Mischief

By MEGAN STAFFEL

i.

Chipper Hanson had found a lost goat and tied it to his porch, where it was kicking and butting and destroying things. He called the hardware, and the hardware called me, because if nobody got it off his porch soon, his wife was going to get the gun and take care of the problem herself, and whether that would involve just the goat or the goat and the husband, no one could say.

Right away, I offered to take him.

There was a foot of old snow, hard-crusted. The pickup was drifted in. I dug out the wheels and started scraping ice off the windshield, the hills echoing the noise. The thermometer registered seven degrees, the cold a razor against my cheeks. The sun had vanished, and the sky was hard, metallic. When I saw glass, I started the engine, ran the defrost to melt the rest, and went into the house for my purse. Ramona to the rescue!

Goose Pond is three miles down the road, and all the way there it never occurred to me to wonder why, in a place where a lot of people had barns and animals, I was the one they called. All I knew about were chickens. But Jim at the hardware must have remembered that Shep and me were planning to get a couple of does in the spring.

The hardware was where we bought the fencing supplies. It was where we asked our questions. Of course, that was one of the strikes against us. We were city folk, ignorant about things the others grew up knowing, too willing to suppose they had the time to talk us through the way to do one thing or another, repair the hydrant, set a corner in fence line so it will hold.

So I was pleased when I picked up the phone that winter morning and
a deep voice that I knew right away, belonging to the big-bellied man who’d sold us thirty rolls of woven wire last summer and recommended where we could buy locust posts, called me by my first name. He was a man whose family had starved and shivered for generations in a rundown old farmhouse at the top of one of the hills until, finally, the third son got out of dairying and opened the hardware that now employed his brothers too. This was the person who said, “Mona, there’s a lost goat down here, and it’s wrecking Chipper Hanson’s porch at Twenty-Two Greenwood, where he got it tied, and we wondered if you and the boss could take it off of Chipper’s hands—he don’t got no barn—even if it’s just for a little while.”

Ah, but don’t be fooled. It’s not that I’m the world’s most spontaneous person, not by a long shot! And I knew it would take time to dig out the truck. No, I agreed to it because Jim had called me “Mona”. After the thousands of dollars we had spent at his store, after the advice he’d given and the questions we’d asked, I was still “Mrs. Brightner.” Shep and me both, we were “The Boss” and “Mrs. Brightner.” I’d given up ever becoming “Ramona” in this town.

We were different. The Boss had been to college, and they suspected (rightly) that I’d been, too—that is, real college, not a state techie. But the biggest problem? As superintendent of the school, Shep’s salary was public information, and though it was modest compared to other places, it was, in the Goose, quite a bit larger than most, and when all of those savers and scrimpers and government haters got their school tax bill every September, they resented us. “Mona” and “Shep” would never happen. I was resigned to it. But on that morning, “Mona” and “The Boss” was what Jim said, and it was as musical as the first robins in March. And on a bitter day in February, when the temperature hadn’t climbed over ten degrees in a week and the sun’s dark light was as even as a sheet of stainless steel, “Mona,” better even than “Ramona,” coming from Jim’s mouth made me happy.

It was a small goat with a long, shaggy brown coat and long floppy ears. The floppy ears meant its mother or daddy was a Nubian, and the furred coat meant it had been living in the open for a while. The curious thing about it was the collar. It wore a necklace of green felt with tassels and triangles of red felt sewn onto it like a jester’s costume. It was a homemade affair, some kind of Christmas getup. Had the goat escaped from a manger scene at a local church? Not in the Goose, because Jim would have known about it. But maybe in Independence or Canisteo; no one would have thought a goat on the run could make it all the way here.

Chipper Hanson put his arms around the goat’s legs and lifted it into the space behind my seat. He tied a rope from the necklace to the door handle, giving the animal just enough room to lift its head. “Gotta keep it tight, Mona. This one’s got a taste of the wild. Been runnin’ with the deer and thinks it’s just one a them. Hope you got good fencing.”

After he knotted the rope so it would stay, he stood at the open door, talking. His hair smelled like cigarettes, and his voice had a smoker’s rich, syrupy tone. “See, I throwed ’em cracked corn. Out there.” He nodded to the field behind his house. “First seed him, oh, maybe a week ago. And this morning, wouldn’t you know it, just happened to look out, and the little bustard trottin’ down the sidewalk just like he one a them kids going to school.”

“‘Him’? It’s a him?” People had told us male goats were mean and smelly, and we had decided we only wanted does.

“Nah.” He spit phlegm into the gutter. “Not him. He been robbed of his treasure. He’s a choirboy, which in goats it’s called a wether. See now . . .”

Chipper leaned in over the seat and, despite the cold, gave me a lesson on the psychology of the neutered male goat. “They got the male impulse, but they don’t got the equipment. So wethers is orn’ry. Never did like ’em. Same hormones but no way to express themselves. So you and the boss, you got to watch it with this guy.” He stepped away, slamming the door. He lifted a palm in thanks, and then he leaned towards me again, opening the door a crack, and said, “Tell you one thing: any longer and the wife would have shot me and the goat together. That’s a new railing. The little bustard kicked out the spindles.”

Sometimes I just felt lucky. Here I was, living in this beautiful, uncrowded place. I did farmwork. I could fling a fifty-pound hay bale onto the top of a high load easily as any man. I had a pickup to haul a goat. He sat quietly, though when we passed a house and he heard barking dogs, he baaed a little goat baa, which is like a sheep’s but more insistent. “Been running with the deer,” I said. “You should be used to dogs.”

I put fresh bedding down and filled a water bucket. Then I led him back to the barn and closed him into the stall with some hay. I planned to keep him locked up for a few days till he knew his home.

In the afternoon, I shoveled snow out of the truck and drove to the feed store, where they loaded me up with more bales of hay, a hayrack to hang on the wall of the stall, a rubber drinking bucket, and feeding dishes. By the time I got back, the sun was sinking, and my portion of the sky was flushed an encouraging pink.

