Behind the livestock barn, Finn washed his hands twice at the washbasin to get the smell of sweat and cow-hide work gloves from his hands. He splashed cold water on his face and the back of his neck. His shirt collar stuck to his skin. He blew hay dust out of his nose one nostril at a time. Pieces of hay stems in his socks pricked his ankles. Next summer he would be old enough to get his driver’s license. Maybe find a better summer job at the movie theatre, a half-hour drive from town. Bailing hay was the one steady summer job Finn and his friends could do together. He was late and very hungry from the morning’s work.
Greg, Brian, and Chris stood in a triangle at the far side of the porch away from a man slouched sideways near the door to the house, he was blade thin, shaved head, and as Finn walked up the steps he noticed a spider web tattoo half peeked out from under the man’s buttoned-up collared work shirt. Old Benny allowed anyone to work for a day or half day’s wages. That was Finn’s guess. Without saying hi to his friends, Finn ignored the man, picked out two glazed donuts from the box, and poured himself a glass of hard cider Old Benny bottled in plastic gallon milk jugs. They called it hard cider because it tasted like sweet apple vinegar. They never got drunk on it.
Finn stood just outside his friend’s triangle and concentrated on eating his donuts to make himself feel less awkward with the silence. Because they had grown up together each one of their side glances was an understanding between them that didn’t need to be said. Finn hoped Brian’s tight smile would hold back his urge to wisecrack within feet of the man.
“Where’s Old Benny?” Finn finally asked. Two of the three shrugged. The other Chris ignored them by finishing his donut.
Seeming unconcerned with what was going on outside of himself, the man stayed at the same angle, facing slightly away from them and not focused on any one object. Finn never met an adult who didn’t say hello first. He must not have said anything to anyone or else someone would have told Finn his name. All summer it had been the four of them with Old Benny working the farm.
Chris stepped around Finn to get off of the porch. When Old Benny appeared at the doorway the man stood upright. Old Benny handed him a pair of tattered work gloves.
“Boys, this here’s Russ,” Old Benny said. Finn stopped short of a tentative wave in Russ’s direction that was met with no acknowledgment. “I’m driving the truck this afternoon.” Old Benny never drove the truck. He never came out to the field. He’d wait at the barn and operate the hay elevator that loaded the barn. Old Benny shooed them off the porch door. “We’ll be there in a minute. Russ and me got to go over somethings.”
Finn sat on the back of the flatbed, the others huddled around him.
“What do you think is taken them so long?” Greg asked.
“They can take as long as they want,” Brian said. “It’s too hot today.”
“That guy’s weird.”
“No kidding, did you see his tattoo?”
They all nodded.
“Where did he come from?” Finn asked.
“He was just there on the porch when we broke for lunch,” Chris said.
“Old Benny didn’t say anything?”
“He was in the house.”
“That guy’s weird,” Greg repeated himself.
“Everyone has their phones?” Chris asked.
“I didn’t bring mine,” Finn said.
“You never do.”
“What’s the point? No signal out here and Old Benny never lets us use them.”
“You never know what could happen.”
“Nothing ever happens out here,” Finn said. “We’re in the middle of nowhere.”
“I got mine,” Chris held up his phone.
“Ya think Old Benny checked him out?” Greg asked.
“Check him out?” Brian tilted his head back as if the answer was in the sky. “Old Benny doesn’t know how to send a text. He calls us on his landline.”
“What’s taking them so long?” Chris jumped up on the flatbed.
“Maybe he left,” Greg said.
“Heads up, here they come,” Chris said.
Russ walked a couple of steps behind Old Benny, whose right leg was bowed at the knee making half of his body tilt to that side. Years of working the farm made his shoulders thick and hunched forward. He wore a dirtied green and yellow John Deere baseball cap.
“Russ you drive upfront with me until we get out to the field,” Old Benny Said.
The truck drove slow to not rock Finn and his friends off of the flatbed. Rows of hay bales lined the field they had barely dented from the morning’s work. The day’s heat made the bales lighter in the afternoon than in the morning. Old Benny stuck his head out the driver’s side window, “Chris, you’re up on the flatbed stacking.” Since Chris was the tallest, he stacked.
The truck stopped and all of them jumped from the flatbed. Russ got out of the passenger side and Brian and Greg went to the other side, leaving Finn to work with Russ. They didn’t look at each other. Finn assumed that Old Benny had explained to Russ what to do. Russ walked on Finn’s right side, away from the truck, drifting behind, he fumbled his first attempt at lifting a bale. He stared at the bale as if it was a map and he couldn’t find the directions.
