By Kate Krautkramer
Prose Prize Winner
Friday evening lagged with low-slung, far-off weather. I closed up my store and, because I’d promised Kim I would, drove east toward our tenant’s tumbledown ranch house; the place sat a few miles out of town, perched so far on the edge of the Colorado plains it might as well have been in Kansas. In the bumpy drive I backed my trailer up near a cluster of shambled out-buildings where I surmised the pig I’d come after would be kept. Heat hit like a cross cut when I swung out of the truck and looked over the meadows and plains toward my house where bruise-colored clouds gathered low. A couple hens scrambled around my feet, looking worried about the sky falling.
Our tenant, Sarah Sue, was recently widowed and now alone, except for, the Social Services lady said, six or eight chickens, ten or a dozen cats, and one enormous pig. Everyone in the county knew about the pig. A few summers before it’d gotten loose and run around in the ditches for weeks before the local cop, sick of responding to reports of a giant wild boar, went out to the house and threatened Sarah Sue and her husband Stuart with having to pay if any vehicle was damaged in a collision with the animal. Story went that Sarah Sue walked out of the house and down the road whistling, did some kind of Pied Piper trick, and the pig followed on her heels a couple miles, right back to its pen.
Home again, home again, jiggity jog, I thought, standing on my running board stalling, gazing through the thick, pastel light toward my house. At that distance I knew my brain was filling in a picture of what I already understood our home looked like more than I was seeing what was actually there. Far away it looked like something made from kids’ building blocks─shapes and angles stacked together in pleasing, solid, predictable construction. The red dot of Kim’s SUV sat parked in our drive, even though she’d cited a work meeting in the next town, meaning she’d be home late, as the reason she couldn’t come with me to the tenant house. I focused through the heavy loitering daylight, across the distance between us, speculating why she was safe at home and I was alone about to face Sarah Sue.
The night before we’d been walking to the barn to get the four-wheeler for a quick ride around the county roads at dusk, wanting to buck the heat and put a little breeze through our hair. Kim brought up that Social Services had called and said she hoped that I would go out after I closed up the next day and check on Sarah Sue. She said it as if we’d been looking after our tenant and the place all along like friends or neighbors, or good landlords would.
When Kimberly’s dad passed seven years back, we’d inherited the 130-year-old house along with his 200 acres of attached irrigated hay fields. Kimberly’s older brothers, both emigrated to Denver suburbs, said they weren’t interested in moving back to nowhere, and if we wanted to go on using our college educations to farm hay, we had to take the decrepit tenant house and Sarah Sue along with the crop land. “They’re being ridiculous,” Kim said at the time. “Sarah Sue’s not difficult. A sad old woman, that’s all.”
I swallowed my questions about why the conversation centered on Sarah Sue while her husband, Stuart, was only ever mentioned as a sidekick, or more lowly, a minor character with no speaking part. Also to keep peace, I didn’t ask how Kimberly could possibly know if Sarah Sue was or wasn’t difficult, Kim not having been to the house herself, ever, as far as I knew, certainly not in the years since we’d inherited the whole caboodle. Well before Kim’s dad died, Social Services had been paying rent on the place, leaving Kim and me happily in solidarity with not having to manage the old ranch house or its occupants.
“Just drop by, evaluate the situation, and see how we could nudge Sarah Sue toward getting ready to leave.” Kim said. “Social Services said she can’t stay there anymore. She’s going to need our help.” My wife engaged a voice specialized for occasions when she wants to show her compassion but also persuade me in an urgency to get something done.
That’s when I proposed that we go together. Old, reclusive, and having lost her husband, Sarah Sue might be less disturbed by a pretty woman coming to her door than a tall man, I reasoned. But Kim said she was committed to her meeting, and punting the situation into the territory of Saturday morning made it seem even more exhausting. Chatting with Sarah Sue about her upcoming eviction was about the last way I wanted to kick off my weekend, but I agreed we needed to see what was going on at the house.
Absorbed and distracted by the best time of day, I fell into long-married head nodding. As we walked, a few grasshoppers pivoted on their haunches and jumped away into the rye grass. Jared Smithers in his crop duster passed overhead, cruising through the last bit of evening on the way home to his hangar. Kim’s hair glinted in the angle of late day sun, and our boots on the gravel crunched out the natural rhythm of us walking side by side. I grabbed her hand and squeezed it once for each word, I love you.