But I will admit, as the kettle was heating for tea, the thought crossed my mind: I should have discussed it with Shep. No, he was meeting with the school board, and I had seen to everything. All Shep would have to do was hang the feeders and hayrack. I was no good with carpentry, and Shep was quick and efficient.

So I decided instead to tell our children. Two e-mails went out while the leaves steeped: one to Arianna, who was in college, and one to Lincoln, who worked as a contractor. “Got Goat.” Nothing more. A tease to get them to call.

I toasted some bread, peeled a couple of hard-boiled eggs, and poured a large cup of tea. The first pause in the day. It’s this, I’ve always thought, that marks the difference between us and the animals. Up in his stall, the goat was not reviewing the events of his last ten hours. He was eating, drinking, looking, listening, all at the same time, but I doubted that he was thinking about what had happened.

Or it could be a glass of wine or a cigarette, but it was all the same, an excuse for the chance to sit down. Had I done the right thing? Was it foolish to take on so much, so quickly, just because a villager had called me by my name? I started to see the situation from Shephard’s point of view, remembering how difficult these last few weeks had been for him, first meeting with the state officials over the low test scores and now the school board over the budget.

Tomorrow he had to drive five hours for another meeting in Albany. And I knew he hadn’t been sleeping well. A rogue goat was the last thing he needed. A rogue goat foisted on him by me. At exactly the wrong time. An escape artist. A male creature with no equipment. All my accomplishments were in the wrong direction. I had only made more complicated our already complicated lives.

 

I’d heard about Shephard Brightner long before I ever met him. In the small coastal town in Maine, twenty years ago, there was a group of women who passed his name around like a favorite recipe. Most were divorced, but a few, like me, had never been married. Didn’t matter. Everyone was thrown together, and two very different populations congregated in the food co-op: the wealthy who had been enticed there by lots of things, the ocean being just one of them, and the others who depended upon the wealthy for their jobs. I was going to massage school; Shep was working as a contractor while he finished his degree. The both of us rented tiny places in the center of town, me in an attic of someone’s summer mansion, Shep a garage apartment, and commuted the hour to the city. To us it made sense; we like small-town life.

The first time I saw him, Shephard was on the stage at the high school. The town was having a referendum. Should the local school be closed and the kids bussed to the larger school in the next town, or should the local school be funded at greater taxpayer expense? Most people were for closing the school and bussing the kids. It seemed like a done deal. Then Shephard walked to the podium. People got quiet even before he said anything. The auditorium was packed, but I swear he looked at each person. The man had presence.
He was just a contractor, a student at the university, but it was evident that he had the authority everyone else had lacked. It was a natural authority, an ability to know how to speak to a very particular group of people: lobster fishermen who were tough and independent, executives who were tired and simply wanted to eat the lobster and play golf, and then all of the in-betweens, the people like me with no money or steady job but loads of ideals. He began with a joke. I don’t remember now what it was, but after we all had a laugh, he got serious.

First he showed us one way to look at the issue, and then he showed us another, and then he stated the conclusion he came to, and he made it seem so clear and obvious, we had no choice but to agree with him. It would be cheaper, he told us, and the kids would have more curriculum choices, but they would lose their identity as a place, as a neighborhood of people who had gone to school together their whole lives and had known each other and their families for a long time. The hour-long bus ride at each end of the day, combined with losing the idea of who they were as a community, bid him as a future parent, a future educator, to vote no.

Someone in the first row stood up and started to clap. A wave of feelings swept over the room, and soon we were all on our feet, clapping and whistling and stomping. He had expressed the reservation that we all had but were afraid wasn’t legitimate: that the pocketbook shouldn’t be the only thing we considered. Community was foremost. Who we were, where we lived.
That we were friends and neighbors sharing a common place that we all loved, and that this common place was the healthy, solid uppermost fact of our lives and was for our children a source of identity and support. Let’s not rob them of it.

I’m not a speaker. I’m not a very political person, even, but after he was finished, I felt fired up. I was ready to volunteer to do whatever I could to make sure that the small central school in the middle of our town stayed open.

So I joined the campaign, and over the next weeks, I went to all the communities in the district. And then, one day, returning from a nearby peninsula where we had distributed leaflets, I was with him in his beat-up old van, buckets of drywall mud rattling in the back. He pulled into a gas station, and I watched as he filled up.

Shep is a tall man with long legs, wide shoulders. He likes to wear corduroy jackets, even back then he did, and the pockets of the jackets are always bulging with pens and pencils and scraps of paper with things written on them. He’s one of the few people who never watches the ground when he walks.
He looks straight ahead, and on his face there is a wide-open expression. Shep is a happy person most of the time, and I could see it in that forward-looking expression. He has big feet and big hands, and they give him an awkwardness, like a perpetual teenager, even now that he has graying hair. He slid in and started the motor, but I said, “Hey, wait a minute,” and pointed to the other end of the lot. “Pull over there, will you?”

He thought something was the matter. Tires needed air; woman needed bathroom. It never occurred to him that it could be anything else. That’s when I understood that as smart and charismatic as this guy was, he was also incredibly stupid. Or else, blind. Because, back then, I was a good-looking woman. At least some of the time, which is all even the best of us can hope to achieve. Before kids, before the wear and tear of life’s situations, I was thin and elegant, and I had really strong hands. Now I’m a bit of a used article. My skin is weathered, and inside, I feel an intensity that wasn’t there before. I think it’s the loss of biological focus.

So I leaned towards him, and when he turned my way, I kissed him on the lips. Only once, lightly, sweetly. But he was surprised. He hadn’t been expecting it or even thinking about it. That made me wonder. Did he have a girlfriend? If so, she was surely keeping herself scarce. Was he not attracted to me, to women? But he was. A few times, I’d caught him watching. So why hadn’t he ever made the first move?

