Fiction: Roman Sturgis
Before his first year at Texas, Bruce and I spent most of the summer on our family’s property in Round Top, improving the land for grazing. Our mother had passed on Fourth of July, and we just had to get out of the house. We wanted our father to come with us, but he said he needed some time by himself, “to get some work done.”
I’m not saying what we did was the best way to go about it. And sure, we were nervous about leaving him alone. I thought more than once about taking the gun safe keys with me. In the end, I took the one off his key ring and hid it inside a bible I’d used in high school religion class. Upon completion of that class, I had cut-out the middle pages like Andy Dufresne did in Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.
I put Bruce up to asking him one last time. Dad declined, just like we knew he would. Following an impromptu family meeting, we settled on him meeting us at the property the following weekend, no excuses.
“What are your plans while you’re up there?” Dad asked us. Bruce looked to me.
“Cut some junipers. Shoot some skeet. You know,” I said.
“You planning on drinking?”
“I don’t know. Some, probably.”
“Well don’t forget you’ve got your younger brother with you,” he said.
“How about you,” I asked. “You plan on drinking?” We had ambushed him at the kitchen counter while he was having coffee.
I walked up behind him and massaged his shoulders, the way he has done to us since we were little.
“Gotta get up!” he exclaimed, bouncing off the kitchen stool. He walked back into his office and I heard his swivel chair squeaking as he strafed back and forth along his roll-top desk, messing with bills and all the new paperwork that comes with a death in the family.
“All right Bruce,” I said, “let’s see how fast we can get out of here.”
Mom and Dad had planned on retiring to Roundtop, about two hours from Houston, where we’ve lived for ten years. One weekend a year, Roundtop, population 77, becomes the site of a large antique bazaar. This was what piqued Mom’s original interest in the place. The rest of the time, it’s a quiet country town with a diesel filling station that also sells gasoline, and a single little white church.
Bruce and I threw our gear in the back of my truck and didn’t go shopping until we got to Brenham, about 20 miles from the property. They have a Wal-Mart in Brenham and we bought food for one week: ten for ten Chef Boyardee spaghettis, a five pound bag of shredded cheese, two pounds of bacon, eggs, canned spinach, ranch beans, pears, peaches, and collard greens, two packages of tortillas, dill pickles, oatmeal, coffee, Tabasco, two boxes of clay pigeons, two boxes of shells, and two cases of Budweiser. We filled the battered Igloo cooler in the bed of my truck with ice and beer and the perishables right there in the parking lot. Bruce offered to take the wet plastic ice bags to the trash barrel at the entrance to the store and I picked him up in the truck. When he got back in, he seemed happier than I’d seen him in ages. Bruce is more our mother’s child, with dark hair and the thicker bones of her father. He’s quiet like Dad and smart with numbers. We hadn’t said much during the ride so far. He scanned the radio again for classic country and oldies.
“Don’t you like anything new?” I asked.
“I don’t support any bands created after the millennium.”
“You’re such an odd child, you know that?”
“Look whose talking! You interview murderers on death row!”
“A number one, they are not murderers—they are prisoners who have not had fair trails. B number two, I don’t work for that company anymore.”
“You quit? When did you quit?”
“So what’s next?”
“Hell if I know. Maybe go back to school. Maybe live out here and cut junipers for awhile.”
“I wouldn’t mind that.”
“Maybe we both live out here, cutting junipers. Work the land.”
We went on like that, dreaming about a pioneer life on our little spread, until we turned off the state highway onto a county road.
“You think we can get it up to a hundred?” I asked, rolling down my window.
“One ten,” Bruce said, pressing back into his seat.
A straight two lane road stretched ahead of us for three and a quarter miles before our next turn. I mashed the accelerator to the floor and the truck roared for a half second before picking up and sending the cooler sliding across the bed. With my arms braced against the steering wheel, I watched the needle rise. The wind blasted hard through the cab, slapping my seatbelt against my shoulder.
“Eighty-five, ninety, ninety-five!” I yelled.
“Armadillo!” Bruce cried.
Sure enough, a little football-shaped critter was scampering across the rough clay-colored road ahead of us. I smashed the horn and he snapped up into a ball. I swerved to the left just a hair and we flew right over him. Bruce jerked around in his seat, looking out the back window.
“He’s rolling! He’s rolling off the road!” Bruce settled back into his seat as I braked over the next quarter mile and prepared to take our turn.
“Man, did you see that little guy! He snapped up like a, like a—”
“Like a Popple,” I said.
“A Popple. It was an eighties thing. You should know about them if you’re into that music.”
