The dust was settling on the dirt road that led to a picturesque, white farmhouse with drooping shutters and a fading picket fence, which sat next to a rundown, dirty trailer house with drooping roof and growing junk piles. The Reed family was busy unloading their minivan. The kids were in no hurry to finish unpacking since their great-uncle, whom they hadn’t seen in five years, was patiently waiting to take the kids around back to feed the goat. Sully was a large man with a grubby white t-shirt and odd, manicured hands, not someone the teenage siblings wanted to follow behind a trailer.
Hill, their father, saw no problem with the invitation. Growing up, Hill had often been left in the company of his uncle and, with the exception of swallowing a live minnow – which did not let him breathe under water like Uncle Sully had promised – nothing bad ever happened. Hill asked Uncle Sully to give them a hand, but Sully just laughed and spit and continued to watch. Hill wasn’t surprised.
The kids followed Sully around the trailer house. Without saying a word, Sully lifted out of a pin the small goat they had come to feed. The animal was frail and the sudden extraction from its bed left it shaking and confused. Uncle Sully stepped back as he took a toothpick out his mouth and placed it behind his ear. The kids were not sure what response was expected. The goat looked sick and pitiful. Heather and Hunter both wished, as if they were children again, to be within eyesight of their parents.
“It’s cute,” Heather said after a long, awkward pause where they all looked at the goat like people gathered around a campfire.
“It ain’t cute,” Uncle Sully said, throwing the goat back into the pin. “It’s meat. You call it cute, you ain’t gonna be able to cut its throat.”
Heather cringed, less at the thought of an animal being killed and more at the idea that her uncle might try to feed her this animal. Hunter cringed at the thought of the animal being killed which kind of surprised him. Sully pulled out his bottle of hand sanitizer and told the kids they were going to need some too even though they hadn’t touched the goat. Hunter stuck out his hands first. Sully put a big glob of the stuff in his own hand then rubbed it on Hunter’s. He did the same with Heather. Again, the siblings wished they were somewhere else. Specifically, back in the farm house with their parents.
Hill and Rosemary were appreciating the silence their children had left behind. The dusty sheets were off the beds and replaced by clean ones brought from home. Hill was attacking every corner of the house with a broom and dust pan while Rosemary was up to her elbows in soap suds and bleach. She pulled down every dish in the cabinets and slowly, steadily worked her way through the pile of dusty jars, mugs, and plates. She was wondering if Heather brought any hand lotion when the side door opened and slammed close.
“Oh. Hi, Marge,” Rosemary said, pausing to look over her shoulder. “Sully said you had gone to town.”
“That’s what I get for marrying a dumb oaf,” Marge said. “He lies to hear himself talk.”
Rosemary let out a burst of nervous laughter. She knew Marge would never volunteer to help with the dishes. After years of awkward conversations with her in-laws, Rosemary had learned the best way to converse with them was by choosing not to speak eighty percent of the time.
“I like your bracelets,” Marge said, fingering the pile of jewelry Rosemary had taken off and laid on the kitchen table.
“Oh. Thanks,” Rosemary said, turning briefly. “I like your ring.”
“It’s a cheap cigar wrapper,” Marge said. “I wear it when I’m boiling chicken bones, so they don’t burn.”
Again, silence fell in the kitchen leaving Rosemary to stew in her own awkwardness. She thought about asking how Grandma Reed was or how Marge’s kids were doing, instead, she kept washing dishes in silence telling herself she was only trying to be nice. Rosemary used to like coming to the farmhouse before marriage and kids. She didn’t remember the place being so isolated and dirty. She didn’t remember Sully being so gross. Marge hadn’t been around back then. Sully was married to a sweet lady whose name escaped Rosemary but had enough sense to run-off with a tractor salesman the first chance she got. Sully went through two other wives before finding Marge who actually put up with him. When Rosemary started dating Hill she lived in a two bedroom house with her mom and brother in Cotton Center. Maybe that’s why she liked the farmhouse back then. It was larger than her home and there were never fewer than ten family members around when she and Hill showed up. People were always playing dominoes or shelling peas or throwing horseshoes. Growing up, Rosemary and her mom sat in separate rooms reading while her brother stayed out until three in the morning. Marrying Hill allowed Rosemary to jump into a middle class lifestyle and she had become used to the four bedroom house they now lived in with a large, local grocery store half a mile away. As an adult she finally lived in a real town with a population of a couple hundred thousand. Cotton Center was a few hundred when she lived there. The farmhouse wasn’t even in a town, but sat on some farm to market road in the middle of Knox County. Rosemary’s new found middle class status made the farmhouse seem decrepit instead of quaint. Marge was still standing by the door not speaking. Rosemary could hear Hill sweeping the back porch and singing. She wished she could be out there with him.