I’ve had cups of tea over that question. And I wonder about it still. A man with a clear trajectory, ready to move up the ladder in the field of education, an articulate man, a man who has strong hands too, a wide and honest face, eyes the color of wet stones, sort of a translucent green and brown swirled all together. They are soft eyes, kind eyes. So why would he hesitate?

 

Outside, the snow squeaked under a set of tires. A car door slammed. The outer door to our mudroom sticks when it’s very cold, and now I heard it shudder open. I heard him set his briefcase on the floor, pull off his boots, and then he opened the door into the kitchen.

“‘Got Goat’? What’s that, a Muslim billboard?”

I realized, suddenly, how daft I had been. In the age of e-mail, information moves quickly. Then I remembered that he’d been planning to talk to Lincoln that day.

“Got goat,” I confirmed, walking towards him. We touched lips.

He took a beer from the fridge (this was how he created a pause in his day) and sat down at the table heavily. He sighed. Then he said, “Is someone going to tell me what this is all about?”

I should claim that as the moment when everything changed. Not the phone call. The phone call was simply the outside event that started things moving.
It was the man in the beautiful brown wool suit we had bought at a thrift store in that town in Maine all those years ago, sitting at the table with his legs crossed, feet in the woolen socks I had given him on his last birthday, who announced the change with that question: Is someone going to tell me what this is all about?

He was clearly annoyed, but then he had never been anything but direct. In fact, I loved him for his directness. But no, it wasn’t that. It was the word someone spoken in a house where there was only me.

 

When men reach their middle years, their cheeks get the rougher, more weathered patina of old cars. A woman’s body collapses like a worn sofa, and if there’s been loss, her face shows it. Shep’s face had a look of forbearance.

“Everything’s taken care of,” I said. “There’s nothing you’ll have to do until the weekend.”

“I’m going away this weekend.”

“Isn’t Albany tomorrow?”

“It is.”

“So you’ll be home Thursday night.”

“No, I’m also going away this weekend.”

When a husband makes a pronouncement like this to a wife he normally confides in, it startles. But there was nothing in the set of his mouth or the focus of his eyes that betrayed anything. I didn’t say, What do you mean?
I didn’t say, Where to? I simply said, “Why?” And that’s a curious thing. In a long marriage, in a small town that isolates us because of the political nature of Shep’s job, we had been thrown together and, for many years, had been not only lovers but each other’s only best friends. What I meant was: Why would you go somewhere without me?

He took a sip of beer. And then he didn’t say anything. That hurt. Usually we’re talkers. It came from all the different places we’d lived, from having to figure those places out quickly so both of us could function. School administration is a job about doing the right thing, but also making the opposition think it had been their idea. To be effective, you have to get the feel of a place quickly. And where to have a massage practice—that was the other delicate issue. It couldn’t be in the town where Shep worked, but it couldn’t be in a town where the people were going to think it was some kind of sex thing.
Location is all-important. So when we first got to a new place, we ran the roads and went into bars, supermarkets, repair shops, gift emporiums—noticing, talking, introducing ourselves. Then we met and compared notes and made our conclusions together.

“I wanted to think things through on my own. For once, I wanted to act independently. That doesn’t mean I want to be independent. I very much hope that you’ll decide to join me later on.”

Had I missed a connecting link?

“What are you talking about?” I sat down across from him. “Hey, will you please remember who I am?”

“Sorry. I was asked, very recently, to apply for a job as headmaster at a very prestigious private school in New Hampshire. It starts next fall, and apparently I’m their first choice, and they want me to come out this weekend to take a look. There’s a slight cut in salary, but there’s a huge cut in stress, and I’d be an independent educator.” With a very straight face, he said, “In New Hampshire there’s no Albany.”

The goat, the barn, the chickens, my life. “It takes me a year to build up clients. Moving is a very big deal.”

“They’re more liberal in New Hampshire, more accepting of massage.”

“But you’re talking as though you’ve already accepted this.”

“I haven’t. I said I needed to come out and meet the trustees and see the place.”

“But what about me? Where am I in all of this? Your partner. Hey, your partner!”

 

It seems to me that people are born with a certain level of ambition. None of us chooses to struggle, but on the other hand, I don’t think many of us choose to become president. Most of us simply want to be comfortable with an interesting job and a minimum degree of stress. But for me, were I to be truthful,
I’d have to admit that my ambition is only to live in a small town and be known. Animals, a vegetable garden, and enough clients to keep me busy three days a week doing massage. That’s it. So maybe Shephard’s ambition balances my lack of it.

As we talked, I learned that it wasn’t just a private school. It was the most distinguished private school in New England, if not in the entire United States, and though it looked like a slight pay cut on paper, in actuality it was a substantial raise, because housing, a beautiful and well-appointed Victorian mansion he showed me online, was part of the deal. No utility bills, no property tax, no federal standards, no state testing, no school board, no fundamentalists screening the classroom texts. This was the school that turned out the people who entered the highest levels of industry and government. Corporation presidents, senators. These were their alumni. And then there was me: Ramona the peasant.

That night, sitting in our kitchen, we were an island of light in the darkness. There are no shades or curtains on any of our windows. No reason for them.
The nocturnal creatures—the deer, the fox, the opossum—are not Peeping
Toms. I wanted him to meet the goat. But now, “Got Goat” seemed so wrong-headed I was ashamed to suggest it.

ii.

I create lists. In grade school, I soothed myself with the sounds of things.
There were the three ships Columbus brought to America: the Niña, the Pinta, the Santa Maria. I loved the perfect rhythm of those names and would say them over and over. I learned the three stars that make up Orion’s Belt: Alnitak, Alnilam, Mintaka. They weren’t as musical as the Spanish, but the Arabic was exotic.