On the four-wheeler Kim yelled into my ear, “Maybe we should just start with the pig.” I noticed she used we once it was established she wouldn’t be there.
“Just?” I yelled back.
“I’ll help you load your plywood into the trailer,” Kimberly offered.
“Super generous of you!” I was sarcastic, but I was smiling, and without her mentioning the panel, I probably would’ve forgotten to take it. Our son Todd had raised pigs for 4-H. We still had a piece of plywood, to which I’d attached a length of rope to make a handle. I should’ve purchased a real pig board, back when Todd had his pigs. But I’d had a piece of wood the right size, a remnant easily repurposed. I’d listened neither to Kimberly saying that the wood was twice as heavy and unwieldy as a manufactured, plastic pig board, nor to Todd’s begging not to make him look like an idiot trying to steer his pigs with the homemade, suboptimal piece of equipment. For years this bad tool had been leaning up in our barn, a reminder of my stubbornness and of being a cheapskate. Kimberly knew I would find using the object again for its actual, intended purpose irresistible and vindicating. She also knew I wouldn’t need any help loading it into the trailer.
“Sarah Sue will cooperate with you. You have your nice way with people.” Kim’s words dissipated backward away from me on the warm wind. She squeezed around my middle and kissed the back of my neck. I felt her lay her head on my spine, and I opened the throttle up like it was really something to be going 30 miles per hour. We’d gotten back home grinning, with our clothes and our ears full of dust.
From the tenant house driveway, I dragged my focus back across the two or so crow-flies miles between our house and where I stood. I tapped my fingers on the hot hood of my truck and hit a deerfly off my neck. A flock of starlings rose from nowhere and scattered themselves against the lavender sky, now with towering cumulous rising on the heat.
At the door, Sarah Sue said nothing, just swept her knobby hand to invite me inside. A few cats escaped into the hot breeze of the dirt yard. I took off my ball cap to duck under the door frame and took a step into the kitchen while my eyes adjusted.
Inside, piles of books covered rows of side tables against every available wall space. Stacks of unmatched plates occupied the kitchen counters. Enough wallpaper sample books to reach the ceiling occupied the seat of a rocking chair behind me in a corner. Papers in columns, some high as my shoulders, tied up most of the floor space, as if Stuart and Sarah Sue had meant to create a maze out of old news. Distinct paths left only one narrow way to get to the living room, the bedroom, the bathroom.
Ire welled in me. Surely the Social Services lady had seen inside the house, and it seemed likely she would have said something to Kimberly. Someone must’ve known and could’ve warned me what I would find. But I stood, my head very near the ceiling, unsure of Sarah Sue’s state of mind, the stage of grief she might be in, or if her thought processes were tethered in reality. I was mindful of being kind, but it’s possible that my mouth was hanging open.
Sarah Sue blocked my way, and moving would’ve sent me down one particular road or another, with no possibility of turning through the tight colonnades of newspapers. I saw that the bedroom door yawned open beyond the kitchen to the left. In the small living room, which seemed to be falling away down one long stair to the right, an antediluvian coal stoker and a couch, both smothered with bed pillows still in their plastic wrapping, sat opposite each other with a path made of newspaper pillars between them. A dinette table had at some time been maneuvered beyond the couch into the farthest corner and stood buried in colored Pyrex baking dishes, balanced three and four high, one top casserole with a gray cat nestled inside. From my open square of prehistoric linoleum, I searched the place for an exposed surface and saw no obvious direction, literally or figuratively, to go.
“I can’t just leave them,” Sarah Sue said, bending to pick up a calico who settled into her arm. I could see two more cats atop newspaper towers and two sleeping under the rocking chair. A black one strolled the path toward the bathroom. A fat, fluffy, orange kitty did figure eights around my shins and purred like he’d been waiting for me.
“I’m very sorry about Stuart,” I said, hoping Sarah Sue knew who I was, if not my name, at least that I was married to Kimberly and that we were the owners of her place.
She took a step toward me, looked up at my face, nodded once and repeated, “Stuart.” Then she pointed to the hat in my hand, gesturing that it was all right, I should go ahead and put it back on my head.
