Jack and Mrs. Jones stood in the foyer of the Big House. Her half-blind, soupy eyes blinked, focused, and looked him over. He felt them range from his worn tennis shoes up his thin legs and thread-bare jeans and across his grey cotton t‑shirt. Her lips were pulled together in what, if she had been a much younger woman, would have been a pout. Pretty, even, Jack thought. “This won’t do,” she said, shaking her head. “We’ll get you to Huntington soon. Get you something proper to be seen in.” Her hands fluttered over him, measuring him with the quick efficiency of a mother or a tailor. “I think something of Danny’s should fit you.” She grunted when she turned and walked away.
Jack had been given the job on his fourteenth birthday as a gift from his father and from the Jones family. His father, the estate’s care-taker, had asked Mrs. Jones if she could find any work for his son. Jack’s father told him that he’d had to beg the old woman to even consider him for any work at all.
She was a tyrant, his father had said. His father liked to use words like that to show he wasn’t as ignorant as he seemed to think Jack thought him. She’d ground up men all around her, he’d said. Her husbands (there’d been three), her son (she’d never had a daughter), and the men who worked for her in the mines. Oh, she ground those up, his father had said. Ground them up for the mortar that held that Big House together, he’d said. His father had been drunk or else he wouldn’t have spoken quite so openly with him. “It will be good for you to work for the woman,” he had said. “It’s an excellent opportunity,” he’d said, a little drunkenly, accentuating the “x” and the “t” of those strange long words.
Mrs. Jones had cousins and nieces and nephews, but they were all gone. Off to school. Off to the east, out of the hills somewhere that the coal money took them. Mrs. Jones was still there like a scarecrow in a cornfield long after the harvest. “Make you a man,” his father had said. “Even if it is woman’s work.” Sometimes his father said things by not saying them to show Jack that he wasn’t as ignorant as Jack seemed to hope. In the foyer, Jack wiped at the sweat that had formed on his freshly shaven lip
“Don’t just stand there. You’re here to help me—so help me,” Mrs. Jones said.
Jack hurried to her as she tottered to the grand staircase in the middle of the foyer. He hunched to the old woman and offered his arm. She took it with thin, hard fingers, her nails on the outside of his bicep biting into the muscle. He felt the cold of her gold watch lying against the softer inner part. That’s real gold, Jack thought.
He’d lived on the Jones’ estate his entire life but he’d never been inside the main house. His father even was always kept at a distance, the discussions of the gardens or the fences were always done on the porch or in one of the barns. The barns used to hold horses but had been converted to holding bull studs. What the Jones family had once owned in coal they now owned in meat.
It was a monstrously large home, easily ten times the size of the caretaker’s cottage that he and his father lived in. The only other deep wealth that he’d ever seen had been on television, in flickering two-dimensional images. What was here, now, was different. It had the feel of a museum, of objects that he could look at but never touch. But here he was, guiding the old birdlike woman up the staircase. Marble, Jack saw, covered with a blue Persian rug that poured down the center of the stairs like a waterfall. The rug was soft and a little worn with the hardness of the stone beneath it.
At the top of the stairs she led him down a dark hallway. What had once been a large and open hallway was now closed and narrowed. Boxes were stacked three-deep on both sides of the hall and rose from floor to ceiling. Large black letters were written on the boxes, non-sensical to Jack: “DWC” cried one, “AAC,” lamented another. As they moved into the hallway, she hurried her steps and released his arm. He could no longer walk beside her but moved behind her and put his hands on her thin waist like one would a child on a bicycle. The two were soon in near dark but Mrs. Jones continued forward with seemingly no worry. The spiced smell of old cardboard filled him as the darkness came in. He felt the need to sneeze but for some reason felt that this would be a cardinal sin to her and he fought it off. She stopped and turned left. There was the click of a lock and the cry of brass workings. He heard her moan and felt her body lean forward into what must have been a door.