Old Benny leaned across the passenger seat. The passenger side window was rolled down, “Russ, you need some different gloves?”
Unlike what Finn thought Russ’s voice would have sounded like, the pitch was soft and nasal.
“The truck won’t go any slower, you’ll have to keep up.”
Russ grabbed the bale with two hands and carried it at his side like it was a heavy suitcase bumping against his knee. Finn caught Greg and Brian starring and he shook his head for them to stop.
“Here let me show you,” Finn said, and Russ dropped the bale. “If you use just your arms you won’t make it through the day.”
The truck stopped. Old Benny’s must have been watching. Finn walked Russ over to a hay bale that was close to the flatbed. Finn addressed the hay bale perpendicular, his left hand grabbed atop the top bale twine, the right under the lower bale twine, he lifted it onto his right knee, swung the bale back by inches, and in one motion used his knee, hip, arms, and hands to power the hay bale onto the flatbed.
“Your knee and leg do most the work,” Finn said. “Now you try?”
When Russ grabbed a hold of the second bale twine, his buttoned sleeve inched above his glove. Two vertical one-inch pink scares ran along the underside of his wrist that faced up. Finn almost asked, what are those? But Russ put the bale too high up on his thigh, almost to his waist.
“Right above your knee,” Finn corrected him. Russ adjusted the bale and hoisted it up onto the flatbed.
“Thanks,” Russ said.
“And let the truck come to you,” Finn could tell Russ didn’t know what that meant. “Walk a bit ahead of the truck and grab the bales that are nearest in line with the truck.”
The truck crept forward. Seeming to understand Russ headed in that direction. He stopped and gazed off to his right, past the field’s edge to the tree line.
“Did you have a question?” Finn asked.
“You expecting someone?”
Russ seemed amused by the question. His eyes followed along the tree line to where it stopped and the field opened up to rolling green hills. “There sure is a lot of space out here on the outside,” Russ said.
“Farm work takes some getting used to,” Finn guessed that’s what he meant.
“There no fences.”
“Don’t need them out here, just for the livestock.”
“That’s nice to look at.”
Finn had never noticed.
With each bale hoisted Russ’s bailing motion became less awkward.
Not really knowing how to ask him what he was doing here, Finn asked him if he was from the city.
“Thought so,” Finn said. “Is that where your family is?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You don’t know where your family is?”
Russ ignored the question.
“Sorry didn’t mean to pry,” Finn said. “It’s none of my business.”
“I’m sure they miss you.”
“I don’t know about that.”
Before Finn could think of an answer, Russ said, “I think I’ve been a burden to them. I’m not going to be a burden to them anymore.” Because Russ sounded pleased by his statement the subject was less uncomfortable.
“That’s a good thing.”
“Yes, it is. It’s going to be a very good thing. Thanks for asking Finn.”
The two of them picked up bales at the same time.
“I’ve been there once,” Finn said, “the city, for a football camp.”
“You’re a football player?”
“I play quarterback.”
“You any good?”
“I have a good chance of starting on the varsity as a sophomore.” Finn raised his voice enough for the rest of them to hear. “Ask them.”
Greg and Brian nodded.
“Finn here could get a scholarship,” Chris said from atop the flatbed. “He can throw a football fifty-five yards.”
Finn made it like he was dropping back to pass a football. “Five yards farther than last season,” he pretended to release the ball.
“You must be really good,” Russ said.
“I’ll bring my football tomorrow and show you,” Finn said.
“I’m not going to be here tomorrow.”
“No problem, farm works not for everyone.”
With any attempt at conversation appearing to be finished for the day, they walked ahead of the truck.
When the truck caught up to them they hoisted bales onto the flatbed, then repeated the same timing to let the truck come to them. Old Benny had taught them how to do the most work without making it work.
On the other side, Greg and Brian crisscrossed each other at a steady pace. Russ started to lag behind. He seemed preoccupied like he was adding up numbers in his head unable to answer what the numbers equaled.
“Russ you gotta keep up.” Old Benny called out the passenger side window. “You’re making work out of it.”
Chris put his knee on Finn’s bale he had bailed onto the flatbed and leaned towards him. “What’s with him?”
“I don’t know.”
