December 20, 1978
I woke up early. I always woke up early on the farm.
Juan had managed to find his way back to his bed as the first signs of daylight began to streak across the sky.
I heard Unk stumbling around downstairs in the kitchen. I showered and put on some of my new clothes: work boots, denim jeans, a green and brown flannel shirt. There was no leather on the farm.
Unk had the coffee ready. He smiled and laughed at me as I walked in the kitchen.
"Those are fine clothes to wear to clean a barn," he said, as he handed me a cup.
We sat down at the long table across from each other. Heads down, hands wrapped around thick white coffee cups. Steam was rising from the liquid as we sat in silence, aware of each other, but quiet.
I could hear the snapping and popping of the damp pine wood from the stove in the corner. Out the window, looking toward the barn, I saw a large thermometer nailed to the giant, leafless bean tree in the backyard.
"Is that thing broken?” I asked. “It's showing twenty below zero." Unk didn’t reply but continued to sip his coffee.
Finally, Unk spoke, "How many?"
Staring down at the table, I didn't answer for a long time. “Thirteen, fourteen counting my father," I mumbled.
Unk lowered his eyes. "Jesus, that's tough. That's fucking hard. That's a weight to carry. I know I said it didn’t matter last night but… You have to learn to carry that burden; don't let it define you.” He took a sip of his coffee. “I was a killer; that's what I was. It defined me, and sometimes I killed because that's what everyone expected of me.” He looked up at me with pain in his eyes. “You have to be different. You have to stop. Get to a place where you can look back, face the death you've caused, and walk away. People like you, and like me, we cause harm just by existing. We hurt those we love the most. It's a cold and violent world, nephew. Always protect the ones you love above all else.”
He finished his coffee and put down the mug. “Let’s go clean out the barn. You’re going to need a heavier coat."
The snowfall from yesterday’s storm measured about a foot and a half. We had to take snow shovels and dig a path to the old Farmall Cub tractor parked in a shed near the fence to the barnyard. Shoveling snow never bothered me; I enjoyed it. Something about being out in the cold, crisp air and the pristine snow made it feel like I was escaping into another world. Unk and I were working up a sweat even in the frozen air. After about twenty minutes of digging and heavy breathing, we reached our goal. Once inside the shed, we began the ritual of starting the Cub. Getting it working was difficult on a hot July day, but at twenty below, it was damn near impossible.
Unk built a small fire and went back outside to check on the heaters in the chicken coop. Winter was a tough time on the farm. Cows, chickens, and pigs had to be kept warm, clean, and fed.
After about twenty-five minutes of some black magic and incantations, I managed to get the Farmall to sputter to life. Luckily, Unk had the foresight to hook up the plow to the front, so I was spared that battle.
I plowed out the driveway first; then I cleared a path to the barn where I met Unk. The barn cleaner – a horrible contraption that managed cow shit – was frozen. Rotten and rusted, the machine of steel and chains looked like a medieval torture device. I looked at Unk with a grimace and turned to grab a couple of shovels for the manure. These were the glory days for sure.
We finished our morning chores and walked back to the house.
"Unk, that girl, Rebecca, she works in the Agway – you remember her? She invited me over. After we finish up, do you think I could borrow the truck?” I asked.
Unk laughed out loud, stepped back, and charged at me, plowing me into a frozen drift. We rolled around on the cold ground punching each other and laughing. My aunt came to the kitchen door and yelled at both of us. We got up, covered in snow, and jogged to the house.
After taking off our snow-soaked coats and boots, we stumbled into the kitchen. My aunt and cousin were making a breakfast feast of eggs and pancakes. Juan sat at the table drinking coffee and offering winks at my cousin who giggled as she fried the eggs. I commented to him about his thin, South American blood, and how he couldn't deal with the cold.
“Fuck you, Richie,” he said, returning his eyes to my cousin.
“Does Juan know where you’re going this afternoon?” asked Unk, interrupting my retort. His eyes held a mischievous gleam as he looked between us.
“Where?” asked Juan.
“I thought I’d visit Rebecca,” I said. Juan looked at me with hatred in his dark eyes but said nothing. It was clear he was happy to be hiding out here on the farm, and he didn’t want to say anything to screw that up.
We worked until early afternoon feeding chickens and cows, trying to stay warm as we made repairs in the shed. Juan and I agreed that this was a good life: a simple and sane life. Maybe one day soon, we'd get some real money and buy a farm.
As soon as my aunt rang the bell for lunch, I ran inside and upstairs to shower and change. I passed back through the kitchen, grabbed the keys to the truck from Unk, and a short list of things to buy at the Agway. I kissed my aunt on the cheek and told her she didn’t need to save me a plate for dinner. She smiled and pressed a warm roll with butter into my hands. Juan draped an arm around my cousin and glared at me, but I didn’t care. I stuffed the roll into my mouth, gave a salute to my family in the kitchen, and walked outside to the truck. It had warmed to about zero degrees.
