Marie Smysor Watson
New year, new stories! Or, in this case, an old one, written half a lifetime ago, when my hair was still all-over brown and my marriage was so fresh I consistently forgot to sign my new name to my college homework. It only takes a minute, folks... Anyway, I dusted this one off, spiffed it up and submitted it to another generation of students in a college class to see what they had to think. They thought it was pretty good. I still do too, even though it was based on a real-life tragedy that shocked our tiny corner of this wide world. I firmly believe that stories are a way of helping us remember it all, the good and the bad. Hope you feel the same... happy reading!
It was a Sunday when they found the Eiler girl’s body. Pops hoisted her out of the muddy lake, a garbage bag tied around her head. Her belly was swollen, pregnant with twins and gallons of lake water. She’d been missing for twelve days so I figure she was pretty bloated. I can just imagine what he saw, my father, when the bag was removed. Her mouth open, her face contorted into an everlasting look of surprise, her eyes fixed in a death stare. Pops didn’t tell me any of this though. All he said when he came home that night was that she was naked when he pulled her from the weeds at the edge of the strip mine lake, naked except for that black bag covering her once-pretty face.
Pops always fixed breakfast on Sunday morning, rain or shine. I usually woke up to the smell of peppery bacon and cajun eggs. Pops didn’t believe in heartburn or indigestion. Fifty-three and as hearty as a twenty-year-old, I guess he didn’t have a reason to.
But there wasn’t going to be any breakfast that morning. I got up at six as usual for morning chores, smelling nothing but the faint odor of pig shit. I glanced into Lonnie’s room as I trudged down the hall. As usual, his head was burrowed under his pillow to shut out the early morning light. I shook my head. I didn’t understand how he could breathe that way. There were lots of things about Lon I didn’t understand though, so I left it at that.
I wandered down to the kitchen and found Pops sitting on the bench by the back door. He was putting on his mud-caked work boots and whistling Return to Me.
Where ya headed Pops? I asked.
He worked intently on getting his right boot over the heel. Thought that I should probably go out and help look for the girl, he said. It’s been twelve days now and no sign. They’re searching Henderson’s back eighty today. Gonna take a little look around the strip mine lakes back there. See what we find. With a grunt, he finally succeeded in pushing his foot into the boot. He laced it with extreme care, making sure to tuck the legs of his well-worn overalls into the top of the boot.
He threw on a flannel shirt over the ensemble to cut the chill of the early morning.
Take care of the chores, boy? And make your brother some breakfast? he asked, buttoning up the shirt. They were questions with no answers. I knew what needed doing.
He pulled on a cap over his iron-gray hair with one hand as he opened the door with the other. Take care of your brother, Ron. He said this as he stood in the doorway, looking out into the woods, searching for God knows what. He let the screen door shut softly behind him.
His old pickup grumbled to life and he backed down the driveway, gravel popping underneath the weight. I waved to him but he didn’t wave back. His eyes squarely on the road, he left the driveway, gears grinding, followed by a cloud of dust.
It was September. I was nineteen years old.
You know that bullshit you always hear about twins having some kind of telepathic connection - you know, where one can feel if the other one has to strain too hard to take a crap even though they’re miles apart? Well, that’s all it is - bullshit. At least it is for Lonnie and me.
Lonnie’s my older brother by an hour and fifteen minutes. He’s never let me forget it in my whole life either. It’s the only thing he has to hold over my head. Truth is, the only thing I ever learned from him is that being slow has its advantages. No one ever expected anything out of you, except that you were always gonna do stupid things that someone else would have to bail you out of.
Signs of life from upstairs. Lonnie’s feet slap-slap-slapping down the hall. That boy had the flattest feet this side of the Spoon River. And he didn’t bother to pick them up either, so his tread was about as light as a baby elephant’s. With Pops here almost all of the time, watching Lonnie wasn’t that much of a chore. Pops was really good with him, really patient when he asked a lot of stupid questions. The only time I ever saw Pops snap at him was when Mama took off, when we were eight. She left for parts unknown. No note - they only did that in movies. Just packed a bag and hit the road, which baffled Lonnie. He couldn’t get his feeble mind around the fact that she was gone, she wasn’t coming back, that’s the end of the story. Period.
