Shuck says that when the rain comes down, you best stop what you’re doing and stand under shelter—tin roof of the outhouse, cross beams of the barn awning, or even an elm tree if that’s all you got nearby. Shuck says that, here, in these parts and around these parts, a curse was laid by a gypsy back before the roads were ever laid, and that she cursed the ground where the rain would then fall, even if the rain mistakes the ground as the skin on your forehead, your arms, or your upheld palms. He says that the gypsy was dying in a rut beside some wagon-path and that she stuck out her gypsy arm to signal for the travelers and that they watched her arm gather the wetness of the falling rain before continuing onward by lamp-light, all of them making some sort of silent decision to roll their wheels past her crumpled body and just move onward like they’d been doing anyways. He says the gypsy woman, dying, cursed the rain to be the tears she hadn’t shed.
Shuck says most all of this with his teeth tight together and his head casting over his shoulder like the gypsy woman will come up behind him at any moment and wrap her slender fingers along his throat. He points his cigarette at me when he speaks and tells me, “If you’re out there and it starts raining, you move your ass to the barn, or lay under the damned combine if you have to. If there isn’t nothing else, that’s where you go. And don’t walk. You run. Hustle your ass somewhere where the rain won’t fall.”
I can’t imagine this place before the roads were laid. It may have looked mostly the same, but without the strips of gravel and broken asphalt casting off down to the tree line. I sure can’t imagine how a gypsy would have found herself in this town before those roads were laid. Shuck says she came by way of boat with Columbus. Says she was a stowaway, feeding on sick and diseased rats, eating them alive and sucking the life blood from out their bones. Says she huddled in a dark corner of the ship where not even Columbus himself was prepared to step foot in for fear of the shadows. Says sailors then were superstitious and stepping foot in a dark corner meant death by age twenty-two. Says that when the boat rolled up the rocks to the New World, she took off like the madwoman she was and high-tailed it all the way to Marion, Illinois, never once stopping for food, a piss, or even a breath. He says that once she got here, she made a home out of branches and twigs, and lived inside it, eating squirrels, rabbits, and the flesh of the Native Americans who wandered by, however innocently. Shuck says that by feeding on the flesh of mankind, she persisted throughout generations and centuries.
Just a couple days past, Shuck and I stood in the field as the work day was looking like it was closing. The sun fixed itself just over the horizon and expanded into a red eye, suspended there in the sky. The combine was headed back and kicking up all the dirt and dust from the dry ground. Shuck had been working on Boss’s plumbing for the day. He stood at the center of the circle as we waited for Boss to pull the combine up, step down, and tell us we could go eat. Shuck stood with a wrench in his hand and his face painted with grime and grease. He turned to us, his neck craning and looking at the sky with his eyes at a half-squint and a low whistle coming through his lips. “That’s a rain sky if I’ve ever seen one.”
The sky, though the sun was wholly red like it was bursting, was entirely blue with a few strains of yellow running cross-wise. One of the guys spoke up first and said that Shuck was full of shit. He said Shuck was bat-shit crazy. Shuck paid no mind and kept his eyes on the contrails running through the blue and yellow sky, tracing them back to their unknown point of origin. He patted the wrench against his bibs and pulled a cigarette from behind his ear. “That’s a rain sky if I’ve ever seen one,” he said again with his teeth clenched down on the filter. “There’s time yet, but yes, that’s a rain sky.”
Boss pulled the combine into the barn and we heard the engine die and rest. He walked out from the barn and flapped his hand like he was shooing a gathering of geese or thrushes. We went into the house where his wife had the food already divvied onto plates. She asked us to take it outside because she’d just mopped the kitchen. All of us agreed without a moment’s hesitation. The air was rich with the smell of burnt leaves and raised dust from the combine’s path. The ground was yet lit by the red and bold sun. Only Shuck stood still when she said this and remained still while everyone else moved around him with their plates steaming, like he was a rock in a stream. Shuck told her, “It’s going to rain out there.” She leaned against the kitchen counter and looked out the window. “It is not, Shuck.” Shuck shrugged and smacked his lips like he’d already resigned to whatever fate would become of him if he were to be sprinkled with the rain of the cursed town.
