Breaking the Dirt

Breaking the Dirt

Short Fiction

Ross Breslin



When Pa Custer died he left the clan in disarray. Ma was bed-bound and wicked and she may well have been relishing the trouble that followed though no one could say that for sure. May well that the dementia was just an act and had been, going on years now. None of the Custer clan would have been much surprised. Dementia or none, she’d always been mad.

Billy Bob thought the farm was his birth-right, though so did Joey. Billy Bob was oldest but Joey had never left home. Eager for his father’s approval or just trying to supplant the senior brother’s claim on the property, he’d remained in the family homestead upon reaching manhood and stayed there to tend to the work for the ten years of manhood that had followed. He was the rightful heir and Billy Bob knew it, he said.

Of course Joey wasn’t the only Custer who’d stayed—the sister Maylene and youngest son Caleb had never flown the coop either. Once Ma took to her bed and it was clear she wasn’t coming out of it, Maylene became the de facto marm of the house. Serving up slop of beef-stew or chicken broth bi-nightly, hanging up her father and brothers’ faded long johns on the washing line week-in week-out—Maylene had her own, unacknowledged, claim of ownership. If she harboured designs she herself didn’t speak up on it, but nonetheless the possibility hung in the air like a poison, and caused both Billy Bob and Joey to regard her with distrust as well as the custom derision. Mornings were tense on the Custer farm after Pa passed and the evenings that followed, when all members of the clan were tired out from working, bore no rest or reprieve either.

Caleb was simple, everybody said it, and the youngest in any case. He had no claim. Like the wizened livestock and half-barren crop lots, he went with the prize. Whoever inherited the farm would inherit him too. He was stubborn as well as simple, like a mule, but like a mule too, he could be put to work. Maylene had the best way with him, seeming to bark just the right commands to get him to stand up straight and do his fair share to keep the property running. Could she sabotage him if things didn’t go her way?

Pa died in the shithouse with his britches around his ankles and Caleb’s shrieking woke the whole house up in the dead of night. Joey jumped out of his cot and pulled on his jeans, running down to the porch bare-chested and hairy in the moonlight. He met Maylene at the door, her face as white as salt and her eyes round and chaotic like two deep swirling drains in a rain-storm.

“What in Damn Hell…” he whispered and Maylene, not much given to idle speaking, offered no reply.

Outside the old dairy cow and the horses were giving it hell the same as—no different than—Caleb and the few chickens in the coop were squawking and hollering like things up from the abyss. Caleb was standing in the dust facing the outhouse, nose no doubt streaming, shrieking like a loosed hog caught in a barbed wire fence. Before him, the shithouse door was open and Pa sat keeled forward on his throne, the face already fat and purple with his demise and the stink of shit emanating up from the pit below.

“I’ll send for Billy Bob,” Maylene said and turned to walk back inside to make for the telephone, clutching her night-shawl around her bony spinster’s frame. Joey stood semi-naked on the sand, mouth curled downwards in a snarl as he considered what his daddy had become. He didn’t say nothing.

Billy Bob arrived from town early the next morning. “I would have come earlier but I had company,” he said, raising a gloating smile and a slanted eyebrow in Joey’s direction, who both men knew hadn’t stuck his root in fertile ground going on close to a decade now.

“In any case I didn’t want to see him like that,” he said. “The old man deserved better.”

What the old man did or did not deserve was a moot point at this juncture. Hitherto the questions would circle around what the remaining Custers did or did not deserve.

Billy Bob, eager to break first dirt, hocked up a loogie, spat it in the dust and then said: “I suppose I’d best be moving back in then.”

Joey cleared his throat but didn’t spit. “Do what you want,” he said, “s’all you ever done anyway.”

“Always done what I had to, brother,” Billy Bob replied, “Always done what I had to. But I’m home now. We’ll take what comes next as family.”

There was a native who came around with his wife and brood in a horse and cart from time to time. Pa Custer would meet him at the threshold of the farm, hands on hips and crotchety old lap thrust forward in the arrogance of ownership over the small desert barony behind him, the porous red-rock outcroppings on either side of the track like castle turrets looming above them. Stone-faced, both men would haggle and trade—milk and eggs and meat jerky for the native, tools and linens and whatever other knickknacks came bearing for Pa. It was agreed amongst the Custers that they would ask the native to speak a few prayers over Pa’s grave the next time he came around, to guide the old man off into whatever lay waiting. They all agreed that the town preacher was not to be trusted and in any case would expect cash payment for the trouble. Outside of those two there weren’t any other options.

They buried him up on a hill in the north west corner of the farm. A four-foot trench of sand and scrub and a make-shift cross of sun-bleached wood like old bone to mark it. Ma was too lame to make it out and regardless couldn’t, or wouldn’t, understand them when they assured her that Pa had passed on. The three siblings stood in silence as Caleb shovelled the heap of dirt back into the hole and over the corpse at the bottom of it. When the ditch was filled and Caleb stabbed the shovel into the clay and leaned over it panting, Billy Bob stepped up behind the cross.

“Pa was a man who didn’t ask for more than what was given to him,” he said.

