It was the next-to-last day of the Howell County Fair, that dead time in mid-afternoon when the heat gives the world a wavering look, as if you are peering through old glass; a time when everyone and everything succumbs to the beating Ozarks sun and seeks shelter or sleep or both. Sheep, pigs, goats and cattle lay in freshly mucked stalls after morning competitions. The midway, too, was eerily quiet, the ferris wheel stilled and the carnies napping or smoking listlessly in the back of aring toss tent or shooting gallery. Just waiting for something to happen.
Not me. Back then I was the kind of girl who makes things happen. The next morning was the showmanship competition, so I had decided to give my Black Angus heifer Jenny one last bath. I was picturing that showmanship trophy as mine when a shrill, slightly quavering whistle caused me to nearly jump out of my skin. It wasn’t just any whistle, but a one-of-a-kind, peel-the-paint-off-the-side-of-the-barn-kind-of-sound: Tommy.
“Dad says you’re gonna wash the black off if you don’t stop.” My little brother hopped up on the opposite side of the wash rack. “C’mon, Tally. I’ve got one word for you: funnel cake. Please?”
“Isn’t that two words?” I focused the stream along Jenny’s spine, forcing thestark white soapsuds down her dark hide. My brother, usually so quick to take the bait, had gone silent. “Tommy?”
“Look at that big red son-of-a-bitching bull.” Tommy’s voice was reverent. He pointed to a burnt-orange, lop-eared monster with huge rolls of skin hanging from his neck being escorted up the gravel road to the cattle barn. Jedediah Hollingsworth led the bull, striding jauntily in his Wrangler jeans and alligator boots, his pock-faced sidekick Billy trailing behind.
“Tommy!” I smiled to hear Tommy try to swear himself a little taller and older. Jed was eighteen and easily the best showman in the senior division. He showed everywhere, including the state fair in Sedalia. Our local fair was probably the smallest he deigned to attend. He was tall with blond hair that curled beneath his black suede cowboy hat, blue eyes, a soul patch, and a tattoo of the American flag on one bicep.
I planned to kick his ass.
Up to now, Tommy and I had done well at the fair. His steer Butch—named with gallows humor, as he would head to the slaughterhouse this fall—had taken second place while Jenny topped her class.
But I wanted that showmanship trophy: two-tiered and two feet tall, with a golden bull on top. Ribbons like the ones Tommy and I had won were great, but those were about what a fine specimen of the breed your animal was. But showmanship? That’s all you. Your style, your confidence, your strength as you paraded your animal in front of the judge so it always looked its best. I was fourteen and it was my first year in the senior division. But I was ready.
I stared at Jed, noticing the three different ropes he held in his hand. The halter, of course, but also an extra lead that barely wrapped around the animal’s thick neck, plus one attached to a nose ring. We rarely used nose rings; they pinched the tender insides of the nostrils to help control a headstrong, uncooperative creature. But it wasn’t just the bull’s size or the extra ropes that gave me pause, but a certain look in his eye: not anger or fear, but a barely contained wildness.
Jed and Billy laughed as they walked by, and I saw Jed’s muscles stretched taut in the arm that held the bull.
Tommy’s laughter pulled me back. I had been spraying my poor heifer full force, right between the eyes. Jenny blinked while her gray-pink tongue curled up into one nostril, then the other. I felt my face color. Then I turned the hose on Tommy, who shrieked with shock and delight.
“You think you can beat that?” Tommy was soaking wet, but his gaze was on Jed and the Santa Gertrudis bull.
“Why not?” I turned off the hose and began brushing the excess water off Jenny.
“You’ve got balls, Tally.”
“Don’t be crude, Tommy,” I said. But I had to agree with him: I do.
The next morning was Saturday, the day of the showmanship competition, and Dad got us there early. The cattle barn was ripe with the warm, sweet smell of straw laced with animal sweat and manure. A soothing hum emanated from the large rotating fans that kept the cattle cool and relatively fly-free.
Tommy and I bickered about who would clean out the stall—one section of an incredibly long barn with a central dividing fence with animals tied on either side. Tommy ended up with the pitchfork, and I slapped Jenny and Butch on their rumps to get them up. Tommy deftly removed piles of manure while I checked Jenny for smears of smelly green. Then I filled the black rubber tubs with oats.
“How’s she looking?” Dad was chipper as he set down a water bucket. He looked like I then imagined Tommy would some day: not a big man, but strong, with a physical confidence that came from a life of farm work. His smile was Tommy’s, too, on a grander scale. He surveyed Jenny beside me.
“Let’s get her in the chute.”
Dad loved competition almost as much as I did. He was with Tommy and me at our barn lot every day, pretending to be a hard-ass judge as we circled around with Jenny and Butch. Mom couldn’t stand to watch; she had grown up in town and said watching her babies lead large animals around on a rope made her feel “throw-uppy.” She stayed home or—if the fair was farther away—she’d sit in the pickup with the windows down and knit until it was safe to come out.