As time went on, the list became a way to entertain my mind when I was at work. Nude, naked, unclothed: my hands kneaded those words into troubled skin. It is the perfect state of being, but occasionally, I’ll get a woman who insists on wearing panties and bra. I guarantee, if she becomes a regular, she’ll take those articles off. Not because I’ve said something, but because after a session she accepts herself. I never see my bodies in entirety; I see only parts. But I can deduce, and what I say to the foot and the shoulder is meant for the rest of it.

There are the three places Shep and I have lived—Blue Hill, Burlington, and now Goose Pond—and the three states—Maine, Vermont, New York—that we’ve paid taxes to. We’ve chosen these places carefully, going only where there were opportunities for both of us. It is a fact, if you look at data, that superintendents move around. Ten years at one school, seven years at the next. The job is too political to last at any one place for very long. Of course, I choose to think Shep is different. I choose to be an idealist, to believe that despite the unrealistic, unfunded requirements of No Child Left Behind, despite school report cards and budget pressures, Shep will remain true to what he believes: that children learn in different ways and that an effective school is one that uses a variety of teaching methods. But variety is more expensive, and when there are monetary pressures and a lot of hotheadedness, it’s difficult to implement. These days he wakes up at 4:00 in the morning, and I hear him downstairs, pedaling his stationary bike, the chain making a clicking sound as he rides through the nighttime dramas that are a spillover of contentious days. It’s good; it helps him survive. Because I want to stay here. I want to make this our home.

 

The turds are black; they drop out of the velvety anus like balls from a gum machine. They have no odor, because a goat’s vegetarian intake is thoroughly digested by the time it exits, having been swallowed, processed in the rumen, then brought back up to be chewed some more as cud, swallowed again, and passed through the other stomachs, all of which are housed in the barrel suspended between the shoulders and the sharp, bony hips. Rumen, reticulum, omasum, abomasum: I say them to myself as I squat down in the stall. His breath is goaty, and he picks at my jacket with his soft, black lips and looks at me through flat, horizontal pupils. Clearly he’s been with people, because he’s comfortable with me, blows air against my neck, butts his head into my shoulder. I am learning the contours of his body, its little nicks and scrapes, as I pet him. I am sorry there aren’t other animals in this barn, but at least he can hear the chickens in the neighboring shed, and when he goes out, they will keep him company. His long ears are soft, and though the rest of him is brown, they’re light grey, almost white. His lashes are very long, also white, and the little teeth on his bottom jaw are small and straight. They nibble at my jacket sleeve, pull my glove out of my pocket. But his hoofs need trimming; he needs minerals. I need to buy these things. I also need to go to New Hampshire.

 

The feed store is at the top of the hill. As I moved through the shelves of animal supplies to the counter, a woman called out in a plucky voice, “What can we get you today?”

“Do you have minerals for goats?”

“Sure do. Comes in small and large.”

“Do you have a hoof-trimming tool?”

“No, but let me get Joe.” She laughed, and her voice dropped to a rasp.
“Not that he’s a hoof-trimming tool, but he knows what you can use.”

“Wire cutters,” Joe told me. “Ordinary wire cutters from the hardware store. They’ll do it better.” He had the same stocky build as the woman at the register. “How many goats you got?” he asked companionably.

When I told him the story, he whistled. “Wearing a jester collar in Christmas colors? If that critter been running since Christmas, he must be a mighty smart animal. Better watch out. He’s gonna be hard to contain. And if he goes, best thing probably be to let him. He’s a survivor, I’d say.”

I found everything else I needed, and while I was paying for it, the door opened, letting in a gust of cold air, and a woman said, “You the one ordered this weather? Got to talk to you ’bout that.”

“Hi, Darla!” the woman at the register called. To me she said, “That’ll be twenty-two ninety-seven.”

“Wasn’t me ordered this weather,” Joe chimed back. “Musta been Burdett.”

“Then get that troublemaker out here now so’s I can talk to him!”

I turned to look more closely at this woman who so effectively took center stage, and when my glance reached her eyes, she looked right back and said, “Ramona Brightner.” She came towards me, holding out her hand. “Very pleased to meet you. We’re neighbors. In a fashion. My two hayfields back onto your property. And I know Shephard. I’m Darla Oswald, head of the school board and a great fan of your husband.” But then her attention turned. “There you are, Burdett! They tell me you’re the one ordered this weather. You and me have a little talking to do.”

An old farmer stood by the back door. “Just for you, Darla. I got a personal request line, straight to the almighty weather man, and I said very plainly, we want an old-time February, no climate change nonsense; we want nights below minus ten and days in the single digits. Kills the mosquitoes. Come on. You’ll be grateful. Deep cold in the winter makes for a summer without pests. It’s true. You wait and see.” He hooked a hand in his overall strap. The other sleeve of his jacket was armless.

“What you need?” he asked without a pause, and she went into a long recitation of supplies.

I said, “So you’re the one who makes all those round bales on the field below us.”

She cackled. “Yes, ma’am! Thirty rounds from either side of you, ten one field, twenty the other. You Brightners are a wedge right in the middle. Sort of strange. But way back, when it was all one piece, your acres must have been sold off to a relative. Made sense back then, and now, well, that’s what we have to work with.”

“I was wondering . . . I’m going to need hay, because I just got a goat. Next summer, could we buy some? Wouldn’t need much. It’s just one.”

She threw her head back, blond hair tumbling, a gloved hand reaching up as she cried, “Oh no! Sweetheart, one goat will never do. They’re herd animals. Just like horses. You have to have two or more.” She pulled off her long black leather gloves—city gloves, not country gloves—and cackled again.
“That’s exactly how I started. Now I have twenty-three.”

