.  Do you think it’s still any good?”

“No, I tried some last winter.  It was awful.”

“But you kept it?”

“It’s sentimental.”

The other options were beer and something Frank said was whiskey.  It was objectionable to William’s palate.

“What are we going to do with this damn cow?” Frank asked.

“Perhaps you can let it roam free on the hills.  Isn’t that what cows do?”

“We don’t have the fencing to let him roam free and the barn isn’t big enough to keep him in the winter.”

“What do you suggest?”

“You could move back in and help me put up a fence.”

William thought for a long time.  At last he said, “Waitsville is a fine place to visit.”

“It’s your hometown, man!  You belong here.”

“There’s nothing to do.  I’d become a raging alcoholic in two weeks.  Or worse.”  He looked severely at Frank.

“Yeah, well, I know we didn’t always get along, Billy, but I miss having you around.  You were always fun to mess with.  Riling you up or getting you in trouble always gave me something to look forward to.  Remember that time we found that cave near the river?”

“Indian Joe’s cave.”

“Exactly!  Indian Joe.  See I would have just thought it was a cool place to get stoned, but you made up this whole story about how these mountains used to be full of indians and how they’d come down to the river to make charcoal.”

“It’s true,” William said, “You can still find pottery shards if you know where to look, mostly near the old charcoal pits on the plain.  They were here for centuries.”

Frank perked up, remembering the history his brother had taught him long ago, “and then some asshole set up a log run on the Connecticut River and cut down all the trees and chased all the Indians away.”

“All except Indian Joe.”

“This was his home.  No one was going to chase him off.  The old-timers say he had a drinking problem, though.  But, hell, I guess we all do up here.”

“That’s your problem?  You drink too much?”  William raised his eyebrows.

“I said I’m done after tonight.”

“You know that’s not true.  Think you can quit heroin?  Just like that?  Here’s the truth: you’ll kill yourself in a few months, maybe a year.  And I’ll come up for the funeral.  And then I’ll be the last one and I’ll sell our land and finally be shut of this goddamn town.”

Frank pulled the orange prescription bottle out of his pocket and held it up to the light.

“It’s not as addictive as they say.”

“Prove it.”  William gestured with his fingers.

Frank stood there staring at his hand for a long time.  

Cursing, and unable to look his brother in the eye, Frank handed over pills.

***

William had never been able to sleep past eight because his room was on the east face of the farmhouse where the sun shines directly through the window in the morning.  His father had taken down all the old curtains when their mother had died and Frank hadn’t yet bothered to put up new ones.

William’s first real thought as he stared out at the landscape was that it seemed suspiciously still.  He was used to the silence up here, but not the stillness.  The mornings in the Northeast Kingdom are generally more frenetic than calm.  As the sun burns off the mist from the valley and low lying hills, the constant motion of the atmosphere draws new colors and shadows, causing the landscape to shift from one moment to the next, almost like a living organism.  

But this morning was still.  And why couldn’t he hear the cow?  He pulled on his shoes and stepped out into the biting cold of the moist autumnal air.  Not only was the calf not where he had left her, but even the pole he had tied her to was gone.

He turned to the house and yelled to his brother inside.  Frank appeared on the front porch shirtless, his long underwear stained by the sweat of his legs.  Although it was early in the season, the hairs had already begun to grow through the knitting.

“Well she won’t be hard to find,” he said, his eyes sweeping across the long driveway.

The calf must have hauled the uprooted hitching post behind her when she left in the night because there was a deep groove scraped in the dirt all the way down the road.  The two brothers jumped in the van and followed the line.  Soon after the spot where the road met the lower plain and became flat, the line turned sharply to the right.  There the fence was broken and beyond it the calf stood grazing.

“Well let’s go get her,” William said.

“No!  Shit.  No,” Frank replied.

“What’s wrong?” 

“This is Big Tom’s land.  Remember Big Tom?”

“I remember Big Tom.  I thought I saw him standing by the dumpster last night.”

“That’s the guy.  He’s got the Mexican connection.  And this is his place.”

“Well why don’t we get her off his property before he wakes up?”

“Big Tom has a whole operation going on in his house.  Unless you’re coming around for business — and there’s a right way to do that — it’s dangerous to set foot on his land.”

“So what do you want to do?”

“Let’s drive around front.  You stay in the car and I’ll explain things to him.”

William understood immediately.  Big Tom would certainly remember him from the night when the two brothers went drinking with some friends at the Chimes of Midnight Grill.  At that time, Frank was a bit of a man around town and there were rumors about him and the giant’s girlfriend.  Big Tom appeared out of nowhere and slammed his fist on their table as he took an empty seat.  Frank seemed unphased.  Not getting the response he had hoped for, Big Tom reached silently across the table and picked up William’s glass of wine.  He stuck out his pinky as he sipped it with exaggerated effete politeness.  And then, staring at Frank with a smile, he flicked the empty glass against his bottom lip and bit off a piece of the thin glass bowl and snapped the stem in his hand.  

William had a premonition that his brother was going to die the moment the man stood up.  Even in high school, Big Tom was nearly seven feet tall.

In a moment of genius improvisation, William had jumped between the two and said that if they were going to fight, they needed to fight fair and in a place where neither man had an advantage.  The golf course behind the bar was well lit and had few obstructions: they would have nothing but their fists to fight with.  Both men agreed and headed for the door.  

