The Con Man - World Public Library

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The Con Man - World Public Library
Con Men, Bootleggers, and the Preacher Man.
A collection of short stories by George Stever.
ISBN: 978-1-105-55318-9
Cover: Original watercolor painting by George Stever.
CON MEN, BOOTLEGGERS, AND THE PREACHER
MAN INTRODUCTION THE CON MAN ENTHYMEME DOLLY BOOTLEGGER THE CURSE OF THE YELLOW DOGS A COLD NIGHT SOLIDIFIES THINGS SWIFT WING RETRIBUTION – THE BULL PREACHER MAN NORSKI MY DAD WAS REAL HARD MISTER ARNELL MARY DANCE Introduction
This is a collection of short stories about the hard life, the life of
characters, the life of miscreants and misfits. They are crude, sexual,
violent, witty, thoughtful, and full of wisdom and lessons never learned
by those who lead sheltered lives.
The Con Man
After we make love my girlfriend Ramona likes to snuggle next to me,
her head propped on one hand while she strokes my face with her
other soft hand. She seems still awestruck by my face, after I’ve been
with her for over a year now. “Your face is so flat and wide,” she has
said more than once in tones of amazement. “I’ve never seen a face
so wide.” I feel how her hand lays horizontal from my nose to the
corner of my face. Yes, corner. My face has corners. She loves to
squeeze my nose between her thumb and forefinger and say, “Honk,
honk, honk. God, what a honker,” and she squeezes in time with her
honks. I think this childish but I don’t say anything about it.
I suppose I am unusual looking with my square head and big
nose. What about it? My ancestors were honest Swedish peasants,
most were sturdy men. I come by my looks honestly, as anyone does,
and we have no choice in the matter, do we? Could you imagine that
the appellation squarehead, for Swede, has no basis in fact? I keep
my long blonde hair well oiled and swept straight back from my
forehead. It gives me a certain elan that few others have. I think I’m
pretty hot shit like those Nazi officers I see strutting in the movies.
Cocky bastards for sure like they know they look good.
I’m used to the way I look. I am handsome in an ugly way,
like a bulldog. Distinguishable. People notice me. More importantly,
women notice me. Some of them are disgusted by my prying eyes and
look away. The hell with them. They don’t know what they’re missing.
Some are fascinated, and when their eyes lock with mine, they are
mine. Could be mine if I so decide. My eyes are powerful. My taste
is discriminating. I don’t give a damn about Ramona’s, or anyone
else’s, teasing. I have just gotten what I wanted to get, haven’t I? I’m
mellow lying there, knowing I have satisfied her again. I’m the star of
the hour, the center of her universe for the few moments it takes her
to come out of her state of rapture. I feel powerful like I have just
fulfilled a tribe of Amazon women and need only short rest before I
take on the neighboring tribe.
After all this time, I’m still fond of Ramona but she doesn’t
excite me as she once did. She’s always working on my head, and that
bothers me. She’s was brought up a Mormon and started leaning on
me real hard about turning Mormon and marrying her. The only
stimulating thing they allow you to indulge in is sex. No coffee, no
beer, no cigarettes. This is a little heavy for me. I like to enjoy my
life.
Ramona moans and hollers and carries on making love like
some tortured beast. I have never heard such carrying on before. She
doesn’t worry about her four kids overhearing, even though they are
just down the hallway or possibly in an adjacent bedroom. They are
on my mind more than hers as I futilely try to shush her. “Quiet now,”
I’ll say. “Will you quiet down?” She doesn’t hear me. Such
interference can cause erectile dysfunction, I’ve heard.
Her two little boys, wild little bundles of nervous energy of four
and seven years of age, come and rattle the doorknob when she is
really cranked up. Her teenage daughters yell from the living room,
“Mom! Will you shut up? You are so gross it’s unbelievable. Oh, oh,
unnh, unnh.” This tends to disturb my concentration. Ramona
doesn’t seem to notice. “Come on, give it to me,” she says.
Ramona’s fifteen and seventeen year old daughters, Crystal
and Evangelina, need lots of direction because they are both boy crazy
and want to run all the time. Bitches in heat, I figure. I fantasize
being the one who shows them what this crazy sex thing is really all
about. The girls accept me, if not as their stepfather, at least as their
mother’s live-in companion with the tacit approval that implies, as
having some measure of respectability and mature authority just
because of my age. I’m sometimes forced into a dad-type routine by
Ramona. “You tell them,” she says because they won’t listen to her.
Period. I hear mouthiness that would have put me down for a ten
count when I was a kid. She tells me the message I’m supposed to
convey in my own words so it doesn’t sound like it came from her.
Messages about doing something in a positive direction (be nice to
your mother) or not doing something in a negative direction such as
not being seduced by flattering words from some young stud who
wants only to hump them for the satisfaction he gets from adding
another notch to his bedpost. Then she stands out of sight around the
corner of the nearest doorway to listens to what I tell them. Later I
catch hell about my loose translations.
It is common to see Crystal and Evangelina walking around the
house in only their panties. Sometimes they even stroll past me stark
naked. Lord, Lord. Modesty is not an important word in their
vocabularies. This all started with their hot-blooded mother who can’t
stand any temperature warmer than seventy-two degrees. The sweat
just runs off her. So she walks around the house all summer wearing
only panties. The girls grew up around that but I have the feeling they
carry it to extremes just to titillate me. They want to get a rise out of
me. I see more skin around that house than I ever dreamed about in
my whole previous life. I have never gotten used to the sight of six
breasts hanging over the dinner table. Nubile nipple beauty blows me
away. I am a student of form and line, color and pattern and texture.
Lucky Ramona can’t read my mind or see through the table top.
Ramona doesn’t like them parading in front of me but she can’t
stop them. She wants my help. “What can I say?” I say, thinking to
myself, what kind of a damned fool do you take me for? She watches
me like a hawk for the slightest sign I’m enjoying seeing the girls. I
act as dumb as a post. Try not to draw attention to myself. I don’t
even think of offering an opinion on the subject. My lips are zipped.
Sometimes Ramona comes right up to me with a suspicious look on her
face, looks right in my eyes for who knows what and squeezes my dick
to see if it’s hardening. The worst of it is, it always starts gorging with
blood as soon as she lets go of it. Aaargh! The straw that breaks a
camel’s back becomes a release valve for hot blood. I sit and cross my
legs as nonchalantly as I can.
The girls are both tall slim brunettes with long, straight hair
like their mother’s and long thin faces, also like hers. The girls’ breasts
are smaller and firmer than their mother’s, as you would expect.
Crystal has perfectly-shaped breasts with symmetrical nipples while
one of Evangelina’s nipples, the left one, is twisted into a comma
shape.
The girls like to sit next to me on the sofa in their panties and
tell me about inane schoolgirl things like how phony their friends are or
the whole plot of some stupid TV program they’ve watched. I can’t
sneak the briefest peek at their breasts, not a half-second, without
them noticing. Then they flash coy little smiles at me, amused that an
old gaffer, to them, but in his prime to himself, might be sexually
attracted to their fresh bodies but has to control himself. Prick teasers
for sure. Their eyes continually jump from my eyes to my crotch. It’s a
joke to them. A cruel joke to me.
Once Crystal sat in her panties and told me irately how all the
junior high boys were sex maniacs who wouldn’t go out with girls
unless they gave them blowjobs. I’m sitting listening to this and
wondering what the hell the world is coming to. When I was fifteen, I
didn’t know a blowjob from a valve job. The balls of these little creeps!
I try not to think about fifteen year old girls performing fellatio on
pimply punks wearing backwards baseball caps.
I guess many men would envy me (I envy myself) for the
visual pleasures afforded me. But it quickly becomes old hat, just like
public nude beaches. When you’re not used to it, I suppose, it could
be provocative, but when you’re exposed to it frequently it is no longer
a big deal. Yawn. It merely indicates an open, healthy relationship.
Oh sure. Booshwah! As though I don’t have carnal thoughts
when the girls lean back on the sofa next to me with their arms thrown
carelessly onto the back, flashing their armpit stubble at me, their
breasts jutting out so provocatively I can almost taste their momentary
saltiness, can feel those smooth nipples hardening under my tongue.
Occasionally they absentmindedly reach and scratch a nipple. Ach du
lieber! I think to myself, let’s see how long you can keep those arms
up there if I begin lightly dragging my finger back and forth over a
nipple. Let us see, you little minx. You little prick teaser. I squeeze
my temples when I think of it. Then I must quickly think of something
non-sexual like what it would cost me to trade my car in on a new
Mustang.
Ramona is pleased that my recovery period between erections
is so short. She’ll never know how much she can thank her daughter
Evangelina for that. Sometimes Evangelina makes little kissing motions
toward me with her full, pouty lips. Pup, pup, pup sounds spring softly
from her. My eyes glaze over as I stare at the wall. I try to throw
myself to the mat. Pin me. Break my will.
Enforce a moral code. I must control my mind and body together, not
an easy thing to do when you’re no holy man to begin with.
I remind myself of how I came to know this girl and the tenuous
thread of trust which allows her to behave so provocatively while
assuming that I will control myself. The slightest trace of interest on
my face, the slightest inclination of my body, the slightest motion of
my hand will end this all forever. There is no other man on this earth
who, at this time, she would expose herself to as she does to me. I
am not worthy of this trust. Am I God? At the same time, I realize
that this unique pleasure I enjoy is irreplaceable because it is
happening to me, now. It will never happen again in my life. I must
savor what I’m experiencing at the moment, for the moment, before it
ends and becomes a memory which only stings because it so weakly
reflects reality.
My boss knows me as a sensitive guy who can’t stand too
much pressure from this modern world so he allows me open-ended
leaves of absence when I ask for them. There are too many pressures,
too many conflicts, too many rules, regulations, laws to suit me. I
should have been born in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Maybe
I was. Maybe I was once a cowpoke on trail drives sitting around the
cook fire eating beans and beef, listening to the coyotes howl at the
full moon; or a deckhand on a sailing whaler hearing the wind playing
minor key fugues in the rigging overhead; or Cochise’s father training
my son to know the meaning of pride; or a sweating slave in a
Jamaican cane field thinking how nice it was poking that little Therese
gal last night; or a samurai thinking about nothing. I am a brother to
these men. I love them.
I imagine my gender stays the same from life to life. Maybe this is not
so. Maybe I was an Eskimo squaw chewing seal skins with nubbly
yellow teeth; a barefoot, pregnant peasant in squishy mud bottom rice
paddies in China; a royal princess in the Netherlands; a prostitute
turning tricks with the world’s sailors on the streets of Marseille. If I
wasn’t before modern, I should have been.
I’m an investigator for a Minneapolis law firm. We look into
accidents, workmen’s comp, that type of thing. There are so many
deadbeats out there it’s incredible. Guys who claim to have whiplash
injury yet box at a gym for sport. Guys who work for cash loading
hundred pound bags of cement but claim their back was injured on the
job and they can’t lift anything heavier than a pencil. Sometimes I film
guys from inside a mirror-windowed van. Sometimes I follow them
around wearing cheap disguises and driving an assortment of vehicles.
Usually our suspicions are well-founded and the guy can be uncovered.
We get a lot of envy-inspired tips from neighbors and family. It takes
patience. Persistence. A certain level of detachment.
When I get bummed out with work or with Ramona, as I am
now, I pull the pin and go down to my old home farm a hundred miles
south of Ramona’s house.
My mother has lived her whole life on this farm. She used to
be a bullworking ball of fire when I was growing up-- cooking, washing,
cleaning, canning, helping in the fields. Into the night she worked on
something. Now she creeps stiff-jointed around this old brick house
like one of her aging calico cats and retires at eight o’clock. The house
and other buildings are deteriorating from years of neglect but she
doesn’t notice or care and I notice but don’t care.
Everything on this farm blends together like an ecosystem. It
is an ecosystem of decay-- my mother, the cats, the bats scurrying in
the walls, the quiet rooms, the Victorian furniture, the sepia pictures in
the dining room and parlor that were there before I was born, the oldfashioned lace curtains that emit a puff of dust that stings your nose if
you touch them and mute the light coming in so all the room corners
are comfortably dark. The carpets on the floor are worn down to hemp
warp and weft, the floors creak as you move around, pleasant vistas of
hills and valleys and streams appear through every window, aromas
are saturated into the carpets, into the paint on the walls, into the
upholstery--vanilla scent from sugar cookies, tantalizing traces of bread
baking, boiling beef knuckles, sauerkraut, and garlic and frying onions.
I love it here. I am in the womb, surrounded by an enduring
amniotic fluid of memories. My birth mother is now bent and crippled
by arthritis, wrinkled, sometimes slightly malodorous as though she
may not be attending to her personal hygiene as she once did. Her
odor reminds me of obscure old maid aunts and great aunts who
appeared out of nowhere during my childhood. I never quite
understood their linkage to me or why I was supposed to be interested
in them. I didn’t like their fat arms, their joyless hugs or their smell.
Dare I parent her? Has she reached that stage? It is beyond
imagining that this mere crust of a person was once full of vitality and
had a sex life, that I emerged from that body. I think about that
seriously and remind myself that I am still myself and can punch all
sorts of holes in the world to prove it.
When I first arrive here, I do a lot of sleeping in my childhood
bed under a yellow wedding ring quilt made by my grandmother or in
stuffed mohair-covered chairs in the parlor as I sit and read, hearing a
walnut mantle clock that my great-grandfather brought from
Pennsylvania tick and strike on the half-hour. Exactly boring
surroundings are exactly what I need. I don’t think of Ramona or her
daughters for days at a time.
Usually a week or so of idleness is all I need to get recharged.
Then I’m ready to hang out in the woods. This time, though, things do
not seem to be following the usual schedule. If you can’t forgive
yourself for something, it means little if others even forgive, although it
may help you if they do and tell you about it. If they don’t, well. Is
that your fault? That they may be unforgiving? I may be rushing
myself. I may not have reckoned precisely the tradeoff between
longing and consummation.
The woods have always been my salvation. I used to hang
around in them all the time when I was a kid. My old man, who used
to farm the place with a big dairy herd, pigs, and the whole shooting
match, would blow a fuse at me for taking off to the woods when he
wanted me to help him with his chores. I might be raking hay or
milking the cows and, suddenly, I leave my tractor run idle in the field
or leave a full milking machine sit in the middle of the alley between
the gutters. As though I have no sense of responsibility. What a
goddamned farce!
Endless chores. That’s what a farm is, and I want no part of it,
never did want any part of it, never felt any responsibility for getting
things done because there were always nineteen zillion things still to
be done. You clean the cow shit out of the concrete gutters in the
barn every day knowing there will be an equal load tomorrow. If
Flossie is stopped up today, Bossie will have diarrhea. In a week
without cleaning you’re knee deep in cow shit. Meanwhile, over in the
hog barn, pigs are busily defecating a rank, dense layer of clay-like
putrid pig shit that will have to be pried loose forkful by forkful when
you get to it. When you have time to get to it. Pig shit allows you
some leeway.
There is nothing illegal about what I have done. No hairs need
to be split by lawyers. Statutory rape is one thing, consensual acts
quite another. Consensual in extremis. Little did I imagine the
experience I was dealing with. I flagellate my soul for my weakness.
At least I attempt to flagellate my soul but it lies back and mocks me,
as in fact she did after she brushed my lips with an imperfectly-formed
nipple. I didn’t move a muscle. Not my hands, not my lips, not my
eyes. My body betrayed me by raising its own hand. When she
flopped on her back, throwing her head in my lap, she knew my
depraved soul. “Well, Allen,” she said as she bobbled her head in my
lap. “I’m surprised at you. What would my mom think?”
I go to the woods. I can go nowhere else. Across the gurgling
creek on limestone boulders I myself placed twenty-five years before,
through a stand of white birch that has grown considerably since I paid
it any mind. Back through basswood, white ash, green ash, shagbark
hickory and dead elm, past stumps I recognize as individuals because I
once helped cut their living mothers down, leaving only these stillborn
excreta, then sat on them on quiet, vaporous mornings as I waited for
a big whitetail buck to materialize out of the mist, or a bright orange
fox squirrel to come hiphopping on his way to the corn field for
breakfast so I could blast him with my .22 rimfire and ponder how
bright red blood would blend coloristically with the orange fur if not for
the caky matting. That always ruins it.
Somewhere in these woods is the part of me that thinks well of
me, that will absolve me.
I head for a small cliff of exposed limestone rock. On top of
the cliff I sat for many hours as a boy and imagined myself the sentinel
for my tribe of Iroquois, as a mountain man seeing new vistas in the
West or as a deckhand on the quarterdeck of a sailing ship about to
square off for a cannon battle with a pirate brigantine. The cow path,
though unused for years and overgrown with grass, is still clearly
visible. I pass by familiar rocks, past the opening in the aspen grove
where I found my first trove of morels, past a moss-covered pile of
rusty implement wheels, sickle blades and twisted coils of barbed wire.
At last I reach my cliff and stand beneath it. It seems
disappointingly small, actually not much more than two of my body
lengths in height. Striated limestone with dark strips of shale over a
bright orange-yellow layer of sandstone. The rotted sticks at my feet
are remnants of a series of lean-to’s I built against the face of the cliff
after I dulled one of my father’s axes chipping away a small cave into
the sandstone. The cave now would barely shelter a good-sized dog.
I must have had a good imagination. I work my way to the top
through thick brush where I once wore and, with my jackknife,
trimmed, a clean path to the top. Things look different from my
memories of this place. There is little sensation of the grand elevation
I remember. The rock pile I once used as my chair, table and
headquarters, is nothing but a low, lumpy mound. It is now covered
with long, sparse grass and patches of ragged green moss. The woods
have grown thick now that no cows have run in them for over ten
years. I am larger, yet smaller.
Something is missing here. This is the peaceable kingdom, yet
I find no peace. I walk back to the house, agitated. Damn, damn,
damn, I tell the trees as I walk along holding out my hand seeking
succor from them as I once did from my stony-eyed father. They
absorb my gaze indifferently, as he did. Why not, I say and said. Why
am I not worthy? Why am I not forgivable?
Mother is cooking dinner for us and as I enter the door off the
back porch, a wave of familiar smells washes away my brooding
thoughts. “What is that you’re cooking, Mother?” I say, as I wash my
face in the porcelain-enameled metal pan in the porch sink as my
father and I did after a hard morning’s work in the hayfield or barn.
“It’s your favorite, Allen,” she says with a young smile. “Fried
chicken.”
Ah, it is my favorite. Has been all my life. She fries it in about
two inches of hot lard and it tastes wonderful. All other chicken pales
by comparison. And you never think of it as greasy.
I go in the front parlor and lie on the mohair sofa while I wait
for her to call me to the table. My mind wanders to the lost magic of
my cliff and I feel once more profoundly alone. There is no magic in
this world. Whatever I have done to hurt others, I must still go on and
forget it. I learned to forgive myself when I was quite young and have
forgiven myself uncountable times, for the trivial and the serious.
Mother calls to me in her frail voice, “Okay, Allen. It’s ready, if
you want to come now.”
I follow my nose to the kitchen. A whole pile of browned
chicken lies on the Tea Leaf platter she has used all my life. Breasts,
legs, wings, thighs. I am pleased there will be enough left over to
keep me in cold chicken for several days. I eye the rest of the spread
as she props her elbows straddling her plate, clenches her liver-spotted
hands together and leans her forehead onto them. I note mashed
potatoes, gravy, home-baked bread, a dish of corn pudding large
enough for a dozen people, a shallow pressed glass dish containing
maroon pickled beets, sweet pickles, dills and stuffed olives, a dish of
green peas and, near our plates, small dishes of cranberry sauce.
“Bless us, Lord, and the gift of this food to our bodies,” she
says. “Bless this beautiful farm we live on. Bless this season. Help us
in our time of need. Help Allen in his time of need. Forgive us our
sins, Lord, and forgive those who sin against us. Give us the strength
to face adversity. Amen.”
Taken aback, I stare at the shockingly white top of her head.
Her hair looks coarse and thin against her pink scalp. I wonder what
she senses about me, and how. I do not discuss my personal life with
Mother. I cannot read, have never presumed to read, her thoughts.
Frankly, I was never interested. She is only my mother. The
unbreakable biological bond between us has forced me to keep my
distance. The dinner is delicious.
I awaken in the middle of the night and hear a barred owl
calling, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?” with a throaty growl
on the end of the call, “Ah.” The hairs on my arms stood up and I laid
there waiting for more. When I was a boy I called these owls like one
of their own. Sometimes I had as many as six of them in the dark
trees overhead, hissing and spitting at me. “Who cooks for you?”
comes strongly through the open window and I see in my mind an owl
in a tall, dead cottonwood staring over his shoulder at me. The sound
is repeated from near and far and I strain to hear the faintest one. It
so lightly tickles my tympanum that I’m not sure I hear it at all. I hold
my breath with a finger across my lips, trying to be absolutely still.
