PD Mallamo’s fiction has lately appeared in Barcelona Review,
Construction and Sunstone. He holds degrees from Brigham Young and the University of Kansas, and
lives in Taos, New Mexico.
Give little faggot the twenny, he whispers to his son.
He doesn’t think you can hear him.
Boost his baby ass, he says. Even that.
There are sheep on the farm that keep grass and weeds down between the coops. Those coops stretch out forever, half a million laying hens—your summer job, college boy, a cousin’s farm on your father’s side in Idaho because your mother, who pays the tuition, thinks farm work and western sun will do you good. They’re wonderful people, she says, a little basic. Give them a chance.
Isolation and desolation overwhelm you. Eleven books in the entire house, six of those tucked at the bottom of your bag.
University of Chicago? Why in the hell you want to go way out there? Don’t you miss your mama (little faggot)? They do not bother to ask what you study.
Introductions are brief and instantly forgettable. Same food for breakfast every morning, same food for dinner every night. Television.
Those nights are long nights.
You are there two weeks and 4 a.m. Sunday a dog pack breaches the big outside chainlink and slashes every sheep,
thirty-two. Third time in two years. This is the worst. Half the animals are dead, the other dying in slow
dragging circles. Your father’s cousin walks animal-by-animal with a light Colt revolver and shoots the
wounded in the head.
Now you’re on the lookout, all of you, driving armed from coop to coop in case the dogs come back. Of course they are smart dogs and won’t come back until you don’t expect them, but your chicken-farming relatives on your father’s side don’t seem to understand this. Kill ever one, your father’s cousin says with some gusto. There are treelines to the north and west fronting square dark miles of scrub and brush and this is where the dogs live.
Two of your father’s cousin’s sons take you shooting the day after the massacre. They bring their
much larger weapons and the faggot gun, a tidy little side-by-side twenty-gauge made in Belgium and shot by your
father’s cousin’s mother, your father’s aunt in other words, up till a few years ago when her
husband died and she lost every desire to hunt. It’s prop-ly worth some money, one of your father’s
cousin’s sons says as he turns it over in his hands and rubs the walnut. Woman’s gun. He throws it up
to his shoulder and follows an imaginary bird.
They give you a box of quail loads and sit you on a stump to figure it out for yourself, blasting away over your head with shotguns several gauges larger. One glances down and says, You see that goddamn pack... He nods at the twenty-gauge. Scare ‘m over with that little thing and we finish the job.
On your day off in your work clothes without shaving for a week you drive fifty miles to Pocatello and find a gun
store. You crack open your little faggot gun and carry it demonstrably unloaded inside. The man behind the counter
doesn’t look up and says What can I do for you?
Still looking elsewhere he reaches across and pulls it close to his eyes and says Nice little gun. He squints closely at engraved lettering near the action and says Lucky you. Takes a magnum load if you want.
He squints again, this time at you, and in a moment says Three-inch chamber. Won’t carry much as a twelve but reaches all the way out. He squints again and smiles. Just have to be a better shot.
He turns around, scans the shelves of ammunition behind him and produces a box of Federal 3-aught buckshot magnums.
Dog lead, he says. Stupid people just turn ‘m loose. He shakes his head and it is obvious he’d be just as happy shooting the stupid people as the dogs. You buy three boxes.
Driving back to the farm you think of the only girl at your father’s cousin’s house, an auburn-haired seventeen-year-old with full curves and thick lashes who barrel-races a stable of big Oklahoma ponies her chicken-rich daddy buys her. She wants to be a vet when she grows up but has a steady boyfriend you’re sure she’s sleeping with. The first thing she said to you was
I won’t /
Bite your head off
If you /
Ask me my name.
One week after the massacre to the actual 4 a.m. hour the auburn-haired girl slips into your bed. They think
you’re queer ‘cause you read, she says, that’s how stupid they are. If you’re with a girl
who’s not your wife and Jesus don’t approve because you’re not married but there isn’t
actually a Jesus is it still wrong? My brothers fuck chickens, I’m not kiddin’. Sheep, too. I lock my
damn door at night. Get me out a here. She pulls herself on top of you and holds herself up so you can slide your
hands under her pajama top and massage her breasts which are miraculously large, soft and warm.
Ever done this before? she whispers, lips to your very ear. Cause you’re blowin’ like a racehorse.