When’s Mama coming home, Pops? Will she be back tomorrow? he took to asking every night before we went to sleep. After about seven or eight weeks of this, Pops finally snapped.
Goddammit, Lonnie, she ain’t comin back! Ever! So quit askin!
But instead of crying, which was Lonnie’s normal reaction to someone yelling, he sighed like an old man. Ohhhh, Pops, he said mournfully, rolling over to face the wall and trace the pattern of the wallpaper with a square finger.
He never asked about her ever again.
Lonnie appeared in the kitchen, shirtless and pantless, nothing covering him except a pair of white briefs. Pops had given up on trying to keep him from walking around in his underwear. That’s probably the only thing I envied about my brother: he had absolutely no sense of shame. I would’ve been embarrassed as hell to prance around in my skivvies like he did, but it didn’t seem to bother him one bit. A little over a year ago, the neighbor’s wife came over to deliver a cherry pie she’d baked for us. Lon beat me to the door. Hey Missus Tilley! Lon said with a wide grin. Mrs. Tilley was very gracious but I caught a glimpse of her face as she turned to go. It looked as if she’d been scalded with boiling water.
Lon helped himself to a glass of milk from the fridge. He drained it without taking a breath. Ahhhh, he said, smacking his lips, satisfied.
Hi, Ronnie, howzit with you? he said, that ever-present grin plastered on his face.
Doin’ just fine, Lon. You need to get the bread for your toast, okay?
His breakfast was an ever-present source of wonder for me. About every three weeks, Pops stopped by the meat locker in town. Dickie, the manager, always saved back the bacon fat for him. It was the only thing Lonnie would eat for breakfast. He’d toast six slices of bread, spreading three of them with a thick layer of butter and an even thicker layer of strawberry jam. He put exactly five pieces of crisp bacon fat on the three pieces of plain toast, and then slapped them together to make sandwiches. I asked him once how he could eat that shit. He just looked at him, his mouth hanging slightly open. Because it tastes good, Ron. Obviously.
I grabbed a leftover cup of coffee and sat across the kitchen table from my brother. I watched him eat his breakfast. He took great care not to make a mess. To his credit, he had better table manners than I did. I always ate as if someone was going to take my plate away from me at any second. Lonnie delicately licked his fingers after every three bites and wiped his mouth with a napkin after he’d finished each sandwich. Very ladylike.
He should’ve been bigger, considering the amount of food he ate. But I was heavier than he was, muscular and thick from years of helping Pops with the hogs. Lon weighed twenty pounds less than me but was an inch taller. If you saw him from a distance you’d think he was okay, almost handsome. But the closer you got, you’d notice there was something not quite right with his eyes. Distant, vague, like a pond with a slick of scum on it. Creepy, especially for me, looking into a face that was my own, but really didn’t look like me at all.
Lon finished his breakfast silently, washing it all down with another glass of milk. He took his plate and glass over to the sink, rinsing them off and placing them in the dish rack to dry. He stared out of the window above the sink, entranced. He absently scratched his thigh.
Where’s Pops at, Ron? He asked absently
He’s out taking care of some business. He’ll be gone all day. Pops hadn’t told him about the missing girl, as much because of all the questions that would follow as for the fact that Lonnie was easily scared. It’d probably give him nightmares.
He wasn’t that easily distracted. What kind of business, Ron?
I don’t know, nosy. Pops didn’t tell me. He just said there was some business he needed to take care of and that I had to do chores by myself. Seeing the hurt look that crossed his face, I softened my tone. Look, if you promise not to be a pain in the ass, I’ll let you help take care of the pigs.
That was all it took to put that stupid smile back on his face. Pops never let him help, because Lonnie’s idea of helping always ended up causing more work. But it’d be easier to keep an eye on him that way, I figured.
Hey Ron, I borrowed some of your clothes, okay?
