Jason Ockert

MAX (excerpt)
[Iowa Review, Spring 2011]

Crows arrive heavy as always. The mid-November sky over Auburn turns from gray-blue to black-sheen as the birds by the tens of thousand settle in. Most people here hate to hear the shrill caws and the thump of wings punishing the air. It’s the sound of something ending. The birds will stay until everything freezes over and they’re forced to shrug off south. While the crows blanket Auburn, citizens keep their faces contorted into scowls and their shoulders and necks hunched as if they’re ready to crouch and spring and extend into the sky.

Torrance Graff puckers his lips in worry as he climbs off the school bus and hurries home under the weight of his backpack. He is a fast boy, the second fastest in the fourth grade, and can keep up with most kids on bikes when he wants to. Houses on the sheepish county road are few and far between. The plots of land are too big to bother sculpting along the property lines where eager trees have scuttled up in clumps and pitch leaves into the above-ground pools sagging behind the raised-ranches. These trees here are not big enough to interest more than a few dozen crows at a time. One bird winks by Torrance, lands, and hops in a neighbor’s driveway, pecking gravel. The boy adjusts his backpack and unzips his coat. It is not yet cold enough for the kind of thing his mother made him wear this morning. A jacket would have been fine.

The mother is waiting for Torrance at the end of the drive with five other mothers. The women are armed with rifles and shotguns and slingshots. Torrance’s mother holds a hunting bow and a quiver of arrows thin as knitting needles. They are wearing new black hunting jackets with the word “MACS” embroidered in red thread on the back. Torrance’s mother did the stitching in July. These are the Mothers Against Crows. Somebody had to do something after what happened to Torrance’s older brother. There are still a few more mothers—Linda and Katharyn and Barb—finishing chores that the MACs will fetch soon.

“How was school?” Torrance’s mother asks as her boy humps up. The mother used to be beautiful. Now she is super-thin with matted hair and fierce eyes. There are wrinkles in her cheeks from her weird, wide smile.

Torrance can’t concentrate. He needs to use the bathroom.

“What did you learn today?” says another mother, a bruiser.

“I need to pee,” Torrance whispers to his shoes.

“They’re doing state capitals,” a woman answers. Her daughter Ruby is in Torrance’s class.

“What’s the capital of Nebraska?” Torrance’s mother asks suddenly in a pitch that quiets the women. The mothers hold their weapons awkwardly, waiting. They pray Torrance knows the answer. A complicated wind sneaks around a stand of fir and rattles the clip holding the semi-erect American flag at half-mast. The flag hasn’t been raised full since early January when Max passed.

Torrance doesn’t say anything.

“They’re going alphabetically,” the other mother says in order to not make this a big deal.

“Only up to Indiana, from what I understand.”

“That’s an easy one,” the bruiser says.

“Yes it is,” Torrance’s mother pinches through her smile. Her eyes unwaver from her boy.

“Can I go?” Torrance asks.

May I,” a mother corrects.

“Dad’s got church this afternoon and will be home around six to make dinner. I’ll be back by seven.”

“With a bagful of crow!” a mother on the periphery hollers. The women hoot and shake their pieces.

“Stay inside.”

“May I play in the yard?”

“Nebraska?”

“It’s Lincoln, Mom.”

The Graff house has been fortified against crows. There’s razor-wire stapled on the roof tiles and fake plastic owls perched on the porch. The yard has a half-dozen scarecrows with faces the mother carefully crafted to look frightening. Torrance helped water down the ground to make it soft so the father could drive the scarecrow-sticks in. So far this season the crows have stayed away from the home. Torrance knows if they do come, the mother will turn them into pin-cushions. She has spent several hours in the backyard every morning improving her aim and can riddle a cigarette pack from sixty yards, no problem.

Torrance takes his shoes off before entering the house. Inside, it smells floral from the jars and jars of potpourri the mother puts out. He sets his backpack in the foyer and parts the living room drapes to watch the MACs situate their weapons in the back of their minivan before filing in and pulling away. Auburn’s annual crow hunt runs for five days, and this is day one. Last year the mother didn’t participate. Much has changed since then.

Torrance uses the bathroom, swats down a cowlick, and heads outside. He walks along the county road past the cemetery and toward the pumpkin field. In the field are hundreds of pumpkins scattered like tumors. What the farmer wanted to sell for Halloween he’s already taken and won’t bother with the rest. From the school bus window, Torrance has been watching one particular pumpkin grow, on the other side of the field. While the other pumpkins are in various stages of letting go, this one seems to be expanding. For two weeks Torrance has wanted to investigate, which was impossible under his mother’s scrutiny. Torrance has strict boundaries that do not include here.

Now, though, with the crow hunt, there is a window.

With a rush of excitement, the boy dashes out into the field. He leaps over pumpkins and dances around grappling vines. The ground is dry with the exception of occasional pockets of water where the earth dips dramatically. Clods of dirt shake loose in Torrance’s footfalls.

