By Sadie Wade-Stein
Trigger warning: the following contains references to domestic violence and assault.
Tom is smoking L&Ms with his better hand. On the other, three fingers are warped with scars from years before we met. I have heard him tell four or five different stories about what happened, but I don’t think any of them are true.
“What do you think, Ren?” Tom crushes a third butt under the toe of his boot. “Are we gonna get out of here on time?” He gestures to the opening of the loading dock at the stretch of desert in front of us.
“Depends on when this truck shows up.”
Tom knows more than me, but I’m his boss. This doesn’t seem to bother him. When we first met, he asked me over and over again how a girl like me had ended up here, and I couldn’t answer him. It humiliated me to be called that–a girl–as if this difference between us could matter.
“You coming over tonight?”
“What’re you making?”
“Killed a hog and I finally finished processing it,” Tom says.
Even when Tom doesn’t have a kill, he pulls things I’ve never eaten before from his chest freezer because, in his words, there’s more to life than the way I’ve been living.
Recently, I’ve started to think about sleeping with him. There is something to love about his ruined fingers and crooked teeth. I imagine his fingers carefully unwrapping the butchered pig.
“Okay. You want me to bring anything?”
“Cider. Or something smoked.”
The truck pulls into the bay.
“Here we go,” Tom says.
Tom’s house sags at the base of a red bluff. It is badly kept and practically windowless. The walls are painted sickening pastel colors, and all the rooms are only half full. The first time I visited him, I thought Tom might be squatting there.
I knock hard on the screen door.
“Come in!” Tom yells.
I find him in the kitchen, pulling the promised hog’s glistening shoulder from the oven. He has all of the windows open, but the heat is unbearable.
“What did you bring me?”
“Cider, like you asked.”
Tom nods toward the fridge. His kitchen is three walls of turquoise cabinets and thirty year old appliances that form a U, the house’s odd dead end.
“What’d you do last night?” Tom asks. He takes two forks to the shoulder, pulling it tenderly apart.
“Yeah. I thought I saw you driving toward Sonia’s.”
“She wasn’t around.” This is a lie, but I know Tom will have more to say if I tell him the truth.
“What’s your problem with Sonia?” I settle myself against the fridge. It’s not the first time we’ve had this argument, but I want to know what he hasn’t been saying.
“You’re going to get yourself into trouble.”
“No, I’m not.”
“If she said she doesn’t want to see you, she doesn’t want to see you.” He stops what he’s doing to point at me with one of the forks. The shoulder is almost completely mangled on the bottom of the pan. “I’m worried about you.”
“Fuck that,” I say. “Just drop it.”
Tom stands there, still holding the fork, like he is getting ready to say something more, but he doesn’t.
I like that Tom cooks for me. He’s too big for his own kitchen, and the utensils look clumsy in his hands. There’s something tender about it. I’m sure he wouldn’t do this for anyone else we work with. The women would think he expects something and the men would hate to be made useless by his skill.
Tom uses two of his scarred fingers to move the tortillas around in his cast iron pan, flipping them occasionally.
“What’s the story there,” I ask.
“What are you talking about?”
“You know the story.”
“I know about five of them.” I pull another cider from the fridge.
“Then you know enough. I fucked up my hand.” Tom pulls the tortillas from the pan and replaces them with four more. “And stop drinking those,” he adds. “They go with the hog.”
I return the unopened cider. “What is this anyway?”
“What’s it look like? Tacos.”
“You killed a pig and made tacos.”
“What was I supposed to do?”
“Roast it on a spit and put an apple in its mouth.”
“This isn’t that kind of pig and you know it.” Tom is getting annoyed, and starts flipping the tortillas over and over, barely letting them rest on each side.
Finally he says, “The real story’s not dinner conversation.”
Since when does he care about dinner conversation?
Tom refuses to look at me for the next several minutes, carefully layering each of the tortillas with pork, onions, cilantro, green chilis.
We eat in silence. Tom’s table is pushed up against a wall with chairs on only three sides. I sit at the head and he sits in the middle facing the bare wall.
I am thinking about Sonia.
“Okay, she was there,” I admit.
Tom doesn’t say anything until he finishes eating. Waiting for him to speak there is always a moment, right before he opens his mouth, when I feel like Tom could hurt me. Every time, I hope that he will.
