Pluto by Justin Smith

The snake came through the baler all mangled. The tail end was compressed tightly between dried grass and alfalfa; the head end flopped around the side of the bale. The snake’s broad mouth hung open.
That’s it, Hank thought. He jumped off the moving rack onto the bristly ground. Hands on his knees, his stomach heaved. The hangover he’d been fighting all day coupled with the late-June sun made him scatter his lunch in the middle of the large hay field. At sixteen, he’d been able to do this work with little effort. He had been trim and muscular. He’d run on the track team. Now, eight years and forty-five pounds later, he simply was not cut out for this.
Technique wasn’t his problem; that came back effortlessly. He still knew the exact form needed to catapult a bale off his knee, up onto his forearms, and onto the sixth row of bales. Fortunately, he was tall. He remembered how to stand on the rack with his knees bent to absorb the bumps in the uneven field. Hayracks weren’t exactly built with shocks. And luckily he also remembered how to stack the bales.
Stacking was a skill he’d perfected as a teen, the mental part of baling hay. Picking up bales that have toppled over because of a stacking mistake was all the motivation needed.
Hank had left the little Iowa farming community he grew up immediately after graduating high school. Unlike many of his classmates, he’d felt the need to get out of Pluto, Iowa. Not necessarily to see the world, but just to make sure it existed. Graduating third in his class, he got a scholarship and went to college across the country in Pennsylvania. He came home only for holidays, and his body had begun to forget the pains of hard labor.
Hank gagged and spit, trying to remove the taste of vomit. A strand of mucus hung from his mouth and almost made contact with the ground. He stared at the reddish puddle, his cheeseburger lunch. A hell of a way to spend a Saturday, he thought. His dad kept driving the tractor and bales kept being spit onto the rack. They pushed each other out of the way and found room for themselves.
Hank gasped for breath and blew his nose on the blue handkerchief he had placed in his back pocket earlier. Normally, he wouldn’t carry this crusty piece of cloth, but baling hay is a battle. Gloves are indispensable. The twine that holds the bales together is coarse and taut. Jeans are a must (no holes), boots or tennis shoes are desirable, and long sleeves are recommended, but most of the time that’s unbearable due to the heat.
The beating sun made Hank consider his decision to return home. Which was worse, being unemployed and starving or being underpaid and overworked? Right now, he wasn’t so sure. He needed to look into finding another job quickly. It only took one day of work for him to realize that he couldn’t handle too much more of this labor. But a BS in sociology just wasn’t too coveted in the workplace.
After graduation a year ago, Hank stayed in Pennsylvania and ended up working in an independent record store before they folded, then a bank. Then he got fired from the bank for being late too many times. It was stupid really, was it his fault that the electricity had gone out two mornings in a row shutting down his alarm clock in the process?
Unemployed and without prospect, he was forced to move back home. His father had offered him a free room and meals plus one hundred dollars per week if he helped around the farm. It didn’t sound like too bad a deal when it was proposed. It seemed like good timing too. Hank’s mother had taken off not two weeks prior. At the very least he could keep him company until he got back on his feet.
Buck stopped the tractor, climbed down, and stacked the bales that had been left unattended. Hank sat on the ground a few feet away from his vomit and removed his hat. He wiped at the sweat on his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. The hat in his hand was bright green and new, although a dark sweat ring was forming around the brim. He ran his finger over the embroidered John Deere logo. It was a nice gift, he thought, a nice gesture. His father was kind of obsessive about his John Deere memorabilia and equipment. The house and barn was full of the stuff. And if something wasn’t John Deere green, he had a can of spray paint to make it so.
Hank couldn’t wear his hat in public, though. For reasons unknown to him, that style hat had become the fashion trend lately. These kids buying their hats in the malls probably didn’t even know what a John Deere looked like. If they were lucky, they might have a dinky, green riding mower. He couldn’t appear to be one of those people.
“What are you doing over here?” Buck had made his way to where Hank was now sprawled on the ground, his eyes closed. “Got worried. I thought you fell off.”
“I got sick.” He pointed.
Buck cringed at the sight. He pulled his cap off and wiped his forehead, thinking.
