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joan boswell: short fiction

I have had short stories published in magazines in the US and Canada as well as in a number of anthologies most notably The Ladies’ Killing Circle’s seven volumes: The Ladies’ Killing Circle, Cottage Country Killers, Menopause Is Murder, Fit to Die, Bone Dance, Boomers Go Bad and Going Out With a Bang all published by RendezVous Press.

In 2004 Blondes Times Two appeared in Blondes in Trouble edited by Serita Stevens and published by Intrigue Press. This story featured the private investigator Gloria Sontini and two dogs, a Golden Retreiver and a Flat Coated Retriever, Sasha. Sonia and Sasha appeared previously in A Pretty Face in the 2003 e-book, Down These Dark Streets a Cyber Pulp Publication edited by Thomas Deja. River Rage appeared in the anthology Dead in the Water published by RendezVous Press in 2006 and Emily Jane in Locked Up an antholoy edited by Sue Pike and published by DeadLock Press in 2007.
IN 2000 THE FOLLOWING STORY, Toby, Toby Came Today won the $10,000 first prize in the Toronto Star Short Story competion .

TOBY, TOBY CAME TODAY

I loved my pigs.

Last Friday morning I sat in my office, in the recliner Belle bought me before she died, and I thought of my pigs – my poor sad pigs.

People have asked me how I could say I loved my pigs when every year I sent most of them off to the slaughter house. And I did, but while they were here at Cedar Ridge Farm my pigs had the best possible lives pigs could have. And my sows stayed for years.

‘P, P, P – I love to see,
Prudence, Patience, Pen-el-o-pe,’

That jingle always ran through my head when I opened the barn door.

No more. A tear slid down my cheek and the back of my throat tightened.

Pigs can’t sweat. Last Thursday, in this August heat wave, the barn air conditioner failed. The heat sensor didn’t set off the alarm to warn me that I needed to take immediate action and, as a consequence, my pigs roasted in their own skins.

After I found them Friday morning, I figured out what had happened. The air conditioner hadn’t broken – there was a loose fuse in the electrical box. Two hundred pigs died because of a loose fuse. Then I made an even worse discovery: there were no batteries in the heat sensor. I had a terrible moment when I wondered if I’d forgotten to instal them, but I knew I hadn’t. Every July first I replaced the batteries in my flashlights, smoke detectors and heat sensors. Some people did fireworks – I did batteries.

Holding the cover of the sensor, I’d stared at the empty space where two nine-volt batteries should have been. I’d keep the information about the missing sensor batteries to myself; but I’d tell everyone who would listen about the air conditioner and its fuse.

Ready for action I heaved myself forward in the recliner and reached for the ebony walking stick with the silver pig’s head knob that my grandson, Evan, had given me. Not that I needed it because I was lame or wobbly on my feet. I was as fit as an old buzzard. But Evan had insisted I use it. He said, “Granddad you shouldn’t be in the pens with those ornery old sows without something to let them know you’re the boss. If you don’t use it every day you’ll end up in the barn without it.” I’d promised and I’d kept my word.

I stomped into my kitchen where I hadn’t changed a thing since Belle died. I opened the kitchen junk drawer, rooted around for pen and paper, and made a list of what I had to do.

  1. Insurance I’d insist on John Calhoun and not let myself get fobbed off on his idiot son.
  2. Barnaby Livestock Removal The thought of the forklift clearing out their bodies made me shudder.
  3. McKenna Stock Dealers I’d order two hundred replacement pigs to be delivered next week. No sows, no boar. I’d take my time choosing them. New pigs, that was a happy thought.
  4. Gloves Find gardening gloves in the shed.
  1. Newmarket Buy mirror sun glasses and a Blue Jays baseball cap. Tell everyone about the pigs.

By noon on Saturday afternoon everything was done. Even though I didn’t feel much like eating, I made a tuna fish sandwich with chopped pickles and light mayo and slapped it between two pieces of buttermilk bread I’d made in the bread maker Belle bought before she took sick. I poured myself a glass of skim milk, took two peaches from the basket on the counter and put it all on a plastic tray.

The side porch was coolest, but it faced the barn and I couldn’t bear the thought of looking at it and thinking of its sad cargo. Instead, with my stick tucked under my arm, I carried the tray outside and settled into a wooden chair on the front porch. I’d eaten half the sandwich and was debating brewing a pot of tea when Toby Jones drove into the yard. My jingle machine kicked in: ‘Toby, Toby, jerky guy. Doesn’t look you in the eye.’