I looked down at the cat that seemed to love my legs. “I keep the place clean,” Sarah Sue said, “No litter boxes. All my cats know to go outside.” As she spoke, the skin of her face moved over her cheek bones and jaw bones. She was gaunt, barely any meat on the skeleton. As a guy who’s always stayed skinny, with ropey calves and my chest just about concave ─once in a while Kimberly thumps on it and says she wonders how my big heart even fits in there─ I thought of Sarah Sue’s lack of flesh as a common characteristic, a connection, even though I knew she probably wasn’t right then evaluating what traits she and I shared, and what we didn’t. Her hips and knees formed sharp ridges under her pants, slacks I guess you’d call them, polyester and bright blue, the kind that pull up with no zipper or buttons or anything. Her collar bones showed under a faded black turtleneck it seemed would be punishment to wear in the August heat. I wondered how often she was having a meal.
“Social Services says I’ll go to Sterling now,” she said, referencing a large government old folks place that shared a name with its city.
At a loss, I finally shrugged and said, “I brought a trailer.”
Sarah Sue stroked the cat she was holding, looking down on its spotted head.
“For the pig,” I ventured on, trying to sound bright and happy and less exasperated than I was. “We could have the pig at our house.” I imagined myself to be offering her comfort and reassurance about the animal. But at that moment I also realized what my mind first registered as dried flowers were actually dozens of unopened toothbrushes clustered in Mason jars on every window sill.
Sarah Sue stayed blank. “The pig might like our place!” I tried. I sounded tactless, like I was implying that the pig wasn’t enjoying its life with Sara Sue. I was also aware of seeming like I was talking to a child, which I knew was wrong. Meanwhile, in their orderly, artistic presentation and intimation of daily upkeep, the toothbrushes distracted and disconcerted me. I became inwardly flustered and outwardly intent on solving any portion of the problem at hand─so that I could help, but also so that I could leave and go home. I pointed at the wall in the direction of my house, to show Sarah Sue which way I intended to take the pig.
“Pig’s called Mrs. Mountain,” she said with no inflection. She stared where I’d pointed at nothing. “Mrs. Mountain is not for butchering. Too old to make good pork chops, anyway. We have an understanding,” she said. By that time the windows had started to rattle with the weather.
I was unsure if the understanding Sarah Sue spoke of was an agreement between her and Mrs. Mountain, or if she meant that by her declaring it so, there was now an understanding between Sarah Sue and me that I wouldn’t harm the pig. Also unclear was whether Sarah Sue meant that she was too old herself to butcher a pig and make pork chops or that the pig was too old for any theoretical pork chops that might come from it to taste good. “We have a nice hog pen,” I said.
Sarah Sue peered through her toothbrushes out the window over the kitchen sink where hay in the field had started bending with rising wind. I was thinking through how she might’ve gotten to living the way she was, which to me seemed a bad kind of incredible. The thought crossed my mind that her animals might be the very last things that she loved. I hung my head a few seconds feeling exposed as the unfeeling landlord until Sarah Sue said, “I’ll need three hundred dollars for Mrs. Mountain if you’re gonna take her.”
As the wind started in on a low, steady fugue outside, my imagination was stumbling over how Sarah Sue had come to invite the assault of junk into her space and why the specific kinds of junk─Pyrex, pillows, toothbrushes, and papers─and not other things, say, spoons, beer cans, rusted old gears, and encyclopedias? Sarah Sue held up three fingers, to help me remember how many hundred dollars she wanted for Mrs. Mountain. I was appraising her social-emotional needs and how in my good conscience it would be appropriate to act. At the end of that chain of thought, I worried, stooped in the darkening hovel, if something about me─my face, tone, or posture, something in my manners or gestures or eyes─told Sarah Sue that I would just give her three hundred dollars for something I didn’t want, that I was a pushover.
About a week before that day we’d been on our deck, drinking red delivered by FedX. “It’s Italian,” Kim said when she pulled the cork. Then she tipped her hips at me like we were still teenagers at a school dance and asked, “What’s the worst thing that could happen while we’re in Italy?” By then she’d been suggesting trips for a few months, first proposing a canal cruise in France, then the possibility of us renting a motor home to tour the American West, both of which I shrugged off saying maybe.
