“Not a Cloud in Sight” by Charlie Boodman

Categories: ISSUE 04: Eleanor

Not a Cloud in Sight

Flat clouds hung low over the Kansas plains that October morning.  After Sam fed the hogs, she wandered into the old farmhouse kitchen, where her parents were arguing about Uncle Ray.  Sam’s mother didn’t want Uncle Ray to visit.  She said Sam’s father acted different when his battle buddy was around, the way he probably behaved during his tours in Afghanistan.

“He makes me nervous around Sam,” her mother said.  “She’s only ten, Mike.  It’s not a good time with this baby on the way.”

In her wool slipper socks, Sam skidded over to the toaster and snatched up her strawberry Pop-Tart.  Chomp.  The hot jelly singed her tongue.  She fanned her open mouth with her hand.  Little puffs of steam floated out into the room.

“It’ll just be a couple of days,” Sam’s father said.  He and Sam had spent the morning in the weaning barn, processing the baby pigs, clipping tails and needle teeth to keep the piglets from killing each other while they fought for the teat.  Sam’s father washed his huge hands, drying them on the frayed dishtowel.  He kissed Sam’s cheek and then, in one bite, he gobbled down the rest of her Pop-Tart.

“Not fair,” Sam said, but she giggled.  She loved the strong smell of leather and hay that followed her father in from their fifty acres of farmland where dusty roads stretched fifteen miles to the nearest neighbor—twenty miles to the closest town.  She loved the farm when her father was home.  She felt safe.

“I.  Don’t.  Want.  Ray.  Here.”  Sam’s mother pulled her long, black hair into a ponytail and rolled up her sleeves.  After sliding off her wedding band, she set it on the windowsill.

Sam’s father pulled out a balsa-wood airplane from his jacket pocket.  Before each deployment, he’d give a glider to Sam.  Her job was to launch it from the hayloft and pray for his safe return.  But Sam never let them fly, not because she didn’t want her father to come back, but because she thought that if she pitched the jets into the wind, they might get lost, and then, maybe, her father wouldn’t make it home.  Sam kept the planes hidden in her closet.  Now she had three.  She didn’t want another airplane.  She wanted her father home.

“We need to sort out the pigs.  The weaker ones are falling behind.”  Sam’s father turned to his wife.

“Don’t change the subject.”

“It’ll be okay this time.”  Her father had the widest shoulders and longest arms Sam had ever seen.  He placed the palm of his hand on his wife’s belly.

Her thick sweater stretched tight over the bump that used to be her flat stomach.  Sam’s mother pushed away his hand.  The baby on the way was what they argued about most lately.  That and Sam’s father’s upcoming deployment back to Afghanistan, and his drinking—always his drinking—always worse when Uncle Ray came to visit.

“I haven’t seen him since his leg got blown off, Ellen.  It’s been almost a year.”

“He’s a lunatic.”

“He’s the reason I made it home.”

Sam’s mother looked away.

Sam knew Ray as “uncle,” but he wasn’t related.  Uncle Ray and her father would get drunk and fight sometimes.  During his last visit, almost two years ago, Uncle Ray used an old rope and nearly strangled her father to death in the driveway.

“Stop it,” her mother had said, running outside.

Sam followed her mother and watched Uncle Ray standing behind her father squeezing that rope.  Tight.  Blue veins bulged on Uncle Ray’s clenched fists.  Her father dropped to his knees.  There she was, scared, too young, and little to do anything to help her father.  She imagined herself, bigger, taking a shovel to the backs of Uncle Ray’s knees and knocking him down.  Somehow, Sam’s father flipped Uncle Ray, so he landed on his back, but Ray quickly sprang to his feet, still holding the rope.

“Stop it,” from Sam’s mother again.

Sam’s father—panting and gasping for breath—grabbed the double-barreled shotgun and aimed at Uncle Ray’s head.

Uncle Ray dropped the rope and laughed, his lips puffy.  Bloody.

“You’re a couple of drunken fools,” Sam’s mother said.

“Get your ass back in the house,” her father said, and pointed the shotgun at his wife.

Sam didn’t think her father would ever shoot her mother, but a sickness swam in her belly from the idea of it and at the way he held that gun on her with crazy Uncle Ray laughing in the background.

