Radford heard the bellow of a goat just outside his ancient Airstream trailer.
Decades of experience told him what that particular call meant -- a proud
goat, somewhere she shouldn't be. Joe
jumped up from the kitchen table, scattering the spring seed packets he'd just
gotten in the mail.
ran outside to see Bella, the beautiful brown Nubian who was his oldest doe, in
the garden nosing at the last of his winter vegetables.
Joe's other two goats explored the driveway.
It was time to change the latch on the goat pen again -- their tongues
were like thumbs and patient as sin. He
grabbed a spatula rusting in the grass along with a stray trash can lid and
banged them together. "Come on,
girls!" he shouted. "Back
in the pen."
two in the driveway, Cloris and Rosaline, scuttled nervously toward their
familiar barnyard. Bella gave him a
baleful yellow-eyed glare and bent to the butternut squash.
Joe shooed the other two goats all the way in and, with a sigh of despair
for his squash, stopped to chain the gate shut.
left the lid and spatula behind -- the racket wouldn't impress Bella; she was
too smart for that -- and stalked into the garden.
She'd knocked the wooden garden gate right off its hinges and torn the
chicken wire away with it. "Come
on, girl," Joe said, making little clucking noises.
He smiled in spite of the damage to his vegetables.
Bella was eating weeks' worth of his meals, but damn was she smart.
goat suddenly staggered and collapsed against the half-buried gopher fence
lining the squash row. A second
later, Joe heard the flat crack of a rifle shot.
Stumbling through his Vietnam-honed reflex of hitting the dirt, Joe ran
to Bella. "God damned morons
with hunting rifles," he muttered, as he slid to his knees to calm the goat
who bleated softly. Logic told him
there wouldn't be a second shot from a flustered hunter, but his back still had
that target itch.
had taken the bullet in the shoulder. Her
flesh wasn't badly torn, but the real damage would be inside.
Joe took her jaw in his hand, stared at the barred pupils of her golden
eyes. She glared back at him, angry
and ornery as ever, her musky goat smell mixed with the hot tang of blood.
This goat wasn't going to die, not in the next few minutes anyway.
She was too pissed for that. Joe
took off his second-best work shirt, tore it in half and knotted the sleeve ends
together to wind the rags around Bella's shoulder and across her chest as a
simple pressure bandage.
naked and daubed with the goat's blood, Joe trotted toward the wooded fence line
separating his property from Ralph Farney's just to the west -- a deer-and-quail
hunting lease. By the time he got to
the barbed wire, a big red SUV was slewing down Ralph's access road, too fast
for Joe to get the plates.
February was out of season for deer anyway, so the idiot had to have been
hunting on a quail license. Couldn't
resist that big brown doe glimpsed through the trees, no doubt.
By sundown, the son of a bitch who fired the shot would have his old frat
brothers swearing he had been at the golf course with them all day.
Joe knew from long experience that Ralph would be ignorant of any
wrongdoing. Ralph made too much
money off dumb-assed
in the garden Bella struggled to her feet. Helping
her, Joe knew he should have the goat put down and slaughtered, which would
provide food for almost a whole season, but Bella was too good a friend to treat
that way. So he got the last of the
month's cash out of the coffee can under the trailer's hitch, evicted some
chickens to load Bella into the back seat of his rusty white Gran Torino station
wagon, and headed into Lockhart to see the large animal vet.
* * *
from the vet, tired and flat broke, Joe knelt in the garden in the cool orange
light of dusk and looked at the seeds he'd rescued from the kitchen floor.
Each spring he got his order from some hippies out west.
Near as he could tell from the little catalog, they were a bunch of
tie-dyed fruitcakes living in old school buses, but they had the best damned
tomato seeds going and some mighty fine cucumbers and squash as well.
like every year, the packets were handmade from recycled paper grocery bags and
sealed with wax, the varieties stamped on them with fanciful lettering in
spotty, colored ink. This time he'd
got in Moreton and Carnival tomatoes, Gold Rush zucchini, Saladin cucumbers for
his pickles, and just because he liked the name, Jack of Hearts watermelons.
Rifling through the bucket he'd put the seed packets in, Joe found the
usual scribbled invoice, this year with a note clipped to it:
Mr. Radford. Because you are such a
loyal customer, we have enclosed a special gift.
Yours in Green Earth, South Cascade Seeds.
those Oregon hippies had sent him a new variety,
their gift from the Pacific Northwest. Joe
almost smiled. The kraft paper
packet just read "Pax Agricola" -- probably one of them Latin names
the nurserymen used -- with two little girl fairies kissing over a flower Joe
couldn't identify. Right below that,
someone had written "Water with love."
with love. Right.
Singing Grateful Dead tunes the whole time, probably.
