The hanging light was on above the old linoleum kitchen table, casting its familiar yellow glow. When one of the adults walked across the room, or nudged the table, it moved slightly from side to side, making a sputtering fireside effect over the faces of those seated. It was an effect no one but me, watching from a distance, would have appreciated.
I was sitting cross legged at the crack in my bedroom door directly opposite the kitchen. I could see Uncle Blue at the head of the table. Aunt Carol was leaning against the sink, one ankle crossing the other. Behind her, the window was a black square of night. There were no streetlights on the dirt road leading to the farm, and the nearest neighbors were separated from us by a dense patch of trees. That little kitchen, filled with my family, was the single thing radiating heat and light in a thumbprint of darkness. Catty-corner to Blue sat Uncle Sal, rocking back on the legs of his chair. Each man had a beer in front of him, and Carol held one to her chest. My mother was off-stage, though I could see her pass in and out to wipe a counter or get something out of the refrigerator. She would not have liked to see me awake and out of bed.
Uncle Blue was telling a story. It had to do with the acquisition of a bull by his father, who had run the farm some 40 years prior, before the cows were sold and the land partitioned off; before my mother and father turned the two-story farmhouse into a bed and breakfast; before Blue, Sal, and Carol grew up and moved away. When the siblings returned, their storytelling reanimated the past and like small gods they populated the rooms with the ghosts of my grandparents and their myriad acquaintances. I delighted in their telling, especially in the stories that were told after I was sent to bed.
“So, Dad took me to this auction and it’s like, in Albany — somewhere a couple hours away, I think, ’cause he was complaining the whole time about the drive, I remember,” Blue said. “You know how he didn’t like to leave the farm.”
“You sure he didn’t take Sal?” Carol asked.
“No, he took me. Sal was in trouble for something or the other.”
Uncle Blue punched Sal lightly on the arm, and they both chuckled.
“Anyway, we get there, and he sees this bull, and I mean, that was it. You know how Dad was when he got his eye on something — and that’s what people said about him, that he had a sixth sense about these things, right? He’d just narrow right in. And this bull, I swear, you remember, Sal, when he brought it home, this bull was the meanest, ugliest, scariest sonofabitch.”
He and Blue and Carol all sipped their beers.
Carol gave my mom a look. “So they bring this beast back here in a trailer, and we’re all — me, Sal, Jean, Mom — we’re all standing in the yard basically slack-jawed ’cause, you know, we never had a bull here on the farm. And I’m telling you, this thing was like, mythical. It had those close-together real mean eyes, like it wanted to tear you to smithereens for looking at it. And it snorted, remember? Loud. Like, uuuuurgh, urgh—”
Uncle Sal slapped the table in laughter, his thick class ring making a thwomp against its surface. Carol giggled behind her beer bottle. My mother padded briefly into view, wearing an oversized PTA T-shirt with the name of my school emblazoned across the front. She opened the refrigerator and brought out another six-pack, placing it on the table between the men. Between them all, an invisible web, upon which danced little dewdrops of memory and understanding.
I had no siblings to share the necessary context of my life. Nothing in my childhood, anyway, seemed very exciting. There were no mythical beasts, no characters I could recall that were as interesting as, for example, Mr. Heinly, an old man who used to stop by the farm with his feather-haired lap dogs, carrying baggies full of rings and pocket watches for my mom and her sister, treasures he’d unearthed from the edge of the Delaware. I tried to formulate stories about the guests at the bed and breakfast, but they were mostly retired older couples or parents visiting their kids at a nearby summer camp. I longed for a witness, someone with whom I could repackage the memories of our shared childhood for later consumption.
“So, every day, once a day, around one o’clock, Dad would walk out across the road to the pen, over there where we kept him,” Blue said, and he jabbed a large hairy hand toward the front door, indicating what was now a parcel of overgrown grass across the road. “And he’d bring this long prod — steel, I think it was — and it was like, I mean, Sal, d’you remember? It was like a dance they would do. This really careful little routine.”
“Dad would come up on the bull’s side. He’d put one hand real gentle on his flank there, and with the other hand he’d grab the ring. The bull would huff — like, this again? — and kinda resist Dad’s pull. The whole thing, it was artful really. Biological almost, like nature’s way — man versus beast. ’Cause here are these two stubborn ‘kings of the jungle’ so to speak — this big giant bull who could have crushed Dad into powder, and Dad, who is just this little guy, but has a different kind of power, right? He’s got the prod. And the food. And the bitches —”
Blue laughed at his own joke. Aunt Carol clucked her tongue, then lowered her chin disapprovingly in her brother’s direction. Sal shook his head with a smile on his face, reaching again for the bottle in front of him. I couldn’t see my mother.
“But really. Seriously. It was something to watch, Dad and that bull. They were an even match. This whole place, as I remember it, would get quiet. And every day, with this ritual,” Blue said, lightly stabbing the table with his pointer finger for emphasis between the words, “Every. Damn. Day. Dad would win.”