“What the fuck did you do?”
I had gotten to Sonia’s apartment late the night before. I knew she was home because she always was and because her car was there. I sat with my headlights shining through her living room window until she came to the door. It was something I did when we were together, and once, she said it scared her.
“Try to have a little faith in me. Jesus.”
“I know you, Ren.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I need to hear him say it. What he thinks of me.
“It means it’s hard to have faith in you.” He stands from the table and takes my plate. “At least when it comes to Sonia.”
“That’s a shitty thing to say.”
“She broke up with you six months ago.” The plates rattle together as he sets them in the sink, shaking until they eventually fall silent. “You can’t keep doing this.”
“What am I doing?”
“If you really don’t know, then fuck, Ren, I don’t have anything to say to that.”
I can’t look at him.
My drink’s empty, but I need to have something in my hands. I move to open another cider. “I just want to know what happened.”
Tom seems to deflate at this and says, “I used to be married. Have I told you that?”
He has, but I let him tell me again.
“We were together seven years. You and Sonia dated for what? Two?”
“A little over.”
“All I’m saying is if I learned anything, it’s that if you don’t know what happened, it was probably you.”
Tom’s back porch is a slab of concrete and two chairs. He doesn’t have neighbors. Only dry grass stretches in front of us. The sun is slumping lower and lower behind the bluff, but it does nothing to ease the heat.
“I almost didn’t get him. That hog.”
I know that Tom will tell this story regardless of whether I respond, so I turn my sweating beer can in my hands and wait for him to continue.
“I’ve never had trouble with hogs. You can kill them about a hundred different ways. That should make it easier. But my first shot got his leg. You know, one of those stupid fucking mistakes that costs you a whole quarter. I’ve never had such bad aim.”
“Did he run?” Sometimes, I have to push Tom for the specific details that I want. He has a habit of talking about it like it’s something we’ve both done.
“He tried to. I had to track him for about a mile, but that wasn’t hard. He was letting blood out every few feet and besides,” he nods toward the endless expanse, “the desert doesn’t give you any place to hide.”
I picture Tom barely visible against the desert with a rifle on his back. I can see the blood on the ground turning the dust to thick clumps. I know how he must have felt in that moment—frustrated with his bad shot, embarrassed maybe, but satisfied, too, suddenly at ease with an afternoon that would end in him standing over something weaker than himself.
“When I caught up to him, he was just waiting for me, swaying on his three good legs. He was still looking at me when I shot him between the eyes.”
I can imagine the hog’s eyes, but not what the shot would have done, only a hateful squeal and matted fur.
“You clean them in the field, right?” I ask.
“Yeah. He wasn’t too hard to pack out, not close to the biggest animal I’ve ever killed.”
“A moose, in Colorado. I went up to Alaska last season looking for a grizzly, but he got away from me.”
I can’t imagine Tom hunting an animal he didn’t kill.
The water is coming out funny, in spurts. Tom’s dishwasher doesn’t work. I hold the roasting pan underneath the spitting faucet and watch as the thin layer of juice at the bottom wanes.
Tom stands inches from the open back door, smoking in the dark yard. I’ve decided not to let him fuck me tonight. He’s too tame, lets things get away from him.
Sonia was tame, too.
I finish the dishes and take a sip of whiskey from a bottle on the counter. Tom comes in just in time to catch me.
He wrinkles his lips in disgust. “Use a glass, at least. That’s good fucking whiskey.”
“I just finished the dishes.”
“Then drink a beer.”
“You’re out of beer.”
“I can’t let you drive home. You’re staying the night.”
“I’m fine. It’s not far.”
This is not how I would’ve wanted him to ask me.
“I’m not going to argue with you.”
I roll my eyes and take another sip.
“Put it down, Ren.”
“It’s after dinner.”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“You said you’d tell me what happened to your fingers.”
“No, I said I wouldn’t tell you then. Doesn’t mean I’m going to tell you now.” Tom crosses the kitchen and takes the bottle out of my hands. I can’t tell if I’m drunk enough to warrant this. He looks at me searchingly, as though we’re strangers but he thinks he’s seen me somewhere before.
“You’re embarrassed,” I say, the idea only just occurring to me.