“Who cooks for you?” Then softer, middle distance, “Who cooks for
you?” Then almost a whisper, and an echo of a whisper, “Who cooks
for you?”
I fall asleep thinking about Terri, a lovely blonde single mother
who works as a barmaid at a place I frequent in St. Paul. I’ll bet I can
talk her into letting me stay at her place for a few days.
I won’t tell her how the chicken kept me. She already thinks
I’m crazy.
Enthymeme
Homer Lockwood was just pulling on the laces of his right boot, a
rubber-bottomed, leather-topped pac boot with felt liners, drawing the
slack out of the worn-to-fuzzy yellow nylon cords, when he heard a
gunshot. The blast from the shot echoed off the frozen edges of the
woods near and far. He sat at attention, listening, but there were no
more shots. The proximity of the shot, and the fact that it was only
one, meant that it was probably Runt, his wife of over fifty years. Runt
knew how to handle a gun and where the vital spots were.
She was so named because she stood a few inches under five
feet. Long ago, when he was struggling to overcome his farm boy
shyness in courting her, when he was still unsure of what he could say
to her without offending, he had ventured, feeling frisky, You’re really
a runt of a thing, ain’t you? She put on that she was offended, but he
saw through the playacting. She hadn’t been offended at all. Rather,
she took it as a sign of intimacy, as he meant it. The way she stood
told him for the first time that she would allow him to take her chin in
hand and kiss her. A surging thrill like electricity passed through his
body as he kissed her. Even her family, who had known her as Alice
for nineteen years, quickly caught on to her new name, except for her
father, who was a hardass Prussian and thought it derisive. He called
her Alice until he died.
They worked at what they knew best when they were first
married-- as a hired couple on a dairy farm in southern Minnesota.
They slept in an upstairs corner bedroom of a huge two-story white
frame house with windows that looked out in three directions over
gently rolling fields, with groves containing bur oak and box elder
scattered here and there, and cottonwoods along the sinuous, shallow
river. Runt worked right alongside the menfolk doing the morning and
evening milking and kept up with a large chicken house and the
vegetable garden when the men did field work.
One Sunday they were visiting one of Homer’s uncle’s family,
and a bachelor cousin, a little older than Homer, who lived up in
northern Minnesota working on a logging crew, told them that farms
were really cheap in northern Minnesota. Of course, he said, It’s sandy
ground up there, not like this clay mud around here, and things don’t
grow as well. I do believe, though, that a careful farmer could make a
go of it up there. Big farms, with a fairly new barn, sold for next to
nothing, according to him.
Homer dreamt of owning his own farm. His farmer boss had
an annoying superior attitude toward hired men that rankled Homer.
He seemed to think that as a farm owner he stood a touch higher than
Homer. A man who doesn’t own a place has got no right to express
his opinion about how things should be done, he said. Who the hell
cares what a hired man thinks? Let him buy his own goddamned place
and see just how goddamned easy it was. Several times a day, every
day, something came up that irritated Homer. The farmer had even
told Runt several times when he was alone with her that he would like
to bed her down, but she wasn’t interested and told Homer about it.
He found it hard after that to look in the man’s eye without hating him.
We’ve got to get out of here, Runt. We’ve got to find a place
of our own. We’ve got to save every nickel we can.
And they did.
The following summer, the cousin wrote to them and told them
about a couple of farms he had found for sale up north. Homer and
Runt borrowed his uncle’s car and drove up to look at them. The
country sure looked different up there-- lots of pine woods, dry
hayfields with a lot of bare dirt showing between the grass stems and
scraggly corn, but they liked the house and the big barn on one place
in particular. The barn would hold a lot of hay and forty milking cows,
with plenty of room for calves and young stock. They worked out a
deal with the owner by mail and, the following spring, moved up there.
They daren’t poke each other too hard when they first arrived
at their own place, for they might have exploded with joy. I can’t
hardly believe it, Runt. Our own place. Ours to do or die on. Ours to
work hard for our own good. We don’t have to answer to no man.
Runt could only hug him tightly and soak his shirt with tears.
Homer, having lived all his life in the southern part of the state
on rich prairie soils, did not fully grasp that the sandy glacial tills up
north were ill-suited to productive farming. Cool temperatures and a
short growing season, combined with the poor soils, made farming a
chancy way to make a living. As they soon discovered. The big herd
of Holsteins he dreamt about never materialized. One resident milk
cow and one steer for eating was all they could manage.
But hard living was nothing new to either of them. At least
they were free.
Runt grew to love the extensive forests all around them more
than Homer. She spent a lot of her free time as a young woman
visiting an old bachelor Finlander who lived alone in a little shack just
up the road from them. His skin looked like he steeped in the tannin
water of an old beaver pond, although, as far as Runt could figure, he
rarely bathed at all. His flowing white beard appeared silky and
marcelled. All he knew was hunting and trapping and gathering wild
food to sell. He knew the woods like an Indian and was tickled to
share his knowledge with Runt. They often roamed the woods
together, looking like Santa Claus and one of his elves as he taught her
about buck scrapes and otter slides and pissing posts for the timber
wolves.
Opening day of deer season wasn’t a day that Runt laid abed.
She had been up since about four AM getting her gear ready, even
though she had carefully gone over everything several times the
previous evening. She made their lunches-- thick slabs of beef roast
on homemade bread, sugar cookies on the side-- and brewed coffee
for their hotbottles. Come on, Homer, she said, from the doorway of
their bedroom when she was ready to head out into the cold darkness,
a trace of nag in her voice, you best be getting up now. Time to get
out on your stand.
Homer rolled over and smiled up at her. He enjoyed being just
where he was. No, Runt. You go out and get on that stand of yours.
I know it means so much to you, this year especially. I’m kind of tired
still. I think I’ll lay here for a while yet.
Okay, Homer, but I wish you’d come out with me like you used
to. I always like knowing you’re out in the woods with me, even if I
can’t see you.
Homer, at the age of seventy-four, was still tickled by his little
wife’s enthusiasm. She hadn’t slowed down in the fifty-five years he
had known her, even though, about the time the blueberries were at
their peak under the jack pine woods that summer, a long-delayed trip
to the doctor gave them both something to ponder. Maybe that was
why, this year, she had been more enthused than ever about getting
her buck. Nothing could rouse her girlish enthusiasm as well as talking
about, thinking about, deer season. She had been fondling her wellworn 30-30 lever-action carbine nightly since August, throwing the rifle
to her shoulder and aiming at various objects scattered around their
large living/dining/kitchen room.
Now, at five after six, Homer felt guilty about getting out of
bed so late. Runt had been out there in the cold on her opening day
tree stand for almost an hour and here he was, just beginning to stir.
He heard the northwest wind buffeting the two spruce trees at the
corner of the house and he imagined how that wind must feel on her
back. But now, with the shot, and knowing her luck, she probably had
a deer down already. That darned Runt, he said to himself. She’s a
caution. She wouldn’t be feeling the cold now as adrenalin pumped
through her body and, further to his satisfaction, he wouldn’t have to
hunt very hard since they now had a deer down and they certainly
didn’t need two of them. His old enthusiasm for the hunt just wasn’t
there anymore. As a young man, and even when he was graying into
middle age, he got so excited about deer season he barely slept for
days beforehand.
He enjoyed the deer more now on summer evenings. Towards
dusk they one-by-one slipped from the shadowed woods to emerge
full-form in the open hay fields to graze like a herd of slim, graceful
cows. He and Runt sat side by side on their back step, each with a
pair of binoculars, to see how many deer they could count each
evening. In the spring they sometimes counted well over a hundred
animals, but in the summer were down to only thirty or forty. Runt
always seemed to find a few hidden in the shadows of the woods that
Homer hadn’t seen. And couldn’t see, even when told exactly where to
look. He claimed she was making them up just to raise her count.
This fall, she told him of a huge buck who only occasionally
appeared, and then only just as approaching darkness turned Homer’s
binocular image into a hopeless muddle of dark gray and darker gray.
Go on, Runt, he said, you’re at it again! You’re just making him up. I
can’t see hide nor hair of any deer like that. She quietly insisted upon
the veracity of her vision.
Everything was laid out for him as it always was. All his
clothing was arranged in a neat pile on a chair next to the bed. In the
kitchen, two white eggs nestled against the cast iron frying pan on the
gas stove and two slices of bread stood in the toaster. On the kitchen
table laid a worn military kit bag containing
his lunch. Next to the door leaned his Remington .308, to his notion
the sweetest shooting gun that a man could imagine. Homer loved
that gun, loved to tell anyone who would listen about how he could put
out a gnat’s eye at three hundred yards. He loved the way it looked
resting on the deer-antler gun rack he made from his first northcountry
buck many years before. Loved the smell of number nine guncleaning oil and the sensual pleasure he felt when he cleaned the gun,
slowly and carefully, after every use. Loved to tell how some rich man
from the big city had seen the gun once, wanted it, and came back
every year with a higher offer. His last offer was a thousand dollars,
although, come to think of it, Homer hadn’t seen him for a few years
now.
There would be no time for breakfast this morning. He would
have to get out in the woods and see if Runt was alright or whether,
perish the thought, someone else had intruded on their land and fired
the shot. It had sounded unaccountably loud for a 30-30, or was he
just imagining things? He finished dressing hurriedly and went out the
door before his coat was zipped up. The cold wind that greeted him
forced a gasp from him as he rounded the corner of the house and
stepped into the full force of the wind. He zipped up hurriedly.
She would be across the crick in her tree stand in a clump of
log-sized basswood trees. That was her favorite opening-day-morning
stand, a place where she seemed able to pick and choose her deer.
Homer never saw half the deer she did, no matter which stand he was
on. This provided fuel for endless rounds of banter between them. He
accused her of doubling what she actually saw and she joshed him
about falling asleep on his stand, in fact a likely happening as he got
older.
She had said, I seen thirty-four does from my stand this
morning and only six little spike bucks. I’m not going to waste a bullet
on a spike.
He had said, Oh, go on, Runt, you’re telling a story again. You
never seen anything like forty deer, and you know it. You counted
those few stray does you seen about ten times apiece. You’d take a
hefty little spike if you had a chance, wouldn’t you? You know how
tasty they always are, and so tender.
And he would laugh at her, enjoying the way she acted so
serious, defending herself against his allegations of untruthfulness
vigorously until she finally realized he was pulling her leg again. She
would smile an embarrassed little smile and pat his leg and say, Go on
now, Homer. Why do you always do that to me?
Heading down the lane toward the creek, Homer was relieved
to cross the opening and get out of the wind behind a screen of young
popple. Further toward the creek, the tag alders were so thick there
was no wind at all. He made his way carefully over the footlog
bridging the creek. The footlog was a thick red oak he dragged there
with his big tractor years ago. The bark had slipped off into the dark
water of the creek years ago and the wear from their boots had
polished and stained the top a dark sienna. Runt had scraped all the
snow off with her feet as she went across, thinking, he knew, that she
would make it safer for him. Her favorite stand was just up the little
hill above the swamp and Homer could see that she wasn’t in it.
Runt! Runt! he called, listening for a response. Runt, where
are you?
The only sound was the wind tearing through the tamarack
and black spruce tops overhead. Again he called, and this time he
thought he heard a faint human sound from downwind. He stumbled
along the hummocky swamp edge until he finally spotted her. She was
on her knees in several inches of snow with the still- bright-green
sphagnum moss forming a wreath around her in the cold snow.
Crimson blood was everywhere, shining wetly in bright glimmers and
deep hues from the alizarin leather leaf and green moss and umber
swamp grass. The blood was shockingly bright on the clean snow. A
large gut pile lay near the thick body of a remarkable deer.
He squatted next to her, his arm around her shoulder. What
you got there, Runt? My god, that is one big deer, ain’t it?
She looked up at him, her eyes shimmering in the cold blue
light of the swamp. She sat back in the snow to rest, looking
exhausted. Tears of joy and gratitude streamed down her leathery
face. Ain’t he something, Homer? Ain’t he something? I never got
one near this big before. He must go over two hundred pounds. And
look at that rack, would you?
He is huge, Runt. He’ll easy go two hundred pounds.
It must be the one I been telling you about, the one I seen
back in the shadows that you could never see. He just stood there
staring at me like he knew what was coming. Stood there like he
would wait all day for me to shoot.
You didn’t have to gut him out, Runt. I would have done that
for you. That’s too much for you, rolling that big thing around.
Oh, no, Homer. I wanted to do it. I had to do it all. I still can
do it, can’t I?
You done good, Runt. Now, why don’t you go back to the
house and warm up? I’ll tend to him now. There ain’t no way I can
drag him across that crick by myself. I’ll get Tom to help me. He can
bring his three-wheeler over in the back of his pickup to drag him out.
You know Tom, he won’t mind. He won’t be hunting, anyhow, he’s
laying in his bed with some woman right now. Come on, let’s go back
and get you inside.
She stood and looked down on the deer, then fell on Homer’s
neck, hugging him tightly and sobbing audibly now, shaking with ague.
Her hot tears spilled off the deer’s stiff guard hairs, dissipating into a
fine spray. When she turned her head to the side, he noticed that
those that fell directly onto the snow formed little mauve depressions
where they hit.
Back in the warm house, the things that couldn’t be said
weighed heavily on them. They both knew that this was probably
Runt’s last deer season. That her cancer, an unstoppable uterine
malignancy was growing vigorously while the rest of her body, and his
also, was rapidly withering into the frailty of old age.
This last autumn, Runt stood occasionally looking out her
kitchen window at the trees in her yard and imagined herself one of
the leaves-- bursting with the yellow-green vitality of fresh life in the
springtime, then passing imperceptibly into a dark green productive
maturity over the long summer, then fading to a dull russet, her petiole
clinging perilously to the desiccating abscission layer where it arose
with so much promise of vigorous life in the spring. She identified with
that russet leaf, waiting for the right combination of wind or humidity
or aging that would send her scuttling with dry whispers over the grass
or snow.
Homer felt cheated. They had been together for all those
years and, somehow, it didn’t seem their time to be called yet. They
were still too young and attached to their surroundings to consider
mortality. He couldn’t split a thick chunk of red oak firewood with one
pop of a splitting mall like he used to. For a fact, he dare not raise the
maul over his head anymore for fear his grip might slip and drop the
unforgiving steel on his gaunt skull. He wasn’t interested in making
love with Runt anymore.
He wore an old green wool cardigan sweater when others were
sweating bullets. But, cash in his chips? After a man had spent a
lifetime being looked after by someone like Runt? He simply could not
imagine life without her. She was the strong one of the pair. She
always knew what to do, and when. She did all the planning, all the
income taxes and banking, all the cooking and laundry and much more.
He sat and pondered how lost he would be without her. How alone.
Tears leaked from his eyes when he thought about being alone
in the world again, this time truly alone as never before, and waves of
panic when he realized that he didn’t know how to take care of himself,
that Runt had been quietly looking after him and he had merely
concentrated on scratching a living out of their poor, sandy ground.
He didn’t know how to run the old wringer washing machine, how
much soap to put in, what she poured in the rinse washtub and how
much. Cooking was another challenge, since he rarely even fried an
egg and knew not how to boil one successfully.
Their only consistent source of cash income had been a fiveacre raspberry patch which thrived on their sandy ground. The stems
were tied together into three-foot squares and all the ground between
was kept tilled and bare to aid easy picking. Homer knew raspberries.
He and Runt felt incredibly smug each time they got a check for over a
hundred dollars from the small-town supermarket where they sold
them. And people from miles around who knew about their berries
appeared at their house in season in a steady stream.
We doing alright, Runt, ain’t we? he would say, pleased with
the money they took in.
And she would say, Let’s get over and put this in the bank. It’ll
keep us in groceries all winter.
Tom, their young bachelor neighbor down the road, wasn’t a
hunter and he was happy to help them get the deer out. He was a
handsome young logger whose main interest seemed to be an everchanging succession of women who stayed with him for a weekend.
Or a month. There was a strange little red car parked in his yard at
the moment. Sure, he said, I’ll be glad to help you, Homer. Let me
get some clothes on and we’ll go over and get him. So, Runt got
another one, huh? And you’re sucking hind tit like always, huh,
Homer? That’s some kind of incredible woman you got there. You
know that don’t you, Homer?
Yeah, she’s quite a Runt alright. It won’t take but an hour or
so to get it done.
Tom brought his three-wheeler along in the back of his pickup
to drag the deer out. Jesus, he said, That is a helluva big deer, ain’t it?
They both struggled mightily getting the cumbersome dead weight
onto the tailgate of the pickup but Tom was strong and able to
compensate for Homer’s weakness. The two of them drove to the
nearest registration station to register the kill with the state. Weigh
him. Check his teeth. Few words passed between them.
Goddamn, one of the men running the station said, that is one
big deer. I’ve never seen one that big. Where did you get him?
Out at our place in Northern Township, but I didn’t get him.
My wife did. Be sure you keep him in her name for that big buck
contest.
At the house, Tom backed his truck to the door of an old
notched-log shed where Homer always hung his deer. The deer had to
be skinned before the body froze. He liked to let the skinned carcass
hang for about a week before he cut them up, believing that aging
them like a butcher made the meat really tender and flavorful. Runt
always canned the rougher cuts from young deer and all the meat from
older ones. She already had all her blue-glass canning jars washed
and arranged neatly on a kitchen cupboard. New, shiny-brass lids and
screw tops stood at the ready.
Using ropes and pulleys, Tom dragged the deer right out of the
truck across the dirt floor and hoisted the stiff carcass into the
overhead log beams. Runt came down from the house to see how it
was going. Hi, Runt, Tom said cheerily. Boy, you sure got yourself
one this time, didn’t you? I’ve never seen such a big deer. Two
hundred and thirty-six pounds. I’ll bet you’ll win the big buck contest
this year.
Is that what he weighs? My goodness. Yeah, he’s a nice one,
ain’t he, Tom? When I see him hanging there now he don’t look that
special, all stiff-legged and awkward looking, but I’ll always remember
how I looked over at that trail, and there he was. I didn’t actually hear
him, I just sensed he was coming down that trail and he stood there
staring into my eyes with those big, soft eyes of his. I deliberately
raised my gun real quick, trying to scare him, make him run and give
me a chance to miss, but he didn’t flinch. I don’t like to think about
killing an old deer. Look how he has those white hairs around his
muzzle like an old dog, but I’m too much of a greedy hunter after all
these years to let him go. I gave him his chance. Maybe he wanted
me to kill him. Do you suppose so, Tom?
God, I wouldn’t know about something like that. I don’t know
how much a deer can think. I’d say for sure he’ll be hard to beat in the
big buck contest. There’s not many people ever seen a deer this big.
There’s lots of men I know would be mighty proud to shoot a deer like
this. Mighty proud.
Runt smile wanly and Tom thought she looked pale and
unwell. Thanks for your help, Tom. I’ll see that you get some meat if
you want it.
Oh, that’s okay, Runt. Don’t worry about it. Actually, I prefer
a hamburger from the drive-in in town. I imagine he’s kind of a tough
old buzzard, way he looks.
Oh, the meat will be as soft as baby food, time I get done
boiling it.
Homer led her to the house and told her to get in bed. She
shivered uncontrollably as he tucked her under the quilts. He went
back out to the log shed and looked the deer over carefully. It seemed
that Tom had raised him a little higher than was necessary, so he
carefully loosened the winch rope and lowered the deer so he was
hanging at just the right height for skinning. He would have to skin
him out soon to avoid the onerous work of skinning a frozen deer. And
the meat would cool a lot faster.
Back in the house again, he found Runt shivering in her bed.
She seemed withdrawn from him, distant, as though he was some total
stranger. This scared him. She looked like an old Indian woman lying
there. What’s wrong, Runt? he asked gently. Ain’t you feeling good?
I don’t know what’s wrong, Homer. I just feel cold and worn
out. I just can’t warm up. Maybe if I sleep for a while I’ll feel better.
Sure, you’ll be alright, Runt. You just overdid, going out there
in that cold and gutting out your huge deer. I just wish you’d left him
for me. You just rest now. I’ll eat some lunch, then I’ll go skin him out
while he’s still fresh. Do you want another blanket on you?
Yeah, I’m just so cold. Thanks.
Homer felt a tug of sadness as she said this with a quavering
voice. With the tears streaming from her eyes, she seemed like a
helpless little girl. The transformation from the self of her that he was
used to was scary. The thought entered his mind that she had given
up, that she was seeking support for the first time in her life. And he
didn’t know how to give it. He tried to think how she would comfort
him in a similar plight. He patted her cheek gently. You’ll be okay,
Runt. You sleep for a while. By supper time you’ll be feeling your old
self again.
As Homer skinned the deer with practiced hand, trimming the
white ligaments carefully to strip the hide without cutting it, he thought
about her. Why had he let her go out this morning? If she insisted on
going, he should have stayed with her. What was wrong with him that
he had to lay in his comfortable bed for another hour? The intangible
gulf between them loomed over him like a crackling thunderhead. A
sense of foreboding became an ache that seemed to be devouring his
chest and stomach. Tears came, and forced him to stand with his face
turned to the ceiling and his arms hanging limply at his side. He
finished carefully skinning out the head and neck separately and set it
aside in a burlap sack.
