Succeeding a Feeble Middle

Fall, 2022 / No. 50
Matthew Daley

This drop that the wind takes from escarpment to field is under such peculiar influences, the cold clap off the bay, the yar of new space, and the tong of pressure, that what form that wind takes, its speed, its evenness, are not predictable. As a pattern it is unaccounted for by conventional wind theory and is so eccentric that no explanation exists at all. Air, best understood as a suiciding man, leaps past the precipice, only to slam into the field as something else, only to be converted in that very same instant into a weightless violence so agitated that every second requires a renewed story. And even if one could access that story, it will have instantaneously attacked itself infinite times, producing endless moments. The air that comes across the field is not only mad itself, it makes madness. Out of tree, out of the psoriatic soil, out of insect destruction, deep in the eyes of those who look.

In winter, the testicles of clouds freeze solid and shatter into vehicles on Widgeon Road, causing them to lean and distort. On this January late afternoon, Bill Cooksey stands in the bay window, his hand over his face, and reads the wind surrounding his eighty-year-old prize red pine. Bill is a forty-eight-year-old real estate agent, a large man with woolly sideburns and eyes that sit overtop his glasses. He has a proprietary air, a sort of Old World gentry affectation. And he has a claim to it. The poplar-lined road leading out of the bottom of town, cutting diagonally through farmland, bears his family’s name. The Cooksey Road isn’t plowed in winter, and its washboard surface deters the summer traffic, but it’s well used by tractors hauling broccoli-laden flat wagons. The tip of the red pine is leaning an entirely new metre to the east-northeast this morning. Cooksey presses against the window to gauge how close the neighbour’s shed is. About twenty metres. He glances up at the tree. How tall would you say that is?

“How tall would you say this tree is?” 

He bends his index finger against the cold glass. A person says something within. Cooksey turns.

“How tall would you say . . .”

 His son, Peter, enters from the front hall. He is a heavy-set boy, with wire-framed glasses holding on to his wide head. His age is not properly known.

“Dad, everything the other side of Station Park is out. No power.”

“Take a look at this. Come here.”

Windblown ice sizzles against the bay window. The temperature in this small space is several degrees colder than the rest of the room. A century and a half of gusts with deep fetch have bored millions of needle-width wormholes. Peter Cooksey feels this on his waist as he steps in beside his dad.

“Woah. It’s leaning.”

‘It is, isn’t it? I thought it always had a bit of a lean though.”

“Not like that, Dad.”

They stare in silence, sensing some fabulous change may be coming.

“Watch the ground on the other side. That’s the tell. Is it rising at all?”

They both push their glasses up on their noses, like a synchronised pair of beefeater guards. Mary Cooksey is standing in the room.

“That wind has blown all the snow from the field into our drive.”

Bill turns to his wife as Peter leans in closer to the glass.

“Yeah, Froot Loops doesn’t do it on Sundays.”

Froot Loops is Frank Coutts, the town yard man. Mary spins a tea towel propeller at her waist.

“That’s nothin, Mom. Check this out.”

Cooksey makes room for his wife in the bay.

“Is Froot Loops a churchy?”

Mary ignores her husband and follows her son’s finger to the top of the red pine.

“Gotta watch the ground.”

“Yeah. We are. Dad said.”

As if to illustrate, a wide semicircle of snow across the west southwest of the tree separates and rises. Everything looks vulnerable to big forces now.

“Mary, how tall is that tree?”

“Oh, hard to say.”

A series of subterranean cracks pop in the floorboards. 

“Gonna be as tall as it wants to be, I guess.” Awe in Bill Junior’s voice.

The tree free falls. Black dirt flies from the ground, like a gush of blood, out over the snow. All three lean in to see where the tip will reach. Eyes measure fractions in the second and a half it takes for the tree to lie down, with its top bent upward, like a desperate arm reaching out. The tip holds the edge of the neighbour’s shed softly. Mary is the first to react.

“Well, that’s it. Call him.”

Mary whips the tea towel up her wrist and walks out. The Cooksey men don’t move. A whale has come up from the depths and breached. It has ended its long life suddenly and now it lies on dry land.

Froot Loops owns four large properties at the far side of town, on a line whose name his family has lobbied the town for decades to change. The Couttses are not the Cookseys, however. The Couttses have lived in the Fourth Line since 1866. The patriarchs have reigned with a decline resembling that of emperors. From Augustus who broke ground for the Station Park gazebo, to Froot Loops, a whitewashed lawn jockey Nero, enabled by his retired schoolteacher, Agrippa. There is something wrong with Froot Loops, and his wife is too busy to fix it. 

