Before passing into much needed rest, John listened to the rain slapping against his bedroom roof. The sound reminded him of draft horses at the state fair pissing on cement. John wanted to roll onto his right side and listen to the evening storm, but there was the bag attached to his gut—the bag that collected his putrid watery-shit. If he accidentally rolled onto the bag, it could burst open, shit flooding and smearing across the clean white sheets. It had happened once before.
He kept his recovery record in his head like he kept the dates of his cattle herd’s breeding schedule: with accuracy. It had been eight weeks since they had found the cancerous mass clinging to his colon, seven weeks since the doctors removed nine inches of his colon, seven weeks and three days since he had slept in a bed with his wife, Laura, (who insisted it was safer if she slept on the couch) and nine weeks since he’d tasted the sweet corn from the garden that Laura froze for the off season. And, each day, he observed the shrinking stoma, where the shit spurted. It had once looked like a ruptured pig asshole, a rosebud he called it, and then it became smaller and smaller, resembling a human asshole on the right side of his stomach. It made noises when he ate, like coffee percolating in a coffeemaker when he ate.
Lying in bed, he reflected on the chores and the June heat of the day to distract him from thinking about the relief his right side would feel if he could just turn a little. There was a hot, red rash where the bag had rubbed the leaking stomach acid against his sweaty side. Because of this, he had been waiting, just waiting for the rain. And, now it was here, offering relief, offering cooler temperatures. He closed his eyes and imagined the Iowa soil becoming super saturated as it absorbed the weight of each raindrop, and the summer grasses taking long swigs of rainwater and growing taller by morning. The earth would be soggy tomorrow; his boots would leave imprints.
Every night, while lying in bed, John reflected on the day’s chores, and he considered what needed to be done next. He believed this ritual, to pause and think at the end of a day, was the residual Catholic still lingering inside him. “Say your prayers, John,” his mother would urge before going to bed every night, so he said his prayers as a child. As an adult he didn’t say prayers at night (he didn’t even pray when he got the diagnosis). Instead, he believed in reflection and setting a day’s agenda.
First on his agenda: he’d need to call his hired hand, Seth, and fix the flood gap on the rental pasture. The rusted wire that stretched across the creek and split the adjacent property was surely busted through by the water’s force, or covered by the rising creek water. To keep his cattle from eating the farmer’s corn on the other side, he’d need to string up more wire and power the electric fence.
John was satisfied and with purpose. He went to sleep with the flood gap task on his mind as the rain continued, its sound the hearty team of draft horses pissing on his roof. The last thought of his day was of his hired hand, Seth, who was probably sleeping in a woman’s bed that was not his girlfriend’s.
When daylight started to appear, John sipped coffee Laura had made before he rose. Birds cackled outside as small town women do after church. Some mornings John woke, forgetting about the bag, but this morning he felt the bag clinging to his side like burdock, the rash still fresh and hot.
As John waited for Seth—who was already ten minutes late—Laura spoke of a mouse she saw while making coffee.
“It zipped from the mason jars on the countertop to beneath the stove. I don’t know what we should do about all these mice,” she told John. Laura bit her bottom lip and stood over the counter, recounting the path the mouse had taken. She hadn’t brushed her bobbed salt-and-pepper hair yet. It puffed out in two separate directions. John remembered her as a cheerleader, with dark, straight hair streaming down to her waist.
“I can set some traps,” John offered.
“I’ll feel bad for the mice. Those traps are so harsh.”
John shook his head in agreement, unsure of the right answers. Then he heard Seth’s truck rattle up the lane. He hoped Seth would offer to drive the four miles to the rental pasture. He wanted to save his energy for the flood gap repair.
“Make sure you don’t lift anything today,” Laura warned.
“I’ll do my best,” he replied, getting up for the door.
“John,” she said. He turned toward her before walking out. “I don’t know what to do with you. You heard what Sheila said. She got a rupture the size of a baby’s head just from vacuuming after her surgery. I don’t want to have to go through all that just because you needed to prove yourself.”
“Sometimes it’s impossible; when I’m alone, I have to lift things.”
