Jennifer Hanno's short fiction has been published in Ploughshares, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Eclectica, The Satirist and more. Hanno is winner of the 2012 Empirical Award for Fiction, and her work has been recognized in contests sponsored by Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review and The Masters Review.
2016-2017 FINALIST, COG PAGE TO SCREEN AWARDS
Tilting at Windmills
It was the cable company that tipped him over the edge. Of course, this did not distinguish him from countless Americans whose constitutional rights to reliable cable television are frequently in peril. Don’s conflict, however, distinguished itself from others for the simple reason that there was no resolution. There would never be resolution. The windmills had seen to that.
They peppered the Tug Hill now, giant white steel trees that loomed over the Tug. The turbines sliced away, lifting their face stubbornly to the Northern sky. There were seventy five now, towering over cornfields or snow or mud as the season dictated. Some thought them graceful, but Don thought them only intrusive and alien. In fact, he looked at them with no small degree of suspicion and did not think it impossible that they were the products of aliens. He’d seen TV shows on such. Back when he had decent reception. Now, he stared out the window at the hulking white towers that were clawing at the sky, cutting their way through the North wind.
Of course, he had a lot of time on his hands now, time to consider the windmills and to grow convinced that they were the start of everything bad that had happened in his life. The layoff was nothing unusual; there’d always been layoffs. They were told there was a surplus of boxes and they were just waiting it out and Don took the time to clean out the garage and continue his defense of the second amendment. He scoured West Martinsburg with his truck full of signs and was feeling good about things when he got the call. At that point, the SAFE Act seemed the only threat to his way of life.
No, he was as blindsided as the rest of them and the sting was sharper because signs were his specialty and he prided himself on reading them. At first, they were all incredulous. It was inconceivable that the mill he had worked at for going on 30 years, the mill where his father had spent his life, the mill where he’d worked at since he was 17 years old…
There was nothing temporary about it, they said. It was over.
Things got worse from there. After the announcement about the pension-or lack thereof- it just went from bad to worse. He spent his time at Crossroads, commiserating with the rest of them, but one by one they fell off until he found himself alone at the bar, with only Alice Ann, who’d been pouring Bud light there for as long as he could remember, and the old timers. Turned out Roy got a job at Kraft, Joe was helping out his brother in his construction company, and Wayne was working at Walmart. Don reasoned it was all about who you knew in this world.
The ones left at the bar grew tired of him talking about the windmills, hearing about how Don alone had held the line when they came to town. He had been hammering in a new ANTI SAFE Act sign when the car pulled in. He casually leaned against it as the representative spoke to him in a calm, slow, insulting voice.
His neighbors saw only the dollar signs, but Don put his faith in what was important, the second amendment. But his passionate appeals on behalf of our founding fathers fell on deaf ears. One by one, they all sold out, and no amount of ranting could keep them from signing and turning the Tug Hill over to the Gods of the Wind.
And so there was nothing left to do but watch them go up. They were assembled in an alarmingly fast fashion and they were far larger than anyone had anticipated. Like weeds, they began to fill the countryside. It was summer then and there wasn’t much on TV and so Don watched the invasion from the screened in porch he had recently added on to his trailer, a beer in his hand and a hole in his heart.
But when fall came and baseball season began, that’s when things took a turn. His repeated calls to the Cable Company were raising his blood pressure. Was there any new construction in his neighborhood? They asked. Perhaps that was the problem…
He called the Windmill Company, he called the neighbors, he called his congressman. And as he sat in front of his snowy screen, his anger brewed.
And so he wound up at Crossroads even more, since they had decent reception and the Cubs were having a good season.
“Still no luck with the cable company?” Alice Ann asked as she set down his class.
Don’s reply was a primitive grunt. He looked around for Peterson, the life sized Jack Ass who was in charge of the Windmill project. But there was only a handful of locals slouched over the bar.
“Peterson hasn’t been in in a while, has he?” he asked.
Alice Ann smirked. “No. Actually, I heard he got transferred.”
Good, Don thought. He was particularly resentful about the weasely looking man frequenting his bar. Like he could just shmooze in and start up a conversation. Like he belonged.
“You missed quite a scene last night,” Alice Ann said. “Apparently, the Chamber of Commerce sent Roy a letter about the Snirt Run. Looks like we are going to need to get permission from the Windmill people if we are going to follow the same route as last year. Goes right through that land they bought off of Delaney.”
