Clean Up, 1997

What I remember about ’97 was that people dumped a lot of shit at our farm that year. Dad blamed this on the weak winter and the awful holdover ’96 crop. Too much of everything, and nobody in eastern Idaho moneyed up enough to care for excess, so the extemporaneous got ditched. Osgood got Os-bad real fast. An inordinate amount of garbage littered the borrow-pits. Mattresses. Refrigerators. Stoves, sinks, toilets. Black trash bags full of the unknown. But when Dad found a toothless horse hitched to the gate of the Steel farm, I sensed this year would be worse than ever. Along with his elk rifle, Dad took the horse out to the cinder pit and put to rest that bag-of-bones. This act left him ornery for most of January, and I thought I understood. 

The next animal abandoned at the farm was a big black lab dog. Dad spotted the blip four hundred yards out in the stubble field behind the farmyard—what we called the area behind where sat my family’s house—the farm repair shop, the workers’ cinderblock bunkhouse, and two earthen A-frame potato cellars. Dad looked through the gun scope and declared it was no coyote. I stood with him on the back porch and squinted, trying to make out the dog. Dad shot and, I guessed, missed. The lab ran free and, two nights later, left its ghostly scat as provocation on the front lawn.

Dad stepped in the scat next morning, erupted: “I guess I’m expected to clean up everyone’s messes, solve everyone’s problems!”

“What’s next,” I asked alongside him. “A snapping turtle? An ostrich?”

Dad didn’t laugh, blew air through his nostrils and grumbled, scanning the field and beyond. I never did see that mutt again and I knew why.

At the end of March, eight arrived from Mexico: Poncho, Memo, Armando, Victor, and four new guys whose names I still needed to learn. This added to the yard’s already large population. We had the Brothers D (Dan, Darrel, Dick) employed year-round to mechanic and truck crop-to-market, always in the backyard. Together they carpooled the fourteen miles from Rigby, but joked about pulling out a camper and living in the shop. There was my mother, taking care of the banking and bills. My six sisters aged thirteen, eleven, nine, seven, five, and three. Dad. And me, Jonny Stirl, fifteen years old. I had applied for and received a farmer’s driving permit; otherwise, I would have had to wait until sixteen like all the rest. The laminated card was a formality, as I’d been driving the three-speed ’65 Ford pickup out on the washboard desert farm roads since I was twelve.

I was driving the Ford back from an FFA meeting one muddy March day, making the sharp curve around Cinder Butte, scanning for new garbage, as Dad had given me the job to keep the road clean, when I spotted a cardboard box up ahead. It sat in the road dead-center and was too big for me to safely straddle or hit. I pulled to the shoulder and planned to take it to the shop dumpster. When I bent to pick the box up, whines emanated from inside. The box was duct- taped shut, so I fished out my bone-handled Glory West pocketknife and sliced through the tape. The ratty box contained a litter of five beautiful black and white kittens, their eyes wide and terrified, their bodies huddled and pressed into a one corner mass. Not newborns, they were alert, and hissed at me.

I’d never been around kittens; Dad loathed cats.

I picked up the box and carefully slid it across the Ford’s bench seat and drove home with caution. I let them out in the garage and prepared a saucer of milk. They didn’t take to that. They wanted meat. I opened a can of tuna fish and they feasted. After, they flexed and scampered, roly-polied all over each other—happy, satisfied creatures—until they tired. I sat and played with them between my feet. They returned to the overturned box and fell asleep in a pile, at the foot of the garage deep freezer.

When Dad came in that night, he was pissed. He’d seen them in the box.

“Cats serve no purpose, climbing everything, clawing everything. They sleep wherever they fall over. They don’t mind anyone. Even if they mouse, they torture them, kill them, and bring guts to the back door. Cats are cruel, vain beasts. Get them away from my pickup, you shouldn’t’ve swerved.”

“Dad, these are pretty sweet-looking,” I said. “You’d like these.”

“I don’t like cats, I don’t want cats. Cute kittens become cats.”

“Jeez, Dad, they’re babies. Should I drown them in the canal?”

“Jonny, don’t be so dramatic. Get them gone. Now.”

He had that stern look. Embers smoldered far behind his pupils. Dad was not an intentionally cruel man; if he expected me to kill them, he would have said so. He probably sensed that he’d have to do that anyway, as I didn’t enjoy hunting or fishing or, in general, causing pain.

I interpreted his command as one of practicality and got moving. I put on warm clothes, grabbed a flashlight, gathered up the kittens in their box, and, through the dark and wind, moved them to the woodpile behind the cement bunkhouse. I made a den from split logs and end-cuts of plywood, and inside piled up clean shop rags for warmth. When I freed the cats, they timidly looked about and read the air with their noses. They looked cold. I shined the light to the entrance, but they remained at my feet, clawing up my knee-high boots. One by one, I placed each inside the hovel and held the box against the entrance until they settled down.

What would keep them here through the night? I didn’t leave until I had an idea. I hurried back to the house and, from the dumpster, fished out the remnants of a roasted chicken from two nights before. The kittens alerted to the scent of flesh and picked and clawed at the sinewy ribcage in a frenzy, then all fell asleep hard, in a soft pile. Inside my own bones, I felt I’d done a good thing, proud of my animal husbandry. I walked off home and went to bed.

It wasn’t until the next morning, checking the woodpile, that I realized my mistake. Bones and skin and fur everywhere, black and white and red. Guts. Skunks had come for the chicken—and the kittens. Not one heartbeat out there but mine.

JOSHUA DEWAIN FOSTER is a writer and editor native to the snake river valley of Idaho. There he lives and works with his wife Georgia Pearle and family. Together they are involved in farming and ranching, parties and publishing. Josh’s stories and essays have been featured (DIAGRAMTin HouseFugueSouth Loop Review, etc), nominated (Best of the Web, the Pushcart Prize, Best American Essays, etc), and decorated (Inprint Donald Barthelme Prize in Fiction and Nonfiction, Idaho Commission on the Arts, Wallace Stegner Fellowship, etc).

His first book, The Crown Package: A Personal Anthology, pictured at right, is available now at and

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