No Birds

by Lex Sonne

There was something about dogs that calmed John. He liked the way they smelled, and he likened that to the way he needed the smell of Susan, his wife. But John wasn't thinking about smells when he was heading home from work that hot-as-hell Friday afternoon in late August. Instead, he was mulling over how he'd like to choke Brent Ellis.

The field of sunflowers behind the house was brown and dead and the doves weren't coming. John knew this. He was sure of it, as he was sure of it last year and the year before that. Two miles to the east was the Ellis farm. That son-of-a-bitch, city boy, Brent Ellis, had, for the third year, planted fifteen acres of wheat and seven acres of sunflowers. Not Brent himself. No, he had workers to do the planting for him; workers he could pull from his family's mining company in the eastern part of the state. No doubt, the doves were at the Ellis farm. Why would they come to John's five acres of half-grown sunflowers? They wouldn't. It was that simple.

John pushed the pedal of his pickup to the floor coming up the steep incline of the rock drive to his house, spraying gravel across the pavement and into the creek that ran along Cooney Neck Road. The driveway curved between small pin oaks placed exactly twenty feet from one another. Three pairs of oaks: one at the bottom of the drive, one at the first curve, and one at the top of the hill. If there was one thing that John knew for sure about himself, it was the fact that he appreciated and strived for uniformity. His brown brick ranch had two windows on the east side, two windows on the west, and a front door smack-dab in the center. Two small hollies flanked the porch and another pair of pin oaks was set fifty feet apart in the front yard. That's how John liked things—uniform.

His hunting buddy, Vic, a yellow Lab, met him at the top of the hill, panting, his pink tongue with the one black spot hanging, slobber drizzling the dry and broken fescue, mixing with the dust of the earth, turning it black.

"How's it going, you old son-of-a-bitch?" John yelled out the window.

Vic turned his head as if contemplating how exactly he felt on that ninety-degree day in central Kentucky then took off after the old Ford, his gait much slower than just a year ago.

John didn't park the truck at the end of the drive. Instead, he pulled into the back yard, the tires smashing the brown grass into two perfect tracks. He pushed the clutch to the floor, killed the engine, and let the truck roll between the two Bradford Pears. He knew that the pears were junk trees, but everyone in the new subdivisions popping up close to town had one or two dotting their yards, so of course, Susan had to have them. Standing outside Muir's Nursery, Terry Muir had warned them of the problem with the trees; how the limbs developed too fast for the trunks and would, inevitably, after fifteen or twenty years, split during the fury of a thunderstorm that would push across the plains and smash into the Kentucky knob country during one of the early summer months. When John saw that Susan wasn't going to budge, he said, "Ah, the hell with it. Plant the bastards. We'll probably be living in Canada by the time they fall on the house anyway." John knew this was bullshit, his consistent talk of moving to the Canadian bush. He knew that the two of them, and however many kids they had, would stay right there on Cooney Neck Road until those trees fell and new ones were planted. The kids never came, the trees were still standing, and John didn't think about either that hot-as-hell Friday afternoon.

The grass crunched under his Brahma boots when he stepped out of the Ford. Vic was there sitting, panting, strings of dried green and brown moss strung across his back from where he'd waded into the pond to cool himself earlier that day.

"Been swimming, boy?" he asked the dog, taking the last pull from his third beer and tossing the bottle toward the porch. "Any birds, boy? You seen any birds today?" He rubbed the dog's ears and knocked off a strand of the moss.

Sweat broke out across his forehead. He grabbed another beer from the cooler in the bed of the truck, unbuttoned and slid off the Cambron's Steel shirt and threw it across the hood. The engine ticked in the heat.

There was one goddamn bird on the power line that stretched across the field. One lonely dove. John twisted the top off the icy bottle and threw it into the stand of brown sunflowers. "Another terrible season, Vic. Looks like Ellis got us again." He took a long pull from the beer. "Five years since a good hunt. That son-of-a-bitch."

The seven ball flew across the living room and into the hall closet door. John's home was too small for a pool table. John knew this. Susan knew this. Everyone who walked into the house knew it. But John insisted they take the pool table from his parent's basement when they moved from the apartment in town to their new place in the country all those years back. It was, after all, his pool table. He'd saved up the money to by the damn thing his senior year of high school, and he'd be damned if it wasn't going in his first house, no matter if the cue would bang off the wall at every possible angle.