“Well, what’s wrong with you? Out too late?”
“I don’t know, Dad.” Hank lifted his head off the ground and squinted into the summer sun. He didn’t mind the stalks of alfalfa digging into his back. “I just got sick.” There was no way he was going to bring up his hangover. He let his head drop. His eyes again closed. “The sun maybe.”
“Go sit up by those trees. Get some shade.” He pointed past his property line toward a strip of trees between a corn and a bean field. “Eat one of them apples. That will make you feel better. I’m going to unload what we got here.”
Hank barely got himself off the ground. He walked the hundred or so yards slowly, his hands on his hips. He inspected the green, spotty apples on one of the trees. He seriously doubted eating one of these would make him feel better in any way.
Hank ran his hand over his forearms, trying to separate the hay dust from his arm hairs. He watched his father drive the tractor-baler-rack train towards the barn. The sweat stains on his neck began to feel cool against the slight breeze.
After twenty minutes Hank’s dampness evaporated into the summer heat. He sat with his legs crossed, his back resting against a medium-sized tree. He wasn’t sure what kind it was, but it provided enough shade. A cigarette would have been nice, but he was content. He didn’t even mind the ants crawling over his jeans. He liked watching them scale his kneecaps like mountains.
When Buck found Hank by the tree he’d been dozing. “Hey, you awake?”
“Yeah.”
“Feelin’ better?”
“Not really, I think I have heatstroke.”
Buck turned his back towards Hank to survey the rows of hay still on the ground. They lined up one after the other in endless rows. Buck removed his blotchy handkerchief and blew his nose. “Well,” his mouth was still obscured by the cloth, “I guess you can go to the house and rest.” Hank noticed his father’s damp neck and back. “I’ll go see if the neighbor boy can help me.” Buck walked away.
“Thanks,” Hank mumbled. He sat there several minutes, until his father was out of sight. Then he rose and stretched.
The house was refrigerated with central air, and he was grateful. Hank shook the hay particles out of his shoes and clothes. He hung his cap on a nail in the garage. He stripped and inspected himself in the bathroom mirror. There were pieces of grass stuck to his face, and his hair was matted down almost to his eyebrows. Ridiculous. He adjusted the shower temperature to colder than usual. Hank took his time in the shower. He tried to work out the hay dust from every crevice—behind his ears, in his bellybutton, between his toes. While he toweled himself off he noticed the ring of redness around his neck and on his lower arms. Farmer tan. He would have to wear sunscreen from now on.
Hank dressed in clean jeans and his favorite shirt—a short sleeved, navy blue, button up. He tightened his belt and noted the holes he used to be able to use. His stomach had become soft, doughy. The scuffed leather taunted him. He needed a new belt.
He bellyflopped onto his bed. The frame rocked under his weight. This was his bed, but not his room anymore. Hank’s mother had launched a renovation several months ago and turned his room into a guest room. When she’d told him about her project over the phone he’d figured she was just bored. Now though, he wondered if the room was a way to fill the time his dad had spent ignoring her. When he’d come home for Christmas all his furniture and posters had been removed, replaced with framed pictures of butterflies and fancy curtains.
Hank had the feeling from the first step into the renovated room that it was no longer his own. He’d known it would be changed, but he hadn’t anticipated a new room altogether. He still wasn’t used to it. The pale yellow color didn’t suit him, and the sheets she chose for the bed were itchy. But he dealt with it. He wasn’t in the room very much anyway. His clothes were still packed in his duffel bag sitting in front of the new dresser.
His face buried in the pillow, he recalled the night before. His friend, Derrick, told him he was taking him out for his welcome home party. Hank rarely saw or spoke to him in the five years he’d been away, but Derrick apparently never stopped considering Hank his friend. For this Hank was grateful. Sure he felt sorry for cutting off contact with all of his friends from home, but he was convinced they didn’t need him anyway. He didn’t want to rub their faces in the fact that he got to leave little Pluto and they had to stay. Most of the forty-eight kids in his graduating class joined the workforce immediately after school. Some went into the army. Others got pregnant. A few went to school but mostly community colleges and local schools. Almost half of those people dropped out and moved back. It reminded Hank of the time he’d watched a grasshopper jump into an empty bowl sitting out after a family picnic. It had tried to climb the sides but inevitably slid into the middle again. Then it got smart and jumped over the side of the bowl. Hank considered his failure in leaving town for good. He’d felt the impossible slickness under his feet before as well.