Joey and Maylene bore the cold faces they had while Caleb filled the hole. Neither gave sign of agreement.

“But he would have wanted us to go on,” Billy Bob said. “He built this farm up out of nothing just like he—and Ma too mind—built us up into what we are today. He’s dead now and that’s all there is to it.”

Billy Bob rubbed his hands together and then spat in the dirt. Maylene turned to walk back to the house. The others followed.

That evening they gathered around Ma’s bed. Her nose was like a vulture’s beak except of human flesh and her eyes were beady and mad behind the thick-framed oversized glasses perched on her muzzle.

“What’s this! What’s this!” She sat forward in bed with some difficulty, arms clutching for support on the sides of the mattress.

“Ma, it’s time we all sat down and talked,” Joey said. “Pa’s dead and we need to decide who gets the farm.”

“Bastards,” Ma hissed, “ungrateful wretches, clawing up from perdition. I should have drowned you all in the milk pail.”

“Pa’s dead,” Billy Bob said, “do you understand that Ma?”

“He’s no good,” Ma said, “good for nuthin, not worth the weight of shit he leaves behind him.”

“Yeah, but he’s passed Ma,” Joey said, “He’s dead and buried at the north west corner. We need to know who has the claim on the farm.”

Ma blinked twice, taking her time for each, the movement magnified by her big milk-bottle glasses. “You don’t do him right,” she said, “you wretches, is it any wonder he can’t crack a smile when he comes in at night. He’s not the man I married. He was a fool then and he’s a fool now. He’ll always be a fool—but you ingrates are worse!”

Billy Bob fixed his thumbs in his belt buckle and lifted his chin like a male peacock unfurling its vanity, the sizeable gut spilling down over his waist. It could have been Pa himself in his younger years standing at the foot of the bed. Ma blinked once more and scrutinized him incomprehensibly.

“I’m the oldest and by rights the farm is mine,” Billy Bob said, “ain’t that right Ma?”

She didn’t deign to speak and afraid that she might, Joey piped up—his voice straining with the injustices perceived.

“No it ain’t right Billy Bob,” he said, “no it ain’t right at all, you been off doing God knows what and God knows where. Three or four years there we didn’t hear from you at all. And since you been back to town you ain’t come out to the farm but rarely and never once to put in some work.”

Billy Bob raised his head only higher. With eyes like slits he looked down on the others and smiling, shook his head gently.

“Tell him Ma, would you please?” Joey implored.

“Those damn chickens out there are more my children than you are,” Ma said. “You deserve less than living in the cage what does for them hateful critters.”

“It’s no use,” Maylene said, “Ma ain’t gonna speak on it either way.”

“Well as the oldest then you should decide,” Joey said, playing his last desperate gambit. “You been like the Ma to us since she went sickly. Tell him it should be mine. You seen how much work I done over the years.”

Billy Bob snorted. “That ain’t how it works, boy,” he said, “First son gets first claim. It’s just how it’s done.”

Maylene neither agreed nor disagreed, simply made to leave the room. As they had at Pa’s graveside the others followed after her coattails. As they left, Ma jerked forward in her bed.

“A will!” she shrieked, “he has a will and testament! Oh yes he does, it’s all been settled long before you all got your greedy paws grubbing together for it.”

Joey paused in the doorway and turned back to the hag. “Where is it Ma?” he said.

But Ma only laughed, a dry rasping rattle like a death-snake crossing the sand. “Why, it’s in his back pocket,” she said, “that’s where he always keeps it.”

Later that evening they drank black coffee around the table. Even Caleb looked sober and solemn, though surely this was only in imitation of his older, wiser siblings.

“It can’t be,” Billy Bob said, “the old woman’s mad, she has been for years. We all know it.”

“That’s your mother you’re speaking of, ingrate,” Joey said, “You should mind your manners. Ma’s right about you.”

Billy Bob snorted. “Right about you, you mean. You’re the ingrate. All you care about is getting your hands on this property—on what’s rightfully mine! I’m the one who said words at Pa’s grave, for Christ sake!”

“You don’t care,” Joey said, “I can tell it just by looking at you.”

“A real man don’t show what he’s feeling Joey. You couldn’t tell it either way.”

“You ain’t no real man.”

“Cut it out,” Maylene said, “could be Ma’s talking foolish, could be Pa really did have the will and testament on his person when he croaked it. Could be he kept it on him at all times—to make sure it didn’t get tampered with.”

Neither brother met her eye. Maylene leaned forward. “All I’m saying is it’s worth looking into. If we don’t find it on his person then we can reassess the line of questioning from there.”

“I’m with Maylene,” Joey said, “because I know what’s in it. Pa wanted me to have the farm. I’m the son who stuck by him all these years.”

Billy Bob knew he’d been out-numbered. He could only hope Ma really had been talking crazy, stoking the flames for her own amusement as she was wont to do in times of heightened bedlam. “Well alright then,” he said at last, “I’ll indulge this little nonsense, but later on you’re all gonna have to indulge me. Caleb, go on and get the shovel.”