Runt never got out of bed that day, and for many days
afterward she only got out when Homer helped her to the bathroom.
The next weekend, when he butchered the deer, she was feeling
slightly better and was able to direct him from her bed on how to
prepare the meat for canning. She talked him through the canning
process each time he did a batch of jars. Homer was out of his
element. He couldn’t remember from one batch to the next what he
should do, even after doing six batches of jars. There was a lot of
meat on that big deer.
Now, is the water boiling good, Homer? she said. It’s got to be
boiling. Not too strong, just a good boil so you know it’s really boiling.
Now set the timer, Homer. It’s got to boil for forty minutes. Not a
minute shorter.
Lordy, Runt, he said plaintively. I don’t know how you done all
this work with nary a complaint. I didn’t realize what a lot of work it
was. Why didn’t you make me help you?
It’s just not a man’s work, Homer. I hate to see you struggling
so. I just want to get up there and do it myself.
After a day-long canning session they both were exhausted- he
because of having to do too many new things at once, and she out of
utter frustration at having to direct him at every step, and redirect him,
and recall from her memory things which she had done automatically
for years and never thought about. But when they were done, they
both felt enormous satisfaction as they looked at the shining jars of
meat covering the kitchen table.
Ain’t it pretty, Runt? There’s enough meat there to last until
next summer. There’s your old fellow’s life in those jars, ready to give
us life. You can think about him when you set down to a bowl of stew
with rutabagas and potatoes and onions this winter. Think about how
he looked at you.
It does look good, Homer. Now you be sure all those jars have
the lids popped on them. No, better bring them over to me two by two
and I’ll look myself. Can’t have us dying of ptomaine poisoning when
we have so much of our lives still ahead of us now, can we?
You’re a caution, Runt, Homer said, smiling at her. He was
pleased that he had gotten this important job done. We’re pretty nearly
there, ain’t we, Runt? These old horses have run their races and been
put out to pasture and are about ready to cross that great river in the
sky, ain’t we, old pal? It ain’t no use to worry about it, I guess. It ain’t
gonna be any good for neither one of us to be left here alone. You
might make it on your own, alone in this world once again, but I know
I couldn’t stand it. I ain’t as tough as you, Runt. I never was.
Oh, Homer, you’ve got to be able to stand it. You can stand it.
That’s what life is-- standing it when the going gets hard. We’ve never
had to stand much, you and I, since we’ve not had much family to die
on us or disappoint us. But our time is coming and we will be tested.
Runt. Runt. I don’t like to hear you talking like this. We have
to get you to the doctor tomorrow. You’re not getting any better on
your own. You don’t eat enough to keep a chickadee alive and you’re
just skin and bones.
We’ll see about that. Actually, I’m feeling some better than I
was.
She weakly protested when he bundled her up and carried her
out to the warmed-up pickup truck the following day and took her forty
miles down the road to the nearest big clinic. A young man, Doctor
Kangas, seeming hardly old enough to be a doctor, looked her over
carefully, then told them she would have to go directly to the hospital
by ambulance. They both protested immediately. Think of the cost.
Think of the separation. If they had to go there, they could drive their
truck just as they had to get her this far.
The doctor wouldn’t listen to them. You’re a sick lady, Alice,
he said. I’ll bet you’re feeling a lot of pain at times, aren’t you?
No, it’s not that bad, Doctor. I can stand it. We just wanted
to see if you could make me better. We have to go home. I can’t
leave my husband there by himself.
Well, he’s just going to have to stand it. We’re going to send
you to the hospital right now. Your body is dehydrated and your pain
is going to get worse. You need to be where someone can take care of
you.
Oh, please, she said, as her eyes filled with tears. I just want
to be in my home. My husband can take care of me. He’s doing just
fine. He waits on me hand and foot.
Homer felt terribly alone as he followed the ambulance to the
hospital. Once there, they wouldn’t let him in her room for well over
an hour. The wide, polished hallways and people moving around and
speakers calling out doctor’s names seemed a foreign land to him.
Finally, they let him in her room and he stared at the IV stand with two
tubes running to her arm, then approached the bed. She looked like
someone he didn’t know. Runt. Runt, he said. Is that you?
She opened her eyes and stared vacantly at him. She never
answered or spoke. The nurses told him nicely but firmly he would
have to go home for the night. How was this to be? He had never
spent a night without her in over fifty years. He could come back at
nine in the morning, they said.
Runt spoke for the first time that evening, It’ll be alright,
Homer. You just go on home and get some sleep. I’m going to be
stuck here for a while and you don’t have to be here every minute of
visiting hours. Just go home and do some of what you want to do.
Get some sleep in the morning.
I don’t want to do anything, Runt. All I want is to see you get
better.
I know you do, Honey. I’ll see you tomorrow.
Homer felt desperately alone as he drove back to their place in
the boondocks. Three deer stood along the lane approaching their
house, one a young buck with only one antler. The house seemed
forlorn and unwelcoming with its many dark windows. The silence of
the house was pervasive, swallowing up the few sounds he made as
though it was challenging him to make some noise it couldn’t handle.
Homer found himself sitting back and listening to the silence, waiting
for some sound which verified the existence of another human being.
Even the coyotes, which he usually enjoyed hearing, sounded
particularly doleful. He heard their quavering yodels all through the
night.
Before first light he was already on the highway, heading for
the hospital. When he arrived, the parking lot was almost empty. A
cold north wind blew snow in shimmering curtains that danced across
the parking lot. He was desperate to see Runt, desperate to see that
she was still in the world with him. As he went past the nurses’ station
near her room, he noticed that these were different people than he
had seen the night before. More strangers.
Good morning, sir, a nurse seated at a desk behind a counter
said. Homer didn’t even hear her as he continued toward Runt’s room.
Ahh... Where are you going, sir? Visiting hours aren’t until nine
o’clock... Sir, you can’t go in the rooms until nine o’clock, she said and
ran after him. He was already in the room when she caught up with
him.
Sir, I’m sorry... she said, quietly now, but Homer’s elbow was
raised defensively toward her and he already leaned over Runt. It was
gratifying that she was still breathing, but the sight of the plastic drip
bags and the plastic tubes to her arms upset him. Now there were
four bags connected to her. Never before had he noticed how thin
Runt’s arms were. They looked like the arms of a ten-year-old child.
This hardly seemed to be his same Runt and, even more bothersome,
his lifetime claim to her, based on over fifty years of daily
companionship, was now controlled by efficient strangers who had
never met her nor him before, but wrenched his claim to her from his
hands. They didn’t ask his permission or tell him anything. He felt like
a helpless outsider. How had they acquired this power over him, over
them?
He laid his rough hand on Runt’s cheek and said, Runt. Runt.
Are you alright?
She awoke suddenly and looked at him with eyes wary of
strangers. Her look softened when she recognized him. Homer, is it
you? she said. What are you doing here now? Is it nine o’clock
already?
No, it’s not that late yet. I had to see you, Runt. I had to see
how you was.
I’m okay, Homer. They don’t hardly let you get any rest here.
There’s always someone waking you up for one thing or another. I
don’t know what all they’re doing to me, but I feel alright. I’m just
tired is all.
From that day on, Homer spent every waking hour with Runt,
eating all his meals in her room and driving home in darkness, only to
return again in predawn darkness. Their home seemed like an alien
place without Runt. The life was out of it. He could see that she was
not getting any better. For brief moments she was her old, lucid self,
but most of the time she was in a drug-induced fog, only partly aware
of her surroundings and of Homer. The doctor would only talk in
vague terms to Homer, dodging his questions about whether she was
getting better or whether there was any possibility she could get
better. He seemed to be wearing out the phrase, we’re keeping her
comfortable.
Just before Christmas, Homer stopped by the taxidermy shop
near his home to pick up the mounted head of the big buck. It was an
impressive sight with its bold nose and erect ears as though it was
listening to something. The realistic eyes glowed with a soft
luminescence as though there was a life force behind them. The big
rack overtopping the head made it seem as large as an elk. Homer
had already talked with the doctor about Runt’s big deer and how it
would please her to see the deer once again. Maybe it would even
create the spark she needed. A special hanger had been placed in her
room by the hospital maintenance people.
The deer mount was too big to fit in the cab of his pickup, so
he had to haul it in the open back. With some difficulty he carried it in
to the maintenance office. Several people he met in the hallway gave
him squinchy, questioning looks, as if to say, what are doing with THAT
in here?
Oh, that’s what you’re going to put in there? a nurse said as
the maintenance man carried it past. My goodness. You mean your
little wife killed that huge animal?
Yep, Homer said. You just wait ‘til she sees it. Come on and
watch her when we put it up.
They quietly hung it, then Homer approached his sleeping wife.
Runt, he said. Runt. Come on, wake up. I got a Christmas present to
show you.
As usual, she wakened in an obvious fog and slowly recognized
her surroundings. Homer stood blocking her view of the deer head.
Homer, she said. Are you here already again? I’m so glad to see you.
Do you come every day?
Course I do, Runt. I’m with you here every day. Look what I
brung you today. It’s your Christmas present, and he stepped back
and motioned toward the deer. Look, he said. Look at that.
What? What is it? she said as she strained to raise her head
and look, then raised suddenly onto her elbows. Oh, Homer, what is
it?
Don’t you recognize him, Runt? That’s your huge old friend
from down in the swamp. Remember him now?
Oh, Homer. What did you do? She wailed and flopped back
on the bed, exhausted.
I had him mounted for you, Runt. Kenny Werling done it.
Ain’t he pretty? He looks just like he did when he stood there looking
at you, maybe better. Look how his eyes look right at you.
She raised herself again and looked at the deer, then at
Homer. She smiled a bright smile that reminded him of thirty years
before, her vital spirit for an instant superseding her body.
He’s beautiful, Homer. Thank you, but you didn’t have to do
that for me.
Yes, I did, Runt. He’s a beautiful deer and you got him. See
that fancy blue ribbon hanging on his antler? Did you notice it? She
was too weak to rise again.
He continued, That’s yours for winning the big buck contest,
Runt. You won a new rifle, too. A Remington automatic thirty-oughtsix. I got it home waiting for you, but I know you’ll never give up that
sweet little 30-30 of yours.
A nurse raised the head of the bed so Runt might look without
straining. The half dozen people in the room silently watched her,
tears on every cheek. After a few moments, she opened her eyes and
appeared to focus on the deer with some difficulty. I can feel him
looking at me. He’s looking right into my eyes, just like he did. I
thought he was trying to tell me something then. Now I’m beginning
to understand what was in his eyes. Thank you so much, Homer. It’s
real sweet of you.
After that, Runt wanted the head of her bed raised and, when
she was awake, she spent most of her time looking at the deer mount.
Within a week, she faded into a living fog where she rarely opened her
eyes, and if she did, seemed not to recognize anyone. Homer felt like
she was gone, in spite of her still-warm body. Maybe she would come
back. Maybe there would be a miracle of sorts and she would
unaccountably sit up once again and smile at him.
Maybe his eyes were deceiving him when she was no longer in
her bed when he showed up one morning.
That day, reluctant to leave the place where he had last seen
her, he raised the head of her bed and laid back as she laid and looked
at the deer in earnest himself. At first he studied the thick beams of
the antlers and the narrow tines rising from them. Then he noticed the
hair– how it was not quite perfect on the neck and how the white
bristles around the muzzle reminded him of an old man’s sparse beard.
Then his eyes were drawn to the buck’s eyes. There seemed to be
something alive in them. It seemed as though the spirit of the deer
had transformed flint glass into vitreous humor. Homer’s eyes cleared
as he sat there staring into those bottomless eyes.
Finally, he began talking to the deer. What are you trying to
tell me, big fellow? Your Runt is gone now. There’s nothing left for us
in this world, you and I. You understand, don’t you? You know that I
have your life in those fruit jars back at the house ready to give me
life, don’t you? You were a smart old deer, big fellow. You knew what
you were doing the day you stopped and looked at Runt and dared her
to shoot you, didn’t you? How could you tell that she needed you so
bad right then?
Homer sat there for a while, half expecting that the deer would
talk to him. Oh, ho, big fellow, he finally said. I see what you are
trying to say to me.
Come on, let’s go back home. And he carried the mounted head out to
his truck.
Tom stood in the kitchen of Homer and Runt’s house with the
sheriff’s deputy who responded to his call. Broken glass and chunks of
meat covered the floor. Not a single unbroken jar remained. Tom
said, I don’t understand this. Why would a man want to leave his
house in such a mess? I think Homer just snapped. I knew something
was odd when Homer drove by my place late in the morning and I saw
that deer mount in the back of his pickup. When Runt was in the
hospital, every day he left real early and didn’t get back until about ten
o’clock. I had a funny feeling when I heard that gunshot. Why would
anyone be shooting at this time of the year? He must have carried
that big deer mount across that footlog, then gone to get his rifle,
‘cause there were two sets of his tracks going over there. I wish I
could have talked with him one more time. Said goodbye or
something. She was quite a Runt, alright. And he a Homer.
Dolly
Nothing a Simpson did could surprise me. After all they were
Kaintucks. And the rest of us were the rest of us, solid citizens mainly
from northern European stock, used to hard work, doing right and
never complaining. How they could live a quarter-mile down the road
from us as though living in 1920, while the rest of us were alive and
well in 1983 mystified me. Their small frame house, formerly a
brooder house on John Erickson Sr.’s chicken farm, that had had a
small kitchen added, reminded me of those rundown shanties I had
seen on back roads in the deep South.
Bathing water was rarely drawn from the cast iron pump that
stood thirty feet away from their house near the edge of some box
elder scrub. Somewhere I once read that bathing is an unnatural
biological act and should only be done once a week. I studied the
Simpsons’ skin trying to decide if they had an especially healthy glow.
Hard to say. Although they were as sallow-complected as ex-convicts,
you would admit that their skin was clear, even rosy, where it wasn’t
masked by smears of dirt. Talking to a family member, even from five
feet away, you smelled sweat and smoke and feces and dental caries.
Their teenage daughter, Dolly, and her two brothers, Aubrey, a
year younger, and Slick, a year and a half older, bathed in the creek
near their house in summer. They bathed together, according to Dolly,
because their mother made them. She hated bathing, she said,
because the water was cold and the boys teased her cruelly about her
tits, her hair.
They were all a little light between the ears, especially Slick,
Aubrey and their mother, Lorena. Dolly was a clear step ahead of
them. She showed some enterprise by raising chickens and selling
eggs. Her own money bought the baby chickens and their feed. She
tried keeping her money hidden from the rest of the family by hiding it
about their place, but someone always found it and took the money. I
guess that’s why she asked me to keep an old leather purse of hers
containing a few slips of paper and her money at my house. She knew
the rest of her family wouldn’t dare show up at my house. We knew
them only too well, and they knew it.
Of course I agreed. What else could I have done? In summer
she tended a garden she worked up herself and sold strawberries,
raspberries, tomatoes, eggplant and squash. She had delivered three
dozen eggs to me every two weeks since she was twelve. She rode
their roan draft horse, Loretta, bareback to our place, always on
Thursday afternoon. Loretta wore a red ribbon tied to her black mane
up between her ears.
Dolly’s stringy, matted brown hair was usually tied in a rude
ponytail. The look of her hair could be duplicated only by soaking
one’s hair in cooking oil, then rubbing it with dirt. Grrr, my teeth
grated together when I saw her hair. I just wanted to haul her into my
bathtub and scrub her with a stiff brush all over after I first washed her
hair. Her skin was pale and freckled, never tanned, although she spent
hours outside every week tending her garden. Sometimes I noticed
little black lines across her neck where the dirt had settled in the
shallow creases across her skin.
The natives around us all called the Simpsons Kaintucks. They
were descendants of about ten families of Kentucky hillbillies who
mysteriously came to our area after World War Two. No one knew
how they found our little valley in Minnesota or why they came. But
everyone knew how they found rundown places surrounded by
abandoned cars and refrigerators and other junk as though that was
their habitat and as natural to them as it was to Norway rats. Middens
of clutter grew as though fertilized. None of the men worked regular
jobs and county welfare supported all of them.
The thought came to me one day-- my God, Dolly looks
pregnant. That stage where another woman can intuitively sense it.
But then, no, I thought. She was only fourteen at the time. She didn’t
have any boyfriends that I knew of. Why, how, could she be
pregnant? But in a month or so it was obvious that she was indeed
pregnant. “I see you’re going to have a baby, Dolly,” I said to her one
day as she delivered eggs. Her grey eyes retreated from me instantly.
Any feelings she had were hidden deep behind her placid face. She
looked down at Loretta’s back and patted her neck. Little clouds of
dust puffed from under her hand.
“Yeah, I reckon so,” she said so quietly I barely heard it. “I
thought you might notice one of these days.” She rolled her lips into
her gums and only the corners of her mouth hinted of a forced smile.
A smile of politeness, for Dolly was polite. She inhaled deeply and
studied the horizon behind our barn, then said, “I reckon I’ve become a
woman, Francie. I’ve become a woman before I ever thought about
being one. I’m a woman just like you, Francie, and it feels funny
‘cause I always thought I was just a kid. Now I ain’t. I’m going to
have a little chap to call my own. He’ll suck on these tits of mine and
look into my eyes while he drinks my milk. That’ll be nice, I think.
Different, anyhow.”
“It will be nice, Dolly,” I said. “It’s really special to have your
first baby. That is why we women are put on this earth, I guess.” I
pitied the poor unborn creature, knowing the family and conditions it
would be exposed to, the many strikes against it from square one.
However, Dolly never thought of herself as disadvantaged in any way.
The world she lived in was the only world she knew and aspirations
didn’t enter her mind.
I had always liked Dolly from her childhood, when she was but
three years old. She was such a pleasant little person. And happy, in
spite of the difficulties that surrounded her. Moreso happy than any of
the four daughters I raised. There was a cuteness about her that
made me want to touch her: that soft skin, those warm freckles, that
readiness to laugh with her head thrown back. I would have liked to
raise her as mine, to let her experience a few of the modest, but real,
pleasures our life afforded and to help guide her down a more
promising path into an enjoyable life than I knew she would ever find
on her own. But she was over there with her odd family with no ken of
my feelings.
Our dies were cast, an unbridgeable chasm between us. What a grand
person she could have become in the right circumstances.
Even as her pregnancy advanced she kept riding Loretta. Her
legs were spread so wide and the kid inside her sagged down against
Loretta’s back so, I feared she might give birth at any moment. Two
weeks after she gave birth she was back delivering eggs. She didn’t
want those goddamned boys riding Loretta, she said. They were wild
with her. Kicked her in the sides with hard shoes to make her gallop.
Tore her head around with the reins like violent cowboys. Besides, I
knew she felt important delivering eggs and collecting her money. It
made her somebody.
Dolly had a boy as she expected. James Curt. My impression
was that everything was going reasonably well with the baby. She only
mentioned several times that he was fitful and ill tempered.
I first saw James Curt when he was about six months old. One
day Dolly pulled him out of a crude saddlebag she fashioned out of an
old military fieldpack and some hemp rope she tied about her waist.
Normally it contained eggs and produce. “Here he is, Francie,” she
said. “Here’s my chap, James Curt.” I stroked his cheek with my finger
trying to make him smile, made gootchy-goo sounds. Unsuccessfully.
I gushed too much over how cute he was, trying to make Dolly feel
good, but my heart told me that something was amiss, and Dolly knew
it. She wasn’t buying my chatter. He was so tiny for six months old.
One eye seemed further from his nose than the other and there was a
shroud of cantankerous dullness about his manner. He reminded me
of an animal like a possum that stares at you as though he is
considering something about you, some action, but whatever is passing
through his little pea brain never causes anything to happen.
James Curt’s twisted black hair made the back of my neck
bristle. A suspicion sprang to mind but I buried it immediately. What
was wrong with me, thinking like that? I urged her to take him to the
doctor for a checkup but she never did until he was over a year old and
ran a high fever.
Some time afterward Dolly told me the doctor wanted to know
who the baby’s father was. His birth certificate listed the father as
unknown. “He asked me a heap of questions about who I done it with.
I told him there was any number of men and boys it could have been.
Francie,” she said with a soft cry of pain in her voice that reached into
my stomach, “I didn’t want to tell him, but up to that point there
weren’t no one fucked me but my daddy and my brothers.
My daddy started fucking me before I was ten years old, then he got
them boys to join in. Said he’d show ‘em how to be a man.”
Tears ran from her squinched eyes onto freckled cheeks.
Shining narrow rivers ebbed and flowed as her eyes filled and spilled.
Dark patches formed on her pale blouse. I turned away from her as
my own tears fell. Oh, those sonsofbitches, I said to myself. I knew it!
That’s what they were. But I hadn’t admitted it to myself. Their
capabilities for just such acts had harbored in a dark
spot in my mind for years. God damn them to eternal Hell! “Oh,
Dolly,” I said. “Does your mother know about this?”