Love or no love, Joe doubted this whatever-it-was would even grow in
Central Texas so far out of Oregon's cold and damp, but what the heck?
He'd planted worse, and he could always turn the row over for a summer
vegetable if the pax agricola didn't grow.
needed to work dirt, to forget the idiots on Ralph's lease and his worries about
Bella's wound getting infected. There
weren't any directions on the packet, so Joe turned the soil in one of the rows
he'd left fallow for the winter and mixed in bone meal and manure.
With a gardener's natural economy he shook out half the seeds, inspecting
their hulls. Finally, by the early
moonlight he planted them one by one, each slipping beneath the earth as
delicate as a kiss.
* * *
pax agricola sprouted almost overnight, fast as anything he'd ever seen, sending
up the hopeful green swords of little shoots.
Joe studied them, trying to determine if they were vines or bushes or
what. From the little stamp on the
packet, he had imagined a tall plant, like a
day he mulched the shoots carefully against a possible late frost and
double-checked his repairs to the goat-damaged chicken wire and the gopher
* * *
night Ralph Farney's older boy Willie Ed, a varsity forward for the Lockhart
Lions basketball team, brought several of his buddies and a couple of girls onto
the deer lease. Joe watched the
bonfire gleam through the woods for a while, until the shrieking started.
He tried to call the sheriff on the party line, but Agnes Delore was
badmouthing the other ladies in the Emmanuel Episcopal altar guild in great
detail and pretended not to hear him asking her to get off the phone.
So Joe walked to the fence and climbed over.
are you kids doin'?" he shouted into the glare of the bonfire.
Ed was lying down in a clinch with some girl Joe didn't recognize, one hand
inside her sweater, the other down the waistband of her jeans.
Another boy hung back. All
three stared at Joe.
out of here, old man," Willie Ed said in a rough voice that probably scared
the freshmen back at Lockhart High.
folded his arms. "Somebody
girl glanced into the darkness on the other side of the fire, as the second boy
grabbed a burning branch. "He
said get out," the other boy shouted, waving the stick.
is she?" Joe asked the girl, ignoring the boys.
Ed," she said, pushing her boyfriend off.
"We should go." The
girl started to wiggle away. "I'm
old turd," Willie Ed said to Joe with a snarl, then turned away.
minute later, Joe watched two more boys and another girl walk out of the shadows
beyond the fire. The six kids got
into a minivan and drove off. The
other girl -- Nancy? -- was crying, but there wasn't much he could do about
that. At least he'd got them to stop
messing with her. Maybe she'd
next morning his gate was bashed in, and his mailbox was missing, the post a
kid?" said the Caldwell
knew where this was going, but he had to try.
"That's what I thought," he said.
"Kid's a problem."
deputy sighed. "Think about it
some more, Joe. The basketball
team's going to the Division II playoffs. School
really needs him.
hung up on the deputy. Sometimes
there was no point.
* * *
couple of weeks later, getting on into March, the pax agricola plants were
pretty -- long, leggy stems, purple-edged leaves like little blades, and already
a puffy crown like Queen Anne's lace got before it flowered and bolted to seed.
They were only a couple of feet tall, but Joe figured they'd hit five or
six feet full-grown.
spent a quiet Tuesday afternoon raising the chicken wire higher above the pax
agricola and weeding out the Johnson grass in his garden rows.
The garden was more peaceful and satisfying this spring, somehow.
Bella's stitches were healing up clean, so Joe had set aside the
antibiotics for future use. The
chickens clucked quietly in the yard around the trailer, and the turkey vultures
circled high overhead in a blue silk sky. It
was a perfect Texas
wife called him that night.
the hell are you doing?" Beth Ann demanded, as soon as he picked up the
honey," Joe said. "Nice to
hear your voice again."
you honey me, you white trash fool.
I haven't seen a check in three months.
Only reason you don't have a demand letter from Pettigrew already is he
said I had to call you first."
like old times, Beth Ann riding his ass from the first flap of her gums.
Also just like old times, she was full of it.
As Joe understood the concept, "temporary support" was supposed
to run out eventually, but he and Beth Ann had been in the process of getting
divorced for almost six years. Pettigrew,
her boyfriend-attorney, had a buddy in the family court in Travis
County, and somehow things never turned out
like Joe expected, what with the endless stream of continuances, stays and
refilings. Stuffed behind the
paneled walls of his trailer, all that paperwork made nice insulation.
was pretty sure the system wasn't supposed to work this way, but he didn't know
who to complain to, and he didn't have the money for his own lawyer.
Besides, all the legal fuss kept Joe's wife away from him, which was the
Ann," Joe said into the tense silence on the line, "You haven't had a
check because Pettigrew attached my pension last fall.
If I work to make enough money to pay you, I'll lose my Social Security,
too. Then I'll have nothing."
she said, her voice growing sharper, "a woman has needs.
