NOR 19 #25: Safety

By Catherine Carberry

Featured Art: Abstract – Two Women With Tennis Racquets by Carl Newman

When we came to Montana we weren’t going to be cooks, but that’s how we ended up. Blair got me the job, she’s the real chef. In the kitchen, after the Eggs Benedict disaster, I mainly swat flies and hang amber strips of flypaper from the ceiling. The goal is to keep moving to outpace the flies. They’re everywhere and some of them bite.

Blair and I work together on this farm, feeding the owners and workers. Two of the workers are Mexican and the others are drifters with invented names: Bill, Bird, Slim Jim, G. The Mexicans are called León and Ernesto and say they’re brothers but they’re pulling our leg. They don’t know that when Blair and I lived in Whitefish for six months before our money ran out, we told people we were sisters. We thought it would help us somehow, that the sister game would give us some footing and a tangible backstory, but it didn’t attract too much attention and Blair never found a ski instructor who would love her. By that time, it was too late for either of us to go back to our husbands. Just as we were losing momentum, Blair saw a sign posted for a cook on a farm only nine miles away. The job came with some money and a private trailer. She talked to the owners and convinced them to take both of us for the same pay. We’ve been here since then, avoiding the question of what we’re doing and when we’ll leave.

The workers will eat anything, but they complain if Blair gets too fancy. We once made a stack of crepes taller than a child and Bill asked what was this French bullshit. After that, breakfast is mainly heaps of eggs and hash browns. We keep lard in a bucket under the sink and on Sundays we cook bacon if there is any. Sometimes we’re called to help butcher a turkey or a pig, but mostly we stay in the kitchen. We cook three meals a day, and when each is over we clean and get started on the next.

We’ve been at the farm for nearly two months when Blair tells me she likes G. Of the workers, G’s the one who talks the loudest, whose secrets are the closest to the surface. He looks like Willie Nelson without the bandanna, the same gray braid and gut.

“He’s older than your father,” I tell Blair.

“But he’s got charisma,” Blair says. “Anyway, he looks at you, mostly.”

“G looks at everything,” I say, and drop pancake batter in thick spoonfuls on the griddle. It’s true that G doesn’t seem interested in Blair. He talks to me mostly because I can hold my liquor and I don’t go to sleep as early as the other workers, so some nights I sit outside G’s trailer and he tells me stories. He tried something only once—a hand over my tit after we’d split a six-pack and a pint of whiskey—but I pushed him away and he didn’t seem to mind. There’s a kind of lazy inertia around here where everything seems impossible until it happens, and then it feels inevitable.

“He’s just so interesting,” Blair says. “I wonder what his son is like.”

I’d told Blair what I knew about G: that he owed the bank seventy grand, that he had a son in Colorado who wouldn’t speak to him, that two weeks ago he won four hundred dollars at the Lucky Lil’s outside Whitefish. That he used to be a chauffeur in Seattle.

“You can do better,” I say. “He doesn’t even have a first name.” When I’d asked him what G stood for, he said gardener. G likes being the center of attention, but he doesn’t like questions. I’ve learned to not ask questions or make conversation with the workers, but Blair’s more curious. She wants to know everyone’s story, as if she’s collecting notes for how to live this kind of fugitive life and not lose your mind. Sometimes I think the workers have already lost their minds. Sometimes I doubt myself, too.

When we’re finished, I go to the porch and ring the bell, watch the workers emerge from the greenhouses and barn. The owners, Ken and Rosemary, spend most of the time with the cows and goats. Each morning they’re milking by five, bringing us enormous buckets to pasteurize. The air in the kitchen is always thick with boiling milk. When I’m hungover, it’s enough to make me sick.

At breakfast, we take off our aprons and sit with the workers at the long table on the porch. Ken and Rosemary eat by the TV. They’ve been running the farm for nearly twenty years. They had eleven children who were supposed to be working with them, but when the kids grew up they’d had enough of the farm, of living in cramped rooms with bunk beds, keeping the dogs from slaughtering chickens. I can’t blame them. The farm is only good to people who chose to be here, but even then it isn’t so good.

