The Pole Barn
Scott Solomon



“Yeow!”

The cripple careened down the ramp behind the slammed door.

“Bitch,” said Gil Hubbard of the offending twat, Christian name Twyla. “No need to shove.”

As usual, Gil devoted dawn to exercise, rotating spindly arms in anemic arcs, so his wheelchair would cross uncut fescue to the smooth earth of the pole barn. Who needed that shrivel-lipped, gray-haired wife? Come winter, the pole barn would still be preferable, easier to reach over grass frozen flat and, lacking a door, refreshingly airy.

“I’ll show who’s boss.” At the seamless verge of the barn, Gil issued a flaccid thrust, veered into a pole, and toppled.

“Damn.”

Seesawing eyes swung from tiller to tractor to gas tank to fire extinguisher to shakes.

“Stop,” said Gil. He pushed his tremors against the wheelchair, wriggling his body free, but they resurfaced. He forced them against the rock-hard earthen floor, achieving a seated position. They doggedly remained. He clasped them around knocking knees as master of all surveyed.

The poles—long, rigid, lasting—had been erected during World War II by hands ahead of their time. Why ape prairie barns, dairy barns, round barns, and ain’t-she-sweet barns when a man with a firm grasp, schooled at a wartime job at Rumsford Iron Works, could forego the folly of unwieldy wooden frames and footings in favor of feet-on-the-ground ferrous posts buttressing a tin roof flanked by four sheet-metal walls gated with gliding steel?

“Ain’t nobody can say you never got the job done,” said Gil. In the twenty years since the war, wood would have rotted, but Gil’s barn endured. When wind whipped through rusting metal, thinning walls, and a gaping portal in this, the year of our cocksucking Lord 1965, it proved no match for an iron-willed curse.

“Motherfucking hellfire.” Gil shook and shed sweat. The fever, like the barn, served a purpose. When the roof baked, as on this day, perspiration repelled invisible rays. When the roof froze, a few months fore or hence, perspiration affirmed the fire in the belly that kept Gil from flaming out.

“Watch it.” Gil poked stray gray hair from his eyes to scan starter fluid, jumper cables, batteries, a ’49 Illinois license plate from his ’49 Chevy pickup, a ’65 Illinois license plate from his ’49 Chevy pickup, brackets, shelves, jars, flowerpots, paint cans, garbage cans, shovels, ladders, hoes, hay, loft, roof, walls, and empties.

“Where is that thing?” Gil vomited and fell back in his vertigo. “Not again.”

“Yessiree,” said the saber-toothed tiger.

“Go away.”

“Tisk, tisk,” countered the tawny baritone in concert with a wagging talon. “Is that any way to greet a houseguest?”

“I’m not ready,” said Gil behind blood-red sclera. “If I could just get some rest, I’d build up enough strength to clean up.”

The drooling saber-toothed tiger grinned. “I like mine messy.”

“Honest, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die, if I had a razor I’d slit my throat and save you the trouble.”

“No trouble.” The saber-toothed tiger had a recipe to follow: plow paws into Gil’s gut; uproot liver, pancreas, kidneys, and a low-hanging rib; lick organs lovingly; return organs to abdominal cavity; mash with rib; set to simmer in hollow’s still considerable heat; skewer lungs, one on each saber tooth; pause to admire inspiration and expiration; squeeze tar, nicotine, dust, dirt, phlegm, and wrong-way vomit from lungs into an ivory gravy boat; mix lungs with gruel in belly; ignore inferior aspect of beating heart; add gravy; tie one red-and-white checkered napkin around the one-doing-all-the-work’s neck; dig in.

“Please, pussy,” said Gil. “I know you’re really a nice pussy. That’s it. Nice pussy. Gray pussy. Pink pussy. Licky pussy. Tasty pussy.”

The sated gray barn cat followed its pink tongue off a vomit-cleared face.

“Where is that thing?” repeated Gil.

“Stop asking that question.”