“’Course she knows. She’s sitting right there, mostly. In the
other room. Maybe she’s crocheting or looking at a movie magazine.
Or she goes out and fusses around my chickens. Picks up my eggs for
me.”
“Well, what does she do? Doesn’t she stop them? Doesn’t she
say anything? Doesn’t she care about you?”
“No, I don’t reckon she does care about me. She doesn’t do
nothing. My momma seems like a funny woman to me.”
No words of comfort came to mind, because I needed them
more than she did. We were sisters now, except she was now a leg up
in direct knowledge of evil men.
About that time we noticed different vehicles going and coming
to the Simpson house. Merle knew them because he knew their
vehicles. Trashy young men, locals, driving rusted out muscle cars or
pickup trucks. The sons of ne’er-do- wells. You’d see these guys
driving to pick her up and hear them bringing her home at three
o’clock in the morning. We suspected they were well lit up with alcohol
when they came screaming their vehicles past our place in the quiet
night. Accelerators were floored until they saw the big curve starting a
half mile beyond us, then we heard powerful engines furiously relaxing.
One of them thought he could make the big curve without slowing one
night and rolled his Gran Prix over right where the curve is tightest.
Merle and I heard the awful tumbling sound and bending of metal,
sharding sounds of shattering glass, then a petrified silence that
seemed without end. “Merle, get to the phone, will you?” I said. The
man was already dead when the sheriff got there. He was the low life
I could have predicted. Married, 25 years old, three children, a cutting
torch operator at Alfonse Reiland’s junkyard. We recognized his name
from our paper and his many DWI arrests.
I don’t know how the six of them slept in that tiny house,
much less had any privacy. The few times I had been inside it didn’t
seem room for two people to eat and sleep, once two big blue tick
coonhounds had chosen their spots for the night. Israel, Dolly’s father,
was big on coon hounds. Whenever you approached their house a half
dozen or more big hounds pulled their chains as far toward you as they
could, baying savagely the while. Israel’s two favorites,
Fly and Rascal, the god damnedest coon fighting sonsofbitches he ever
seen, he said, got to sleep in the house.
Everything was rude over there. Merle said he couldn’t figure
out why Israel couldn’t cut a board off straight and two boards to the
same length. “Why can’t he build just one thing straight and true
instead of jerry building every
goddamned thing he does?” he asked. Even their fences were akimbo
so that their scrawny steers and Loretta wandered all over the
neighborhood. They’d browse through my garden, then stand outside
our barnyard fence rubbing noses with our cows trying to figure out
how to get inside the fence where the food was plentiful. It
embarrassed Merle for cattle like that to be seen on our land. Merle
was proud of his reputation for fine purebred Shorthorns.
When James Curt was something over a year old, one day I
thought Dolly looked suspiciously plumper. In another month I knew
she was pregnant again and when I asked her she confirmed it matterof-factly, “Looks like I will have me another chile alright, Francie. Least
this time the chap should be right. I don’t know who the daddy is, but
I know it ain’t my daddy or brothers. When I went out with that
Shaddie Woods a while back, I told him one night about my daddy and
brothers and James Curt.
He was furious mad. He raced right to my house, slammed in
the door and pulled my daddy out of bed by the front of his Union suit.
Then he went for
my brothers and dragged them out alongside of daddy. He lined them
up and slapped them hard one by one and told them that if any of
them ever so much as looked at me funny again, he would kill them.
He wasn’t fooling, neither, and they knew it. They hadn’t touched me
since James Curt was born, anyways, but it was like a little insurance
that they won’t. I don’t know whether the baby is Shaddie’s or not. It
could be, but I was also with a couple of other fellers then, too. Maybe
more than that. It would be hard to say for sure that it was any one
man. Ain’t none of ‘em wants to wear a rubber. Maybe when I see
the baby it will call to mind his daddy.”
She rode Loretta again up until two days before Lonnie Brad
was born. At three months he was a picture of perfect health and
beauty. Oh, he was precious. I had wanted a boy like him forever. I
actually envied Dolly. I envied her guileless freedom to let all those
men make love to her without worrying about the consequences. Fuck
and be damned.
Dolly ran wild with men and boys shortly after she had Lonnie
Brad. The young men she attracted were hard working laborers and
tradesmen-- sheet rock hangers, roofers, siding installers, carpet
layers, mechanics. Starting at noon on Fridays, the parking lot of every
tavern in the county was packed with their vehicles. Fights broke out.
Occasionally one smashed his car head-on into some innocent party in
the evening.
Then Dolly told me one day when delivering eggs that she felt
different about one named Brent and thought she was in love with him.
“What’s it like to be in love, Francie? I think it must be different
because I think of him more than I ever thought about any of the
others who just want to fuck me all the time. I can’t get him off my
mind. When he ain’t around I try to call up his face in my mind.”
Who am I to tell another human being what love is? I went
through all that with each of my daughters and I always felt I was
telling them a story that I didn’t quite believe myself. There is love and
there isn’t, and there is Santa Claus and there isn’t. Dolly was so far
beyond any experience I or my daughters had ever had, what could I
possibly tell her?
Whenever Dolly rode by in her man’s vehicle she always waved
to me if I was outside, her arm extending straight up above the vehicle
and waving to and fro in exaggerated slow motion. She never stopped
with them at our place until one evening I was out along the driveway,
picking spent marigold flowers. I was drawn to smell my fingertips to
inhale their biting aroma, and as I held my fingers to my nose, a
strange red pickup pulled in our drive. I was studying the driver trying
to place him. The truck pulled right alongside me and stopped. A
young man I didn’t know appraised me with curious green eyes. His
long black hair was greased down and neatly combed into a ducktail.
A muscular arm rested on the window frame. He said, “You must like
the smell of them marigold flowers.”
Until then I hadn’t noticed that his passenger was Dolly. She
got out the passenger door and smiled at me across the hood. “Hi,
Francie,” she said. “I wanted you to meet my fiance’. This is Brent.”
“Hi,” I said, extending my hand to him, “I’m Francie, Brent. So
nice to meet you.” Hmm, I’m thinking – fiance’. The word just doesn’t
seem to joyfully spring off one’s tongue when applied to Dolly.
Shiny new truck with lots of chrome trim and a black-and-white
checked racing flag painted streaming around the hood. A lithe body
in blue jeans and a white T shirt. Chewing on a toothpick. Selfconfident and self-appraised coolness. “So you’re getting married,
Dolly?” I said. “What a surprise. Well, congratulations to both of you.”
Dolly was then seventeen. She hadn’t been in school since
before she had her first baby because of the teasing she endured.
Children can be so much crueler than adults since they are so aware
yet of where the most vulnerable spots are. “It will be nice for your
boys to have a home of their own,” I said.
“My chaps won’t be living with us, I reckon, Francie.”
“They won’t?” I asked, straining. I winced at the concern and
disappointment that colored my voice.
“No, Brent says he wants to enjoy me all by myself for a while.
Maybe they’ll come live with us later, once we get used to being
married. Momma says she’ll keep ‘em. I’ll come to see ‘em every
day.” She put an arm around his waist and tried to rock him back and
forth. He stood rigid. She stared at him
with a conspiring grin but he never looked at her.
Brent snorted condescendingly, “How in the world you gonna
do that?”
“What do you mean?” Dolly said. She watched him in silence
for a moment, some personal memories coloring her face. Again, he
never looked at her and I had the feeling that here was a man who
thought only of himself. “Brent. That’s not what you told me, Brent.
That’s not what we agreed on.”
“Simple, ain’t it?” He laughed cruelly, mockingly; looked at me
as though I understood and sympathized with him and Dolly didn’t.
From that instant on I hated him. “This’s my pickup. You ain’t gonna
be driving it any time soon. And I ain’t gonna be running out here
every day or two like I do now. If you want a car, you’re gonna have
to get a job and save up for it like anybody else.”
“But, Brent,” Dolly said. “That’s not what you said. You said
you’d teach me how to drive and I could use your pickup whenever I
wanted.”
“Simple,” he said again and I wished for a big club to appear in
my hand so I could knock him in the head. “I changed my mind.
Anybody can change their damned mind. I don’t want you wrecking
my truck.”
Dolly seemed about to cry, but she got a hold of herself and
controlled it. She looked in my eyes for support; but I had none to
offer except for the shared
pain we felt. My mind could not run down the sad trail it saw opening
before it. “You won’t be delivering eggs anymore, Dolly?” I asked.
“No, I reckon not, Francie. I’m going to have to give that up.
Momma will take it over again. We’re going to be living in an
apartment over in Wyattville.”
“What’s going to happen to Loretta?”
“She’ll be alright. Daddy’ll probably sell her if I know him. He
says she eats too much to suit him.”
“I’ll bet you’ll miss her, won’t you?” I asked.
She nodded, “A lot. I’ll miss her as bad as if I lost one of my
chaps.”
I brooded about the situation for days. It hurt my heart as a
woman to see the life Dolly was falling blindly into. She no more knew
what was coming than a sheep in a slaughterhouse. The next time she
brought eggs over, I asked her to come in the house and have coffee
with me. I was determined to dig to the bottom of this unsavory pit. I
set out Blue Willow cups and saucers, poured the coffee and set a
plate of brownies near Dolly’s cup. “So,” I started, “How did you
decide to marry Brent, Dolly?”
She described how they met at Nestor’s Tavern, a well-know
dive out in the country where they didn’t make a big deal about her
age. She was on a date with this other guy, but Brent liked the way
she looked and took her away from the guy right there. Brent told the
other guy to get lost or he’d beat the shit out of him. She was
disappointed that the other guy wouldn’t even put up a fight for her.
He couldn’t love her very much, could he? She fell in love with Brent
that night. He likes to make love to her in ways she never heard of
before. Many times a night. She gets so wore out, she said. “He’s the
strongest man for sex I ever met. He makes me feel so loved.” She
looked dreamily into her coffee cup and a soft smile appeared.
I mumbled something about the difference between sex and
love but I could as well have spoken in Arabic and been equally
understood. Sometimes he hurt her, she said, but not bad, and he
always told her he needed her. She might be crying from pain but it
made her feel proud when he said she was so exciting he could hardly
stand it. He got carried away, he said, not because he wanted to hurt
her but because he loved her so strong he had a hard time controlling
himself. He’s sorry if he hurt her, he says afterwards, and she believes
him. He always puts his arms around her and tells her to stop crying,
he loves her.
Oh God, oh God, I think. It is all so obvious. But no matter
how I explain it to Dolly and try to change her way of seeing it, she
defends him. She says she loves him. He loves her. But what did love
actually mean to them, people not accustomed to philosophical
wonderings. She will not be talked out of it by me. Dolly doesn’t
notice how my voice trembles with hate for this man. What an
absolute pig he is. There should be no marriage here. She will be
abused. It is as predictable as sunup in the morning. The abuse will
reach a breaking point or he will be off with another woman. Or both.
And I reach out to that pretty but faceless next woman, because she
will also be abused. And the next, and the next.
It is none of my business. It is not my problem, as Merle
would tell me. Dolly is almost an adult. By her family standards, she
was an adult long ago, when she first menstruated. But I like Dolly so
much. I still see the potential for her becoming a lovely person, rising
above her background if she could break those childhood shackles.
She could be a daughter-building project for me in my grandmotherly
years. A basic, placid, goodness looms from her and envelops those
she is with. She is the only person I know whose presence soothes me
like I had taken some calming drug. Those young men savor that
softness, along with her self-defeating behavior. I hate them for what
they take from her. Under the right circumstances....
I am not regarded as a busybody. I do not meddle in my
children’s lives. Yet, I will seek out this Brent character. Maybe there
is more to him than I’ve given him credit for. Maybe he, being twentyfour years old, will have more common sense than Dolly.
Wyattville is a little place. Everyone knows everyone else in
that kind of town. Merle tells me I’m a fool. It’s none of my damned
business, he says. But my Merle is not what you would call a thinker.
A humanitarian. He is a doer. A man of action. Set a job in front of
him-- fix this, build that-- and he will work on it until it is done and it is
done right and well. He does not appreciate the empathy I have for
Dolly merely because we are women. I am closer to her than him in
some ways because of this bond, although I would never tell him that.
I go to Wyattville on a Monday night thinking it best to catch
Brent when he is recuperating from another wild weekend. It’s not
hard to find him. I stop at the only gas station and describe Brent:
young guy, new red pickup, works as a carpet layer. Sure, they know
him. Right down the street here three blocks, left two blocks to a pair
of brick fourplex apartment buildings on the edge of town. The one on
the left.
Good, the red pickup. Up a half-flight of stairs over cheap
green nylon carpeting to a grime-blackened, unfinished, veneer door
with a television booming on the other side. Across the landing
another television tuned differently booms through an identical door.
Brent’s door opens to my knock and he leans belligerently against the
door frame and stares at me. He doesn’t recognize me and barely
hears me tell him who I am over the blare of noise. “May I come in?” I
say.
“You ain’t one of them damned Jehovah Witnesses, are you?”
“No, I’m a friend of Dolly,” I say.
“Sure,” he says and sweeps his hand into the room. He turns
the noise down and stands there looking at me quizzically. “Well,” he
says, “What’s up, lady?”
I’m not ready to speak yet. The whole subject is so big and
complex, and I don’t really know him, nor him me, and I question that
it is any business of mine to get involved, and Merle didn’t want me to
come over here, and I have in the past sometimes conducted myself
rashly, to my own deep embarrassment, and I don’t know whether I
should be blunt and direct or wind my way along a wandering path
that seems one time to be heading toward one destination and another
time toward another.
Brent looks at me and says again, “Well? What did you want
to see me about?”
“ Brent, it’s about Dolly.”
His eyes flare wider. They are pale blue. They are cold as an
assassin’s. He says, “Well, what about her? Is something wrong with
her?”
“No, it’s nothing like that. I just wanted to tell you that I like
Dolly a lot and I don’t want to see her get hurt.”
“What are you talking about?” and cruel bristles appear in his
voice. “What’s she been telling you about me?”
“She hasn’t been telling me anything except that you’re getting
married. I just don’t think Dolly should be getting married right now.
She’s too young.”
“Oh, yeah? Who the hell are you to say that? You ain’t no
family of hers from what I understand.”
“I’m nobody, Brent. I’m just a friend of Dolly’s. I’ve known
her since she was three years old. A neighbor who likes her very much
and wants the best for her .”
“I don’t think I like the sound of what you’re saying, lady. I think you
better mind your own goddamned business before you go too far. It’s
no affair of yours how Dolly and me gets along. I must think pretty
good of her if I’m going to marry her at all, don’t you think? I could
have got married lots of times if I wanted. Women like me. This is of
my own choosing. You think I’m not good enough for that hillbilly
family of hers, or what?”
“It’s not that at all, Brent. Don’t you think you’re taking
advantage of her being so young and simple and wanting to get away
from her family? The rest of the family is trash, as you say, but Dolly
is different. She is a nice girl.”
“She’s nice alright. She’s the best screwin’ woman I ever put
my pecker in. She might get wore out later on, but right now she’s a
goodun. She is good. She is hot. Hottest woman I ever seen, and
I’ve seen some. That’s what I like best about her. I know my women,
lady. I know you wouldn’t be worth the powder to blow you to hell in
bed. You’re one of them goody-goodies, too good to admit you like
being screwed by a man. I wouldn’t give you a taste of my pecker if
you sat and begged me for it.”
He grabs the front of his crotch and stands there massaging
himself through his pants. What a crude man, I think. His gesture
does not frighten me, it merely confirms my opinion of him. In the
face of his attitude, I can’t think of anything to say that might change
his mind. I steam out his door.
Why did I bother? I am such a fool at times. Merle is right. It
is none of my business. On the way home I chastise myself for my
foolishness. I must have taken the wrong approach with him– maybe
he felt threatened– although he would only understand force, and I
had nothing stronger in my arsenal than good intentions.
“Well,” Merle said from his recliner as though he already knew
the result of my trip, “Did he agree to call everything off because of
you?”
“Don’t be smart, Merle. I shouldn’t have gone. I don’t know
how to talk on his level. He’s only interested in his penis.”
“Hell, I could have told you that, and I never met the
sonofabitch.”
A month later, in September, the wedding took place. We
noticed how serene it was now that the traffic of young men in cars
and pickups vanished. Dolly’s mother, Lorena, started delivering the
eggs in their old pickup truck. Dolly’s boys were always with her in the
truck-- James Curt staring at me blankly from his recumbent position
on the seat and Lonnie beaming at me like a friendly sprite. “How’s
Dolly getting along, Lorena?” I asked her one day.
“She’s getting along, I reckon. Looks like she’s high and
mighty now, living in that big fancy apartment.” Lorena’s vacant
brown eyes never looked at you when you conversed. But, she
seemed to consider whatever you said with deep attention as though
you spoke in a language she had just learned and not well. Words
came out of her mouth so slowly you wanted to slap her alongside the
head and shake them loose. I often wondered the cost to a child of
being raised by someone like her. Mothering was not part of her
makeup. “We don’t see her hardly a tall,” she said. “That Brent he
don’t like to come to our house. He don’t seem to hit it off with Israel
and the boys. I’d like for Dolly to take these boys of hers but he won’t
have them. Give them to their daddies, he says. They’re a tarnation
lot of work for me to keep up with, especially that James Curt. She
should of stove him in the head when he was borned. I ain’t going to
baby them. They’re not my babies. Dolly just run off to get out from
home, but she’s not responsible for her babies like she ought to be.
Oh, now that she’s waitressing at that cafe in Wyattville, she sends a
little money to feed them, but she says she’s too tired to look in on her
chaps.”
I was mulling over what she said when she added, “She did
say last time I seen her that she’d like to talk with you.”
With anyone else you might suspicion that they were just
blowing smoke, but not Lorena. I chewed on it for several days and
decided that maybe Dolly was in some kind of trouble and needed my
help. I would take my lunch at the Wyattville cafe. “You messing
around with those Simpsons again?” Merle asked. “I thought you
might of learned your lesson the last time.”
In spite of the encouragement, I made the drive over there on
a rainy Thursday morning. Lorena told me that Dolly worked the
breakfast or supper shift, but was always there over the noon hour. I
timed my arrival about 11:30, thinking I would avoid the noon rush, if
there was one. And there was. And I apparently arrived in the middle
of it. Their little parking lot was nearly full.
I studied the building and I didn’t like what I saw: a
ramshackle frame building badly in need of some scraping and
painting. Normally I would have happily starved myself another two
hours to avoid setting foot in a place like that. When I went in the
door, though, it was almost full of jovial old farmers in seed caps and
bibs and other working people, most of whom looked closely at me for
a minute to see if I was someone they should know. Fortunately for
me, there was one of those handkerchief-sized tables against the
counter still open. A waitress my age came over and handed me a
menu.
“I don’t want much,” I said. “I really came just to see Dolly.
Will you tell her I’d like to see her for a minute? Maybe I’ll just have a
cup of soup and some coffee.”
The place buzzed with conversation. It was a motley collection
of mainly retirees, it seemed– gray hair, mostly pot bellies, men and
women, resting against table edges, plaid shirts and extra-large
sweatshirts, and a relaxed air of indifference about the passage of
time. A good many of them knew each other and there were a lot of
inter-table conversations going on. I must not have been in Dolly’s
serving area, but I saw her hustling back and forth to the kitchen. Our
eyes met and we both smiled and waved little waves.
Halfway through my beer cheese soup, which was excellent,
Dolly came over and greeted me, “Well hi, Francie. What are you
doing here?”
“I came to see you, Dolly. When I saw your mother last week
she told me that you wanted to see me.” I studied her closely, quickly
noting how slovenly she looked in a wash-worn black uniform dress
that was two sizes too large. The skin of her arms was pasty and scaly
looking like she needed to rub lotion on. And her face seemed thinner
than I remembered, and older, and under her left eye there appeared
to be traces of a black eye. Or was that just my imagination? The
poor child just looked worn out.
She pondered what I said for a moment, then replied, “Yeah, I
did want to see you. To talk with you, Francie. But we can’t talk here.
Now. I don’t get off work until three today. I don’t suppose you care
to wait ‘til then?”
“No, I can’t,” I said. “I have to get home earlier. We have
company coming tonight and I have to get a roast ready. And some
other things. I’ll come back, Dolly. I’ll come to your apartment. When
would be a good time for you?”
“Tomorrow. Tomorrow morning would be good.” Her voice
broke. She fought to keep her composure and I thought, my, my,
she’s a little girl who needs her mommy, but mommy isn’t home.
I said hurriedly, “I’ll be over in the morning, Dolly. Before
eight-thirty.” She spun on her heel and was gone. I left immediately.
What is this now, I thought, with a sinking feeling. Dolly had slipped
out of my mind as though I didn’t care about her. But I did care about
her and I was ashamed of myself for letting her down. As I browned
the roast and peeled the onions and carrots, I silently addressed the
image of her still fresh in my mind-- I’m sorry, Dolly. I’m sorry. I’m
sorry I let you down and thereby myself, but what do my feelings
count. The onions were so strong.
