The Bone Cans – James Guthrie

1.

Hay field, midnight(ish). Sixteen round bales are lined up in two parallel rows. A crowd of ten young drunks mill around. Two runners are hoisted up and flashlights are laid by their feet. The beams catch only the crests of the bales, illuminating two humped and ragged paths.

“On your mark, idiots.”

One runner takes a sort of mock sprinter stance, but then someone shouts “go” early and he’s off balance. He slips and scrabbles and only makes it three moguls down before staggering into the black gap between the rows. He’s found a minute later, badly scratched but laughing.

The other runner, uncontested, nevertheless runs full bore right off the end of the row. He vanishes in a cloud of mold spores and other allergens.

 

2.

My grandfather has three-and-a-half fingers on his left hand. The ring finger is completely gone. Half his middle finger is missing.

“Ever brush your teeth like this?” he asks and he spits dentures into the hospital sink and then just sort of pushes at them with his toothbrush.

He’d been doing some maintenance on a round baler. The prop malfunctioned. The tailgate came down. If you’ve never seen a round baler, imagine closing a one-ton iron trunk lid on your hand.

“Always remember to brush your teeth, or you’ll wind up like old Grandpa here.” He holds his teeth up with his left hand, toothpaste wetting the nubs.

He’s a large man. Five four, about four feet wide. And he was never much for shirts. If he put a shirt on at all, he’d say “screw the buttons” and just let it billow undone. In the summer, he’d drive down to Florida, stay for a few days, do some fishing or whatever, swim. As a souvenir one year, he had a whole mess of t-shirts silk screened. The pic was of him holding up a huge fish, his shirt open, of course.

“That’s a big one,” I remember someone saying, pointing down at my oversized t-shirt. “The fish, I mean.” And they laughed loudly over my head.

We were at a family thing, a BBQ, the first time I saw the hole in his back. Grandpa got up to check on the food. My aunt told me not to stare. It was the pesticides that had caused it, Dad told me later. He said Grandpa used to come back from the fields just covered in the stuff.

In the hospital cafeteria, they have these amazing desserts I bug Dad to buy. Grandpa’s upstairs, hooked up to his IV. I’m downstairs, eating green Jello with whipped cream. Dad doesn’t eat much. He just sits with me and waits.

“You get your appetite from your Grandpa,” he says, taking my empty tray. A nurse told Dad and I that Grandpa is the only person she’s ever seen gain weight during chemo.

Later, the funeral director makes a similar remark.

“Yessir,” he says. “He was always quite a busty boy.”

My grandfather, surrounded by flowers, frowns.

 

3.

A heap in the black, panting: “Like a bed of bastard nails down here.”

The flashlight beams freeze.

“How the hell?”

They count five bale-lengths past the drop off.

There he is.”

“Hup, buddy.”

“Huh?”

Up, buddy.” (Hand on my hand, hand on my arm.)

“Lemme stay here for a bit.”

“What’re you comfy?”

“Christ, no. Let go.”

“There’s shit down there, pretty sure. Manure.”

“Screw off. Leggo.”

Ow, man. Scratched me.”

 

4.

Our baler at work has a ten-by-ten warning sticker on the guard gate depicting the dangers of putting your hands past the “pinch point.” The sticker shows a silhouette of a hand getting cut in half by something pointy and sharp, which isn’t accurate at all. It would get crushed in half by something massive and flat.

For kicks, one guy used to climb in the thing when it was empty and tell people to press the button. It stops automatically like three feet from the bottom, but still. You could hear him cackling over the sound of the motors.

“Shut down all the garbage mashers on the Detention Level,” he would squeal, and the person pressing the down button would turn the thing off, eventually.

A while back they tried to implement neckties to go with the humiliating apron. That didn’t last long. Some poor drudge got his tie slipped through the guard gate and when he pressed down, it pulled the tie tight like a noose. He looked like he was just standing there, his back to the door, his knees bent a little, when they found him.

There’s a big red emergency stop button, but when it’s happening, who knows what you’re thinking. “Why here?” you might get in, before the tug.

When the red swatches align, crank the mouth open, hook the chains and thread thick wires between the teeth. If the groove is plugged with detritus, floss between the teeth with the iron rod provided. Thread the wire through the eye of the rod, and jam it through the plug. Pull the wires tight. Feel the tightness in your hands. Fuck gloves. Wrap them around your palm and pull down with all your weight. If you don’t tie them tight enough, the bale will swell. When the chains grab, the mass will wedge in the mouth and just hang there, four feet up, and it’s a pain in the ass getting it out. It’s this whole thing.

When you’ve got it out and onto a skid, stack it on the dock with the organic bins. The bin guy comes every three days. The bale guy, every two. The truck for the bone cans comes once a week. You can smell them across the lot. In the winter, they steam.

“How can you stand that smell?” I ask the driver.

“The smell?” he says, smiling. “No, the smell is good. Earthy.”

He goes to the meat cooler and wheels out two hefty green plastic barrels. He parks them on the lifting arm, locks them in, looks away. The bins lift up and tip over. Out pour the limbs of ruminants, the inedible bits, disarticulated.

 

5.

In the casket, his hands are crossed right over left. This is the standard, but it feels like an omission, like willful concealment.

“Like a turtle.”

“That’s good, dude.”

“Like a ninja turtle.”

“Hup.”

At the estate sale, everything he owned is driven out and dragged out and placed around the property. All his furniture is in the front yard. Kids are jumping on his bed, climbing on tractors.

“Looked like a melt mark. Like his back was wax.”

“Adam, can you help me with him?”

If the cut is still wet when it’s baled—no joke—the bale could spontaneously combust. I felt the hay between my fingers. It was wet but I wanted to ride with him in the tractor, so I said yes, it was dry enough.

“Oh,” he said, and he smiled. “Actually no, I don’t think so.”

Barnyard, noon(ish). A patch of mud, a cow, a large man, several yards back. The cow’s front legs are stuck in the mud. It’s panicking. The large man takes a few cautious steps toward it. With one painful lurch, the cow frees itself. Exhausted, it staggers into a nearby piece of machinery, tearing its side open.

“The skin was like a film. Like you could see right inside.”

“Got his arm?”

Barely.”

We eat steak that night. I cover mine with red ketchup, spent half an hour scratching the tasty bits off the bone.

“You’re doing quite a number on that steak,” the man says. “Holy mackerel.” He’s sitting patiently, looking out the kitchen window, even though you can’t see much of anything besides the fluorescent light and the acres of dark past the machine shed.

“I’m serious about this.”

“Would you shut up and walk? I’m not carrying you.”

“Just put your shoulder into it. The two of us could do it.”

On a bed of bastard nails, face down in the bristles, I can’t tell cut from eyelash. Both are black slashes, stubbly, silhouetted.

“We’ll just get it rolling. I’ll run ahead of it and lie down.”

“Stand up, dammit.”

“Thing’ll combust, being all blood-wet.”

 
 
 
James Guthrie’s work has appeared in Hart House Review, (Parenthetical), Pithead Chapel, and The After Happy Hour Review. He lives in Toronto with a librarian and three chinchillas.
 
 

Categories: Fiction, Short Story