I’d been working and living on the farm since the start of summer. My father had sent me to work for Boss. They’d been friends some year in the distant past which had been mostly forgotten by both parties. I didn’t mind the work. It was something to do until the next year, when I was to start college at Vanderbilt. On my first day, Boss had introduced me to most all the other guys, except for one: Shuck. Some of the guys joked with Boss and asked if he was going to introduce me to Shuck, to which Boss laughed low and from within himself like he does and he said, “Shuck can do that for himself.”
Shuck did do that for himself. He approached me while I was on the mower on my first day and made a gesture for me to kill the engine. He stood akimbo beside the mower and lit a cigarette. He pointed to the deck of the mower. Tufts of hair curled up around his cap like snow colored by exhaust, his belly forced his tucked shirt tight against his side. “Keep that mower clean. Clean it each morning. If you don’t clean the deck, the likelihood of combustion will nearly triple, or quadruple. You ride that mower out one morning, forgetting to take a good rag to the deck, a hose, or at least a broom, you won’t know what hit you. You’ll be riding on past the barn with your music playing in through your head and sooner than you can smell the singeing of your own flesh, you’ll be lit up like a Jew’s candle. I’ve seen it happen once or twice and its over before you know it. My name is Shuck. Clean that deck, kid.” He waited for me to nod and he walked off to the north field with a lazy, limping gait.
I was the only worker who stayed with Boss and his wife. His wife knew my father, too, back from those days lodged deep in the past, and when she talked about him she perched forward like she was recalling something she wasn’t sure had ever happened. They asked me about him and I didn’t have much to say. I most often turned the conversation to the next day’s work and sometimes I asked questions about Shuck. I asked where he came from, what his job was, and how old he was. They didn’t have much to say to my questions and shifted the conversation to the next day’s work and what I’d be studying at Vanderbilt come next year.
The guys go out most Saturdays to the bar in town. I’m not yet old enough and I stay in on the weekends, flipping through the digests that Boss’s wife orders in the mail. I read about divine intervention to disease and cancer. I read about how miracles occur for the lost and the weary. I read about the way that folks are most often forced to wait until the last second of their life-breath before they are healed and the sickness and dying evaporates from their skin.
Come Mondays, I hear stories about the bar. Most of these stories circle around Shuck. The guys talk about Shuck and say his name like it’s a word they can’t yet pronounce, it fumbles awkward and long off their tongues. Each one of them says it different, but most all of them say it with their eyes squinted like they taste something sour. From the stories I’ve heard, I guess that some nights, after several beers and tumblers of whiskey, Shuck stands out in the street, sidestepping the infrequent truck and waiting there in the middle of the street, sometimes looking up at the sky. On one occasion, I guess he sat down cross-legged on the asphalt, drinking a long-neck and letting it spill down his chin and down his shirt. He sat there with trucks swerving and honking inches from his posterity, until the guys pulled him up by his arms and walked him to his truck.
Last month, Boss asked me to help Shuck split wood. Shuck insisted he didn’t need any help, but Boss turned and headed to the South field before Shuck could complain much more. I set the wood on the track and Shuck pressed the lever with an expression on his face that was somewhere between pain and embarrassment. After seven or so logs, he would remove his work gloves and rub his hands with his back turned, kneading the knuckles and pulling at each finger. He’d seen me watching him and stuck his hands in the pockets of his bibs. I saw their shape against the denim and saw how they twisted around each other. That’s the first time he made mention of the gypsy that came with Columbus to the New World. After each log split, he gave another piece of the story. Splitting each log into fifths or sixths, into manageable portions for a wood stove, he would retrace his story to the beginning and start it all over again. I could tell he liked telling the bit about the gypsy stowed on the ship, sitting cross-legged in a corner, not a single person knowing she was there nor caring if they knew, feeding on rats with green skin and red eyes, fighting to bite into their living bodies with their blood dripping into a pool between her legs.
A week after we split logs, Boss told Shuck to show me how to re-wire the barbed fence. He didn’t take any time to tell me what he was doing as he walked with a roll of barbs, stringing them quickly around the wooden poles. He talked and I followed him all the way around the West field. He told me that the gypsy was once taken captive by French traders. They tied her to a stake and were set to burn her. They lined manageable-sized logs at her feet and lit torches. They approached her and slapped her across her face and spit on her body. But she escaped by biting the hand off of a man who tried to slap her, using the dismembered hand to untie the rope that held her to the stake.
