The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature

Barges by Scott McKenzie (fiction)


Another great old story from the 1990s Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. One more attempt at rebuilding our archives. This is one of my personal favorites. I think he’s known as Thomas Scott McKenzie now.


They sat in the molded yellow plastic chairs outside the Arby’s, eating their roast beef sandwiches and curly fries. Neither spoke, relaxing in a silence that came from years of familiarity. He had his boots up and absent-mindedly bit from his sandwich as he watched the slow progress of the barge.

Mike and Linda had been going there for some time. The monotony of the farm had gotten worse over the years. Up the hill to feed the horses, down the hill to wait for them to eat, up the hill to turn them back out, down the hill to check the water. Endless. They’d begun to drive up to Maysville every couple of weeks. The Arby’s was somewhat of a treat since there weren’t any around the farm. But the real reason they went was to see the barges.

Mike had always been fascinated with the huge vessels. There was an easy romance to the life of a barge worker. Slowly moving up and down the Ohio River, transporting hundreds of tons of cargo, working seven days, resting seven days, all the while easing through life on the pace of the river.

Mike’s attraction to the barges had gotten more intense lately. They were coming to Maysville more and more often. Linda had already been through the whole menu at the fast-food place. She’d tried it all and was getting bored but she was glad to see Mike excited about something. He would hurry through with the horses, decide to clean the stalls tomorrow, and be ready when Linda got home from work. Linda never really understood Mike’s fascination but then again, she understood very little of the choices they’d made. His attraction to the barges had something to do with freedom, she supposed. The evenings were relaxing for her though and when it got too dark to see the river through the trees, they would ride around the hills above the little town and look at the beautiful old homes, casually waving to the owners out puttering in their flower beds.

That particular day, they came home early and Mike let Linda out at the house and drove up the hill to the barn. She got the newspaper, turned on the TV, and sat down to smoke a cigarette.

When she finished the paper, Mike still hadn’t returned. The nightly checks at the barn usually lasted about twenty minutes. Long enough to fill the water buckets for the yearlings and throw a few flakes of hay to the barren mares in the back.

Linda lit another Winston and watched the evening news. She found herself sitting in Mike’s Lay-Z-Boy and got up. He’d want his chair when he got back. He used to finish his work and then shoot baskets with their son. Now, he came in from the barn, collapsed in the recliner, dozed for a  couple of hours, and stumbled into the bedroom.

Linda didn’t want to hear the reports of the multi-million dollar sales at Keeneland on the news and went in to clean up some dishes left from Mike’s lunch. She looked at the clock, tried to remember what time he’d gone up the hill, and threw the paper plate in the trash. There weren’t many dishes. Mike drank some Coke at lunch out of the same cup he’d had his coffee in when he got out of bed. He always tried not to make too big of a mess. But still, the few dishes did kill some time.

It was almost dark by the time she’d wiped off the kitchen counters and the tabletop. Another cigarette and another glance at the clock.

Linda went out onto the porch and tried to get her shaky hands to tie her shoe laces.

As she was opening the car door, Linda saw Mike easing his truck into the carport. He got out, pale and shaken, his blue button-down in his hand and his undershirt and pants smeared with blood. Linda grabbed his arm, the graying hairs still wet.

“Clearman’s mare foaled,” Mike said quietly. The mare had not been due for another couple of weeks so there had been none of the hourly checking. No looking for wax dripping from her swollen belly. Nothing.

Mike had just gone up to the barn to check the water, was filling up his bucket, when he heard the mare bellowing.

“Well, is it male or female?” Linda asked.

“Neither. It’s dead.”

Mike walked past her to call Mr. Clearman. Linda stood in the driveway, staring off into space, oblivious to the gnats buzzing around her head.

Mike spoke with Mr. Clearman as Linda sat at the kitchen table and tried not to listen. Their conversation was unremarkable. The words had been said too many times before.

Mike got off the phone and wordlessly went to the bedroom. Linda heard his knees crack as he took off his clothes and got into bed. She thought about the clean sheets and then decided not to bother. He was just too tired.

Linda put the clean dishes back into the sink and began running water over them. She submerged her hands in the dishwater and looked out the window at the yearlings running through the tall grass. At the bottom of the hill, a creek ran the length of their property. It was a sizable creek, deep enough to be up to her head. Big enough to survive the droughts they’d been having lately, but by no means a big river.

At that moment, Linda heard the bed squeak, Mike sigh, and more than anything, she wanted to see one of those barges slowly moving towards them.