Just because you're lazy doesn't mean I should do without."
time he'd seen Beth Ann, she was driving Pettigrew's fancy German car.
"I understand about needs, honey," he said, trying to be
you need to send me some money, or
I'll need to have you back in court.
And Pettigrew says you won't like it this time."
hadn't liked it the last few times, either.
But the alternatives were worse. For
one thing, if he didn't give her some money, she might come out here and visit
him. "In the mail
tomorrow," he said.
Ann hung up on him. Joe sighed, then
went out to his coffee can under the trailer hitch.
He had just cashed this month's social security check.
It was a hell of a price to pay, but at least he had his garden and his
* * *
Sunday morning a few weeks later, the pax agricola bloomed.
They had matured much faster than Joe expected.
It was only late March, and great purple-and-yellow flowers were bursting
from the tall plants, each as high as his head.
blossoms were narrow, like lilies, but more open, with variegated petals and the
dusty smell of summer in their fragrance. As
he sniffed them, Joe was reminded of the endless summers of his long-ago youth,
chasing snakes in the tall grass, and nights between the cool sheets, savoring a
chocolate bar snuck into bed.
liked the smell so much that he fetched a pitcher of tea and his lone dinette
chair and made a place in the garden where he could sit and watch the flowers.
Each bloom was its own miracle, each plant its own world.
This was why Joe lived in the country, put up with the inconveniences and
indignities of his life. The glory
of nature, brought forth by his green thumb, sunlight and water.
was plenty to be done around the place, but the plants were too nice.
Joe didn't usually find himself being so lazy on a good working day, but
somehow this felt right.
Mr. Radford," said a young man.
up, Joe recognized the newcomer as the kid who'd threatened him with the burning
uh, me. Tony Alvarez.
remember. Can I help you?"
Joe was surprised at himself as soon as he said it -- normally he would
have run the punk right off.
I'd fix up that busted gate a little more, then come sit with you a while here
in the garden." The kid looked
at his feet. Joe could swear Tony
was blushing. "If you don't
mind. Seeing as I owe you an apology
guess so," said Joe. "I
believe there's another chair in the hayloft of the goat barn."
He really didn't care for visitors, but the kid seemed okay.
little while later a red SUV came crunching down the gravel drive and parked
next to Joe's old Ford. Three young
men in suits and ties got out. Two
of them walked over to the goat pen while the third brought Joe a big sack.
some burritos on the way down here," the man explained with a grin.
"Mind if we visit a while? We,
uh, kind of want to make up for Decker over there being such an idiot."
The stranger nodded toward the goat pen, where his two friends were
feeding carrots to Bella, Cloris and Rosaline.
face felt prickly, hot, like he was embarrassed, but he wasn't.
He rarely felt that way, and certainly not now.
What was happening? He
glanced at the flowering pax agricola. They
nodded gently in the breeze.
Joe realized there wasn't a breeze blowing.
"Suit yourself," he said, almost straining against his own
words, "but I've about run out of chairs."
Two was his limit, for all kinds of good reasons.
man smiled. "We brought our own
gear." Then, as he turned away,
he added, "And, hey...thanks for letting everything be okay."
, all the kids from the bonfire had
shown up. The basketball players
were fixing the windows on Joe's old trailer, caulking them tight, while the
high school girls and the lawyers cleaned up inside.
Ralph Farney and Agnes Delore came around with shovels and a wheelbarrow
and cleaned out the goat barn, while two sheriff's deputies parked their cruiser
in the driveway and in no time had the carburetor of the Gran Torino spread out
on a towel, rebuilding it from a kit they'd bought in town.
Even Gracie Thompson, the rural letter carrier that serviced Joe's R.F.D.,
turned up on her own time, hand-delivering a large check from social security
making up for a long-term shortfall in their calculations of Joe's benefits.
Gracie stayed to cook lunch for everyone on Joe's little smoker --
sausages and potatoes she'd brought with her.
were too many people, acting too nice, trampling all over his land, and somehow
it just didn't matter. Joe tried
real hard to think about that, but every time he concentrated on his irritation,
it slipped away from him. He had the
overwhelming sensation that life was good, life was supposed to be good, and
that he shouldn't worry about it.
scared the hell out of him.
cleared his thinking. It had to be
the damned pax agricola flowers. Everything
that normally went wrong around him was suddenly too right.
That meant Beth Ann and
Pettigrew would be here soon. He
really didn't want to see his wife. Magic
flowers or not, she was out of his life, and he liked it that way.
No way was he reconciling under the influence of pax agricola.