Two houses sit on two of the four properties. A post-war bungalow with no eavestrough, and a weathered white cottage that wore out its cute decades ago. On the third property, a steel Quonset with wide ruined doors pushes heavy machines out onto the mud and ice of the fourth property, like a massive ugly horn of neglect. Froot Loops’s wife, Ronnie, has taken the flatbed to church. Froot Loops is pulling himself up and over the rust-rashed chassis of a vintage Hart-Parr Rumley Eagle. In decent shape, it could fetch twenty thousand. Froot Loops’s boot knocks off a salt-eaten pin as he stands to full height over where the seat of the vehicle had once been. He is looking for a group of six weed whackers sat out last fall for storage. Wind has carved snow into fine drapery that folds neatly around complicated, disused machines. The cold sears into the left side of his face, where a thick fold runs from his cheek around to his missing ear. Despite what kids in town have said for generations, a disfigurement is not a sign of bad character. Adults say, “Nor does it prevent it.”

Froot Loops spots Cooksey’s yellow Civic bouncing in the rutted drive between buildings. It stops at a row of tarped machines by the side of the Quonset. 

“Hey, Frank.”

“Bill, Bill. Any offers on the Flemish place?” 

Froot Loops always asks this question. Several times a day. Everyone knows the property he means but not the reference. The reference is to tulips that grew in the ditch, now filled, some thirty years a go.

Bill taps Cooksey pre-emptively with a mitt.

“You guys find religion or something? You look for a Sunday clear? I ain’t even blown out St. Patrick’s yet this morning. No point. Just blows back in the wind.”

Froot Loops walks abruptly away from Cooksey, toward the white cottage. He yells back.

“Too cold for me, Frank.”

Cooksey has never stood inside any of Froot Loops’s buildings. He stands in the boot tray, by the door.

“Something smells good, Frank.”


Frank spots a large pot on the stove. Beef fog rises in the cold air.

“That’s a lot of gravy for one meal. That for the church?”

“Ronnie freezes it.” 

There are six large sponges floating just under the surface. Froot Loops tosses them into the yards of dogs that have chased Ronnie on the mower this past summer. The sponge creates a fatal blockage inside the dog, and it dies after many days of agony. It works without fail.

“That big pine in my front yard came down.”

Froot Loops turns down the heat under the gravy and fingers the memory of his missing ear. He is calculating. Cooksey knows this exactly. Froot Loops stays in business by charging slightly below rate for sub-standard work. His is a widely popular service. 

“You know the one.”

An open toilet door leading off the kitchen. The yellow bird and bluebell linoleum is continuous. 

“O.K., Bill. Getcha a price. I dunno.”

Froot Loops habitually casts doubt on his jobs. Cooksey spots the empty toilet paper dispenser. A roll shape on the tank wears a thick pink cozy. Last June, Cooksey came upon Ronnie bagging her own feces under his apple tree. It was not as awkward as maybe it should have been. Ronnie works outside for ten or twelve hours a day in the summer. 

“O.K., Frank. Thanks. Can I get that today? Really don’t wanna live with it sitting there.”

Froot Loops’s other tactic is to let unfinished work sit until client despair sets in. He grunts. Cooksey sighs. 

On the way home, Cooksey notes damage to other trees in town. Nothing as bad as his. It’s that damn crazy wind off the escarpment. He decides to drop by St. Patrick’s to see if he can’t light a fire under Ronnie. Soonest window Froot Loops will even do a preliminary assessment is next January or February’s warm up.

Darla Wheaton comes out the fire exit at the church, followed by others holding the door then making room for something. Cooksey brakes in the lot and watches. Folks hold the doors open and a few exit. They immediately sense the cold and slip back inside. Darla Wheaton spots Cooksey watching from his car. She hops slightly, then makes long strides to the Civic.

Cooksey draws down the window.

“It’s Ronnie, Bill. She had a fit.”

“You mean a seizure. She has them.”

“We open the doors to get some air in.”

Inside the church, the congregants are still in their pews. Father Keene is washing his hands at the front. The altar boy, Connor Garland, wide-eyed, holds a pewter decanter. He wants to go home and clear the walk so his dad’s heart disease don’t finish him. Ronnie Coutts has been dragged to the outside aisle. Darla Wheaton is wedging bibles under her head. Concern for her comfort is perfunctory.

Eucharist. I know that much. Cooksey eases the door closed behind him. Ronnie won’t be much use now, and he’s not certain whether his next step should be forward or backward. The only people looking at him are children. Cooksey waits to see what happens next. Keene leads a prayer mumble then crosses himself. The congregants quietly move to their knees and voice a strange song. Keene delivers another prayer to bowed heads, then crosses himself as the congregants rise. Ronnie is now sitting up on the floor. Darla Wheaton steps back from her. Cooksey notices that Ronnie’s eyes are locked on him. She does not blink. Her mouth is dramatically downturned. Cooksey thinks, “What a weirdo.” Ronnie’s face looks volcanic. 