“He doesn’t like to work.”
“He’s just passing through.”
A bale from Brian and Greg landed behind Chris.
“I don’t know about him,” Greg said from the other side of the flatbed.
“He’s not hurting anyone,” Finn said and went out farther ahead of the others to get away from talking about it. Russ caught up and no one said anything more.
Towards the front of the flatbed, the bales were stacked six-tier and stepped down tier-like steps leading to an empty strip of flatbed wide enough for Chris to handle bales. At the base, a single row down the center acted like the spine, and each tier above the first tier was stacked vertically than horizontal that made the block of bales stable. Brian leaped up onto the back of the flatbed to help Chris with the rest of the load. He had a growth spurt over the summer and had almost caught up to Chris. Greg was the shortest.
After one more pass the length of the field, the flatbed bulged with hay bales that swayed with every bump the truck drove over. Ten-tier made a full load. The truck stopped. Finn got the ropes from the passenger side. He tossed it up to Chris and Brian who made sure Greg caught the ropes on the other side. Then Brian jumped down. Russ wrapped the rope around his wrist and through the palm of his hand and pulled it tight with his other hand the length of his shoulders as if he was testing the strength. His sleeves went a quarter way up his forearms covered by a web of tattoos that blotted out the color of his skin. There were so many Finn couldn’t make out what any of them were.
“You’ve never seen tattoos?” Russ caught Finn staring.
“Nobody around here has tattoos,” Finn said.
“I hear once you start getting them you can’t stop,” Brian stood nearest.
“Yeah, once you get caught up in it, you can’t get out,” Russ said. “That’s the best way to describe it.”
“I hear girls like ’em.”
Chris threw some loose hay on Brian’s head.
“Brian’s going to get some tattoos so he can finally get a date,” Chris announced.
“Does your mom know?” Greg gave him an open palm shiver to the chest. Brian blocked Greg’s second attempt by stepping to the side. “No tattoo is going to help you with girls.”
Brian chased Greg out past the front of the truck, but he couldn’t catch him.
Old Benny snorted a laugh and called out. “He’s quicker than a jackrabbit.”
Finn was about to show Russ how to make the right slip knot, when Russ said, “Now that I know how to do.”
After double-checking the ropes, Finn slapped the top of the cab twice to let Old Benny know they were finished. Chris stacked so he rode up front and the rest of them sat on the back lip of the flatbed. Russ had wandered off and sat on a hay bale. His head was down, but nothing about him seemed defeated.
“Go see what he’s doing,” Brian told Greg.
“You go see what he’s doing.”
“I’ll go,” Finn pushed off the tail of the flatbed. Russ didn’t look up till Finn was standing next to him. “You need to rest some?”
“One more load after this and we’re done.”
“The sun’s starting to go down,” Russ said.
“We’ll be at the side barn, that’s the one farthest from the house. You can meet us there.”
Old Benny honked the horn. The truck was slowly headed in that direction.
“This was fun.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“It was a good day.”
Russ stood up and set out ahead of Finn towards the truck. Finn purposely didn’t try to catch up.
Hay dust flickered like yellow mist in the slates of sunlight seeping through every crack and opening in the barn. The dust seemed to float upwards in the heat, thicker along the beams, and farther up into the hayloft where the sounds from the outside were muffled by the heat and hay. So much so Finn was aware of his breathing. It felt like if he talked he would use up all the air. One by one the hay elevator cranked the bales up through the small loft door. Chris handled each bale, and tossed it out and to the sides for Finn, and Russ to stack. Old Benny operated the hay elevator and Greg and Brian fed the conveyor belt.
When they finished Chris climbed down the ladder first, then Finn, and Russ right behind. On the floor, the air wasn’t as thick. A pigeon flew in and landed on the rafters. Russ crossed the barn and picked up a pitchfork leaning against the wall, next to the coiled ropes stored on hooks.
“It’s heavy.” Russ held the pitchfork with one hand, the forks facing up towards Finn. “I’ve never seen one before.“
“It’s for loose hay,” Finn looked for Chris, but he was outside.
Russ took two steps toward Finn. He was still a couple of body lengths away. He tested the tips of the pitchfork with his finger. “Sharp,“ he said. “Very sharp.”
“It’s like a shovel for hay.”
Russ flipped the pitchfork so the forks we’re facing down. Then right side up as though he was deciding how to use it.
“It’s heavy all right,” he said.