“A Popple? What the hell?”
“It’s a toy. Check it out online when we get back to civilization.”
“I don’t even want to think about civilization right now.”
“Okay, then don’t,” I said, as I navigated the dirt road towards our gate. “You want to get that for me?”
Bruce jumped out of the truck and I watched him feel around a fence post for the key hanging from a nail. He walked the gate open and held it until I passed through, rattling over the cattle trap, and then he pushed forward and hung on the end of the gate as it swung shut, jumping off to hold it back at the last moment. He locked up and jumped into the back of the truck. Smacked the roof with his hand and jammed his heels in for the ride. I splashed through every puddle I could find as we drove through thickets of trees towards the center. Then we arrived at a big open space. This spot had been cleared of trees twenty years ago when the original owner ran natural gas wells. All that remained of the operation was a large concrete slab blasted by the heat of the sun. Bruce leaned over and called into my window, “Let’s build a big ass bonfire tonight!”
I drove us over the drill pad onto the ranch road which wound through the property. The road was built up three feet high with rocks and mud clay so you could drive above the water when it flooded. The guy who sold us the property had hired a crew of Mexicans to dig the road before he put the land on the market—it was hard to sell old oil land sometimes—so our road was still new and fresh smelling. You can see older roads on neighbor’s properties where the weight of vehicles has tamped them down lower, wider, and hard. If you look at the satellite photo framed in Dad’s office, our spread looks like a flag pole in a stiff breeze, with a skinny neck leading out to the county road and the bulk of the property a fenced-in rectangle. The drill pad is close to the center, a white square in the middle of a camo print sprawl of trees, briar patches, and rocky scrub—what the country real estate folks call “unimproved ranch land.” We lease the land to the neighbors who graze cattle, so the properties connect through a gate and we see their animals from time to time. The ranch road wound through some of the prettier, leafier parts, eventually ending in a clearing with a trailer. I parked in the yard, near the home, and Bruce jumped off the back before I came to a complete stop.
“Oh, man!” he cried.
“What?” I asked, hopping down from the cab.
“Fresh one. Well, since you’re so good at finding them, why don’t you get the shovel and clear the yard.”
I unloaded the back of the truck while Bruce hunted and tossed. The yard was big enough to play a good game of wiffle ball if you wanted, but most often we played horse shoes, as it was usually just the four of us. I pulled the cooler under the trailer to keep it out of the sun, which was noon hot with clear blue skies. I called out to Bruce, “When you finish doing that, fill us a bucket.”
Bruce leaned on his shovel and gave a goofy salute.
The trailer was stifling hot when I opened the door. A daddy long-legs scurried across the top of the wooden steps and over the side. I slid the metal catch down the hydrolic rod to hold the door open and was sweating by the time I had unlatched the windows inside and pushed them out. We got the trailer from a friend of a friend for the discount price of new tires and hauling it away. It was a little dingy, but served our purposes well enough as a place to sleep when it was cold or raining, and then it was downright luxurious. There was a small kitchenette with a microwave and a single electric coil, but most often we cooked on a fire with a Dutch oven. And although there was a chemical commode, we rarely used it, not even to pee, because of the smell. We had clapped together an outhouse behind the trailer, with electric hook-ups for a light and so Mom could stay warm when it was chilly. There was a long-running family joke about heated seats.
I brought in the rest of the food and when I came back out, Bruce was sitting in one of the four black patio chairs that served as our formal dining room. The legs of the chairs each had two wide strips of springy metal and Bruce bounced back and forth a bit with his feet on the table.
“Would you get your damn boots off the table? You raised in a trailer?”
“I brought the water,” Bruce said, hitching a thumb at a clean spackle bucket three-quarters full which we often used for that purpose.
“How’s the tractor shed looking?”
“You plug us in?”
“All right, you want to walk with me, or stay here?”
“You want a beer,” I said, reaching down into the cooler, “you can have one.”
Immediately his eyes widened.
“After this week, bud, I figure you can do whatever you want. Besides, I don’t like drinking by myself.”
I showed him how to twist the top off with the meat of his forearm and we walked across the yard to an opening between the trees that led to a path that went to the tractor shed and the water pump. There was a small stage behind the shed with a shower head. The best showers of my life have been taken behind that shed, washing under the open sky with the sun to warm you clean and dry.
“So what do you think?” I asked after we unlocked and opened the doors and stood in the shade of the overhang, the hot smell of oil and old tools moving with the breeze. “You want to build a fire, huh?”
“I figure we’ve got junipers to cut. Have to do something with them. Might as well burn ‘em.”