Gil made a bid to bury his head, as always, too late. The pterodactyl scraped him up by the scruff and launched its iron wings into a purple sky over black farms and brown company towns; Interstate 57 and new hamburger stands with ugly yellow arches; galloping orange Mustangs blaring “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”; smoldering slums and serene high-rises; and crew cuts, military cuts, Beatle cuts, and uncuts roaming the Museum of Natural History.

“What’s that?” said Gil.

“A pterodactyl,” said Pop.

“How do you spell it?”

“P-t- … ”

“It doesn’t start with a T?” said Gil.

“Jesus, you’ve got a lip for a six-year-old,” said Pop. “There. Look at that. It’s spelled like it sounds.”

“What is it?”

“A saber-toothed tiger.”

“But how do you spell that Terry Duck thing?”

“Son, you’ve got a lot to learn about being a gentleman.”

It did a father proud to set aside time for a son, an only son, an only child, especially when they took the train north from Rumsford to Chicago. Although speaking was easier at the museum, Gil did as told and followed Pop to the Titanic. As per custom, Gil nursed a Nehi while Pop sucked beer while everybody sang “Ain’t She Sweet.” The she’s with whom Pop subsequently spoke had their own way of speaking. Their skirts, cheeks, lipstick, rouge, and perfume pronounced Gil a chip off the ole block (in the absence of the ole blockette), who could sit and wait by himself awhile while they showed Pop something he could bring home to Mom.

It must have been beer. As Pop drank more and Mom drank more and Pop ate less and Mom ate less and Pop saw less of Mom and Mom saw less of Pop, Mom and Pop faded away before anybody declared war.

Maintaining neutrality, Gil swore off beer.

“Where is that thing?” mocked the pterodactyl. The winged dinosaur sank claws into collar and skin, flying Gil out of the museum over Ernie Banks playing two; a bank closing at two; open windows in businesses open for business blasting “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”; and chugging Checkers, barreling buses, and swerving Corvairs before pulling a U-turn over the Chicago River and letting go.

Gil shit his pants, signaling one of the best parts of delirium tremens or DTs or whatever fine mess he’d gotten into and could neither spell nor know. The turbid green waters of the Chicago River graciously concealed his accident. And because the river’s current ran backwards, everything washed off, returning from whence it came.

Arrival at the bottom of the Chicago River meant reuniting with a beautiful sea, like that place in Mexico the guys in jail had once seen. As Mom and Pop sipped margaritas by the bar, six-year-old Gil tilled the sand with toy pail and shovel.

“That’s one hardworking boy,” said Pop.

Despite the distance, Gil heard everything via sonar, cultivated where it wasn’t really easy to speak.

“Smart, too,” said Mom.

Pterodactyl starts with p before t and whatever comes thereafter.

“Without doubt,” said Pop. “By the way, you look ravishing.”

Mom had dark eyes (like Pop’s), chestnut hair (to his brown), and a broad nose (to his sharp) without a taste for rouge, perfume, and lipstick. She wore a sea-green dress above ivory ankles.

“Thank you,” said Mom. “You look pretty dapper yourself.”

When in Chicago, Pop wore a suit to satisfy the Titanic’s dress code.

“How about we make another just like him, dear?”

“That sounds lovely, dear.”

No sooner had Gil smiled than he drowned. Quart after quart of spit, snot, and lung came up. He had never been to the beach, not even Lake Michigan, not even with his family. They had never gone to Chicago as a family. There had never been another.

“Why me?” Gil crawled on his hands and knees in the pole barn, uncharacteristically unable to take advantage of his flat feet. After being classified 4-F, he became one of the few young men working among a smidge of old men and a stack of Rosie Riveters at Rumsford Iron Works. As one of the few young (not to mention good) men, he had his pick. Except for inhuman women. Inhuman women don’t understand that men are human, susceptible to spending time in jail. Because Lady Justice ultimately prevails, however, the iron works employed many human women, bitches with itches which a gentleman is obliged to scratch.

“Where is that thing?” Gil’s hands barely scratched the surface, sending his chin skidding on the perspiring barn floor.