“Switch with me and push,” she said. “Something must have fallen.” She moved back towards him and gave him no room. He crushed himself into the dark boxes and felt the insides of one move, something dragging and grinding against something else. Something popped in the box and he felt bony fingers on his stomach. She pinched him hard on his stomach. He could hear her hissing in the dark. “Those are Danny’s wedding dishes in there, boy. If one’s broken…” she let it hang in the dark like a noose.
“It didn’t break,” he said. It was the first words since he’d introduced himself.
“You’d better hope.”
Jack slid past her and up to the door. He leaned into it, pushing with his legs, his tennis shoes slipping on the hardwood. He leaned harder, his body a lever, and the door slowly opened inwards. The boxes hissed as they slid on the floor in front of them. Bright light shined through the crack in the door.
“Far enough,” she said. “Crawl in there and move them. Stack them neat when you do.”
Jack scraped his way between the door and the facing into the room. The windows in it were dusty but large and overlooked the south lawn of the home. Light came through, softened by the dust but bright. Around the room were more boxes, how deep he wasn’t sure, but again stacked to the ten-foot ceiling. The legs of a bed, the four posts as well, could be picked out on one side. Three doors were exposed opposite of the bed. Everything that wasn’t door or window was locked away behind the boxes.
The boxes blocking the door had tipped into the floor like a child’s blocks. One had ruptured and had spilled a box of silver watches, silver tie-clips, and pearl cuff-links. They had scattered on the floor like dice. Jack knelt and put them into the small tin box they had come from. He remembered Mrs. Jones’ gold watch. The boxes rose around him. He looked at the cufflinks, how they seemed to glow in on the dusty hardwood floor, he remembered pitching pennies, the closest to the wall got to claim them, and how Mrs. Jones knew nothing of this box, of these links. He did not need them. He took them and placed them into his jean pocket. He placed the watches and the tie clips into the tin box and back into the large cardboard box that contained it. He moved easily and quickly in this. Then, just as quickly and just as easily, he stacked the boxes as he’d been told.
Afterwards, when a path had been cleared and Mrs. Jones could enter the room, the two of them spent the day going through Danny’s old clothes. She would pull a pile of clothes out of the closet (it was behind one of the doors and was bigger than Jack’s room in his home), and make him go through each piece. He had been shocked at first by what she expected.
He had gathered a shirt, a blazer, and a pair of slacks from the floor (she had picked out the set so that they would match—Jack wouldn’t know how, she had said) and told him to try them on. He’d picked them up and started towards the closet to change but she had stopped him.
“No,” she said. “Here, in front of me. It’s quicker”
Jack gripped the clothes in his hand, bunching the shirt in his knuckles “I’m not sure…” he said. He looked out the window, the dust that covered it, and then to the door. He felt the cuff-links in his pocket. The boxes stretched up and seemed to reach over him.
“Just change, boy. I’m too old to care about that. Your kind don’t care what a woman sees” She gave him a knowing look.
Jack slowly pulled his t‑shirt over his head. He became aware of the smell of it, like wood and cigarette smoke. The smell was on everything he owned, but it was so present that it had disappeared. Here though, the strangeness of the smell and the way it covered all that he had was plain. Soft light fell across him from the dusty windows. He undid his belt, getting the length of it stuck, fighting it. It then stuck in a loop. He had twisted it putting it on and had not known it. He felt a rising in his stomach and a bubbling in his chest, and felt the backs of his eyes go soft. His face reddened. He looked sharply at Mrs. Jones, his face trying to screw itself into an embarrassed apology. Mrs. Jones was looking at the boxes. Jack pushed down his pants, his pale and thinly-haired legs looking cold. Mrs. Jones still looked at the boxes. She seemed to be counting them.
Without her eyes on him, Jack quickly dressed himself in Mrs. Jones’ dead son’s clothing. She ‘tsked’ when she saw how the white sleeves weren’t quite long enough. The black pants were tight around his middle. She walked to him and, hooking her hard fingers into the front pockets, yanked them lower on his hips. She looked into his face with anger. She gave him another set. Again, embarrassed, he changed. Again, her eyes were not on him.