“Question is, we want to save them up for one big fire, or make a pile and feed a small one?”
“Let’s see how big we can make it.”
“Well, if it’s going to be a bonfire we shouldn’t do it in the yard, or over here.”
“How bout the drill pad?”
“That’s what I was thinking. Let’s start clearing the area between here and the pad, and leave the yard alone for now. You brought your gloves?”
Bruce took a short hatchet from the shed and I selected a long-handled pair of clippers from the wall. He set out for a stand of junipers near the ranch road and I followed him. Bruce stooped over next to a five foot juniper, shaped like a bundled Christmas tree and fragrant with cedar and sap. He pushed up the bottom branches with one hand, exposing a trunk about as big around as the fat end of a baseball bat. His first chop bit into the bark flesh, revealing bright white wood underneath and a pungent snap of juniper. A few more chops and a red core was visible. Soon after the tree fell over.
“Where should we stack them?” he asked, and I pointed with my clippers to the side of the road.
“Let’s make a pile there and we’ll load the truck.”
Bruce pulled the tree behind him to the road with some bounce in his boots. Meanwhile, I unwrapped thorn vines from the trunk of a post oak and pulled them down from the branches. I clipped the smaller branches close to the trunk, high as I could reach.
“Hey, how come you and Dad want to get rid of all these junipers? I think they’re kind of neat looking,” Bruce said.
“They suck up all the water. Once we get rid of them, we’ll have better pasture. Rent it for more. Feed Garrison’s cows better.”
Bruce stooped again and attacked a new juniper.
When it fell down he said, “Okay, but then why prune the post oaks?”
“That’s Dad’s idea. He says we’ll be able to see across the property through the trees when we’ve done them all.”
“The entire property?”
“Well, most of it, I guess.”
“That’s a lot of work.”
“I was asking Dad,” Bruce said as he chopped, “if we could plant a bunch of sunflowers somewhere. A whole big field of them.”
“Eric’s dad did it out on their ranch and he says it attracts the doves. Wouldn’t that be so clutch? Come out and shoot a dozen doves when you got hungry?”
“Stuff them in jalapeños and wrap them in bacon,” I said.
“You know it. Man, I’m getting hungry now.”
We worked like that for a while, switching back and forth between pulling thorn vines down from the post oaks and chopping junipers, and then Bruce said, “I think Mom would like the sunflower idea.”
I stood up from a fallen juniper and stretched my back. “Yeah, I think she would. You know she grew up hunting in Louisiana?”
Bruce stood still against the post oak he was tending. “Really? For what?”
“She and Papa used to go deer hunting. Killed a gator once, too. After it ate her dog. Ask Mimi about it sometime.”
He went back to clipping branches and said, “You pulling my leg?”
“I’m serious. Papa told me forever ago. You know how they used to always have poodles, right? Well she was playing in the yard one day and a gator came out of the water and ate her dog. Gigi, I think it was called. She was so pissed, she asked Papa for the rifle and they went after him. Found it and she shot it right through the skull. Ate it, too.”
“That’s where that gator head in Mimi’s garage came from?”
“No, I think they got that on a trip.”
“I never knew Mom was hunter. I can see it though.”
We worked some more until we really got hungry, and then we stopped and made lunch in the trailer. We ate bean and cheese burritos with microwaved bacon and each drank another beer. Before we went back to work I made Bruce drink two cups of water from the bucket. He dropped in some ice-cubes from the cooler and I shook my head.
“It’s better to drink it warm, man. Won’t hurt your guts as much.”
“But it’s hot out.”
Cutting junipers and pulling thorns gets pretty boring after awhile, but it was good for us to have something to do. Our heap of trees and post oak clippings grew and the mass of brambles expanded until the piles overlapped. “Let’s not burn all these yet,” I said.
“Why not? Can’t use them for anything.”
“Sure we can. If we make a big pile of them and throw some junipers on top, you never know what kind of critters might take up residence.”
“What do you mean, critters? Like Armadillos? Chipmunks?”
“Why not? Here,” I said, tossing a tree on top of the nest of thorns, “that look like a nice house to you? Keep the coyotes and hawks out?”
Bruce eyed the juniper, now tangled in thorn vines and shook his head. “You say so.”
“Sure, we can put these all over the place, make some nice critter condos,” I said, experimenting with winding thorns around the juniper. Even with thick leather gloves the big ones could pierce right through, and I stuck myself. I sucked my forefinger and squeezed out a small bead of blood. My cell phone rang, and I pulled my other glove off and answered it. Dad said, “Hey,” and I could hear the beep of the register at the self-checkout in Kroger.