How could he have flat feet? Shortly after starting at the iron works, Gil returned home from his shift, took off his shoes and socks, slid a bent cable under his bare feet on the level earth of the poles’ future base, and felt nothing. Under Gil’s ugly yellow arches, there was room to spare.

Unfortunately, the people at the draft board saw Gil at the Suicide King—a survivor of easy speaking—where they hoisted their share with the beer-swilling scum found to be 4-F for purposes of plugging holes at the iron works and found Gil guilty by association. Every day after work, the scum swore, even before they lapped beer, they had seen or been with Twyla, even before Gil had a chance to start drinking and get angry enough but too weak to do anything about it.

“Ah.” Gil peed his pants—grateful for no burn—before landing cheek to cheek on the barn’s wet terra firma. Twyla was no whore. Before Twyla, Gil frequented only two or three whores, maybe five or six, no more than a baker’s dozen.

Likewise, he fell victim to burns once or twice and drips once or twice and burns plus drips once or twice, no more than a baker’s dozen, with no recollection of anyone who looked like Twyla. Then again, who was in any condition to recollect?

What if Twyla was a working girl before she worked at the iron works? Everybody suffered under the Depression. What’s a body to do?

For all Gil knew, Twyla could have been a virgin. She liked visiting the little farm her coworker sowed on the side outside the filthy confines of Rumsford. Not once after he fucked that cunt, even before they got married, did they come down with burns or drips.

“Go away.”

The rat staring Gil in the face looked less curious than hungry.

“Meow.”

“Thank you, pussy.”

“What are you thanking that for?” said Twyla, twiddling TV Guide over her head-to-toe pajamas at the head of the bed.

“The only thing flatter than your feet is the only thing left that can do anything for it.”

“Not without risking injury,” said Gil. “The last time I went down, my tongue ran smack-dab into an S.O.S pad.”

Twyla looked up from the listings for “Flipper” and “Bewitched.” “I suppose you think your incredible shrinking nuts are funny, too.”

“Not half as funny as your adhesive tape.”

Twyla started to cry. As his better half’s eyeliner ran, Gil nose-dived through a hole in the bedroom floorboards and scurried along a squirrel-sized passage to an office in the pole barn.

“I’m sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Hubbard,” said the mummy. “You cannot have children.”

“Why not?” demanded Gil.

“Because your wife has adhesions.”

“What’s that?”

“Scar tissue.”

“How’d she get it?”

“Infection.”

“Like I said, how’d she get it?”

“I don’t know,” cried Twyla.

“Why doesn’t she have symptoms?” pressed Gil.

“It is possible to acquire an infection without outward manifestations,” said the mummy coolly.

“Outward manifestos? What kind of mumbo jumbo is that?” Gil gave the mummy the hairy eyeball and turned to Twyla.

“Did you ever catch anything?”

“Not that I can recollect.”

At first, Gil consoled Twyla and repledged his love. Later, when he was at his best, he reasoned only whores get adhesive tape so a woman like Twyla should feel lucky to have a man like him because nobody else would have a woman like her especially when he made her cry because a man ruled a woman’s weak spot so he could get the best of her so he could put her in her place so he could keep her in his place because a man’s home is his castle.

“No.” Gil flopped up and down in his shit, piss, and puke, a fish out of water, until he passed out. He awoke in the reception area of another office within the complex of the pole barn.

“Just another rum fit,” groused Gil as he leafed through the Watts riots in Life. “Except I have nothing to do with rum. They should call it a seizure or epilepsy, something unspellable.”

“Is something wrong, sir?” asked the young, Wrigley-snapping secretary in the rouge miniskirt that spoke easily of the good ole days in Chicago.

“Nothing that a little sugar won’t cure,” said Gil past his gums.

“Well, I never.”

But she must have, because the miniskirt didn’t get up and leave, just like Gil never got up and left Mom and Pop when they downed one too many margaritas or mai tais (making rum, along with tequila, sacrosanct) when they were down in Mexico.

Bzz.

“Stupid bee,” mumbled Gil.