He wore a pair of my work pants that ended two inches above his ankles and a faded blue, holey t-shirt that read Florida, Land of Everlasting Youth across the chest. He wore a dirty Cardinals cap on his head, pulled down so far I could barely see his eyes. I sighed, hoping I hadn’t made a mistake by allowing him to work with me.
Yeah, it’s okay. We need to feed the pigs first, so I’ll need your help carrying the bags to the pen.
Sure, Ron. Anything you need, I’m your man.
Pops had a good-sized hog operation, with about one hundred fifty sows and twenty-five boars. The sows had three litters a year so we kept pretty busy taking care of the piglets and keeping the big ones disease-free. Mr. Tilley up the road had a run-in with Blue Ear, a nasty disease that caused pregnant sows to abort. He lost over half his stock to it - damn near made him go under. Too cheap to give his stock all of their vaccinations yet he barely made any kind of profit because his pigs were always dying.
I hoisted a bag of feed on each shoulder and watched Lon struggle to follow suit. He finally got both of them balanced and followed me over to the confinement. I dropped one of the bags to open the main gate and waited until Lonnie came through to shut it. Pigs aren’t stupid creatures. They’ll get out if you leave a gate unlocked. We carried the bags over to the feed trough and dumped them in. The sound of their feed pinging against the metal of the trough brought the pigs running. Lonnie gave a slight yelp, glancing back at me with a frightened look.
Move back, Lonnie! I shouted above the pigs’ clamor. He didn’t understand that they weren’t interested in him. They just wanted their breakfast. Lonnie followed my directions and got out of the way just before he got mowed down by a particularly hungry sow.
He laughed nervously as he met me at the gate. How come they’re so hungry, Ron? He asked, keeping one eye on the trough to make sure that none found them more interesting than the food.
They’re pigs, Ron, I said, giving him a look. They’re always hungry. We slipped back out the gate and headed back towards the feed barn. It took about twenty bags to feed our stock each day, so Lonnie and I made four more trips to the trough. I nudged the hogs aside to pour in the second round of feed but Lonnie hung back, afraid to get too close.
Just push them aside, Lonnie, I told him. They’re not going to bite you. They’re too busy eating. He nervously pushed himself in between them and deposited his bags. By our last trip though, Lonnie had gotten brave enough that he kicked a stubborn boar that didn’t want to move. Outta the way asshole, he said to the pig, who ignored him and continued to eat.
After feeding, we had to straw the birthing huts. Pops and I put fresh straw in them every few days, to keep the piglets dry and to cut down on the risk of infection. I showed Lonnie how to get the sows to move out of the way so that he could check on the piglets and put down fresh straw. Sometimes the sows sat on the babies and crushed them. We took all of the dead ones and threw them into the death pit behind the barn.
Lonnie didn't want to touch any of the dead piglets, so he let me know by yelling. Got a dead one here, Ron! and I’d go over to get it out. Lon was on his fourth hut when he ran over to me excitedly.
There’s a new litter in that one, he said, pointing out a hut aways down the row. They’ve got a little blood on them so I know they’re new.
I checked out and sure enough, there was a litter, a wriggling pinkish-red mass of tint bodies. I slapped the sow to move her so I could get a closer look. I counted eight but one of them wasn’t moving. I picked it up and brought it out.
C’mere, Lonnie, I said, motioning to him. He looked down at the still piglet in my hands, but didn’t move.
Here, I said and held it out towards him. He wrinkled his nose and shook his head slightly. It’s not dead, but it’s dying. You need to warm it up. He took it from my hands, staring at it, then looked at me. How do I do it, Ron? he asked.
Stick it under your shirt and hold it against your belly. Rub it with your hand. That’ll get its blood moving again.
He followed my instructions and began rubbing it intently. After about a minute and a half, I noticed movement underneath Lon’s shirt.
It’s moving, Ron! he said. He laughed and rubbed it some more, until the piglet let out a few weak grunts.
