Marlin Barton, a writer and teacher who lives in Montgomery, Alabama, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes 16 years ago at age 37. His new collection of short stories entitled Pasture Art is just out from Hub City Press. He teaches creative writing to juvenile offenders in a program called Writing Our Stories, and he also teaches creative writing in the low-residency MFA program at Converse College. The following is an excerpt from the short story, Pasture Art.
The helicopter sits in the middle of the hay field, its blades still except when the wind blows. Just beyond it a sailboat rides crashing waves, and the train engine strains up the small rise, though its smokestack never blows smoke. There are giant bugs, too, and spiders, a matador with red cape in front of a charging bull, and a tank with its cannon raised. A huge baseball cap with an A for the Atlanta Braves sits at the edge of the field, two eyes just beneath the brim. It isn’t lost on Leah that her three favorites are all something she can ride away on. Out of here by water, rail, or air—any way will do.
Pasture art, that’s what Mr. Hutchins calls it. Leah guesses he knows what he’s talking about. After all, he’s the one who makes it, and it is his pasture, just like it’s his tenant house they rent and his old car they make payments on. She’s read about indentured servants in history class.
That’s what she feels like. Cleaning his house and cooking for him three times a week doesn’t help with that feeling, either.
He mostly uses round bales when he works on his creations, and she’s watched him move hay with the large fork on the front of his tractor. But he’ll use anything that works: cut up pieces of tin, rusty fifty-five gallon drums, driftwood from out of the Tennahpush River, a mirror he took from an old house that had fallen in, which is what he used for the door on the helicopter. Long pieces of tin make the ’copters blades, and old drums welded to a galvanized pipe form its tail and back rudder. When she squints it looks almost real, as if it might lift, hover, and be gone.
“A waste of good hay,” her mother says from behind her. “And to think, people come out to take pictures of it.”
Leah turns away from the window and finds her mother leaning against the kitchen doorway for support. She has bad feet, the bottom of one bruised over for more than two weeks now.
“I like looking at all of it,” Leah says.
“I don’t know why. Looks like something a child would do.”
“It’s different,” she says.
“It’s hay and junk is what it is.”
Leah isn’t going to argue. “Time for your shot,” she says, which is its own argument, but one she feels she has to wage.
Her mother shakes her head and waves a hand through the air dismissively. Maybe it’s the slight roll of her eyes, the way a girl would, or the way she turns her head in a teenager’s defiance, but for a moment Leah catches a glimpse of her mother as she must have looked when she was Leah’s age. Leah has seen pictures and knows that, unlike herself, her mother had been pretty once, but that was before two husbands had left her, and now a third, it appears, before she’d worked waitress and factory jobs, before she’d started to drink, and before they found out she’d been sick for years and didn’t know it.
“If we don’t keep your blood sugar down, you’ll get ketoacidosis again.”
“Why do you always use doctor words? Why don’t you call it what it was?”
“All right. It’ll keep you from going into a coma again. That plain enough for you?”
Leah walks past her mother and gets the vial of insulin out of the refrigerator. After she draws the right number of units, her mother lifts her shirt and Leah makes the injection into a small roll of pinched fat on her stomach right between two small bruises. “You could do this yourself,” she says. “You ought to. They showed you how.”
“And deny you the pleasure?”
“If you don’t take better care of yourself, they’ll end up taking your foot off. I guess I’ll have to do everything then.”
“Guess you will. You can rule the roost. Won’t you like that?”
It’s moments like these that make Leah’s mind sail away across hay-bale waves and over the field of an old man’s imagination. But to where? It seems her own imagination is too far out of reach.
She pulls the rusty Lincoln around to the back of the house and catches sight of the buck and doe that stand always at the edge of the high bank above the Tennahpush. Each statue is riddled with bullet holes on the river side. “You wouldn’t think so many fishermen carried high powered rifles,” Mr. Hutchins once said, “or that their eyesight was so bad they couldn’t tell fur from painted concrete, even with a scope.”
She’d wanted to tell him their eyesight was fine, that shooting those two deer had become a regular sport up and down the river. She knew Mosler, her second, and now maybe final, stepfather, had taken some shots at them, and so had some of the men who’d worked for Hutchins, men he’d fired.
Now Mosler is gone, cutting pulpwood down around Brewton. He quit the paper mill and left not long after her mother came home from the hospital. For six months, he sent money, but then it stopped coming, along with any word from him. At least Mosler’s health insurance at the mill had covered the hospital bills, or most of them. But now, with him gone, there is no way she and her mother can keep making rent and car payments, to say nothing of the drugstore bills. She wants to be angry at Mosler, but can’t, and won’t let herself think too hard about why.