At the far end of the barn, I could see Jed’s bull in a metal chute, shaking his monstrous head and rattling the entire structure. Jed bent down to brush the bull’s powerful hind legs. I felt a tug, down low inside my body, as I took in the slender hips in their blue jeans. I shook my head. Jed was the enemy.
I waded into the stall and reached for Jenny’s halter, secured on the common rail. With a quick yank on the slipknot, the rope slid free. I backed her out and into our chute.
“C’mon, girl.” I rubbed her topknot, a small tuft Dad left when he shaved her. He kept the hair on her flanks and tailhead, too. But everywhere else was short, black velvet.
Dad and Tommy were my pit crew, because today was really my day. Tommy hadn’t signed up for showmanship, his confidence shaken after Butch pulled him around the ring at our last show. Dad was disappointed, but tried not to let on. I could tell he wished Tommy wasn’t such a scaredy cat and more like me. Which is funny, because I already knew I wanted to get off the farm and out of West Holler as soon as I could, while Tommy wanted to live on the farm forever, taking over for Dad some day.
“Two hours til showtime!”
Dad grabbed a currycomb, then wet Jenny down with a bristly brush. I was at her back end with an oversized comb, careful to keep away from her restless hooves, which could inflict a good-sized bruise—even through cowboy boots—with those eight hundred pounds of hamburger on top of them. I teased the switch of her tail into a puff and tied it up in a black hair net. Mom said it was like a beauty shop, the way we primped and preened the animals.
It was already ninety degrees. Dad sweated through his shirt as he rubbed saddlesoap on Jenny’s legs, tailhead and topknot. I pulled a metal comb through the soaped areas so the hair stood up, making her legs appear leaner, more elegant. Tommy crouched, spray painting each hoof a glossy black, so it looked like Jenny wore her patent leather best. I gave her topknot a Kewpie doll twist.
Dad was finishing up with a spray gloss on Jenny’s hide when there was a terrible clanging and bellowing at the end of the barn. Jed’s bull was writhing and stomping, tipping the chute alarmingly and somehow freeing his large head. Jed was in front, struggling to pull the bull’s neck back through opening, while Billy tried to lodge a two-by-four against the back poles so the animal couldn’t back out.
“Take this, Tommy.” Dad thrust the spray bottle at my brother and was at the end of the barn in a few quick strides. He took hold of the bull’s halter with Jed and pulled mightily, while an older rancher stood at the back, slapping the animal on his hind end. The bull bellowed, sending strings of saliva into the air. Tommy crept closer to the action, curious, but careful to maintain a safe distance. Finally,the men got the bull’s neck back through the V and secured it. There was a brief huddle: Dad and the rancher, Jed and Billy. There were hands on hips, heads shaking; someone turned to spit.
Dad’s face was bright red when he came back. “He’s got no right bringing an animal like that. If you can’t control your goddamn bull, leave him at home.” He shook his head. “They’re going to tranq him. It’s not fair.”
Tranquilizer. Everyone who showed probably had a bottle in the bottom of the show box. It wasn’t illegal. But there was a code of honor: use it only when absolutely necessary, when an animal was so keyed up it was skittish and unpredictable. A spoonful and the animal relaxed; a shade too much and her eyes went glassy, her spirits sagged. It wasn’t the ideal way for a judge to see your animal,but sometimes it was the only way.
Still, for the showmanship competition? I could see Dad’s point: if you’re competing on the merits of the showman, how was it fair to judge a person handling a drugged animal against one who was controlling hers with only skill?
“Don’t let it rattle you, Tally. You can still win.” Dad’s jaw was tight. “Just keep your cool, smile, and act like you own the ring.”
“Yeah, Tally. You’ll show that sumbitch.”
Dad raised a quizzical eyebrow at Tommy, who looked down, afraid he was in trouble. But then Dad laughed. “That’s right, Tom. She’ll show that sumbitch.”
Dad reached up behind my cowboy hat and gave my ponytail a tug.
I was first in line at the giant opening into the arena with about a dozen others behind me. I had on my cream-colored Western shirt with the blue floral pockets and blue piping, Wrangler jeans and golden leather ropers. I wore my long brown hair loose under my hat. I was nervous, but Dad always said I had a great poker face.
The judge was pear-shaped, with polyester pants cinched under a beer belly. He had an orange handlebar mustache and ten-gallon hat that gave him a Yosemite Sam look. He nodded and I stepped into the ring, showstick in my left hand, Jenny on my right looking snazzy in her red leather show halter. The crowd clapped. I traced the ring’s perimeter, the other contestants behind me, until the last Charolais heifer entered the ring.
After a few laps, trouble spots emerged: the boy with the crossbred steer causing a traffic jam; a girl with a Hereford heifer that spooked when the loudspeaker came on.
