SEPTEMBER 1999 |
STEVE MUESKE, an MFA candidate at Hamline University, where he graduated summa cum laude with degrees in English and Philosophy, has published prose and poetry in various online and print journals, including Satire, Wisconsin Review, ForPoetry.com, SalonDAarte, and Poetry Motel. Beginning in August, Mueske will be a contributing editor for Salon DAarte. A contributing writer for Renaissance Online, he lives in Burnsville, Minnesota, with his wife and two daughters.
The Arc of a Rotten Apple
They say it begins small. They say it begins with one bad apple. I've never held much stock in the wisdom of common folks, but sometimes they're right, I guess. I've got a lot of time to think about it, at any rate. At night when the lights are low and all the others are done yapping or praying or singing or crying, I got plenty of time to think. And so I lean back on the bunk and lace my fingers behind my head. The rusty springs creak something fierce. There are smells here I don't even want to think about. I don't sleep much - although you'd think I would - but I do a powerful lot of daydreaming, mostly going over things in my life, remembering and whatnot. I don't know what happened to the years - they say time flies when you're having fun.
It started when I was young, I reckon. One summer - oh, I must have been about ten or eleven - I was sent to Grandma's for awhile, and spent a good portion of the day with my cousin Johnny, who was about my age. He was mostly terrified of me, but I had some fun with him anyway. One morning, we were sitting in an old junker which was just sitting in the weeds, with no engine, tires, or windows, and just a hint of shredded upholstery inside. I was in the driver's seat, gripping the steering wheel, making a bunch of squealing noises and basically just drooling all over my self. Johnny was looking out the back window into the darkness where the huge farm machinery loomed in the shadows of the pole shed like strange futuristic creatures.
"We're not even supposed to be in here," he whined. "My dad would whip my butt if he only knew."
I finished squealing around the corner and headed into the straight away, shoulders hunkered down, head glued to the invisible road before me.
"Come on," he pleaded.
I threw the gearshift back into "P" and sighed. I threw him a frosty look and hopped out of the rusted out Corvair. We were told, of course, not to go near it, and Johnny was just about filling his drawers thinking that Grandma was looking out the back window of her house. Johnny popped out of the car. "I got something," he said. "You'll like it, I think." He pulled a cigarette out of a bent pack of Marlboros that had been squashed into his back pocket, probably pilfered from Mick or Dennis, his older brothers who worked the family farms down the road. He had had the foresight to smear it with toothpaste - apparently, so that his breath wouldn't smell. He lit up. The droopy thing began to putter and pop, and it smelled like pure evil. He pulled out another one with a big smear of toothpaste on it and offered it to me. "You want it?"
"Yeah," I said, like there was any way in hell I was going to smoke a frigging girly Barclay's with Crest on it, for Crissakes. Besides, Grandma would have been wise to it. She was as wide as she was tall, which is to say about 4'8" or so, your basic roly-poly grandma, but she didn't take any guff at all; and frankly, she scared the bejesus out of me when she was angry. Her face would get about as red as a cherry tomato, and she would clap her hands and start talking in that rapid-fire German that sounds so much like someone constantly trying to hawk up a good cookie. To be fair, I did egg her on just a tad now and then, because there was this one vein on her forehead that would get about as fat as a dancing blue worm when she got going real good (which was often when I was around). I tried not to get her too angry because I was convinced that one day she was going to completely blow her cooker. She was always going off on something, throwing her hands up in the air like a boxer's coach throwing in the towel. That's why I generally told the truth around her - at least the truth I made myself believe (because to tell a good lie you have to believe it first. I've found that when you've got a choirboy face like mine, you have to save the real lies for things that are important, and then you say them sweetly). The thing was, I was staying for the week with her because my mom and pop had had a bit of a row and were patching things up. I'm not sure what that meant, exactly, but it had something to do with my not being around.
"Okay, so what do you want to do?" Johnny asked. "I've got a few hours till I have to put down the hay and fetch the cows. You want to shoot some hoops in the mow? We could play tip horse." Yeah, right, spending my afternoon playing with a flat basketball and a hoop without a net mounted onto a beam in the hay mow sounded about as exciting as a wild night betting pennies on a snail race.
"Let's do something interesting."
"I don't know," I said and shuffled my feet, but I did have a few good ideas. Most of them would make Johnny groan, but he was a pretty good sport, mostly, meaning I could trust him not to tell on me. Yesterday, we sat on the backside of the barn and shot cows with his BB gun. That was fun for about ten minutes. I tell you, cows have got to be the dumbest animal on earth. I can't think of any other animal that will stand in a line and let the animal in front of it shit on its head without doing something, a bite in the ass, something, anything. Anyway, at least when they got hit with a BB they would bellow a little bit. Pretty soon, though, its like you're sitting there wondering why they don't look up or try to hide or something. Like I said, it's fun for about ten minutes. So I pushed Johnny off the edge. It was only ten feet down or so. Well, maybe it was twelve; I don't remember. I wanted to see if he would land in cow shit or not. I told him that I suffered from sudden spastic syndrome and that he shouldn't be angry with me because I couldn't always help what I did.