Sam didn’t want to think about that now.  She wanted another Pop-Tart.  “Is Uncle Ray staying with us?” she said.  Please say no.  Please say no.  Uncle Ray was scary, but Sam knew better than to cross her dad.

Her mother and father spoke at the same time:  “No,” she said.  “Yes,” he said.

Her parents had been fighting for weeks.  They’d talked about separating even though her mother was almost four months pregnant.  Her father had been sleeping in the basement again.  Since coming home from Afghanistan a little more than ten months ago, the basement was where he spent most of his time.  When he first got back, sometimes Sam wouldn’t see him upstairs for days.  She’d leave food outside the basement door and later collect the dirty dishes.  Some nights, she heard him crying down there.  A large, black, punching bag hung from the rafters.  Sometimes as Sam lay in bed, she’d count the number of times her father’s fists struck the thick leather and sand.

“Ray has nowhere to go,” her father said.

“Last time he was here, he burned down the finishing barn,” Sam’s mother said.

“It was empty.  The hogs had been loaded.”

Sam’s mother slammed her fist on the counter.  “That’s not the point, Michael.”

“If Uncle Ray comes, are we still going to the fair tonight?”  Sam looked at her father.

Two pistol reports blasted outside.  Sam’s mother flinched.  The pigs squealed and woofed and snorted and shrieked, kicking up a stir in their pens.  Were they trying to break free?  Sam hurried over to the back door and stood blocking it.

“We’ll go tomorrow after Uncle Ray leaves,” her father said, brushing past her.  He opened the door and strode out toward the driveway.

Sam’s mother threw the towel in the sink.

Sam was so used to the smell of the farm—manure and mud mingled with hog musk and dried earth—and she wondered if Uncle Ray noticed it when he drove in.  From the window, Sam stared at Uncle Ray aiming a pistol at the chinaberry trees.  He wore a black bucket hat, an Oxford shirt, and faded brown overalls.  Another shot blared in the yard.  A couple of turkey vultures fluttered out from the yellow leaves and cut into the low-lying clouds.  Black-and-white wings outstretched, they circled high above Uncle Ray’s old, black-and-red Chevy pick-up.  Uncle Ray handed Sam’s father a can of beer.  They each took long sips and then plopped the cans down on the hood of Ray’s truck.

Sam caught a glimpse of the large dent in the bumper and the blood splattered on the license plate’s handicap symbol.  The words on the Kansas tag read, “Disabled Veteran.”  A dead deer lay in the truck’s bed.  Sam could see that the deer’s eyes were open.

O Typekey Divider

Later, Sam shucked the corn and studied the men from the window.  Sam’s father and Uncle Ray built a large fire in the backyard.  They were drinking beer and laughing and standing beside the smoker.  The sky had grown dark, and the shadow of flames flickered against the side of the hog barn.

“What do you think his fake leg looks like?” Sam asked her mother.

“Stop staring.  And don’t you ask him about it.  Count their beers at dinner.  After three, ask to be excused and go upstairs.  If they start with the whiskey, you go straight to your room.”  Sam’s mom filled a large pot with water and placed it on the range.

“What about you?”

“I’ll be right behind you.”

“I don’t want Uncle Ray to hurt Dad.”

“Your father can take care of himself.  Are my instructions clear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sam said, but she thought back to the time with Uncle Ray and the rope in the driveway, and she wondered if her mother really believed her own words.

“Good.  Walk to the barn and see that the feeders are full.  Then get cleaned up for supper.”  Her mother began to set the dining room table.  She didn’t use the fancy, blue-and-white china plates that they used on Thanksgiving and Christmas and when other guests came.

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At dinner they sat at the old, oak table beneath the dim, yellow glow of the hanging lamp.  A crocheted depiction of The Last Supper hung on the wall over the sideboard.  Sam repeatedly blinked her eyes—one and then the other—so it looked as if Jesus were springing in and out of his chair.  On top of the sideboard, three stuffed Spotted Owls peered at the table, the dead, marble eyes catching the soft light when the lamp swayed.  The owls had been there as long as Sam could remember.  Kind of dirty now.  She half-expected to see one of them flap its wings, flinging dust motes through the dining room.  Sam coughed.

