I Think I'll Call You Jacques
This story is part of the Collected Stories of Ramsbolt.
It contains no spoilers.
The maintenance manual was useless. Kyle dropped it on the floor and threw another log in the wood burning stove. Sparks sprayed out onto the concrete floor. He warmed his hands, rubbing them together, his fingers numb from gripping metal tools in a freezing barn. He could throw the maintenance manual in there, too, but it was his best hope for replacing the broken relief valve on that old Allis Chalmers tractor Zeb loved too much to sell for parts. Would have been gratifying, though. Best Kyle could tell, the part’s job was to relieve oil pressure in the engine. All it was doing was pissing him off and scraping his knuckles. He could use some pressure relief of his own.
Outside the barn, winter waged its war. A foot of snow had already fallen, landing on the six inches that fell the day before and cutting the farm off from Ramsbolt. No traffic had passed for days. The barn doors were closed against the wind and driving snow, but little drifts still made their way beneath, dusting the floor. One side inched open, creaking on its rail, and a wave of white crashed across the floor as Zeb scampered through. It took every ounce of his wiry frame to shove it closed again.
Kyle filled his lungs with the blast of chill and ran a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair, bracing himself for the usual criticism. Some broken engine not mended. Some rip in the farm’s finances not sewn to Zeb’s liking. Like everyone else on Zeb’s farm, Kyle wore too many hats, but none of them fit well enough.
He wiped his glasses on his flannel shirt.
“How’s it going in here?” Zeb was thin as a rail with a beard down to his chest. His knees wobbled. Eighty years had been rough on the man and farming had made him lean. “You ‘bout got this wrapped up?”
“Nice to see you out here. It’s cold, though.” Kyle shoved his hands in his pockets. “In over my head with this one, I’m afraid.”
“College don’t prepare you for ripping open an engine, I don’t guess.” Zeb circled the motor, stroking his beard. It was habit, more than consideration. “You figured out how to use that engine stand finally. That’s something.”
Kyle let out a snort, and he held in the comeback. Tractors weren’t the be-all and end-all of the universe. If it weren’t for him taking over the finances, applying for grants against Zeb’s will and ego, the farm would have sunk three years ago. Fixing tractors might take up most of his time and create most of his frustration, but it was a fraction of his contribution. He didn’t expect Zeb to thank him for it, though.
“Everybody does ten jobs around here, Zeb. I’m better at some than others.” He meant the zing the way it sounded. It might be true that everyone was doing ten jobs, but there were plenty of men on that farm who made half the contribution and spent twice the time making his life difficult. It wasn’t just typical work stuff. They hated him.
Zeb raised an eyebrow. The double meaning wasn’t lost. “They wouldn’t ride ya so much if you moved faster, ya know.”
“I could move a lot faster if I didn’t have to cut so many corners that I’m working in a hole.”
Kyle pushed little magnetic trays full of greasy bolts around on his work bench. He had to stay organized, or he’d lose his mind.
“I know that. I know you don’t got all you need to get work done. I can’t fix the money problem. Don’t gotta tell you that.” Zeb’s voice went flat. The accusation in it sent a wave of heat from Kyle’s belly to his head.
“I can’t fix it either, Zeb. I keep telling you. You have to consider selling off some of this land. You’re not breaking even. Incoming cash gets smaller, and outgoing cash gets bigger every year. I can’t change that. I’m doing my best to get federal help everywhere I can, but it’s not easy.”
Wind howled through gaps in the barn. It whistled and popped as it settled around them. Kyle grabbed another log with his bare hand, splinters be damned, and tossed it in the stove. Cold wood hissed, letting off pressure. He wiped his hands on his dirty jeans.
“I’m gonna need a day off next week,” he said. “Dad got into a facility in Colby, and I have to drive him there.”
Zeb lifted his chin, a knowing nod. “That’s good. State paying for it?”
Kyle had already spent as much of his savings as he could spare. He’d gone from well-off to destitute in just a few years paying for his dad’s keep and putting food on his own table. At least his dad would get the care he needed.
“How’s your dad doin’?” Zeb dragged an old stool across the barn floor. He settled on it like a bird on a branch, fingering his pocket for his cigarettes. Kyle gave him a look that shut him down. He couldn’t stand that smell. “I think about yer dad a lot. Was going through boxes the other day and found pictures from back then. Bunch of old ones, stuck together. I was remembering that old truck I had he used to drive around in. Did good work, your dad. Was a good friend of mine.”