She’d been stuck on Italy a few weeks while I hoped this sudden-onset wanderlust of hers would pass. We’d been empty nesters for three years, but we were still busy with our jobs and lives. Going to Italy would be expensive. We’d have to get passports. I’d have to arrange for my manager to do all the spring tasks at the hardware store. We’d have to make reservations for airlines, hotels, and rental cars. “I’d have to get an international driver’s license,” I pointed out.
“I’ll get the license,” she said. “I’ll do all the driving if you want. And we can take trains. And taxis.” She thrust her hand in the air like she’d been hailing cabs her whole life.
Sitting on the khaki porch couch, a sectional I’d ordered wholesale through the store, I looked out over the summer’s second hay crop rising in the fields closest to home. Crickets had started their evening recital. A bull frog was flexing his throat in an old stock pond at the edge of our property. Kim kicked off her flip flops, tucked her feet under her bottom, and peered over the top of her glass at me.
She’d nailed down a theoretical time for us to go, two and a half weeks in the coming spring. I knew I sounded desperate pointing out that we’d be away when crabapple trees were blossoming, and the lilacs, and peonies. “You love the peonies,” I reminded her. Kimberly patted my back while she lamented these things with me, then got me to concede there was no other time I wanted to be away, either. “Such a homebody,” she said.
“Homebodies like to stay in their houses,” I said, looking to the sky. From her section of the sectional, Kimberly kept her face turned toward me; she listened but had ready solutions for every drawback I called out. “What if we got back and the cranes weren’t here?” I finally asked.
Since we’ve lived in our house and we don’t know how long before, a pair of sandhill cranes has come to the edge of our main hay meadow where an intermittent stream flows, usually well into June. Every April I wait until one evening they come over the plains, huge, loud, rattling birds with a rolling, throaty call. Their sound weaves the seasons together for me, rouses the spring peepers and persuades daffodils to push harder on their way up to blooming. When the cranes come, I know to put new garden seeds out on their rack at the store. The return of the burbling song marks the months that have passed and assures life has turned round a cycle.
The cranes are misguided, stopping their migration early and nesting out of their expected range, at our place, year after year. The gawky birds mate for life and cooperate in raising chicks. We once saw our pair peck and flap together with enough ferocity to scare a coyote away from their eggs. Sandhills are long-lived, but the likelihood of the pair coming back contracts every year. I get all goofy and romantic about the whole business.
From her perch on the couch, Kim said, “But we don’t really know if it’s always the same pair. And this is our chance to be like the birds─ fly away, see different things, then come back.” She made her hand into a crane, or an airplane, soared it over our new deck table, and landed it in her lap. “And someday they won’t come back.” Kim said this gently. “Sooner or later, Jeff.” She swilled the last of her wine and looked up in the direction the cranes arrive from in April. “Whether you come to Italy with me, or not,” she said.
Still in the kitchen, Sarah Sue crossed her arms over her nonexistent chest and stared me through. Bits of sparkling dust floated in the light around us. Outside the wind changed; seconds between longer, stronger gusts rang extra silent. “Sarah Sue,” I thought to ask, “What would be the best way for me to help right now?” I reached up and put my palm on the ceiling, it was that low.
“Well,” Sarah Sue said, then paused like she’d lost her thought. A small bee flew between us toward the living room where it rammed itself into the window full bore and fell to the floor. “You’re going to want all these newspapers out of here,” she said, like she only just then noticed them.
“Last of the month, so the recycling dumpster will be in town tomorrow,” I pointed out, ignoring that there was zero chance in the world of all the papers being transported there by the following day. Right away I regretted saying the word dumpster.
Sarah Sue put her hand on the nearest newspaper stack and pet it like there was a cat on top, except that there wasn’t. “Nothing sacred,” she said. Maybe she meant that I was treating her badly, as if nothing in her life was sacred. Maybe she was saying that nothing in the house was sacred to her, and so it would’ve been all right for me to begin hauling everything away. Then she ran her index finger across the top of the column and held it close to my face for inspection. “See? No dust. I told you I keep it clean.”
There was no dust on her finger and no little trail where she’d made a line across the top paper. I’ve thought of this a hundred times since. What did it mean that Sarah Sue made sure the tops of her newspaper piles were clean? Had she used a feather duster, or a barely damp cloth, or what to achieve it? What time had she spent?