The judge held up his hand and we stopped. I took Jenny’s halter in my lefthand, holding her head high, and switched the showstick to my right. I touched the tender skin where the hoof divides with the tip of the stick until her legs wereperfectly square. Then I scratched her belly to keep her relaxed.
I watched the judge intently and saw Jed across the ring doing the same. The judge pointed to Jed and then to the right hand side of the ring. Jed pulled his bull into that space and set him up. Sweat rolled from my armpits into my waistband. But I acted nonchalant as the judge touched the flank of a golden Limousin heifer shown by a tall, skeletal teenager with a faded circle in his back pocket where his Skoal can resided. Then the judge nodded at me and I led Jenny into the number three slot.
When we were all in line, the judge circled us slowly. Some animals got nervous and had to be led out of the row and pulled back into place. A few refused to set up at all. The flighty Hereford actually kicked a hind leg at the judge as he passed.
Up in the stands, Dad’s arms were crossed loosely, but I could tell he was anxious. Tommy gave me an exaggerated “thumbs up.”
The crowd was quiet, anticipating the judge’s next move. He tugged his mustache for a long moment and began culling the herd. This was exactly when you didn’t want to catch his eye. But if he wanted you out, you were out. He beckoned to the boy with the crossbred and the girl with the Hereford, who burst into tears. A half dozen other kids got the nod. There were three of us left. The judge tipped his hat toward us and the crowd broke into applause.
“Ladies and gentlemen, let’s give another hand to all of our competitors,” the announcer said as we began circling again.
Everyone settled down to watch the finalists. The judge held up his hand and we set up, watching him over the backs of our animals. Jed and Skeleton Boy bent their knees to appear more engaged with their animals. I bent my knees, too.
Then the judge walked over to Jed and said something. To my surprise, the judge was now holding Jed’s bull, while Jed approached Skeleton Boy and took the halter of the Limousin. I was still puzzled as Skeleton Boy made his way over to me.
“Switcheroo.” He reached for Jenny’s halter and she eyed him doubtfully.
“What do you mean?”
“You get Big Red over there.” He indicated Jed’s mammoth bull with more than a little amusement. Holy shit, was all I could think. I guessed the judge wanted to see how we handled an animal other than our own, but I’d never had this happen before.
The judge gave us the once-over with our new charges, then made a quick circle in the air with his index finger.
“All right, you big red son-of-a-bitch,” I whispered. “It’s go time.”
Pulling Big Red around the ring was like dragging a mountain. When we stopped, my short showstick seemed woefully inadequate to reach Big Red’s back legs. I used the hook to pick up the bull’s right back foot and move it. I got on my tiptoes to peer over his back at the judge, who was watching Skeleton Boy struggle with Jenny. She couldn’t resist the chance to take charge. The skinny teen eventually overpowered her, but her ears were flattened against her head. Not a good look.
Meanwhile, Big Red was picture perfect. All I had to do was rub his stomach and wait for further instructions. I could win this thing.
Jed had just set up his charge when she raised her coiffed tail and squeezedout a load, backing a hoof into the fresh pile. The judge observed Jed repeatedlytrying to lift the foot forward. But before her hoof finally settled into place, thejudge was beckoning me to the number one spot. I busted into a grin and yankedBig Red’s halter. His eyes were unfocused, as if he’d been asleep standing up. Heblinked and began to move.The judge put Jed next and Skeleton Boy last. I allowed myself a peek at Dad:he was beaming, while Tommy bounced up and down beside him, whistling like amad tea kettle. I could almost feel the trophy’s cool weight in my hands.And then: Big Red folded his front knees and slowly, slowly lowered downinto the shavings, like a giant parade balloon losing air and sinking into itself.“No!” The bull bent his back legs and plopped unceremoniously to theground. I pulled and pulled, but his head must have weighed a hundred pounds.His eyes were slits as he chewed his cud half-heartedly. I hooked a back leg withmy showstick, but nothing budged. The entire crowd roared at the spectacle; eventhe judge cracked a smile.
Later that afternoon, Tommy and I arranged our hay bales like a couch at the end of our stall, and sat opposite each other, the bottoms of our boots touching. I stared disconsolately at the showmanship trophy atop Jed’s show box. I had had my chance and lost it. But the worst was watching Jed hoisting the trophy—my trophy—over his head.
Tommy tried everything to cheer me up: silly impressions of Jed, trying enthusiastically—but without success—to juggle three currycombs. I didn’t evenlaugh when one hit him square on the head with a thunk, denting his prized cowboy hat. Finally, he offered to teach me his signature whistle, and I realized how desperate he must be: that whistle was probably the only thing Tommy could do better than me.
“See, you make your thumb and pointer into a horseshoe, like this,” Tommy tried to curve my two digits for me. “Now, put them in your mouth, teeth a littleapart, right up next to the sides of your tongue. Feel that?”
“Okay, now blow,” Tommy said, whistling deftly on his own two fingers. The sound, at such close range, made my eardrums shiver.