“Just checking on you guys. What’s up?”
“We cut about fifteen junipers by the shed. Had some lunch. You?”
“Getting some groceries.”
“You guys going to be all right out there?”
“Sure. You going to be all right over there?”
There was a pause on the line, punctuated only by several quick register beeps. “Just keep an eye on your brother for me, okay? And don’t do anything stupid.”
I looked at Bruce who had gone back to chopping. “You got it, Dad.”
“All right, bud. Stay safe tonight,” he said, and hung up.
Bruce’s back was stooped over and I could see the ridges of his spine through his tee-shirt. He chopped and he chopped and when the tree fell, he picked it up and looked at me. “What he want?”
“Nothing. Just saying hi.”
We stopped when we had forty trees or so, and we stacked them in the back of the truck. It took a couple trips, but by the time the sun had started to drop, we’d made a big ring of them on the drill pad, tops pointing in. “We need more,” Bruce said. I agreed. They would burn fast—not long enough to make it through the night, and I had a feeling we’d be watching the sun rise. “Let’s drive around and pick up some dead wood,” he said.
At the far corners of the property where we hadn’t done any work yet, fallen post-oaks were not hard to come by and we filled the bed with good wood in no time. We threw the broken trees from the back of the truck, right on top of the junipers. “Much better,” Bruce said.
“You want to shoot some?” I asked.
We got the guns and we threw skeet for each other and drank beer. We invented a new game we called Blind Man’s Bluff and tested each others skill by facing the opposite direction until the thrower yelled “Bluff!” and then the shooter spun around and tried to dust the pigeon before it landed. Bruce was a much better shot than me, but I had the beer advantage, and soon he was goofing around to the point where I said we best stop.
“Hey,” he said, grinning wide. “You know what I got in the shed?”
“Uh-oh. I don’t like that look, B.”
“We never did fire off those rockets.”
“No, we didn’t.” We’d bought two big brown paper bags full for Fourth of July, but our plans had changed when Mom’s health, already weak from treatments, dropped like a rock. “You think we ought to shoot them without Dad?”
“We’ll save some for him. There’s plenty,” Bruce said.
“Then do it to it. I’m going to stay here and watch this sunset a bit.”
Bruce tore off in the truck and I laughed at his dopey gestures as he clowned behind the wheel, racing around the stack in a circle and then pulling a donut on a sandy patch before gunning it for the shed. Part of the stack had three junipers crossed over one another enough to suggest a chair, and it was on the shade side. I sat down in it and leaned back, sinking into the springy boughs. At first it was incedibly itchy, but I forced myself to accept the itch and feel through it. To distract myself with a higher plane of existence. High up, a chicken hawk circled, looking for dinner. I thought about the critter condos and where we should put them. Certainly near the pond. It’d be nice to have a house near the water if you were a critter. I closed my eyes and drifted off a little until I could hear Bruce driving the truck back. When he skidded to a stop on the sandy patch I pushed myself up feeling refreshed. He carried both bags of fireworks and four fresh beers. The sun was sinking fast now, and the sky was huge with pink clouds.
“Ordinance!” he cried, dumping the bags out in the back of the truck.
“Artillery!” I shouted.
“Fire in the hole!” he screamed, lighting a bottle rocket and holding onto the end of it, waiting for the fuse to burn.
“Go! Go! Go!”
He swung the bottle rocket up into the air, the fuse burned through the cartridge, and it dropped for a second before the powder ignited, sending the rocket screaming across the drill pad. It detonated with a small pop and a tiny paper parachute dropped to the ground.
We were getting into the cherry bombs when a vehicle caught our attention. Bruce had just sent up three at once, from three different tubes, a feat he accomplished by holding three punks in one hand and arranging the tubes just the right distance apart. It looked like he was playing the xylophone, with the punks in his hand, and all of a sudden the sparks were flying. He jumped back and WUMP-WUMP-WUMP!! three mortars went up in quick succession and popped, bursting in a fan of red and yellow sparkles.
Across the field, Dad’s Explorer rumbled towards us.
He stopped next to us and called out the window: “You boys eat supper yet?” The luscious scent of Whataburger emanated when he held up a large orange and white bag, spotted with grease.
We ate ravenously, using the pick-up gate as a bar, and Dad asked us about the wood. “You plan on lighting it tonight?”
Bruce nodded, wiping burger juice off his chin. “We were waiting until it got dark.”
Dad looked at me and pressed his lips together real tight. “So I was going to bring the Benelli, but apparantly my safe key has gone missing. You wouldn’t know anything about this, would you son?”
