Andrew Birkestrand

Andrew is an emerging writer.   He has previously published two works. “The Day Of” through Constellations: A Journal of Poetry and Fiction, and “Care Bears and Sharks” which was accepted by Due South.

When he isn’t writing he is usually making a mess. Sometimes when he is writing he makes a mess too.

He lives in the US, in a city, on a street, in a neighborhood.

Crushing Apples

“Do it again,” Toby pleaded. The toe-headed ten-year old’s green eyes glinted as he watched. His freckled cheeks twitched in expectation of the sight. His father, a squat, bull of a man in an old straw hat, white work shirt, and coveralls had performed the feat once already today, but the boy never tired of the spectacle. 

“Seems a waste of a good apple,” said his father, He held the object in question in one of his scarred and calloused mitts.

“Go on, DT, just one more time. Then Toby will be about his chores, won’t you, Toby?” said Showalter, his father’s hired hand. Under his work hat Showalter grinned through crooked teeth that hung below a drooping grey mustache. Beneath the brim of that sweat-stained hat shone a sun cracked face. He held an apple of his own.

Toby nodded solemnly.

“Sure will,” he said.

“Promise?” his father asked.

“Promise.” Toby said.

“When we’re done separating the hogs, I don’t want to come back here to find the chickens unfed, horses untended, and stalls yet to be mucked out.”

“I’ll do em all, Pa,” said Toby.

“I better not find you hiding in the kitchen listening to that shaded man show on the Philco either.”

“It’s ‘The Shadow,’ not the shaded man,” he said.

His father just looked at him.

“I promise, Pa, please, just one more time?”  Toby held out the fat red apple plucked from the small orchard behind the farmhouse.

 Toby’s father sighed and took the apple. Slowly he wrapped each thick, lined finger around the it and, with the mounting pressure and rippling muscle in his forearm and hand, began to pulp the apple between the fingers and palm of one hand. Toby watched as the red of the apple disappeared and clear juice began dripping from the fist like tears. Those tears became a steady pour as they watched. Finally the apple popped in punctuation with kssschop sound as it imploded and squelched between his father’s fingers. His father dropped the rest of the flattened mess at his feet.

Toby clapped and hopped about, then whooping a cheer he ran off to make good on his end of the bargain.

In between chores, Toby practiced with an apple of his own. It was smaller than the one his father crushed. But try as he might it stubbornly resisted every ounce of pressure. Eventually his hand tired and cramped up and he tossed the thing in to the pig pen where a sow, scooped it into her maw, and—in one juicy chomp—made it disappear. 

When Toby finished with his chores, he crept down to the edge of the property sliding on his belly into the foliage by the creek to spy on grandpa Quills. The gangly old man sat at his still made of a warped copper pot pipe and barrel contraption.  The still perched on an old stone furnace like an ancient idol and boiled in the shade of the trees. Like an old warlock, Toby’s grandfather stirred the concoction with a splintered paddle and gazed into the swirling current.  Toby had spied on him many times, watching him add coal, cordwood, grass; anything that would burn to keep the fire going and stew steaming. Eventually the liquid would steam up through the copper coil and collect in a filtered bucket. He’d watch the old man sell off a portion of the contents to one customer or another and drink the remains. 

The roar of the skid loader starting up caused Toby to shift and peer in the other direction. He saw his father steering the skid loader along the property.  Even far away his father looked solid and substantial in the driver seat. Toby turned back to the wasted form of grandpa Quills coughing sickly and almost as thin as the paddle he held.   

 That evening Toby found Showalter in the dairy barn he was bent over examining one of the heifers.

 “Is she due?” asked Toby.

“About to pop,” grunted Showalter.

Toby waited and watched.

“What’s on your mind Toby?” Showalter asked.

“Is it, true Quills is my pa’s pa?” Toby asked.

“Sure is,” Showalter said standing upright now.

“They sure don’t look anything alike.”  

 “Well, now I suppose not but old Quills shrunk some after your Grandma passed,” Showalter said.

“Shrunk?”

“Well, started skipping meals and lost weight became mean in temperament. You know, he started to growl, and snap at friends and family alike. Avoided gatherings and church; began worshipping the still instead.”

“Why do you call him Quills?”  Toby asked. Before Showalter could answer, his father answered this question. Toby jumped at the sound of his father’s voice. He must have come up unnoticed from behind during Toby and Showalter’s conversation. 

“I told you stay away from that old man when he’s at the still,” his father said.

“Why?” Toby asked, he was too fast and agile to suffer much at the hands of the old man.

 “He ain’t as quick as he used to be but that old man’s a damned porcupine on good days and a real prick on bad, so stay away.” he commanded.