Several days after re-wiring the fence, Shuck asked Boss if he could take me to town for new tractor parts. Shuck drove Boss’s truck and smoked with the windows up, filling the cab with thick tendrils of burnt and cheap tobacco. He took the long way into town and told me that they gypsy had been the most beautiful girl to ever exist back in Spain. She had been the daughter of a rich soldier. But after some incident that Shuck wasn’t entirely sure of, she had joined with a vagabond group of gypsies, travelling the foothills of Spain, marking her new group’s travels by the patterns of stars and their gathered constellations. Shuck said that she had been the most beautiful girl to ever set foot on the entire European continent. But she grew old so quickly that soon her limbs began to tangle and go numb. She lost the muscle in her arms and legs and she moved on her thin bones, under a thin cover of skin. Soon, she couldn’t even do something so fundamental as bend down to pick up a stone and skip it across a river for luck.
Last Monday, while we took our break for lunch, the men leaned across the tables on their elbows, throwing their heads back with sudden and sharp laughter. They told me that, at the bar on Saturday, Shuck had struck a conversation with a woman. Big, plump. They had conversed beside the dart board, speaking in low whispers, drowned out by the breaking of pool balls. Shuck had made a movement to bring her closer to his hips and she had slapped him clean across the face, stormed out the entrance, and Shuck had stood stock-still, rubbing the cheek she had smote, rubbing it with a dumb-struck look wrought across his face before leaving the bar with a cigarette perched in his lips like a missed kiss.
As they spoke, I saw Shuck down at the end of the table, lifting a shaking ear of corn to his teeth, either completely indivisible from the task at hand, or entirely unaffected by their re-telling. Perhaps it was both. But I watched as he massaged his hand between bites and his jaw pulsed in a clench, with some form of pain that I won’t bother to try and set a name to.
On Wednesday, Shuck found me filling the troughs and told me to come with him. Said he was going to town to pick up some spare parts for the irrigation line. Shuck drove Boss’s truck straight through town and when I asked where we were going, he said he needed something from his house.
Shuck lived past the town limits, past the state campgrounds, and past the plant. Boss’s truck shuttled and shook across unpaved roads and stretches of grass which weren’t roads at all. Its tires lurched through thickets and over splaying ferns. Branches rattled across the roof and made a sound like light rainfall. The trees grew so thick that I didn’t think we could take the truck an inch further. But Shuck navigated its hull between trunks without an inch to spare on either side. He drove this way through the thickening forest until we arrived at a clearing. In the middle of the clearing, where the sun found grace enough to shine, Shuck’s home rested. It was a trailer, sunk a good foot into the earth. I couldn’t guess at its original, factory color. Whatever paint had once covered it was now colored dried-blood with rust, entire holes eaten into its sides by time and weather, opening jagged windows at a stove-top oven and an army cot. Shuck let the truck idle as he got out and limped into his home, and came back out with two cans of beer in his hands and something like a smile widening across his face.
He backed the truck out of the clearing, between the narrowing trees and over the thickets and ferns. When we were back on the unpaved roads and headed into town, he popped the can of beer open and brought it to his lips, peering over the tipped can. The can shook in his hand and beer spilled from the corners of his mouth. He told me, “That other’s for you.”
We drank the beers as Shuck kept his below the wheel, scanning the distant road for police cruisers. He knew I knew this and said, “My old man was a lieutenant in the police force at Tallahassee.” I waited with the beer cool on my lap. After a while I asked him how he ended up in Illinois. He drove on like he hadn’t heard the question, turning onto the main road and crushing the empty can in his good hand and tossing it out the window. When we pulled up to the parts supply store, he said, “I left Florida when I was about your age. Didn’t have the temperament for it.”
We drove back to the farm and Shuck was silent the whole way, wiping his sleeve across his dry mouth every couple minutes. He dropped me off at the barn and pulled the truck up to the house. I watched from the barn door and saw Shuck’s silhouette in the cab window, sitting perfectly still in the driver’s seat for several minutes before exiting the truck and standing on the graveled drive with his head turned up to the sky.
The next day Shuck was working on the plumbing and Boss combed the fields on his combine, lazily batting the gnats with his cap, his other hand on the wheel. While we waited for Boss to pull his combine up to the barn, Shuck stood akimbo, massaging his hand against his hip, and looked up to the sky. “That’s a rain sky if I’ve ever seen one.” The guys gave him some shit and Shuck just looked right on up at the sun with his eyes mostly-closed and said it again but softer and somehow lesser. He said, “That’s a rain sky. There’s time yet, but that’s a rain sky if ever I saw one.”
