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Junk Shed

First Place • 2020 Fiction Contest
Illustration by Laura Ovberg
Illustration by Laura Ovberg

My father eats braunschweiger sandwiches, thick ones he squeezes tight to hold together. He holds them with the hand that’s missing a finger. Bread fills in the empty space. It bulges out like a roll of fat. His good hand is taking a nap. It’s a boulder that doesn’t move beside his plate.

Only cousins ever ask about that finger. He makes them guess. Bobcat? Wolf? Vampire Bat? Then he says my name and laughs. She eats everything. Nobody ever calls him a liar.

Mom comes to the table with a cup of coffee and smooths lotion into her arms, swooping it over her shoulders and up her long neck. She’s June pink from the garden but will be nut brown by July. “Best change out of those school clothes,” she says. A warm patch of happiness swells in my belly. I push it to my toes and swing my feet beneath the table. My dress is for everyday now, I remind her, because this day was a half-day and the last day of school. 

“Got work to do,” he says. “Don’t nobody want to be seeing your underpants.” I don’t have to look at him to know how his tongue is working through a clay-colored mess. 

“Junk shed,” Mom says, hands tangling like two squirming kittens. “Spreader’s waiting. Couple of scour calves in it.” She lifts her cup. There’s a creamy clot of lotion between the wing bones of her throat. Jergen’s. Folger’s. Silver Spring Horseradish. The kitchen is churning with smells. Zippo. Pall Mall.

“Get a move on,” he says, scraping back his chair. “Don’t got all day.” 

I take my own sweet time and drink slowly, never lifting my eyes from the milk in my glass until the screen door slams behind him. I wipe my mouth and look. The smoke he left behind curdles in the noonday sun.

That finger was bitten by a barn door. Long before I was born. It got the gangrene and then it was gone. Mom told me. I never ask him a thing. Not if I can help it.

“Junk shed,” Mom says, rapping the table to get my attention. She swallows the last of her coffee while standing at the sink and follows my father outside.

•  •  •

Once a year we empty the junk shed and start over. It’s nothing like a holiday, which is what the first day of summer vacation should be. It’s a little bit like clearing out a school desk, except that was easy—scuffed box of crayons, warped ruler, chewed up pencils, baby scissors—nothing I want for fifth grade. In the junk shed are things we can’t burn. Heaps of tin cans and piles of busted jars and broken bottles. After I shovel them in, the manure spreader will spit them out, into a sinkhole by the barb-wire fence.

The gym shorts I brought home are musty. I pull them on anyway, under my dress, and step into last-year’s loafers. There’s a bucket on the counter for table scraps. I slap its lid tight. I’ll do my chores, I tell the creaky screen door, in the order I want.

•  •  •

Only a few sugar maples shade the hen yard. The chicken coop is dark and dusty. When the last blinking chicken flusters past, I slop table scraps out behind them. There they are. Sure enough. Maggots. The rooster gets to them first, planting his reptilian feet in a pile of brothers and sisters. I know a lot about maggots because I know a lot about flies.

I like watching chickens eat. Their beaks pop down and right back up. They nibble and consider things. They discuss stuff. Chickens have good manners. I suppose it’s the rooster who trains them, but I don’t like how he does it, singling one out to blindside with trouble. Maybe her friends will take a few jittery sidesteps, but they mind their own business and keep on pecking. It would be impolite to stare. They pretend not to notice his beak at her neck. His great thorny feet digging into her back. Her breast pressed into the ground. They won’t look up until he hops off, shaking his tail feathers like guess I showed her. Then they watch only him. Strutting his stuff, puffing up, and wobbling his ugly red wattle. I have a rock in the nest of my lap. If that rooster is of a mind to teach someone, anyone, something or anything today, I’ll knock him senseless.