Finally, after hours of changing, Jack had a gift of neatly folded clothing. He was told to wear these when he came to work. He also had the cuff-links for which he had no use.
“No, goddamnit, the blue umbrellas. Easter’s past. It’s the fourth of July next. I swear, it’s like you have no sense. None at all. It’s a wonder your father hasn’t run you off.” Mrs. Jones threw the yellow umbrella he had handed her at him. Jack was able to block it, but the sharp metal tip ripped through the thin cotton of his long-sleeved dress shirt and cut his forearm.
“Go clean yourself. Don’t bleed on anything,” she said .
The parties were planned to the smallest detail. Everything had a purpose. Jack’s father, though the Fourth was still a month away, had spent weeks planting red, white, and blue petunias all around the property. Patriotic bunting was hung around all the porches and from the eaves. Jack worked with Mrs. Jones. The upstairs portion of the house was sealed off. Jack, under Mrs. Jones’ watchful eyes, had draped thick velvet curtains at the top of the grand staircase. Upon entering the front door, the upstairs landing looked as if it were an emptied theater, the curtains waiting to be pulled back and for the show to begin. There was a golden rope that would tie the curtains closed the night of the party.
Jack left the abandoned servant’s room and walked down the dark hall. His footfalls were silent on the thick red carpet, the sound dying there at his toes. The bathrooms were scattered throughout the home and whatever wing on the second floor they happened to be on Jack would have the right door. He fumbled in the darkness trying one door and then the next. Most rooms were filled with the boxes. So many things, Jack often thought, locked up.
After he had found a room to clean himself in, disposing of the waste paper by placing it in his pocket, he returned to her. She was asleep.
Often, when left alone in a room, Mrs. Jones would lie down on the bed of the room they were in—if there was a bed, if not there was certainly a couch that she could recline in—and she would fall asleep. The first time it had happened, he had woken her as gently as he could, but it had only made her incensed. She had smacked him, screaming that she did not sleep well, not at night, never must she be woken. He had never woken her since. When this happened she would sleep for hours. He would leave her there and search the house as he pleased. He would look through the boxes that filled the house and would take things, small but precious things, from her. He would walk with them to town, pawn them, and then go shopping. He was amazed at how much some very small things were worth and how little some of the larger ones would bring. Mrs. Jones would keep a ring worth two hundred dollars next to a piece of costume jewelry, both of them wrapped in the same black velvet cloth and tucked away into the corner of a large box of silverware and china.
Sometimes these sleeps would last all day. If she slept for longer than an hour, Jack would walk the grounds near the home. The lawn and the fence rows were all beautifully kept by Jack’s father. The barns, too, were kept in a pristine sparseness, as if the house inhaled the clutter from the estate. She kept all the meat cattle off-site, in a large flat-land farm farther north. The Big House farm was now only a stud farm. She had men scour the country looking for the next great bull. She only kept a few bulls at a time, never more than five. This summer she was down to one. The summer before she had auctioned off all the rest. The one she kept had not sold at her auction. Her reserve price had been set ridiculously high, 5,000 dollars, for the Longhorn.
Jack left the house after waiting an hour for her to wake. He stood on the back porch and looked out over the farm, noting the blue, red and white petunias his father had planted all along the house. There were more of them in hanging baskets on the corners of the porch. From the porch Jack saw the side of the black barn, painted in the spring by his father and some hired men. There was a neat gravel road that ran to its front. The door to it was open. Jack wondered how much an antique dealer would give for hundred year old farm tools.
He walked from the porch and towards the barn. The sun was high. The honeyed smell of the petunias and the song of the cicadas lulled him. He walked carefully into the barn. He pulled the heavy wooden door to. The sounds of the life outside were cloaked by the oak boards, the scent of the planted flowers disappeared into the smell of animal sweat, dung and the sweet acid of hay. The darkness, after the bright of noon June, blotted his eyes. He listened to the barn. He heard a fan ticking in the breeze that ran through the barn. He heard the creak of the boards. The grunt of the bull.