Sam’s mother and father sat at either end of the long table, and Uncle Ray sat across from Sam.  What would it feel like if she accidentally kicked his fake leg under the table?  Would he even feel it?  She gripped the bone-handle of the steak knife and sawed through the dark red hunk of meat.  The blood pooled in her plate and turned the mashed potatoes a pinkish color.  “What do you call this?” she said.

“Road kill,” Uncle Ray said, and he laughed.  He slugged down his Budweiser.

One.

“What kind?” Sam said.

“Deer.”  Uncle Ray sliced into his steak, and sweat beaded on his forehead.  “Hit it with my truck.”

“Grab us a couple more, Sam,” her father said, and belched.

Sam’s mother looked at her husband and winced.  “While you’re up,” she said to Sam, “Turn on the coffee.”  Sam saw her put a hand to that stretched-out sweater.

Sam tramped to the kitchen, and the old wooden floor creaked underfoot.  She turned on the coffee maker and returned with two cold bottles of beer.  She wished they’d stop drinking, but here she was, twisting off the caps and serving them.  She imagined herself dumping all the beer into the kitchen sink, hearing the suds splutter and watching the flood of Budweiser disappear down the drain.  Forever.

“Slammed into it so hard I cracked my head on the steering wheel.”  Uncle Ray sat quiet and turned toward the window.  A raised and glistening bruise shone on his forehead.  Had he been staring at the flames still flaring in the fire pit?  “She didn’t die after I hit her.  This fawn came bounding out of the brush and knelt down beside it–licking at its mother’s bloodied and bashed-up back legs.”

Sam scooted her chair closer to her mother.

Uncle Ray picked up the Budweiser and tilted it back.  Gulp.  Gulp.  Gulp.

“What’d you do?”  Sam couldn’t stop picking at her cuticles.

“What would you have done?”  Uncle Ray smiled, and a jagged line of scars stretched across his face.  Splotches of skin had been grafted onto his cheeks and forehead.  She remembered her dad telling her that during the accident in Afghanistan, part of Uncle Ray’s face had been blown off.  “Well?”

“Why are you pressing her?”  Sam’s mother said, but Uncle Ray didn’t look at her.

Had he even heard her?  He looked disoriented like he did the night when Sam was six and asleep and Uncle Ray, stinking of whiskey and muck, staggered into her room holding out that shotgun.  At first Sam thought she was dreaming, but she knew she wasn’t when she felt him pulling on her foot, his grip tight, pinching her toes, the bones crackling.  He was begging her to shoot him.  “I want out,” he kept whispering.

Sam clutched the bed sheets and held them close to her chest, kicking wildly—kicking—kicking—trying to free her foot from his hard grasp.  She couldn’t breathe, and her mouth dried out.

“Stop kicking, goddamn it, or I’ll blow you wide open,” he said.

At first she didn’t even feel it—warm and wet—gushing down her legs.  She screamed until her father rushed in and dragged Uncle Ray out.  It wasn’t until her mother came in and took off her soaked pajamas and held her that she realized what had happened.

When she drifted back to sleep, she could see Uncle Ray smiling at her.  His face wasn’t scarred or grafted then the way it was now, but he had that same emptiness in his eyes.  The dead gaze now hung on Sam, the gaze she recognized from the nightmares she still had about blasting Uncle Ray with that shotgun, though in her dreams, he never died.  He only stared at her, the way he was staring now.

“What would you do?” Ray said.

“For God’s sake, Ray, she’s just a child.  I don’t know why you insist on dragging her into your miserable world.”  Sam’s mother turned to her husband and glared.  “And I don’t understand why you let him.”

“I’d shoot it.”  Sam twisted the paper napkin under the table to stop her palms from sweating.

“Where?”  This from her father.

“What does it matter where?”  Now her mother.

“Answer the question.”  Her father.

“In the brain.”  Sam wished Uncle Ray would drive off somewhere and leave them alone.  Things were bad enough with all the bickering and the threat of her parents separating.

“Why?”  Uncle Ray used a soft roll to spread the butter over a piece of corn.

“I wouldn’t want it to suffer.”

“Nobody should have to suffer,” Uncle Ray said.

“And the fawn?”  Sam asked.

