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The Schuker's Fourth of July
by Kim Chinquee



Kate and Suzy Schuker lie in their bedroom talking of ways to kill their father. The eight-year-old twins prop their feet on pillows facing the head of the bed, and let their heads hang from its foot so their long hair skims the wooden floor. Kate slides her cow slippers on and off her feet and wiggles her toes. Suzy watches her own skin turn red as she looks at her features in the compact mirror: her fiery green eyes, bold freckles, and make-believe smile. She lets her pink-and-white polka-dot Drowsy doll, a hand-me-down from her older cousin, fall to the floor and Suzy soundlessly criticizes her own appearance, wondering if her father would like her if she were more attractive.


Janet, the twins' mother, sits on a varnished kitchen chair and talks on the phone to Yvonne, the overweight lady who lives two miles down the road. Janet laughs into the receiver as her black-bottom cupcakes bake in the gas oven. She makes them for a Ladies Aid church event -- the cupcakes make the house smell like a mixture of Hershey's candy bars and cut-out Christmas cookies. She props her feet on a padded stool and stares at the cooking timer in her hand. The women talk about the upcoming Fourth of July celebration, the aftermath of the Columbine shootings, then Yvonne talks about her latest visit to the hairdresser, Mrs. Dee. Janet says, "Oh, really," "Uh huh," and "Yeah," as Yvonne tells her of the latest gossip. Janet wants to hear all about it.


Stanley's rubber boots make shuffling sounds on the concrete floor as he milks his cows. He cleans Tiny's udder with water from a hose with his callused hands, then puts the milkers on each teat, one at a time. He checks on his other three cows in the milking parlor and pulls the milkers from Sugar's udder and puts them on a metal rack. He opens the sliding door for Sugar to get out and when she doesn't move, he slaps her ribs with a wooden stick. "Stupid cow," he says. He lets the next one in.

Stanley mutters to himself as the milkers make sucking sounds and the milk makes whooshing sounds and the pipes carry the liquid to a big metal tank. He laughs to himself as he remembers a joke that his teammate, Alex told at a dartball game last night.

Stanley wipes his wet hands on his gray work pants, his fingers touching a place where manure splashed on a spot that was sticky from syrup. The muck lodges itself between the cracked callused parts of Stanley's hands that sometimes shake. Stanley doesn't notice.


This morning for breakfast the family ate pancakes. Janet made them big and dark for Stanley. Medium-sized light for the twins. Stanley put Mrs. Butterworth's on his, while the girls ate theirs with butter and Janet's strawberry jam. Janet took hers plain. They all drank milk that came from Stanley's cows.

Stanley got a Charlie horse and he grabbed his leg while it jerked. The table shook, spilling milk. Syrup dripped on Stanley's leg. Then everything was still.

Janet got up, cleaning up milk in places, wiping Mrs. Butterworth's from Stanley's gray pants. The twins chewed. They sat and stared. Then Stanley looked at them.

"What you two lookin at? You lookin at me?" His eyes veered away. He shook his head. "Damn." He looked at Janet. "Clean it up. Clean it all up. Get it off me. Get it all. That damn Butterworth. I told you to not to get that damn Butterworth."

"Sorry. I'll get it. I'll get it all cleaned up," Janet said.

"Damn bitch of a Butterworth." Stanley got up and stormed off, limping a little. He reached for the Mrs. Butterworth's bottle, took it outside and slammed it against the cement steps, breaking glass, leaving the stairs sticky in places. Then he went to the barn.

Janet cleaned up and the girls lost their appetites. Then the three recited the Lord's Prayer. It was something they always did after Stanley got mad.


"Maybe we can poison his food," Suzy sits up and puts down the mirror. She looks at Kate.

"What about the Ten Commandments?"

"Don't worry." Suzy gets up, finds her Drowsy doll and picks it up. "I know where the key to his gun cabinet is. I saw him shoot a skunk once. His guns look easy to use."

"Skunks are easy. They're dumb. Dad could be smart." Kate sits up, grabs her Mrs. Beasley doll (which Janet bought at the last antique rummage sale), and looks into the doll's plastic face. She thinks she looks like her doll, except for the hair.

"What do we do with him when he's dead?"

"I'm not doing it. I'm not going to hell." Kate pushes up her glasses.

"We have to do something," Suzy gets up and puts on her plastic necklace. She looks into the vanity next to the bed and puts on cherry lip gloss. She smacks her lips, imitating the way her mother looks into the mirror, turning her chin up and rotating it from left to right. Her red pigtails bounce.

"Let's face it. We're doomed." Kate's chin quivers and a tear rolls down her cheek, making her glasses wet. She hugs Mrs. Beasley.

