by Thomas Philbrick
“That should be it, right Jimmy?”
“Yeah.” Jim threw the rope over the loaded truck and heard it thump against the steel frame on the other side. He made a loop with both strands, passed the end through the loop, fed it through one of the metal hooks on the headboard, and cinched it down into a trucker’s hitch. The load swayed, and he heard the rubber feed bins screech against the tailgate. The sound made him shiver.
“You heading out soon?”
The truck teetered out of the dooryard. Jim heard the load creaking as the truck rolled like an injured beetle over the potholes in the driveway. He pictured where it would swerve to avoid the deepest ones.
He went into the barn. The empty rows of stanchions shone, wet from the pressure washer, like a glassy lake in the sun. At the end of the aisle, three bony Holstein cows stood in their stanchions and chomped on silage. Jim sat on an overturned feed bucket and watched them eat. Between bites, they gazed at him with wide, benevolent eyes. He scooted the bucket over to one of them and stroked her smooth neck. In return, she dumped a mouthful of silage on his boots.
His cell phone buzzed and he let it go to voicemail. Probably just Larry. Another document, another motion. Doesn’t matter. Larry’s a good guy, but a lawyer was never going to be enough.
“I remember the day you were born, you know that, Liza?” Her head swung up, massive, chewing. “Center pasture. Summer morning, sun just coming up, and there you were.” He smiled and a second Adam’s apple bulged into his throat. He tried to swallow it but couldn’t; it seemed as though his throat had shrunk to the width of a straw. Liza extended her wet nose toward his face, blowing on him and attempting to lick his hat. She knocked it off his head and his laughter mingled with tears.
The barn lay empty around them.
The sun was low on the horizon when Jim placed the feed bucket in the bed of his truck. He listened to the voicemail from Larry.
“Jim, wanted to let you know I heard from the agency commissioner, and he’s still saying that the stream used to be a wetland. It’s ridiculous, I know. We obviously have the two depositions, but I wanted to make sure you hadn’t seen any water there recently. ’Cause you know they’ll use even the smallest puddle. Anyway, give me a call when you get a chance.”
Jim wasn’t angry. He had been angry many times before. When it started, when they had first pulled into his misty driveway on that cool May morning, he had been enraged. The unfairness, the cost, the elitist tone they used when they talked to him—it had driven him over the edge. They can go to hell, he thought, the bastards. But after the first three years of litigation, he had resigned himself to shaking his head. “I’m sorry, sir,” they had said, “but under the regulations, dairy farming is not an approved agricultural activity.”
And now, twelve years later, he was numb.
At least it took them twelve years, he thought. Most of the other farmers had gone down a lot easier.
He began walking toward the pasture, down the hill and through the gate by the big maple. A sledgehammer rested against the side of the tree. He slung it over his shoulder. Been wondering where that was, he thought. Must’ve left it here by accident when we were replacing those fence posts. Coming to the back of the first field, he passed the small valley where Liza had been born.
A stand of pine walled the north edge of the pasture to his right. Dad loved the farm, he remembered, but he loved the forest most of all. Gramps, too. Gramps was the one who started the dairy. Bought us our first Holsteins. Manure from the herd peppered the field beneath his feet. They had been here just yesterday, after all. The beef truck hadn’t come until the afternoon. God, that seems like forever ago, he thought. And his blood boiled at the thought of his tall, graceful Holsteins getting trucked off for beef.
He was standing on the bridge that crossed the stream.
“What pollutants?” he had asked the officials when they drove into his misty driveway on that cool May morning.
“Well . . .” They didn’t know. “But don’t worry, you’ll be able to keep your farm.”
The bridge was covered with yellow tape and a large toolbox that had been there for weeks while the officials ran tests on the tiny mud-pit under the bridge they called a “water of the United States.” The fields on both sides were grown up with dried thistle and brown grass. What a waste. A waste of good land. My land. It’s been at least five years since I’ve had cows down here. Whenever it was that the agency told me I couldn’t—goddam bureaucrats. Bastards can go to hell. Telling me I can’t use my own—
He swung the sledgehammer off his shoulder and brought it down with all his strength on the toolbox. The lid crumpled like a folding chair and he swung again, splitting the hull in two places. Test tubes of muddy water spilled onto the bridge. Fury controlled him, boiling up into his chest like a surging flood of ancient lava, and he fed it. He smashed each tube with the sledgehammer, yelling, screaming, cursing through hot tears, throwing his whole body behind each blow. Every time the hammer made contact there was a rushing sensation in his head, as though a dam had been breached and there was nothing to hold back the flood of anger. Then he was gasping for breath, bent like a man who has been shot yet refuses to fall, the sledge beside him and blood in his hands from freshly opened callouses. The bridge was strewn with glass, mud, shards of plastic toolbox, yellow tape. Wonder what they’ll charge me with for doing this, he thought.
The sun was almost gone when Jim left his farm. He saw the potholes in the driveway and did not swerve around them. He was numb again. The truck crawled along the highway, swaying and lurching like a deranged creature. Cars roared past him with flipped birds and blaring horns. He stared at the road and the dried tears on his cheeks glittered in the oncoming headlights like sunny rivers cutting through a desert.
It was dark when he pulled into the motel parking lot. He turned the truck off and sat motionless in the driver’s seat. A single light flashed off and on over the concrete sidewalk in front of him, swinging back and forth in the evening breeze. He heard one of the milking machines fall against the headboard and he pictured fresh, creamy milk running out onto the metal of the truck bed.
Around him, there were crickets chirping in the night.
Thomas Philbrick is a writer, artist, and composer. His graphite artwork has been exhibited in various venues and publications throughout the United States and the United Kingdom. His musical compositions include two string trios, three pieces for solo piano, and a four-movement setting of T.S. Eliot’s poem Four Quartets for choir, string orchestra, and percussion. He is currently completing his first novel. You can find more of his work at www.thomasphilbrick.com or on Instagram @philbrick_arts.