Don’s glass landed with a thud on the bar. The Snirt Run was a tradition on the Tug. Each Spring, thousands of ATVs descended on Tug Hill to race a course of snow and dirt. Roy and Don and the others had organized it five years ago and it had grown far beyond their expectations. The end of the day saw the mud covered drivers gathered at all the local bars. Good for the economy and good for the soul, Don thought. And now the Windmills might take even that away.
Later that night, he was writing his second email to his assemblyman about the issue when he heard her. It’d been a year, but he could tell her walk, the sound she made on the gravel outside. He could feel her on his steps.
He got himself a beer before he went to the door.
She looked good. She’d gained some weight back and gone back to coloring her hair. In those last months, she’d hardly gotten herself out of sweatpants but now she stood in front of him wearing clothes he’d never seen before. High heeled boots and a jacket. He’d heard she had gotten a new job at the bank.
He arranged his face into a scowl and took a long drink before he said anything. Truth was he didn’t know what to say.
“Hey,” she said and she didn’t look angry. This made him suspicious.
“You need something?”
She shuffled her foot a little and he knew that she had come with some news. And he knew he wouldn’t like it.
“Can I come in?” she asked.
He paused for a moment, just to insure the maximum awkwardness. Then he stepped aside, not much, just enough so she could get in but she had to move close to him to do it. He regretted it immediately. Her perfume clung to him.
“New job must be workin out good,” he said. His eyes traveled over. She looked good, he had to admit. She looked real good. His hand touched his unshaven face and he vaguely tried to recall the last time he’d shaved.
“Yeah, it’s going really well,” she said. “Maybe even a possibility that I might make manager.”
He took another drink, draining the can and then crushing it in his large hands.
“Well, you’d like that.”
She didn’t take the bait, so Don knew it must be bad. He wasn’t going to help her out. Whether this was due to anger or need, he did not know.
“So,” she said, and he watched her meet his eyes with some difficulty. “We got a buyer.”
He’d figured. In the last six months, all she talked about was selling.
“Who?” he asked.
“Does it really matter?” she asked. “The family is from out of town. It’s no one you’d know.”
“What is then, some Mexican?”
“Mexican?” he watched her face flush and knew he’d got her going. “Seriously, Don, you know any Mexicans around here that have money enough to get a house?”
“I don’t know, Darcy, probably there are. They keep takin up all the jobs, so it’d make sense…”
“Jobs? What jobs? Working on farms, shoveling shit? You look around. You see any Mexicans doing a job you want?”
Now they were in familiar territory and he sank into it like it was an old couch that had formed to his ass.
“You just don’t want to admit that this county is going to shit and them Mexicans is partly why. Jesus Christ, they come in by the thousands across that border. And now they are all the way up here. Can’t even go to Walmart without running into one and they take so frickin long at the checkout. You tell me, Darcy, if they want to live here, why can’t they learn English? You tell me that!”
She rolled her eyes. “I don’t know, Don. What’s it matter?”
“What’s it – ?” he felt himself warming up. “What’s it matter? I’ll tell you what it matters. We’re losing control of this country. You can’t even tell who’s American anymore. And now, now they taking our guns – don’t that tell you something?”
“No one is taking your guns, Don,” she said. She sounded tired.
“Well that’s what you think until they take them all, isn’t it? Goddamn Democrats with their liberal ideas! If they had their way, none of us would have guns!”
She started to fight back, then stopped herself. “You don’t even know what you’re talking about, Don.”
“Oh I know what they are trying to do, it’s you that don’t – "
“Alright, alright,” she said. “This isn’t what I came here for. We have a buyer and we need to take this. He’ll take our asking price and that’s way more than we can afford to pass up.”
She was right about that. He knew it.
“We can finally pay off the Medical bills and move on,” she said and her voice was softer and he hated the softness in it because he never knew how to talk back to softness.
Then, she pushed him over the edge.
“You doing ok?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said and he felt the anger return. “Just tell me when I got to go in and sign. You don’t need to be there. “
He watched her familiar form walk away and he knew she was right. It didn’t matter who was buying the house he’d built with his own hands with his father and his friends to help. It didn’t matter that he’d laid the foundation after he’d worked a 12 hour shift. He’d done the roofing on the weekends and others were having troubles after that last winter, but his roof was solid, solid as a rock. There wasn’t a leak in it.
But none of that mattered to the bank. No, she was right. It didn’t matter who it was that was buying it. It didn’t matter.