At the back of the house, Hill had leaned the broom in a corner and was sitting on one of the three small beds that filled the screened-in porch. He was flipping through an old comic book that belonged to his father or Sully or one of his other two uncles. Hill was glad he didn’t have four children, let alone four boys like Grandma Reed. Heather and Hunter were enough. He remembered sleeping on the porch before the screens were put in. He and his two older cousins would lie on old army cots, swatting at mosquitoes, wishing it wasn’t too hot to sleep. Heather and Hunter came around the corner of the house and talked to Hill through the screen.
“Uncle Sully is weird,” Heather said.
“Why else would Gramps not invite his brother to the family reunions?” Hunter asked.
Instead of agreeing with his kids or making an excuse for his dad’s – Gramps – lack of loyalty to his family, Hill told them to go help their mother with the dishes. As they walked around to the front of the house Hill looked at the four pictures hanging above the three small beds. Grandma and Grandpa Reed had sketches made of their four boys soon after they moved into the farmhouse. Hill’s father said it must have been someone local because they wouldn’t have been able to afford anyone from Dallas or Austin. In the picture, Sully looked to be about ten, his hair was cut short and slick with grease. He had the look of a child who desperately did not want to be sitting still for so long. The other three boys were smiling, happy. The middle two looked almost identical while the youngest, still an infant, wore a dress.
“Handsome devil there on the left, eh?” Sully said through the screen. He collected snot from the back his throat and spat it onto the side of the house. Hill felt himself gag at the sound.
“Why weren’t you named after one of the apostles?” Hill asked.
“Shit, I couldn’t of been named after no saint. Just wouldn’t of worked for me.”
“Maybe if you’d been, you wouldn’t be quite so rotten,” Hill said.
Both the men laughed and Sully launched into an explanation of how Sullivan was a family name. He said that Grandma Reed wanted to name him Judas or something, but Grandpa Reed said he wasn’t having it, his first son had to be given a family name. After that, Grandma Reed was free to name her children after all the saints she wanted to.
“You mean apostles,” Hill said.
“Aw, hell, I don’t know what I mean. It was one of those Catholic things.”
“Grandma Reed was Catholic?”
“Shit, boy, where’ve you been? Course, she was Catholic. Didn’t Johnny Boy ever tell you that? Don’t really matter since your Grandpa Reed never let her go to no Catholic church. Said Catholics were rich and uppity. We’re good Methodist folk.”
The men could hear Rosemary, still washing dishes, and the kids, who may or may not have been helping but were definitely arguing. Hill and Sully both turned towards the cotton field and watched a gentle breeze run through the rows, across the pecan trees and up into the house. Hill coughed after getting a whiff of Sully’s body odor. After standing there for a moment Sully launched into another story. He said that Grandma and Grandpa Reed told a couple different stories about her family depending on how drunk they were or how angry. Both agreed that she was an orphan by the time she was twelve, but that was where the certainty ended. Grandma Reed claimed that her grandparents were rich Yankees, like the Kennedys, and that her parents had moved to Texas to make it big in oil. On the way, both of her parents died and she never made it past Arkansas. But Grandpa Reed said that she was Indian and her grandparents had been converted by a priest before the Alamo became a fort.
“The Alamo part is probably bullshit,” Sully said. “But she may have been Indian. We have no idea what her last name was.”
As the men fell into another silence Hill worried that Sully would ask about the anniversary party they had come from in Fort Worth. Sully liked to make comments about his younger brothers’ money and friends and cars. He claimed to be the good son who stayed on the land and worked the farm, but Sully had rented the land to the neighboring farmer the day after his father died.
“You come by and see your grandma before you leave,” Sully said walking away.