I exhaled and succeeded only in blowing a big strand of saliva on Tommy’s freckled face. The accompanying sound was like a sick, wet bumblebee. Tommy dissolved in laughter. I couldn’t help myself: I did, too.
“No!” Tommy loved being the expert. “You’ve got to touch the tip of your tongue to your front teeth and then blow. Let it vibrate a little.”
My next effort—more spit and no sound at all—made Tommy fall off his hay bale.
“Special delivery for Natalie Cooper.”
From the ground, Tommy stared up open-mouthed at the long denim legs that had appeared beside us. A bouquet of red helium balloons obscured the upper half of the person clutching it, except for a black cowboy hat: Jed. I felt my brief good mood evaporate. But Tommy jumped up, eager to please.
“That’s, uh... my sister? Right there.”
“It’s Tally, you jackass.” I was unmoved, even when Jed gave me one of those “aw-shucks” kind of looks that probably worked on other girls.
“Tally. Sure.” Jed handed the balloons to Tommy, who looked like he had just won the lottery. He didn’t care that the balloons were the kind you get free on the midway, emblazoned with “The West Holler Herald: Want News? Just Holler.”
“That’s awfully big of you,” I snapped.
“Now don’t get your knickers in a twist.” Jed took Tommy’s place across from me and I drew my legs toward my chest. His light blue eyes searched my face for encouragement. But I was a rock.
“Guilty conscience, I guess?” I was surprised how hard my voice was. I had often imagined what it would be like to talk with Jed when he finally noticed me, and this wasn’t at all what I had envisioned.
“Not really. More like I wanted to say you were awesome in the ring. Just bad luck, Big Red going down.” I noticed a dimple in his left cheek.
“Bad luck? I’d call it tranquilizers.” I shrugged. “But you’re okay with that.”
“C’mon. It’s not cheating.” He moved closer. “You gotta do what you gotta do.”“Liar, liar, pants on fire!” A munchkin-like voice filled the barn. Jed and I jumped before realizing it was Tommy, holding a limp, lifeless balloon in one hand. We totally cracked up, and then Jed and I each reached for a balloon, too. Gingerly, I bit a hole near the knot and breathed in the helium. “Jed Hollingsworth, you suck,” I squeaked.
He squeaked back, and the unbelievably high falsetto coming out of that manly body made me smile in spite of myself. “Tally Cooper, forgive me. Pretty please? With a cherry on top?”
He gave me a grin and I was completely undone.
“Let’s ride the ferris wheel,” he said. He reached out a hand to pull me off the hay bale. Tommy stared, wide-eyed, as if to say, “Really?” He knew I hated Jed. But suddenly hate didn’t feel like the right word.
“Can you spare big sis for a bit, bud?” Though I knew my brother would give his left nut to hang out with Jed, too, Tommy nodded, speechless.
Jed made a deep bow and took my elbow, steering me to the midway, with its rickety rides and rigged games, the mingled smells of black grease and grilled burgers.
The ferris wheel loomed above the midway, with big white bulbs rimming both sides. No one was riding yet, but Jed approached the wiry, toothless man at the controls and worked out a deal. The carnie swung open the metal bar in front of the red cracked vinyl seat. Jed slid in, patting the cushion beside him.
But I had a death grip on the lap bar as the carnie latched us in. Soon we were on top of the world, sunlight glinting off the metal spokes of the giant wheel. I could see forever, like time had stopped and there was nothing but blue sky. I saw West Holler, a tiny clutch of buildings surrounded by mossy-looking treetops.
Jed scooted beside me, draping his arm across the back of our seat. I had just turned to point out the high school when his mouth was suddenly on mine. Nothing open-mouthed or slobbery like on TV. Just a soft warm kiss, with a slight tickle from that scraggly hair beneath his bottom lip. My eyes were open and I must have looked surprised because Jed pulled away and said, casually, “What?”
“Why’d you do that?” I asked. My tough-girl persona was failing me.
“I wanted to.”
Our basket swooped over the top of the ferris wheel one last time before the machine ground to low gear and the carnie, grinning slyly, released us to solid ground.
“Not a bad kiss, either. For a freshman,” Jed mused, offering me his hand. We walked back to the barn, but I didn’t see anything. It was like all my nerves were concentrated in my left hand where he was holding it, his skin warm and rough with callouses. I wanted to freeze the moment, pick it up like a snowglobe and examine it from every angle, shake it, watch it settle: me and Jed. It didn’t seem possible.
Then we were at the barn, where Tommy’s inquisitive face peeked over the pickets.
“See you around, Tally Cooper.” Jed tipped his hat. “Most worthy opponent.”
For once, I had no clever retort. I just lifted my hand in a half-wave and watched him amble toward the trailers.
“Time for chores,” Tommy said, poking me with his pitchfork.