The old man’s truck is gone, but she lets herself in and closes the heavy door behind her. When he first gave her a key, she didn’t think anything about it, but later she decided that either he was more trusting than he ought to be or was so full of himself he never stopped to think someone might actually steal from him.
She cleans his bathroom first, and the smell of cleanser feels as if it’s scraping away the insides of her lungs. She hates this part of her job, doesn’t want to clean someone else’s commode. Maybe that’s why her taking began here in this bathroom. Months ago, she opened a drawer, saw the brightly colored extra toothbrushes still in their plastic wrappers, and slipped one into her pocket. Such a simple thing. Afterward, each item she took grew larger and more expensive, and nothing she’s taken lately, not the silver tea tray out of the sideboard or the porcelain figurine from the guest bedroom, would fit into something so small as a pocket. She tells herself that she’s going to sell everything she’s taken, but she hasn’t yet.
She hears him now, coming in the back door. He doesn’t call out to her. He never does, and she wonders if he likes knowing someone else is already inside. Maybe he pretends, just for a moment, that his wife is still alive, waiting for him to come home. She’s tried to imagine being someone’s wife but somehow can’t picture any kind of a husband for herself, not out of the boys she knows in her summer school classes, and her mind doesn’t seem capable of moving beyond them, as if her choices are always limited to only what she knows in the present.
He is in the kitchen when she finds him, has taken off his hat, and his gray hair stands out around his ears. She knows he doesn’t care, and she envies this somehow. She feels like her own hair and clothes never look right, or even her smile, and though she pretends not to care about these things, she can’t completely deny to herself that she does.
“I’ll start your supper in a little while,” she says.
“No need. Not tonight.”
She stands there, not moving.
“It’s all right. I’ll still pay you for the same amount of time.”
She shrugs her shoulders.
He watches her for a moment. “So are you saving any of what I’m paying you?”
Maybe he’s only trying to make conversation, but she can’t believe the rudeness of his question. “Yeah, I take my check to the grocery store every week and they hold it for me, let me have the groceries for free.”
He looks away, embarrassed, not for himself, she realizes, but for her. Before her mother went to the hospital, she wouldn’t have spoken this way. Maybe that’s why he forgives her, she guesses, and doesn’t snap back, or fire her. Or maybe an old man whose wife is dead only four months just doesn’t have the energy to get angry.
By way of apology, she changes the subject, softens her tone. “You haven’t made anything new in a good while, Mr. Hutchins.”
For a moment he looks puzzled and seems to have no idea what she’s talking about. Then understanding registers on his face. “No, I haven’t,” he says finally. “No hay creatures or anything else since Charlotte died.”
She’d never made the connection—that his wife’s death ended his work in the pasture. She suddenly feels worse now than she did for her remark about her check. “I’m sorry. I hadn’t . . .”
“It’s all right. Seems like her death took everything with it, like it even stole away with things right out of the house.” He’s looking squarely at her, and she doesn’t have to wonder too hard about what he’s trying to say. She waits for it, braces herself, but he doesn’t make a direct accusation. He only sits there.
“I’ve still got to dust your bedroom and the living room,” she says, not sure what other words to offer up. Somehow even her conscience feels mute, as if she can’t square the reality of being caught with the wrongness of what she’s been doing.
She finds the dust spray and rag where she left them on his bedside table and works from one piece of furniture to another. She can’t take anything more, she knows, and wonders what else he might say or do, and when. But still she finds herself opening a drawer here and there, keeping her ear toward the door in case he comes walking down the hall. In the top dresser drawer, she sees several old black and white pictures, all unframed, and while she knows who the serious young bride and groom must be, the woman wearing a beautiful gown, the man in what looks like a Navel uniform, they also seem as if they could be any young couple, with hopes for themselves that are bound to come true.
After finishing the bedroom and living room, she puts her cleaning supplies away and hopes to say a quick goodbye. He’s sitting at the kitchen table writing a check. When he hands it to her she simply thanks him.
He nods. “Some fresh bullet holes on my two deer. Noticed them earlier today. Reckon how many times concrete deer can die?”
“Maybe it’s not fisherman at all,” she says.
He makes sure to catch her eye before she can turn away. “Leah, I never really thought it was. Maybe I know a little more about why people do things than you think I do.” He speaks quietly, quiet enough that she knows she doesn’t have to have to respond, and is grateful for that.
Outside in the car, she’s careful not to flood the engine, and the Lincoln finally starts on the third try. She unbuttons her shirt near her waist then and reaches in and feels the slick finish of the photograph against her skin…
From Pasture Art (Hub City Press, 2015).
Pasture Art by Marlin Barton is available on Amazon.