Under the glow of the morning sun, Seth parked his Chevy truck at the pasture’s entrance. Before starting on their journey toward the creek, John and Seth grabbed the tools they would need for the repair from the rusted truck bed. The creek was a half mile from the road, hidden from the country-styled suburbs popping up like acne on a teenager’s face all over the farmland—farmers selling out for a quick buck. John liked the descent into the pasture, going deeper and deeper into a quiet, grassy seclusion where the housing developments could be forgotten and Iowa could be as it once was.
Carrying the tools, John and Seth navigated the steep creek bank on the rental pasture. John found his gait was slower than usual, and he struggled to keep up with Seth. The men placed their booted feet with firm purpose so as not to tumble into the muddy water that rushed below them. They dodged the thick, wiry vegetation that clung to the Iowa creek bank, especially making sure to dodge the waist-high musk thistle. They were at ease in their landscape, goats on a steep mountain.
John and Seth were often mistaken for father and son. Perhaps the elements of summer and the work they did had molded their bodies to appear similar: tanned skin, squinty eyes, muscles. Seth was shorter than John, but more filled out, stout, and his skin was tauter than John’s wrinkled, weathered face. They even once dressed alike: t-shirt, Wranglers, and cowboy boots, but John’s sickness had changed that. He hid the bulkiness of the bag by wearing denim overalls.
“They’re Carhartt brand, Dad,” his daughter told him. She held the overalls out to him as he lay recuperating on the couch. “Carhartt brand,” she repeated. “They aren’t Oshkosh.”
Regardless of the brand, John still felt like an old-man-coffee-club member in the baggy, denim mass—the men who sat at the local Casey’s sipping coffee, gossiping every morning. They wore bib overalls. They all looked the same to John: fat, denim-dressed balloons who couldn’t manage their diabetes after their doting wives died.
At the water’s edge, the two men stopped and looked at each other. The wire that once stretched across the creek between the pasture and the cornfield had been torn apart by the creek’s force. The flood gap was no more. They didn’t need to speak to say what needed to be done. It wasn’t their first rodeo. In fact, the two could probably do all their tasks in silence. They were an instinctual pair: horse and reins, steak and knife, plant and soil.
John’s tanned forehead was crinkled. He squinted, shook his head, and looked at the rushing water. Seth would have to get wet. John couldn’t help him. No baths with the bag. Definitely no flood gaps with the bag.
“You dirty fucker,” Seth said to John.
John shook his head and looked at the ground.
“You go and get cancer so I have to do this alone. Way to go, winner. Why don’t you just go get yourself a twelve-pack, an umbrella, and a lawn chair, and you can just sit here and watch me get my balls wet?”
Before John could say anything, Seth kept rattling.
“I know, you could get a golf club with those little white gloves and practice your swing. Fuck it,” Seth continued. “I’m taking my clothes off before I go in this time. Last time I had to work in wet clothes the rest of the day. It sucked.”
“Crap, don’t take your clothes off. Somebody’ll see you and think we’re doing some stuff back here. Strange stuff. Keep your clothes on.”
“I’m doin’ it and you can’t stop me. We’re so far back here. Nobody’s going to see me.”
John often thought of Seth as a fart in a skillet. John would never imagine speaking to his elders this way , let alone strip down to nothing in front of them, but he couldn’t help but smile in response to Seth’s spirit. He’d worked with many quiet, honorable, Catholic boys who did their job and said, “yes sir,” and “no sir,” and “thank you sir,” but Seth was different. He was strong, uncensored, free spirited. He started working with John when he was in junior high school, and he had never quit. He had a mouth as dirty as a manure spreader.
The only time John had seen Seth unnerved was when he visited John in the sterile University hospital. Shortly after John was wheeled from the recovery room to his hospital room, Seth visited. He kept his eyes on his boots, crusted with cattle manure. There were no windows, no comfortable sheet of earth beneath his shoes, only white linoleum and tools he didn’t know how to use, but he gradually came around with colon cancer jokes for John: “papa’s got a brand new bag,” and “your ass is on permanent fart vacation.” John didn’t have any sons, but if he did, he wouldn’t mind them being like Seth—only a little less brazen, less polygamous.
On the creek bank, without hesitation, Seth took off his boots and white socks. He undid his belt buckle, and reached into his pocket and produced a crumpled piece of paper. He turned to John and asked, “Did I show you this one yet?”