Tommy and I finished bedding down Jenny and Butch by early evening. The cattle barn had a festive atmosphere, with carnival music and screams of laughter drifting in from the midway. Now that the competition was over, everyone could relax before packing up the next day and heading home. And because it was the last night—and not far from home—Dad had agreed that Tommy and I could stay over. We put cots in the cattle trailer, along with blankets, pillows and a flashlight.I was in charge, of course. But Tommy planned our evening: pig scramble, monster truck pull, carnival rides, games and funnel cakes.
“Tilt-a-Whirl or Teacups? Before or after funnel cakes?” He furrowed his brow. “Ever seen a puke chain reaction? Someone hurled on the Screamin’ Swings today. And the girl who got hit in the face by the flying hurl? Then she hurled.”
“That’s cool,” I said, only half-listening. All I could think about was seeing Jed again.
“Wait here a minute, Tommy.” I made my way to where Jed’s friend Billy sat in a lawn chair at the end of the aisle, listening to a Cardinal baseball game.
“Hey,” I said.
Billy looked at me as if he’d never seen me before. “Hey.”
“Have you seen Jed?”
“Depends who’s asking.” Billy turned his head to spit.
“Well, Tally Cooper, he was headed to the truck pull. He’s wandering around out there somewhere. But I ain’t sure he’s looking for you.” Billy laughed and I didn’t like the ugly way it sounded, not like a laugh at all.
I kept half an eye out for Jed all night. But it was hard not to have a good time with Tommy. He took on the fair like it had been set up just for him, running to each new ride or booth. By eleven-thirty, we were zombies, my brain still circling inside my skull after the Screamin’ Swings, my stomach hurting from the funnel cake and Pepsi. We had reached the end of the midway, where the rides and booths trailed off and shadows took over. Tommy carried a large blue teddy bear with wild eyes while I held the goldfish he won at the ring toss. Our cheeks were chock full of Dubble Bubble, Tommy having insisted on a bubble-blowing contest as the grand finale of our night.
The crowds had thinned; everything would shut down at midnight. We did an about-face at the Rotary Club Burger Shack, which was already closed. Tommy begged for one last stroll down the midway before calling it a night. I had just blown a giant iridescent bubble when I noticed it: the black hat. Tommy saw it,too. Jed was coming toward us, a blonde girl beside him, smiling at something he said.
“Does he hold hands with everyone?” Tommy sounded genuinely confused. My bubble popped, and I reached my free hand up to peel it off my nose and lips.
There was only the slightest ripple across Jed’s face before he affixed it witha cool smile. He drew the girl closer and stopped in front of us. She had a frilly pink shirt and tiny denim skirt that showed how she was curvy where I was still straight. Her eyes were big and brown, made larger by eyeliner. Jed had changed into a fresh t-shirt, and the air around us vibrated with the scent of his aftershave. I realized I still wore my dirty show shirt and manure-encrusted boots, my hair stringy and loose.
“Hey there, Tally. What’s your little brother’s name again?”
“Tommy,” he piped up. “What’s your name?” he asked the girl boldly.
She smiled like an indulgent babysitter. “Kayla.”
I looked at their hands, the loosely interlaced fingers, and nothing about this afternoon made sense. Or maybe everything did. I’d been tranquilized. I’d been an idiot. But as anger surged from the hard knot at my center to the end of each capillary, I had the delicious sensation of waking up, of coming to.
“I think I’ve heard about you,” Kayla said to me, not unkindly.
“Probably,” I said. “I’m the one Jed cheated out of that showmanship trophy.”
The two of them exchanged a look. He gave an exaggerated shrug with the implicit message: What can I say? The girl is crazy.
“So, hey, we’ll see you around the barn.” Jed was peering closely at my face. Was he trying to tell me something? To say he was sorry?
“Hey, Tally?” His tone was apologetic. “You’ve got gum on your nose.”
I watched them walk away, past a peeling wooden placard that proclaimed: “See the Amazing Two-Headed Calf!” My head began to pound from the loud, smelly belches of the gas engines powering the rides, the plinkety-plunk of the carnival music with its fake gaiety.
“C’mon,” Tommy said, tugging my arm. I had forgotten he was there, witness to my complete humiliation. Then: “She was nice, huh?”
I snorted. “If you go for that sort of thing.”
“What sort of thing?”
“God, never mind. You are so stupid sometimes, Tommy.”
Now I had hurt his feelings; I could see it in his slumped shoulders, the way the blue teddy bear dangled upside down in his slackened grasp, ears grazing the dirt. It was like kicking an over-affectionate puppy. But nonetheless, it gave me a prickly, fleeting satisfaction that I desperately wanted more of.
“I’m going to the barn,” I said. “Meet you back at the trailer.”
Tommy’s dejection turned to anxiety. “I’ll go with you.”
“No. I’ve got to fix something.”
“I’ll help you.”
“I said no.”
I turned on my heel to go before a slosh of tepid water reminded me that I still held the small glass globe of Tommy’s goldfish bowl.