Suzy gets out her drawing pad and draws a black flower.


The Schuker's brick two-story is centered on the seven-acre lawn, a small part of the 80-acre farm. Ivy vines creep up the red brick, touching the roof. Purple lilac bushes, and a garden of pansies, daisies, and sunflowers mask the manure smell that sometimes looms when the wind blows from the east. Five oak trees bud.

A metal clothesline, white oil tank, and two barrels for burning waste sit in the back yard. In the front, white rocks make a trail, connecting the house to the gravel driveway, which separates the home from the barn, silo, manure pit, and other things needed for dairy-farm operations. The place is surrounded by nothing but fields, except for a narrow road, which forms a T with the gravel path. From this road, the home looks quaint and quiet, and everyone who passes by deems this a fact.


Stanley punished Suzy for running from the house to the barn naked. Suzy asked Janet why people needed to wear clothes. Janet told Suzy that if she wanted to find out, to run from the house to the barn in the nude -- Janet didn't think Suzy really would.

Stanley was scraping manure from the heifers' stalls at the time, and he saw her. When Suzy saw him she ran back to the house. Stanley grabbed his stick from the barn, but he couldn't catch her -- she was already out of sight.

Suzy ran to her room and crawled in bed. Janet saw what was coming so she locked the door, then went back to making monster cookies. Stanley banged on the door. Then kicked. Then took his stick and pounded some more. "Hey you, come back here. What you doing running around here like that? Around my barn. Around my cows. Around my yard."

Janet pretended not to hear, humming a tune.

Suzy shook under the sheets. Kate stood by the bedroom door. "At least you got away," she said.

"It's my damn house. My house. Let me in my damn house." Stanley yanked on the doorknob. His hands shook like wild. He took his stick, threw it on the ground, then sat on the front step banging his knees. Then he got up, picked up his pole and stormed to the barn. "My damn house," he said, talking to his cows.

Stanley slapped the stick, jabbing Maybell's ribs. "My damn house." Then he got Sharona. The rest of the cows hustled, kicking manure.

After it was quiet and Janet knew he was gone, she went upstairs. She saw Suzy shaking on the bed, Kate sitting by her side.

"I guess we got him in a bad mood. Sorry," Janet said, "But to answer your question: I'm not sure why people need clothes. It has something to do with Adam and Eve." The twins shook their heads. Janet did too.

Then they said the Lord's Prayer.

"Mom, why is Daddy so mean?" Suzy asked.

"Well, like I said before, your dad gets grumpy from all his work. Things will get better, you'll see."

Suzy and Kate tried to believe.

Janet went downstairs and unlocked the door. The doorknob fell. Janet tried to fix it.


Stanley always lived there. After marrying Janet, his parents moved to a nearby town, leaving him to take over the farm. The newlyweds were happy together. Every night after Stanley finished milking the cows, and after Janet finished her household chores, they would stroll down the paths of the pastures. They would hold hands as Stanley led the way with his flashlight. They often stopped to look at the stars.

Stanley would talk about the plans for his crops and his herd, and Janet always listened. Then Stanley would tell his wife that he loved her and that he only wanted what was best for their future. Janet would smile and tell Stanley what a great husband he was.

Within a year, they started a family. Stanley wanted a son to help with the farm. But Janet had complications after giving birth to Kate and Suzy, and could no longer bear children. After the twins came home from the hospital, sleep was scarce, meals weren't always cooked, and the couple no longer made time for walks and talks. So Stanley worked harder, increasing his herd, and he purchased more land to harvest more crops. Yet he would not hire a helping hand -- he told himself that no one could do the job the way he would have wanted. And he would not let Janet help, saying her place was in the house, keeping it clean, cooking the meals, and raising the children. He stopped confiding in her. Soon all Stanley did was eat, sleep, work, go to church, and play dartball.

His hands shook a lot and some nights he didn't sleep at all. His big, strong frame turned narrow and gaunt. The hair on his head became scarce -- it emphasized the hazel eyes that used to be so placid.

Stanley just kept getting worse.


The twins play in their room upstairs. Janet bakes white rocket brownies while chatting on the phone. Stanley holds his rifle between his legs as he drives his John Deere in the fields. He travels on the same path that Janet used to walk with him.

Suzy pretends to give Kate art lessons. Suzy likes drawing and acting, while Kate prefers math and numbers. Suzy, being fifteen minutes older and one inch taller, tries to dominate and protect her younger twin.

The girls imagine they are in school. They sit on the wooden floor with a bucket of broken crayons between them. Mrs. Beasley and Drowsy sit in fake desks. Suzy draws black flowers with brown and red leaves. She says she is making clothes for Ken and Barbie. They talk to their dolls, saying they can't wait for summer vacation to be over.