My mother said “Oh Jesus,” and left the room. I could hear her slippers padding toward my door, so I ducked back in as she passed. She would have a cigarette on the back porch.
When I looked again, Blue’s pride was a tangible thing radiating out of the kitchen right to my bedroom door. I sucked it in hungrily. That was my pride too, and my fearlessness, and my bravery, something to which I was entitled. I was the grandson of the man who squared off with the bull. I was not athletic, nor was I showing any prodigious signs, and I had only two friends, who lived clear across the county. But I was entitled to this little legacy.
“Except,” Uncle Sal said, after a beat, “for that one day.”
Blue pointed a fat finger at Sal in recognition. “You do remember this.”
“What?” Carol asked. “What?” She was the youngest.
“One day, Dad is out there, doing his thing. He comes up behind the bull and puts his hand there on the flank and maybe, I don’t know, he takes an extra step or he flinches a little, or he’s extra sweaty, but I think that bull felt some kinda nervousness. And he acted on it.”
Uncle Blue popped up out of his chair toward Carol and she let out a little yelp, then slapped him on the shoulder. When he’d settled back down, he pulled his T-shirt out from the fold in his stomach where it had gotten caught and then readjusted his jeans up over the paunch.
“This thing just comes at Dad, and it happens fast. Like you wouldn’t believe. I was over by the barn I think, or out on the field. And I look over and there’s this flash of brown and Dad. I mean, I’ve never seen him run like that.”
“I was coming out of the front door here,” Sal said, “and he was bolting straight at me. If it were a cartoon, there would have been smoke on both their heels.”
Carol let her bottom lip fall. Blue appeared pleased with his audience, despite my mother’s departure. Sal put both his elbows on the table. A red blush rose to the speckled skin of his cheeks.
“So Dad is scrambling toward the road, then down the road, back up toward the house, and he’d dropped the prod — see that was the thing, he didn’t have the prod, so he was really in a predicament. He wasn’t going to outrun that bull. The bull reared up and kinda nudged him down at one point. And I was running like hell toward the house at this point. Mom was probably here in the kitchen, Sal I don’t know where you’d gone, but all I know is Dad is on the ground and this big beast is looming—”
“I was at the front door. I just said that,” Sal said.
“Right but I mean you must’ve made a move or somethin’ ’cause I don’t remember seeing you.”
“Well you must not’ve run to the door like you’re saying then, ’cause—”
“So Dad was on the ground?” Carol interrupted.
“Yeah. I don’t know, maybe my memory is foggy on those other parts, but Dad is on the ground and this big, ugly, spittin’-mad beast is looming over him, and I’m thinking, you know, he’s gonna die,” Blue said, widening his eyes.
“Oh God, what happened?” Carol asked.
“Carmine — you remember, that farmhand we had for a while?” Sal said.
“Yep. He comes out of the barn with a bolt action, comes rippin’ across the yard, barrel pointed in the bull’s direction. And it was like the bull knew. The bull just knew,” Blue said.
Both he and Sal blew a stream of air out of their teeth, like twin tea kettles steaming over.
“Wow,” Carol said. “He saved Dad’s life then, sounds like.”
“He did. Me and Sal just couldn’t get to any of the guns fast enough. We didn’t keep ’em in the house ever.”
Carol nodded and then shook her head. “I can’t believe I never heard that story. That’s really something.”
“I can’t believe you never heard it either,” Mom said. Her voice was coming in from the front door. She must have walked all the way around the house from the back. “What happened next Blue?”
Her voice had a little chill to it, like she’d picked something up outside in the spring evening, something cold and distant that clung to her from that pitched abyss of night. Blue looked at her hard, then tilted his head to the side and drank his beer. Sal looked down at his hands.
“What?” said Carol. She leaned toward the table. “What?”
“Jean, why do you have to …” Blue began and trailed off, looking up at the ceiling.
“What?” Carol said again. “What happened?”
Uncle Blue deflated. Whatever heat had been in the room rushed out of it, rushed right back out the door from which my mother had come, sought out some other lighted window in the distance. He looked at my mom. I could see that, with his eyes, he was asking her for something. But after some heavy moments passed and she did not grant it, he crinkled his brow and shook his head.
“Dad shot the bull. Between the eyes.”
Carol winced and then looked at my mother. Then she let out a sigh through her nose, clucked her tongue again, and turned to the sink to rinse out the empty bottle in her hand. I recoiled from the crack in the door.
“He didn’t have to do that,” said my mother.
Sal said “well,” and with one long sigh, got up and left the table.
My mother left too, in her victory that was also a defeat. I felt very suddenly in that moment that if I turned toward the mirror on my wall, I would not see a reflection there. So I did not turn toward the mirror.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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