He picks at the label on the bottle, not looking at me.
“And what? You’re worried I’ll think you’re bad?” I can hear my own scorn. “What does that even mean?”
“It’s not that. I know you couldn’t think that.”
“What are you talking about?”
He looks up at me. “I don’t know how to help you, Ren. I can’t help you.” He’s almost pleading.
I realize he must have a better idea of what happened with Sonia than I thought.
“Why the fuck would I need your help?”
“My ex-wife’s name was Lorna.” Tom’s voice is quiet, muffled almost. My face feels hot. “I had a nickname for her, Little Dove, because she put me at peace. I could be in a fucking rage but then she’d make this sound. A little coo. She never even had to touch me, but she had me in her hands.”
I have him this time. If he stops talking, I know I will never hear this story again.
“And she was beautiful, too. Like a bird.”
“A bird?” I want to know what he loves in women. Maybe we are the same in this, too.
“I liked her wrist bones best. The way they moved with her hands. I liked to watch her do things with her hands. I liked to watch her do anything, really.”
It is my turn, now, to take the whiskey from Tom. I set it on the counter. I can tell he is losing himself. I reach until my fingertips graze his shirt. He is so warm, he is nearly steaming.
“Let’s sit down,” I say.
“Yeah.” Tom follows me absently into the living room and sits on his aging sofa. I linger across the room, leaning against his wood burning stove. The only light in the room comes weakly from a lamp. Tom is mostly in shadows, but his hands lay illuminated in his lap.
“I think when I love people, I lose sight of them a little bit. She didn’t look like herself.” I was hoping not to tell him this, but we’ve been quiet for too long.
“What are you talking about, Ren?”
“Sonia. She didn’t look like herself when she came to the door.”
“I don’t want to know what you did.” Tom leans forward so that his jaw catches the light. He’s sweating.
“Why do you keep saying that?”
“Because you’ve been trying to tell me all night.”
Sonia at the door looking unfamiliar. Crossing the threshold before she invited me in and standing too close to her. Sonia suddenly across the room, poised on the balls of her feet, shifting back and forth a little. Her voice the same as it always was, but speaking from someone else’s lips. Stepping toward her and watching her shuffle away in equal lengths. Following her into her bedroom.
“I could never be angry with Lorna, you know.” Tom has leaned almost completely out of the light. I look down to find that I am grasping the edge of the stove.
“What?” I say softly, but he’s already started to speak.
“But she wanted to leave me. And all the sudden I was mad. I mean, madder than I’d ever been at anyone. I remember her in our bathroom, getting ready for work. She looked so delicate. And I hated her.” Tom lets out a gravelly laugh. “I didn’t think that was something I could do.”
He sounds surprised at himself, even now, but I know already where his story will end.
Sonia afraid to turn her back to me, getting closer to the wall. Sonia begging, looking weak. Sonia between the bookcase and the window with nowhere to go. My hands on Sonia’s shoulders, driving her further into the wall. Sonia shouting. Reaching her hands to my face, shoving me away.
“I hit her. A few times. I won’t say what else I did.”
Sonia shaking underneath my hands. Letting go and then coming back for her, knocking her to the ground. Forgetting myself.
“Somehow she got my razor and she took it to my hand. And thank fucking God she did. I would have killed her.”
His confession sends a shiver of pleasure through me. “I knew I’d get it out of you,” I say.
Tom’s face is so deep in shadows that I cannot read his expression. But I can tell he is tense, gold and black shadow rippling across his form. His scars are almost fluorescent.
I see him.
Suddenly I am kneeling at Tom’s feet.
“Ren,” he says.
I take his hand in mine and kiss each of his mangled fingers. “Tom.”
“Ren, what are you doing?”
“I want to touch you.” I drop his hand and reach for the waistband of his jeans.
“Jesus, Ren. No.”
He pushes me lightly so that I sit back on my heels. He stands. He is wet with whiskey and tears. He is so far above me.
“Tom,” I say again.
“This is so fucking messed up, Ren.”
I linger there for a moment, as if in prayer.
“I’m going to bed,” he says.
He leaves me on my knees. I hear him walk away and climb the stairs. I hear doors open and water run. But I cannot move.
Where Tom sat there is only empty light.