Ajax and Caruso wandered into the kitchen, while
the percolator burbled on the stove, and Tucker Crowther brushed his snaggly gray teeth, leaning over the kitchen sink to
spit. The faint gray early morning sunlight filtered into the large room, the
heart of the house, through frosty panes of glass in the window near the table. Margo
and Lacey were both curled up on the floor, in shadow, sleeping, and oblivious to the break of day. Tucker zipped his trousers up under his protuberant pot, tucked in the tails of his plaid flannel shirt,
and tugged his suspenders over his shoulders with a quick snap. He rinsed the
dregs out of his mug from the day before, and poured a fresh cup of coffee. Tucker
always drank it black. He picked at the gray stubble on his face, with his yellowed
and cracked fingernails, examining his reflection in the toaster, and decided to forgo his shave. Tucker wasn’t planning to see anyone that day; his meeting with Bob Hensley, the town’s selectman,
was scheduled for the following day, so he decided to save the razor until then. I
really need to get cleaned up tomorrow, he thought. That’s the big day. He was snagged in a bramble of dread, as he began to worry about the meeting, the
second one in as many weeks. A sudden commotion in the hallway released Tucker
from his anxiety—and Sammy, Ulysses, and Boston came galloping into the kitchen, clearly up to some kind of mischief,
and nearly knocked Tucker off his feet. Sammy was a large Nubian goat, but Ulysses
and Boston were smaller, black and white pygmy goats. The little goats were even
more dangerous at a run, because they had such a low center of gravity, and their horns were at the perfect height to inflict
serious pain in a man’s precious credentials. They often gave very little
warning before they dropped their heads and lunged. But Tucker knew what to look
out for. He had some experience with goats.
“Slow down, boys,” Tucker said, with a chuckle, grabbing Boston by his thick black horns. The goat resisted—violently twisting his neck in a futile attempt to free himself. Finally, Tucker let go. “Lemme
finish my coffee, okay?”
Tucker surveyed the kitchen while he drank the rest of his coffee. He thought he should clear out some of the straw on the floor later that morning, and bring in some fresh
bales, at least for that room. The living room, and dining room weren’t
so bad, and more of the goats preferred the kitchen anyway, due to its relative warmth.
The fire was blazing in the wood stove in the corner of the kitchen, with nearly half a cord of wood stacked nearby,
against the wall. The thermometer mounted outside the kitchen window was pinned
to ten degrees below zero, where it had registered every morning for the past two weeks.
Worries about the goats that remained outdoors began to invade his mind. Three
hundred and fifteen goats were housed on Tucker’s property in a pen and small barn that was attached to the house—a
decrepit, two-hundred-year-old farmhouse on a ten-acre plot of land. A house
where he lived alone, ever since Nicole left him, twenty-one years and sixty-eight days ago.
Tucker yanked his old woolen coat from the hook by the front door, stuffed his thick arms into the sleeves,
and plunged into his rubber boots, still damp on the inside from the day before. He
fastened the buttons. Some were cracked.
His leather gloves were blackened and stiff with grime, and his blue stocking cap, which Nicole had knit for his Christmas
present in ‘87, was frayed and full of little burrs and bristles. He braced
himself for the cold air and the work that lay ahead. His babies were waiting,
he could hear them crying and calling out. “Hang on!” he shouted,
and the rusty hinges groaned as he finally met the frigid January air, and pulled the door shut behind him.
Tucker sat across the kitchen table from Nicole, studying her somber face as she vanished into
the morning newspaper. She’s always so serious, he thought. Serious, when life is so light. She pulled the fire of her
cigarette deeply into her lungs, and then blew the dingy gray smoke into an ominous cloud that hung above her head. She released a deep sigh. Tucker twirled his fork, then stabbed
his sausage and waved his prize in the air. “These are great!” he
exclaimed. “Fabulous sausages!” He loved to tease her, to get her
riled up so she’d pay attention to him; make jokes so she’d notice him—how funny he was, how entertaining,
how much in love.
“I have to get ready for work,” she said,
standing, and turning away from him.