“No, I don’t think so,” John responded, reaching for the paper. John smoothed out the wrinkled paper revealing a hand-drawn crucifix with roses crawling up the staff. At the bottom of the drawing it read, To my son. May your days be long and full of good work.
“That’s nice,” John responded.
Seth’s father had taken to being a born again, but sometimes John thought he should’ve never been born in the first place. Seth’s father was in a looney bin. Rumor had it that he beat Seth and his mother before they had him committed to an asylum years ago. Seth continued to strip with gusto. He lifted the shirt over his head and let it swing to the ground. He took his pants off. John took a glance at Seth’s sculpted, young body—impeccable, perfect. No wonder women were seduced by him and allowed him to use them.
John reached down to where Seth’s jeans sat in a crumpled pile. The bag flopped at his side as he reached downward. He stuffed the picture back into the pocket.
“Are you gonna get in here and help me you lazy fucker, or are you at least going to hand me shit?” Seth broke the silence.
“I guess I’m going to just have to hand you shit—and shit that weighs less than ten pounds,” John said.
“You’re just lucky I’m here. Nobody else would do this kind of stuff for you, especially with this hot of a bod,” Seth said, wading into the water, the current rushing past him.
“I’m so lucky,” John said. John watched as Seth’s body was consumed by the brown, muddy water, first his feet, knees, and then his upper body to his shoulders. The rain had been relentless, filling the banks to a little less than five-feet.
“Ooooh, doggy! That’s cold,” Seth shouted above the furious babble of the creek. “Hey, John, do you think you’re going to live?” Seth said, trying to stay above water. He commented as if he were talking about his recent cell phone plan. “Because I think I got Cindy—that one girl from Olds—pregnant, but I dunno. I don’t really want to claim it, you know? I mean, I think she should get one of those piss-on-a-stick tests first, and a ‘is-it-mine?’ test second.”
John thought of his grown daughters off the farm, sitting in cushy auditorium seats listening to a professor, taking notes, taking exams at The University of Iowa. He suddenly had the urge to put duct tape around Seth’s mouth and hands, kidnap him, make him go to college, but it was probably too late for that. Seth had been offered a wrestling scholarship at Iowa his senior year of high school, and he went for a semester until he snapped. He couldn’t handle the routine of it all, and the coach wouldn’t let him drink, a deal-breaker.
“Take the wire,” John said, avoiding the questions. He held out a bundle of high-tensile fence wire for Seth to reach. It weighed more than ten pounds, but John hadn’t felt anything unusual when he was alone at the feed mill after hours and had to pick up twelve fifty-pound feedbags, and he didn’t feel anything unusual when he lifted a heavy gate to gain access to his pastures days ago. Since then, he’d been lifting everything and anything.
The men worked in natural silence. A type of dance transpired between them that only farm men knew the steps to—twisting and bending wire, stretching and grunting, pounding and straining. It wasn’t a beautiful dance, but it wasn’t ugly either. It was a dance that got results. During this dance, John gave little notice to the sting of the stomach acid leaking onto his skin, the fatigue his body felt.
He was focused on the barrier. They built one that the smallest of calves couldn’t get through. Seth fortified the two fence posts on each side of the creek by pounding them deeper into the earth with a heavy mull. They restrung wire from post to post, and put a hot wire above all the wires for added reinforcement. The water would not overtake this flood gap. The cattle could not get to the sweet temptation of field corn on the other side. When the job was done, John went to turn the electric fence power on, and Seth started to wade out of the water.
“You know, John, it’s not too bad in here. It’s kinda nice. Kinda like a day at the lake.”
“You’re really something, you know that?” John said, thinking that today’s generation was a bit dreamier than his had ever been.
“Fuck that,” Seth said looking up.
“No, I mean, it. You’re really a steer that needs to be castrated. It’ll settle you down, take the spunk out of ya,” John replied.
“No, I mean fuck,” Seth said. “Look.”
John followed Seth’s outstretched hand pointing toward a panicked black calf that trotted on the farm field side of the flood gap.
“Shit,” John said. “We fenced it out.” The calf’s mother was trotting alongside the calf on the opposite side of the fence where John and Seth stood. When the cow and calf reached the stream they stopped and moaned low, steady guttural tones to one another.