A few non-crows peck at one or two of the seeping gourds and snatch the seeds. Crows won’t trouble themselves with the thick rind and, until the pumpkins are ready to concede defeat and spill their guts, they’ll stay away. Two big jays tussle in the drainage ditch. Torrance reaches the pumpkin sooner than he thought he would. Up close, it is not as big as he thinks it should be. From the road, he was imagining tractor-tire size, something he could hollow out and hide within. What he’s standing next to is the size of a medicine ball. It barely reaches his waist. Slumping against it, Torrance puts his hand to his chin and puckers his lips. On the other side of the field, beyond the drainage ditch, a high fence circumscribes the dump. The city has planted trees around the fence line in an effort to block the view, but the trees are still young and Torrance can see the soft mound of trash rising up to the sky. Between the implacable clouds and the waste, buzzards and gulls circle and dive and fight. Sometimes a flock of pugnacious crows will fly over to push the bigger birds down the hill.

Most of the time the wind blows westward at the setting sun and keeps the stink of the place off the houses.

Torrance turns back to survey the field for the possibility of something larger than what he’s got here. He’s old enough not to get his hopes up. It really is too late for anything to grow. Now is the wilting season, which is a shame. Soon all the pumpkins will droop back into the ground. For Halloween, the mother had dominated the single pumpkin they carved, leery of a blade in her son’s hands. Torrance is not a baby and resents being treated as such. He is a trooper. He can handle a knife. He can take care of himself after school. He is not frail like his older brother had been. He’s fine—maybe too often anxious—but mostly all right.

In a huff of dirt comes a brown sedan down the county road. It is his father’s car. Torrance drops to his knees and hides behind the pumpkin. He should not be home so soon—it is not six yet. The father comes on. Torrance knows the old man is listening to gospel on the radio because he is bobbing his head. He’s got his hands at ten and two on the steering wheel. He’s wearing his dusty-brown hat, which he believes he looks good in. He’s of the mind that people trust a man in a good hat, and since he is a real estate agent, trust is his business. The hat is part of the uniform. Lately there haven’t been any houses to sell. This is the dead season.

When the father has passed, Torrance bolts. He cuts through the field and flies over the small graveyard—staying clear of Max’s headstone. It is a miracle he doesn’t trip. By the time the father is in the drive, Torrance is midway through and in full stride. All the boy needs to do is skip over a few more graves, scale a shoddy retaining wall, and wiggle through the bushes.

Then he’s in his yard.

And the father is there waiting for him, a smirk stitched across his face, among the scarecrows, arms folded.

“Go on and catch your breath,” the father says.

Torrance puts his hands on his hips and gulps at the air.

“You’re fast when you want to be,” the father slides his hands into his jacket pocket. “Get you onto the track team.”

“I’m fine,” Torrance breathes.

“I saw you.”

“Don’t tell Mom.”

“I came home to change, not to check up on you. I didn’t expect this.”

“I’m fine, Dad.”

“You’re surprised.”

“Winded.”

“I normally keep a change of clothes in the trunk, right?”

“How would I know?”

“You know more than you let on, boy.”

Torrance feels a wave of heat pass beneath his collar. Running in this coat is all wrong.

“I need a change of clothes,” the father states.

“Congratulations,” Torrance offers.

“Don’t.”

“What do you want?”

“Get in the car.”

“Mom will freak.”

“I won’t tell if you won’t tell.”

“It’s going to be like that?”

The father offers his palms. “Get in the car.”

The streets of downtown Auburn are lined with churches—Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Greek Orthodox. The tallest and most ornate among them is the Catholic Church with its spires and stained glass and golden trim. Outside the church, a congregation of volunteers has gathered, and Torrance and the father join them.

The priest is glad they could make it. This is good, honest work, he says. He pats a shrinking woman on the shoulder and backs into the church.

“OK,” the woman says. “There are goggles and face masks and gloves. Wear these items at all times. Cory has already filled the wash buckets—thank you, Cory—so let’s get started.”
Torrance halfheartedly slides into the gear. The father grabs a ladder and holds it for Cory’s father to climb high. Two other ladders are erected. Torrance sullenly grabs a brush and begins scrubbing a portion of the wall the woman points toward.

The walls of the church are splattered with crow shit—like Cream of Wheat—all up and down the building. At night, the birds clamor to the top of the church to sleep. In the morning they desecrate. A group of parishioners gathers each year to try and stop the crows from roosting. They’ve tried ringing the church bell every five minutes. They’ve cranked the organ. They’ve asked the choir to chip in. They’ve given alter boys extra-long hoses to spray the roof with holy water. None of this works. Crows aren’t nitwits. The church is willing to do anything short of killing the critters. Still, there are dark rumors that a poisoning conspiracy has been hatched, and there are whispers of electrifying a line. That’s all talk. For now, the Catholics turn the other cheek and scrub every afternoon.

[...]

The whole story appears in our Spring 2011 print issue. Click here to order a copy!