Blair and I both got married young and divorced young. We both followed husbands to the same midwestern town, and met in the public library right as our marriages were going to shit. She has a sister she doesn’t like, and I was an only child, so we chose each other. I turned twenty-eight two weeks after com- ing to the farm. For my birthday, Blair made fudge with a raspberry compote. For hers, I made ice cream using the milk from a mean heifer who had bucked its enormous head at Blair and bruised her ribs. On the farm we share a trailer near the barn. When things get bad, we push our twin beds together and sleep huddled against each other. We have a pact to never return to Ohio, but the husbands are a different story. Blair’s ex-husband calls once a week trying to get her to come back. He says he’ll move, he says he didn’t realize how unhappy she had been. Usually she calls it bullshit, but sometimes she’s quiet after the phone calls. We’re doing our best, is what we tell ourselves. It’s a thin kind of reassurance.

At night, G and I drink on the porch after the other workers have gone to bed. “Going up to Stillwater this weekend if you want to come,” G says. He picks up a pebble and throws it to a cat he calls Lola, whom he’s trained to fetch like a dog. G can’t get enough of Lola or the flower garden, and I like how he doesn’t look like a man who would take such good care of plants and animals. These kinds of surprises might be what Blair calls charisma.

“Did the boss say it’s okay?” I ask, even though I know better. Stillwater is the lakeside estate of an executive who spends most of his time in Seattle. G works there part-time as a gardener, and sometimes he camps out on the land over the weekends. He says the executive—whose company G always whispers as if it’s holy—told him he can camp whenever he likes as long as he keeps looking after the gardens. But G’s the kind of person who assumes generosity from other people, who thinks that as long as there are no complaints, he’s in the right. I imagine he thinks the executive has enough land that he wouldn’t mind sharing. I like this sort of mentality, but Blair and I still lock our trailer each morning because we know G wouldn’t hesitate to take what he needs, and we need all we have.

G finishes his beer and crushes the can under his boot, scaring the cat. I’ve been to Stillwater once. G took me for a ride on the golf cart and pointed out all the new flowerbeds he’d dug and planted. He knows the name of all the flowers, the best conditions for their growth.

“I’ll go if Blair can come,” I tell him. “We have our own tent.”

“I’ll be sleeping in the guesthouse anyway,” he says.

“With Donna?” I say, and G raises a second can of beer to tap against mine.

Donna’s the year-round caretaker who sometimes sleeps with G when her son isn’t staying with her in the guesthouse. G’s told me about Donna, how she lis- tens to him play guitar and always requests the same songs.

When I tell Blair we’re going camping, she’s so excited she lets her hand slip while she’s chopping onions, but she’s graceful enough to not cut herself.

“God, that’s perfect,” she says, brushing hair off her forehead with her wrist. “Nick called again this morning.”

I don’t know how Blair’s ex-husband found our phone number, but usually after his calls, Blair makes something ambitious the next morning for breakfast, something that gets her up early and involves various stages of preparation. Jerry hasn’t called since I left, but sometimes I think of things I’d like to tell him, things G teaches me or how Ken and Rosemary invested in ten alpacas that roam the perimeter of the farm like sentries. The alpacas give me the creeps with their long necks, how they seem to eye us arrogantly, but they’re supposed to keep bears away. The alpacas are Ken and Rosemary’s method of protection. Blair has hers, too. She has parents who send checks whenever we have to change the oil in the car, she has Nick who calls and says things she won’t repeat.

On Saturday morning we drive to Stillwater. Here, our car is our currency. None of the other workers have a car, and most couldn’t drive even if they did. G’s license was taken away years ago, but I’m still surprised that keeps him from buying a clunker and moving on. G makes us stop in a town where every house has a flag outside, a yard sign saying Proud Army Parents. We buy a case of beer, some tuna and beans, a can of nightcrawlers. Blair got up early and made bread and two pound cakes.

“We’re only going for a night,” I told her when I saw her packing. “Oh come on, it’ll be fun,” she said.