Hank burped and still tasted beer. The previous night’s bar trip came to mind. For some reason the bar was one of Derrick’s favorites.
“There will be chicks there, I promise you,” he had told Hank over the phone.
“I don’t know. That place kind of looks like a dive. Let’s face it, it’s a basement.” Hank knew of the bar but had never been in. He hadn’t been in the area much since he’d become legal.
“So who care’s if it’s a basement? Girls love basements, man.”
“Right.” He decided not to fight it. “So the Pluto Pub it is. Pick you up at seven.”
The bar was everything he’d thought it would be. Hank and Derrick walked down the cement stairs and swung open the wooden door. It was dark and smoky; a Hank Williams song was on the jukebox.
“Hey, your namesake,” said Derrick.
There were six people in the entire joint, one leather clad biker couple, one middle aged woman with dark lipstick, her husband, and two semi-attractive women drinking screwdrivers.
Derrick turned his head to Hank. “Bingo.” He pulled out the stool next to the blonde one and jumped onto it. Hank sat down next to him. “Hello ladies, buy you a drink? Derrick.” He extended his hand. Hank had always been jealous of Derrick’s direct approach with women.
In turn they grasped his hand. “Julie.”
“Cindy.”
Hank ordered beer after beer while Derrick talked to the women. Sometimes he would include him in their conversation. (“I’ve got to turn this one over to Hank. Hey Hank, do you think these two beautiful ladies are lesbians? ‘Cause they say they are.”), sometimes not. Hank would smile politely when spoken to but wasn’t interested in anything that was said.
He figured somebody would come through the doors and save him. It was Friday night, after all. Nobody came. He gulped cold beer out of his mug to fill the time. When Derrick finished flirting he took Hank home. He fell into bed in his clothes. He didn’t wake up until his father pounded on his door at 7 a.m..
“Time to get up, party man.”
Now that the day’s work was behind him, Hank was happy to be back in the bed, his face firmly planted in the pillow. Tonight would be different, he hoped. Derrick had said something about a party. Hank pulled his cell phone from his pocket and dialed him. His voicemail picked up. “If it’s important, I’ll get back to you. If not, get the hint.”
“Derrick it’s me,” Hank started. “Let me know what’s going on tonight. You said something about a party? Because I’m in. Got to get out of this house you know? And I forgot to ask, did you get either of those girls’ numbers last night? Call me back.”
Hank flipped his phone closed and fell asleep.
When Buck woke him up a couple hours later it was nearing dusk. “You’re always sleeping. Let’s make some dinner, eh?” Buck stood over him.
“Yeah, fine.” Hank yawned. He was awfully hungry.
“I’ll fire up the grill.” Hank could hear excitement in his voice. “Can you toss something together for a side?”
“Sure thing.” Hank put his feet on the ground and scratched his ear. His dad could cook almost anything on the grill, but he was worthless in the kitchen. He and his mother were always baffled by it. The man was a genius when it came to ribs, roasts and chops, but he couldn’t prepare a simple pasta salad if he wanted to.
Hank hunted through the cabinets for food. Buck poke his head through the door leading to the backyard. “How do you like your steak?”
“Well done, please.”
“You’re kidding me?”
“Don’t start.”
Buck walked back to his Super Char-Champion Plus and grunted.
Hank found five old potatoes in a plastic bucket pushed into the back corner of the pantry. They all had eyes. He carved them out carefully. He peeled, boiled, mashed and added a little butter. When he was finished he realized that he had never made mashed potatoes before. He wasn’t sure exactly where he’d learned. Intuition, he supposed. There was no reason his dad couldn’t do this.
Buck carried the steaks into the house on a bloody plate. “No gravy?”
“Use steak sauce. I don’t know how to make gravy.”
They sat across from each other at the dining room table and cut into their meat. Blood spilled from Hank’s, running into the glob of potatoes.