Zeb’s fingers twisted knots in his lap, like he was looking for something, feeling for something. Kyle couldn’t help him; he’d barely helped himself. His father had been a strong man, a working man, not much of an emotional anchor. He made demands, and Kyle met them. Go to college. Get a good job. Make a lot of money. Get out of this broken town and don’t come back.
Kyle met most of them. He failed at that last one.
All kinds of emotions had started boiling within Kyle when his father started forgetting things. Guilt he couldn’t afford better care. Guilt at being relieved his father wouldn’t be disappointed anymore. Turns out guilt, of all the emotions, was the loudest one. Kyle hadn’t figured out how to silence it yet, so he sure wasn’t equipped to help Zeb with the past.
“You think I should visit him?” Zeb’s eyes narrowed but the twist in his mouth said he knew the answer. “I don’t drive so good, and he wouldn’t remember me anyway, no?”
Kyle shook his head. “He won’t remember you. Dad has lucid days and not so lucid days. He usually thinks I’m there to read the paper.”
When he visited, Kyle rolled with whatever scene his father was directing that day. It was easier to be an actor, to pretend to be someone else, than to sit there in his own skin.
“That’s a shame. He was so proud of you. He’d tell anyone who’d listen about that corner office you had. Got your name on the door, he’d say. Talk for way too long about those big name companies you shuffled money for.”
That’s what his dad had raised him to do. Kyle’s success was his, so it hurt like hell that his dad didn’t recognize him anymore. It had all been his father’s dream, though. None of it had ever been his.
“He don’t recognize you none?” Zeb raised an eyebrow. “It’s that bad now?”
“Yup. Probably for the better. He hated I came back here about as much as I did.”
Zeb wagged a crooked finger at him. “Talk like that makes the other guys not like you.”
“Don’t you think I know that? I’m not here to be liked, and I never expected them to.” Kyle grabbed a frayed red rag and twisted it around his hand. Saturated with grease and oils, it smelled like comfort made for a different man. “Look around, Zeb. Was this anyone’s dream? This isn’t even getting by. You’ve been scraping for so long, and we’re all down to the bone around here.”
Zeb’s chest heaved when he chuckled. His laugh rattled into a cough, and he pounded his chest until it subsided. The man wiped his hands on his flannel shirt, two sizes too large. “Ain’t nobody got time for dreaming, but we got time to take care of each other. You talkin’ ‘bout working in a hole around here. We’re all working in the same hole together. That’s what makes it worth it. I ain’t saying you got to fit in. I’m just saying you got to climb down in here with the rest of us if you wanna feel like you’re not so alone in it.”
Kyle ran a hand through his hair and scowled at the grime on his fingers. Bad habit.
“I’m not trying to be like that. I don’t think I’m better than anyone else. We just don’t have that much in common. They work outside, sit at the bar. I’d rather be in the kitchen cooking comfort food than…”
He balled up the red rag and tossed it on the workbench. There wasn’t any sense in explaining himself. Zeb already knew he didn’t belong there. The man didn’t care where he was supposed to be, that he should have been running his own line of stores, using his finance degree to fund his own cooking empire. His dream was to bring joy to the kitchen and teach people to cook gourmet meals with simple ingredients, not to go bankrupt trying to grow them. At least that’s what it used to be. That dream was long dead. Now he just wanted to survive. Somehow it all went wrong.
The sound of a car engine cut through the wind. It slowed and idled before it reached the barn.
“It’s Sunday. Who’s that?” Kyle squinted.
Zeb stroked his beard and wobbled from the stool. “Got me. Somebody selling something. Lost.”
“Sounds like they stopped at the mailbox.”
A car door slammed with a hollow thud, and a horn blared twice. Beep. Beep. The engine spooled as it propelled the vehicle back the way it had come.
Kyle inched the door open, and another ripple of white pushed across the floor. There was a break in the weather. The sky had gone from thick white with snow to a pale grey. The lamp post jutted from a yellow pool in a meadow of snow. The front yard fused with the ditch and the road. Tire tracks came up the drive and back down again, and where they paused, a cardboard box wiggled by the mailbox. It jiggled and bounced.
“Shit.” Kyle’s work boots were no match for the snow. They were old, worn, with a hole in the heel. His socks would be soaked.
“What’s that?” Zeb stood and wobbled to the door.
“Somebody left something out there. I’ll go see what it is.”