Then bang-bang, gun shots fire. The girls look at one another. Downstairs Janet hangs up the phone. An odor, stronger than the manure smell, seeps into the home's windows.

Janet runs to the door. Her cooking buzzer rings and she runs back to the oven to take out the brownies. She can't smell them because the stench from outside takes over. She runs back to the door.

Suzy looks out the window and opens it. Kate crawls under the covers with her cow slippers on.

"What are your doing letting that smell in here?" Kate asks.

Suzy puts her face up to the open window and takes a deep breath. "I love it. It reminds me of Grandma's."

Kate thinks. Suzy walks to the bed. They recite the Lord's Prayer, taking long breaths, inhaling the scent.

Stanley stops the tractor in front of the white rocks. He runs to the house, stepping in old syrup. He pulls on the door handle and it wobbles. The twins run to their door and listen.

"Finally shot the skunks. Every one of em. Got em all. The whole family. Every one. Got em all, " he says. "Got em out there in the field. Every one of em. Got em all." He wipes his rifle with his red handkerchief, then puts the gun into the cabinet and locks the door. "I got em all." Stanley paces, his boots sticking to the floor.

Janet follows him, taking small, apprehensive steps. She rubs her sweaty palms on her blue checkered apron.


Stanley drives his family to church in his '97 Ford Integra. He grasps the steering wheel with both of his shaky hands. He shifts his body in his seat and stares straight ahead, his eyes fixed on the bumpy road. The car needs new shocks, so he slows down each time he anticipates a pothole, which is something he's gotten used to. Puddles make spots on the blue car. Stanley hasn't slept much, and has eaten very little over the past week. This morning at breakfast, while staring at his eggs, he told his family he loved them.

Janet rides in the front seat and hums in her soprano voice songs that she has been recently singing with her Sweet Adelines group. She looks out the window and notices how green the fields have become since the recent rainfall.

The twins sit silently in the back seat, smelling Stanley's Old Spice. Suzy wants to hum along with her mother, but is too afraid. Instead she stares at her fingers and pretends to play the piano. Kate examines the white dots on her red pants and pretends there are lines connecting them.

The twins still wished Stanley were dead.

At church, the family sits in a white pew. They are afraid they smell like skunks. Like every Sunday, the girls sit between their parents, Stanley by the aisle, Suzy next to her father. Janet sits by Mrs. Meyer, the girls' former first-grade teacher, who offers Janet a hymnal. The Schukers bow their heads to pray, and while the organist plays a familiar melody, they wait for the service to begin. Stanley hits his fists on his knees while Mrs. Meyer stares. Janet looks at Mrs. Meyer's red lipstick and smiles while Suzy shifts closer to her sister. Stanley rests his elbows on his knees and buries his head in his hands. Suzy and Kate look at one another, while Janet silently hums the tune in her head and looks at the figure of Jesus that stands behind the pulpit. She thinks he looks so meek and kind.

In his white robe, Pastor George steps onto the pulpit and greets his congregation, which today is nearly two hundred. As he smiles and raises his hand to make the sign of the cross Stanley yells, "God help me now!"

Pastor George drops his hands, forgetting his routine. He looks in Stanley's direction. The congregation stares in wonder. Suzy moves even closer to her sister.


Stanley lies in a hospital bed of the psychiatric unit while Janet holds his hand. Her bloodshot eyes mask their gray color. Stanley sleeps soundlessly in peace.

The girls stare out the window wishing they could be at the Fourth of July celebration, watching the parade, eating hot dogs, and playing in the playground with their friends. The hospital smell nauseates them. Suzy watches the cars that shuffle in the street below. Kate does the same.

"How about angel food cake tonight?" Janet asks.

The girls look at Janet, shrug their shoulders, look out the window again.

A nurse enters the room to take Stanley's vital signs, but he doesn't wake up. "He just needs his sleep," she says. "That stuff really knocked him out." Janet and the girls look at her, but say nothing, so the nurse quickly exits.

Bangs from illegal fireworks sound from outside. The sun shines.

Stanley grumbles in his sleep. The three look up at him. "Why is he so high up?" Suzy asks.

"Just because," Janet says.

Stanley's bed is raised to the highest level. A white sheet covers him, leaving his head and feet exposed. An overhead light shines on his face, making his skin glow. Then Stanley takes smooth, even breaths, his rhythm like a song.

"It's time we talk to God," Janet says. She caresses Stanley's rough fingers.

Kate, Suzy, and Janet gather round the bed. They bow their heads, fold their hands, then close their eyes and pray.