Finn heard the truck start. “We better go,” Finn said, and turned and walked out.
But when he got to the truck, Russ was not behind him. Finn asked Old Benny if he wanted him to go get him?
“Don’t bother,” Old Benny said. ”That dog won’t hunt.”
Out in the field Finn, ran between the bales like he was shaking and juking defenders to make them miss tackles. Next week two-a-day practices started morning and afternoon. He had grown an inch over the summer, and his arm felt stronger. He ran faster in and out of the bales, faster still, jumping over another, cutting back and then forward, past the truck, thinking about his future, outside of his one-stoplight town. He jumped up and landed with both feet atop a bale, looking back, the truck was headed in the other direction with Greg, Brian, and Chris waving at Finn. Old Benny called out his name. Finn hustled back over, and Chris tried to get him in a headlock.
Before they started what would be the last pass of the day, Old Benny abruptly stopped the truck. “You drive,” he walked by Finn. “I’ll be back in a few minutes, and no lollygagging.”
Old Benny headed across the field, his strides more determined than quick. They watched him until he was gone behind the livestock barn. Finn opened the driver’s side door and sat sideways with the door open facing the others who had formed a half-circle around him.
“You think he’s going to rip into Russ?” Greg asked.
“I’d like to see that,” Brian said.
“Something’s not right,” Chris said.
“I told you the guy’s weird,” Greg said.
“What’s he doing here anyway?” Chris asked
“He looks like he escaped from prison,” Greg said.
“Yeah, sure he escaped from prison,” Brian said. “And decided it’d be best to bail hay. Because nobody would find him out here.”
“Exactly,” Chris said.
“It’s nothing,” Finn said. “He’s probably going to pay him and tell him to go home.”
“I bet Russ ran,” Greg said.
Chris pointed towards the barn, “Hey Old Benny’s going into the house.”
Finn got out of the truck. They all looked towards the barn, waiting for a glimpse of Russ.
“I don’t see him,” Brian said.
“Should we see what’s going on?” Greg asked.
“He just went in to get money to pay him,” Finn said. “Come on we have to finish one more load or Old Benny will get on us.”
It took them getting bored of seeing no movement around the house and barns for them to start. By the time they finished stacking one tier, the feeling of unease had been replaced with wanting to finish the load so they could go home early for the day.
The foreign sound of sirens, none of them could place in what direction, widened until they saw the flashing red lights on 15A that ran along one border of the farm. A vague terror seemed to seize them as if this was their answer to the day’s question. Two red and white county sheriff cars, a fire truck, and an ambulance turned into the farmhouse half circle driveway. Finn split off first running, the others followed, and Greg overtook all of them with his speed. By the time they made it to the barn, the ambulance and sheriff were in front of the main house with Old Benny. The door to the sheriff’s car was open and without stop, the female dispatcher’s voice came in clips over the radio.
“Boys go in the house,” Old Benny said. “Call your parents to come to get you.”
“Did you cut him down?” Finn overheard the Sheriff.
“Did you move the body?”
“No,” Old Benny turned to the Boys. “I said go in the house.”
“We’re any of you boys with him in the barn?”
“Finn and I were,” Chris said, “Finn was in there with him when I walked out.”
“Which one of you is Finn?”
Finn raised his hand.
“You were alone with him?”
Two sheriff deputies were standing in front of the barn door. Another must have been inside with the paramedics.
“I’m going to have to ask you some questions?”
Finn starred at the barn.
“Are you okay with answering questions?”
Finn wanted to go into the barn. He wanted to ask if Russ was dead.
“What,” the sheriff had said something, “I’m sorry Sir what did you say?”
“You don’t have to answer questions now,” the sheriff said. “We can wait for your parents.”
Yellow strips of plastic that mark a crime scene were unrolled across the barn door. It didn’t belong there, Finn heard his voice in his head. Take the yellow tape down, rip it down. What’s it doing out here? He glanced to his friends for an answer, for some kind of unspoken understanding between them that he had hoped would be a comfort against what was now certain. They couldn’t seem to look at one another. The red siren lights flashed everywhere, and they were very bright. Finn had to close his eyes.
On the drive home, Finn’s dad told him he was proud of the way he answered all the Sheriff’s questions. That nothing had happened to Finn and his friends. Nothing happened when Finn was alone with Russ in the barn. For some reason, Finn didn’t mention the pitchfork. At the time he didn’t think anything of it, but now the memory had tilted towards the question, what if? It would rest in his memory without an answer, just another question that was more disturbing, what could have happened?
