By Dan Cardoza
In North Dakota, winter rides the Great Plains in war paint, in brumal hues of white. It’s here there is nowhere to hide, and never more so than now.
After my my customary bowl of chili, Billy McGuire, now a high school senior shows up at my door. He says, “If you’re not too busy, I’d like to visit?”
It’s a short visit, mostly about nothing. He leaves early. I know his daddy has an organic dairy too. He depends on his boy for chores at dawn.
I knew they were friends, but I never saw them as close.
After four years of ice-age winters, blue Billy blows in again asking to come in from the cold.
“Well Mr. Caulfield, I’m a Cornhusker now at Nebraska. Third year, headed for engineering, home on break”
“That’s great, son, ah, Billy. It seems like yesterday when you two were sixteen”
My throat is a crape paper funnel. Young Billy and I have less in common than Charlie Manson and Hall of Famer, Saint Mother Teresa. He reminds me of skim milk or vanilla.
Following three long years of declining corn futures, coincidently, Billy shows up in one of my autumn barns. He’s as an evening patch of shadow in one of my last incandescent lights. His eyes shine like he’s been drinking.
“Hi Mr. Caulfield”
“Call me Tommy.” I say, “Caulfield was dad.”
Oh, ok Mr.… I mean Tommy.
“I hear you got yourself one of those cubicle jobs over there in Omaha, I say?”
“Sure did, pays good, I’m engineering New Holland tractors, and I’m getting married next spring.”
I only say “Nice,” because the John Deere’s needs an oil change. But, I will do just about anything to avoid his droning on. I notice I’m biting my lower lip again just like when my mind wanders too far from the past.
This time I’m blunt. I ask, “Billy, what the hell is this all about?”
Billy looks down toward the floor, half expecting the answer to appear scrawled in farm talc on the top of his black city shoes.
“Well,” he says. “I better let you go. See you again, sometime.” Confused, my mind goes back to dirty filters and smudge. After he drives into the dust, I say to myself, “Ya, kid. See you around.”
My great room is two chairs and an old Zenith TV. With the TV off, I am waiting for just about any excuse to quit. As usual, that doesn’t happen.
She’s windy tonight, likes to rattle the door like she wants in.
Feeling sorry for myself, I obsess my silent mantra:
‘I bought the Browning sixteen gauge, needed a new trigger and bluing, bought the overkill magnum shotgun shells. I purchased his baggy Levi’s; they’d made fun of at school, and that heavy taupe coat he wore.
I acquired the metal posts, and the red fence post driver, as well as what is now rusty barbed wire that encircles the corn field like a sanctorium. I own the abandoned field and the slopped topography where crow’s call home. I even bought the dead scarecrow that won’t leave me alone.’
It’s Christmas Eve, and it’s more than late. Janice and I are on a double date with Southern Comfort and a drinking glass. Ball and Chain is caterwauling away on my JBL wireless speaker. Tonight Janice insists on taking me down.
I waken near midnight from a voice outside the bottle. “Mr. Caulfield, are you home?”
Before reaching the door, I say, “God damned it Billy, hell no, I’m leaving the lights on to scare off the ghosts.” Most see my cynicism as dry humor.
“Come in out of the cold Billy. You’ll freeze your nuts off with the wind chill and all. Wanna’ drink?”
“No thanks, Mr. Caulfield. I’ve already had too much. If it wasn’t just me and the snow, I wouldn’t be driving.”
Billy sits, stares. He’s grown into a hulk of a man. If you have time, it does that to you. His cheeks glisten.
“Mr. Caulfield, it’s about Jeremy.”
“What about Jeremy?”
It’s all my fault. My life has been on hold since the accident.”
“Son, what the hell are you saying?
The night before, before the tragedy, Jeremy and I were set to have a few beers with some friends in the city. I phoned and canceled, said we’d changed our minds. But that wasn’t true. We ditched Jeremy and left for Grand Forks without him.
It’s then Billy begins to cry into the palms of his hands, as if hiding away from his pain.
“I answered the phone that night, Billy, the night before our hunt. I wanted to see Jeremy shoot his new pheasant gun, in the worse way.”
“But if it weren’t for me Mr. Caulfield, he’d still be alive,”
No, it’s entirely my fault, Billy. I bought him the hunting license. I drove him to our most remote snowy cornfield. He was so excited before he crumpled through the thrums of barbed wire. That’s when that infinity shotgun went off.
The truth is, I’ve invested so much in my pain, nobody is going to take that away from me — not even Billy.
Billy and I sit for the longest time, each taking turns feeding the hickory fire. We polish off lady Comfort. The empty bottle finds us waking at three A.M., early Christmas morning.
Billy jumps up from the reclining chair, hugs me, and says, “I got two kids in town who’ve been twisting in their sheets for Santa.”
And just like that, he too is out the front door and out of my life forever.
That special night was the only dammed thing Billy and I ever had in common.
As dawn yokes the swollen sun up and over the horizon, I feel a little tug of weight rise off my shoulders, the first time in years. I think I can make it until sundown.
Dan A. Cardoza’s poetry, nonfiction, and fiction have met international acceptance. He has an M.S. degree in education from C.S.U.S. Most recently his work has been featured in Brave Voices, Cabinet of Heed, Cleaver, Coffin Bell/2019 Anthology, Dime Show Review, Entropy, Gravel, New Flash Fiction Review, Poached Hare, Spelk, Thrice and Vamp Cat.