I held out my hands, motioning for him to give it to me so I could put it back in the hut with the others. But he held onto the newborn piglet for a few more minutes, laughing as it came back to life against the warmth of his belly.
It was noon before we’d finished taking care of the hogs. Lonnie walked around for the rest of the morning after saving the piglet with an even bigger, dopier grin on his face. I’m gonna tell Pops when he gets home, Ron. He’ll be proud, he kept saying until I told him that I was going to sic the pigs on him if he didn’t shut up. He quieted down but the smile stayed plastered on his face.
Still I was thankful for his help. He hadn’t been as big of a pain in the ass as I thought he’d be, so I suggested that he might like to come fishing with me. He jumped at the chance. I rarely took him anywhere with me unless Pops made me and then I was usually so mean to him that he wished he’d never come in the first place. But he never cried, I have to give him that.
We gathered our fishing poles and Pops’ old tackle box. I fixed a few quick sandwiches and threw in a couple cans of soda. Normally Lonnie wasn’t allowed any because it made him go ape-shit but I was feeling generous. We set off in the direction of Johnson’s farm. Mr. Johnson was a dairy farmer who lived to the south of us. He was getting up there and didn’t have any kids around the house anymore so he was fond of both of us, but especially my brother. If I thought my father was patient with Lonnie, then Mr. Johnson was a saint. Lonnie was over there at least once a week, following the old farmer around, asking stupid questions and generally getting in the way. But the old man didn’t seem to mind. He even let Lonnie try his hand at milking once. Fine, until Lon yanked too hard on a teat and the old cow kicked him in the head. Pops had to take him to the hospital for stitches. Even so, Lonnie was back over there the very next week. I don’t think he ever tried milking a cow again though.
We walked through an open field of winter grass. Lonnie stopped about every five minutes to tie one or both of his shoes. Finally I got fed up and tied them myself, in double knots, so I knew they wouldn’t come undone again.
We made it to the wooded area surrounding the pond. Mr. Johnson always kept it stocked with channel cat and bluegill so there was plenty of good fishing. Good, because Lonnie bored easily. I didn’t want to spend all of my down time watching him.
Lonnie slipped several times on the grass that covered the sharp decline to the pond. I took his pole from him so he didn’t break it. It was the third pole Pops had bought him that year. He lost the other two in the pond. He threw the first one in a fit after a fish slipped his hook; he lost the second one in the water when he was playing with the stringer of fish. Pops would be pissed at me if he lost another.
We made it to the edge. The water there was pretty clear, the fish darting about just below the surface. Lonnie decided that he wanted to fish a little ways back up the hill, on a flat grassy spot that dropped off sharply.
Careful, Lon, I warned. The water’s deep there. If you fall in, I’m not fishing your ass out. You can’t swim, remember?
I’ll be careful, Lon. I promise. You don’t need to worry about me, he assured me.
I set up my pole, carefully baiting it with a nightcrawler, one that I’d caught after a big rain last week. I cast it out and set it up on a forked stick so I didn’t have to keep it in my hands. I laid back against the bank and looked over at Lonnie. He stuck out his tongue, concentrating heavily on baiting his hook. He managed it after a few minutes of wrangling. I had to give it to him - he’d chosen a good spot. There weren’t any trees around for him to get his line caught on.
His cast was perfect. It landed near the center of the pond, where the big fish usually hid. I whistled in appreciation. He grinned. I turned my attention back to my own line. Everything was quiet, still, except for the beaver building his home just across from me in one of the small inlets.
Lonnie couldn’t keep quiet for long. You think I did good today, Ron? With the pigs, I mean?
Yeah, you did a fine job. I was in a good mood and felt like humoring him. I didn’t need to look to know that his smile had grown another foot.
Yeah, I did good. Saved that little pig.
That was real good work, Lon.
Pops didn’t go to town on business.
How do you know? I said, sitting up.
I heard you guys talking this morning. You thought I was asleep, but I wasn’t.
Sneaky bastard. So you were eavesdropping, huh?
No, I just overheard. What girl was Pops talking about?
No use in keeping it from him, I reasoned, since he already knew.