I looked him straight in the eye and said, “It was a precaution. Just in case.”
“You thought what? I’d kill myself?”
“It crossed my mind.”
“Because I didn’t want to come right away.”
“Well that was thoughtful of you, I suppose.”
“Hey,” I said, “I’m going to go grab some chairs. Why don’t you guys get this puppy started.” The sun was below the trees now, and the light trapped in the clouds cast long, weak shadows. Dad crumpled his burger wrapper and stuffed it in the bag and pushed the bag into a crevice under a bottom juniper as I pulled myself into the truck.
The drive back was automatic. I surveyed the work we’d done, apprecaiting the change in landscape. Still so much work to do, though. As I rounded the last bend, I startled a cotton tail, who bounced off the road in a flash.
Rocks crunched and the brakes sqeaked a touch as I came to a stop. I kept the truck headlights on as I walked up the steps to the trailer. I flicked the switch to the lights and stood in the kitchenette thinking: What had I come for? I walked down the trailer past the sitting area to the bedrooms, one for me and Bruce, one for the parents. I opened the door to Mom and Dad’s room. The double bed was made. Had been made by Mom, actually, I realized. Her folds in the sheets. Her hands on the cloth. I opened the closet that they shared. Work clothes, mostly. Dungarees and shirts with stains in them. Mom liked to wear Dad’s old oxfords, rolled up to the elbows. Light blue and pink, worn very soft over the years. There were a couple of her sun dresses on pale wood hangers. Including a white one with flower prints along the hem and straps. Our most recent family portrait was taken on the property the year before she was diagnosed. Everyone sun kissed from being outside. Me and Bruce and Dad in fresh jeans and t-shirts, Mom at the center, radient with love, surrounded by her boys. It is a happy picture and a large print was made to hang above our mantel. That picture went to the memorial, stood on a table next to other pictures. Pictures of her as a younger woman at teacher’s college. Pictures of her as a mother with me. With Bruce. With her older brothers. With Dad at their wedding. With Dad on an anniversary cruise around the Aegean. I took the dress from its hanger and folded it over my arm. In the kitchenette I found a brown paper grocery bag under the sink and put the dress inside.
When I came back with chairs and the cooler in the bed, I found Dad and Bruce had pulled the pile apart and were rebuilding it to improve air flow.
“See, when it collapses on itself,” Dad was saying, “the charred wood will compact in the center and insulate the coals. We can probably keep this thing burning for days.”
“So you going to stay out here for days now,” I said handing him a beer.
“Thought about it,” he said, his voice rising at the end the way he did when Mom caught him chewing Red Man.
They had made a hut of sorts, with three layers of junipers stacked around in a circle and the heavier logs leaning in on top like a tee-pee. The top of the stack was several feet over my head.
“I took something from your closet, Dad,” I said.
He looked at me, eyes narrowed.
I pulled the dress out of the bag and held it over my arm. “Do you remember her wearing this? It’s in the picture at home.”
“What are you doing with it?” Bruce asked.
I looked at the bonfire pile. “I reckon she’d want to wear it sometime,” I said.
Dad went to the truck bed and pulled a chair off.
“Dad, what do you think?”
He pulled the second chair off and the third and arranged them in a row a ways back from the fire.
“It’ll be like a Viking funeral,” Bruce said.
“You all can do what you’d like. I’m just here to watch.”
I took that to be all the permission I needed, and hung the dress between two limbs.
“You think you can do this with one match, Brewster?” Dad said.
“Bet I can,” Bruce said, stooping down with his lighter.
“Here,” I said, “use this, too.” He took the paper bag from me and worked it into the gap he’d created. I walked back to sit on one side of Dad. From a distance, in the near dark, the pile looked like one big, fat tree. Bruce was a mere ghost in the shadow.
I heard him push juniper boughs aside and saw the spark of his lighter, the light gave him some shape and showed him finding the paper, and lighting a corner. He sat back on his haunches and gradually illuminated. He stood up and walked back to us. I watched small flames lick at the dry oak kindling, growing fat and orange, then the dry, dead junipers sizzle and flare. The outer layer of green ones crackled and the thick smell of burning cedar filled the cooling air. Bruce sat down on the other side of Dad and we watched the flames rise and engulf the dress, casting shadows that bled into the night behind us.
ROMAN STURGIS is an air conditioning mechanic and aspiring novelist. He lives in Seneca, South Carolina with his wife, daughter, and two dogs. He graduated from BU’s MFA in Fiction program in 2008.