 

My first client that afternoon was a man who works outdoors as a surveyor. His body is starved for warmth, so I make the little room I rent behind the salon as warm as possible, and I set the electric pad on my table at high. I hold my hands in front of the heater before I touch him, and sometimes I set a hot, towel-wrapped rock in the middle of his belly or back while I massage his limbs. With him it’s not emotional or body strain—it’s stress from the invasion of wind and cold.

I am the only practitioner I know who doesn’t use background music. Lots of people, as you work on them, have things to say, and silence gives them that chance.

Bruce likes to talk. Occasionally, he talks too much, but I’m not afraid to tell him when it’s time to be quiet. He’s a big man, six-three at least, and over two hundred pounds. He’s also an ugly man. I don’t know why that’s important, but it makes me want to help him even more. I do a lot of work in the trapezius. I warm his shoulders, stroking and gliding, using smooth, continuous motions, talking to the muscles. I use all of my weight, pushing in, pulling back, working to loosen the fascia. His shoulders are big and meaty, tufted with hair. The oil darkens and flattens them, and when the skin is supple, I knead him like dough.

The room I rent is small and, as I explained before, very warm. I keep the light low and am very careful, as I move around the table, never to brush against his body, careful to keep it draped as I use knuckles and forearms along his spine, unlocking the tension. It still amazes me that in just an hour I can make this large, wind-battered man relaxed and pliant.

In the winter, Bruce came once a week. He talked, mostly about his crew, the two or three kids he hired just out of college. He likes them. He loves them, actually, and seems, at least to me, to get too involved in their personal problems. But today he was talking about something else.

“You know the McCarthy place on Hartsville Hill? Been surveying it. Two hundred acres, all flat, with a stream, woods, and cleared portions. They’re selling it off to speculators.”

“Speculators?”

“For big bucks.”

“What kind of speculators?” No one could be thinking of building a housing development in a place as isolated as Hartsville Hill.

“Gas. Marcellus Shale gas. You know about that, don’t you?”

I try to keep the problems of the world out of my room, but they slip in regardless. “I’ve wanted to forget it,” I told him. “I’ve been hoping that if I didn’t pay attention it would go away.”

“It’s not going away; there’s big money out there. There’s leasing agents—they’re crawling all over us right now, trying to get landowners to sign away mineral rights. And landowners, they’re forming coalitions, because with contiguous acres they get better rates and a bigger signing bonus. You heard of that, haven’t you? The signing bonus? Hard to resist. A new truck, a new plow, a hydraulic splitter . . . you name it. Carries lots of temptation. The other kind of landowner, the one with principles, who wants solar or wind instead of the way drilling lays everything to waste, he’s going to be outvoted. It contaminates the water. Or there’s a good chance it will. You know that, don’t you?”
He paused. I gave an ambiguous murmur and continued knuckles along his spine.

“That signing bonus is so sweet. People are willing to risk it. And the one who isn’t tempted, well, angry neighbors is just the beginning of his nightmare. Back in the Thirties we had an oil boom here, but shale gas, that’s something different. Highly industrial. Mile-long wells, huge containment pools. Tanker traffic digging up roads. But the worst thing is what it does to the water. If you can’t use your water, what are you going to do? People will leave. McCarthys are smart. They’re selling and getting out now. They want the money, but they don’t want to live with the results. If I could do that, I would. But my business, it’s going to double, triple. So I’ll do their dirty work, then I’ll escape.”

I only pretend to listen to my clients, because what I am really listening to is behind their voices. Twinges of pain and tenderness, points of resistance, that’s what I’m looking for as I move across their bodies. Now I was going down his leg, deep-gliding with my thumbs, and I said, “Yeah, but it’s hard to pick up your entire life, start over fresh someplace new.”

“I’m ready. The human creature, it isn’t a tree. We’re a mobile animal.”

There was resistance on his calf, and I was going into it with my thumbs.
I could feel him wince. The light flickered as I murmured, “We’ll see.”

“And if drilling doesn’t ruin this place, the ash borer will.”

“Ash borer?”

“A small green insect moving its way north from Pennsylvania, eating the heartwood out of the ash trees.”

“We have lots of ash.”

“I’m sure it’s most of what you have, and it’s in Cattaraugus County now. Only a matter of time before it gets to Allegany.”

“You’re full of good news, aren’t you?” But in truth, I was just making talk; my concern was with the real issues under my hands. I pulled the covers up to his neck and gently rocked him side to side like a baby. All the stiffness was gone.

Often I end the session at the client’s head. I cradle it in my hands, my fingers working the suboccipital muscles where I believe Bruce’s headaches originate.

Then I focus on the face. This is my favorite part. It’s rare when something hurts on the face, and my fingers knead and stroke like a mother comforting a worried child.It’s going to be all right. Everything will work out. I put this message into my touch, and I tap, All’s well. All’s well. You are a loved person. My hands tapping, circling, pressing.

Bruce always leaves a hefty tip, and as I put the bills away in my drawer, I thought to myself, No place is perfect. Every rural location is under siege from something, and if you don’t like it, then go to the city, where wildness is ruined already and lawns and parks are the only form of nature you get.

 

I call myself a massage artist. I know it’s arrogant, but it’s a thing I say only to myself. And I say it because every body I work on has an entirely different set of needs, and so I don’t use the same routine on any two people. That would get boring. I did study all of that stuff about systems—the muscular, the nervous, the lymphatic, the skeletal—and I can identify everything under the skin at any location. Easy stuff, easy, but do I use it in my work? Rarely. It’s not a matter of knowing systems; it’s a matter of emptying that kind of knowledge out and watching. My hands are highly trained instruments with eyes of their own. They feel a problem, and they know what to do. The remedy is in my fingers, my elbows, my palms, my knuckles, my thumbs. It’s in my complete relaxation and acceptance. If I’m tense and distracted, my client will feel it. So I stay focused. I bring warmth to ice, softness to stone. I find where my client has buried the shame and fear all of us carry around. I coax it away, and when it’s gone I fan the ground with love. Hokey as it sounds, but after all, my name is Ramona, she of the wise hands. I watch, I feel, I imagine. That’s why I can’t have music.