We ate our dinners outside while the sun hung low and large like a red hole, expanding and consuming the edible heavens. Shuck held his foil-covered plate in his arm like a football, pacing around the barn, walking out to a tree, stopping, looking up, moving back to the barn, stopping, and looking up. He stopped and sat cross-legged atop a tuft of overgrown grass I’d missed with the mower. He peeled the foil from the plate and began pulling the chicken apart slowly and appreciatively. He cracked the bones and sucked the meat off them, picking up fallen fragments and setting them on his tongue. From where I sat, a good distance away, I could see the grease painted on his chin, reflecting the greatness of that low sun.
One of the guys, also looking out at Shuck, said, “Man is bat-shit crazy.” Another guy said, “Hard time will do that to a man.” They all nodded solemnly and continued eating with their plastic forks and taking drinks from their Styrofoam cups in unison. I asked what they meant by that—hard time. The guy who’d said it gave a short laugh, like a gun shot. He looked around at the table and they stopped their eating, setting their chicken bones to their plates and wiping their mouths with their napkins. The guy said, “Few years back, we went out to the bar. On a Saturday. We went out to the bar and Shuck drank a good bit, maybe more than he normally would. Afterwards, the dumb shit hops up into his truck and drives out of town. He’s driving, you know, just driving, happy and drunk as hell on the rain-slicked roads. Crashed his truck into an elm tree. Not just crashed. The man wraps the steel frame of his truck around the tree like a horseshoe. God must take pity on the lowliest of creation because somehow the old man survives. He climbs out the window of the truck because the door’s folded in. Concussed, broken arms, broken legs, a broken neck, he lays there by the road-side waiting for some other miracle. He waited there all night. Well, I passed by the next morning on my way to church with the family and I saw old Shuck’s truck wrapped around a goddamned tree. I hadn’t seen Shuck himself. The rain was still heavy and my wipers couldn’t push it from the windshield fast enough to see much of anything. I figured he’d gotten picked up by an ambulance and a tow was on its way for his truck. I mean, I said a prayer for the poor bastard, not knowing he was hidden there in the wet grass. I guess someone finally stopped and spotted him, called the cops. Of course he was arrested after being tended to. Beer cans filling the back seat of his truck, a pretty obvious scene, you know? Served almost a year for it. Turns out it wasn’t a new occurrence for old Shuck. Didn’t help that they’d started coming down pretty hard for that sort of thing. But sure enough, Boss hired him back on when he got released. Bat-shit crazy, I tell you. Bat-shit crazy.”
The guys finished their meals all at once and rose to throw their plates and cups away. They exchanged some grunts of farewell, getting into their respective trucks and kicking the driveway dust into a cloud beneath their rolling tires. I went into the house and washed my hands and face, watching the dirt from the day spiral into the drain. I went to the kitchen for a glass of water and saw that the windows were freckled with a fresh rain. The trees in the yard swayed like dresses in a spastic wind. Boss was seated at the kitchen table, drinking from a steaming cup of tea. He said, “It’s raining, all right.”
I looked out from the window and saw Shuck sitting cross-legged beneath an elm tree, watching the rain fall steady and drip from the broad leaves, looking up to the sky with what could have well been either a smile or a grimace.
Boss’s wife came over to the window, wiping her hands on her jeans, and looked out at Shuck. She said, “He does this most every time it rains. I like to think he’s praying out there like that. Praying and asking for healing of some sort. That’s what I like to think.”
Boss took another drink of his tea and sighed, relaxing his legs and stretching them. “He’s out there spouting his curses, most likely. The way he likes to do. He doesn’t have a mind to pray for nothing but damnation for the rest of us.”
Healing, cursing, or damning. None of it is what I’d like to think.
I like to think of the gypsy woman, running through the southern states with her dress around her knees, a widening smile through the exhaustion, the hem of her dress in the crippled-clutch of her hand, passing through thickets with her bare feet kissing the blades of bluegrass. Running just so, all the way to this single spot where the rain dripped down off of broad leaves and pooled in the ancient grass. I like to think of the gypsy woman falling asleep, dreaming of old Spain, ships, and the shadows she slept in along the way.
T.j. Martinson is a graduate student at Eastern Illinois University, studying Creative Writing. His work has been published in The Heavy Feather Review, The Milo Review, The Penwood Review, and others.