“That’s kind of why we came. But, wouldn’t she be more comfortable if you brought her over here?”
“Naw, she doesn’t like leaving the trailer so much. The house makes her sad. She starts complaining about losing the farm.”
Sully used incorrect air quotes and walked off around the corner. Hill noticed Sully’s shiny fingernails. Hill’s dad always made gay jokes about Sully and his fingernails, saying that was Sully’s way of signaling the cowboys at the bar who “swung the wrong way”. Hill could hear Sully coughing and spitting until the door to the trailer house slammed shut. Another breeze came through the cotton field. This time Hill was able to enjoy the smell of dirt and young plants that came into the porch. Hill’s dad had told him to call as soon as he saw Grandma Reed. The three youngest brothers were worried about their mother, but not worried enough to talk to Sully. Hill cringed at the thought of going into that trailer house.
* * *
“You know he still keeps a piss pot under his bed,” Hill’s dad said. This was up in downtown Fort Worth at the anniversary party where Hill’s parents and their friends ate shrimp quesadillas and drank champagne.
“Yeah,” Paul, the youngest of the four brothers, added. “And did you hear about the time I went over to his place when he was living in Odessa?”
Paul didn’t wait for Hill to answer, but launched into a story about how Sully was supposed to be making loads of money working the oil fields and sending it back to their parents. This was after Sully had put a lien on the farm so he could buy a boat and impress some girl he had met in Knox City, even though the closest lake was about a hundred miles away. Grandpa Reed got tired of not seeing any money, so he put Paul, who was about fourteen, on a bus out to West Texas. Paul found Sully living in a ratty motel with migrant workers and prostitutes. The room was a mess and stunk.
The first night Paul was in town, Sully went out drinking. Paul was too nervous to go anywhere or even step outside the room, so he went to bed. He pulled back the sheets which Sully had been sleeping on top of.
“In the middle of the bed,” Paul said, gesturing and sloshing his champagne, “is a dead rat. Squashed by big, fat Sully in his sleep.”
The brothers laughed at the disgusting image. Hill noticed some of his parents’ friends who wore turquoise cuff links and big hoop earrings were looking at the two brothers with a certain amount of disapproval. The brothers were drunk enough to not care what their friends thought at the moment.
“I put my clothes back on, ransacked the motel room, and went back to the bus station that night. Left with five bucks, a pistol, and a fifth of whisky.”
The two brothers again laughed, hysterical.
“Pop got ten bucks for the pistol. It was the only fifteen dollars we ever saw from the slob,” Paul said.
The brothers kept laughing and gesturing with their glasses, feeling the effects of alcohol mixed with nostalgia. They walked over to their friends, who would be horrified by such a vulgar story. The Fort Worth crowd was not the type to crack jokes about growing up poor and having to take care of their good-for-nothing brother. They buried those memories and admired one another’s new Cadillacs instead.
* * *
A shiver went down Hill’s spine as he thought about finding dead rats in the bed his grandmother was sleeping in. As he walked into the kitchen, he hoped he could convince Rosemary to go to the trailer with him.
“Where’s Heather?” he asked his wife and son who were playing cards at the kitchen table. Neither Rosemary nor Hunter was excited about the intrusion. Not only were they intensely focusing on their game of gin rummy, they didn’t want Hill to join since he always won.
“She went over to see Grandma Reed,” Hunter said after drawing a card.
“And you guys didn’t go over with her?”
Rosemary snorted at her husband’s question and laid a card down.
“Can I play the next hand?” Hill asked sitting down at the small table.
Heather hadn’t stopped to think about why her parents were avoiding the trailer house. After finishing the dishes, she merely announced to her mom and Hunter that she was going over to see Grandma Reed. As the smell of stale cigarette smoke and moth balls seeped out of the couch and covered her in what felt like a visible film, Heather thought that maybe her parents were onto something by staying away.
“We should go over to the house since there’s more room there,” she suggested to Sully who was sitting in a recliner, shirtless, an ash tray lying on his belly.
“Maw doesn’t like to go over there,” Sully said. “As you can tell, it takes Marge long enough to get your Grandma Reed out of bed and dressed.”