The hen house is at the hem of the hilltop we live on. Below it a steep road and chilly creek run like two skinny legs down to the bottomlands. Pigeon Lane tip-toes slow and shady past an outcropping of rock faces guarding our woods, before breaking out in a straight sunny sprint to the mailbox. I won’t go any further than that all summer: standing on a gummy lip of blacktop at the end of our dusty road, prying open a zinc mailbox. None of the letters will be for me. I know this. What I don’t know is who I’ll be when the school bus carries me away from there again. The giddiness of summer isn’t three months without school, it’s the excitement of the surprise you might be to yourself when you return.

A barn door rumbles behind me. I jump up. Stepping from that dark mouth is my father. Swinging my bucket to prove I’m doing something, even if it isn’t the something I’m supposed to be doing, I head back up toward the house, and the junk shed standing beside it.

He doesn’t notice. There’s a heifer tied up in the barnyard, haltered to a fence beside the milk house. He checks to see that the knots are tight before moseying on down to her other end. Then he stands there. Holding her tail. Doing nothing. Only taking a good long look. Me too, standing in the shadow between our house and the junk shed, tractor, and manure spreader. 

None of my cousins have a junk shed, though most of them live on farms. It’s nothing to talk about, what families do with trash, but we do get around to every outbuilding eventually and I’ve never seen another junk shed. People who live in town must talk about it. Their garbage is somebody’s business and they owe it to everybody to have it to the street on time. 

I rinse the scrap bucket out with the garden hose and set it on the porch to dry. I think our back porch was somebody’s front porch, long ago. Three slender poles rise like spindles and blossom into lacy fans. People probably came by here once, in buggies, to sit and visit on this porch, back in olden times, before the yard fell off. Ten paces out, an iron curlicue gate opens onto nothing. Long grasses tumble through its fence, hanging like shaggy bangs over a salt lick and water tank. The other end of that fence almost connects to the junk shed but doesn’t quite reach. Instead it sags into itself and curls away, making room for crumbling steps that end in a boot-sucking river of cow shit and clay. Tractors are stronger than cars, which is why our front porch is a cobbled-on back porch, with a freezer and woodpile inside. 

I wrap a post in the crook of my arm. It’s smooth and warm. Leaning out, I threaten to drop myself, letting the belly of my arm slide until one hand snatches me up short and the other, glides into view at my side. Above me, wasps so skinny I can’t see their waists are building a nest. It looks like an empty corn cob becoming an empty sunflower. My fingers begin to give. At the very last second, I jerk myself back and grab on. I am both the hero and the happy damsel on the stage of this long narrow porch, taking a bow and kissing my own hand. A barn cat passes by but doesn’t look.

If I could rescue anyone, it would be Mom. We’d go to town. She’d have a butter-yellow kitchen with breezy curtains, fat tulips on the table, and a window so close to the neighbor lady’s house she could lean out to chat or pass her a sugary pie. Out back would be a stoop for snapping peas and a come-along laundry-line for pulling in fresh sheets and sending out damp dishtowels. Up front there’d be a wide columned porch and brisk flag, with a whistling mailman climbing its steps, a garden just for flowers, and a silver trashcan.

I wish I’d been born to live in town. That’s what I’m thinking—posed like a jewelry box ballerina, bare foot against one knee, an arm sweeping up overhead—until I remember wasps, the live wires of their legs too close to my hand. 

I learned about me by reading a piece of junk mail. Life Science Library. Limited Time Offer. Time-Life Books. A cartoon kid had a question. What does a baby do for the nine months it is inside its mother? I’d never thought of it before, the time between my birthday in June and a wedding in December the year before.

Here is a trick I know. A bucket half-full of water is also half-full of air. If I stand in the middle of our half-yard swinging my arm like a windmill, I can make the air make the water stay inside. It can go on like this forever, so long as my arm keeps up, and not a drop will splash on my head. Now I’m wondering how it will work if I swing the bucket sideways and I’m the one spinning. My ears are full of wind and blood pumping, but I catch the tail end of a whistle and my name barked out. I stop short. The water sloshes.