“And take your stupid fish, too!”
I swung the fish bowl back at my side and launched it in a high arc, losing sight of it in the midway lights for a split second before it reappeared like a comet, trailing a tail of water behind. Tommy dropped his bear to attempt to catch the fish, but the bowl shattered on the ground just beyond his outstretched hands,creating a dark stain on the midway. The orange fish shuddered in the dirt beforeflipping over, coated in gray dust as if preparing itself for the frying pan. A tiny fin quivered skyward and Tommy fell to his knees with a moan and tried to pick the creature up by its tail.
The strange release I had felt upon flinging the bowl into the air turned quickly into panic and then shame. I found a flattened Pepsi cup and tried to push itinto some semblance of its original shape, its waxy surface cracked and flaking.
“I’m telling,” Tommy said tonelessly as I scraped the fish into the cup.
“No.” I felt frantic, desperate. “It’ll be okay.”
I could tell he wanted to believe me. We rushed toward the water pump at the cattle barn, our cowboy boots thumping in rhythm on the packed dirt. I held the fish gingerly under the spigot, rinsing it back to its original orange while its gillsgasped erratically. Tommy filled the paper cup and I plopped the poor creaturein; we watched as the little fish righted itself and took a tentative circle around its new home.
In that moment, we both felt immense relief: Tommy, because his fish appeared to have survived, and me, because that survival meant I might not get tattled on. But I couldn’t be completely, one-hundred-percent sure about that.
That’s when I decided maybe Tommy could help me after all.
“C’mon. Let’s go in the barn.”
“Really?” Tommy visibly brightened. “What’re we going to fix?”
“What do you mean?”
Inside the barn, the bright overhead bulbs were off. A handful of dark yellow lights on a low central beam gave the scene a golden glow and cast long shadows down the main aisle. The animals lay sleeping or dozing, grinding away at their cuds and occasionally flicking a tail at a persistent fly. The only noise came from the fans, a steady droning that soothed the cattle like the human equivalent of white noise.
We set the fish and bear on top of our show box at the end of the stall. But when I continued down the aisle past Jenny and Butch, Tommy was puzzled.
“Where are you going?”
“Shhhh.” I didn’t look to see if he was following me.
When we got nearly to the end of the barn, I paused at the stall opposite Jed’s. I could see Big Red’s colossal head over the top rail of the central dividing fence even though he was lying down; one of his eyes glinted through a lower slat. I surveyed the cattle in the stall on my side and slowly picked my way on a narrowstraw path between two sleepy heifers.
“Easy,” I said. “Take it easy.”
Tommy didn’t say a word until he had eased his way through, too. Then his whisper was loud and panicky.
“Are you crazy?”
“Maybe,” I said. We were across from Big Red and I could feel his hot wet breath on my arm through the fence. The three ropes that held the big beast captive were tied separately to the middle rail, so close I could touch them.
First, I yanked the stiff knotted end of the halter, so that it fell free. “One...”
Tommy looked at me with disbelief. “You can’t do that!”
“You just watched me.”
Casually, I pulled on the second slipknot that attached the bull’s nose ring tothe rail. “Two...”
“Don’t be a baby. We’re safe on this side. Besides, Big Red may not even bother to get up. Jed could find him safe and sound here in his stall in the morning.”
“But he might run off!”
“He just might,” I said. “And poor Jed might have to figure out how to handle a bull without tranquilizers.”
“But... I thought you liked Jed.”
I will never forget the way he looked at me then, as if I were completely unknown to him. But someone he loved nonetheless; someone he would do anything to please. I pushed him toward the third knot, the one for the neck lead, the only thing left tethering Big Red to that place.
Tommy never took his eyes from my face as he pulled the end of the rope until the knot disappeared and the lead fell to the ground.
“Three,” he said.
It was close to midnight when we made it back to the trailer, slipping quietly between the cool sheets on our cots without removing anything but our boots. Tommy was silent, but I could feel his agitation. As if in sympathy, the slender ghostlike oaks at the side of the trailer lot began to shudder, too: a storm was coming in.
But I soon slept, strangely untroubled by my transgressions.
I awoke to a distant rumble of thunder. The trailer was briefly illuminatedby far-flung bursts of lightning. Tommy sat upright, clutching his pillow: “Tally?”
“It’s just a summer storm. Go back to sleep.” I rolled over.
“Tally? Butch doesn’t like lightning. Or thunder.”
“You mean you don’t like lightning or thunder.”
“I should check on him.”
I lay silent, hoping he would give up.
“Come with me. Please?”
“Go yourself,” I finally said, knowing he wouldn’t dare. “Prove you’re not such a chicken shit for once.”
A sound like a hundred metal garbage cans hitting the ground jolted me awake and rattled all the teeth in my head. It was later–Four a.m.? Five? I didn’t know how long I had been asleep. In a flash of lightning, I saw Tommy’s cot was empty.