Slowly, his eyes returned to him. He could see the shapes of hanging leather straps. The long wooden handle and slick metal of a scythe. He went to it and picked it up. He swung it in the dark, feeling its length, the awkward motion of back it forced on him, and he heard the whistle of the blade. “This is how men used to work,” he said to himself.
That morning he had plucked two earrings from a jewelry box. They were small pink pearls. He had rolled them in his hands, the small silver clasps on their backs stopped them from rolling. Impulsively, he pulled them from his pocket and locked them onto his ear lobe, smiling slightly at the small pinch. He laid the scythe back in its place. The bull grunted again. In the cavern of the barn the sound echoed around him. Its hooves sounded soft, like a man’s foot stumping out a cigarette. He looked as closely as the dim light would allow and saw nothing worth taking. Again, the bull grunted.
He groped in the near dark towards the birth of the sound. There in a stall stood the bull, enormous and black. It had been born on the farm and Mrs. Jones had bred it numerous times. It shook its horns at Jack, pawing softly at the ground. It moved towards him and brought its face close to him. It chewed its cud, its mouth moving in a lazy circular motion. Jack looked into its watery eyes.
Behind him, the door to the barn started to open. He heard his father’s voice loudly addressing another man.
“Well, some damn fool of yours sure as hell shut this door. You’re like to cook that monster alive. Then we’d all have hell to pay.”
The other man tried to answer back in a voice tinged with fear. The weakness in his voice, which Jack knew would only push his father farther, was evident to even Jack.
“Just shut your goddamned mouth and help me get this place cooled down before the old woman pisses herself.”
Without thinking, Jack jumped into the bulls stall. It was large and clean. The hay trough ran along the side and Jack brushed passed the bull. It stomped and shook its head, narrowly missing Jack. He stole behind the trough and ducked into the hay on the floor. The men came through, his father leading. His father stopped as the other man continued. The sound of an industrial fan came upon the man’s disappearance.
“How you doing, you big bastard,” his father said to it. “You all right, sunshine?” He cooed to it and held out his hand. The bull shook its head again and grunted. It took two half steps and lunged with its horns. Jack’s father stepped backwards laughing as the bull’s body rammed the gate of the pen. “Mean all the way through.” He chuckled again as he did at fools.
“All right, Hoss, let’s get on.” His father shouted. “Behind as it is. Goddamned parties.” He turned and walked from the stall. The sleek shape of the other man trailed quickly behind.
The bull raged and stamped in its pen. It thrashed its horns, scratching at the boards. Jack rose gently from the floor. The bull quieted its motion. The bellows of its chest raged under the skin and muscle of its ribs. It turned and looked at him again. It turned it head to the side as if asking him a question.
“No,” he said quietly.
It turned its head again as if moving the sound of the words from one ear to the other, rolling them like a cannonball.
Jack moved gently to its side. He could feel the air vibrating from the power of the bull’s lungs. It stepped closer to him. He could feel its wet sweet breath through his shirt. He reached out his hand and touched its horn gently. Startled, it tripped backwards.
He moved past it quickly and lifted himself over the edge of the stall. He landed softly on the other side. The bull was again gently chewing its cud, the same placid look in its eyes.
“Don’t dawdle, ye hear me? You’re like to kill me with your slowness. Like an old maid,” Mrs. Jones said. She struck him at the back of his legs with her cane. There were to be guests from the east and from the south on the Fourth. It was a mid-week Holiday and the guests would be staying all week long. The boxes that he had moved earlier he was now being forced to move again—what he had done in June no longer sufficed. Mrs. Jones would have him clear one section to another and then have him clear that section by moving boxes even deeper and higher into the house.
It was hot work. The Jones’ estate did not have air-conditioning or even ceiling fans. Jack carried a box fan into every room that he cleaned. Mrs. Jones moved quickly from room to room, taking stock of all the boxes, opening them and checking their contents and then, arbitrarily, instructing him where to take them.