Uncle Ray held the ear of corn as if it were a pistol, and pointed it across the table at Sam’s face.  “Pow.”  He lowered the ear of corn and plunked it onto his plate.  “I wish someone would do the same for me.”  Uncle Ray tilted back the beer, and set it—empty—on the table.

Two.

Sam’s mother covered her mouth with her napkin like she was going to be sick.

“Sam.”  Her father held up his bottle.

Sam collected the empties.  Clink, clink, clink.  In the kitchen she snatched two frosty beers from the refrigerator, and they almost slipped out of her hands on the way back to the table.  Why was the room so quiet?  “Are you coming with us to the fair tomorrow, Uncle Ray?” Sam said as she set down the long necks.

“Ray has to be on his way,” Sam’s mother said.

“Uncle Ray just got here.”  Sam’s father winked at Sam and sipped his beer.  His speech sounded slurred but not sloppy.

“I should get going.”

“At least spend the night,” her father said.

“It was good seeing all of you.”  Uncle Ray stood, and his fake leg made a clicking sound.

“Sit down,” her father said.  “Have a cup of coffee before you go.”

Sam’s mother threw her napkin on the table and got up.  Her clog heels clacked against the hardwood floor as she fetched the coffee pot.

Uncle Ray sat down again.

“Coffee, Ray?” Sam’s mother said when she came back to the dining room holding the pot so close to Uncle Ray, Sam feared her mother was going to burn his arm with it.

“Please,” Uncle Ray said, but he never touched it.  He just worked on that beer until it was finished.

Three.

“May I be excused?” Sam said.

“Yes,” her mother said.

“No,” her father said.  “Help your mother clean up, then come down to the basement, and say goodbye to Uncle Ray.”  He grinned at Sam’s mother.

“Yes, sir,” Sam said, and she rose to help her mother clear the dirty dishes from the table.  From the dining room window, she gazed at the fire pit in the backyard where two black and charred carcasses, one large and one small, lay smoking and smoldering in the night breeze.

Sam rinsed the plates and loaded them into the dishwasher.  She set the stainless flatware prong up in the little baskets.  The men tromped to the basement.  Uncle Ray’s uneven footsteps clunked on each wooden stair.

Sam’s mother kept gagging and running to the bathroom.  “I need to lie down,” she said.  “After everything’s put away, you go to bed.”

“But Dad said—”

“I don’t care what Dad said.”  Sam’s mother bent down and kissed Sam on both cheeks, the way she did when she tucked her in at night.  She poured a glass of seltzer water, and it fizzed and bubbled in her glass.  Sam heard her mother panting as she climbed the stairs to her bedroom.

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Sam was almost finished drying the dishes when her father called from the basement to tell her to bring a couple of glasses and a bottle of whiskey.  Sam padded down the steps and past her father’s desk, cluttered with papers, a recent copy of National Hog Farmer, his computer, some empty beer cans, and prescription pill bottles.  She carried the whiskey and glasses past the punching bag and set them on the card table where the two men sat across from each other.

“I still feel pain where the leg and foot used to be.”

Sam’s father patted the seat of an empty chair for Sam to sit in.

She didn’t want to, but she also didn’t want to make her father mad.  She forced a smile and sat.

“They itch sometimes, and I want to scratch them, but they’re not there.”  Uncle Ray laughed, but his eyes turned watery.

Sam’s father twisted off the bottle cap and poured two glasses.  He slid one to Uncle Ray.  “Things might have turned out different, if you hadn’t come for me.”

“You don’t know that,” Uncle Ray said, and he downed his whiskey.  “I didn’t think I’d come back like this.”  Uncle Ray hobbled toward the mirrored door.  He pointed to a smaller mirror on top of her father’s bureau.  “Sammy, bring me that mirror.”  He sat on the floor, removed his right boot, and stretched out his legs in front of him.  The bruise on his forehead had become even more swollen, and the skin around his left eye had turned a shade of dark purple.  Like Indian war paint.

Sam handed the mirror to Uncle Ray.  Creepy.  She inched backward to her seat, never taking her eyes off him.