She looked again at her fingertip, then turned and left me standing where I was. I watched her make her way through the arrangement of stacked papers to the bedroom where she lay down on her bed without closing the door behind her. She put an arm over her face. I whispered that I was going to go ahead and take Mrs. Mountain to my house if it was all right. I said that I’d write her a check and promised to take good care of the pig. Sarah Sue raised one hand and waved toward me without uncovering her eyes.
As I’d surmised, the pig was in one of the ancient outbuildings, a shed of shrunken wood slats. The man-gate was only a four-foot slice of hog panel hinged between rotting palettes that extended from the open part of the structure to a small, stinky yard. The palettes were dug into the ground an inadequate half foot and held on the outside by rows of crumbling, mismatched cinder blocks. Away from the pen across the plains, the horizon disappeared, clouds becoming the ground in monochrome plum, turning the evening darker than it should’ve been. I could hardly make out the outline of the sow in the farthest shadows of her shelter.
“Mrs. Mountain?” I asked. The pig lifted her head, then lowered it again.
Feeling judged, I went back to my trailer to retrieve the plywood I’d made into a pig board so long ago. In my head I heard Kim reminding me what to do. “Remember pigs like smooth entrances,” she said. “Stay calm, move slowly. The pig only needs to know where you want it to go.”
With the wood acting like a sail, I one-step-at-a time worked my way the few yards back toward the pen and angled the pig board against the open man-gate, so that it would appear to Mrs. Mountain, if I could get her that far, to be a smooth wall guiding her onto the trailer’s ramp. Once I got the board where I wanted it, the wind worked with me holding it in place rather than blowing it down, an advantage even though it meant I’d be facing the pig empty-handed.
Mrs. Mountain rolled and struggled and sat up on her haunches like a dog. I reckoned she must have weighed upwards of 400 pounds, and in spite of muck on her face and the smell of the place, she looked to be smiling. Before I went back in the pen, I scanned the ground for a rock.
Where I planned to aim it, I can’t say. Striking the pig’s head or her haunches would not have been a constructive beginning to our relationship, and besides, hitting her wouldn’t have persuaded Mrs. Mountain to load into my trailer. Aggravation had further jumbled my brain, causing me to misplace a fact of geography, something I’ve always known─ that there are no rocks where I live. Nothing larger than a pebble for miles around. It took a long moment for me to come back to my flatland reality, when I finally picked up a fist full of sandy soil, threw it out into the wind, and knowing no one would hear, I yelled.
Then I hurdled back into the pen and confronted the pig while my mind replayed the last time Kim and I had discussed Italy. We’d gotten home from work at the same time and were standing in the driveway looking in the sky at a couple of big birds that turned out to be Canada geese, not our cranes.
“How’s it going to be if we’re old and never went anywhere? Tell me how that’s going to be,” Kimberly started in. She held my shirt collar in her hands and scooched it up and down. She looked sad and worried. It made me sad in turn, to be the cause of it, but I searched my heart and saw that it didn’t make me want to go to Italy. I held Kimberly’s waist, looked back at her face, thinking love, honor, cherish, love, honor, cherish. “We can so do it, Jeff,” she said and gave my collar another shake. “They have ATMs in Europe, everyone speaks English, we can drink super Tuscan and eat carbonara. It won’t be hard!”
In the shed, Mrs. Mountain refused to stand. I asked her a few times and clicked my tongue at her as if I didn’t know the difference between a horse and a pig. I put my arms out wide to try to herd her, but she wouldn’t even consider standing up. That’s when hail started falling fast, pelting the tin roof of the pen. There’d been no hail, then there was only hail, which was when I knew I was that stupid frog not jumping out of the pot.
From the pig yard, I saw that a cloud wall had formed, about a mile away, and was dropping, maybe near my house, although I could only catch glimpses through the hail. My brain did some denial trick, or some survival trick, continuing to move my body even as I thought of my wife and home being lifted and twirled away, like in Dorothy’s dream. I told myself a story that the cloud bank, impressive as it loomed and dropped, didn’t mean there would be a tornado, it just meant that there could be. I pushed panic about Kimberly’s whereabouts into some back closet of my consciousness.
“Now what?” I yelled as loud as I could at Mrs. Mountain while hail hammered the roof, hammered the ground. My pig board flew up and away somewhere. Mrs. Mountain grunted, her big ears pointing toward me. She didn’t look concerned.