On the following day in the dark fertilized air of early morning they found the old man unconscious by the creek, Toby and his father each grabbed one of the man’s spindly legs and dragged him up from the creek past his beloved still and deposited him on the sandstone cobbled pad next to the water pump and well.  Once this was done, without a word of conference Toby began swinging the red lead painted lever up and down, priming the well.  By degrees the action forced the cold water up to the surface. Once there, it shot through the five or six feet of hose. His father trained the hose on the unconscious old man’s supine form.  Toby’s arms strained with each squeaking push of the lever and his breath hissed as he worked.   Toby’s father placed a thumb over the opening of the hose creating some water pressure and sprayed the liquored fetters from Quills unconscious frame.

 Toby knew that depending on the severity of his bender, grandpa Quills would either reel and flop, monosyllabically objecting to the rude awakening or he would roar and lunge, making clumsy attempts to take the fight to his tormentor. Toby’s father ducked these assaults easily. Then Quills would splutter, and swear at the figures of his son and grandson. Toby often giggled at the silliness of the threats. “Damn you for drowning me!” “I’ll tan your damn hide. “I’ll switch you senseless.” It was to toby’s mind like a foul-mouthed field mouse chewing out a tomcat. His father smiled at these threats too, but it was a sad sort of smile. Today, Toby watched the old man lying in his own filth, and waited for him to come around, but today he didn’t get up and fight, he just twitched for a while under the cold stream. Toby began to worry he wouldn’t wake at all. Eventually though, he started to shiver and convulse. Shortly after that he vomited across the stones on which he lay and began a keening wail. It grated, sounded like gears in a machine twisting apart. Toby thought It was a sound that belonged to broken beast or monstrous infant not a man. No one giggled or smiled that morning. Toby’s father’s eyes welled up like a glass under a faucet at the sound. Toby watched close for overflow and spillage, but no flood came to those eyes. Toby wished his own were as strong.

 After reaching some state of equilibrium, Quills rose and staggered off to get some dry clothes and collapse in the house. Later on, he’d probably get a bit of food from the kitchen. Then, find his way back out to the still.

“Why don’t we just let him lay there?” asked Toby. Later that morning.

“Because he’s family and as such he’s our responsibility,” said his father.

“Why does he do it?” asked Toby.

“Every man has his weakness,” his father said.

“What’s yours?” Toby asked.

His father sighed.

“The lefsa your mother makes every Christmas and Easter and answering you’re damn fool questions.”

Toby and his father were in the hog pen before lunch.  They had to move a large hog feeder bin so that the stock could better reach it. 

“I’ll go get the skid loader,” Toby said, thinking it was the quickest method to move the steel container. His father waved him off. 

“You ain’t old enough to drive that yet.”

“Billy Johnson drives his dad’s loader.”

“And Jackson Marx is dead because his father’s rolled over on him. So no, we don’t need the skid loader today.”

Toby watched his father pincer the bin with his arms and hoisted it up with the two pillars of his legs and back. The feeder bin made of galvanized twelve-gauge steel and at least half full of feed tottered, but did not fall as his father frog marched it twenty yards to the center of the pen.

After lunch Toby’s mother stopped the two before they went back out to work.

“What’s the job this afternoon?” his mother asked. 

“Filling the grain bin today, Mary,” his dad said.

“Give me a minute to get my work clothes on and I’ll come out and help.” She said.

“Mary It’s a chore the boy has to learn.”

 “Devin Thomas Johnson, you know Sylvia Clanton’s boy fell in to their silo and nearly suffocated,” she said.

 “I ain’t gonna fall in,” Toby groaned.

“Toby can handle it. he’ll be careful. I was doing it at his age,” said his father.

Both Father and son assured her they would be cautious and Toby swelled with pride in the warmth of his father’s confidence, but he had hoped his mother might win the day so that he could sit in the kitchen and listen to the ball game. Still, he tagged along eagerly when his father ventured forth.   But when they ascended the ladder reached the top of the grain bin his father’s confidence seemed to waver.

“Pay attention now! You fall in and we’ll never find you,” his father said.

 He showed Toby how to sit at the top of the spout opening and monitor the augur as the metal building filled.

Toby did as instructed and sat at the edge of the opening in the silo’s roof, the spout hovering a foot away.

“Are you sure you’re ready?” his father asked.

“I’m sure,” said snapped Toby.

Ok ok, I’ll be down below feeding the corn in and running the augur. Come get me if you need anything.”

“I know pa geez!” Toby said.