Rebecca was a sweet girl, but a bit of a pervert. She had a slight drinking problem and an on-again-off-again relationship with cocaine. On occasion, she'd get arrested for minor offenses, but she was never gone for long. Rebecca had a wild beauty about her; she was an uncut diamond. She never expected anything from me except a good time, period. That was the perfect relationship to me. I was glad, in a way, that we had this distance between us. We saw each other three or four times a year, got drunk, fucked like dogs and kissed each other goodbye. One year, I sent her flowers for her birthday. She bit off one of the roses, chewed it up, and spat it out. “Fuck flowers,” she’d said. Rebecca was every man’s dream.
We met at the bar and spent the next couple of hours drinking beers and doing shots. We'd sneak out back, smoke a joint in the frigid air, and sneak back in for more beer. As the day disappeared behind streaks of midnight blue, we made our way to her small apartment. We were half undressed by the time she got her key in the door.
Someone’s alarm was beeping. I woke up tangled in bedsheets. Rebecca’s arm draped across my chest. I heard a neighbor’s heavy footsteps, and the beeping stopped. I peered at the clock on the wall: 8:30 p.m. I’d lost track of time and forgot to stop at the Agway. Unk would have expected that.
I peeled myself away from Rebecca’s warm body and gathered my clothes. She stirred as I put on my boots.
“Do you want to grab something to eat?” I asked.
“No, you go. I’ll get something later,” she mumbled. I kissed her forehead as she rolled over for more sleep and left her apartment to head back to the farm.
A full moon filled the sky casting crisp shadows on the snow. The ride back was beautiful – cold as Hell – but bright. I was relaxed and looking forward to the cold plate I knew my Aunt had left me. I always told her not to wait up when I went out, but she did.
As I pulled into the driveway, I noticed the house was dark. I looked at the smokeless, cold chimney. I looked over to the red barn and saw the door wide open. The yellow glare of a lantern was casting jagged shadows on the walls. My stomach dropped as a prickling feeling of dread descended my neck and snaked out across my arms. My heart began to pound as I slammed the truck to a stop and jumped out of the cab, making brisk strides across the ground. A cow mooed to my right, and I jumped, slipping in the snow. I looked down at my feet and saw the ugly, wet crimson of fresh blood. Crawling forward into the barn, I found him inside, my Uncle. Unk was face down, his jacket soaked in his blood. I flipped him over and looked into his wide, sad eyes for the last time.
Unk was dead.
The sob began deep in my chest but erupted from my lungs as a roar. Then I was standing, shouting, walking around in circles, punching the barn-siding. It didn't move, so I hit it again – hard – harder. I punched it until my hand broke through, and the splintered wood cut the skin of my fingers. They began to bleed, the blood mixing with my Uncle’s, Uncle Unk, who was dead. I screamed and smeared it on the side of that fucking red barn, that fucking Hell, but it didn’t leave a mark because the barn was painted in blood too.
My knees buckled next to Unk's body. Hot tears streamed down my face as I sat there, on my knees, staring out at the full moon. I was sure this was a bad dream. I was going to wake up. The world could not continue after this.
A noise from the farmhouse snapped at my mind. I rose from my Uncle’s body and grabbed a shovel from the barn. Crossing the barnyard, I noticed some of the cows were loose, wandering in the cold. As I approached the farmhouse, I saw the windows that lined the door were blown out. Glass covered the hardwood floor at the entrance. Easing through the porch and into the kitchen, I saw the table overturned, plates and glasses smashed on the ground, cabinets torn open. A thick stream of blood was trailing into the living room. I stuck the shovel under my arm and stooped down to raise the table. Unk had made it years ago; it was one of the first things he made after leaving the mob. I brushed some dirt off the top, my heart sinking as I saw the bloody handprint on the edge. I raised the shovel and walked into the living room already knowing what I was going to find.
My Aunt’s body rested under the Christmas tree. A broken ornament of baby Jesus was clutched in her hand. Wrapped presents were crushed under her body, their beautiful bows dripping with blood. Her ankle looked twisted, broken, but it didn’t matter. Her body was cold.
Where the fuck was Juan? I wanted to call for him, but I knew better. I tiptoed up the stairs, the railing sticky and hot with blood, warm blood. Raising the shovel again, I pushed open the door to my cousin's room. She laid on the bed, her clothes torn, in a pool of blood. A bullet hole marked her forehead.
A crash came from the bathroom followed by a moan. I knew that moan. I ran down the hall and wrenched open the bathroom door. Juan was there, shirtless, lying face down on the floor. The medicine cabinet was open, the contents still rolling. I knelt and felt his skin. It was hot and clammy. I rolled him over, and he coughed black clots of blood. He'd lost so much blood. I could see a few, three maybe more, bullets had passed through him on the left side. One looked like it had passed right below the heart. Unless I got him help right now, he wasn’t going to make it.
I rolled him over and slapped him hard. He coughed again but didn't respond. I put my hands under his armpits and pulled him up. He attempted to stand. I bent down at my knees, picked him up, and carried him down the stairs into the kitchen. I sat him at the table. He was barely conscious. I grabbed one of Unk’s barn coats and put it around him. Then I picked him up again, carried him out the door, and threw him in the front seat of the truck. The clock on the dash blinked midnight as I sped out of my Uncle’s farm and into the night.
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