“Damn, it Dad.”
“Come on, try it. It’s moist!”
Hank stood up, took his plate outside and slid the meat back onto the grill. He scraped the stained potatoes into the grass. A few minutes later Hank sat back down with his dinner. Buck was gone, his plate already washed and drying in the rack. He’d always been a fast eater. Hank happily ate his steak and did not miss the potatoes.
Hank sat in the chair closest to the refrigerator; it was his spot. His father’s chair, still cooling, was across from him, and his mother’s was on his right. That was the way it always had been.
He took his last bite and heard the tune to “Sweet Home Alabama” blaring from his pocket. The phone’s display indicated that Derrick was returning his call.
Before Hank could say hello, Derrick was talking. “So man, this party tonight, we can’t go wrong. I’m talking kegs, a bonfire, and all sorts of sweet cowgirls.”
“Ok, sure.” Hank wasn’t in the mood to go to a party with Derrick. He knew he would end up following Derrick around.
“So yeah, I think you got to drive tonight because if I have the night I’m planning, man, I am not driving home. Know what I’m saying?”
“But I don’t have a car.”
“Yeah you do. That blue one.”
“Dude, I’ve never had a car.”
“Seriously? Well how the hell did you et around at college?” Derrick accused.
“It was a big university. There was public transportation.”
“I’ll be damned.” There was a long silence. “Well I guess I’ll come by to pick you up in twenty. But you are driving me home, I mean it.”
“Okay fine. See you then.”
Hank brushed his teeth and combed his hair. He flossed meticulously then smiled at himself in the mirror. He needed a car. His face fell into a deliberate frown, his lower lip extended. He did not look good in this shirt, he decided. His belly protruded. With ten minutes to spare he tore it off of his body and threw it to the floor of the guest room. He found another in his bag. It was slightly wrinkled, but it was already dark outside. No one would notice.
“Hank!” Buck stuck his head through the front door. “Come help me get these cows in,” he shouted and slammed the door.
Hank did not shout back because he knew it was useless. He found a pair of rubber boots in the garage and plodded to the barn.
“Go open that gate and get out of the way.”
Hank obeyed and made his way down the muddy hill. As he approached the gate he could hear the mud belching under his feet. He reached the gate and thought about his escape plan. He needed to get far enough away from the stampede so they wouldn’t splash mud on his clothes. But he knew he wouldn’t have much time, as several of the cows sensed his presence and had made their way to the gate. He waved his hands in front of the cows’ faces. When they jerked back, he opened the latch and pushed. He put his foot down to make his escape run and slipped slightly in the mud. He gained his balance and tried to take another step. He discovered the boot stuck firmly. He pulled furiously, and it popped loose. Hank’s balance shifted and he fell to the ground. He tried to stop himself with his hands but was unsuccessful. As he lay on his side he felt the ground’s vibrations as the cows found their homes in the barn. Now that there was nothing he could do about it, he sort of liked the soft comfort of the mud.
“What the hell are you doing laying in the mud?”
“Nothing, I fell.” Hank rose and walked to the house. He saw Derrick’s truck tear down the long driveway. He honked when he got closer.
“Ready to go? Let’s go.” His window was down.
Hank turned his back to the truck. “Give me a minute.”
“Whoa ho! That sucks. Mud wrestling a pig again?” He spit brown tobacco juice into a Coke can.
Buck walked up to and rested his arm behind the cab.
“How’ve you been, Derrick? Still working up at the feed store?”
“Yes sir. Full time now.”
“That’s good, real good. You should give this guy some tips on job security.” Buck jerked his head towards Hank. Hank rolled his eyes in response.
Hank went into the house and wiped at the mud with a towel, then a wet washcloth. He changed as quickly as he could into his original shirt and sprayed himself with cologne. This was already shaping up to be a bad night.
Hank hopped up into Derrick’s truck and reached for the seatbelt.
“Your dad work you hard today? You look beat. Not to mention dirty.” Derrick pulled out onto the highway. Hank reached into his pocket and pulled out his pack of cigarettes and lit one with the lighter sitting on the dashboard. He pulled on the cigarette, and he began to feel better. Tonight would be better. It had to be.