Uncle Ray placed the mirror sideways on the floor in front of the prosthetic leg so it reflected his right leg and foot in its faded, black sock.  He rotated his good ankle, making circles and moving it so it looked like he had the left leg and foot still attached.  He smiled.  “The illusion makes the pain go away.”

In the reflection, it looked like he had two legs again, and to Sam, despite the scar and the splotchy skin graft, Uncle Ray’s face looked normal for the first time since he’d arrived.

“But when I get rid of the mirror and stop pretending, the pain comes back.”

“Keep pretending.”  Sam’s father refilled their glasses, stumbled over to Uncle Ray, and handed the whiskey to him.  Some spilled over the rim of the glass and onto the floor.

Uncle Ray didn’t take the drink.  He laid the mirror flat on the floor and pulled the 9 mm out of his shoulder holster.

Sam’s heart jolted, and she began to sweat.  Her mouth went dry, and she couldn’t breathe.  She couldn’t move.  Too scared.  Like the night in her room with the shotgun.

Uncle Ray clicked off the safety.

“Put it down, Ray,” Sam’s father said.

Uncle Ray racked the slide.  He inserted the barrel of the pistol into his mouth, and he closed his lips around it.  He shut his eyes.

Sam’s father stood in front of him and held out the glass.  “Let’s trade.  Nice and easy,” he said.  The glass shook in his hand.

A drip of sweat trickled down the center of Sam’s back.  She pressed her hands hard against her ears and squeezed her eyes shut.  1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10.

When she didn’t hear anything, she opened her eyes and saw Uncle Ray sitting on the floor with the black barrel of the 9 mm still in his mouth.

He released the hammer, clicked the gun back on safety, and lowered it.  With his other hand outstretched, he accepted the drink.  After tossing it back, he held out the glass for a refill.

“Atta-boy,” her father said, and tilted the bottle.  The honey-yellow liquid sloshed in Uncle Ray’s glass.

Uncle Ray’s hand shook as he shot back the whiskey.  After setting down the glass, he raised the pistol again, racked the slide, aimed, and blasted off the metallic-looking foot.

Sam’s ears rang, and the room suddenly smelled of burnt plastic and sulfur.

“Get out.  Both of you,” Sam’s mother said.  Sam never saw her mother enter the basement, but there she was, surrounded by the debris scattered about the basement floor.  Sam hugged her mother’s leg to try to still her trembling.

Sam’s father’s face turned white.  He grabbed the whiskey bottle off the table and helped Ray up so that he was balanced on his one good leg.

Uncle Ray returned the pistol to its holster.

“Get out of my house,” Sam’s mother said, and pointed upstairs.

Still clutching her mother’s leg, Sam could feel that her mother was shaking too.

Her father stared at her mother and opened his mouth as if he were going to say something, but no words came out.  In a flash, his arm flew back, and he punched a hole through the sheetrock of the basement wall inches from his wife’s head.  She didn’t flinch.  Dust settled slowly over Sam, a fine coating like snow.

Sam followed her mother up to the kitchen and watched her father stagger out of the house, Uncle Ray limping beside him, his arm slung over his buddy’s wide shoulders.  Sam’s father opened the passenger door and helped Uncle Ray into the pick-up.  Slam went the doors.  The truck tore off over the gravel in the driveway.  A wisp of dust swirled in their wake.

Sam slowly walked the flight of stairs to her room and rummaged—as if in a dream—through the box in her closet where she’d stashed the balsa wood airplanes.  She pulled them out then plunked down on the top step.  Staring at the planes—in a daze—Sam listened to her mom crying in the kitchen.  Sam began counting.

At thirty-five, she got to her feet and raced—as fast as she could—down the stairs, past her mother in the kitchen and out the door.  Past the smoky fire pit, toward the hog barn, the planes in hand.  The smell of winter—like dry wood burning in a stove—hung over the farm.  The cold air stabbed at her eyes and turned them teary as she ran.  Pigs squealed.  The rickety weathervane creaked, spinning with the wind.  Sam climbed up into the hayloft, panting, her legs tired when she reached the top.  She ran her finger over the smooth wings of the first glider her father had ever given her.  She looked out into the night sky.  There wasn’t a single cloud in sight.

Story by Charlie Boodman
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Foreground photo by Doriana Maria
Background photo by Lisa Guidarini