Right on time I said to myself. Every Saturday for weeks Toby had dropped by, supposedly to fill me in on county news, but really to try and persuade me to sell the farm. He’s a real estate agent and, like a lot of them, he doesn’t understand ‘no.’ ‘Buy and sell, buy and sell; Real estate agents go to Hell.’ Of course, Toby hadn’t told me, but Mac Ross said forty acres of my place was the last bit Toby needed for some kind of subdivision sales package he’s doing.

“Afternoon, Harry,” Toby called as he climbed out of his deluxe, fully-loaded Dodge pick-up with air-conditioning, cell-phone and fax machine. He pushed his Blue Jays cap back on his head and hitched up his tan pants to show a good bit of those fancy cowboy boots he thinks make him look like a good-old-boy.

“Hello, Toby. What brings you out here again?” I asked, as thought I didn’t know.

Toby sashayed across the yard, waved at one of the porch chairs and said, “Mind if I pull up a pew?”

He used the same words every week. I always resisted the temptation to tell him how much I minded.

After he flopped down he removed his sun glasses. Somebody must have told him people don’t like looking in mirrors, particularly if they’re thinking of listing a property, but, since Toby never actually met your gaze, it didn’t much matter.

“Hey, Joe Bross at the hardware store told me about your pigs. Too bad.” He shook his head. “Been a hot week. I heard a lot of air conditioners couldn’t take it. Brownell lost all his chickens.”

“I heard,” I grunted and bit into my sandwich.

“Looks good. Ham?” Toby asked.

Now anyone who knows me at all wouldn’t say that. About twenty years ago I started seeing the pigs I liked staring at me reproachfully when I ate pork. Soon after that I gave up all meat except chicken. I never could feel emotional about chickens. Belle sympathized. We must of eaten a million chickens in every possible way. Now, I mostly ate tuna and salmon.

“Tuna.”

“I know how important those pigs were to you,” he said.

He didn’t have the slightest idea, but he might just find out.

Toby pasted on what he must have thought was his concerned expression and said, “I thought all you fellows had alarms that went off if the barn got too hot.”

“Most of us do.”

“Is that right? Well, it’s a darn shame yours didn’t work.” He chuckled sympathetically and leaned forward. “My mother, she must be about your age, she’s always forgetting things. Last week she turned her house upside down looking for her glasses and found she’d been wearing them all the time.” He eyed me speculatively, “I suppose that’s what happened. You just forgot to put in new batteries.”

I stared at my feet and caressed the pig’s head on the stick resting between my knees. If Toby had seen my eyes the game would have been up. “Guess I must have,” I mumbled.

We sat in silence for a minute or so.

“Spent the morning over at Fairholm in Newmarket,” Toby said conversationally.

“That so.”

“Nicest condo development I’ve ever seen. All rigged out for seniors. Great people living there. I expect you know a lot of them. Murray Foster moved in last week.” He waited expectantly.

“Murray Foster’s there because he’s a fool who made out the deed for his farm to his son who threw him out,” I said.

“Didn’t know that,” Toby said. But he didn’t want to talk about Murray. “Great place, Fairholm. They’ve got a social centre, work out room, great dining room. It’s terrific. You buy your own place and get to use all the amenities.” He tapped the arm of his chair to emphasize the variety of facilities before he turned to me as if the idea had only that moment occurred to him. “Now that your pigs are gone, maybe you should think of selling and buying one of those sweet little condos.”

I didn’t respond immediately. Instead, I let him wait a bit while I took another bite and hoped I looked reflective. As I finished the sandwich, the silence grew. Finally, I threw him some bait. “I guess if it’s a possibility, you and I could talk about what this place would bring.” I said in a doubt-filled voice. “Suppose you’d like to look around?” I stared into the distance doing an imitation of Henry Fonda in Golden Pond: kind of forgetful, an easy mark, a nice old guy, but not too bright.

Toby twitched. He actually wriggled. Reminded me of a spaniel Belle once had. Its rear end articulated as though it wasn’t connected to the front and it peed if you said anything encouraging to it. I caught myself peeking to see if Toby had left a puddle, a little memento of his excitement.