During the drive to Stillwater, G talks about geese. This is his go-to topic of conversation, and I imagine he must know it strikes people as charming, strangely eccentric. He says that when he lived in Wyoming, he had his own goose farm and sold the eggs, raised the geese to be as friendly as lapdogs. He had a gosling named Sugar who was as sweet as a kitten, he tells Blair. He’d bring her to the bars and not just to get laid, though it helped.

Blair’s never heard the story, and she keeps asking questions. Blair gets this way when she flirts, or when she talks to any man at all. She goes soft-headed and simple, dragging out her vowels. Jerry used to think I was jealous of her, or the attention she got from men. But really it’s that I don’t like shape-shifters. Blair had wanted us to choose new names when we moved to Montana; she’d wanted to be called something ridiculous like Goldie or Anastasia. I imagined she didn’t think of herself as someone who would wind up living on a trailer on a farm, cooking dozens of eggs instead of the delicate pastries she’d learned to make in three semesters of culinary school. But when Blair and I had the argu- ment about names, I knew that this life, being friends with G, killing flies, swat- ting the hands of Hank or Bird when they came in the kitchen early looking for food, this wasn’t a masquerade or an escape. I was right where I always knew I’d be. It hits you fast, things like this.

After Blair and I set up our tent, G goes looking for Donna. He leaves us with makeshift fishing poles, just fishing wire strung around PBR cans.

“Should we try it?” Blair says. G had pulled out a canoe from the shed, said the boss was fine with us using it to fish. One of the reasons I trust G is because he has more skin in the game than any of us. If the boss finds out we’ve been here, fishing in his lake and using his canoe, it’s only G who will lose a paying job. So here we are on this borrowed land, about to try to catch dinner with a beer can.

“Yeah, let’s go,” I say. We bring the can of night-crawlers and push the canoe into the water. The lake is smooth as glass, and it all belongs to this nameless executive. When we get to the middle of the lake, Blair hands me a can and I cast it the way G taught me the last time we went to Stillwater.

“You’re really getting the hang of all this,” Blair says. “Not just fishing. Everything here. You fit in better.”

“It’s not so hard to get the hang of,” I say. “But I still can’t cook for shit.” “There’s a concert in Whitefish next week,” Blair says. She says the name of a band I haven’t heard of. The Whitefish bars are full of beautiful women in expensive outdoor wear, and thick-necked men who look like personal trainers.

The men are more Blair’s type.

“What did Nick say?” I ask. I usually try to not mention Nick; I know that Blair won’t want to talk about it. But she’s right that I fit in better. It gives me a kind of reckless confidence, knowing I don’t have someone to call if things get rough.

Blair tries casting but the line doesn’t go far. She reels it in.

“Wrap it tighter around,” I say.

“He got an offer in San Francisco,” Blair says. She recasts and it works this time, the line unfurling fast and spinning far out.

I know what San Francisco means, how it’s a place that isn’t the Midwest, somewhere Blair could go without me. It means Nick must be using a city as collateral. I don’t know what I would do in her position, if I had somewhere else to go, if I were invited.

I don’t say anything. We are both just going to keep sitting here, waiting for something to bite.

When we get back to shore we have six small fish between us and G’s started a fire.

“Not bad,” G says. He takes the fish and slices off their heads, guts them quickly and puts them on the grill.

“Where’s Donna?” I ask.

“She had some business to attend to,” G says. “Gone for the weekend.”  knows everyone’s business and nothing shocks him. I like this about him, too. Donna could be babysitting for a friend or she could be in prison for arson, and G wouldn’t distinguish between the two.

“Blair’s moving to San Francisco,” I say. I know I sound mean, like it’s me and G against Blair, instead of Blair and me against everyone else.

“That’s not true,” Blair says to G, and she offers to help him. “I brought some seasonings.”

I want to tell her that not every meal needs to be a masterpiece, that it’s fine to eat salted fish caught in a borrowed lake where we could be fined for trespassing. But G’s grateful and Blair goes to the car and brings out fresh rosemary and thyme, a lemon already sliced. The fish turns out well and we eat it with rice and beans that G made over a camping stove. When it gets dark, we have the fire going and sit around waiting for something to do.