Two days later 11 p.m. the power goes out and the big coop fans stop. The men race around past midnight starting
balky backup generators so the birds don’t suffocate in dust and ammonia gas. Knowing not the first thing
about generators you can’t help but go outside anyway and in the novelty of more-or-less total darkness
walk a quarter-mile down the farm road. Without warning the Milky Way unleashes its full glory just above your
little head, stormgales of suns, moons, gods and nebulas hurled out upon the inky deep, a galaxy consuming itself
I have never seen this, you whisper. What else is right before my eyes?
There are abandoned houses and barns all over the territory and you cruise around in the little worn-out Nissan
pickup your father’s cousin lets you use and find one of these several hills away and out of earshot.
Without asking that morning you took three of your father’s cousin’s wife’s white bedsheets
from a high stack in a closet by the bathroom and you nail one up on the side of the shed with hammer and tacks
from behind the seat and take the little faggot gun and measure off twenty yards. You chamber a magnum, aim dead
center at the sheet and touch off one barrel. The blast and recoil far surpass the quail loads; you almost drop
the gun. You walk up and measure the spread: a circle considerably less than a yard. The gun store man said the
barrels were choked for waterfowl, so you tack up another sheet, add ten yards, and shoot again. The pattern this
time is less than thirty inches. You affix the last, count off forty-seven yards and let fly: forty inches.
You think both barrels ought to nicely finish the job. You think you could take down anything with a well-populated forty-inch aught-3 spread.
Six weeks post-massacre to the day the girl drives her black Ford pickup where you move manure with a front
loader at the rear of a colossal chickenhouse. She steps out and picks her way to the loader. You switch off the
engine. Except for clicks and wheezes of cooling metal the world falls silent.
She shades her eyes and looks up at you for a few moments saying nothing. Then,
What do you study out there in Chicago?
Can’t eat it.
Life’s more than eating, isn’t it?
Not if you got to feed a family.
I missed my period.
She dances slowly back to her truck, gets in, rolls down the window. Get me out of here, she says. I’ll die if I don’t get out of this shithole. Once we get to Chicago you can do what you want with me. She starts the engine and as she drives away yells,
Just kidding about the period. We don’t need no six-toed kids.
Soundless airliners lance like comets through the sky, L.A. or New York, their long lonely tails ghosting high and away.
Things you want to say to the auburn-haired barrel racer: there is a river in Vietnam named the Perfume River; Montefiore is Italian for mountain of flowers; Newt Gingrich (whom her father adores) is a miserable hypocrite on his third marriage; the rough work of the world is done by people like her family but she doesn’t have to do the rough work of the world and can certainly come with you to Chicago; that you may be falling categorically in love with her even though she’s not only an ill-bred illiterate but actually a relative and that’s just wrong; that if God did indeed create this world He did it so mysteriously and strangely and wrongly that how to live in it is more-or-less completely up to us.
That petite double-barrel shotgun feels good in your hands. Damn good. So good you can’t believe it. Better
in your hands than Ahkmatova on your tongue.
That’s saying something.
You return to the gun shop for six more boxes of aught-3 mag loads and shoot up the shed down to the ground. You don’t even bother with ear plugs, persistent ringing in your ears simply a token of quality time spent with your new best friend.
You dig out a cleaning kit from a shelf beneath the gun rack. To your father’s cousin’s astonishment you clean and oil the firearm in front of them all right there in the shed, then treat the stock with an old blue rag dampened with linseed oil. You think, rightly, that your little faggot friend has never been cleaned. You think, rightly, that you will soon surpass these abject hicks in abject dipshit hickdom.
Goddamnit, you think. I’m not University of Chicago for nothing.
Comes now a season of dryness. Nothing grows, including weeds and grass between the coops, so the livestock is not
replaced. Those dogs show neither hide nor hair. Your father’s cousin’s sons think they’ve
moved on to greener pastures but there are no greener pastures. Obviously they are wrong.
You walk the north fenceline to the breach, a narrow trench the dogs clawed beneath the fence then slid through sideways to get in and perform their odious deeds. Instead of installing a permanent lower barrier your father’s cousin had simply backed up a load of rock and dumped it in. These are lazy white men, you think. You wonder if your father, whom you never knew, was the same. You look within yourself for clues to a man who killed himself with Pontiac exhaust and a dryer hose in Boise three weeks before you were born. What you are, he was. You are his only child. And you are very sure your father would have fixed this fence.
You grab a pair of gloves from the cab and toss rock into the truckbed. When you’ve got a hundred pounds you drive it off to a gully and dump it in where it is lost amongst rusting car bodies and discarded fans from the chicken coops. You do this every day for a week until the breach is once again exposed.