Heather asked why Grandma Reed wasn’t already dressed since it was six o’clock in the evening. She was horrified when Sully said that there wasn’t no reason to get her all dressed and made up if there wasn’t nobody to come see her. There was a crash in the back room.
“Leave me alone, you old heifer,” Grandma Reed yelled.
Heather could hear the walker scraping along the dirty floor and, eventually, her great-grandmother came around the corner into the living room. Heather stood up and greeted her.
“Who do you belong to?” Grandma Reed asked ignoring Heather’s attempted hug.
“Hill and Rosemary.”
“Oh, Johnny Boy’s boy,” she said sitting down.
Heather marveled at how such a frail lady could speak with such authority and venom. Marge walked in and took a seat next to Heather. The whole group sat in uncomfortable silence. Heather watched as the protrusion on Sully’s belly almost knocked over his beer every time he took a breath. Sully put out the cigarette and filed his nails with the kit that was sitting on the table beside him.
“You know we came from Gramps’s fortieth wedding anniversary?” Heather finally said in an attempt to break the silence.
“Who?” Grandma Reed said.
“Johnny Boy,” Sully yelled.
“It was really fancy,” Heather said. “They had an ice sculpture and champagne. It was right in the middle of downtown Fort Worth.”
“Bastards,” Grandma Reed spat. “Those boys couldn’t even come down to take me to their party.”
She sat with her arms crossed before telling Heather how her boys didn’t even grow up with a radio, but now they were living the fancy life with fancy cars in the fancy city. She said it took her a week on the back of her brother’s horse to get all the way from Arkansas down to Texas. Heather was fascinated to find out that her great-grandmother rode on the back of a horse for a week. She thought that there must be stories about stopping along the way and meeting people and sleeping outside. Heather asked what the trip was like.
“Hell! Had to hold a damn chicken the whole time. How many kids you got, anyway?”
“Me or my dad?”
“You, girl?” Grandma Reed said.
“I don’t have any kids. I’m only nineteen. I haven’t finished college.”
“Whatcha going for?” Grandma Reed asked.
Heather wasn’t sure if this was a question about her major or a comment about the futility of a female going to school.
“Pre-med,” Heather decided was the safest answer.
“What?” Grandma Reed asked.
“She’s gonna be a nurse, Maw,” Sully yelled from his chair.
“Oh. I knew a couple of nurses,” Grandma Reed said. “Followed the soldiers over to the war.”
“That’s nice,” was all Heather could think of to say. “But I’m not going –“
“They were hussies,” she spat. “All came back with the clap.”
“I’m not going to be a nurse, though,” Heather said before Grandma Reed could continue. “I’m going to be a pediatrician. You know, a kid’s doctor. And, hopefully, go work in Africa.”
“You got a thing for the blacks?” Sully asked.
Heather made a quick exit after that comment. At her grandparents’ party in Fort Worth, she had listened to a lady talk about her bridge club for half an hour. When she escaped that conversation she had walked into one about how we were paying for these illegals to become educated and take our jobs. Finally, she and Hunter had been able to grab a couple of glasses of champagne and sneak off into a corner. Heather complained that their grandparents’ friends were completely out of touch. All they talked about was their money and they didn’t even seem to like one another all that much.
“You say that because you don’t have any money,” Hunter said.
Heather punched him in the arm and made him spill the champagne.
“Go get me more,” he said.
“I’m excited to see Grandma Reed,” Heather told him when she got back with two more glasses. “Staying in the farmhouse where Gramps grew up. Listening to the stories Uncle Sully tells about the farm.”
“Why do you think their stories will be any better than Gramps’ and Uncle Paul’s?”
At the time, Heather thought this was a stupid and uninformed comment. Gramps and his brothers were out of touch from living in Dallas too long and working for banks and insurance agencies. Uncle Sully still lived on the farm and appreciated the simple things in life. This was what she had thought in Fort Worth, at least. As Heather walked across the dirt driveway, she couldn’t decide if her younger brother was smarter than he appeared or so simple minded he couldn’t help but make sense.
“How’s Grandma Reed?” Hill asked as Heather walked in the door.
“Fine,” she said.
“How does the place look?” her mom asked.
Heather sat down at the table and watched her family finish their card game.
“You gonna join the rest of us?” Hunter asked.
[Check out Cannon’s back porch wisdom here]