“I wouldn’t want to rush you, Harry,” he said, “but,” he checked his watch, “I do have half an hour or so if you really want to show me around.”

Using my stick, I levered myself up and took him on a tour which I made hot and boring. At the manure pile – pig manure is the worst smelling manure in the world – I launched into a tale of gardens and what seasoned manure can do for you and ended up with a talk about old-fashioned fairs. I described each and every prize for vegetables and flowers that Belle ever won. He scrunched his face into an expression that was supposed to show rapt interest, but revealed intense boredom. I wanted to laugh: Belle never entered anything in a fair in her life.

I told him the dead pigs were in the barn waiting for the removal truck because the company had been overwhelmed with business as a result of the heat wave, but offered to show him around anyway. He turned an interesting shade of grey and gulped a couple of times as if he was contemplating throwing up. Before he obeyed the urge, I moved him to the outbuildings where the machinery was housed.

Standing in the yard in the blazing sun, I recited chapter and verse of where and when I bought each machine, a purely imaginary checklist of information. Toby surreptitiously glanced at his watch. “Harry, I don’t want to rush you . . . ”

I put on my surprised face. “We old guys get carried away,” I said apologetically. “Why don’t you come back another time and we’ll do it properly? After all I haven’t told you about the land itself. This year I’ve got five fields in hay and two in . . . but, never mind, you can come back.”

“No, no, Harry,” Toby said, “I just thought you might be getting tired.”

“I’m a fair man, Toby, and I wouldn’t want you to make any kind of an offer unless you’d seen it all.” I shook my stick at him. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m the first to say that business is business, but you’ve got to allow an old codger his memories.”

Toby bit back whatever he’d been going to say. I’d hooked him good.

We did the empty rabbit hutch, the vegetable and the flower gardens where I kept him standing in a haze of bees beside the patch of beebalm. At the back door I said, “Now we’ll go over the house from top to bottom.” Invoking the spirit of Belle, my dear departed wife, I added, “I’ve kept it just as Belle left it and she’d want you to see it.” Actually, I wasn’t sure Belle would have approved of what I was doing.

Up in the attic where the heat sledge-hammered us I thought again of my pigs and their pathetic deaths. Never again would I say, ‘P, P, P, I love to see, Prudence, Patience, Pen-el-o-pe.’

To take my mind off the pigs I pointed out the window at the fields we could see and commented on the haze in the distance that marked the boundaries of the city which pushed closer every day. While I talked on and on, Toby wiped his forehead and shifted from one foot to the other. Back in the kitchen I motioned to Toby to follow me down the basement stairs.

“Harry, I can give you a good estimate without seeing any more,” Toby said. “I’m sure your basement’s dry. That’s all a buyer cares about.”

I pulled back in horror. “Toby, you haven’t seen the best.” I lied, “We used to do some of our own processing. You have to see the equipment.”

Toby’s face was red and sweaty, his expression mutinous. But, as he stared at me, I imagined he saw his vision of the profits from housing development sales disappearing.

“Of course, Harry. You’ve given me a great tour.” He followed me down the steps.

I stopped in front of the freezer. “Toby, to celebrate our possible partnership, I’m going to let you choose whatever you like from the freezer – pork roast, chops, spareribs.” I opened the old chest freezer, pointed inside and said, “Whatever you like.”

When Toby bent over to peer into the depths I hit him on the back of the head with the pig knob on my stick, hunkered down, grabbed his ankles, levered him into the freezer, slammed it shut and turned the key. I shouted, “Toby, you’re going to suffocate just like my pigs did. No one but you knew the batteries were missing. You loosened the fuse for the air conditioner and took out the sensor’s batteries. I guess you figured if the pigs died I’d lose heart and sell.”

Toby banged and roared.

“Don’t waste your oxygen. Remember the pigs.”

Upstairs, in the back hall behind the kitchen, I collected my Blue Jays cap, sun glasses and gardening gloves before I went out to Toby’s truck where he’d left the keys in the ignition. Wearing the glasses, hat and gloves I drove carefully to the park’n’drive lot at the northern end of the city subway system where I parked, stuffed the gloves in my pocket and took a bus back to Newmarket. As the bus sped along, I listened to the circular tape playing in my head, ‘Toby, Toby, came today. Greedy Toby came to stay. Toby, Toby, came today.’