In the early days, when I was fully and completely infatuated with Shep, I did him the same way. I listened and felt, and I think, I hope, that he, in his own blunt male way, did the same with me. Well, he did. I know he did. Because we developed this thing together. This life. He does the school; I do the garden, the chickens, and see about the bent and scarred bodies that come to me. It’s worked out. The two kids, the farm, and then when the kids left home, we decided, or I decided, and he agreed, on goats. We had the barn, added the fencing.

I had fifteen minutes before my next client, so I went outside to the alley in back. There was a plastic chair out there; I think it’s a smoking station for someone who cooks at the restaurant, and that’s where I sit. I closed my eyes, bowed my head, and breathed the clean winter air.

 

It’s startling to go from a male to a female, and in particular, to go from a tall, ponderous man like Bruce to a small, nervous woman like Fern. She was in her early sixties, and her years of running a riding school kept her fit. The problems of her life went to her hips and lower back. Sometimes her piriformis was so tight I felt as though I were attempting to work metal. She liked the room cool, so I turned everything way down after Bruce left. She preferred me to work on her back. Some women feel undefended in the front, and Fern was one of them. I don’t question it. And even on her back, I was careful to readjust the coverings after I exposed an arm or a leg. It’s funny how protective people are. What is nakedness but a condition shared by us all? All variations are acceptable, and anyway, who’s to say what we should look like unclothed?

“Wow,” I said, “what’s going on?” I was working on her upper back, gently pulling and shaking out each arm, pressing on the shoulder, but movement was inhibited. “Something happening in your life?” I added more gently.

“I thought I was doing a decent job hiding it.” Her voice was wobbly
with feeling.

I squirted more oil into my palms and moved up and down the canvas of her back as though I were spreading paint. Working quickly, loosening the fascia, moving heat into the muscles. I pulled the covers up to her neck and, lifting her thick grey hair to the side, I went back to her shoulders. I turned the sheet down at the very top. “I can listen,” I offered. As I said, I’m not eager for talk, but touch releases emotions, and Fern is a woman who has a habit of holding them in.

She shot out a stream of breath. “It’s my competitor. Darla Oswald. The only other person around here with horses. We’ve never been friends. I’ve tried, but it’s a lost cause. She’s just too ambitious to be interested. And aggressive as hell. She has more horses, more stables, a bigger riding ring, but I have more trails. Anyway, we compete for students. And I think she has too many horses. They’re crowded and don’t get enough exercise.

“So—but this is between you and me, okay? I don’t want this spread around.”

I said what I always say: “Anything I hear in this room stays here.”

“Good. Well, the phone rings. This was last week. And there’s this loud,
aggressive voice. ‘Fern Snyder,’ she says. ‘Darla Oswald. Bet you never expected to hear from me, did you? I have a proposition. Are you ready?’

“No ‘How are you? How are your horses?’ She’s so brazen. Just goes straight to it. Like she’s the President and has no time for a lowly person like me.
So I took her down a notch. I said, ‘Hello, Darla. How are you doing? Congrat-ulations on those wins you took at State last September.’

“But Darla doesn’t do conversation. ‘I need to know something fast. Because I have to act soon. Life is biting my tail, so to speak. Fern . . .’

“‘Yes,’ I say. Now I’m a little nervous. What does this woman want with me?

“‘I’m moving. Going back to where I grew up. Maybe just for a couple of years, and I can’t take all of my horses. What I want to know is, would you be interested in looking them over and making me an offer for five or six?’

“‘Moving? Whatever for? You’re so established here.’ We’re competitors, but I like having someone else doing the same thing. It means it’s not just me out there trying to convince people that riding and keeping horses is a great way of life. If she left, a full one-half of the equestrian scene would leave with her. That’s a huge loss. So I’m feeling put out and a little angry.

“She says, ‘Lookit, I want you to think it over and give me a call when you decide.’”

Women who do a lot of riding have unbelievable upper thighs. The muscles on the insides of their legs are larger than anyone’s. But hers were rigid. I oiled up and did a fast hand-over-hand glide, pausing to shake the flesh. Then I moved to her feet. I pulled my stool around to the end of the table and picked one foot up, tucking the covers around her leg so nothing would be exposed, and began. There are fourteen thousand nerve endings in the feet, and I know how to stimulate every one of them. Fern has never said anything to me about her feet, which are thick and wide but flat. Like pancakes. No lift, which is why her hips have to carry it all.

All women, but Fern especially, need to have their toes worked. Toes are what roll our weight forward. And when there are burdens, toes are what hold them. Most women, at one time or another, have broken one. That’s because when the burden is too heavy, the way too rough, it’s a toe that gives out.
So I give real time to a woman’s toes. Each and every one of them.

“I had a hunch about something,” Fern said. “So I took a chance. I said, ‘Darla, when those leasing agents came to my place I ran them off. Sounds like you invited them in for a cup of coffee.’

“‘What are you talking about?’

“‘The Marcellus. The gas. The get-rich-quick guys who are running around this county leasing land.’

“‘I’d never lease the mineral rights to my place. And I’d never sell it. I’m just closing it up for a couple of years, and going back to New Hampshire. If you must know, it’s because my parents are getting old. So I’m suspending everything here for a little while, and doing things on a smaller scale at my parents’ place, which is why I can’t take all of the horses. And, Fern, you’re not the only person I’ve approached. So think about it and get back to me, and I’ll take the highest offer I get.’”

Fern has a very long big toe. It’s a beautiful and noble creature, and it has room enough on the pad for me to get in and roll it around. I was working it with my thumbs when I said, “You’re going to make an offer?”