“I’ll get it,” Seth said. In one swift move, Seth ducked under the water and disappeared. He’d have to swim deep into the current to get up on the other side of the fence. He could drown. He could get stuck in a sinkhole.
John waited for what felt like the amount of time it takes a bale of hay to be elevated to a barn’s haymow on a hay elevator. Click, click, click, the elevator sounds as the bale incrementally rises. John pushed some creek sand together with his booted foot, all the while keeping his dark eyes on the water. What would he do if Seth didn’t surface?
Seth had never disappointed him. He came up on the other side of the flood gap, like a catfish flipping out of the water for a bug on the surface. With his sudden appearance, the calf froze, frightened. Seth did not hesitate. If he did, the calf would run. John watched Seth, as he had watched him on the wrestling mat in high school, strike out at the calf and catch its back leg. Seth, smiling, pulled back on the leg, and positioned his body over the calf’s back. He managed to bear hug the wiggling calf.
“Pin,” Seth yelled to John.
“You got it caught, but how’re you gonna get it over here?” John yelled to him.
“Walk it around to the other side,” Seth said, already taking action.
“I don’t give a fuck.”
Before John could react, Seth was carrying the calf up the pasture toward the road, where he’d push open the pasture gate and get to the other side. Seth was naked, barefooted, but he kept moving with quick purpose.
“You look like Sasquatch!” John yelled.
“You look like cancer,” Seth yelled back, and with that, he forged into the underbrush.
John was suddenly alone with an angsty, babyless cow bawling and pacing the fence line. In the pauses of her calls, he listened to the pasture, bugs buzzing, the creek moving, the grasses swaying, the breeze. Together, they created a harmony that only early summer could compose.
In Seth’s absence, John became aware of the fatigue that plagued his body, suddenly heavy and aching.
John didn’t know if he would live. The cancer was stage four, had spread. A tumor was wrapped and clinging around a major artery in his leg. He hadn’t told his family. The sickness was probably flooding his whole body by now. The rest of the cows grazed on a far-off hill. John could see their black specks on the horizon. He took a seat on a fallen tree limb and waited.
John was in this world, a world unto himself for an untraceable amount of time. He thought how he wanted his burial to be like the practice of a Native American tribe he’d read about in one of his daughter’s textbooks. When they passed, tribe members just left the deceased’s body on the open plains. Over time, the body decomposed and became a part of the grass, which the buffalo ate, and the people ate the buffalo, and it was a steady flow of life, each feeding one another. He’d ask Seth to carry his body to this pasture not far from the flood gap and set his body on the ground. He’d ask him to cut the bag from his side and toss the sunuvabitch. He would be with Iowa as it once was: open, farms, fields.
Time passed as he sat on the log.
A rustle in the distance took him from the Iowa he once knew, and he saw the boy appear—mud up to his ankles, the calf trying to kick, cuts on Seth’s legs from the musk thistle. The cow advanced on Seth, ready to claim what was hers. Seth dropped the calf. The calf landed on its side, stunned. It soon found its legs and ran to the creek and swam to its mother. They bawled a greeting to one another and trotted off as a pair, up toward the hill where the others grazed.
“You’re out of breath,” John said to Seth. “You’re out of shape.”
“I am not, you old bastard. I’d like to see you do what I did.”
“I work with you every day, and that’s enough. Put your clothes on for Christ’s sake.”
John tried not to watch Seth dress, but he couldn’t help stealing more glances of his abs, his legs. Everything was in good proportion—a prize beef steer, a potential father with progeny. He realized that Seth wouldn’t be such a bad father, and before he could censor himself, he said, “You know Seth, maybe you should get a test, you know, with Cindy. Maybe you’d be ok together. The baby deserves a father, don’t you think?”
Seth and John didn’t say anything, they just let time flow like the creek, furious and quick. “Maybe you’re right,” Seth eventually said, pulling his t-shirt over his head.
That evening, there was no rain bearing down on the roof of John’s house, just the quiet of a summer night under a dark sky with vibrant stars, a good night to send a prayer to heaven. Before John got into bed, he knelt—a position that surprisingly felt good to his body, and he said a prayer for Seth. The prayer—his wishes for the boy—came rushing from his head and heart like the muddy creek water rushing through the flood gap.