Merle said in that exasperating I-know-better-than-you tone of
his, “What’s wrong with you, Francie? You’re sure as hell acting
peculiar. You’re as moony as a goddamned teenager.” But I couldn’t
tell him, at least for now. Brent disturbed me, but more as a symbol of
a man than as one useless individual. I didn’t want to look at a man. I
didn’t want to think about one, not even my husband. Damn their
vicious, testosterone-laden souls. Their competitive spirits, their bluff,
their hollow bravado. Every one of them. I was ready to take my
station with my sisters in front of an endless line of naked men with
pulsating, tumescent erections and slip Elastrators over their ball sacks
as they do with cattle and watch their faces redden and those hard
peckers wilt into a series of harmless boiled noodles. They deserved
no less.
Merle’s brother, Earl, and his wife, Carol, were dull company on
a good day and this wasn’t a good day. All I could think of was what
was going on in
Dolly’s apartment. Punching, slapping, squeezing her so hard she
couldn’t breathe? What motivates a man to abuse a woman? My
thoughts didn’t fit in well with talk about the goddamned gummint and
their latest attempt to screw the farmers.
When I arrived at Dolly’s in the morning, she appeared at the
door wearing a blue terry cloth robe. Without her makeup or a bath
she was a disaster. “Oh, Francie,” she said. “I’m so happy to see you.
I don’t really feel like I have a mother in this world, but you come the
closest to what I wish I had. I don’t have anyone else I like so much.”
She hugged me and started crying on my shoulder. Her thin
body shook with sobs. Her belly muscles fluttered in and out against
my stomach. I held her lightly in return, amazed at the heat and
moisture she emitted but not quite ready to surrender all my emotions
in sisterhood to her. In a few moments she settled down in a chair
and started telling me in detail about Brent’s abuses: sexual fantasies
he wanted carried out, beating her with his fists, choking, the
application of ropes and leather belts to her. It was painful to listen to
her degradation. He was pushing her into the mud as deeply as he
could. It was hard to not weep as I visualized his sneering face.
“Oh, Dolly, I knew it. I knew he was that kind of man. You
have to get away from him.
“I can’t, Francie,” she said. “Where would I go? How would I
get there? What would I do for money? Besides, he’d come after me.
I know he would. Somehow he’d find out where I was. He’s told me
he’d break every bone in my body if I try to get away from him. You’re
mine, he says. Mine! I own you body and soul.”
“Dolly, you’ll have to go to the sheriff. They’ll stop it. They’ll
help you.”
“No, I can’t,” she said, sobbing again. “He’ll kill me. He likes to
hurt me. As soon as we were married it started and it never lets up.
He gets really mad at me when I have my period. Then he really bears
down on me. He doesn’t like to be interrupted. I think he likes seeing
just how much pain I can stand without leaving any sign that people
can see. That’s what he’s proud of. He chokes me so long I
sometimes pass out. I try not to fight him ‘cause he’s so strong and he
gets after me if I fight back. And all the while he’s staring in my eyes
like he’s waiting for something. Just staring and staring with those
wide black holes of his eyes with no mercy in them. I usually think
about you, Francie. And Merle. It’s lucky I’m not dead already.”
“Dolly, you have to get away from this man. Pack your things
and come to my house right now. We’ll call the sheriff. No one has to
put up with this.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Francie. I don’t think I’d want to see him
arrested on my account. He’d kill me, sure.”
Try as I might all morning, I could not convince her to come
with me or to call the sheriff. She felt helpless in his monster hands,
and her death was a clear possibility each and every day. Torture she
could survive, but she wanted to live.
She had to work at eleven. I considered whether I could
borrow some of Brent’s rope, hogtie her and call the sheriff myself.
Reluctantly, I left when she went to work. “How long?” I asked then.
“How long will you allow this to go on, Dolly?”
I had to unload my burden on someone when I got home, and
Merle was the only one handy. “Goddammit!” he said. “I thought you
were going to stay out of those peoples’ lives, but I will say one thing - that man must be a pure goddamned pervert. What someone ought
to do is to take an axe handle to that sonofabitch. But, Francie, it still
ain’t none of your business. I don’t like to hear about Dolly suffering.
She’s such a nice girl, but it’s not our affair. She’s not our family, our
relation. She’s got a family of her own to go to, as sorry as they are.
Everybody gets their own family. She’s got the law. Who appointed
you her guardian angel?”
I told him he was completely wrong. Certainly she had a
biological family, but they knew nothing about respect for an individual,
especially for a woman. Look at what they did to her themselves, I
said. How could anyone who did that to their own daughter and sister
have any feelings for her? They would probably sympathize with Brent
because they would understand his viewpoint. They could act the
same. To them a woman was only a biological necessity, an
instrument of pleasure to be used without regard to feeling. I
sometimes think men have no feelings whatsoever. They are similar to
animals.
Merle told me to call the sheriff, then get out of it.
I had to talk with Dolly again. She could stay with us. We’ve
plenty of room in our big old farmhouse with our children off and on
their own. The next day saw me back at the restaurant. I told Dolly I
wanted her to come to my house and stay. That she would be safe
there. She didn’t want to. She didn’t want to quit her job.
“All right, Dolly. I was trying to help you. I thought you
wanted my help. There is nothing more I can do for you.” I knew this
last was a lie. I didn’t want to leave her alone in the world and it made
me feel terrible to say it, but it was my only resort, the only pressure
point I could think of at the moment. Throw her to the wolves but
hope she notices my trembling hand reaching, ready to help when she
comes to her senses.
She was quiet for a moment while she searched my eyes, then
looked away while she appeared to be thinking about what I said.
Finally she said, “I’m sorry, Francie. Thanks for coming over again.
It’s a goddamned hellish world out there, ain’t it?”
Several weeks later, long after dark, I heard a tentative
knocking, almost a scratching at my back door. Merle heard it from
the living room and came into the kitchen. “Probably a goddamned
coon,” he said. Then he opened the door wide and said, “My God.
Francie, come here.” A young woman stood on our stoop, her face
swollen beyond recognition. Blood was caked in splits in her swollen
lips. Fresh blood ran down one cheek. At first I didn’t know who she
was or why she was there, but she moaned, “Franfie. Dowy. Dowy.”
My heart stood still. I almost blacked out.
“Dolly, is it really you? Oh, you poor baby,” and I put my arms
around her. “Come in. Come in the house.”
She slumped in a chair at the kitchen table and wept into her
hands but was careful to touch herself with great tenderness. “I’m
sorry, Francie. I’m sorry to bother you. He really hurt me bad
tonight.”
“That’s all right, Dolly. You just let it all come out.” I prepared
a plastic bag full of ice cubes and told her, “Here. You hold this
against your jaw, Dolly. It’ll keep the swelling down.” She cried for a
long time holding the bag against her face. When she finally stopped
she said, “I’m sorry, Francie. I’m sorry to bring you my troubles.”
“That’s all right, Dolly. I’m your friend. I’m glad you came
here at last. Here, we’ll clean you up a little now.” With a soapy warm
washcloth I gently washed her face. As I touched her I assessed the
damage. The left side of her face was horribly swollen, her throat was
reddened and lacerated as if a bristly sisal rope had been pulled
against it.
Merle left us alone in the kitchen. Right after he left us I heard
him talking on the telephone and I knew he was calling the sheriff’s
office. About when Dolly was settling down, I heard a car outside,
then a knock at the door. Merle let the deputy in and the two men
stood there waiting. I nodded to the deputy and he asked Dolly what
happened, where Brent could be found. She wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t
agree that she would testify against him but I told her, “Dolly, you’ve
got to. This man is sick and he’ll do it again and again. Only you can
stop him.”
I asked the deputy to explain her right to get a court order
against Brent to prevent him from seeing or harming her. “He’ll kill
me,” she kept saying. “I know he’ll kill me. A court order is just a piece
of paper, ain’t it? No piece of paper will make him stay away from me.
It’s only dried ink on paper, there’s no strength there.”
“You have to do it, Dolly. You have to,” I said.
“Why do I have to, Francie? What good will it do me? I was
meant to have a hard life. I have it coming because I’m bad.”
Say what I would about her being a good person, a loving
person, there were no words strong enough to chip away her lifelong
self-image. She didn’t believe that she deserved a life free from
torture and torment from men. She said that she was worthless, had
always been worthless, that men ruled the world and you had to go
along with them. But we finally wore her down and she agreed she
would stay with us, get a court order and testify against him.
The deputy took her to the emergency room at our small
hospital and I followed along in my car so I could bring her back home.
It was after midnight when we got back from the hospital. The doctor
told me he rarely saw a beating as severe as this one. Her jaw was
broken, of course. I ran a bath for her and left an old flannel
nightgown. When I got in bed with Merle I put my shoulder against his
sleeping body and shoved him sideways out of bed. He thumped and
hollered as he hit the floor. “What the hell is going on here?” he said.
“You’re a man, Merle, is all. You’re a goddamned man.”
“Ohh mercy me,” he said.
I tried to burrow into the warm spot he left in bed as though
love and hope to succor me was buried deep inside the mattress. I
may have been dreaming. Images flashed through my mind so rapidly,
I couldn’t keep up with them. There was a soft freckled face of a girlyoung and innocent at about eight, then a developing body, still
innocent, then swollen by pregnancy. There was a malevolent stud
with a rope in his hard hands. A crowded shack with dogs twitching in
their sleep.
Merle may have stood there waiting uncertainly. He may have
been thinking about dogs, too, for all I know. He may have massaged
my shoulders and back for long moments before I flipped the cover
back. I thought his hands must be getting tired. I can’t remember
things exactly when I’m crying that hard.
Bootlegger
Jimmy Boulanger didn’t think anyone on this earth except him
would voluntarily walk through the biggest cat-briar patch he had ever
seen. Several acres laid under a cover of slender green vines running
every which way like malicious, unending snakes over hawthorn and
titi, ground palmetto and bayberry, raspberry and turkey oak. He knew
he was as tough as the scrub plants were tough-- I might bend but be
damned if I’ll break and I’ll prick you some, too. A little pain and
suffering was a light cross to bear if it furthered his plans. And this
furthered his plans.
He noticed the patch one day while driving down a forestry
road on paper company land looking for a place to set up his newest
still. About three acres of solid catbriers and raspberry bushes and
thornapple bushes. Am I crazy or what? he said to himself. A man
would have to be crazy to go through that rough patch of trash. Crazy
as he thought only he was. And damned proud of it. Thorns on those
vines sharp as needles. And there was a small branch coming down
from the road which formed about a quarter of the edge of the patch.
That’s the place, he thought. That is it.
He slithered through the entanglement, cutting a path free of
thorns as he went and tying pieces of white string to mark his way
back. When he reached the branch on the far side he found a little
black tupelo draw with a blackwater creek about two feet wide at that
point running through it. The flow of water was good, though. Too
small to fish, except in the spring when the redfin pike swam up it from
the big river to spawn but plenty of water for making good whiskey
and carrying spent mash away. Back at the culvert up on the road he
laid on his belly in the sawgrass and tasted the water as his daddy had
shown him. A film of greenish pollen coated the water surface and,
with his lips kissing the surface like a waterstrider, Jimmy vacuumed a
mouthful as he had seen his daddy do many times. The water was
slightly cool swirling around in his mouth. He spit it out and savored a
tea-like aftertaste, the pucker of tannin. A hint of tannin would stay in
the liquor like the whisper of peat in Scotch whiskey. Men who
appreciated good corn liquor commented on the tang in Jimmy’s
product. He felt it paid to be particular about his water.
Jimmy learned his trade from his father, James, who was
known to local lawmen as the king of the bootleggers. And his daddy
knew that every lawman out to catch him was a public employee and
much more likely to keep his booted feet up on his desk and drink
another cup of coffee than to collar a lawbreaker out in a muggy
swamp, especially if that lawbreaker saw to it that the lawman had a
little extra cash spending money every month. And an extra-nice
bonus was known to be forthcoming when a man was tipped off about
a raid. I wasn’t born a fool, James could say then, a man’s got his
obligations. Money talks and bullshit walks.
James said as he departed for three years in prison, “See what
I done tole you, boy? Only I ain’t smart enough to follow my own
advice. Just be sure you do things the way I tole you.” Jimmy was
twelve then. James did his time while the boy struggled with his
growing up. Came back on a summer morning. The only reason for
his arrest was that he was not contributing to the welfare of the sheriff
and every one of his deputies. Someone bitter must have told the Tboys. Things had slowed down for James’ business at the time and he
was merely trying to reduce his overhead as any good businessman
would do. The sheriff’s department were not bitter men, but they
valued the idea of friendship.
Jimmy was shocked and angered by his father’s arrest and his
picture on the front page of the local newspaper. Why? Why? Why,
are they arresting him? He’s just making a living like other people do.
He hasn’t done anything wrong. He’s not hurting anyone. The kids at
school started calling him Bootlegger and never relented from that
appellation.
Jimmy recalls James reaching through the bars of his cell at
the county jail before he was shipped upcountry, ruffling his hair and
looking at him with sad eyes. James spoke to him in a strange, husky
voice that made him want to cry, “It’s all right, son. It’s my own
damned fault. I got careless about what I was doing. You be good for
your momma now, hear?” James wiped his nose on the arms of his
shirt. He showed none of the toughness that he carried with him all the
years his son was growing up. Jimmy relived the scene on the ride
home and vowed right then that the same would never happen to him.
It was a long three years waiting for his father to come home
from prison. Jimmy was fifteen by then and tired of adults telling him
what to do-- his mother, his teachers, and shortly after his father
returned, his father. It was obvious that the old man intended to rule
the roost with an iron hand. “No, by God, you ain’t gonna do that,”
was a common command from James. Jimmy near exploded his guts
every time he heard that.
It chewed on Jimmy like a cureless malignancy. He was old
enough to drop out of school and he decided to do that rather than
stay with his father.
This angered his mother, who was basically his friend. Why did she
have to side with the old man, anyhow? “Where’s your future going to
be, Jimmy? What are you going to do with your life?” she yelled at
him. He yelled back and directly said some unkind things about her
and James. He was shouting at her at the top of his lungs when James
came in from outside, walked over to Jimmy, who along with his
mother had fallen silent, and punched him hard in the mouth. Jimmy
staggered and braced his hands on his knees to hold himself up.
“Don’t you never talk to your mama that way, boy. Never!
You hear me?” James waited for Jimmy to acknowledge that a question
had been posed to him and waited for Jimmy to mutter, Yes sir, softly
before he walked back outside. Jimmy was more stunned by the
suddenness of the action than by the actual pain in his mouth and lips.
James had been harsh before, but never that harsh. It embarrassed
him to the core of his being to be punched by his father in front of his
mother. She had always done what she could to take the sting out of
his father’s harshness, but there was no taking the sting out of this.
James respected her opinion, he had told her in the past, but a family
could only have one boss, and he was by God it. The punch
demonstrated the real seat of power in the family.
The taste of blood was not unpleasant. It seemed as natural at
the moment as the stinging pain in his jaw from the three or four teeth
that had been jarred in their sockets. “Goddammit,” he said. “That
sonofabitch.”
He left home that day for three years, sometimes staying at
friends’ homes and sometimes sharing ramshackle apartments with
similarly rootless youths. Street drugs of all kinds passed through his
bloodstream. Slowly he concluded he wasn’t really all that angry with
his parents and, besides, it would be a whole lot cheaper living with
them. He went to see them one evening and was surprised at how
cordial they were when he told them he wanted to come back. By
then he was a solidly-built six-footer weighing over two hundred
pounds. He thought that he was now physically superior to his father
and wouldn’t ever have to worry about a beating again. And, he had
realized that he wasn’t going to get rich as a carpenter’s helper.
“I want to learn your trade, Daddy,” Jimmy said. “I want to
have the biggest shine operation this county ever seen.”
James looked in his eyes for several moments without
speaking. “You serious about this, boy? It’s damned hard work, you
know, making liquor, and its risky, too. Those lawmen never stop
looking for you. People don’t think nothing of you. They just think
you’re scum, a damned bootlegger. You ready for that?”
“Yes, sir. I’m ready. Ready for anything. I’m ready to work
hard and learn from you.”
James smiled for the first time. He said, “You know, this
makes me proud, son. Proud you’d want to take after me. I’ll help
you all I can.” Although James was still running his own stills, now with
a regular payment of three hundred dollars a week in cash paid to a
deputy who came to pick it up every Friday, the sheriff’s department
wasn’t a threat. He bore no grudge against them for past pursuits. “I
was thick-headed,” he told Jimmy. “Too proud in them days. Now,
since you’ll be brand new, they won’t be looking for you right at the
start, but once you get it up and running and take in a few thousand,
you’ll have to start paying those boys off out of your own pocket.
They’ll probably be easy on you at the start.”
Jimmy never pushed his father again. He went out of his way
to avoid a confrontation with his parents. But he was still hardheaded,
as he had been even as a youngster. “I know all that,” he said. “I
know that,” when James repeatedly warned him about paying off the
law. The fines can eat you up, he said, and the days in prison spent
playing cards and talking to people you didn’t care for just to forget for
a moment the relentlessly slow jerking of a second hand around a
circle with no end was a painful reminder of life passing by.
They drove all the dirt roads and forestry roads and fire breaks
and three path roads in two counties. Jimmy held a county map on his
lap at all times and made penciled notes and x’s and hieroglyphic
symbols he later puzzled the meaning of. James showed him all the
places he remembered running stills, all the runs and branches and
feeder creeks for water supply. Jimmy was impressed with his father’s
memory and knowledge and wide experience. He told him, “Daddy, I
never knowed you was such a smart feller. So big in this business. I
think highly of you.”
James appeared surprised and pleased with the compliment.
He quizzed Jimmy on areas they had just inspected. “Where would
you put your still in here now?” he asked. Jimmy told him what he
thought, then James pointed out the weaknesses in his answers-- this
water would be no good, it was a sourwater spot because the water in
the creek drained from alligator ponds, not springwater; this place was
a dead end, you had to have at least two ways out like a woodchuck;
this was on paper company land and they sometimes put cables and
locks across the road so you couldn’t get in to tend your still; this was
too close to a nice house – they might smell the mash cooking and
would call the sheriff; this poor house might be alright since poor
people admired a man who beat the law and wasn’t harming anyone.
Poor people could be a real help if you approached them the right way.
“Be nice to a poor man, Jimmy, and he’ll be nice to you. A ten or
twenty now and then, or a free pint of whiskey, can do wonders for
you. Might even buy you access to an isolated spot that the law could
only reach with a helicopter.”
They soldered together a compact copper still about the size of
a washtub. James told him it was small, but it would be just right for
starting out and could still make him a thousand a week if he worked
at it. Later, he could add more or bigger stills. James accompanied
him on the initial setup and the first few runs, then left him alone.
Although James had a few small accounts he didn’t need, and
could turn over to Jimmy, he told his son he would have to find his
own markets. So Jimmy hit the road, stopping at every juke joint and
country store he could find. His big payoff was a heavy black man
named Jed who owned a bar in the black area of Savannah. Jed said,
“Who you is, man? Why you come see me? You settin’ me up for
somethin’.” But he was impressed when Jimmy pulled out his driver’s
license that showed his name as James Boulanger, Jr. That he was the
son of James Boulanger was no longer in doubt. “I knows you daddy,”
Jed said. “By reputation, anyhow. I been trying to buy from him for a
long time through some people I know, but James always sends back
word that he just can’t make enough liquor to keep up with his orders.”
He knew that James made a quality product--no radiators to cool the
steam and add lead to the product, no watering of his distillate. He
expected the same from Jimmy and would start out taking fifty gallons
a week.
Jimmy worked the still for about seven months and quickly had
accounts for all he could produce. The money was decent, too. He
had five thousand dollars in cash two months after he started. But he
got a funny feeling all of a sudden one day when he was running his
liquor into plastic jugs. He felt someone was watching him. He stood
up and slowly turned the compass circle, searching near and far for
some unusual movement or sign of a man. Twice he turned the
compass. Nothing.
Maybe he had heard something that didn’t sound quite right-a human cough or a chink of metal on metal. Maybe the woods stilled
suddenly as though the birds and animals were on alert. Maybe there
had been a quick reflection of sunlight off eyeglasses or binoculars that
flashed into the periphery of his vision. The hairs stood straight up on
his arms and he looked at them in awe. His daddy had told him many
times that if he ever had a feeling like that, he should haul ass as quick
as he could. He knew he wouldn’t be back to this place soon and what
it would look like if he did come back.
He realized he had noticed some signs several days before, but
he ignored them. He wondered why he had been so damned stupid.
The weeds on the little-used road to the still were suddenly beat down
from heavy traffic. The damned feds. They discovered his still and
were now waiting to catch him at it.