One evening after dinner your father’s cousin holds forth. He tips back his dinner chair, rubs his
protruding abdomen with large calloused hands, angles back his head and regards you through half-lidded eyes. He
says, Don’t know how you do it in Chicago, but in this house we serve the Lord. With His help all things
are possible. Is that what your mama taught you?
Unaccountably you say, She taught me there’s winners and losers.
He created us to be winners.
Who are the losers?
Son, he says, that’s the rest of the world, ‘specially them Communists up north. Mexicans truckin’ in their foul poison. He lowers his chair until the front two legs are once again on the floor and declares,
Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised. Proverbs thirty-one thirty.
Your father’s cousin coughs and clasps his hands. He turns to his large, taciturn wife and says Bring me dessert.
Premature avian mortality spikes with summer, a steady stream of heat-felled hens that are collected in the morning and taken straight to the landfill. On a morning in mid-July with a breeze out of the south you take six of the least spoiled to the north side of the farm. There, in a corridor between two unused coops, a hundred feet from the fence breach, you build a rock circle and a small fire and place thereupon a thirty-gallon barrel with one end removed. You fill it with twenty gallons of water you carry in the truck and toss in the dead chickens. You stoke this fire throughout the day, the south wind freshening with afternoon and dispersing soupy aroma over square miles of brush. Fifty feet behind the fire you erect a high gray rabbit-wire fence, coop-wall-to-coop wall, all-but-invisibly blocking one of two escape routes. Now the only way out is the way in. You and the faggot gun will take care of that.
The girl comes to your bed four more times. You can’t believe her nerve. She laughs and giggles and you cover her mouth with your hand but in a moment you’re both laughing and throwing pillows over each other’s faces and finally escape out a window into the warm splendid night before your father’s cousin and sons discover you and beat you both to death with angry fists and dirty shovels. They’re cave men, she says. Prop-ly worse. If cavemen was this stupid we wouldn’t be here.
There are ruined military vehicles in back of the two coops. Your father’s cousin bought these at auction
years before against an impending End Time that came and went the way they all do. Your father’s
cousin’s sons raced and wrecked them until they were put to rest, finally, with everything else, in a gully
or the ass-end of the farm. At nightfall you take your place in a decommissioned personnel carrier, a thermos of
strong black tea, a large flashlight, and the faggot gun at your side. You wear a hunting vest stuffed with
Federals. You know it’s going to be a long night. You’ve brought a tomato can to piss in. The breeze
still blows from the south and if you step outside after midnight, when you plan to tip the hot soup onto the
ground to release its full, commanding bouquet, the dogs will catch your scent.
You talk to your father as you always do at such times and at 4 a.m. begin to try to explain exactly why you are doing what you are doing. It is not because I want to prove to myself or anybody that I’m a real man, you tell him. You don’t have to worry about that. You can’t study Russian lit at the University of Chicago and not be a real man. But we are hominid, you and I, and killing is in our blood. Unlike your little stunt this is good killing and I’ll do it gladly. It is my privilege and birthright. And maybe I’m dead wrong about this but I don’t think so: It is going to be amazing fun.
At 4:57 a.m. two scouts slip under the fence. There is just enough light to see the ghosts circle, raise their
noses into the air, bark. The rest materialize outside the chainlink and again file hastily sideways through the
shallow trench. You count thirty-two and when they’re all inside seething and snarling on the cooked birds
you slide carefully out the rusting derelict and move in a crouch behind them, then rise and fire both barrels
reload fire reload fire reload fire, aught-3’s tearing into panicked bodies upon panicked bodies,
tumult-roar as if issuing from the mouth of Hell itself. You stalk the clustered remnants howling and leaping at
the rabbit fence and think,
So this is how it feels to be King of the Jungle.
I like it.
Your father’s cousin and sons rip right through the rabbit fence then stop and get out and look behind to see what they’ve hit. They stand openmouthed before the carnage, taking care not to look at you or acknowledge your presence. Your father’s cousin unholsters his little Colt and strides beast-by-beast, shooting the wounded in the head, bending low to confirm death or examine a carcass. They heave the whole bloody mess into the back of the truck and drive off without a word.
They was his dogs, she says. He hates you.
You are thinking: This little girl can’t even speak English!
But I’m beautiful, she says, and you love me. I got tickets and packed our bags.
Cheap tickets: Pocatello to Boise to Spokane to Phoenix to Dallas to Newark to Boston to Chicago. All day, half the night but I’ll finally see the country now won’t I. Gotta hurry. Let’s stop for coffee.
Coffee in Boise, you say. What about this? You hold up your little faggot friend.
Woman’s gun, she laughs. Mail it to your mama.