The Chimes of Midnight bar was reached by a steep flight of stairs over the pizza parlor.  William said he didn’t want any shenanigans on the stairs so he offered to go between the two men on the way down.  Holding the door open, he invited Big Tom to go first.

The moment Big Tom walked through the door, however, William grabbed the door frame and donkey kicked him down the stairs.  Before he could get up, the two brothers were on him, pounding him hard enough to ensure that he wouldn’t put up much of a fight, at least for that evening.

The timing was fortunate for William, though, as he was planning to leave for college that Monday.  Big Tom had long ago forgiven Frank for his part in the fight, and even for sleeping with his girlfriend, but he and William had never made amends.  One of the many things that had kept William’s hometown visits short was his fear of retribution from Big Tom.  And now here he was: on the giant’s land.

William put on his sunglasses and sat low in the van as Frank approached the house.

Big Tom’s farm was all on a floodplain and the house sat about three feet above the ground on cinder block pilings.  William could see daylight through the chinks between the junk Big Tom had packed in the crawlspace under his house.

Frank rapped on the door.  After a moment, it opened and Big Tom’s head peered down at him from the top of the doorframe.  Frank was talking to him, but Big Tom was already looking past him and making eye contact with William.

William couldn’t make out what he said, but Frank turned around to look back at the van, and as he did so, Big Tom knocked him out of the way with one powerful swipe of his hand.  With an animal’s preternatural swiftness, he gamboled across his driveway to the van and pointed a pistol at William’s head.

“Hey there Mr. Fairfight,” he whispered.  “Out.”

William’s hand was shaking as he turned the key in the ignition, but the van was slow to start.

Before he could shift into gear, Big Tom jammed his pistol through the open window and bludgeoned William with it.  Just as he heard the soft cocking of the pistol, he heard a much louder crack and Big Tom disappeared from his view.

For a moment, William thought he had been shot.  The blood was streaming from his nose and his ears were ringing.  But as he sat up he could now see his brother standing over Big Tom’s prone body with a crowbar.  

“Fuck, Frank!  You killed him.”

“He was about to shoot you in the head.  What was I supposed to do?”

The brothers looked around them.  There were two other houses up the hill that had a direct line of sight onto the driveway.

Frank was the first to react.  He lifted up the giant’s shoulders, but his bulk wouldn’t budge.

“Help me carry him inside.”

William picked up one enormous leg and then the other, but it was no good.  Next he walked around the body and grabbed a shoulder while his brother repositioned himself on the other one.  With effort, the two men managed to drag the giant across the driveway, up the three steps and into the house.

Once inside, William retched, not from the horror of what they had just done, but from the smell inside the house.

“Oh God.  What is that?”

Frank smiled and pointed at the hole in the living room floor, beside the couch, where you would expect to see an end table.

“Big Tom got tired of trudging through the snow to the outhouse every morning.  Hell, I guess it’s hard for a big dude like him to get around in the winter.”

“You mean he … shits into his crawlspace?  Onto the dirt?”

“Of course not.  He’s not an animal.  There’s a 50 gallon trough under the hole which he empties periodically.  Not often enough, in my opinion.”

The brothers finally positioned Big Tom at the foot of the stairs leading up to the second level.  

“Get me some water,” William said.

By the time Frank returned with a water jug from the kitchen, William was forcing the last of Frank’s pills down Big Tom’s throat.  William snatched the jug from his brother, but poured too fast, an uncontrolled act which unfortunately revived the giant.

He rose fast, thrashing like a demon.  Because he stood between the brothers and the front door, they were forced to take the back door.  They heard the giant screaming profanities behind them as they ran across the marshy fields towards the calf.  It looked at them in surprise as dirt burst off its shoulder from the impact of a bullet.  A split second later they heard the report of Big Tom’s rifle, which he kept by his back window.

The cow slowly laid down in the field, lowing mournfully.

* * *

A light snow began to fall on the two men huddled behind the cow, who continued to proclaim its suffering.  In a town where hunters regularly trudged across neighbor’s fields and fired indiscriminately, the gunshot had not attracted anyone’s attention.  The brothers could no longer hear the giant’s yelling, which had become less and less coherent over the past twenty minutes.

William, and then Frank, cautioned a look around the cow.  In his state of confusion, the giant’s legs had failed him and, after firing the one bullet in the chamber, he had been unable to find another.  Now the great mass of man lay in a clump by the back door with a trickle of frothy saliva on his lips and snowflakes melting slowly on his open eyes.

***

The police officially reported it as an accidental death by overdose, though everyone knew that Big Tom never sampled the drugs he sold and had even stopped drinking years ago.  The sheriff, who had once worked for the boys’ father, had not challenged their story of how the giant had shot at them while they were trying to recover the cow that had wandered onto his field.  It was just plausible enough to pass muster: the whole town knew about the auction, and that the brothers had not yet had the time to put up a proper fence.

Frank and William had more trouble with the veterinarian, who at first refused to treat the animal laying in the field.

“She’s not worth saving.  Haul her off to the butcher and make something of the meat,” he had said, “If you like, I will put her out of her misery.”

To Frank’s surprise, William refused the offer.

She had stopped lowing by this point and was only breathing heavily, the steam rising from her open mouth.  Old as the veterinarian was, he had never tended to a gunshot wound on a domestic animal. 

The cost of extracting the bullet and suturing the wound on the suffering and uncooperative animal was even more than what William had paid for her at the auction, and the recovery would be long.  But it wouldn’t be too much extra trouble for William since he had to stay in town anyway, at least a little while longer.