Damn! He hated to leave his propane tanks and burner behind,
and the empty plastic jugs. Good water jugs like them cost money but
he couldn’t risk taking the time to carry them out. Now! Now! Now!,
his brain screamed. Get a move on. Get the ten gallons of made
liquor to his truck and haul ass. Which he did, racing down the narrow
dirt road at the edge of control. Nearly a mile down the road he
noticed fresh tracks into a side road and several hundred yards down
it, three or four vehicles were parked. “Shit,” he said as he pulled
onto the paved road several miles away. “I made it.”
A week later he came back after midnight and parked in the
woods a good mile away and walked to the still, listening carefully as
he walked. At the still, there was no unnatural sound in the air, only
toads and frogs and crickets. The toads were the best singers, but
there were small leopard frogs trilling and the little branch seemed
filled with booming bull frogs, their deep grunts echoing off the edges
of the timber. Tree frogs called from high and low in the shrubs and
trees. A bull alligator bellowed somewhere down the branch.
It was foolish to come here but he just had to know. Was his
judgment correct about the feeling of being watched? Down his path
through titi and wax myrtle and thornapple. He saw in the beam of his
flashlight before he got to the still that his empty five gallon jugs were
strewn from where he had left them. They were riddled with axheadshaped holes. At the still proper, everything was smashed and thrown
around. A point had been made by vengeful men. The copper mash
cooker was flatter than a road-killed rat snake and speckled with ax
holes. Even the concrete blocks the drums rested on were smashed to
pieces. His two propane tanks were gone. The nerve of the bastards!
“You fuckers had your fun, didn’t ya?” he said aloud.
It pissed him off that he’d have to forfeit the deposit on the
propane tanks. What a foolish waste. Thirty-five bucks each at two
different places. He dealt with every propane tank dealer within
twenty-five miles and kept track of the date of his purchases. That
way none of them would see him more than twice a year and would
have no reason to notice that he was buying a lot of bottle gas.
Same way with sugar. You buy more than ten pounds of sugar
at once, they want name, rank, serial number. Say your wife making
lots of candy for Christmas. Easter, maybe. Twenty pounds of sugar.
Ain’t no never mind. The T-boys might come to see her. “You might
be running whiskey for all they know, ” one clerk told him.
“Whiskey!” he said. “Who makin’ whiskey?”
“You could,” she said. “You could be.”
Did he have the look of a bootlegger? Did she say that to
everyone who bought a little sugar?
So you buy sugar every time you go past a different grocery
store. Five pounds here. Ten there. Pretty soon you have a ton on
hand.
Jimmy eased into the cat-briar patch again to enlarge the
tunnel he had created. The spines on the cat briars loomed ominously
all around him and occasionally poked him. Watch it, Jack. Watch it,
they said. Everywhere he looked there were big watermelon shaped
cat briar leaves, waxy and sparkling in the sun and the long thorns,
creamy white tinged with green, except for a reddish darkening on the
tip which he always thought must contain some poison the way the
pokes itched and burned. The brush was tall enough and thick enough
so the trail was completely hidden from sight unless you stepped right
in it.
You had to set the still up near a road, but not too near so
someone might smell the mash cooking and wonder what that odd
smell was. And your path had to be wide. Regular 55-gallon drums
would have to be trundled down it on a handtruck. Also full propane
tanks too heavy for one man to carry.
It was work, no doubt. But worth the trouble. A man could
bust a lot of ass for the money he made. And customer satisfaction. A
lot of people admired his product. Knew he made shine as good as his
daddy’s. Not to mention the satisfaction of outwitting a force of
lawmen constantly on the lookout for him. A man was proud of things
like that.
Down on the branch he found a sugarsand-bottomed circular
washout that pleased him. It seemed the neatest setup he had ever
had. Daddy would appreciate a site like this. The branch was close at
hand with a steady flow of good water. The sloped bank of the
washout hid his setup from anyone more than a few feet away.
You cook a batch in daylight so there is no fire glow to be
seen from planes after dark. You lean live vegetation over the still and
tie it in place like a jungle soldier hiding his artillery piece. The
revenue planes flew day and night on irregular schedules. In daylight
they looked for smoke and steam. At night-- fire glow. Some of his
primitive competitors still used wood or charcoal fires. With wood you
got smoke columns in the daytime which even fire lookouts could see
from their towers sometimes. At night you got glow. As you did with
charcoal. There was no smoke with charcoal but it was a daytime fuel.
There was even talk about the forestry planes with infrared sensors
looking for smoldering hot spots which could break out into wildfires
when it was tinder dry in the woods. They picked up active stills on
their equipment sometimes.
Those revenue boys were a suspicious lot. Often they knew
the general area an artist like Jimmy was working in and they watched
closely for signs of him. Sometimes they even came by his doublewide trailer home and parked in his driveway for an hour or more.
They were just trying to rattle him or catch him off guard, but Jimmy
knew better than to leave anything incriminating around his house.
Jimmy’d go out and talk a little bullshit to them, then he’d tell them to
leave. He didn’t mind them coming. It was all part of the game. First
they had to catch you. He busted ass in the swamp alone. He didn’t
trust any helpers. They might steal product from you or turn you in to
the feds for a reward. Jimmy’s woman, Will, was no damned help,
either. She was a foxy-looking woman just a little younger than he,
the kind of woman a man was proud to be seen with. Tall and blonde
and slender with big tits. She liked to wear short shorts to show off
her tanned legs. He liked touching her in public to show anyone eying
her that she was his,, that she didn’t mind his hands on her body. Let
them imagine that she liked the touching and no telling the touching
he was allowed in private. Let the men have wet dreams of her. Let
the women dream of him humping them. Jimmy’s muscles were as
well defined as those of a race horse.
Will liked the benefits of Jimmy’s enterprise: nice clothes,
riding in his chrome-trimmed, four-wheel-drive, diesel pickup truck,
eating out in the best restaurants. But she wouldn’t help. He brought
her out to a still once not five miles from his house to help carry the
sugar, stir some mash, whatever. She didn’t like the mosquitoes,
didn’t like getting scratched by the briars, didn’t like working up a
sweat. She complained so loudly he said, “Jesus Christ, Will, will you
be quiet? God almighty, I never heard such bitching. Someone could
hear you.”
The only way to quiet her was to take her home. Never again,
he told himself. Never again. She wouldn’t stand for direction or
criticism of any kind. Not a bit. She gave herself willingly to him
because she liked the way he did things. But a long-legged, goodlooking woman like that could have her pick of men and she knew it
and he knew it. He did what he had to do to keep her happy.
Jimmy was out cooking a batch in his new setup one day
shortly after he set it up. He heard something crashing through the
brush patch. Oh, oh, he thought, someone’s on to me already.
Bipedal noise continued, one foot after the other, punctuated with very
human sounding swear words every half-minute or so, “God-damn!
Sonofabitch. Jesus. Jesus Christ. Aarghh!” It was a man in pain.
Intermittently there were periods of quiet.
Jimmy heard brush snapping and popping. He followed the
man’s progress by the sound. He was now approaching Jimmy’s path.
What is this crazy man doing? There is another period of silence as he
has apparently found the path. “What the fuck is this?” the man says
aloud. Now Jimmy hears him coming down the path and retreats
quickly behind a thick clump of wax-myrtle.
The man emerges from the path and stands in the open at the
edge of the washout. He’s a tall, thin man probably in his thirties. His
worn khaki clothing is soaked with sweat. There’s a battered metal
clipboard hanging around his neck on a rawhide thong and several
instrument-looking things on other cords. Jimmy noticed a small, longbarreled gun in a holster. That spells lawman, he thought.
The first thing that caught his eye was the still. “Well, well,
well, lookie here,” he says and skidded down the slope. He moved
slowly around looking closely at everything. He slapped the propane
tanks like they were old friends he expected to be there and chuckled
like he was tickled that they were. He touched the side of the cooking
drum and quickly pulled his hand away. Kneeling on the ground, his
head right on the sand, he looked under the drum at the live flame.
He sprung to his feet and sniffed tentatively at the steam. He put his
finger on the dripping liquor at the end of the worm and licked it.
“Whooee! That’s some strong stuff. I’ll be goddamned,” he says. “I’ll
be goddamned.”
You a nosy fucker, Jimmy thought.
The guy took his time. He sat down on the same bucket that
Jimmy always sat on. He pulled a large canteen from his hip to his
mouth and drank deeply. He stood and pissed right on the still. It
quickly steamed dry.
Damn you, buddy, Jimmy thought. Damn you. You better get
your ass on out of here. Quick.
The guy must have picking up the negative vibrations from
Jimmy. He retreated up the path. Jimmy heard him start ramming
through the brush again, then the sounds gradually faded away.
Jimmy went back to the still and checked to see that it was cooking
right and the alcohol dripping from the condenser as it should. Then
he lay back on the grass on the dry side of the still, his hands locked
behind his neck. He thought he smells hot piss and he says aloud,
“Damn you, man. Damn you.”
Jimmy was thinking about Will, trying to figure out what she
really thought of him. She was in love with me once, he thought. Now
she’s not. She goes through the motions but she’s gettin crabbier all
the time. She doesn’t mind telling him what she thinks. Critical.
Short-tempered and ready to stand him down. She is in control, he
decides. The power of women. Whatever she wishes will happen.
A flock of turkey vultures floats silently into the sky above him.
Damn, ugly, puking birds, he thought. They’ll stick their hooked beak
up a long-dead mule’s ass and gobble chunks of rotten flesh like it’s a
chocolate bar. They circle back over him and this time he feels they
are actively looking him over for their next meal. Get lost, bastards, he
says aloud. He wiggles a foot from side to side just to show them he’s
alive.
All of a sudden he hears someone walking toward him from
across the branch. He sits up, heart pounding, his shotgun at the
ready. There, standing in the brush with a compass in his extended
hand and looking directly at Jimmy is the man who was just at the still.
Jimmy jumps up.
“Hey, man,” Jimmy says. “How you doin’?” He holds his
shotgun at port arms, his muscles tensed for action.
“Hi,” the man says, an uncertain look on his face. He walked
slowly toward Jimmy and stood at the far edge of the branch. “This
your still?”
“Yup. I reckon it is mine. You done caught me with my pants
down. There’ll be hell to pay now. Hard time for sure.”
“Hey, relax,” the guy says. He spreads his hands in
supplication and smiles the false smile of a preacher. Right then
Jimmy knows he is a smooth operator. “I’m not going to turn you in. I
believe in free enterprise.”
Jimmy relaxes. “That so?” he asks. “That’s fine. Fine with me.
What you all doin’ out here? Seems like a man would wade through
that briar patch is mighty dedicated to something.”
“I’m a timber cruiser. I work for the paper company that owns
this land. I spend all my time cruising timber just like I’m doing today.
Hot out here today, ain’t it?”
Jimmy looks him over carefully from head to toe. He is tall,
lean, his clothes soaked with sweat. He doesn’t have the posture of
readiness that a lawman would have, a set to his muscles that could
turn into an attack in an instant. Dark, curly hair. A dark moustache.
Well, I’ll let him declare himself. See if he sounds like a lawman. That
little peashooter is no match for this twelve-guage automatic.
“There ain’t no timber out there in that brush. Why you all
bother with all that punishment?” Jimmy asked.
“I just follow this compass wherever it points. I learned long
ago that it knows where it is better than I do. You stick with your
compass in this business. You don’t, you’re screwed up. You won’t
know where the hell you’re at.”
This sounded legitimate to Jimmy. No lawman he ever met
would bust his ass through that brush under any circumstances. Only
a guy a little short of a load would go there voluntarily.
“What you all doin’ with that sidearm?” Jimmy asks.
“Oh, that? That’s my snakecharmer. Four-ten. When I see
I’m about to set my foot smack on an old rattler or moccasin, I blast
him. Never miss. Blows the head right off slicker than snot.”
Jimmy relaxes. Something tells him that this guy is legitimate.
He moves his shotgun from port arms to a loose dangling from his
right hand. The muzzle points at the ground.
“You gonna turn me in to the law?” Jimmy asks.
“Nope. Not me. I believe in each man doing whatever he
takes a notion to to make a living. Your still don’t bother me none,
nosireee. I got a uncle down in south Georgia runs a cooker like this.”
“Well, I’ll be,” Jimmy says softly. “You don’t.”
“I do, sure enough.”
“You ain’t gonna turn me in?”
“No, man. I ain’t that kind. Whatever you do to make a living
is none of my business. I’d say there ain’t many people gonna find you
here. No skin off my nose. None whatever.”
“Fine. Fine,” Jimmy says. “I appreciate it. I really do.” But
he knows he is going to have to move again. Fast. Damn it to hell. It
was a nice spot, but he wouldn’t feel safe knowing a stranger knew
about it.
Jimmy has never seen a stranger at one of his setups before,
but this guy seems truly harmless. It seems a pure accident that he
found the still. Jimmy asks him, “You drink whiskey yourself, sir?”
This seems to make the man nervous. He dances without
moving his feet. Arms twitch, wave around. “No. No,” he says. “I’m
not a hard liquor man myself. Beer. Beer for me. PBR’s what I drink.”
“You don’t want just a sip of my liquor?”
“No. No thanks.”
“How come why not?”
“I just don’t, is all. You ever drink your own product?”
“No, no I guess I don’t.”
“How come you don’t?”
Jimmy rests his palm on the top of his head and watches the
man closely, knowing that he, Jimmy, controls a situation that should
never have happened. The man is truly embarrassed. He is afraid.
The man says, “Look, I don’t mind your still. Not at all. I
won’t tell anyone about it.”
“You married?”
The man hesitates a moment as though searching for hidden
meaning in the question. Then he quietly says, “Yeah. Yeah, I’m
married.”
Jimmy considers the situation. The man is nervous ‘cause he
knows he’s outgunned and he’s thinking of things to say that might
save his skin. But he does have good country-boy roots, and he
sounds like an authentic good old country boy.
“You not even tell your wife about this? You not tell her you
run across a honest-to-God bootlegger in the woods today?”
“No, man. I swear to God, I won’t tell no one, not even my
wife. It’s nobody’s business, see? Nobody but yours. I respect your
need for privacy. Otherwise, how you gonna make it?”
“Well, I done bollixed it up good, ain’t I? Here sets my still on
your company’s land and here I am and here you are and no telling
where you might end up as soon as you leave. It gives me a damned
funny feeling, I’ll tell you.”
“I see what you’re saying, Mister. I fully understand. You’re
afraid I might turn you in as soon as I get out of your sight, but I
promise you, there won’t be nothing like that. I don’t hold it ag’in you,
I don’t disrespect you because you’re running shine. It’s a honest way
to make a living. You’re not hurting my company any I can see, and
what do I care about the feds and the sheriff? They’re nothing to me.
It don’t bother me none if they’re losing out on a little tax money.
Fuckers get too much the way it is. But you don’t know if you can
trust me ‘cause you don’t know me. You can trust me, I’ll tell you. If
there’s anyone in this world you can trust, it’s me.”
Jimmy wanted to believe him but found it hard to put his trust
in a stranger, especially someone employed by the company who
owned the land his still sat on. If only Daddy was here. He’d know
what to do. The thought crossed his mind that his only safe course
was to blow the guy away, but he quickly dismissed it because the guy
was obviously a working stiff, was likable in certain ways and Jimmy
had never come close to killing a human being before. Besides, there
were probably people who knew where the guy was working and there
might be a major search in the area of his still if the guy turned up
missing. Dogs and lawmen and others. A guy didn’t need that.
“Tell you what, my friend,” Jimmy said. “How about we discuss
this a little further tonight? I’ll make it right with you. I don’t carry my
billfold with me when I’m out working like this, but if you’ll come over
to the house tonight, I’ll have something for you.”
“No, no,” the guy said. “You don’t have to do that. I don’t want
nothing from you. You don’t owe me nothing. Not one red cent. I
won’t take it.”
“Tell you, friend. I’d like to see you all tonight. Come over
anytime before ten o’clock tonight, hear?”
“Look, I appreciate the invite, but you don’t have to worry about
me. I’d just as soon leave it at that.”
“What’s your name, my friend?”
“Eddie. Eddie Brightwell.”
“Where you all live at, Eddie?”
“Over at Claxton.”
“Claxton. Good. Nice little town, Claxton. Well, Eddie, I’ll see
you all tonight. I’ll be expecting you. Say about eight o’clock.” And he
told him how to get to his house. “And by the way,” he said, “There’s
something about making that’s different from drinking. Let them as
drinks drink.”
Eddie seemed about to say more, but thought better of it.
Jimmy drove home shaking his head over his bad luck at having his still
discovered. Damn, he hated to have to move it so soon. He’d have
Daddy come over and sit in on Eddie’s visit. See what he thought
about trusting him and moving the still. See how much hush money he
thought it would take.
“It don’t sound good, son,” Daddy said when he called him.
“You don’t need no outsiders knowing where your stills are. He’s sure
enough liable to turn you in. He’ll be telling his bosses about it in the
morning, if he hasn’t already done told them. Looks like you and me
better be moving that still tonight and keep our eyes and ears wide
open and our assholes tight while we’re doing it.”
At eight o’clock all expected parties were present in the kitchen
of Jimmy’s house--Will, Daddy, Eddie and Jimmy. Daddy and Eddie
exchanged pleased to meetchas. Will said, “Hey, how ya doin’?” smiled
a sweet smile. She extended her hand to Eddie. Jimmy was pleased
that Eddie seemed more than a little smitten by Will. It justified his
taste in women. Eddie looked her over from her painted toes to the
top of her teased blonde hair. She did look a sight, Jimmy thought, in
her red shorts and little white top. Those long legs of hers were killers.
Men tended to imagine things involving those legs. He couldn’t blame
the man for admiring, for staring. But, damn, maybe he was carrying
it a little too far. He acted like a mooncalf under a spell. The funny
thing was to Jimmy, Will seemed to be deliberately drawing Eddie’s
attention. He had never seen her do this so openly before. This Eddie
was not what Jimmy would call a fine specimen of a man.
“Where’s your wife at, Eddie?” Jimmy asked. “I thought you
might bring her along.”
Eddie emitted a choked chuckle, causing Jimmy to look intently
at him. Eddie breathed deeply for a moment, then said, “Well I tell ya,
Jimmy, I ain’t lied to you. I am married but just kindly separated at
the moment.”
“All right,” Will said.
“Will,” Jimmy said, “Why don’t you go in the other room and
watch television?”
“I don’t believe I want to do that, Jimmy darlin’,” Will said. “I
believe I’ll stay right here and make us some iced tea so I can listen in
on what sort of business you all be talking about.”
“Will!” Jimmy said, but she ignored him and did as she said,
knowing that he was unlikely to show any rough stuff before a total
stranger.
Jimmy faced Eddie across the table and asked him questions
about his background. Had he told anyone about the still yet? No. He
wanted to know who were the people at the paper company. He
wanted to know who his people were, where they lived and what they
did. He wanted to know more about that uncle down in south Georgia
who ran liquor. He wanted to know just why it was that he wouldn’t
rat on Jimmy to his bosses or the po-lice. All of Eddie’s answers
pointed to him being only what he claimed to be, a sincere working
man who had nothing against bootleggers. Nothing he said was the
least threatening.
Will stood and listened. It seemed to Jimmy that she found
trivial reasons to walk across Eddie’s line of vision. She stood at the
sink and postured with her leg muscles tightened and her breasts
jutted out. She opened cupboards and reached for things on the top
shelf so her calf muscles stood out. She was putting on a show for
Eddie and he was a rapt audience. He was so caught up in watching
her that he didn’t hear several of Jimmy’s questions. The second time
it happened, Jimmy slapped the table hard. It happened twice more
and Jimmy slapped the table so hard the glasses in the cupboard
rattled. Will would be hearing about it later.
They all swatted at several biting flies that darted in and out
around the table. “Those damned ankle flies are driving me crazy
tonight,” Will said as she turned her back to Eddie and bent over to
slap at her ankles. Eddie watched her shorts tighten up on her bottom,
but tried to stay focused on what Jimmy was saying so he wouldn’t
slap the table again.
Daddy only interrupted occasionally with a question. He
mainly seemed interested in finding out the kind of equipment the
uncle was using and where he sold his liquor. After they talked for
about an hour, Daddy said, “Seems to me, Jimmy, that you ought to
just give Eddie here five hundred as a token of friendship.” Then Eddie
protested again--he wasn’t going to take anything because he hadn’t
done anything to deserve it.
Jimmy left the room for a moment and came back holding a
double action .357 pistol. He didn’t say a word. He simply laid the
pistol on the table in front of him with a thump and put five onehundred-dollar bills on the other side of the gun from him toward
Eddie. “You all go on and take that money, Eddie,” Jimmy said. “It’s
all yours. You deserve it.”
Eddie didn’t move to pick the money up. They all sat there
silently. The clock moved slowly. Finally, Will said, “Eddie, darlin’.
You all take that money now. I want you to. I feel like... like... it will
be the start of something good to come.”