“First of all, I don’t believe a word of it. This is not a woman who drops everything to take care of elderly parents. You and I might do that, but not Darla. There is something else going on. Who knows? Something bigger and more important to her, because, in effect, her leaving for a year or two means I’ll take over. She’s willing to give me that opportunity because something’s drawing her away that’s worth it. What it is, I don’t know. This is not a woman I’m friends with. Maybe she’s after a man.”

“So go check out her horses. Do it before you get cold feet.” I said this while still on the toe, and something icy grabbed the back of my neck when she replied, “She’ll be in New Hampshire this weekend. Otherwise, I would.”

When I got home, I went out to check on the goat. I could hear him butting against the walls, and as I opened the door, he pushed his nose in the crack, but I slipped in and hooked it closed before he could get out.

The stall had a warm animal smell, and the little bit of hay I had put down was urine-soaked and marked with piles of little black balls. I added fresh hay to the floor and stuffed more in the basket I was using as a temporary hayrack. I also unhooked the water bucket and maneuvered my way out the door without letting him escape. I scrubbed it out and filled it down at the hydrant. Carrying it back full, I made it in without getting any water down in my boots and locked it in place against the wall.

The goat was pulling tufts of hay out of the basket, eating some, but dropping more to the floor. I was surprised that on such a cold day the stall would feel as warm as it did and that his body would be even warmer. It felt so safe I didn’t want to leave. So I squatted in the fresh hay next to him and leaned my head into his warm goaty flanks.

“You need a name,” I said. “What is your name?” He nuzzled against me, still chewing. “Damnit,” I said. “I know your name. Mischief, that’s what it is, isn’t it?”

 

Back in the kitchen, I started dinner. I enjoy cooking for the simple reason that I like to eat good food. I’m a good cook because I take the time to imagine the dish before I make it. That’s what I’d been doing up at the barn. I’d imagined the garlic-mussel sauce I was going to make for pasta. I’d pictured a bowl of spaghetti with a crown of opened mussels adorning it. Then I’d imagined a side dish of peppers, artichoke hearts, and string beans tossed with olive oil and vinegar.

First, I oiled the peppers and put them under the broiler. As they were heating, I cut up parsley, olives, garlic, and rinsed the beans. The counter was covered with colorful piles of chopped things. I set a pot of water on a high flame and put a fry pan on another burner. Soon things were sizzling and boiling and the kitchen windows were covered with steam.

Shep would be getting home soon, and I wanted to have everything ready. The flames leaped, the water jumped, the oil spat. I threw in the garlic and onions, grated pepper over them, and slammed on a lid. Then I poured the mussels into the steaming pot and slapped on another lid. Meanwhile, in the oven, the skin on the peppers was crisping. I placed them in a pot with a tight-fitting lid and let them sit for ten minutes. It’s a trick I read. The steam makes them juicy.

That was when I heard a car grind up the driveway. But I didn’t run to the window. Fifteen things were happening at one time, and though browned garlic is lovely, burnt garlic is trash. So I stirred and waited, and soon the back door popped open, and I could hear rustling in the mudroom as he removed his boots. The door to the kitchen opened, and I could hear him setting his briefcase on the floor, hanging his coat on the hook.

Usually, I say something, something welcoming as he comes through the hall, but this time I couldn’t speak.

“Smells great!” he called.

I looked up when he came into view, and that was when it hit me. I have never been able to hide my feelings, and when I caught the scent of cold he brought into the room and saw the splotch of weather on his cheeks, I understood, like it was a new fact, that this man moved in a world I knew nothing about. There I am, locked up with naked bodies, while he’s at a desk studying percentiles, regulations, budgets. I had always liked our differences. I couldn’t do what he did, and he the same with me. If I asked him to rub my back, he did it, but not effectively, not well, because he had no feeling in his hands and no desire to confront pain. Now, with cold streaming away from his skin, he came to the stove and bent, slightly, to kiss me.

“Don’t.” My voice was husky with tears. “What’s going on?” I whispered. “Why is Darla Oswald moving to New Hampshire?”

Shep has a wonderfully resonant voice, and when he laughs it is a spilling of notes that melts you. “What a strange question. I have no idea why or if she is. You seem to know. Is she? Boy, does it smell wonderful. What are you making?”

I should have known that a man who functions well in a political position is a man who knows how to keep secrets. Who knows how to work people. Not the way I do, but in the invisible, manipulative, behind-closed-doors bargaining that I’ve only seen in old movies where white-shirted men fill back rooms with smoke. “Who are you going to New Hampshire with?”

“Look,” he said. “I’ve been driving for five hours. Let me sit down. Let me get something to drink. You can’t imagine what this day has been like, and in two days I have to get in the car again.”

“I’m sure you’ll fortify yourself with delicious snacks. You and Darla.”

“Yes, she’s coming with me. She recommended me to the school, and she happened to be driving there this weekend, so it made sense. What is this? Are you accusing me of something?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know.” I threw my hands up. Was I? The garlic was getting too brown. “I can’t talk. I’ll ruin this meal.”

“What can I do to help?”

Such a simple, Shep-like question. Maybe it was all my imagination. “Just sit. Just sit and relax. Or set the table. Then relax.” After all, he’d had a hard day; he’d been on the road. “Is it snowing?”

“Clear,” he said, “but still cold. Supposed to drop to twenty below. Let’s remember to keep the faucets dripping.”

When it’s cold like that, indoors is the best place, the slow fire in the woodstove balancing the assault of outside air. “Don’t talk,” I said. I was pulling the skin of the pepper away from the meat, and it was coming off in thin, wavery sheets. The mussels were done, and I threw the noodles into the fishy water and kept the flame high.

For some reason, he used our best china and silverware and lit a candle. It looked beautiful. The dishes on the counter, waiting for us, were beautiful too. But I felt as nervous as though it were a first date. I served the meal in shallow bowls and put a dish of grated cheese on the table.