“The sheriff said he had just been paroled. Did you know that?” Finn shook his head. He didn’t want to tell his dad that he and his friends had a feeling about that. “I don’t know how he ended up way out here,” his dad said more to himself.
Finn kept his eyes to the floor mat. His boots were covered with hay dust, and pieces were between the boot laces. He could not block what he pictured Russ’s broken neck and body must have looked like all croaked and lifeless on the barn floor. The red ring of the rope burns deep into his skin. When you hang yourself do your eyes close when you die? How did he do it, the rope over the rafters? He had to have stepped off of a ladder rung that went up to the loft. Finn couldn’t picture Old Benny cutting him down.
He wanted to doubt what had happened, the sequences of the day seemed ordered without a timeline. Each scene that occurred halted long enough for Finn to know he would not be able to place them at a distance far enough away so that they would at some time in the future become unreal.
“How come he would do that,” Finn heard his voice. He felt his dad look over at him.
“I don’t know Finn. It was just too much for him, I guess.”
“But I don’t understand?”
“Neither do I.”
“He told me he was having a really good day.”
“He thanked me for helping him. For showing him how to bail a hay bale. It doesn’t make sense.”
His dad didn’t answer right away, he brushed his right eyebrow with his forefinger.
“It’s a terrible thing, it’s just a terrible thing,” his dad turned the car onto their street. “I hope you know there was nothing you could have done.”
“I know that.”
“I’ll tell your mother what happened.”
Finn looked up, they were close to home.
Without stopping, Finn walked around the back of the house, past the basement entrance where he always entered after work, past the sloping lawn, down the wooded path that led to the creek. He kept along the path until he ended up at the little eddy. From here he couldn’t see his house. His mom and dad did not call for him. He was sure Dad told Mom to let the boy be. His dad was good that way. The creek was low from the dry summer.
He slipped off his boots and socks and sat on the embankment that had been cut away from the current. The roots of a maple tree showed and the branches tipped towards the water. At the mouth of the eddy, the creek bed was clay. The clay was like a slide that he, Chris, Brian, and Greg used to slip along with their bare feet and hands behind them in a crab crawl, sliding into the deeper end of the eddy. This was the first summer they all hadn’t swum and fished in the creek. He knew what part of the eddy was deepest and where not to dive headfirst. His right hand began trembling more than his left. He opened and closed his fist to make his hand steady. The suddenness of what had happened no longer appeared outside himself, the memory was not someone else’s, the memory had met him in person. He had an urge to go farther along the path as far as he needed to keep the realization away. But it was everywhere.
He stood up and gazed down at the creek. Patches of sunlight reflected in silver streaks along the surface of the water. It was still very hot, and the hay that stuck to his clothes itched. He took off his flannel shirt, snapped it up and down like a sheet before clipping it to a clothesline. Slowly he stepped onto the rocks and lowered himself into the creek and waded out to the deepest part. The water used to be over his head. He doused all of himself, holding his breath underwater he touched the smooth rocked creek bed. When he surfaced his jeans and T-shirt stuck to him. Before dusk was the time of day that was the quietest to him. He waded across the eddy to the maple tree. Between the exposed roots a spider was building a web. Finn splashed water on it. He stayed for a little while longer.
About the Author
Born in Regensburg Germany, Daniel Beer was raised in Upstate, New York. He has dual citizenship of the USA and Germany. He has a rich German lineage; Daniel is the great-great-great-grand nephew of Friedrich Ebert, who served as Chancellor of Germany and First President during the Weimar period. His great-granduncle, the famous dancer and choreographer Helge Peters Pawlinin was hunted by the Nazis for his ambiguous sexual performances.
After graduating from high school, Daniel moved to Manhattan to become an actor. Within three months he booked his first feature film, Hell High. Shortly after, his first big break came in Stephen King’s Creepshow 2. Daniel played the lead in The Raft story. At the age of twenty, he became a member of The Actors Studio. He has taught writing seminars at Lancaster State Prison. Away from the entertainment business, Daniel enjoys dancing tango. He boxes and was trained by the legendary trainer Freddie Roach. When Daniel lived in New York City, he played in the West 4th Street Summer Pro Basketball League and was offered a try-out to play pro ball overseas.