It’s only Mom, bringing Rodney to the tank for water. I wave so she knows I heard her and to show her I’m walking drunk, but that I know what I’m supposed to be doing and heading for the junk shed. The world is nearly steady, my ears almost empty of sound, when a great and grinding gear shifts. Something heavy is clearing its throat to make the climb up our hill. A dust plume evaporates along the bottomlands and flashes of silver wink between the trees. I whirl through the grass to find my missing shoe and head up without my foot is firmly in it. Beyond the junk shed. Past the garden. In between new carrots and nettles.

•  •  •

Frank the milkman is fat. He wears white coveralls that never get dirty and black rubber boots that shine like church shoes. The cab of his truck is two-stories-tall. He fills up its wide window. “School out already?” Frank doesn’t have any kids. Summer comes to him by surprise. He’s patting his top pockets, looking for a pen, when it’s already right there in his hand, on the clipboard he uses for measurements. 

I’m leaning against the scratchy wall of the milk house, picking lime scales from the rough boards with my fingernails, waiting for him to climb down. He’s considering a tiny pair of brown bottles, twisting them this way and that, before writing their numbers down. His hands are plump as dinner rolls and dimpled like a baby’s. The bottles clink when he plops them inside a pocket. He stuffs a couple of rubber gloves in there to keep them quiet. 

There’s a hole in the milk house behind me with a door like an upside-down mailbox. I find it with my fingers while Frank feels around for his cap. This is where the hose of his milk truck snakes in to connect to the spigot of the bulk tank. I spring the latch and wait.

Frank has to lean out of his own way to dig beneath his stomach for a side pocket. He drags out a tangled wad and sorts it. Frank has a lot of curly black hair, too much for a hair net. Shower caps, paper hats from the veterinarian, even ladies’ rain bonnets from the dime store don’t work. For a while he wore a pink bathing cap, but his head broke out in a heat rash. Frank is a very sweaty man. His round face glistens like cheese. He keeps handkerchiefs in both back pockets to mop his forehead and to sponge beneath his chins. It was his mother who suggested the wig caps. He lives with her and she has a dresser drawer full. He pulls one on now, so low that it squishes his face shut. “Ready to pull off this caper?” 

I laugh because I like him and because I’m ready. “After you,” I say, lifting the milk hose door. He gives me a snort and plucks at the top of his head so that his face falls out full fold.

Frank comes down from the milk truck backwards. Step by step his feet find one another. His hand on the hoist bar is squeaking along. He takes his time. The truck bounces on its springs. There’s a ladder up the side of the long silver tank with a submarine hatch above it. I watch it in case any milk sloshes out. 

“Go ahead, sweet-pea. I left it on for you.” 

There’s a radio in the barn, but not in our house, and I’m not allowed in the barn, or the milk house, though I’ve watched Frank through its grimy window enough times to know what he does in there and he knows what I do in here. I make myself comfortable then scoot up again to roll the dial. I don’t really much care what I’m listening to, but I change the stations a lot. It’s the sinking back into Frank’s seat that feels good, like a bubble bath, if a bubble bath could smell like aftershave. There’s only one seat in the milk truck. It’s for the driver. Where the other one should be, sits a cooler full of butter and cheese. If we take some, it comes out of the milk check.

Once he’s on the ground, Frank is sure-footed and quick. He lifts the heavy hose, threading its silver nose into the milk house, and steps inside at the side door to tug it through. He picks coverall out of his behind when he thinks I can’t see him. 

My father doesn’t want me in the milk house or barn because he doesn’t want me any place and never wanted me at all. That’s what I learned from Time-Life Books without ever reading one. Girls belong in the house. That’s his excuse. Doesn’t he know Mom’s a girl? Sometimes I wonder, she says.

Frank whistles while he works. He’s come back outside to flip on the pump of his truck. 

“Hey, Frank, a puddle of glue hardened up in my desk and it looked just like a rabbit.”

“That so?”

“I forgot to close it after my insect poster. Do you know houseflies lay 150 eggs at a time?”

“You don’t say.”

“They hatch into maggots in just one day and make a cocoon called a pupa in five.”

“Is that right?”