Since the morning when his father had nearly discovered Jack in the barn, Jack had gone several times to visit the bull. He would sneak in before coming to the estate, during the cool mornings when the barn doors remained closed. The smell of the barn, the darkness, the hiding and secrecy, drew him. He would wear the women’s jewelry he had stolen from Mrs. Jones: pearl ear rings, thin diamond tennis bracelets, large jeweled rings. He would go and stand next to the stall of the bull. It seemed to have no interest in him. It would watch him for a while, but when he made no moves towards it, it would go back to breathing and eating. He would talk, telling it what he wanted to do, where he wanted to go: “Miami,” he would say. “It’s supposed to be beautiful. I’ve seen pictures and movies. I’d like to go there for college.” Other days he would talk of Alaska: “It would be cold, but the men are supposed to outnumber the women by four to one,” he said, grinning, surprised at his own honesty and the delectable nature of his fantasies. But these fantasies were short and he always knew that Mrs. Jones was waiting for him.
He carried the boxes silently from one room to another, sweating and grunting with the weight and the heat. His back and shoulders, which at first had bothered him of an evening after work, were now taut and sinewy, like his idea of a savage. He would stand in front of the mirror on the door of his room and flex his arms, tighten his thighs, and smile at what he was becoming. His father had caught him squeezing his bicep while they were eating dinner. He’d smiled at him then.
“Hard work is good for you, ain’t it? Get’s your head straight,” he had said. They were eating in the cramped kitchen. The smells of sour cornbread, bacon grease, and brown beans seemed to make the room hotter.
“Yeah,” Jack had said. “I didn’t think it’d be as tough as it is. She’s pretty constant on me. And those boxes each weigh a ton.”
“That’s how women are,” he said as he shoveled in a spoon of brown beans. “Your mother was the same way. Always something to do. Men are apt to do nothing when there’s nothing to do. Women will cook so they have dishes to do. That’s why you gotta choose careful when you get married.” He raised his eyebrows knowingly at this and leaned towards Jack. “Now show them muscles you been working on,” he said, grinning. Sheepishly, Jack flexed his arm. His father’s big hand clamped over it and squeezed.
“Nothin’ more than a knot, yet. It’s comin’ though. I knew you needed a woman to set you straight,” he said, and Jack’s heart had grown and lurched at once.
He was pulled from his remembering by Mrs. Jones. “We’re almost done with this one.” the old woman said, smoothing her home-made apron and work dress. She was sweating heavily, her tightly pulled hair was coming loose in wisps around her face. She too seemed to have become stronger. The springs in its frame squeaked from the sudden weight. “Turn the fan up and go fetch some ice water.”
Jack did both hurriedly, wanting to finish the rooms in this section of the house. He moved quickly and lightly. He took a shortcut down the servant’s steps to the kitchen, fetched the glasses from their spot in the third cabinet and filled the glasses with ice from the trays in the freezer and used the water from the filtered water tap. He hurried back up the servant’s steps and to the room. When he entered Mrs. Jones was asleep on the bed. She had not fallen asleep immediately. Two small boxes which had been stacked were now on the floor by the foot of the bed. Both were opened and their contents were spread on the floor.
There were necklaces made of pearls, heavy golden rings, earrings with diamonds. Softly, Jack stole towards the boxes and the treasure. He knelt before the boxes at the old woman’s feet. He set the glasses down gently beside him, one to either side, on the dusty hardwood floors. He reached with trembling fingers to the jewelry. He ran his fingers over the pearls. He fondled the earrings. He slipped all three pieces into his pockets. He picked up a watch and laid it over his thin wrist. It was a woman’s watch, light and finely engraved. It glinted in relief of the angular bones of his wrist. He snapped the clasp. The sleek feminine curves of it and its cold metal on his sweating skin made him chill. He wouldn’t sell this one. Carefully, he unclasped the wrist chain of the watch the watch. He held it between clasped hands. Without rising, he moved the watch towards his jeans’ pocket.
“I’d thought better of you, son” Mrs. Jones said quietly from above him.