Hozd el Pétert otthonodból! Gyilkosok vannak ott ! Menj most! Menj! Menj!

Darla throws her hands up.

“Well, folks, that cinches it for me. Ronnie Coutts has had a stroke.”

Some congregants care. Most do not. Keene is dabbing spilt wine on the Corporal.

“Did she say ‘Peter’? Ronnie, what about Peter? What?!”

Darla steps between them, a hand on Cooksey’s arm.

“Anybody feel like calling 911? I don’t bring my phone to church.”

Mumbles. Laps patted. Jacket pockets fished. 

“Ronnie! Ronnie! What about Peter? Please!”

“Nobody? Everybody left ’em home?”

The word “sheeple” is distinguishable in the broken telephone moving through the church. Darla Wheaton shifts her weight to one leg as she watches Cooksey, on one knee with his hands on Ronnie.

“Why did you say my son’s name. What language was that? What the fuck, Ronnie?”

Darla sweeping her arms over the congregation. The swear has upset her. 

“She’s a schoolteacher, Bill. You never take Latin?”

Cooksey stammers: “Nobody takes Latin in elementary school, Darla.”

Darla smiles at a child sitting closest.

“Besides, it’s a Catholic church, isn’t it, sweetie? More Latin than you can shake a stick at!”

A wide fan of vomit sprays from Ronnie’s face. The congregation gasps in a collective catch of breath. Darla half screams and places a hand on the child sitting closest. Cooksey looks down at the contents of Ronnie’s guts, now stinking on his pantlegs. Ronnie looks up. Fear focuses her.

“I’m sorry, Bill! Go home! Please! I am sorry! Go home!”

Five wind hooves kick off from the escarpment’s brow. Instead of heading to the far horizon, the goat tumbles in the fields below. It is seen from above as exactly this by the coven aloft, but it registers with them as a nothing. When we are running in wet mud there is no account of the pattern of displacement left by our boot falling for a third time. There are no theories to heed. Improvised acts of local laws are parsed only in the heaven of a distracted god. The hooves leave the animal and bang at short trees. One tree is chalk dust dropped from slates onto dime-sized laps. From the same tree Ronnie’s own tap root snap flips from the earth and drives up into the goat’s closing eye. All the trees are doing this, like a stand of chameleons firing their tongues. They could be mindless or raging, but the coven has already moved on to ignore similar events over the Atlantic, then, without a single word, over the west coast of Scotland. Bill Cooksey is here too, moving through a straw on the ground, pinched in the middle by a giant, to make a venturi, so that the poor father goes blind with acceleration. He would see this if he could: the wet back of a dead field mouse is thawing on a black stone. It would have taken Cooksey at least a minute to interpret this but he is only granted fractions of a second. The wicks of fur arrange to resemble Peter, his forehead split by Frank Coutts with a slicing blow not meant to kill him. The wind is on Frank Coutts, and he has a tree tongue attached to his eye as he forces more gravity into the poor child’s lungs. One hoof has no memory and so was never part of the goat. Another halves itself then reunites for no better reason than to add the moment to its own nano-history. Where’s Mary? Why isn’t she in millions of pieces like the rest of us? Mary is not here because she went to the Circle K to fetch milk after greeting Froot Loop in the driveway. It’s hard to even imagine how many years it took for her arm to drop to her side, in the lineup where she led a team of horses along a precipice in sub-Carpathian Ruthenia. The wind on the road lasts long enough to finally be Bill Cooksey, and has a chance to see Ronnie make a cave painting in the sex, sexy ice. It is impossible to know when all this starts.

Cooksey turns onto his driveway with Mary slowing to follow. Froot Loops’s truck has been here long enough to have snow moulding in its lines. Mary exits the pickup and sidles past Bill sitting in the Civic. Bill watches her swing the bag of milk from the Circle K as she reaches the side door. Bill has decided that this is the last moment he will live without knowing what’s inside his house and he wants to keep from losing this. Mary turns on the porch and gives Bill a look. She shrugs, making another face. The door opens and Froot Loops steps out smiling. 

The air inside the Civic meets up with the coven now carried by vents over Finland. It feels good to Cooksey, feels right. This day-to-day life is just exposure to latching creatures in the deep, dark sea. “It will not be for me anymore,” thinks Cooksey as he tightens the window’s seal. “I am crystallizing now.”