It was dark by the time Caleb had dug up the grave again. Maylene, Joey and Billy Bob the oldest son stood in silence as the simpleton heaved and panted in the trench, the swish-swash of loose clay flying over his shoulder as the shovel dug in and out of the grave-dirt. Finally he hit flesh and the gaseous stink of old sun-roasted carrion came up to meet them.

“That’s it now Caleb,” Maylene said, “you just finish divesting our old Pa and then come on up out of there.”

“Yes, Ma,” Caleb said.

“I ain’t your Ma Caleb.”

Billy Bob spat in the dirt. Joey shifted idly from leg to leg. Caleb got down on his hands and knees and started dusting off the remaining soil from his father’s corpse.

“That’s right Pa,” he whispered. “That’s right. Good as new, Caleb’s got you lookin good as new.”

“That’s enough now Caleb,” Billy Bob hollered, “quit your interfering and come on out of there.”

As Caleb hoisted himself out of the hole, the other Custers closed in around the old man’s grave. Whatever way the world appeared to Caleb, Pa Custer was looking far from good as new. The skin was dry and leathery like old vellum parchment and the posture impossibly bent and twisted scoliotic at the bottom of the trench. Down there at the bottom of that freshly dug up grave he appeared like some newly uncovered ancient Egyptian curse, the swollen eyelids and shrivelled up scar of a mouth promising terrible portents to whoever fished its warden up from the sands.

“Right then,” Billy Bob said, “I’ll give him the once over.” He stepped forward but was halted by the fighting grip of his younger brother’s hand.

“The hell you will,” Joey said, “I don’t trust you brother.”

They held each other’s eye under the desert moon until Maylene broke the silence.

“I’ll do it,” she said, “I don’t trust either of you. And hell I probably changed his britches when he was in states that was nearly just as bad. Smelled just as bad too I’d warrant.”

This was acceptable to the brothers and they stood in silence as Maylene hitched up her skirts and clambered down into the hole. Panting in the darkness with breath that was all mouth and no nose, she twisted her father’s hips to search through his pockets.

“Well?” Joey said.

“Yep, there’s something here alright. Piece of paper in his back pocket.”

“Well pass it on out then,” Billy Bob said, “Let’s see what it says.”

Maylene stood up shakily over her father’s bones and wiped the sweat from her forehead, leaving a streak of scarlet grave-dirt across her brow. Billy Bob stood above the grave maw, hunkering down slightly as she passed him the paper.

He unfolded the old document and squinted as he strained to read it in the moonlight. A cruel smile spread across his lips. “Well,” he said, “I guess that’s the matter settled then.”

Joey had a look like lightning in his eyes. “Say what?” he growled, “Gimme that damn thing.”

“Take it brother. Read it and weep.”

Joey snatched the paper from his brother’s hands and studied the words that were written there in Pa’s spidery old scrawl.

This is the last will and testament of Old Pa Custer,

I hereby bequeath my property and all livestock contained therein to my eldest son Billy Bob. Billy Bob is no good and run off as soon as he could leaving troubles for the rest of the family, but that is the done thing. The Oldest Son gets the property and all that’s contained within. That’s just the law of the land.

Signed: Pa Custer

“Well then,” Billy Bob said, “I guess that’s all settled up then. Looks like there’s a new Pa in town. And he goes by the name of Billy Bob.”

Joey could not meet his eye. Mayhap he was afraid that any acknowledgment at all would cement the terrible truth that had come up out of Pa’s grave, killing all his hopes and dreams and dragging them back down again with it into the tomb. “But that just ain’t fair,” he said.

Digging her thin fingers against the loose soil of the graveside, Maylene began working her way up like some scorned bride’s vengeful spirit, climbing impossibly back from beyond.

“Do you need some help Maylene?” Caleb asked her.

Maylene ignored him and, indeed, she did not for she was stronger than her spindly frame might suggest. Soon she was back in the land of the living with the other remaining members of the Custer clan. She stood up, dusting herself down, and then looked Joey over.

“Don’t you be making a song and dance out of this now Joseph Custer,” she said, “Pa had the last word and we dug him up to find it. What’s done is done and that’s all there is to it.”

“That’s all there is brother,” Billy Bob solemnly agreed.

“All there is ain’t worth shit,” Joey muttered but by now he was already resigned. He looked to the youngest brother, mawkishly standing on the other side of his father’s cross, likely not with a clue in the world as to what all this fuss had been about to begin with.

“Caleb, you fill in that damn grave again you great big ignoramus,” Joey ordered, “we shown our Pa enough disrespect this night as it is.”

Caleb did as he’d been told and the other Custers began making their way back to the farmhouse.

“Well there’s gonna be some changes around here,” Billy Bob said, “and we all got a lot to think about, but we can save that for the morning. These few days have been hell on us all and we ought to get some rest now that it’s settled.”

Without any further word from any of them, they made their way back inside and off to their own separate sleeping quarters. Life would go on at the Custer farm for those who remained and, if Billy Bob ever got around to sowing his seed one of these days, likely it would go on for some years to come. That was all there was to it. And complaining about it wasn’t going to do much good for anybody.

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