The miniskirt rotated. “Alderman Kankey will see you now.”

“Thanks, sugar.”

The miniskirt rotated in reverse.

“Howdy,” said Gil hoarsely. “Name’s Hubbard. You can call me Gil.”

“Pleased to meet you, Gil,” said Alderman Kankey with a feast of teeth and balm before his puffy hand caromed off a crusty surface dangling from a crutch. “Uh, Mr. Hubbard, what can I do for you?”

“Ain’t it obvious, Kankey?”

“I’m afraid not.” Kankey averted his chubby cheeks for a breath of fresh air. “I go by Alderman.”

Gil disseminated props, clodhoppers, and clods over the carpet’s cropped gray pile before plunking down in a civilian chair.

“I don’t wear no paisley underwear, Kankey. Do you?”

“Allow me to answer your question with a question, Mr. Hubbard.” Kankey sucked his body into its charcoal suit and strode toward his official desk. “Why don’t we dispense with this nonsense and toss you in the drunk tank?”

“That’s a good question, Kankey,” said Gil as his ashes skirted an ashtray onto the pile. “The reason you don’t want to butt in on Otis and Andy of Mayberry is that jail is a vacation. A fella can pick up a lot of useful information when he’s on vacation. Like how to answer a question with a question: If I puked on your pretty little wife’s rosebushes, would they match your paisley Fruit of the Loom?”

Kankey turned; spied President Lyndon Baines Johnson, General William C. Westmoreland, Mayor Richard J. Daley, and the mayor of Rumsford in gray reproduction at the back of his windowless office; eyed eleven files and one book in twelve gray shelves on the flank of his windowless office; read the big gray hand and the little gray hand on the other flank of his windowless office; pushed a paisley handkerchief to the nadir of his gray lapel; and re-turned.

“Say,” said Gil with a pegboard smile, “how does a wee little piss like you keep a pretty little wife like yours happy?”

Kankey’s eyes shot to his crotch, before jerking back. “What do you want?”

“I can’t walk,” said Gil.

“Why not?” said Kankey.

“Flat feet.”

“Since when are flat feet capable of disabling anybody?”

“Since the war. And I don’t mean whatever we’re doing in Vietnam.”

Kankey ran a hand through his Vitalis. “Your crutches seem functional.”

“They chafe my armpits,” said Gil. That dozing drunk in jail hardly could have missed those two hard walking sticks.

“Wanna see?”

Kankey ran a hand across his Aqua Velva. “I’ll procure a new pair of crutches through the discretionary fund.”

“Is that the fund you tap at the Suicide King on a lunch hour a tad over sixty minutes?”

Kankey checked his Timex before he remembered. “What do you want?”

Gil coughed. “Got a light?”

Kankey flicked his Bic before he remembered. “What do you want?”

“A wheelchair.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” said Kankey.

“It doesn’t have to be a hot rod like the veterans get,” said Gil. “A simple coupe will do. That and a ramp.”

“Christ Almighty.”

“Amen.”

As he departed Kankey’s office with a spring in his crutch, Gil relished what could be accomplished when he set his mind to something.

“Somebody help me.” The floor of the pole barn, like its architect, remained putrid and slimy. Gil inched on his stomach toward the crutches lying by a wall a million miles from the wheelchair, wherever that was. Why hadn’t he held out for a veteran-worthy vehicle, folding only when told, running to its master when called? Why, that smart-ass college boy Kankey, as sure as he could spell pterodactyl, surely could have dug deeper into the dictionary fund.

“Why?” asked Gil.

“Flat feet,” answered a duck.

“Damn farm animals. What the hell do I have hay in the loft for anyhow? I got rid of the horse years ago. Cow, too. All they do is eat, drink, pee, and shit. It’s impossible to keep them clean. And I’m stuck with them. What would anyone want with a duck, an owl, mice, rats, bats, spiders, swallows, a pterodactyl, a saber-toothed tiger, and a pussy?”

When none of the animals and apparitions in the roundup responded, Gil hung up his harangue and resumed crawling.