“Want to go for a ride?” G asks us. Soon he’s pulling out bags of fertilizer from the executive’s golf cart. Next to us, the lake gleams as though it’s made of molten silver. Blair sits in the middle and I see she’s put her hand on G’s thigh, steadying herself when we go around a curve. G doesn’t say anything, and he doesn’t move his hands from the wheel, but I know tonight I’ll be alone in the tent. Part of me wants all of us to spill out of this golf cart, to hit a bump and be launched into the lake, breaking its perfect surface.

“I’d like to go swimming,” I say once we get to the other side. “Leave me here, I’ll swim over.” The lake is narrow enough that I don’t hesitate in thinking I can do this, but Blair and G look at me as though I’ve announced a death wish.

“You hate the water at night,” Blair says. “You hate dark water.”
“It’s fine,” I say. “I want to swim.”
I take off my jeans and shirt and give them to Blair to take back to our camp.

I don’t look to see if they’re watching me as I jump in the lake, as I begin to push myself away from shore. Eventually I hear the golf cart roaring up, I hear Blair’s high laugh. I learned a long time ago that there is no purpose to jealousy, to wanting to be anything other than yourself. It can lead to complacency, this shutting off, this turning away. But I’d rather be complacent than wondering if I’m more jealous of Blair or of G. There are questions you stop yourself from asking because they can only hurt.

The water is cold, but I swim quickly and soon I’m in the middle of the lake. I can’t hear the golf cart anymore, can’t see Blair or G on the shore, but we left our fire blazing on the other side. It gives me an easy target, something to swim toward, but I don’t want to be there yet. I float on my back until my body hardly makes ripples, only my arms beating underwater keeping me afloat.

There have been nights when our beds are pushed together and Blair slips her hands under my shirt, holds my breasts but doesn’t seem to know what to do next and I don’t want to be the one to teach her. Those nights, I’ve felt like a science experiment. I’ve felt like a coward for taking anything Blair wants to give. But I’ve kissed back. I’ve pulled her hips close to mine. The last time it happened, she must have known. I forgot to laugh when we kissed, forgot to pretend we were playing a game.

I can make out the shapes of trees against the sky, but the night is dark. I could be swimming in oil. I start swimming again, this time fast and toward the light, looking straight at the fire and not at the trees above. I hear the echoes of my kicks, of a breath that’s turned embarrassing, sounding panicked even as try to control it.

When I get close, Blair runs to the shore. I see her waving my clothes above

her head as if they are some sort of flag, beckoning me. As if I need to be beckoned.

“We were worried about you,” she says as I get out of the water.

“Why are you doing this?” I say. I take the towel she’s brought me.

“What? With G? It’s innocent,” Blair says. I know she’s proud she has someone’s attention.

“Are you going to San Francisco?” I say. Blair pauses and I know she’s already made up her mind. She could have made up her mind weeks ago, or maybe she knew when we left Ohio that this would only last as long as she wanted it to. It probably made her feel safer that way.

“Nick still wants you,” I say. “You should go with him.”

“We can’t keep this up much longer,” Blair says. “But we can have fun.” She looks behind me, where G must have found some dark spot to pee.

“This isn’t fun,” I say. “It’s not fun for me.”

Soon I’ll need a contingency plan. I’ll need to find my own momentum or I’ll become like G, telling the same stories to justify where I’ve ended up, to convince myself that I’m going to keep moving.

“Come back in with me,” Blair says. She says it as though it’s a consolation prize, as though swimming together right now could change what will happen tomorrow, or next week, or whenever Blair buys a ticket home.

I start to put on my clothes, but Blair lifts her dress over her head. I watch her run into the water, her silhouette disappearing quick. It would be easy to follow her, to swim together in this black water, and maybe Blair would say she’s going to stick with me, that we’re in this together. But we’re not sisters, and this isn’t a vacation. From where I stand, the water looks like it could swallow her. I think to run in, to grab her and bring her to shore, but Blair’s not afraid of dark water. Blair’s not afraid of anything.


Catherine Carberry lives in Woodstock, New York. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Guernica, Tin House online, Indiana Review, Harvard Review, and has been broadcast on NPR. She was recently a Susannah McCorkle Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and is at work on a novel.

Originally published in Issue 19.

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