Until it did. He wasn’t half paying attention at the lawyers and so when he learned he had just signed his house away to the new Windmill Project Manager, he was livid. But when he heard the rest of it-
“What the hell?” he vented to Alice Ann. “Now I got a fucking Arab living in my house.”
Alice Ann was wiping off the counter. “He’s from Pakistan, I guess.”
“What the hell does that matter?” Don was red with rage. “Probably some terrorist right here in our town for all our useless congressmen care – ”
Now on this, he had support. The other guys at the bar wholeheartedly agreed and he basked in the warmth of it. That check made the Windmills bearable, but terrorists? That’s where they all drew the line.
“Like the government even cares…”
“You’d think they’d do something!”
“Oh, no just let ‘em all in and see what else they can blow up…”
And then, the conversation turned to the Snirt Run. Roy said he’d be damned he’d go talk to any Towel Head, he wasn’t doing it.
“I’ll go,” Don said. It was foolish, he knew, but something compelled him to see the man who was living in the house he’d built.
He planned carefully. Unable to decide which rifle to take, he took all three and his handgun besides. He put on his cleanest jeans and his favorite flannel. When his workboots hit the dry gravel of his former driveway, he had to settle himself a little. There was light on in the kitchen, so he knew the bastard was home. Home. Don’s home. He was supposed to get his signature on the permit, but the letter was buried in his pocket as deeply as it was in his mind.
As he approached the porch, he glared at the overgrown lawn and the dying plants hanging on the porch.
His feet pounded the porch floor and he banged on the door three times in quick succession. He heard movement inside and touched his side where his handgun was resting. He’d be ready.
The door opened and a disheveled man appeared in the doorway. He was clutching a cell phone and talking in some different language. He held up a finger to Don to show he was finishing up, but he seemed to have a hard time of it. Whoever he was talking to didn’t want him to hang up.
“I’m sorry,” the man said in careful English as he tucked his phone into his pocket, Don watched him carefully, his hand ready to answer any threat. “My apologies. What can I help you with?”
“I’m a representative from the Tug Hill Council for Recreation,” Don said, trying to reign in the hostility he felt rising in him. “They sent me to talk to you about a local event. Need your signature to run it because it goes through land your company owns.”
“Oh, I see, I see,” said the man. “Won’t you come in?”
It was strange to be invited into your own house and Don felt its strangeness deeply. Perhaps he was expecting to see the room as he had left it, with the old brown couch and his chair by the woodstove, but the inside was pretty stark. Only a small television and a few folding chairs set up. A couple tables. Not much else.
As the man read the letter, Don looked around some more. He was trying to remember what it used to looked like, but it seemed far away, like something he’d dreamed rather than built.
“So, this is a local tradition?” the man said to him. While he read the letter, Don walked over the fireplace and ran his hands over the stones. They’d selected them from his hunting camp out by the Independence River. He was no good at Masonry, but his friend Ron was and he laid them out while Don watched and handed him stones. Looked like art when it was done. Don had been surprised to see how tricky it was. There was a true art to designing it so all those rocks of different shape would stay together. Some would never fit.
“What?” he said. The man had been talking, but Don wasn’t listening.
“I asked about the possibility of property damage?”
“Tears up the land a bit, but we stay out of farm land. Just stay on the edges.”
“And what about liability?”
“What do you mean?”
“What if someone get hurt? Who bears the liability?”
Don’s eyes had been hungrily working their way over the room when they fell on a child’s drawing on a small table. Something in him caught a little at the sight of it. Then he saw the photo.
“That your kid?” he asked, but it was hard to form the words because he recognized that look. The unreal pallor of the skin, the bare skull, and that look in those eyes. Pain and some sort of appeal. That look like daddy could fix it, could fix anything. He felt his throat closing in on him.
“That is my daughter, Iqra,” the man said and Don sensed he was having trouble speaking too. Don wondered what his first name was. He decided he looked like an Al. “She is unwell. She and her mother are in Boston, seeking treatment.”
Don’s eyes had been glued to the eyes in the photograph and he pulled away to meet the eyes of the man for the first time.
“And how’s it goin? The treatment?”
The man looked away and for a moment.
“She is…having a bad day. That was her mother on the phone. I will be leaving for Boston soon.” It was now the other way around. The man avoided looking at Don, and looked instead out the window. “We were so hopeful she could be here for the fall. She loves the woods and would love that swing in the tree. That was why I bought this place. It seemed a good place…for a child.”
“It is,” Don said. “It would be, I mean.”
An awkward silence followed. Then both men spoke at once and neither could hear what the other said. After a few seconds, Don spoke again.