The Eiler’s girl. Bobi’s her name. You know her, I took her to the homecoming dance one year.
Yeah, yeah, I remember. She wore a green dress with white flowers on it. Why’s she missing?
They think she might’ve run off. With another guy, not her husband. Bust she’s been missing for too long. Besides, she’s pregnant. With twins, I added, hoping that little piece of information would distract him.
Hey, like us!
Yep, just like us, Ron. Hopefully that was the end of it. Lonnie got sidetracked easily.
But what happened to her? No, he was determined to stick with it.
They think somebody took her.
Yeah, kidnapped her.
He screwed his face up into a mass of wrinkles, which meant he was thinking.
But why would somebody want to take a pregnant lady away from her home?
Christ I don’t know, Lonnie! I almost said. But I glanced at him first. He looked so bewildered that I felt like he deserved an answer.
Some people are sick, Lon. They like to hurt other people because it makes them feel good.
Well, who took her?
The police don’t know. No one knows.
But why did Pops go?
He went to look for her.
Do they think she’s hiding around here?
I sighed. There was no easy way to make him understand. They think she’s probably dead, Lon. They’re looking for her body.
He thought about this and then his face brightened as if an idea had just occurred to him.
Maybe Pops can save her, you know, like I did with that little pig. D’ya think, Ron?
I wanted to tell him no, I didn’t think he could. But instead I just nodded.
I hope he does, Lon murmured.
I wished I could be as hopeful as Lonnie. But I was sure she was dead, her body lying in some remote wooded area, broken, maybe cut-up even. Miracles didn’t happen for small people like us, like her.
I thought about Bobi, how pretty she’d been, how small, how nice she’d looked in that green dress with white flowers with her curly brown hair piled on her head. I remembered how good she smelled when we danced and how soft her face was when I kissed her goodnight. But smelling good and being pretty and soft didn’t keep bad things from happening to a person. She was dead.
I glanced over at Lonnie and my heart jumped. He was on his knees, leaning far over the edge, staring intently at something in the water.
Jee-zus Christ, Lonnie! I hollered.
My mistake. He startled when I yelled and tumbled right over the edge into the water. My body responded, but my mind wasn’t working. He flailed around in the water, trying desperately to keep his head up. But he didn’t know how to swim and his clothes and heavy boots were dragging him under. He wasn’t making any noise but his mouth and eyes were stretched wide open in terror. I watched him, entranced.
The fog in my head quickly lifted. Within seconds, I was down to my underwear. I’m comin, Lonnie! I shouted, Please hold on, please! I was sure he couldn’t hear me, that he thought he was alone, that he was gonna die because there was no one to save him.
I splashed into the water from where I’d been fished and dove under the surface. The water was so cold; I felt my insides crawl towards my middle as if they were trying desperately to keep warm. I did a breaststroke that would’ve won me an Olympic gold. Unlike Lonnie, I was a damn fine swimmer.
I made it to where he’d gone under only to find calm water. Confused, I splashed in a circle. Where did he go? Then I felt something grip my foot. Lonnie.
I took a huge gulp of air and went thunder. This spot was deep, about twenty feet or so, and I could feel the temperature change every foot deeper I went. I groped around blindly, hoping to find him by touch. Finally my outstretched fingers brushed against something smooth. Lonnie’s nylon jacket. I pushed myself towards him. My head connecting with his stomach, I wrapped my arms around his thighs and pushed up off the muddy bottom, but I couldn’t move him. With my head practically buried in his crotch, I tried again, more forcefully this time, but he wouldn’t budge. I searched all over with my hands for the reason. There it was - his boot was stuck, wedged into the crook of some tree roots. I tried to break the roots and free the foot, but they were too solid. I wrestled with Lonnie’s foot to free it, but it wouldn’t cooperate. He’d stiffened up his entire leg so that the muscles were too tight to work with.
I was running out of time. I couldn’t hold my breath much longer. The boots! I’d get them off of his foot and then he’d be free. I worked and worked at the laces but they were unmanageable. Oh Christ, I knotted them! I screamed in my head.