Kyle threw on his coat and hugged it tight to his stomach. The snow was deep enough to slow his walk, and it clung to his boots and jeans. His nose was frozen by the time he reached the box. It wiggled, and the weight inside shifted when he lifted it. The bottom was wet, cold, and whole box shivered as it whimpered. What was wrong with people? Rescues and foster places all over the country and some asshole chose a snow storm as the time to abandon a box of puppies at somebody’s farm? Kyle’s stomach churned.
He carried the box back to the barn, and Zeb closed the door behind him. Placing the box a few feet from the stove, he peeled back the folded flaps and four puppy heads shot up, ears high, listening for danger. Howls and mewls erupted as they climbed the sides, nails scratching the box.
“They’re too young to be off their mother.” Zeb peered down his nose at them.
The box tumbled onto its side and four puppies spilled onto the floor. One bumbled closer to the fire and rested with his nose skimming the floor. Two others stayed close, bumping into each other, as they explored the room, taking in the smells, the largest of the two stopping to throw his head back and practice a yowl. The fourth made for Kyle’s shoe. He placed a paw on Kyle’s work boot and tumbled onto his side.
“Silly puppies got no balance,” Zeb said.
Kyle scooped up the puppy and examined its ears. He ruffled its golden fur. Except for being a little cold, the doggy was perfect. He had all his fingers and toes, little pink toe beans, and a waggly tail. He was healthy and seemed perfectly happy.
Kyle held him close. “No fleas. Yellow lab?”
Zeb nodded. “I’d say so.”
The puppy’s head was too big for its neck, and it bobbed, falling against Kyle’s shoulder. It’s breath was sweet.
“They’re gonna get hungry.” Zeb made for the door, stopping by the workbench. “Looks like you got a new job feeding puppies.”
Like he didn’t have enough to do already. His stomach twisted into a knot. The only way he knew to solve a problem was to throw money at it, and he’d already given everything he had to his father’s care. He could barely care for himself. And this was just another thing he wouldn’t do well enough, another thing he couldn’t fix.
The puppy squirmed and nosed at his hand.
“Can’t believe someone just dumped them here. Who would do that?”
Zeb shrugged one shoulder and shoved his hands in pockets. “People do. They think a farm is where you put animals you ain’t got space for. But we sure as shit can’t keep ‘em. Feed ‘em what they’ll eat and find a home for ‘em. I got enough strays.”
The door closed behind Zeb, squeaking in its track.
The puppy nuzzled under Kyle’s chin and he let him, giving him the warmth he was looking for. Poor dog deserved it.
Looking after a few puppies wouldn’t be that hard. He could feed them and put up some flyers in town. And they were awfully cute. It got quiet in the barn sometimes, surrounded by rust and metal. He could use the company.
Three siblings teetered on the floor, hovering close to the fire.
“You guys are safe in here. Just don’t eat anything you find laying on the floor until I can sweep up in here.” Kyle sat on the stool, the puppy mouthing at his knuckles. “I gotta get back to work. I gotta get this engine back together.”
The clouds had cleared enough for a ray of light to bleed through a window and streak the floor.
“This storm is pushing out. I’ll take the truck and get food for ya in a bit.”
He needed to install that new pressure relief valve and get the tractor up and running, but the puppy was a warm respite. Kyle wrinkled his nose and smiled down at the soft rolls of skin and fur. The dog would grow into them one day. His ears would grow to fit his head, his neck would fill out and his paws would plod along some rural road. He’d be long gone from the barn before that happened.
“Never dreamt you’d end up here, did you? Me either.”
The puppy opened his jaw in a wide yawn, his eyes clamped tight. He spun around to make a nest and settled on Kyle’s lap.
“You want to sleep on someone’s sunny porch, huh? I wanted to be Jacques Pepin.”
The puppy trilled when Kyle rubbed behind his ears.
“Oh, you don’t know who Jacques Pepin is? He used to cook on television when I was a kid. Lazy Saturday mornings, I’d eat cereal and watch this guy cook food better than anything we could afford to eat at home. He made it look so fun.”
The puppy’s little sides heaved as he yelped, calling for some distant mother, some far away comfort. Kyle could use some of his own.
“I have an idea.” He stroked the puppy’s back, and it calmed. “Maybe this is a little crazy, but it seems like you could use a home. I could use a friend. What if you and me stuck together? Huh?”
Kyle held the puppy out, and a little wet tongue licked his nose.
“I think I’ll call you Jacques.”