Hank pointed towards the road in front of them with two fingers. He held his cigarette between them as smoke curled up around his thumb. “Just drive.” And Derrick did.
When they arrived at the party it was well underway. The yard was scattered with vehicles—mostly large trucks. A fire lit up the murky sky. A stereo system was rigged up outdoors. An AC/DC song made his ribcage vibrate.
Hank caught a glimpse of the old farmhouse on the property. It needed paint, but it appeared to be in good condition otherwise. Soon a plastic cup, already filled with beer, was forced into his hand. He found a hay bale to sit on and stared into the fire. The bale was much less threatening when he was in this position. He studied the faces of the crowd. Most of them seemed vaguely familiar. Siblings, cousins of people he’d known in high school. Versions of the people he’d used to know.
When he got up to get more beer he ran into a high school classmate. It was bound to happen.
“So what’s new with you, Hank? I hardly recognized you.”
“Nothing at all. Just home for a little while helping my dad out.” He was able to remember that her name was Jane but not much else. Later, another girl he’d known since kindergarten had the exact same conversation with him.
Hank found Derrick sitting behind the house on the porch swing. A woman was on each side of him and his arms held each tight.
“Hank, meet my new friends. Chloe and Mandy.” Derrick reminded Hank of a salesman.
“Are you guys supposed to be up by the house? Everyone else is down by the fire.”
“It’s cool, man. I know the people who live here. Well, I kind of know them.”
Hank walked back to his bale to find it occupied. He stared into the corn field that edged the party. He saw countless rows of corn stalks by the light of the fire and the moon. They were about a foot tall, and he could tell that they were ready to make their dash towards the sun in the coming months, fastening themselves to the dirt available to them, bearing their humble cobs.
Hank filled his cup once more at a keg. Someone two kegs down was doing a keg stand to much applause and cheering. This party resembled so many of the college parties he’d been to. Drunk people all act the same.
“Fill this up for me?” A woman’s hand appeared next to Hank’s. He moved the hose over to her cup until it was full, remembering just how to pour the beer with minimal head. “Thanks, I’m Maureen.”
She looked sort of motherly to Hank. Her hair curled inward under her chin. “I’m Hank. I’ll be your bartender this evening.” Her face was round and cute.
She giggled, but he knew it was because of too much alcohol and not because of his lame joke. “So, you from around here Hank?”
“Yes. Well no, really. I grew up here, but I don’t live here anymore. Well I mean, I do for now, but that’s temporary.” He took a large gulp of his beer and told himself to shut up.
“I see.”
“You?”
“No, I’m just in town visiting my cousins for a few months until I have to go back to school. They own this place. I’m from Delaware.” Delaware. Hank ran the word over in his mind, spelling it. A-W or E-W—he could not decide.
Hank tried to think of an icebreaker. “Did anyone ever tell you our High School’s mascot?”
“Nope.”
“Get this, we’re the Pluto Pod men, well, and Pod women.”
Maureen laughed “That’s ridiculous.”
“But you’d think it’s some sort of alien or extraterrestrial, right?”
“Right.”
“Nope. Soybeans. Get it? Pods.” He took a gulp of beer. “And the worst part was all the sporting events they had a student in a big soybean outfit dancing to Queen’s We Will Rock You.
She laughed warmly. “Listen, I think I’m going to go in the house for a while if you want to join me.”
Inside the music was muffled. Hank inspected the fireplace and mantelpiece. He saw pictures of people he did not know. One photo was taken in the room he was standing in. It showed a very old man wearing a cone birthday hat, blowing out a candle on a cupcake. Several children sat around him smiling into the camera. Hank placed the photo back in its spot. He wondered whose home it was.
“Care for something to eat? They’ve got leftover lasagna.” Maureen walked towards the kitchen.
“Of course.” He ran his finger over another photo of a horse held by a tall, skinny man with a purple ribbon. “Thanks,” Hank shouted into the kitchen as an afterthought.
In the microwave two pieces of lasagna spun. He watched Maureen set the table with plates, silverware, napkins, and Parmesan cheese.
