BOSS OF THAT BEAST by Jennifer Wortman

Me and Bob moved up north to a town called Lynx Hill. We wanted a fresh start. As soon as people say they want a fresh start you know they’re doomed, but we were different. We knew we were doomed. But we kept trying anyway. Because that’s what people do.

We found a little rental house on a farm outside town limits. We’d never lived in a house before, or on a farm. We didn’t like nature, with the mosquitos and rains and such, but we decided to love it. We talked about working the land, though it wasn’t ours to work. Our little house had a little yard within the farmer’s big yard, and, with the farmer’s permission, we thought we’d start a vegetable garden. 

The farmer lived alone. His house stood up front by the driveway, a couple hundred feet from ours. Rolling up the gravel toward the property, it was easy to tell who was who. The farmer cared and didn’t care about us in the right amounts, kept his distance but always waved at us from his side of it.

Not long after we settled in, I decided to poke around the yard, see about that garden. Bob was off looking for odd jobs. He said the odd jobs were usually boring and expected, not odd at all. And if they were actually odd jobs he would have liked them more. Sometimes we’d fight about it. “It’s not supposed to mean odd like weird,” I’d say. “Just odd like a variety.” We’d be lucky if Bob wound up with a variety of jobs, luckier still if he kept them. He had a habit of walking off midway. He’d built a reputation for himself back home, across multiple neighborhoods. He liked to say that was its own kind of achievement.

We were already fighting up here in Lynx Hill, me and Bob, the same old stale arguments. That morning he’d asked if I found a meeting yet and I said, “Did you?” We were always competing for not-worst drunk. But we were also secretly competing for worst drunk. So both of us always won. And lost.

I was in the backyard, staring down at the yellow grass, wondering about gardens, but really I was trying to think of something I could tell Bob I was doing while he was hunting for odd jobs. I was supposed to be on the internet, searching for local housecleaning services I might join or figuring out how to start one of my own. But the day before, I got on the internet and just looked up booze stores instead–all around the region, so that way if Bob asked locally, he wouldn’t catch me. It didn’t bode well for our fresh start. Nor did my need to determine just what kind of drink the yellow grass matched. It was almost a greyhound, but the yellow was a little too brown. But not brown enough for pale ale. I didn’t much like ales, or any kind of beers, but I’d drink them in a pinch.

I pulled my mind back to the land. I didn’t know anything about soil, what its color and consistency meant or needed, so I figured maybe I’d go ask the farmer. He didn’t have crops, just animals, but he probably knew more about growing food than I did. And he would help me, like a not-too-involved or -too-uninvolved dad.

Standing in that yard, I felt grateful. The drinking thoughts had passed and I’d noticed they’d passed without me indulging them again. Our little house was adorable, like something a child would draw: a square with a triangle roof. I was already so attached to it and this land and the benevolently detached farmer. Even with my and Bob’s stale fights and likely doom I almost believed in fresh starts for real. 

I wanted to tell Bob about this new good feeling I had, but Bob didn’t answer his phone, even after I called a second and third time. Bob told me he was going to be a workaholic instead of the other kind of holic and maybe that was what he was doing then, being a workaholic, even though we knew from the meetings that one kind of holic often led to another. But we didn’t like those meetings anyway and maybe now, with our fresh start, we wouldn’t need them. 

Then I saw a strange shape in the distance. I thought it might be a dog but as it got closer it was clearly way bigger than a dog, with tiger stripes but built as wide as it was long, loping sort of ape-like, with a pig face. Despite its size, it moved faster than I was computing everything I’m saying now and next thing I knew it was circling me. I’d been in vaguely similar situations with Bob. In those cases I screamed and fought but I knew that would be of no use here. I got real still, like a rock, something it couldn’t kill. But the pig face, its wild eyes and hot sewer breath, knew better. Goodbye, Bob, I said telepathically. Goodbye, little house. Goodbye, farmer. Goodbye, yellow land.

The blunt side of an ax clomped against the creature’s head. “Git,” said the farmer. He swept away at it with the ax blade, and the beast shuffled this way and that, emitting an angry and scared sort of baying I knew well because I’d made my own share of angry and sad baying sounds in the course of my life.

I should say that earlier, when I said that Bob would circle me like the beast, I omitted the fact that sometimes I’d circle Bob like the beast and sometimes, also, it was hard to say who was the beast and who was the beasted. Then again, Bob was bigger than me and had the upper hand, just like the beast was bigger than the farmer. I was sure the beast would kill him and then me, and I wanted to call Bob again, to tell him I loved him despite everything. But my phone had dematerialized and also my hands and my legs. I was just kind of floating there, rehearsing my ghosthood, when the beast swung around and took off, waddling swiftly into the distance.

The farmer dropped the ax and bent over, holding his knees while he caught his breath. But I knew he was okay because everything about him shouted okayness. Though he had a few decades on Bob and me, he didn’t seem old. The creases and softnesses and loosenings just revealed his structural integrity. He rose and adjusted his yellow cap, which, I just now noticed, matched the yellow of the yard. I wanted to drink it all.

“What the hell was that?” I asked.

“A bear.”

“I’ve never seen a bear like that.”

“We got special bears up here,” he said.

“Bears? There’s more?”

“Yep.”

“How many?”

“Don’t matter,” he said. “You just gotta show them who’s boss.”

I didn’t know how I could ever be the boss of that beast. I found my phone and called Bob. This time he answered.  He sounded a little drunk, which meant he was either a lot drunk or stone-cold sober. He had a known history, while drunk, of enunciating his words like a Shakespearean actor in order to appear not drunk. But once I’d identified the pattern, he started to also enunciate while sober to throw me off. This was all before our so-called fresh start. He hadn’t enunciated in a long time, but he answered the phone with a perfect radio announcer’s “Hello.” Maybe he was trying to impress a potential employer. Or maybe he was so drunk he forgot that enunciating couldn’t trick me anymore. Or maybe he wasn’t drunk but was practicing enunciating while sober to hide pre-planned future drunkenness. Or maybe I was imagining the careful elocution of his greeting, due to my stressful encounter with the beast, which I described to him in vivid detail, my words piling together because I was quite worked up. Which was how I talked when I was drunk but also, sometimes, when I was not drunk, in order to throw Bob off but also, sometimes, because I couldn’t help it, I had too much to say and not enough ways to say it and the too much and not enough collided to make a big wordy mess. 

“We should get an ax,” I said, in conclusion, to Bob.

“Fuck that,” he said, aristocratically. “We need a goddamn gun.”

A gun. I chewed on that, tasted it, swallowed it down. It was just the wrong thing for us, or the right thing, depending on your view. A fresh start or smoking staleness you could hold in your hand. But I saw myself, saw a future: Tending my garden, holstered at the hip. Guarding everything that would soon surely grow. 


Jennifer Wortman is the author of the story collection This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and MacDowell, she lives with her family in Colorado, where she teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop and serves as associate fiction editor for Colorado Review. Find more at jenniferwortman.com.

Art by Steve Anwyll @oneloveasshole

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