“Tommy? Tommy!” I reached for my boots.
Outside the trailer, I was nearly knocked off my feet by the wind. I couldn’t see much except what was in the small circle of the vapor light. Tommy had taken our flashlight, but I could have walked to the barn with my eyes closed. The plac ewas completely lit up now anyway. The animals were anxious, some lowing, others bellowing. There were shouts, words I couldn’t make out.
I was halfway up the hill when the rain hit: big, pelting drops that stung my skin. In a minute, I was drenched, my thin shirt plastered to my body, hair whipping my face as I pushed toward the barn. I finally made it to our stall, but Tommy wasn’t there. Butch and Jenny stood nervously shoving each other from side to side. Most of the animals were up, lowing and stomping, their heaving, twitching flesh like water rippling through the barn. Billy was hurrying my way, halter in hand, extra rope slung over his shoulder.
“What’s going on?”
“Big Red’s gone. Spooked. Some guy told Jed he’s loose on the midway.”
“Have you seen my little brother?”
Billy frowned. “He was just here.”
There was a clap of thunder and Billy disappeared into the dark and the rain. I tried to keep up. Intermittent lightning illuminated the midway, and we both began to run. The uneven spots in the road were full already, and I could feel the muddy water splashing up on my jeans.
I was breathing hard. Billy was way ahead of me when a crack of lightning split the night and I saw him: Big Red, towering among the kiddie rides, his gargantuan body made even larger in contrast to the tiny train and miniature fence where the sad-faced ponies circled all day. I recognized Jed at the bull’s front end, holding on tightly to a single rope around the animal’s neck. Big Red was buckinglike a rodeo bronc, terrified by the storm, dragging the useless ropes from his nose ring and halter in the mud as he circled frantically around Jed. A man holding a lasso followed at a considerable distance from Big Red’s powerful hindquarters. Billy tried to get near the bull’s front with a lead rope, but a violent shake of Big Red’s head put him back on his heels. In the ring of weak light from the single light pole, I could see the rain coming down in sheets. Every time the bull paused, the men edged closer, trying to get another rope on him—only to have the thunder or lightning set him off again.
Finally, the man with the lasso landed the rope behind the bull’s ears. He waited a split second, until the bottom of the loop fell below Big Red’s mouth, thengave the rope an incredible yank. He and Jed then took opposite sides of the bull,trying to subdue him.
That’s when I saw Tommy, right at the edge of the light. He was crouching beneath the ledge of a ticket booth, only ten yards from Big Red. I couldn’t see his face, just a dark space between the glow of his white shirt and straw cowboyhat. Relief flooded my body. Yet he seemed so far away, with the bucking bull and men between us. It wasn’t like him, putting himself in danger. But then I saw the rope in his hand. I watched, horrified, as he crept into the open, closer to Big Red.
“Tommy!” He didn’t hear me, and in that instant, I wished I had mastered his shrill whistle. Instead, I screamed again as loud as I could: “Tommy!”
He jerked toward me, surprised. And then the sky blew up.
Later, Billy and Jed and the other rancher would talk about how fast it happened. About the jagged streak of lightning that hit so close their ears rang. How it set Big Red off. How they didn’t even know Tommy was there.
But for me, it was like the slow unspooling of a fly fisherman’s line, how it hung, suspended half of forever in the air on the backcast, then floated down and sat tenuously on the surface of the water. I saw Tommy in his cowboy boots looking at me, one hand poised to toss the coil of rope. Then the frightening aura of the lightning strike. The bellow of fear from Big Red, and the way his huge bulk contracted in on itself before both back legs exploded out behind him in mid-air,catching Tommy on the side of his head and launching him heavenward. How his body hung a long second in the low sky before falling to earth in a crumpled pile.
Please don’t let him die.
That was my prayer in those first awful seconds. I would not know until later that it was the wrong prayer.
Because Tommy didn’t die; not exactly. His head would heal, but for an angry, curved scar at his temple. But the Tommy-ness of him, the essence of my little brother, would be gone. He would end up living on the farm forever—but not howh e had planned.
With the crack of lightning reverberating in my head, I raced toward Tommy, my sodden jeans slowing my progress. A slightly metallic tang filled my nose. Someone screamed; someone else yelled for help. The voices were raw, trying tomake themselves heard over the thunder and rain and commotion. Every time the sky lit up, it was like a photo burned into my brain. The carnival machinery on the midway, monstrous arms frozen in mid-air. Big Red, head down and hoovesdug defiantly into the mud, pulled by a multitude of ropes, unmoving. The ghostly grandstands. Tommy.
His eyes were closed. There may have been blood, I don’t remember. But the expression on his face was grim determination. Someone joined me at Tommy’s side. In the next flash, I watched as a roughsaddle blanket was tucked around his body.“He’s my brother,” I said. It felt as if I were yelling into a deep well, as if no one could hear it but me. Then someone was tugging at my arm, pulling me away.
