Ajax and Caruso wandered into the kitchen, while the percolator boiled on the stove, and Tucker Crowther brushed his snaggly gray teeth, leaning over the kitchen sink to spit. The faint gray light of morning filtered into the large room, the heart of the house, through panes of glass covered in ferns of ice. Margo and Lacey were curled on the floor, in shadow, sleeping, and oblivious to the break of day. Tucker zipped his trousers under his protuberant pot, tucked in the tails of his flannel shirt, and tugged his suspenders over his shoulders with a quick snap. He rinsed the dregs out of his mug from the day before, and poured a fresh cup of coffee. Tucker always drank it black. He picked at the gray stubble on his face, with his cracked fingernails, examining his reflection in the toaster, and decided to forgo his shave. Tucker wasn’t planning to see anyone that day; his meeting with Bob Hensley, the town’s selectman, was scheduled for the following day, so he decided to save the razor until then, and besides the blade was dangerously dull, might really mangle his face.
A sudden commotion in the hallway released Tucker from his thoughts—as Sammy, Ulysses, and Boston came galloping into the kitchen, clearly up to some kind of mischief, and nearly knocked Tucker off his feet. Sammy was a large Nubian goat, but Ulysses and Boston were smaller black and white pygmy goats. The little goats were even more dangerous at a run, because they had such a low center of gravity, and their horns were at the perfect height to inflict serious damage in a man’s credentials. They often gave very little warning before they dropped their heads and lunged. But Tucker knew what to look for. He had experience with goats.
“Slow down, boys,” Tucker said, grabbing Boston by his thick black horns. The goat resisted—violently twisting his neck. Finally, Tucker let go. “Just lemme finish my coffee!”
Tucker surveyed the kitchen while he sipped the warm brew. He thought he should clear out some of the straw on the floor later that morning, and bring in some fresh bales, at least for that room. The living room, and dining room weren’t so bad, and most of the goats preferred the kitchen anyway, since it was warmer. The fire was blazing in the wood stove in the corner of the kitchen, with nearly half a cord of wood stacked nearby, against the wall. The thermometer mounted outside the window was pinned to ten degrees below zero, where it had been stuck every morning for the past two weeks. He was worried about the goats who were still outside. Three hundred and fifteen goats were housed on Tucker’s property in a pen and small barn that was attached to the house—a decrepit, two-hundred-year-old farmhouse on a ten-acre plot of land; the same house where his marriage had ended, twenty-one years and sixty-eight days ago.
Tucker pulled his old woolen coat from the peg by the front door, crammed his thick arms into the sleeves, and fastened what buttons weren’t cracked, and plunged his feet into his old rubber boots, still damp from the day before. His leather gloves were blackened and stiff with grime, and his fingers ached as he pulled them on. He left his hat, a birthday present from Nicole, on the hook, untouched, since the day she’d left.
The cold air hit him like a bat across the face, hard and sharp, but they were waiting, he could hear them crying and calling. “Hang on!” he shouted, and the rusty hinges groaned as he pulled the door shut behind him.
Tucker sat across the kitchen table from Nicole, studying her face as she vanished into the morning newspaper. She inhaled the fire of her cigarette, and released the smoke into a thundercloud above her head. Tucker twirled his fork, like a drum major, then stabbed his sausage and waved it in the air. “These are great!” he exclaimed. “Fabulous sausages!”
“I have to get ready for work,” she said.
“I’ll clean up, then, if you’re running late.” Tucker tried a smile. Nicole tramped down the hallway to the bathroom. The lock snapped. Mike, their fifteen-year-old son, raced through the kitchen, grabbed a sausage, and bolted for the door, “See-ya, Dad.”
“Bye, Mike.” Tucker waved to the empty room.
Tucker carved his last sausage into tiny morsels, and dipped it into the maple syrup he’d bought from the neighbors. He listened to the shower thumping in the bathroom. He thought about the showers he used to take with Nicole, before Mike was born; rubbing her glistening skin, soap bubbles frothing and popping into brilliant colors, scattering rainbows in the sunlight that filtered through the glass shower door. He loved the slippery feel of her back, the taste of her lips, the way the water spilled down her forehead, and cascaded from her nose in little waterfalls, and the darting green of her eyes, like the ocean, just after a storm.
When the shower stopped, the bathroom door crashed open, releasing a cloud of steam, like breath from the nostrils of a bull. Nicole charged across the hall to their bedroom, leaving damp tracks and slammed the bedroom door.
Nicole had recently started work in the business office at Conway Ford, the only car dealership in Plainfield. Before that, she had worked for years with Tucker at his father’s hardware store. But one night at dinner—between a mouthful of salad and meatloaf—she told Tucker that she’d taken a new job. She had plenty of good reasons. More money. Better hours. The job might lead to something. There was no arguing with common sense.
Tucker knew the dealership owner, Fred Conway. He’d gone to high school with him. Tall, athletic, good grades, good teeth, the works. Even in August the guy never broke a sweat; his suits were probably air-conditioned. He had a habit of flexing the muscles in his jaw when he clenched his teeth, like some terrible tiger, and he always drove a new Crown Vic, like a cop, with black leather seats. Tucker wasn’t sure what he thought about him.
Tucker started washing the dishes, squirted soap into the sink and filled it with water, splashing around to make bubbles. He whistled a tune, one of his dad’s favorites, then stopped. Nicole didn’t like whistling anymore...
Then, from black silence, Nicole was there, in front of him, dressed, and ready for work. Her lips were drawn into a frown, as narrow and dark as her plucked eyebrows. Ah yes, the skin was still red from the tweezers. And the makeup. There was more of it every day. Rouge in the cheeks, eye shadow, mascara. What kind of a clown. And the clothes. What ever happened to the cotton shirts, the old Levis, the comfortable clothes at Crowther’s? Now it was silk and lace, with gaps and cleavage. He thought there was soap in his eyes.
By the time Tucker finished counting, his breath hanging frozen in front of his face, there were thirty-seven dead goats in the pen. A dozen more were in shock. He struggled to move the frozen animals to a clearing behind the barn, and then fought against the stinging cold and wind to feed the remaining goats. Their water buckets were solid blocks of ice. He smashed them against the ground, the ice shattering against his legs, then filled them from the nearby well, pumping hard on the rusty handle. He was nearly out of hay and grain, and he knew that Gibson’s feed wasn’t going to extend him any more credit, until he made a payment on his bill. To save money, Tucker had cut his own rations; he was living on beans and rice. He had a little coming in each month from Social Security, but no savings. Nicole had taken Mike and all the money. Nevertheless, he knew he’d find a way, somehow, to take care of them all. They were his life.