Not with her, not with Ralph Farney, not with no one.
stood up, reached for one of the pax agricola flowers, to see if he could break
it off the stem. It was like
reaching into mud -- his hand moved slower and slower the closer it got to the
flower. Joe got the feeling he could
spend the rest of his life reaching for that flower and still never touch it.
him, the double-toned blare of Pettigrew's car horn echoed through the woods
along the driveway. Joe turned to
see the red BMW pull to a stop behind the parked sheriff's cruiser.
Following the BMW was a parade of vehicles, filled with people he vaguely
-- court clerks and Wal-Mart cashiers -- and plenty more he didn't.
A helicopter clattered overhead, then banked over the second-growth woods
to look for an open field in which to land.
shit," Joe whispered.
these people coming together and helping out...it's like the beginning of peace,
Mr. Radford," said Tony Alvarez.
didn't want peace, he wanted solitude, damn it.
If he didn't do something quick, Beth Ann would be all over him trying to
make up, and Joe would never be ready
for that. If the problem was in the
garden, well, there was a solution for gardens.
"I'm getting my goat," said Joe.
He shouldered Tony out of the way, marched to the goat pen, and whistled
old brown nanny wandered up, glaring at him as usual.
The liquid gold eyes with their barred pupils could be unsettling to
people who didn't know goats, but Joe and Bella understood one another.
He undid the latch, put one hand on her collar and stroked her neck with
the other. "I've got a special
treat for you, girl," Joe whispered in her ear.
"You'll love this. We're
going to the garden."
the years Joe had spent keeping the goats out of the garden had certainly taught
Bella that word. She bleated,
pulling him along to the chicken wire gate.
Joe let the goat in, led her along the rows of sprouting zucchini,
cucumber and watermelon, and stopped in front of the pax agricola.
"I can't touch 'em," he whispered in Bella's ear, "but
you're ornery enough to eat damned near anything, so do the right thing, old
girl. Give me my life back."
Alvarez gave Joe a puzzled look. "You're
letting the goat into the garden?"
sniffed the thick stalk of one of the pax agricola.
said Joe, "and not a moment too soon."
the distance he heard Beth Ann calling his name.
just do it," Joe said. Fine
time for the goat to develop some manners.
that goat, she's--" Tony was
interrupted by Joe putting a hand over his mouth.
you mind, boy," said Joe. Bella
munched the first stalk. The flower
collapsed in a spray of purple-and-yellow pollen.
"Things can be too easy, sometimes."
goat set to the pax agricola with an appetite.
She chewed down the stalks, ate the blooms, tore the leaves.
As Bella finished off the plants, the hum of work around his little farm
settled down to an uneasy calm.
Joe," said Beth Ann as she stepped into the garden.
honey," said Joe. She was the
same as ever -- peroxide hair, leopardskin spandex, a leather miniskirt.
It didn't look as good on her as it had thirty-five years and forty
pounds ago. Just the sight of her
was irritating. Then voices began to
rise again, this time in anger -- arguments breaking out, shouts, curses, all
the ragged symphony of daily life.
Ann's voice was just as nasty as the rest. "This
is about normal for you. You can
screw up anything."
her shoulder, Joe could see the deputies slugging it out with one of the Austin
Pettigrew stalked toward Joe with an angry look in his eye.
think it's the end of peace now, Mr. Radford," said Tony.
the goat started in on the zucchini seedlings, Joe smiled.
"Back to normal. Ain't
decided there wasn't any point in
prosecution for incitement to riot and disturbing the peace, Joe got out of jail
and came home to find that Agnes Delore and Tony Alvarez had been feeding his
goats and keeping an eye on the garden. Tony
told him the goats had behaved. The
Gran Torino really did run better, and the trailer was less drafty, so the whole
sorry business hadn't been a total loss.
sat at the little table, examining the kraft paper pax agricola packet.
He tipped a few of the remaining seeds into his hand.
Tiny things, to do so much, he thought, rolling them back and forth with
his fingertip. He wondered for a
moment how they'd taste. "You
never know," Joe said aloud, then dropped the seeds back into the packet
and reached for the tape to seal it up. Maybe
next year he'd be ready for more peace and less quiet.
a goat bellowed. It didn't sound
like one of his. Uh-oh, thought Joe.
He peeked out the trailer's tiny window toward the goat barn and the pen
surrounding it. Bella leaned
against the gatepost, scratching herself and glaring at him as she chewed her
cud. Then Joe saw a whole parade of
goats picking their way on to his property, heading for the pen.
Copyright © Joseph E. Lake, Jr. 2004
About the Author:
Leviathan 4, and Realms of Fantasy. He
is also a co-fiction editor of the Polyphony anthology series and the upcoming
All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories.
Leviathan 4, and Realms of Fantasy. He is also a co-fiction editor of the Polyphony anthology series and the upcoming All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories.
Lone Star Stories * Fiction and Poetry with a Texas Twist * Webzine Copyright © 2003-2004