“I see you got a lot going on, so I’ll just go and you can think about it. My email is on the bottom.”
“Yes, thank you, I will.”
Don got into his truck and pulled skillfully out of the familiar driveway.
He fought it as he headed down the Wetmore Road. It seemed the last few years had been nothing but a concerted effort to keep from remembering her little form, so shrunken it got lost in that brown couch, the grilled cheese sandwich untouched on the table beside it. He just kept making grilled cheese sandwiches because she always loved them before. The memory of it choked him and he pulled into the old Baxter place to catch his breath. Then, he let it all go. He took it out on the steering wheel, pounding it into submission, cursing Democrats and windmills and everything in between.
That’s when he saw them. A string of five pickups. He knew every one.
And he knew why they’d come.
He felt for his gun and cast a look in the back at the rifles. This was why we had the second amendment, he knew. To protect what was yours.
He swung out wildly into the field and tore back the way he’d come. The winding road seemed to stretch out before him and got behind this old Toyota going about 40 miles per hour, but he couldn’t pass. He laid on the horn but the driver didn’t waver in his steadfast and slow crawl. Finally, he found a stretch of open road and he tore past him until he reached his house.
He slammed it into park and lurched out of his seat and into the back in one fluid movement. With familiar ease, his hands wrapped around his Winchester. Then he looked up at their grinning faces, those faces turned to him with welcome smiles and they lifted up their rifles in a show of solidarity.
“Hey, Don. Glad you’re here!”
Al stood on the porch, a look of fear on his face. Surrounding him were a crew of flannel shirts. His hunting companions, their prey flushed out.
“That’ll be enough,” he said in a voice loud enough for them to hear, but quiet enough to be dangerous.
“What you doing?” Roy asked. “We came to help.”
“No one needs your help. Time to leave, boys.”
“Leave? Oh we’re just getting started,” Wayne said and with the butt of his rifle he broke the window. The sound of shattering glass was followed by a roar of a gun.
Don stood by his truck and planted his feet firmly in the soft ground. He’d shot into the air, but now he lowered his gun at his friend.
“Get off my porch, “ he growled.
“What the hell you doing, Don? Protecting this piece of shit? He ain’t even American.”
“I can’t see how that matters right now,” Don said coldly. “Get off my porch.”
They weren’t sure if he was serious. They shuffled and let out small laughs, thinking probably that he was clowning. But Don wasn’t laughing. A man’s home is nothing to laugh about, even if it was no longer his.
“I ain’t going to tell you again. Get your asses off my porch,” Don lowered the rifle and drew a bead on Wayne’s groin. “I’d blow your dick off, Wayne, but I ain’t sure even I can hit a target that small.”
Now the men froze, unsure. Don took his eyes off of them to meet Al’s eyes. He recognized that look of helplessness, of powerlessness, of fear.
“This man’s got an appointment to keep, so you boys need to be moving on,” he said.
They wavered, but seemed unsure of Don. Slowly, resentfully, they got back into their trucks and pulled away. Don waited until he could no longer see the taillights, and then he approached the man.
“Everyone here has guns,” Al said. He wiped the sweat from his forehead.
“Yeah, they do. Gotta protect, you know?” he said and he smiled at the baffled look on the man. “You go ahead and get ready to head out. I’m just going to stick around here for a while, make sure everything’s ok.”
Al seemed unsure. “But it isn’t safe. What if they return?”
“It’s fine. They ain’t really bad guys. Sometimes they get a little crazy, is all.”
“But they have guns…”
“Yeah,” Don smiled and settled into the chair on the porch. “But so do I. God Bless America, right?”
The eyes of the two men met and they found a place where they both could live.
“It’ll be alright,” Don said, but he knew it was a lie. It was a world where little girls die, and mills close, and men lose their jobs, and sometimes their minds and – almost always – their dignity. And nothing was right about that.
Long after Al left, Don sat on that porch with his gun beside him and studied that tire swing. The rope was growing thin, he could see. It needed replacing. There’d be snow soon, but still. There was no harm in replacing it. You never knew.
By nightfall, the wind was cutting and he turned his face to it. Up on the hill, the windmills were turning, he knew. Turning with the wind, not fighting it. He stayed there until dark, his mind weaving pictures of a child on a swing, laughing so hard and hanging on for dear life. She swung in wild arcs of oscillation, with no fear of gravity. Trusting that her father’s hands would keep her from falling straight through the earth.