Eddie glanced into her eyes, felt a flush heat his skin as Jimmy
turned and looked sharply at her, then back at him just as sharply.
“What the hell is going on here, anyhow?” Jimmy said. He glared into
Eddie’s eyes, suspicious now. His look, her look, lit something inside of
him. Why is she calling me darlin’? Eddie thought. I don’t want to die
before I get home. But if I could have her. Who would have ever
thought. The three of them stared into his eyes. Each seemed
pleading for him to make a right decision, but his compass needle
pointed only north. He held his outstretched hand over the five
hundred dollars and held it there. Quickly he grabbed the.357. Jimmy
pushed the table into Eddie and slid his chair back with a screech.
The Curse of the Yellow Dogs
We had no sand yards in the small town I grew up in the
Northeast. Like most folks there, I assumed that everyone in the world
belonged to the cult of the neat grassy lawn that had to be mowed at
least once a week. I never saw a sand yard until I moved to rural
South Carolina where I first started working in forestry. Down in
Carolina, where the ocean is not that far away, relatively, horizontally,
or more importantly, vertically, or even in the second hand sweep of
geological time, siderally; what was once sea bottom, then miles of
glittering beaches with no human to appreciate it aesthetically, became
terra firma but recently scientifically, referred to as the Coastal Plain.
The nurturing ground of sand sharks, bluefish, manta rays and
horseshoe crabs turned slowly into freshwater pocosins– home to
Atlantic white cedar, gum trees and alligators, and on former sandbars,
pond pine on the wet edges, loblolly and slash pines on the six-inchhigher “hills.”
Sand yards make sense-- no grass to mow and no concealment
for wood ticks, copperheads, rattlesnakes and other vermin. Every
green plant is ruthlessly eradicated as soon as its little green flag raises
above the sand. Sometimes, as before a reunion picnic, the yard is
raked clean, then dragged methodically with the tines of the rake into
a neat herringbone pattern. Mostly you see old ladies sweeping their
yards with a corn broom.
I drove into such a swept yard about five miles due east of
Dunwaddee, South Carolina, on a summer morning. The yard was
almost-white sugar sand with nothing green in sight. I’m seeking
permission to put a logging road across this piece of private land to
reach some timber my company owns but is cut off from access from
our own high land by a big swamp. This private land connects high
and dry to our timber stand. It is one of those remnant stands of
virgin longleaf pine that might be of great ecological interest to
conservation groups if they knew about it and if it wasn’t owned by my
employer, a big paper company whose managers think only of banging
young secretaries on trips to Hilton Head and keeping profits up for the
next quarterly report. Those trees represent lots of cold cash income
at a time when profit margins are heading for the dumper. Orders
come down the line– even the chairman of the board knows about this
stand– get that timber out– now. The tail-end recipient of the chain of
command order looks very familiar in my mirror.
The house and yard stand out on an aerial photograph I study
closely to see the topography of the area. I’m looking for an easier,
cheaper, alternative to building a long timber bridge across the swamp.
We’re looking at least twenty-five grand to bridge the swamp, maybe
fifty. There seems to be no reason why we can’t just negotiate an
easement across this private land. It’s high enough land to support a
good haul road.
The house is a typical rundown frame affair set on brick pillars
with sheet metal caps to prevent the termites from tunneling into the
wood and carrying it away underground in tiny insect bellyfuls until the
above-ground part is as hollow and frail as a hummingbird egg. I
imagine the pleasant sound of a summer rainstorm pattering on the
rusty tin roof. Sleep– you always hear of how pleasant it is to take a
nap to the tinkle of rain on a tin roof, but I’ve never had the pleasure.
The house needs paint. It needs screens replaced, and windows. It
needs indoor plumbing. Maybe a garage.
Attached to the front of the house is a large, roofless porch of
weathered cypress boards, similar to what are called decks in suburbia.
Two black women sit on the porch in rocking chairs as I drive into the
yard, but one of them quickly gets up and goes in the house. I think-pistol-- I’m sure I see a pistol in her hand. This doesn’t really surprise
me since these rural out-backers, black and white, are strangely fierce
and hostile to strangers; it’s almost like they’re primitives not used to
civilized people. I’ve been run off our own land looking down the
barrel of a twelve-gauge more than once. Some adjacent landowners,
who rarely ever see anyone from our company, that is, the owners in
fact, develop a strong proprietary interest in our land because their
land runs into ours and they use it all just as if they owned it. Their
primary interest is in deer hunting or maybe moonshine stills. Our big,
faceless corporation merely owns the land in fee simple title, an
entirely different order of possession.
The woman leaving the porch is young, lithe, quick-moving,
creamed-coffee color. She wears a salmon-colored skirt and a white,
scoop-neck blouse. She slides across the porch with the fluid grace of
a large wild cat. Her companion is stouter, older, grayer, clad in a
faded blue and white plaid house dress. There’s a white kerchief tied
over her head. Over the dress she wears a clean white apron. She
could be the younger one’s mother, even grandmother I suppose. Her
look does not offer welcome to me. It is on the cool side of neutral,
maybe suspicious, but I think, and I assume she is thinking about that
pistol, undoubtedly loaded and still resting in a warm, slightly sweaty
palm of a woman’s hand, held there while the cerebral area of that
same woman waits to see what is what about me. I know I represent
a threat at several levels-- man vs. woman, white man vs. black
woman, educated white man vs. unschooled black woman, educated
rich white man (in her mind) vs. unschooled poor black woman-- but I
am determined to be circumspect.
“Morning, ma’am,” I say out the window of my pickup truck. I
try to put a real smile in my voice like I’m one of the finalists in the
World’s Friendliest Man Contest. These people back in the toolies are
suspicious at best and life-threatening at worst and you have to show
them some respect.
“Mornin’, cap’n,” she says. I haven’t heard that old subservient
greeting in a long time. I thought it went out with the Black Power
movement, but some older black people use it automatically, just as
many older whites habitually use the term nigger as they always have,
but now only after first looking quickly around to check on potential
auditors. Since she chooses and uses that word, I’m now free to call
her auntie without offending-- it is the expected response.
So I do, responding, “Isn’t this a fine day to be alive in this
world, auntie? Looks like...”
I never get to finish my thought since an angry young woman’s
voice flies through the screen door of the house like a varmint bullet,
“She ain’t your mother-fucking auntie, mister. Now I suggest you
move your honky ass right on down the road before I puts a bullet up
your asshole, call it self-defense.”
“Oops, sorry, ma’am,” I say to the older woman. “No harm or
insult intended. I am your neighbor. You see, I work for the paper
company that owns this land right behind yours. I can see our land
from right here where I stand. Those tall, big pine trees right back
there beyond your cornfield? They’re on our land.”
“Hmm,” she says.
“Say, ma’am,” I say. “Would you mind terribly much if I come
up there on the porch with you? Talk with you a few minutes?”
She gravely considers my request for several minutes. Her
face squinches up and she appears to be talking softly to herself in
some private debate. While I wait for her answer, I consider my
personal safety. First of all there’s the matter of the young pistolero,
and then there are the three yellow dogs walking around my truck
sniffing the tires and peeing on them. I don’t know where those yellow
cur dogs you see in all rural areas across the Coastal Plain come from,
but they’re all the same unnatural saffron color as a result of several
centuries of inbreeding. They’re blocky-looking dogs with small ears
and long, motheaten-looking tails jutting above blue-skinned assholes.
If they were a breed, the only appropriate name would be Blue-skinned
Assholes. I have never seen such pathetic dogs elsewhere in all my
life.
I say, “All right, ma’am?”
“Oh I reckon it be all right.”
“Would you mind calling off these dogs of yours, ma’am? They
look like they’re none too friendly to me.”
She laughs involuntarily and says, “Hunhh.” She tries too late
to hide her quick smile behind smooth fingers. I see her palms are as
white as mine. She gets up and walks to the front edge of the porch.
“No, they ain’t friendly,” she says. “To strangers, that is. They don’t
bother us none. You, dog! G’wan, git out of there! Git now!”
The dogs look disappointed as they slink backwards under the
porch. I know better than to turn my back on dogs like that. They‘re
the kind that will sneak out and sink yellowed incisors into calf muscles
the minute they think you’re not looking. It helps to have a visible
weapon of some kind in your hand so I grab my trusty machete, a true
Haitian sugar cane whomper, which I keep under my seat for just such
occasions.
I wave the machete in the face of the biggest yellow dog as I
approach the porch. He inches backwards, snarling at me, his black
lips showing his big yellow teeth. “Go on, now,” I say with all the
nastiness I can carry in my voice, without adding, as I feel is really
necessary to carry the full strength of my voice, except for the
presence of the ladies, “you ugly sonofabitch.”
“Get back in there.”
The old lady watches me with the curious eyes of a cat as I
step onto the porch. I know, her living way out here, that she doesn’t
see white men like me every day and she will be uncomfortable dealing
with me. I will have to set an extra-nice tone to put her at ease and to
avoid offending the young woman in the house. I point to the chair
vacated by the young woman and ask, “Will the young lady be coming
back out here?”
“No, I don’t reckon so. You can set there.”
“Thanks,” I say and settle into the chair. “Nice chair.
Comfortable.”
“What did you say you wants, cap’n? You say you with that
box company?”
“Mom-ma!” the young woman hollers. “He ain’t no captain and
you don’t call him that. You ain’t no damned nigger.”
“Hush, child,” the old woman says, glancing toward the door.
“No, ma’am. I’m not with any box company. I work for the
Alliance Paper Bag Company. See, it says our name right there on the
door of my pickup– Alliance Paper Bag Company, Savannah, Georgia.
We bought that box company you talking about years ago. We make
all those brown paper bags you see down at your corner store.”
“That so? You all makes them bags?”
“Yup, that’s right, truckloads every day.”
“Now, mister man, what was it you wanted to talk about?”
“Mo-maa!” the young one hollers. “You don’ts have to call him
mister man. You stop that nigger talk.”
The old lady gives me an apologetic look and I wait for her to
answer back. When she doesn’t, I say, “You see, ma’am, we got a lot
of timber back here behind you we want to get out in the worst way
and the easiest way for us would be across your land.”
“That so. Cross our land? This land right here?”
“Yup, that’s right. Lots of pulpwood. And saw logs too. Those
saw logs and peeler logs are what we want to get at. Lots of highdollar long timbers and enough clear grade plywood to cover a
thousand acres of ground could be worked out of that timber stand.”
“Well, mister, we ain’t got no road ‘cross this land.”
“That’s one thing we have to talk about, ma’am. We’re going
to need a road, alright. It can’t be done without a road. But we know
how to build roads and it won’t cost you one thin dime. Looks like it
would have to come right across that big garden back behind your
house and right on across your yard here and on out the town road.
We’ll build a better road than this old town road coming in here. As a
matter of fact, we’ll make that town road better all the way out to the
highway.”
She seems puzzled by what I’m saying. Women being women,
she probably doesn’t know how easy it will be for us to push a road
across that flat land of theirs with a D-9 Cat. I see I need to talk a
little man-to-man talk with her husband if I’m to get anywhere. Living
out in the country like this, he’ll know about things like road building,
so I say, “I think I need to talk to your husband, ma’am. What do you
think his feelings might be about us hauling wood out here?”
“Oh, I don’t know nothing about his feelings. I reckon he won’t
say too much. Not if I knows my husband. He never did like that box
company man.”
Whoa, where is this coming from, I wonder. “What man is
that?” I say.
“Oh, you knows that man, doesn’t you?”
“No, I’m sorry, ma’am, I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
“Could be you doesn’t know that man. Could be. But they
owns that timber back there. Been a long time since he last here, I
reckon. Kinda tall, skinny, white man. Wore them gold-colored
spectacles. Smoked a pipe and had a mean look in his eyes.”
“Do you recall his name?”
“No, I doesn’t know his name. I doesn’t care to know it. My
husband don’t like that man. All I know. You with them same folks
you say?”
“No, I think you must be talking about someone from that old
box company before we bought it.”
“Yeah, that’s right. A box company man.”
Oh God, how do I deal with this? There’s some long-term
grudge against that box company and she thinks we’re still the same
company since we own the land. Just the kind of thing that can mess
up our deal. People around here don’t forget bad feelings. If someone
so much as looked crosswise at their granddaddy fifty years ago, they
will remember the slight and pass it on to their children in their
bedtime stories. Litanies of hate go back at least three generations.
It’s not surprising they remember some long-ago conflict with the box
company man, regardless of what the problem was, whether caused by
an expression that crossed someone’s face or a vicious act of plunder,
and regardless of who may actually have been at fault. Nothing
matters, because it has become a point of family honor. I feel a cloud
of gloom settle over me because this woman obviously has a poor
understanding of the way the business world works nowadays.
I say, “Now I want to make it straight with you about my
company, ma’am. We don’t have anything to do with that old box
company. We’re a paper company. We just bought them out,
probably over twenty years ago. We just took them over.”
“Took ‘em over? What you means by dat? Took ‘em over?”
“Well, that means we just bought that company out, lock,
stock and barrel.”
“I don’t reckon I see how that is. That box company own that
timber back there. They’s always owned it.”
“No, no, we’re a paper company, not a box company and we
own that timber. We don’t make boxes, we make paper. I don’t think
anybody makes wood boxes anymore. We’ve got a big paper mill
down in Savannah. You ever been down there? ‘Cause if you have, I
know you’ve seen our mill. You just can’t miss it.”
“’Vannah? You mean ‘Lannah? I got a brother live in
‘Lannah.”
“No, ma’am. I mean Savannah, Georgia. It’s a nice city. Lots
of people live there and work there. You never been down there?”
“Naw, sir. I don’t never go no place. I been down Walterboro
time to time. That a big place. Lots of nice stores. A doctor office.”
“Yes, Walterboro’s a nice big place, but you should see
Savannah some time. It’s fifty times as big as Walterboro, maybe a
hundred times bigger. That paper mill of ours has got over three
thousand people working at it.”
“Weren’t that box company down in Walterboro? Seems like I
seed it there once, down ‘long that railroad track.”
“You’re probably right, ma’am, I guess. I reckon it might could
have been down in Walterboro and I didn’t know that. But I wasn’t
around here in those days.”
“I know my husband don’t like that box company man.”
Ai-yi-yi-yi-yi. Maybe I can communicate with the husband
better. I decide to remind her, since I know she’ll pass it on to her
husband, and it might give us a little leverage, that we know they’re
using our land. I can see the three-path road, so-called from the three
paths left by the wagon wheels on the outside and the mule down the
middle, on the aerial photograph. It shows as a fine white thread that
extends from their dwelling right onto our land where it vanishes under
the black pine tree tops.
“The Alliance Paper Bag Company treats our neighbors right.
You know, when people own land right next to ours, we sort of turn
our heads the other way if they use our land a little bit. As long as
they don’t abuse it. It don’t bother us none too much if someone
shoots a deer occasionally on our land. But I see back in our woods
where someone from this place been going on our land with a mule
and wagon. That three-path road looks like it been used right regular
for a long time. I see where someone cut some of our trees back
there, too. Some nice hardwoods just right for burning in a wood
heater, wood about like that in that pile over yonder. The trees are
pretty thin in spots where someone been cutting them.”
“Cuttin’ trees?” she asks with genuine surprise in her voice.
“Back in yonder? Who say?”
“Well ma’am, someone’s been cutting our trees down for
years, looks like. We don’t mind anyone taking dead trees, but when
they take our live ones, that’s a different story. We don’t think that’s
right. Takes too long to grow them back. It cost us a lot of money if
all our neighbors done that.”
“We never seed no trees cut down,” she says calmly.
“You never see anyone hauling wood out of there, huh?”
“Naw, sir. I never see nothing like that. Who it be? We
always here. Ain’t no one crosses our land. My husband see to that.
Anybody run a mule over this land, he got to answer to my husband.”
“Gracious me, ma’am,” I say. “I see lots of trash been dumped
on our land, too. Cans, bottles, tin, old stoves and suchlike. Why
there’s even a bunch of bone piles must be from dead pigs and mules.”
“I don’t know nothing ‘bout that.”
“Say, ma’am,” I say. “I thought I saw a nice pair of mules
behind that shed over there when I pulled into your yard. Looked like
a nice pair of big white mules. You don’t see white mules every day.
If they’re any good, I imagine your husband is mighty proud of them.”
“Them’s nice mules, alright.”
“Works up your garden in the spring with them, does he?”
“Yep, that’s right.”
“What else does he use them for?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Just pulling that wagon roun’. Hauling corn
and fodder for the mules. Squeezin’ out that cane.”
“I imagine they work good for hauling fire wood, too, don’t
they?”
“Oh yeah, that too. But he don’t work ‘em much. He just like
to have mules ‘bout the place. My husband a mule man. He been
havin’ mules since he a young man. He know his mules, that man.”
“I don’t suppose those mules ever seen that land of ours back
there, have they?”
All of a sudden the young lady shouts at me, “Look here,
mister.” I turn towards her but she’s just a vague blur through the
screen door. “What is it you want, you damned honky? You accusing
my daddy of stealing timber from your woods, dumping trash on your
land? You better be able to prove every damned thing you’re saying.”
“Oh gosh now,” I say while I try to overcome the sinking
feeling of screwing up big time. I sidle over toward the door so I can
talk to her face to face. The old lady looks at me sideways with a
pleased small grin. “No no now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not accusing
your daddy of anything. The main thing is, see, I want to talk with him
man-to-man about hauling that wood across here. Gosh no, I’m not
accusing him of anything.” I turn back toward the older woman and
say, “I just want to meet your husband, ma’am. That’s all. What is his
name?”
The young one answers, “His name is Lawrence Collingwood,
Senior, but he won’t want to see you. He don’t like to talk to no
strangers, especially white
men. He don’t trust no white man.” If only she would step out into
the sunlight where I can see her better, let me look into those big
brown eyes that I know are flashing at me, give me a chance to see
who I’m really dealing with. It’s as hard as trying to talk with someone
wearing sunglasses, even someone you otherwise know quite well.
You stare at a hard, dark, shiny facade and you feel no more emotion
from them than from a piece of stovepipe, yet at the same time your
feelings are hanging out in the breeze in their full view.
I say, “Well, I hope he’ll talk to me. This is one white man he
can trust. Tell him we can pay you all something for crossing your
land.”
“No,” the young woman answers. “We don’t tell him nothing.
He don’t like no one crossing his land. This is his land, inherited from
his daddy and granddaddy. Besides, where all them trucks would go?
They’d raise a powerful lot of dust and noise.”
I say, “Hah, looks like the way the land lays, the road would
have to go just about where that mule path goes, right through this
yard and head back to the woods.”
“You mean, captain... “ the older woman starts asking, but the
younger one shrieks, “Momma!” but the older one keeps on a going,
“You mean right through there? Right through the garden yonder?”
I say, “Reckon so, ma’am. Looks like that’s about the only
place in these flatwoods would hold a road up.”
“That ain’t gonna happen, mister,” the younger one says. She
stays behind the closed screen door like she doesn’t want me to see
her unobstructed. Maybe, the thought just flashes across my mind,
she’s thinking I might find her physically attractive as a woman, toll her
attributes with my eyes and throw her off her badass track because
she doesn’t want to deal with me as a person, as a man, who might be
attractive in his own right. She presses her face right against the
screen door as though trying to see around the corner of the house
where the road would run. Little dimples of flesh bulge out through
the screening. “We ain’t gonna have trucks raising dust and noise all
day long and my daddy don’t want nothing in his garden. Nothing.
You understand me? He don’t even allow them dogs to set one foot in
his garden. Them dogs learned the hard way ‘bout the way some
mans thinks about their garden.”
The challenging nature of my problem is becoming clearer. Kid
glove treatment required. I’ve seen this kind of fierce independence in
small landowners before. My oh my, they own a little piece of scrub
land somewhere and you think it must be a sacred religious shrine the
way they protect it. Don’t even think of walking on it without
permission. If they see you they’ll be out there-- man, woman or child- looking you in one eye while a shotgun barrel looks in the other, and
you’d better be a damned fast talker. This man sounds like one hard
case but I told my boss, Howard, that this was the only feasible way to
get the wood out and that I would work it out. Little did I realize.
“When can I see your husband, ma’am?”
“Let me think,” she says. She ponders until I think she’s not
going to answer; I let the silence run until I can’t stand it. I say,
“Well?”
“He sometime come home ‘bout six o’clock, sometime not ‘til
seven or eight. Hard to tell with that man. Depends on.”
“Would it be alright if I came around to see him tomorrow
night? Say about seven o’clock? If he’s here, fine, if not I’ll just wait
on him.”
“You might as well not come back here, mister. You ain’t
welcome,” the younger one says. The harshness of her words
surprises me so I say, “Why do you say that, ma’am? All I want is to
visit.”
“You gonna find out, mister, if you comes back here. That’s
all.”