“Voila.” She placed a steaming plate in front of him.
“Thank you.”
“I just had to come in and escape everyone out there. I can’t stand being around so many people I don’t know.”
“Me neither.”
“But you’re from around here. Even though you’ve been away awhile you still know people.”
“I don’t know them anymore.”
“You know, your accent is kind of funny.”
“So’s yours.”
“Just one question,” She paused to take a lasagna bite. “Do you find yourself saying ‘ya’ll’ frequently?”
Hank laughed with her. He enjoyed the lasagna, although it wasn’t as good as his mother made.
“You know, I’ve been drinking all night. I just want to go and pass out.”
“Okay, well it was nice to meet you.” While joining her sounded nice, he was not going to jeopardize their budding relationship.
“Why don’t you pass out with me?”
Was she coming on to him? “Yeah,” he said because anything else would have been stupid. Hank followed her up the stairs.
“Let me show you the guest room I’m staying in. It’s not much, but the price is right, you know?”
The room was littered with clothes. Make-up cases were strewn across the dresser. The bed was large, a king size. A fluffy comforter and layers of pillows beckoned him.
“I don’t want you to get the wrong idea by me having you up here. Know what I mean?”
“No, of course. I don’t think. . ,” Hank trailed off.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with hooking up or sex. I guess it’s just a first date thing. I don’t know you too well. Anyway, I knew you’d understand.” Maureen gave him a big smile, turned her back to him, pulled off her shirt, and revealed her bare back. For an instant Hank saw the side of her breast before she pulled on a baggy t-shirt.
They got into bed and Hank enjoyed the warmth of Maureen’s body next to his. The softness of the pillow did him in, and he fell asleep in his clothes with Maureen running her fingers through his hair.
In the morning Hank was confused for a minute or two. When he saw Maureen next to him he remembered the night before. He scrawled his phone number on a piece of paper and left it on the pillow.
He found Derrick sleeping in the bed of his truck. He was feebly covering himself with a greasy jacket.
“Hey man, wake up.”
Derrick rubbed his eyes. “Jesus. What in the hell happened to you last night? Somebody said they saw you going in the house with some girl?” Hank shrugged. “Was somebody getting lucky?”
“No. I don’t think I’d call it lucky. Fortunate maybe.”
“Don’t give me that bullshit. I can tell you fucked her. It’s okay though, you don’t have to tell me.”
“Don’t be crabby.” Hank pulled his flattened pack of cigarettes from his pocket. He held one in his lips while he fished for his lighter.
“No way. I’ve got to get home pronto. My old man is probably going to be waiting for me already.” Hank hoped his father was still at home with his farmer buddies, as was Sunday tradition. And, luckily, he was. Hank was changing his clothes when Buck came home.
\ “Somebody was out late last night.” Hank nodded. He expected this comment. “So let’s go outside and fix the hay rake.”
“Okay fine.”
Hank stood over his dad and handed him the tools Buck asked for while he fiddled with the gears. A dark mass of clouds made its way slowly towards Hank, and that gave him hope of a day off.
“Dad, can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” Buck lay on his back with a wrench in his hand.
“About Mom.” “What about her?”
“We haven’t really talked about this. But—“
“Screwdriver.”
“Which kind?”
“Phillips head.”
“But, why did Mom leave?”
Buck fiddled with the screwdriver. A few specks of rust fell on his face. “I’m not sure myself, really. Something about this house not being her home anymore or some bullshit like that. So she ran away.”
“Well, I’m sorry. For what happened.”
“Why? She’ll come back. What other choice does she have?” It had only been two weeks, so he understood his father’s optimism. “You came back home, didn’t you? She’s just got to get it out of her system.” Hank wasn’t sure if he’d made it clear to his father that this situation was temporary. He was leaving again as soon as he could.
“Where’d she go?”
“Probably her sister’s. I can’t imagine her anywhere else.” Hank hoped she had not decided to stay at Aunt Bernice’s. If she was leaving she should do it right. Hank’s round of questioning was over.
Hank started replacing all the bent tines on the rake when the first raindrops fell onto his arms.
“Look, it’s raining.” Hank stood up.