Desperation stiffened my fingers. It’s my fault, my fault Lonnie was down there, swallowing mucky pond water. My fault that he was probably scared out of his mind. My fault that he was drowning. Oh God, oh god, ohgodohgodohgod -
One final time, I grabbed the lace and gave a brutal pull. They gave way. The boot slipped off of his foot and Lonnie began floating upwards, slowly. I pushed up from the pond bottom, one arm wrapped around his chest. I shot straight up, propelled by a burning desire for oxygen and an even greater need: Lonnie. We made it to the surface at the last second, just as I was opening my lips, ready to inhale and admit loss.
I swam with one arm, pulling Lonnie along with the other. When I could touch bottom, I stood. Cradling him in my arms, I hoisted him to shore. He was so light, not even a quarter of the weight of a dead hog. His eyes were closed. He looked peaceful. He looked dead.
Panicking, I sat him on the ground in an upright position and began beating on his back. His head hung limply, jerking up and down with every blow I delivered. The floppier he became, the harder I pounded. Finally I was rewarded with a gurgling cough. He began spitting up pond water by the buckets.
I leaned back on my heels, dazed and breathless. After a bit the coughing subsided. He swiveled his head to look at me.
I was scared shitless. I didn’t know what to say. I’d almost lost him because of my own carelessness. Tears welled up in the corners of my eyes, blurring my vision. It wasn’t my fault, I tried reasoning. He shouldn’t have been leaning over the edge like that.
What THE FUCK were you doing? I told you to be careful! Didn’t I tell you to be careful? What were you doing? I bawled like a calf, breathing in great lungfuls of air.
Lonnie moved nearer to me, coming so close that I could smell the pond water on his breath. He put his hands on my bare shoulders and without a word, slipped his arms around me. He hugged me tightly, patting my back with one of his hands. I threw my arms around him, crying from relief and terror.
He held me for a long time without speaking. Then he leaned to whisper in my ear.
I’m sorry, Ron. I didn’t mean to scare you. I didn’t mean to fall in. It was an accident, okay?
I pulled back, wiping my eyes roughly with my palms and running the back of my hand underneath my nose.
Then what were you doin, hanging over the edge like that? I asked him softly. All of the sharp edges had disappeared from my voice. His eyes were clear when they looked into mine.
I was looking at myself in the pond. I was wondering how come God made two people like you and me so alike on the outside and so different inside. I was wondering how come you know so much more than me, how come you can figure out things and I can’t? Why did He make us that way, huh, Ron?
I couldn’t think of a thing to say. I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t the good one or the smart one or the better one. That it had always been him.
But I couldn’t get it out. I was crying too hard.
We made it home that afternoon long before Pops got back. Lonnie was minus one boot, but other than that we had everything else that we had taken. For once, he hadn’t lost his fishing pole. A fucking miracle.
I made him go inside and get cleaned up while I did the evening chores. Checking on our pigs, I saw it a few feet off, a little swatch of pink against the mud. It was lying in front of the hut, the one housing the new litter Lonnie had found that morning. I bent over to pick it up. I hoped it wasn’t Lonnie’s pig, the one he brought back to life.
No, it’s not, I convinced myself. That one was definitely smaller. But I couldn’t be sure. I couldn’t know for a fact that it wasn’t Lonnie’s pig. God was so damn far away most times.
I sat out in the hog pen for a half an hour after chores should’ve been done, holding the cold little body in my hands. Why didn’t it stay inside where it was warm? Would it have made it anyway? I doubted it, doubted it as much as I doubted that it was Lonnie’s fault that he would always be a child no matter how gray his hair turned. Things like that aren’t ours to choose. They’re chosen for us.
The death pit was aways behind the barn. It landed softly, cushioned by similar dead bodies. Despite the overwhelming smell of decay, I stood at the edge, staring down into that dark hole, into that place of convergence where, in time, flesh recedes back into the ground from where it came.
I was nineteen years old and, for the second time that day, I cried.