For an hour and a half, the bin filled and corn poured forth like a dusty yellow river. Occasionally wet bits of grain would clump up and stick, bottling the opening. Whenever this happened Toby used his gloved hand to clear the spout and continue the flow. All while hacking and coughing on corn dust and wiping the dust and tears away with a sleeve. He perched at the top of the bin as it filled like yellow white sand in a giant tin hourglass and never once was, he in danger of falling. Then, Toby saw Showalter amble up from the cow barn.  Toby watched as he approached his father below. From the top of the bin, he watched them talk and then his father waved to him Toby waved Back and his father yelled something Toby couldn’t make out what he said over the splash of the corn and the drone of the auger but he could see his father’s lips form the words “Stay here I’ll be right back.”

“What the hell,” grumbled Toby as he watched the two men leave him and head toward the barn. The Heifer must have popped, he thought, and then another occurred to him, that’ll keep them busy for a while, maybe just long enough to find out the score of the Reds and Yankees game.

Toby clambered down the silo ladder and stole back to the house where his mother listened to the radio as she made chocolate chip cookies. The sugar-sweet scent from the stove banished the corn dust from his brain as he sat down at the table to listen to the score.

His mother eyed him as he entered. “Done already?”

Toby nodded and turned up the volume on the game. Both teams were battling it out in the ninth. Murderers Row killed every pitch Slim Sallee shucked across the plate.  The loaded bases coupled with the smell from the stove melted away all thoughts of the augur and work. The cookie warmed him with every bite, and when the sweet dark chocolate chips caked up around his teeth, he loosened them free with a swig of the milk in a sweating glass. In that kitchen under the spell of the game, filled with cookie, and milk, Toby, would have declared everything right with the world. Everything that is until his father slammed open the door and reeled into the kitchen. The apparition in the doorway’s face was mottled cherry in hue despite the fact that he was coated head to toe in corn dust. This dust puffed up in clouds with every breath and twitch of his limbs. It gave Toby the impression that his father was about to breathe fire.  His bloodshot eyes locked on Toby, and what Toby saw there terrified him.

“Devin, what’s happened?” his mother asked.

  Toby was leaping over the table and heading for the dining room an instant later, there he juked right along his mother’s hutch cabinet only dimly aware of the clamor of his father’s pursuit as he shot toward the back door. Beyond that, the great wide-open beckoned. Out there he hoped to find space to put between him and his father, who did not bother going around the table. No instead he just shrugged it from his path, breaking dishes and spilling milk across the kitchen. Toby couldn’t hear his mother’s protest over the blood pumping in his ears.  He burst through the backdoor and into the sunlight and smacked into the rangy form of Quills, who had been on his way to the house for more sugar. 

The old man roughly grabbed Toby by the shirt. “Damn it, boy watch out!” he growled.”  But his shine-soaked words disintegrated as Toby’s father busted through the door behind him. The broken door fell from its frame in splinters, scaring the old man enough to let Toby go. Toby scrambled away. He moved so fast he barely registered the cobble stone pad of the well until he staggered across its uneven surface.  Reaching the tall oak a few yards away, Toby attempted to leap to a branch where he might climb high enough to wait free of his father’s reach. But such plans were dashed away as he was plucked from the air. Like a wild dog clothes-lined by its own leash, Toby’s forward movement ceased in the grip at his collar and it knocked all flight out of him.

“No, please, please. I’m sorry I’m sorry,” he tried to say, but the words manifested in a gurgled wheeze. There was nothing he could do in that grip but curl up.

 “Devin, what’s gotten into you? Stop you’re going to hurt him” Toby’s mother pleaded. She stood in the hole the that had been the back door and was now hurrying toward them. 

His Father oblivious to pleas shook him and reared back open-handed to deliver a blow, but he was off balance slipped causing the slap glance harmlessly off the side of Toby’s shoulder. On the ground Toby kicked and tried to crawl free from his father’s grip. Only to feel one of the man’s steel-like arms encircle him. Toby felt his ribs flex, pop and threaten to snap in that grip. But his father’s fury froze under the spray of ice-cold water. Spluttering they both looked over at the pump where Toby’s mother was grimly priming the handle and Quills giggled and grinned through stubble as he arced the spray onto the struggling forms father and son. To Toby thought how odd and alien Quills there, cackling in his father’s place, doing his father’s job but not as odd as the keening hulk of his father crushing him to the ground. Toby’s felt the man tremble and shake under Quill’s rain. He wasn’t sure at first if his father was weeping under the spray but any uncertainty disappeared with the choking sob of words bubbled up out of him.

 “You little shit. I thought I killed you, boy.  Oh God, I thought you fell in and I’d killed you.”

He moaned in an ululating whine that to Toby sounded eerily like his grandfather’s baby wail from that morning.

“I’m sorry I’m so sorry pa” Toby said as they lay there, both broken and pulped in pieces on the ground.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.