Twenty yards took me about forever and a half to cross. I couldn’t see anything for the fury of wind and hail. My feet slipped on hailstones. My ankles turned. I forgave myself for not knocking, and once inside, like an idiot, risked rushing down the newspaper path to the living room to look out the window for a funnel. But the glass was streaked gray with nothing but gray behind it.
The hail stopped as abruptly as it’d come, then came silence, a terror all its own. My clothes were soaked through. The cats had disappeared. I flashed back to a time when I was a kid and my dad drove me somewhere not far from home to see how a tornado had pushed stalks of hay straight into a telephone pole like nails. Sarah Sue’s toothbrushes vibrated in their jars and the siren in town started up like the wail of a child mid-nightmare.
“Sarah Sue!” I yelled, running the maze-path to her bedroom, where she slept, snoring in puffs that made her dry old lips tremble. Wind drove at the house. My hand easily covered both of hers, and I shook her. “Sarah Sue! Sarah Sue! We need to be away from the windows!” I let go, and the old woman opened her eyes.
“The siren is sounding!” I screamed. “I can’t tell where the funnel is!” Something large hit the side of the house and cracked. Sarah Sue sat half way up, supported herself on her elbows, and leaned forward toward me. “Did you put my Mrs. Mountain in your trailer?” she asked. She rubbed her fingers against her thumb in the sign for money. I shook my head, bending toward her to help her up, move her along. At the very least we should’ve been lying flat on the floor. But the roar of the storm came up again, and Sarah Sue lay back down, eyes closed, toes up.
I told Kim these details when we were home again, after we’d stepped inside our house. Still in the foyer, we’d stopped and held hands, facing each other, again re-hashing the sequence of events. There had been a funnel. Kim told me how, knowing I was at the tenant house, she’d been watching with binoculars from our deck, at every moment ready to hide her eyes, until the twister turned abruptly a few hundred yards from Sarah Sue’s and cut a wide swath through our hay.
At the same time she was watching and hoping the storm would change direction, I was inside the house having forced myself on Sarah Sue. There hadn’t been time for decisions. I’d thrown my body on top of the old woman; that’s what I told Kimberly. I couldn’t describe─I never tried─how close Sarah Sue and I were for those long minutes, pressed together on her bed. Terrified, I pushed her down. We sunk into the mattress, and with nothing solid to cling to, I knotted my arms together behind her back and vowed not to let go. I remember Sarah Sue felt teeny underneath me and smelled of dry mold. I covered most of her. I squeezed and felt our rib cages crush together. My head was above hers, my nose in her fusty sheets, my ear a few inches from her mouth so that I barely heard her. “I won’t go anywhere,” she said.
Then we waited, entwined that way, silent ourselves while the world shook. It was only a minute or two after I’d released myself of Sarah Sue, convinced we’d escaped the twister, that I heard a car then Kim burst through the front door screaming, “Jeffery! Jeffery! Jeffery!” She ran right in, never balked at Sarah Sue’s maze. “There wasn’t a meeting!” she said when she got to me. Her voice quavered. I didn’t ask if she was confessing that there had never been a meeting planned, or if she hadn’t gone because the meeting was cancelled. We came together at the foot of Sarah Sue’s bed, where Kim reached up to hold my face and clear my cheeks with her thumbs like I was the one weeping.
“We’re OK,” I said. I was still clambering back from the brink into the land of the living, having no way of knowing yet where exactly the storm had or hadn’t passed. I hugged Kimberly as hard as I could without hurting her. I pressed her head into my chest so I knew she’d hear my heart. I kept saying shhh, shhh, shhh, but Kim kept saying my name. The orange cat came from under the bed and sat by our feet, I wondered how I’d ever get Mrs. Mountain into the trailer, and I kept holding on to Kim some more, and some more.
I’d embraced my wife, buried my nose in her hair, keeping her to me while I looked over at Sarah Sue, who stayed on her bed on her back, hands over her heart like a dead saint. Mine had been a terrible wager, pitting what weight I had against a coming tornado. I hope now that Sarah Sue understood what I meant by almost smothering her, how if it had come to it, I would have held on to the finish. While we were lying there, maybe she’d pictured our end, too, the way I did. Especially when a siren sounds, the vision still appears in mind, how it could’ve been, with Sarah Sue and me, locked together, sucked up and spun away, above the Great Plains into our heaven.