“I’ll clean up, hon,
if you’re running late,” Tucker volunteered; the higher pitch of his voice betrayed a rare glimmer of worry. She tramped out of the kitchen—with the newspaper—down the hallway, and
into the bathroom. Tucker heard the quick snap of the lock and tried not to remember
that she hadn’t always locked the door. Mike, their fifteen-year-old son,
came galloping through the kitchen with his backpack swinging from his shoulder, grabbed a sausage from his plate, and bolted
out the door, saying “See-ya, Dad.”
“Bye, Mike.” Tucker waved to the empty room.
Tucker resumed carving
his sausage into tiny morsels, dipping them into the sticky sweet maple syrup that they always bought from the neighbors. He listened to the shower running in the bathroom.
He remembered the showers they used to take together, before Mike was born, rubbing each other’s glistening skin,
the soap bubbles frothing and popping into brilliant colors—red, blue, purple—in the sunlight that filtered through
the glass shower door. He loved the slippery feeling of her back, the taste of
her lips, and the way the water ran down the bridge of her nose and cascaded from her forehead in waterfalls, behind which
the light of her green eyes glowed mysteriously and longingly.
stopped and a moment later, the lock released. The bathroom door crashed open
releasing a cloud of steam into the hall. Nicole charged across the carpeted
passageway to their bedroom, leaving damp footprints behind her and all but slammed the bedroom door.
Nicole had recently started working in the business office at Conway Ford, the only car dealership
in Plainfield. Before that, she had worked for years along with Tucker at his
father’s hardware store in the center of town. When she announced one night
at dinner—between the salad and the meatloaf—that she had taken the new job, Nicole justified her decision by
explaining that she’d been offered more money and hours. It was a job that
might lead to something better. They’d be able to save more for Mike’s
college tuition. Even if he went to the state college, it was still more money
than they could easily spare. (Tucker heard later from his father that Nicole
turned down the raise he’d offered her).
Tucker was grateful that
Nicole was always thinking about money, budgets, and the future. He was happy
enough to bring his paycheck home, and let Nicole take care of making the deposits and paying the bills every month. She was organized—she knew what had to be done.
Everything she said about leaving the hardware store made sense, yet, Tucker regretted the change. He knew the dealership owner, Frank Conway, a guy he’d gone to school with. He was a sharp looking, tall, athletic. He wore starched shirts
and a suit. He never looked rumpled, even in August. He had a chiseled muscular jaw that he liked to flex when he clenched his teeth. He drove a new white Crown Victoria, with black leather seats. Tucker
wasn’t sure what he thought about him.
Tucker squirted thick green
soap into the pink plastic tub in the white porcelain sink and filled it with hot water, splashing around with his hand to
make bubbles. As he began tackling the breakfast dishes, he whistled a tune that
he’d learned from his dad years ago, then stopped, when he remembered that his chirping notes had lately irritated Nicole. He scrubbed the grease from the skillet using a rusty Brillo pad, rinsed the plates
and juice glasses, and stacked them neatly on the wire rack on the counter to dry. He
was just drying his hands on his favorite kitchen towel—the one with embroidered kittens on it—when Nicole emerged,
dressed and ready for work. Her lips were sharply focused into a bit of a frown
that mirrored the eyebrows she had just painstakingly plucked. He saw that the
skin there was even slightly red from the trauma of the tweezers. She had started
using more makeup every day, and Tucker felt queasy about the change in her appearance.
That morning, like many others, he noticed a distinct hint of rouge in her cheeks, along with eye shadow, and mascara. Her nails were painted soft pink, and gleamed.
She held her head high, which dramatized her slender and delicately arching neck.
She wore a pale blue silk blouse—that was just tight enough to reveal the pink lace trim of her bra in the gap
between the top buttons—and a navy blue skirt that fell just above her knees.
It was quite a transformation from the familiar and comfortable old cotton shirts, faded Levis, and dusty sneakers
that she had worn at Crowther’s Hardware all those years. He rubbed his
eyes, and blinked. He thought there might have been some soap in his eyes.
When Tucker flipped through the fashion magazines that she left stacked on
the back of the toilet—in his moments of privacy—he saw Nicole in the photographs.