Susan barely moved at the sound of the pool ball smashing through the door, bouncing off the coats, and banging hard on the floor. She sat there at the kitchen table sipping her glass of red wine. It was probably too hot for the bourbony red that she'd opened, but white wouldn't work with the venison steaks John had left out to thaw that morning.

"I can't stand these motherfuckers," John yelled. "They think they can come out here, buy up all the land with the money from their father's businesses, and steal all my goddamn birds. I've been planting a field out here for ten goddamn years. And this son-of-a-bitch thinks he can. . ." He gritted his teeth, picked up the ten-ball, reared back like he was going to throw it through the glass door that overlooked the back yard and the pond, then took a long breath and placed it back on the green felt.

"What do you think about it?" He turned, walked toward Susan and stopped at the fridge to grab another beer.

"What do I think about what?" She pushed her straight blonde hair off her shoulder and crossed her legs.

"The doves? Ellis?"

"It's a shame, John. I think it's just a shame."

He glared over the opened refrigerator door at her with his blue eyes.

She smiled and uncrossed her legs. "Oh, John, you've killed enough birds in your time for the whole Ellis family. You said just the other night that you didn't care that much about the season anyway."

"Well, I changed my goddamn mind." He slung the refrigerator door shut, twisted the top off the beer and threw it in the sink. "I ought to call the damn game warden on his ass for baiting the fields."

"He's baiting the fields?"

"No, but I could bait them for him. That would teach the bastard." He killed half the beer and slammed it on the counter.

"Why don't we grill these steaks instead?" She walked over and leaned into him.

"Go ahead. Grill 'em. I'll be back in a half-hour." He grabbed his beer and kissed her. "I'm going for a ride."

The entrance to the Ellis farm was two black-painted, twenty foot, steel I-beams connected by another piece of steel that stretched high above the blacktop drive. The sun had disappeared behind Garret's Knob, but an orange moon was just above the southeastern tree line, lighting the entrance. Hanging from the middle of the crossbeam was a bronze Texas Longhorn bull. The Ellis 's didn't have any cattle, neither bulls nor cows, and there wasn't a Texas Longhorn within a hundred miles of Cooney Neck Road. John hated that cow. He hated having to drive past it everyday with its big horns half the size of its body. He hated it so much that he stopped just inside the entrance, grabbed his shotgun from the gun rack in the back window, and stepped out of the truck.

"Hey, Texas. Yeah, you," he said walking under the bull to the front of the entrance. "You don't belong here. You see, there are none of your kind in these parts. I'm just going to help you out. Send you back to where you come from."

John aimed the shotgun at the chain holding the ass-end of the bull to the steel and pulled the trigger. A flash of fire exploded from the end of the barrel, and the bull swung and banged against the left beam. He followed the chain hanging from between the horns, back and forth, back and forth, then pulled the trigger and the bull fell to the blacktop. He grabbed the horns and dragged the metal beast toward his truck ripping deep gouges in the blacktop. He had just gotten it into the bed when Vic barked.

"You old bastard. I thought I told you to stay home," he said, squatting to let the dog come to him. With his head down, Vic inched toward John until he was a foot away. "Well, come on. I got a cow, Vic. A Texas Longhorn. You like Longhorns?" he asked, reaching forward and rubbing the dog's head. "Let's go."

Vic jumped into the bed, and John slammed the tailgate.

Back about a half-mile, a gravel road forked off from the blacktop and headed down a hill to the east. John geared down and hammered the truck, slamming the bull against the side of the bed, making Vic scramble to keep his balance.

"You all right back there, boy?" He put his beer between his legs, reached out the window and felt Vic's wet nose right away. "Good, I thought I might have lost ya."

At the bottom of the hill there was a forty-yard-long black barn made from some type of prefabricated lumber with a tower and several antennas at the right corner. All the doors were shut and the windows were dark. Parked beside a diesel pump was a red and chrome Freightliner with the words "Ellis Coal" written on the door in black. John drank the last of his beer, pitched it in the floorboard of the truck and followed the gravel toward a tree line at the south end of a field of cut wheat. A quarter mile back, he pulled off the gravel and headed into the center of the field. The truck bounced over the furrowed land and dust flew up in a thick cloud behind the tires. Near the center, he cut the engine and sat for a second, staring out across the land toward the black tree line and the orange moon. Behind him, Vic cried softly and his nails scraped at the bed of the truck.