Upon reaching the wall, he pulled himself up by the crutches.

The mirror offered a glimpse a 22-year-old man with brown hair, sharp nose, dark eyes, white skin, and full teeth alongside a 22-year-old woman with chestnut hair, broad nose, dark eyes, ivory skin, and full teeth.

Here was living proof that newlyweds begin nearly akin, even after a 1945 photo from a 25-cent booth at the Rumsford 5 & 10 had long since been lost. Of course, married couples grow even closer over time. After Gil refocused, he saw a lone 42-year-old liver of a full life, boasting sallow skin, gray strands, dull eyes, collapsed cheeks, pocked nostrils, spidery veins, port-wine patches, shriveled lips, and crumbled teeth.

The face in the mirror could have passed for any old Hubbard, though Twyla might have been a mite better off. Like all women, she did as pleased, nipping her daily pint between trips to the liquor store, Laundromat, and liquor store. She kept a halfway decent house before arguing, tiring, retiring, awakening, and reawakening.

“Leave me alone.” A flock of pterodactyls flew by the mirror before Gil blinked through the swallows. His eyes dropped to clubbed nails, cracked calluses, and thick tendon sheaths. There was nothing soft about these hands. There was no way to touch softly with these hands. These hands were still shaking.

“Where is that thing?”

Gil fell to his knees, pressing palpitating palms like prayer.

“Ah, there it is.” Where she always put it. In the cupboard under the sink under the mirror.

“Thank you, Lord,” said the crusader as he conquered the thing. “I promise I won’t forsake you.”

Gil guzzled a fifth of the fifth, the scalding firewater putting his fever on the run. He kept his promise. He swilled neither draft nor bottled beer. In the same spirit, he touched neither tequila nor rum. The latter two potables took mixing, which took time. Whiskey, right out of the bottle, was the only righteous libation. Whiskey had held sway since the dawn of time, since the dawn of man, since the dawn of woman, since Gil and Twyla drank as one.

“I’ll drink to that.” Within three-fifths of the fifth, the tremors stopped and Gil stood firmly on his crutches, facing the music in the mirror. “God, you look like the last drop of piss before it rolls down your leg.”

Gil laughed, finished the fifth, snatched the razor by the sink (where she always put it), and shaved with nary a nick. He latched onto the nearest pole—a shimmying sundial lacking sun and dial—and pulled the chain positioned at 5 a.m.

“Shit.” The shower came cold (ice-cold in winter) but rinsed shit and other shit off. After relinquishing the chain (but not the pole), Gil wormed out of his clothes and tossed everything but himself into the hamper at 8 a.m. He grabbed a bar of soap in a receptacle screwed to 4 p.m., lathered crutches and person, and revisited the rinse cycle twelve hours from where the day began at five. He hoofed, clean and dripping, by way of crutches to the treasure no longer buried by the fifth.

“There’s my baby.” Where she always put it. Gil lifted it from the under-sink cupboard to his matronly breasts, patted, and shot—swish—into the hamper. He portaged to the portable commode, relieved bowel and bladder, shook off the last drop, used the toilet paper, closed the lid, flushed, portaged back, and washed his hands. Seeing no need for another shower, he brushed what was left of his teeth and hair and donned a fresh pair of clothes and shoes.

“Hubbard, old boy, you’re one tough mother.” Gil lit a cigarette and flicked the ashes at the gas tank as a burst of late summer breeze rattled through. “You’re the one who put up this pole barn, and you’re the only one who can put it down. Ain’t nobody can say you never got the job done.”

Turning his back on the mirror, Gil removed the crutches from his chafed armpits and placed them at the base of the appropriate wall. He hosed down the wheelchair and patted it with another towel. After folding, he tucked the immaculate chariot under his arm and walked toward the house in the happy hour of the setting sun.

“Soup’s on!”

“Coming, dear!”



Scott Solomon’s fiction has appeared in the North American Review, Antioch Review, Minnesota Review, Chiron Review, New Letters, Other Voices, Redivider, and Karamu.