The Appolds, that's my cousin Johnny's family, had a couple of farms in the middle of Wisconsin. Dairy cattle, alfalfa, miles of corn, gravel roads - you get the picture. On the main farm, everything's laid out, neatly, in a kind of squat, stretched-out T shape. The driveway was the short stem, with the house off to the right and the farm buildings to the left. Perpendicular to the road was the milk house, the barn, and the cow pasture; next was another fenced in area for the two horses - a ginger colored mare named, creatively enough, Ginger, and a grey, spotted stallion named Buck. If you kept going beyond the fence, there was this little rise with a few scraggly-looking apple trees whose apples were perpetually green and sour, and rotted instantly on the ground. (At home in Michigan, these would have been gold. They would make a squishy thunk as they hit passing cars - just soft enough for a good splat, but hard enough to cover a distance). Yesterday, when we were out swatting bees (I was mostly swatting them at him and he was telling me to stop because he was allergic to bee stings), I suggested something fun, you know, with the apples, but he said we couldn't do that, because there was nowhere to run and the few cars that came by were either neighbors or groups of townie kids looking for a place to park and drink beer or smoke dope. I didn't blame him for not wanting to get caught in his own backyard, so to speak; but I did think he could be a major wuss sometimes. Down near the road was a sign which read, "The Appolds", in a flowing cursive arc over a few stalks of corn flanking a John Deere tractor. There were Halogen spotlights at the base of this sign, which were turned on with a switch inside the backdoor of the milk house. As nauseating as that sign was, you could have landed a jet by the brightness of those lights.
So, anyway, I knew that Johnny was pretty much forced to play with me, so I thought some exploring would be fun. I was not used to seeing so much uninterrupted sky, and I really didn't have to be back until dark. Grandma lives in a small grey Ranch house near the edge of the property, which the Appolds used to rent to a man from town. I knew she'd be sitting around, probably, reading the Bible or one of her two million copies of the National Enquirer. She had told me to come back for lunch, that she could make some sandwiches or soup, but I figured I could just take some raw hamburger out of my aunt Kate's fridge and have me a cannibal sandwich. Grandma told me not to get into any trouble that morning, and then she mumbled some German, which I assumed was meant for God because she looked up when she did it.
"Let's go to the cliff," I said. It was just a small sandstone bluff in the side of a hill that had been cut to make the road. The two miles or so would have passed much quicker than the day before, when we had gone out with Johnny's GI Joe and a Stretch Armstrong, since I had snipped a path through those damned barbed wire fences. The guy who owned the land saw me pushing Johnny near the edge when he drove by on his tractor and just about had a cow. I told him I was real sorry and that I'd be more careful. He asked if we knew anything about a few missing cows of his, and Johnny stiffened and got all scared, but I asked the man why we would know anything about a few missing cows. He mentioned something about seeing us near a fence and started mumbling something about cows that I couldn't quite make out. It got real old quick. "Mister," I snapped. "No disrespect and all, but what the hell would we do with a couple of cows?" He made sure we were walking away before he took off with his tractor again. That was a waste. I had wanted to see if Johnny would scream like a girl or not, and if he would grab for the edge like they do in the movies. And it was only about ten feet down. Well, maybe twelve or so; I don't remember.
"I don't know," he said. "My dad's having a party tonight. I can't be late doing chores." Like I said, he could be such a wuss sometimes. So we romped around the farm all day. I convinced him that we could make a haunted house out of the horse barn and charge for admission, so we spent a few hours dragging out wheels, saddles, bolts, saws - all of the stuff from the empty stalls; and we tore off some aluminum sheets between the walls. For our gallows, I broke out a window and nailed a sawed-off two-by-four to the frame with some of those big nails from the machine shed, and tied a knotted rope onto the end. I stood and looked around and decided that, in the bright daylight, all in all, it looked mighty tame, so I told him that our house wasn't scary enough, and that we wouldn't make any money if we didn't have an atmosphere of doom. So I suggested that he paint the lightbulbs with some of the slightly congealed red paint I had brought in with me when I found the nails. We screwed them back in, and pretty soon the globby red paint started to bubble. Johnny thought it'd start a fire, so he wanted to unscrew them, only there was nothing to unscrew them with on account of the hot bubbling paint, and so he turned off the lights and hung around for the next half hour, which I knew would be about as much fun as standing still long enough to feel the earth move, so I left him be. Later, when he caught up with me again, he had this huge red smear on his shirt that looked like he'd busted a gut. I was busy throwing rocks at the dogs, and he got all upset about it, so I reminded him that they could move if they wanted to, the lazy asses. The rocks weren't all that big, anyway. Well, maybe one or two were a little big. Okay, one was like this broken mortar block, but it didn't land anywhere near them. Unless you count the tail as being part of the body. Anyway, any animal that's willing to take on a car certainly has no beef about a few stones. When he left to do chores, I borrowed his mini-motorbike and tooled around on it for awhile. When it ran out of gas, I left it lie. It was heavy, after all, and I was just a little guy.
[ MORE: an evening of revenge ]