After a deep breath, John reached over, popped the glove box and grabbed his bag of Red Man chewing tobacco. He pinched a chew from the bag and stuck it in his jowl. "Vic, you ready to bait this field?" he yelled out the window.

John saw the headlights sweep across the field when he cut into the tenth bag of sunflower seed. He grabbed the end of the bag and poured the black seed into a pile over the cut wheat. Vic sat beside another pile watching the headlights coming down the rock drive toward them.

"Who is it, Vic?" he asked, grabbing the last bag from the truck. The dog turned his head toward John, stared at him with his big black eyes, then turned back to the headlights. "Oh, it's ok, boy. I'll just tell him I thought that they needed a little help with the birds this season."

The loud knocking of the diesel engine could be heard across the expanse of the field, growing louder as the pickup moved down the rock drive along the tree line. John considered for a second the ridiculous possibility of whomever it was not seeing him and his truck and his dog out in the middle of the field that was becoming more illuminated as the moon pulled further and further from the horizon. No luck. The truck turned and headed toward them, the headlights blinding John and causing Vic to move into his shadow; the red paint and chrome grill shining in the moonlight and the words "Ellis Coal" written in black on the door exactly the same as the Freightliner back at the barn. A figure in a cowboy hat cut the engine and the noise ceased. He opened the door and stepped out.

"That's a hell of a nice hat, Brent. You get that in Texas?"

"Where's the bull?"

"What bull?"

"The bull, John. The one from the entrance."

"When did you get cattle out here? I thought—"

"Goddamnit, John. The bull that hangs at the entrance. It's gone. It was there yesterday and now it's gone. The guy at the trailer said he saw you shoot it down."

"Rob Hurst? You talking about Rob?"

"I don't know his name. I just want the bull. You give back the bull and scoop up all this seed and we'll just go home."

"I don't have the bull. And I ain't got a scoop."

"Then I'll just have to call the law and report you for trespassing," he said, crossing his arms over his black vest.

"Fine. At least I won't have to look at that stupid bull anymore," John said, and turned to walk toward the truck.

Brent followed him, crunching the dry wheat. "John, quit being a damn child and give me back my bull."

John turned, and saw Vic moving toward Brent. The dog inched up to him with his nose toward the ground.

"Call your dog, John," Brent said, backing up.

"Oh, he's just a Lab. He's not going to bother you."

"Call your dog, goddamnit. I don't like dogs."

"What kind of cowboy don't like dogs? You got the hat and the Longhorn out front, and you don't like dogs? That kind of fucks with the whole image here, Brenty boy."

Brent reached behind his back and pulled a chrome pistol from his belt. He pointed the gun at the dog with both hands.

"Oh, Brent, put the pistol away. You look like a girl holding the damn thing."

"Mr. Waller. . .call him. . ." Vic stepped toward his black boot, Brent pulled the trigger and the dog fell to the ground. The blast rang across the field and echoed off the barn.

"You stupid bastard," John yelled, turned and grabbed the shotgun leaning against the truck. The truck door slammed and the sound of the diesel engine broke out into the night. The moon was orange. The truck turned and headed back toward the rock drive. John aimed the shotgun at the back window and pulled the trigger. The window shattered, it wasn't heard, and the black silhouette slumped forward then disappeared from view, the blast echoing off the barn, the moonlight shining white through the broken and cracked glass. The truck slowed then stopped, still running and loud.

John put Vic in a black garbage bag and buried him under a small pine at the edge of his property. He used a pick-axe to break up the hard-as-concrete earth and dug out the grave with a shovel he'd oiled just two days before. After throwing the last scoop of dirt on the grave, he stood there with the sweat dripping from his body not knowing what was sweat and what were tears. He leaned down, put his hand to the mounded earth and prayed: God, take care of my dog. He pulled at the back of his thinning hair, the cold sweat dripping from his fingers onto his hot skin. He put his nails into his neck until the skin broke and bled. He picked up the pick-axe and shovel and walked back to his house; the moon falling back toward the horizon, a breeze picking up and something howling low and constant in the east.

Lex Sonne grew up in central Kentucky. As a kid he liked to play alone. Now he writes. His work has appeared in New Madrid, Hair Trigger, Newcity Chicago, Reservoir, and elsewhere. A collection of his short stories will be published by Lark Sparrow Press in 2009. Currently, he is working on his MFA at Columbia College Chicago and finishing his novel, 'Come Son, Choose Life or Death.' Visit for more information on recent publications and readings.