When he watched the six o’clock news on TV, the anchor, Paula Dupree, looked just like her. They all had the same hair, clothes and makeup. It was hard
finding Nicole in so many places. It unsettled him. He longed for the time when she was content to stay at home in their old farmhouse on Rutland Road. Now, she seemed to be always out. Sometimes,
he’d try a joke, and call her the “movie-star,” on her way out the door, but she rarely smiled at his attempts
at humor. That only spurred Tucker to try harder to coax a response, and elicit
the smile he’d fallen in love with and the laugh that had soothed his soul.
they married, they’d lie in bed together, and she’d smooth his long curly black hair out of his eyes, and say,
“you’re funny, Tucker—you make me laugh.” And she’d pamper him with smiles and kisses, and hold
his hands—then they’d giggle under the covers like children while they playfully nipped and nibbled. But of course, when Nicole told him, through tears, and choked sobs, that she was pregnant, he knew what
he wanted to do. He’d wanted that all along, but Nicole had put him off—no,
we’re too young…I’m thinking of going back to school…I don’t want to end up like my parents…I’d
like to travel…There’s so much I want to do…and so on.
were married by a Justice of the Peace in a small civil ceremony and reception at the Lamonts' house, on a chilly November
afternoon, when Nicole was three months pregnant. On their wedding day, he noticed—but
did not concern himself with—the fact that Nicole’s family seemed practically grim. Their mood was infectious. His own parents—who always
enjoyed a good party—were reserved, and spoke softly, under their breath. It
wasn’t exactly how he’d imagined his wedding day—full of laughing, dancing, tender glances, and gentle touches. The event was quiet—verging on formal.
Nicole had complained that she felt especially ill earlier that day—she’d been having a rough go of it
with morning sickness. She was pale, her eyes flat. He wanted to take Nicole home, tuck her under his blanket, bring her a soft pillow, and caress her forehead
while she slept. Nevertheless, they stayed at the Lamonts’ house until
late that evening, and she fed her bit of cake to the dog.
The day that
she left him, Nicole wrote a few cryptic sentences in her tense scratchy script on the back of that month’s electric
bill and taped it to the fridge. Tucker found it when he came home from work. Mike was gone too. He ran into the bedroom,
tripped on himself and landed in a heap and out of breath on the floor by the bed. He
had bitten the inside of his lip in the fall, and tasted blood. Her closet was
open and empty. The only clothes she’d left were her old cotton blouses
and a pair of faded jeans, with patches on the back pockets and knees. Her favorite
jeans. Then something hard jarred inside him, like grinding gears, and he twisted
her clothes up in his massive thick hands and threw them violently against the mirror.
He scrambled into the bathroom, and shredded her magazines—tearing into some of them with his bloody teeth—flinging
the butchered periodicals all over the house and out the front door, into the yard.
He ran back to the living room, panting and snarling, unplugged the television, kicked it out the front door and off
the porch, where it exploded on the cement walk. He jumped into his old truck—pounded
on the horn to get the dog that was sniffing the remains of the TV to move—and drove to Conway Ford with an idea burning
in his gut.
It wasn’t long before the officer arrived and had Tucker in handcuffs, flat on his face in the parking
lot with the cop’s knee painfully pressed against his spine. Frank had
a bloody nose. By then, Tucker’s wife and son were already on an airplane
bound for Texas. “As far away as I can get…”
the time Tucker finished counting, with the frozen vapor from his lungs suspended in the air in front of his grizzled face,
there were thirty-seven dead goats in the pen. A dozen more were in shock. He struggled to move the frozen animals to a clearing behind the barn, and then fought
against the stinging cold and wind to feed the remaining goats. Their water buckets
were solid blocks of ice. He smashed them against the ground, the ice shattering
against his legs, then filled them from the nearby well, pumping hard on the rusty handle.
He was nearly out of hay and grain, and he knew that Gibson’s feed wasn’t going to extend him any more
credit, until he made a payment on his bill. Tucker had cut his own rations,
to try to save money. He was living on beans and rice. All that he had each month was his social security. He had
no other savings. No other resources. Nevertheless,
he knew he’d find a way, somehow, to take care of them all. They were his
Deborah Vatcher is a physician who practices near Boston, and the publisher of the web log GRITTYBITS.COM and you may reach her through that site.
Copyright © 2004 –
Deborah A. Vatcher, MD [ used with permission ]