I always whistle now when I walk into our farmhouse. Not just aimless or happy whistling, like a Top 40 hit or a Hank Williams tune. But Tommy’s whistle, thatunbelievably shrill, slightly undulating shriek that can flatten the ears of a coon dog or rattle a pane of glass. It took me a few years, but I’ve almost perfected it.
Before, Mom might have shaken her head or raised a disapproving eyebrow. But now she just greets me at the front door on those weekends I’m back from college and makes a show of covering her ears before leading me to the family room, where Tommy sits on the couch, his face turned toward the doorway. He knows I’m home.
I’ve noticed how Mom lingers, watching us together. There is wistfulness in her look, a fleeting shadow of remembering before the worry lines set in, deep grooves in her forehead, puckers pulling at the edges of her downturned mouth.
“Don’t get him riled up, okay?” she says. Her voice holds a note of warning. But I hear a question, too: Can I trust you with him? Neither she nor Dad would ever say that.
I nod. Tommy’s frustration at his limitations can cause him to erupt. Because nothing—his motor skills, his thoughts, his speech or his memory—functions like it did before. Last month, Dad tried to restrain Tommy after my brother launched the remote at the television when he could not change the channel. Tommy knocked out one of Dad’s front teeth with his elbow. Mom called me, crying. The worst part, she said, was that Tommy did not understand that he should be sorry. He raged until the medication kicked in. Both of my parents are loathe to sedate Tommy. I understand: it is a fine line, titrating the amount that will keep him from hurting himself or someone else and yet not losing what little remains of himin a narcotic stupor.
“Hey, Tommy,” I say, patting his shoulder before I drop my backpack at the other end of the couch. He is a teenager now and his body, while bigger, looks shrunken in on itself, the way he holds his arms curled up to his chest. There is peachy fuzz above his lip, and I realize Mom and Dad will be the ones to shavehim. And when they are gone? The little unexpected flash into my future chills me.
“Tah. Lee.” Tommy’s speech comes slow. He only has maybe a dozen words. “Tah. Lee.”
“That’s my name, Tommy. Don’t wear it out.” I smile at him; the books say that modeling the correct emotional responses can help the brain injured relearn behavior. But Tommy doesn’t smile this time, either.
I throw open the large, double-sashed windows to the sounds of Dad making his rounds in the hayfield on his blue Ford tractor. A breeze brings in the sweet scent of new-mown alfalfa tinged with manure from the barnyard; the low metallic hum of cicadas forms a background for the rapid beating of grasshop-per wings as the insects half-leap, half-fly, thumping every so often against the window screens. I close my eyes and breathe, amazed by the ability of sounds and smells to take me back.
I turn from the window and plop down beside Tommy. On impulse, I reach for his right hand.
“Let me see that, Tommy.”
I lower his hand to my lap, see the fingers curled in on his palm like a claw. Gently, I pry back his index finger, stretch the thumb away. When I let go, the fingers return almost where they were before, but not quite. I try again, my head close to Tommy’s. After a couple of times, he can hold the two digits apart by himself. I look at his face; there is no expression. But his eyes have a glint in them and I know he is paying attention.
“Now, you put them in your mouth like this.” I guide his fingers toward his mouth, feeling resistance in his stiff forearm. I open my mouth, showing him what I want him to do. But his stays clamped shut, his jaw tight. I notice the scar at Tommy’s temple. Big Red was sent from the fairgrounds straight to slaughter. Even though what happened to Tommy was an accident, the animal’s show days were over; no one could bear to look at Big Red and think about what he had done.
“You have to open your mouth, Tom. Remember?” I reach to push his lips apart and before I know what is happening, Tommy has grabbed my wrists and pushed me back. The force of it sends me off the couch, my head banging into the coffee table on my way to the floor. Then Tommy is on top of me, one bony kneein my sternum, his grip tightening on my wrists as he wrenches them to the floorabove my head. I am too surprised to scream. Tommy’s face is impenetrable, his only sound a puff of exertion through his nose.
“No,” he says. And then again: “No!”
A blue vein by Tommy’s scar twitches before his hands let go for an instant and then close again—this time on my throat. His nails dig into my flesh and a redhaze begins to form at the corners of my vision. I can’t breathe. I no longer hear the tractor. My own hands tear at Tommy’s and I writhe beneath him, trying to wrench myself loose. Now I can only see the red and hear the pulsing of my own blood in my ears.
There is the pounding of footsteps, the slam of the screen door; soon Dad will appear over Tommy’s shoulder, grabbing his arms, wrenching him backwards where he will sit, legs sprawled, emotionless, but with his eyes glittering and wild. Mom will be right behind Dad, half-sobbing, pulling me into her arms, searching my face to see if I am all right. She will push my hair behind my ears and call me “Baby” because she won’t know what else to do.
But in the instant before that happens, I see nothing. I feel only the slow, sure tightening of those hands like a lasso, and I wish I could set us both free.