“A few days later, when the fly comes out, it stays the same size until it dies.”  

“Well, what do you know about that.” Frank stands a moment blotting his face before heading back inside. 

The female housefly’s lifetime supply of eggs is fertilized in a single split-second. Happens all the time. Two flies land beside one another and explode. It’s a buzzing you don’t need to hear twice to know what it means. They’re easier to swat while they’re at it, because they’re weak and dizzy. Small flies are not babies, they’re just underfed. Mothers of fat flies secreted them well.

I wrap my arms around the warm steering wheel and rock it to a song about rain. Frank’s windshield is clean as the sky without a raincloud in sight. I’m staring at the ass-end of Rodney, looking at what the cousins call his nuts. Rodney has muskmelons dropped inside him, same as we hang onions in old nylons from the rafters of our cellar. He’s bumpy there, but moist as an orange and alive. 

Rodney eats his way around the farm all summer. Under the crab apple trees. Next to the garden. Around the sinkhole out in the oat field where the tractor can’t go and in a patch of grass beneath the windmill. He has a heavy silver ring in his nose. I’ve watched him spin it, snaking his black tongue up one nostril, then twisting and hunching it like a giant leech, until his ring begins to roll like it’s moving on its own. A fat chain connects the ring in Rodney’s nose to another one just like it on his stake post. Mom must have left it down by the water tank.

Rodney’s sides are swollen heavy. He’s angling to turn around. I watch his heavy sack swing between the pointed bones of his backward knees. He flicks his ears once or twice to shoo away flies and swings his rump away so that I’m looking at the side of him. He’s lined up behind that heifer, waiting his turn in line to stick his nose under the board fence and stretch his tongue out into the garden. He stares at nothing while he waits.

I’m not afraid of Rodney, but I’m glad there’s a fence between us, that he’s boxed into the barnyard, and the only way out is a latched gate. He flares his nostrils, gathering in the smell of alfalfa too wet to rake, but Rodney’s in no hurry to reach the strawberry bed. It’s summer. He’s bored and unbothered. The whole world is green. He’s content to be where he is doing nothing. Me too. I don’t even mind that the song on the radio has no words.

Rodney snorts, swinging his anvil head above that heifer’s rear end like he means to move downhill, but his jawbone catches between the sharp sails of her hips. He stumbles, then barrels forward upon her. His thin ankles tremble to find their center. The towering bulk of his shoulders bend that heifer in half. She curtsies and shuffles. Rodney’s forelegs dangle like useless arms. One step too many, and her throat is thrust up against the rough fence, halter tightening at her lashed muzzle. Her lip is caught. Folded back from stubby teeth. Pink tongue thrashing. A lather of slobber piles up and her eyes are bulging, wrenched back to look inside her own head, but she doesn’t make a sound.

A twitching stalk slips out of Rodney—shiny as peeled horseradish, bright as rhubarb, sharp as new asparagus—rooted in the frayed cuff where his piss pounds out. It swings, searching the full-length of his belly, as his chin scoots up the ramp of the heifer’s spine. He rests his throat between her shoulders and lets his gaze sweep lazily across the garden, ignorant of his own heaving belly.

•  •  •

I’m about to blow Frank’s horn to scare Rodney off when Mom walks out of the milk house carrying a bucket full of berries. She’s talking, but I can’t hear her over the pump motor and low-groaning gurgle that means the bulk tank is almost empty. Frank steps out behind her. They don’t look at me, sitting up here in the truck, and they don’t look at Rodney, dropping from that heifer and snorting snot onto the ground. And I don’t look at them, but I see them, in the tall side-mirror of Frank’s truck. 

Frank flips off the pump switch and leans against his silver bullet tank. Mom chatters on about pies. He should be dragging out the milk transfer hose, but she is crinkling her eyes against the sun and tilting her head, exposing her long soft neck. She tucks a curl behind her ear and lingers at its lobe, twisting it like a mama cat’s nipple when a blind new kitten doesn’t latch on. Frank tugs off the wig cap and stuffs it in his pocket. The moment his hand comes back she snatches it. He clutches his clipboard tight to his chest. A sting so slight I barely see it pricks my mother’s face. She swings the handle of her ice-cream bucket onto his fleshy palm and closes his fingers upon it.