Jack turned on his knees towards her, knocking the ice water over. The water spilled and flowed around him, wetting his knees. He looked up into the shining white face of Mrs. Jones.
She rose from the bed and Jack stayed kneeled in front of her. She smacked him across the face. He stayed kneeled, still looking up her.
The room was filled with the sounds of their breath: her breath a high whining whistle, the sound of train’s breaks, his breath the rattle of a near drowned man. Her body had straightened itself, her faced shone with righteousness. She smacked him again.
“Take it,” she said in a deadly whisper. “Take it and never let me see you again.”
Jack stood and ran from the room, gripping the watch. He ran down the hallways and out the back door. He could taste blood on his lips. He ran to the edge of the farm, to the hardwood forest that surrounded it. His face glowed with the heat of Mrs. Jones’ hand. He knew she would call his father. He knew he could not go home. He walked through the woods until he saw the hulking shape of the barn. The dew of the evening was beginning to settle. Mosquitoes began to bite his arms. He still held the watch tightly in his hand. He clasped it onto his wrist.
He went to the barn door and pulled it open. He stepped into the blackness and felt along the rough wall with an open hand to turn on the light. The light crackled into the dark. The bull snorted at the sudden day. The barn at night was not the same as the barn at morning. The heat of the day lingered in the hay and the muck. The smells which had dissipated in the long cool night were thick in this early darkness.
Jack picked up the scythe from its place and strode to the bull. There it was, behind the high doors of its stall. It moved slowly, looking confusedly at Jack and at the scythe. Jack swung the blade, pendulum like, over his shoes. He watched the animal’s mute face as it tried to pull itself from sleep. The sweeping curve of the bull’s horns, Jack realized, matched that of the blade he swung. He leaned it against the door of the stall. He removed Mrs. Jones’ dead son’s shirt. He put on Mrs. Jones’ earrings and pearls. He turned his wrist and felt the weight of the gold watch. He took off the dead boy’s pants and shoes, leaving on only his underwear and socks. He took the scythe in his hand again. He opened the stall door.
The bull stood at the far corner, stamping its hoof. The sound of the running fan came from far off and above them. Jack imagined slashing at the bull with the blade. He wanted to cut at its face, to blind it, to knock off its horns. He imagined the struggle of his muscle against the bull’s, how its dark skin would feel as it, blind and polled, slammed into him. How he would turn under its hooves as they fell, died, together. He could see his nakedness with its blood and hide.
He imagined instead of leading it to Mrs. Jones home, riding it across the marble foyer, up the marble steps, and running down the halls, goring the endless boxes with its horns, spilling the guts of them onto the floor like blood and water, washing the home in all those things that were locked away and forgotten. Jack watched as the bull stood passively in its box.
He dropped to his knee in front of it and laid they scythe at its feet. He took off the earrings, the pearls. He turned the gold watch on his wrist, felt its lovely weight and cool. He unclasped it as well and laid it in the straw.
He rose, nearly naked, and walked away from it, leaving open the stall door. He left the light burning and the barn door open as well as he exited. The fan drew in the cool night air. He walked from the place feeling the smooth and easy movement of the muscles of his chest, arms, and legs. The dew soaked his socks and he removed those as well, tossing them into the dark. He fought the youthful desire to run towards his father’s house, and he wondered what his father would say to him in his nakedness.
Jeff Wallace received his MA in American Literature and his MFA in Fiction from Indiana University. He is the author of numerous short stories and has been published in magazines such as The Louisville Review, Appalachian Heritage, Keyhole Magazine, Plain Spoke, and in such online journals as New Southerner, and Still:The Journal. He lives in Mt. Orab, Ohio with his wife Emily, son Oscar, and mutt Memphis. He currently teaches at Southern State Community College and is working on his first novel The True Story of the Appalachian Revolution.
Always something to do. Men are apt to do nothing when there’s nothing to do. Women will cook so they have dishes to do. That’s why you gotta choose careful when you get married.” — love this — great story -