“Guess it is. Damn. I didn’t see that in the forecast.” The rain steadily increased. They both stood looking at the sky.
When Hank went back into the house he noticed a new voicemail. He punched the keypad and put the phone to his ear.
“Hi Hank. Maureen. I loved spending time with you last night. But anyway, you’re the first cool person I’ve met in this state, so give me a call or I’ll be really sad. Also, what are you doing for the Fourth of July? Bye, talk to you soon.”
The fourth. What was he doing for the fourth?
A week later they still had no plans for the holiday. Maureen didn’t know many people, and Hank didn’t want to hang out with the people he knew. So, since his father would be away at his family’s annual reunion downstate, he decided to invite Maureen over to show her the farm. He led her into the lofty wooden barn. She touched the cows’ soft noses and said she thought they were cute, but Hank was sure she was lying.
After dusk, they balanced beer bottles while they sat on the incline the roof. They had climbed out an upstairs window to better view the neighbor’s fireworks display.
“This is fantastic.” Maureen’s face was close to Hank’s. His arm was around her.
“Isn’t it?” Hank had always hated the pop and fizzle of fireworks. This show was somehow different for him though. Maybe it was because of the company. The only other times he’d seen fireworks he was surrounded by hundreds of people, gathered in the high school’s baseball diamond. And he had to give it to the neighbors. This was a nice display. Almost professional. Hank pulled out a cigarette and lit it. He took a drag on admired the blue and red bursts before him as they blew up over one of his dad’s many hay fields. But work was to stay far from his mind tonight. He pulled Maureen closer. She pulled out a cigarette of her own, pulled Hank’s from his lips, pressed the two together and puffed smoke into the night sky.
“You know, I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have a cigarette after sex.” She winked at him as she exhaled. He leaned and kissed her on the lips as the neighbors lit the thunderous finale.
They stayed long after the fireworks ended. On the roof they discovered they both loved Bob Dylan, cherry pie, and Hitchcock movies. They both hated Tom Waits, apple pie and James Cameron movies. They fell asleep on the living room floor watching The Wizard of Oz.
The next morning Hank woke up early. “Hey, wake up.” He whispered into Maureen’s ear. “Can I borrow your car?”
“Sure, where are you going so early?” She barely opened her eyes.
“There’s just someone I have to go visit. I’ll be back before you wake up. Thanks. Bye.” Hank kissed her on the forehead.
Hank drove the gravel roads to his aunt’s house. He was going to see his mother. It had been long enough. If she wasn’t coming home to see him, he was coming to see her. Her porch was covered with flowers in pots. All sorts of colors. His aunt Bernice answered the door. He wiped his feet on her well-worn welcome mat.
“Come in, come in, Hank.” She hugged him and pulled him inside. “I’m just making some biscuits. Sit at the table. I’ve got some warm ones.”
She presented him with three hot biscuits and a bottle of honey. It was a bear-shaped bottle just like the one his mom used to buy.
“Is my mom here?” Hank tore open one biscuit, releasing the steam. The honey soaked into the spongy center.
“In the shower.” His aunt disappeared into the back of the house. When she came back she was followed by Hank’s mom, Pat, wearing a robe and towel around her head.
“Hi, Ma.” Hank stood and hugged her.
“I’m going to go get ready for church,” Bernice announced. She disappeared into the bathroom.
“Hank, I’ve been hearing you were home. Sorry I hadn’t been by to see you. I just don’t feel like seeing your dad right now.”
“That’s funny, neither do I.”
“Is he working you too hard?”
“Not yet.” Pat got herself a cup of coffee and sat to Hank’s right. “What happened between you and Dad anyway?” Hank started in on his second biscuit.
“I see, getting right to the point. Nothing happened. I don’t know. You know your dad, always outside, tinkering with his tractor or fixing a fence. The problem’s me, maybe. I always wanted to leave this place. I went to community college for a couple of years and studied English. Then when it was time to go on to the university, well, I had a ring on my finger. I couldn’t leave people behind. But, you know, I didn’t care so much. I was young and had a lot of time.”
“I didn’t know you went to college.” She had worked as a secretary since Hank was born.