“The plumpest ones,” she says, leaning in like it’s a secret, “are the sweetest.”  

Frank looks past her, embarrassed or dizzy, and my mother laughs. A waspish tightness darkens the sound. She reaches below Frank’s belly, where the bucket wobbles against his thigh, and peels its lid back with a slow ripping sound. She fishes out a strawberry and hikes herself up on tiptoe to bring it to his mouth. Frank’s lips go rubbery and wobble with his chins. He’s staring over her shoulder at the milk house when he bites the berry between her fingers. His face is the color of quicklime. A dribble of juice stains the front of his coveralls. I can’t look.

“You tell your mother,” I hear her say, “the trick to growing strawberries like that is to thin out the bed so isn’t overcrowded, you hear?” Gravel crunches. Mom’s walking off like she told somebody, and the milk hose clatters its tin doorway. Hand over hand Frank is reeling it in.

•  •  •

Stiff calves pile up like cordwood all winter. They limber up in springtime, thawing in prettily coated heaps. There are two dead calves in the manure spreader. Propped beside them is a sad shovel. These calves died in June and never hardened at all. Their graceful little legs fold delicately, this way and that, and their ears are soft and sweet. They have long pretty eyelashes and glacier-blue eyes. Their hips jut out, but in the middle they’re flat as a hide, with fur that is curly in places, the way it gets when mothers lick them. Their own pink tongues loll between milk teeth. Nobody notices these teeth when they’re alive. Cows, even baby ones, don’t smile. 

I bury them in junk. Tin cans. Glass jars. Plastic bottles. A whole year’s worth. The first half goes quick and I lean like a winded farmer should on the handle of a wide-bottomed shovel. It makes me sad to think how this shovel is for corn and oats, things that some things never taste, but calves die all the time. Maybe their mothers drop them too soon. Maybe they strangle on the way out. Maybe they freeze to death before reaching the barn. Maybe they drown in a creek or get eaten by bobcats or wolves. Maybe. But usually, they just get the scours and shit themselves to death. It doesn’t matter. Their mothers won’t know. They’ll keep on making milk no matter who needs it.

No telling what this junk shed was, when it was new, long ago. It’s two-stories tall but has only one floor. There used to be a half-floor like a porch that had moved inside. Its leg poles weren’t pretty, just regular barn posts, with cobwebs. My father knocked it down because it was wobbly and served no purpose. One of the aunts thought this might have been a summer kitchen, where women took the heat when they couldn’t stand it in the kitchen. But Mom said, where’s the chimney then? and nobody could answer. It’s not a root cellar, they said, its windows would make the potatoes go bad. That made no sense to me. Ours go bad all the time in a cellar without any windows. Potatoes will let their eyes grow no matter where you put them. The uncles ruled out a buggy shed, because the door is just a door. But it had to be for something, set next to the house like this, and up against an old road like that. Maybe it was just a junk shed. Maybe back in the olden days even country folks had somebody else to come pick up their trash.

•  •  •

The barn door slides open. I hear it rumble as I close the latch. My parents are done with milking chores and I am done with mine. Just in time. She’ll come down to start dinner and he’ll climb onto this tractor, to spit our junk out, close to the sinkhole as he can get it. Then we’ll sit again at the table and feel the light of day lift from us.

When it’s dark, I’ll burn the paper trash. Cereal and macaroni boxes. Empty flour and sugar sacks. Calf powder bags brought down from the barn. And junk mail. All layered beneath a maple tree and soaked with gasoline. I’ll light a kitchen match.

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Jacquelyn Thomas is the first-place winner of the 2020 Wisconsin People & Ideas Fiction Contest. She recently returned to the Driftless Area, after living more than thirty years in a Madison housing project where she served as director of an on-site community learning center.

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