The first forkful was so good. There was just the right amount of pepper and salt, and the mussels were fresh and sweet. But I had no appetite.
“Is something going on?”

“Yes,” he said. He put down his fork. “I told you I’m interviewing for a job. It’s a job Darla put me in contact with because we work together on school issues and she went to this school as a young girl and she knows it well and is very active there as an alum.”

“But are her parents really ill? She’s really going back there to take care of them?”

“You know each other?” he asked.

“We met at the feed store,” I said, remembering that I mustn’t reveal anything a client tells me in the treatment room.

“I don’t know her that way. We’re not friends.”

“You’re taking her to New Hampshire, not me. And you’re considering moving there without consulting me. I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. Are you and I finished?” There. My worst fear.

He looked up in surprise.

Shep carries authority even when he’s sitting at the dinner table. Sometimes that authority makes me feel as though I were nothing but another one of his children, not only his two blood children, but his five hundred other children at the central school.

“Well, what am I supposed to think? I go into the grocery, and I find out you’ve ordered this romantic lunch for the road.”

“It’s food. I have to eat, don’t I?”

“What’s going on?” I said evenly.

“Look.” He finally made eye contact. “I want to make this decision alone. I want to check it out alone. I don’t want to have to consider all of your . . .”
—he paused and finished more softly—“all of your stuff.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Your . . . requirements.”

“Such as?”

“Your massage work; your desire for animals; for a private, rural place with no neighbors in view. I want to look this over for myself first. And then . . .”

I didn’t let him finish. “So you’ll make a decision for yourself, and then, at last, you’ll ask my opinion. But by that time, it’ll be too late.”

“I’m tired. You know I have to leave this job. I have to go somewhere simple, where I’m not the enemy, where there’s no taxpayer and no state government. It’s killing me. I can’t keep it up.”

“You don’t have a thing for Darla?”

Shep smiled. “Darla is an extremely seductive woman.”

There it was.

But then his face broke open, and the man I remembered looked out.
Oh yes, finally. Now why had he gone missing? It was the face I knew from our private moments, when the outside world disappeared and something boyish and grateful and entirely devoted took over. Those mossy eyes glistened in the light. “But you have nothing to worry about, because you are, too.”

 

The goat had been locked in his stall for three days. As I walked out to the barn, the snow crunched under my boots. The morning was cold, but he had a heavy winter coat, and he would know where home was now. When I opened the door, he came up and nuzzled against me, breath curling from his nostrils. I stomped on the water bucket to crack up the ice, filled it with fresh, put new hay in the basket, and came and went with the door open. He stayed indoors. He didn’t even poke his head out to see the large fenced pasture where the chickens pecked and roamed even on that coldest day. When I finished my chores, I put a stone against the door so it would stay ajar and he could come and leave as he wished.

My requirements. Were they that difficult? The questions came and went as I rubbed and pressed into flesh. I couldn’t pay attention to them as I worked, but when I broke for lunch, they came at me hard. I sat by myself in the village restaurant and thought about the way his job, his skills, organized my life. Did my job, my skills, organize his? What I knew, what I knew without question, was that every time he drove up the driveway, whether it was from a trip to Albany or a day at school, I couldn’t wait to see him. I couldn’t wait to tell my news and hear his, to put my arms around his body. Remembering that got me through the afternoon.

There was still some light by the time I got home. Darkness was in process, but I could see my way to the barn, and when I looked into Mischief’s stall, I knew at once that it was empty. The pasture was empty too. The snow was slick under my feet, because the day had warmed up and then turned colder.

I followed his footprints. He hadn’t frolicked at all. There was only a single line. He’d walked out of the barn and gone straight to the four-foot fence. He did it at a run, and on the first try, his body sailed over and he landed, hard, because the prints were deep, on the other side. Even in the low light, I could see his tracks crossing Darla’s hayfield, climbing to the hills.

I knew what not to do.

But when I opened the door to the house, it was Bruce’s voice I heard: contiguous. Of course. That’s what was going on. It wasn’t sex she was after—it was land. My Shep: principled, honorable, overwhelmed. He would be oblivious to her grand scheme. Shep needed a school without Albany; Darla needed contiguous land. If we were in New Hampshire, she could buy our acres.

I could imagine it all: truck traffic, well pads, containment pools. These hills and valleys: pools, pads, pollution. And then the word love added
itself to the list. All the many possibilities. But where was the love in that vision? Shep would be in New Hampshire, educating the next kings of industry. And I would be where?

The moon rose over the tracks, glazing them with blue light, a chilly line bound for the unknown. That was not me. Oh no, that would not be me.

 

Megan Staffel has published stories in New England Review, Ploughshares, Northwest Review, The Seattle Review, and other journals, and has also written Lessons in Another Language: A Novella and Stories.

Listen to Megan Staffel and Helen Hooper discuss “Meetings” on our podcast, Contributors in Conversation.

[Purchase your copy of Issue 06]

Julia PikeMischief

Related Posts

phonograph

The History of Sound

BEN SHATTUCK
I pushed through the crowd, towards the music. The smell of soap, beer, and smoke filled the room. I leaned against the wall, hip touching the piano’s back beam, watching David play. His eyes were closed. Cigarette wilting from his lips. Smoke crawling up his face. Black hair combed back.

Feroz Rather Headshot

The Old Man in the Cottage

FEROZ RATHER
Its old wooden walls painted over in a dark shade of green, the cottage had two narrow slits for the windows in the front. Between them, a door clung to a feeble frame on rusting metal hinges—a door that I could break with a single blow of my axe. I had come to see the cowherd, Gulzar.

Jonathan Wright

The Silence of Fire

HAIDAR HAIDAR
All the former prisoner wanted was a fragment from the circle of calm, stripped from the body of noisy time. He lay down to doze, trying to rid himself of the noise and the horror of imprisonment coursing through his nervous system. With his return, the silence had returned…