“Yes, well. Didn’t do me any good. But I was proud when you went away to school. I could just tell you’d leave when you got older. If not college then something else, but you didn’t seem like you were sticking around.” She sipped her coffee and laughed. “ I mean, your whole childhood you wouldn’t shut up about becoming a pilot. Airplane underwear and sheets. And that pilot hat you wore all the time.”
Hank had forgotten about his childhood obsession. “Maybe I should have gone that route. That way I’d be able to get away faster.”
“You ran track for crying out loud.”
“So why didn’t you just go. Why’d you come here?”
“I wanted to. I was going to buy a Winnebago and go south or west. See the Grand Canyon maybe? I don’t know. That was my plan. But I came here instead. It’s been two weeks now? I guess I’ve come to my senses. Bernice is driving me crazy. I suppose it’s time to come home.”
“Dad will appreciate that, I think.”
“He’d better.”
“On the other hand, why not just drive off somewhere? You don’t have to stay there. Think of it as a vacation.”
“It’s not that simple. I have a job. I can’t just pick up and go.” She picked up her mug and drank the rest of the coffee. “Maybe I’ll go when your father keels over from a heart attack and I get the insurance money.” She let out a shrill laugh.
“What if I went with you? I’ve never seen the Grand Canyon either.”
“Oh Hank. I love you.” She gripped his wrist and stared into her mug. “Are you going to eat your last biscuit?”
Hank slid his plate towards her. He heard Bernice singing “When the Saints Go Marching In” over the sound of shower water.
Pat slammed her coffee mug on the table and shouted over her shoulder, “Oh pick a new song, for Christ’s sake.”
When Hank got back to the house, Maureen had made eggs and bacon; it was a smell that he had missed.
“Thought you might be hungry. I just found this stuff in the fridge. Hope that’s okay.” The sizzling grease hung in the air.
“No. I’m glad you did. I think those eggs were about to expire anyway.”
“To see my mom. She sort of left my dad for a while.”
“That’s too bad.” Maureen flipped an egg. “How’s she doing?”
“Fine, I think she’s coming back soon.”
“Good to hear.”
“Yeah, I guess so. I hope that’s what she wants.”
“My parents are hopelessly divorced. I spent my whole childhood trying to get them back together.”
“I don’t have that problem. I don’t think my mom could leave him, and I think he knows that. I guess it’s kind of sad.” She placed a full plate in front of him. “But I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
“Understood.”
So they ate their breakfast and talked about their favorite cover songs, Stanley Kubrick movies and the Milwaukee Brewers. When she left they kissed goodbye.
“See you soon,” she said.
“I hope so.”
Two hours later his dad returned. “I really need your help today. I’ve got a lot of hay out there,” was the first thing he said to Hank. He would have appreciated a hello.
Hank dressed in his baling gear. He climbed the rack and his dad drove the tractor to a field. They baled all afternoon. Hank spotted a firework shell next to a row of hay. Later, one stuck out of the side of a bale, broken and lopsided. Hank threw the bale on the stack with the rest.
“Damn fireworks,” he heard his dad yell. Hank laughed to himself as he tossed the next bale on the pile.
When they were finished Hank’s arms and legs ached, but it felt good to feel the muscles there. His body was coming back to life. He filled at least ten racks by the end of the day. And when he was done he was satisfied.
Hank showered. When Derrick called he was hanging his clothes in the closet and sorting his socks and underwear into drawers.
“Want to go to a party tonight?”
“I don’t think so. Maureen and I have plans.”
“I see how it is, man. Hoes before bros? No problem, I think I’m supposed to bring this girl with me anyway.”
“Have fun then. Talk to you later.” Hank could imagine what the party would be like. He just wasn’t in the mood.
Maureen would be around for a couple of months, so being home wouldn’t be so hard. After that, who knows? Would he leave to follow her? He liked to think so.
Pluto, Iowa became familiar to him again, and he was happy to welcome its return to his life. He embraced the town’s three junky bars, the one Lutheran Church, the bank constructed from old brick, the general store with wooden floors. He realized he needed these places. They welcomed him, and he sank into them like he were lying in the mud.



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