Talking on the phone being a form of idling in Dad’s book, I usually get about three minutes to talk to Mom. She manages to keep me updated. How many eggs the layers are putting out, how the crops are coming on, who’s married and divorced, the weather. She never mentioned Ephraim getting himself a woman. First thing Mom heard of it was when one showed up at the homeplace, carrying a baby she said was Ephraim’s.
Dad might’ve blustered around, but I suspect the old bastard is secretly glad to have an heir, even one that’s the product of sin. When I finally got Ephraim on the phone about it, I asked if he loved that woman. He wouldn’t say, which is good as no in my book. He hemmed and hawed, but Ephraim ain’t real good at being mysterious. The upshot: he isn’t sure the kid is his. So find out, I told him. Simple blood test. He didn’t much like the sound of that. I had to point out that if he didn’t, he might end up raising another man’s child. He asked if he couldn’t maybe buy one of those blood tests at the store. I decided I better not leave things to the rubes. I took a three-day weekend and headed back west.
Ephraim never had the gumption to get off the homeplace. Over the years I’ve tried not to hold this against him. I don’t want to think he’s any stupider than I do already. Why you’d stay in the muck and the smell and the nothing a day longer than you had to, I’ll never know. But I guess Ephraim’s got his reasons. Or had them put into him. You listen to Dad long enough, you get to thinking you’ll fall right off the edge of the world if you get too far off the homeplace. Ephraim never even moved up into my old bedroom, which at least gets sunlight. In his own way, I suppose he loves that miserable mud puddle where we grew up. Not me. In fourth grade I used a 10-year calendar to calculate the days till I could get off for good.
Did my man’s share of work from then until Dad found out I wanted to go to college. He about stomped holes in the floor and threatened to have words with whatever teacher planted such devilry in my head. Mom talked him out of it. And I plowed ahead. Got two degrees, a wife who doesn’t know alfalfa from arapahoe, and a couple kids that haven’t done any harder labor than bed-making.
I haven’t made this trip since Granny died seven years ago. By the time I pull into the yard, I’m eight and in overalls, old sinking feeling in my gut like the time Ephraim and I almost got caught playing with the old chewed-up Nerf football we kept hidden in the barn. Dad told us playing made you easy prey for the devil, like those idling rich folks who went crying to doctors and eating pre-peeled oranges on the way to hell, and he would have none of it.
I’ve often thought Dad has spent most his life pissed off because he was born too late to hitch horses to the plow. Looking at the rusting equipment all over the yard, I still think he won’t give up. You’d think a man who considers work the godhead would keep the place up. But the homeplace looks like wild banshees are running the show. Old parts strewn around in the weeds, haphazardly thrown spare tires, equipment parked about. Makes me grin to think I’m the sort of soft-palmed city slicker Dad thinks’ll be inhabiting the lower reaches of hell.
I’ll go ahead and laugh while the sun shines. But some nights I get scared out of sleep by dreams of the devil, who looks like my father. I find it hard to believe God would throw me in the pit for standing on my own two feet, but at 3 in the morning it doesn’t much matter what I think I believe. I go on up the walk. The lawn is more weeds than grass and the sidewalk is about overrun. I helped plant that grass when I was little. But like everything else around here, it seems to be going to seed. Mom doesn’t come to the door at my knocking like she used to. I go on in. Seeing the scene in the kitchen, I bet she’s in back praying. There they are, father and brother and that woman, sitting at the kitchen table drinking beer.
“Save me any?” I say.
“Smart alec,” says Dad. “Have a sitdown.”
I do and Ephraim un-rings a beer for me. It’s half warm and I don’t especially want one. But I don’t figure on missing this opportunity. Having a pull, I take a good gander at that woman.
She’s pretty young for Ephraim. Early twenties, easy. Got that creasing round the eyes you get from being ridden down hard too long and too soon. Ratty red hair, freckles, tattoos on her forearms, thick wrists. She’s downing beer like it’s free and eyeing me with about as much warmth as a cornered rattler. I have another glug in the last place in the world I ever expected to.
“This is a hell of a first,” I say.
“You watch that mouth,” says Dad.
Before that old tone of his would have gotten me sitting ramrod straight. But not anymore.
“Doesn’t look like anyone’s going to introduce us,” I say to that woman. “I’m Estes.”
“He told me about you,” says that woman. “Why you came out.”
Ephraim’s got nothing to say. No guts and no brains. That’s my little brother. I say, “One little test. Everything’s straight, shouldn’t be a problem.”
“You can’t mess with my uterus. That’s a sin.”
“Your uterus has done its piece,” I say. “Now we got to check the results.”
“I don’t know why you got to go pointing your finger everywhere,” says Ephraim.
“Don’t make me draw you a diagram,” I say.
“The Good Lord has already brought the child into this world,” says Dad.
“I just want to know who His instruments were,” I say.
That woman gives Ephraim a pretty sharp elbow. I almost feel sorry for him. Hell of a thing, whatever way it cuts. But he’s so natural dumb, the wonder is this didn’t happen years ago. When we were kids, me and Ephraim trapped out the car graveyard up Wilson’s Draw, where the mama coyotes kept litters in the back seats of rusted Chevys and Fords. I learned plenty watching those mamas bare-teethed growling from the traps when we came up on them in the mornings, and more a couple days later when their hungry pups would mewl loud enough for us to find them. They say coyotes are whip-smart, but the one with its paw caught isn’t, is it? You can’t hardly feel sorry for it. It is what it is. And what it is is dumb enough to stick its paw in a trap. Ephraim, though, didn’t learn nothing. He is what he is.
“What exactly are you saying?” Ephraim says.
“Why the sneaky-peteing around? Seems to me a happy mommy and daddy would’ve spread the news,” I say. “Before the bundle of joy popped out.” “Fuck me all to hell. You were right about him,” says that woman.
I’ll admit me and Ephraim ain’t the closest of kin, but it doesn’t seem to me brothers ought to slander one another on account of dirty-mouthed trailer sluts.
“She right?” I say to Ephraim. “About me?”
“You can’t come in here acting like Dad,” says Ephraim.
“I look like Dad to you, you dumb son of a bitch? I’m the only one here’s got enough sense to help you out.”
“I warned you about your mouth,” says Dad.
“Goddammit Ephraim,” I say, liking the greasy taste of His Name muddied in this place. “You don’t know where she’s been or who with or how many. You just as well said so yourself. She says no to the test, don’t take much to figure out why.”
“That’s enough!” says Dad, shoving back his chair and standing up.
“You son of a bitch,” says Ephraim, sliding around the bench.
“Bust up that smart fucking mouth of his!” says that woman. I get up. Living the soft town life I do, I don’t much like my chances. But least I’ll be able to say I tried when Ephraim brings his bastard round at Thanksgiving. I’ll break that beak of his if he gives me the chance. And there might be 73 Bible verses about not striking your father, but the Bible didn’t grow up on this place.
We stand there in the kitchen panting soggy beer breath at each other, no one moving. The only one looking ready for us to go through with it is that woman. Just then Mom busts in.
“Boys! Jeremiah!” she says. “You stop this instant!”
She comes in the middle of us. She’s carrying the baby who’s red-faced screaming at the ruckus. Curly blond hair, eyes blue as a big empty sky, head small as the palm of your hand, helpless as a loaf of baloney. It don’t look like anything but itself. Mom coos at it and by the time we get sat back down, it’s calmed down some.
“This isn’t about you,” she says, kissing its little pug nose. “Any of you.”
We watch the baby gurgle and flap its arms. She’s on to something there.