I wonder what she’s getting at as I drive around checking on
several cutting jobs later that day. The old man has all the earmarks
of being a problem but I’ve seen problems before and also seen how a
few hundred dollars can make some real hard cases whistle a different
tune in a hurry. After all, what does a few hundred dollars mean to the
company when it saves us thousands in road building costs? I know
we can put that road across their land for less than a thousand, when
that swamp crossing, if it’s even possible at all, that is, if the swamp
isn’t too deep and bottomless for us to work in, will cost at least
twenty-five thousand dollars in bulldozer work, dragline work, piling,
pile driving, fill hauling, besides the cost of the bridge itself. For all I
know, a fifty-five foot piling might just disappear in mud without ever
hitting solid bottom. It has never been sounded, to my knowledge.
The cost has always been the reason that swamp has never been
crossed before from our side. It’s a project for civil engineers.
The next night I’m back at their place at precisely seven PM. It
tickles me to see an old green Dodge pickup parked over at the side of
the yard. Hot damn, I think, my man is here. Three dogs come
howling and snapping at my truck. I sit in the truck and wait for
someone to come out and call off the dogs. I’m in a positive mood, so
I visualize a right civilized discussion taking place. After about five
minutes the dogs are bored with me. They walk around sniffing my
tires and pissing on them-- first the big yellow male, then two smaller
males follow behind sniffing his stuff and adding a shot of their own. I
think about squirting some of my own on, just to give them something
to think about, to see if they’d look in my eyes right after they sniffed
it. I toot the horn a few times more, then decide to get out and look
for someone. As I open my door the dogs renew their savage baying.
That big yellow male looks like he would like to tear me apart piece by
piece. One of the smaller dogs goes around the truck and tries to
sneak up on me from underneath. Fortunately I’m watching for this
and when his nose pokes out, I slap him hard with the side of my
machete. He goes howling off and the others quiet down.
I carefully make my way to the porch steps. Those old heart
pine steps are shiny like someone has smoothed them with a piece of
broken glass then rubbed them with wax. The dogs keep up their
racket but I feel safe now that I’m above them and have a wall to back
up to. I knock on the door, first courteously with my knuckles, then
hard rattling pounding with the side of my fist that makes the door
bounce several inches off the frame. Where in the hell are these
people, I wonder. They’re obviously around. I call through the screen
door, “Hello. Hello,” but no answer. I go cautiously around the house
and see no one in the garden or the cornfield beyond. Strange, I
think. The mules stand in their little pen twitching their ears against
the flies and shaking their heads as they munch on dry fodder. Back
on the porch I leave a note: “Mister Collingwood, I would like to talk
with you about a haul road across your land. We will pay you.
Generously. I’ll be back tomorrow night. Charles Weaver. Alliance
Paper Bag Company.”
The next night I drive into the yard again. More dogs now.
Seven, where there were only three. Oh shit, I think as I look them
over. A new dog stands out, a huge black and white short-haired
monster with an odd bulldog-shaped head. He’s got to go a hundred
and fifty pounds, I think. No way I’m going to face all those dogs by
myself. Honk, honk, honk the horn. Screw the noise. I wonder if they
can even hear the horn above the din of the dogs. No response. No
human in sight. I must have sat there for half an hour before I pull
over next to the old green pickup. I’m drawn there as though it
contains some clue or message for me. But there is no message. All I
see is old green paint fading into rust and worn black plastic seat
covers with white cottony stuffing poking out of numerous holes and
rips. I try to visualize the owner seated in the driver’s seat but no
image comes to me. Somewhere, though, I feel his eyes, and those of
others, watching me with amusement and contempt, speaking softly to
each other about what a fool I be.
The next morning I drive slowly down the lane to their house
so they won’t hear me coming. Sure enough, there sit those same two
women and again the young one hurries in the house hiding something
in her skirt. It’s only me again, I think. “Good morning,” I call to the
older woman. She sits there looking off in the distance, and now I
notice her thin face. Fine-boned. An old corn cob pipe hangs jauntily
downward from her mouth. “Mind calling off the dogs again, ma’am?”
I say. Only seven dogs are working the day shift today, I notice.
“G’wan dog! Git!” she hollers as she gets up and moves to the
front of the porch and flaps her apron toward them. The dogs
reluctantly slink under the porch. I pull my trusty machete from its
sheath and step out and move toward the porch. Maybe there’s
movement inside behind the screen but I’m not sure since a hazy glare
of sunlight obscures my view.
“Well how you doing today, ma’am?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’m just a doin’. This hot weather don’t do
me no good.”
“That so? I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am. I kind of like the
heat. It’s good for a body to sweat, I believe. Good to get your juices
stirred up.” She sits there stoically like I’m not really there. “Say,
ma’am, I guess you probably know I been around here the last two
nights looking for your husband.”
“Here? You been right here, you say? In this yard?” I almost
compliment her on the sincere aplomb with which she answers. Yeah,
really, I think.
“Yup, that’s right. I been right here. Right here on this porch.
I never saw a soul to talk to. And all those dogs! There must have
been eight or ten dogs around here last night looking like they wanted
to tear my head off.”
“Here, you say. Lordy I don’t know where I been. I be around
here all the time. I don’t hardly never go off this place. ‘Course my
husband, he is the man.”
“You didn’t hear me come last night and the night before,
too?”
“No, sir, not me. I ain’t hear nothing.”
“You didn’t see all those dogs out here? Hear them barking at
me?”
“No, not me. There’s some dogs come ‘round from the
neighbors, now. They’s in and out the yard all the time. I don’t hardly
pay ‘em no mind. Makes no never mind to me how many dogs they is.
I don’t feed ‘em, I don’t count ‘em.”
“You know I been wanting to see your husband, ma’am. Did
you tell him what I wanted to see him about?”
“Oh, I done tole him you been here, but he already knowed
somebody strange been here. He see you tire tracks in the dirt t’other
night. My husband don’t miss much. He hard to fool. White man, he
say. Wide new tires, hardly wore.”
“Well. Did you tell him what I wanted?”
“Oh, I done tole him about that pulpwoods on that box
company lands. He don’t want no traffic on his lands. Such a notion,
he says, man must be crazy. I know better than to tell him ‘bout his
garden. He dearly love that garden. He don’t want no trucks runnin’
through his garden. Tell you that.”
My case is strong, but it’s not being made at all. I say, “Look,
I’ve got to see your husband, ma’am. Tell him I’ll be back again
tonight. See here? Here’s twenty-five dollars I’ll give him if he’ll just
talk with me for five minutes. That’s all I ask. Five minutes of talk.
Okay?” She looks skeptical, then possessively at the money as I tuck it
back in my wallet. In her mind she’s already folding and unfolding that
cloth-paper money and admiring the feel of its soft strength. “See you
tonight then.”
Wouldn’t you just know it, that evening there is no old pickup.
Just one flea-ridden skinny yellow bitch dog. She lays there quietly on
the white sand. No sign of humans. It annoys me to be ignored, so
I’m tempted to open that screen door and walk right in. I know that
both women, and probably others, are sitting quietly inside watching
me and looking back and forth and smiling to each other. And
probably armed to the teeth, just waiting for me to pull something. I
should be playing softball tonight. My team needs one of their best
hitters. And look at me, not doing jack shit to advance either cause.
My momma always said that persistence will be rewarded, so
the next night there I am again. There sits that old pickup, its old
rusted chrome grill mocking me with the appearance of a smug smile
like an old girlfriend who I’ve just seen with her new boyfriend. The
dogs are the same as two nights ago. The big ugly black-and-white
monster smears his drool all over my window trying to get at me. I
lean on the horn, keeping the dogs at a fever pitch. I’ll wear them
down with noise, I think. After about a minute I think, sure as hell I
will, the noise probably irritates me more than it does them. I roll
down my window in a quiet interlude and call to the house, “Mister
Collingwood, I need to talk with you, sir. Please come out. Here’s
twenty-five dollars for just five minutes of your time,” and I hold the
bills above the cab of the truck. The dog ruckus starts when I speak
so I’m not sure if a human in the house can hear me. I holler, “Mister
Collingwood, we can pay you some money for what we want. Just tell
me what you want. How does five hundred dollars sound to you? Five
hundred dollars.”
The hell with this. I think about the nearest place I can get a
bottle of Orange Crush, maybe two, to drink on my drive back to
Savannah. I jerk my truck around and back it up towards the house. I
rev the engine, then pop the clutch. I see a cloud of sand float onto
the porch and the house. I can just hear the little tic-tic-tic of grains
and pebbles hitting dry boards and window glass. Son of a bitch, I say
aloud to me. For me. I feel there’s some unseen black hand jerking
me around.
Vernon Merritt, my boss, fool-guffaws when I tell him about it
in the morning. “Weaver, you are being hosed, my boy. You just don’t
know how to work with people. We’ll go up there tonight and I’ll show
you manipulation in action.” As usual he oversimplifies and says the
two of us can keep the dogs at bay, gain the controlling high ground of
the porch and sweet talk them through the screen door. Flash a little
money around, he says. Fine for him, he can do it where I can’t.
After a nice barbecue dinner on Vernon’s expense account we
drive upcountry fifty miles to the house. My machete is tucked under
my seat, and as Vernon puts his Jake staff in the back seat he rubs his
thick fingers over the steel-pointed tip. “That’s a good dog-beater,” he
says. Vernon laughs and jokes and brags, possibly riding high on the
backs of three Jack’s on the rocks he consumes with dinner. He gives
me all sorts of shit about not understanding people-- about motivation
-- a subject which he claims to have studied in depth. Motivation my
ass, I think.
Dogs in great abundance run to meet us before we even hit
that sand yard. More than ever. Dogs boil around us like we’re a tug
boat slicing through a tumultuous sea of dogs. The black and white
one runs alongside Vernon’s door woofing, with his tail wagging.
“Sweet Jesus,” Vernon says. “Look at the size of that monster. I can
see why you’re a little hesitant, Weaver.”
I laugh. I’m happy to see Vernon stepping right into it. “Hahaa,” I say. “You thought I was just joking, didn’t you? See? There’s
his old pickup just like I told you. I know he’s here. Somewhere. Let’s
see you get him to show us his nose.”
The big dog’s huge paws are braced below Vernon’s window
and he scrabbles them against the smooth surface as he tries to get a
grip. “Goddamn, stop that,” Vernon hollers through his window.
“Jesus, look at him. He’s scratching the hell out of my paint job.” He
toots long and furiously at his horn. “Look how ugly that damned dog
is. There’s bloated ticks hanging all over him.”
I laugh to myself. There’s some satisfaction in seeing that
Vernon isn’t any bolder about these dogs than I am. Let him speak to
them of motivation. “You see any way of getting out of this car,
Vernon?”
“Well, it looks to me if we could put a hurting on this big
sonofabitch, the others might be easier to handle. He’s their
ringleader. I’m going to see if I can get this door open just enough to
give him a good crack and make him get down. He’s ruining my door.”
He cracks the latch and slowly pushes the door open against the
weight of the dog. To horrible noise. Not the place for me. He
manages to get the door almost half open with the big dog backing up
on his hind feet. “All right now,” he says, “Hand me your machete. I’m
going to stick that blade so far down his throat it’ll come out his
asshole. All right you sonofabitch, prepare to die.” Just as he starts to
shift his weight onto the leg out the door, he hollers, “Ouch,
goddammit,” and jerks his leg back inside and slams the door. “Jesus
Christ, one of those little dogs bit me from under the car. I didn’t see
him coming. Oh, oh, look at my leg. The sonofabitch drew blood,
ripped my pants. Oh shit, I’m going to have to have rabies shots.
These damned dogs won’t have any shots. Oh shit, what am I going
to do? Let’s get the hell out of here.” He starts the car and swings in
a wild circle as he zooms out of the yard. A little ways down the paved
road he stops. “Here,” he says, “Why don’t you drive? Make this
sonofabitch fly down the road to the emergency room in Savannah.
Damn, damn, damn. I just didn’t see him coming. How the hell did he
get under the car anyhow?”
Monday night we’re back, two timber cruisers along as
reinforcements. Vernon goes on and on about the pain of the rabies
shots into his belly. It looks like they’d need a foot-long needle to
penetrate the thick layer of fat covering his pot gut to get at some vital
area. Doesn’t sound like any fun.
About a quarter mile before the place we stop and don
fiberglass snakeproof leggings, heavy chain saw aprons, hard hats,
leather gloves and a take-no-shit attitude. “Let’s go get ‘em boys,”
Vernon says. “When we get there we got to seize the initiative. Get
right out of the car before it even stops rolling and commence stabbing
dogs with those Jake staffs. Protect one another’s flanks. Don’t be
chickenshit about it.”
We barrel into that yard and dogs flow to meet us from all
directions like syrup swirling down the throat of a funnel. Only now,
besides the black and white dog, there are two full-grown male
Dobermans and more crazy-looking yellow dogs. One of the
Dobermans leaps onto the hood in front of me and yaps right in my
face. “Holy Toledo,” one of the cruisers says, “I wouldn’t believe it if I
hadn’t seen it. I ain’t going out there without a full set of body armor.”
“Ain’t this something, boys?” Vernon says. “Now where in the
hell did these other dogs come from? I’ll bet they’re borrowing every
damned dog for five miles around. Well, I’ll fix ‘em. Here,” he says to
me and hands me the plug for a portable electric megaphone like the
auctioneers use. I plug it in. “Shut up, you damned dogs,” he yells as
he opens his window and slides the bell of the speaker out. He wolfwhistles into the mike and all the dogs fall silent, so silent I almost
think my ears have stopped working. The dogs mill around aimlessly
like the stunned crowd after a thirty second knockout at an over-hyped
prize fight. Some dogs retreat under the porch and lay there with their
heads resting on their front paws. Others stand dumbly. “Ha-haa,
boys,” Vernon says. “Just about like I figured.”
We all breathe lightly in the stunned silence. Vernon cracks his
door and the bullroar starts again. Another loud whistle shuts them off
like a switch. Then the three of us listen to Vernon pour an incredible
bunch of bullshit through his speaker. Have mercy. I have no idea
what he’s trying to say most of the time. I glance at the boys in the
back and roll my eyes when he seems to be really letting the bull fly.
They wink back. If I was in the house I wouldn’t have any notion of
his point. Cajolery and bribery and what he thinks of as humor
bounces off those weathered boards like rain off a box turtle. Before
we leave he has upped the ante to three thousand dollars. Incredible!
“God damn it,” Vernon says as he starts the car and drives off.
“Well I’m just as persistent as this old buck is. We’ll try one more time,
then the wood can just stand there until the worms chew it down. This
is not a reasonable man we’re dealing with. Let’s come Saturday night
when he won’t be expecting us. He’ll think we’ve given up.”
Saturday night, my poker night, the four of us are back. Now
we each have an electric cattle prod that crackles with meanness. We
are ready for the challenge; and the three of us are tickled with
Vernon’s involvement-- he usually stays far away from substance. The
yard is becoming a familiar sight. It haunts my dreams every night.
There sits that forlorn old green pickup right where it’s always parked.
The only dog in sight is that same small yellow bitch dog lying
peacefully on the sand licking itself.
“Well, well, boys,” Vernon says softly, “I think we can get us a
done deal. The drinks will be on me tonight. You got that lease ready
to go, Weaver?”
“Sure,” I say and touch the folded lease in my shirt pocket.
“Let’s go get his X on it,” Vernon says, still softly. We
cautiously get out of the car with cattle prods in hand. I feel lightheaded but pleased that Saturday is the charm. Vernon expresses all
of our thinking: “Wonder where those dogs are tonight? You suppose
one of their neighbors wanted them for some persistent life insurance
salesman?” We all chuckle low at that. They’re almost in the palm of
our hands.
“Hello! Hello!” Vernon calls cheerfully as he crosses the porch
to the door. His nose is almost on the screening as he hollers inside,
“Hello, Mister Collingwood. You in there tonight, sir? Why don’t you
come out and talk with us. We don’t mean you any harm a-tall. We’re
your neighbors. We treat our neighbors right. We’re talking putting
some money in your hand tonight. Three thousand American dollars,
thirty one-hundred-dollar bills right here in my pocket, just for you, sir.
That logging road ain’t going to be as bad as you think. No sir, you will
get right used to it. I bet you got plenty of places you could use a little
cash money now, don’t you, sir?”
The house seems unnaturally still like it’s waiting to breathe.
Vernon talks through the screen until he gets bored with it. A strong
smell of something good cooking inside waxes and wanes in the breeze
through the door– chicken maybe, cloves, greens of some kind,
biscuits. “Goddamn, that smells good,” Vernon says. “I’m tempted to
go in and see what’s smelling so all-fired good. Must be some real soul
food. I don’t think they’re here. I think they somehow slipped away
on us.” He opens the screen door tentatively and calls in, “Hello! Any
one home? I’m coming in.”
As he starts to step inside, all of a sudden that good-looking
woman is there plunking her big pistol barrel right on Vernon’s heart.
“Whoa up, honky,” she says. He flinches just like someone hit him
with one of those cattle prods. He backs onto the porch as she pushes
with the pistol. She looks at me with narrowed up hard eyes and says
to me, “I done tole you, you bull-headed honky, you may as well not
come ‘round here no more. What you doin’ comin’ ‘round here again?”
Vernon stuffs his mouth with humble pie. It drips all over his shirt, but
she is having none of it. She pushes him backward with the pistol,
then steps right in front of me. I see no love in those flashing brown
eyes. She points her pistol right between my eyes and seems to
consider, but it’s obvious she is playing. She raises the pistol until it
points just above my hair and fires one shot, ka-boom. I am deaf and
confused, but happy to be aware that I’m alive. I can’t hear a thing. I
stumble backwards and trip over my own feet and tumble down onto
cypress boards.
All I hear is a loud ringing noise like I have my ear pressed
against an anvil and someone slams it with an eight pound sledge
hammer. Vernon reaches down for me and pushes me toward the car.
I see his lips move but can’t make out what he’s saying.
He points toward the back corner of the yard and I seem to
move in suspended animation as I see a boil of dogs streaming out of
the small mule barn heading for me. Two Dobermans lead the way,
followed by a pack of at least twenty yellow dogs. Faintly, I hear a
voice, “Better move fast, Charlie.” My friends scramble ahead of me
toward the car. A Doberman slams against my door just as I close it.
We watch the dogs mill and bark.
“God damn it,” Vernon puffs. “They almost caught us out in
the open. Did you see how fast those Dobermans covered the ground?
The hell with these people and this timber. I think I finally know why
that timber is still standing there.”
“Look over yonder by the barn,” someone says in back.
Looking, I see a slight white-haired black man leaning back on his
heels against a stout rope attached to a collar on the black and white
dog. The big dog drags him a ways, then breaks free and tears toward
us. The man flies backward and drops to his back on the ground and
lays there, helpless looking, his arms spread wide to a pink sky above.
He seems to be laughing or crying.
On Monday morning Vernon won’t give me the time of day.
He sends a CONFIDENTIAL memo which starts off saying that he had
warned me, considering how important that timber was to the
company’s profits for the next two quarters, to act judiciously with the
landowners and now I have offended them beyond remission. He
says that he, as my supervisor, is putting me on probation and will be
watching my job performance closely from now on.
There are certain things about my attitude, he says, that call
into question whether I am really a team player on the Alliance Paper
Bag Company team. I have shown that I operate with a negative
attitude. His wording seems needlessly harsh: I expect you to do the
following, he says, as though I had supposedly half-assedly done my
job in the past, and outlines and numbers the tasks I am to do in
picayune detail, including a reliable cost estimate on building a fourwire line fence on that property line. All materials are to be hauled
across Dead Man’s Swamp in jonboats. My next performance review
will center on how well I carry out these assigned tasks and especially
on improvement in my attitude. Well, horseshit to you too, Vernon.
Cover my ass is the name of the new game in town and I’m left farting
in the wind. Uncovered.
A Cold Night Solidifies Things
The pack of coyotes smelled the resident dog a quarter-mile
away as they snuffled upwind along their accustomed trail through an
aspen stand with a thick ground layer of hazel brush. Their shoulder
hair bristled provocatively as they stood out at the end of the
driveway—spoiling for a fight if only they should be so lucky, growling
fierce bullies yipping taunts in dog language, daring the mollycoddled
beast they smelled to leave the protective zone of the human house for
once so one of them could clamp his carnivorous teeth on the dog’s
soft throat while others seized his legs, growling savagely, and jerked
them against the resistance of packmates until they snapped like bird
bones.
Owen Cherry, the owner of the home and the dog, noticed the
coyotes regularly out at the end of his driveway, some fifty yards from
the house. It was
apparently a scheduled stop for them as they toured their territory,
usually in the middle of the night when the stars were dimmed by the
full moon and no clouds could be seen and the air was as still as the
interior of a tomb. A hundred feet away from the house may have
been safe for the dog, maybe not, but the dog took no chances when
Owen wasn’t around in person to back him up and pulled his chain as
near to the house as he could get it and laid there whining in the snow.
Owen sat at his desk near a sliding glass door in his walkout
basement that night, unaware of the coyotes because he was thinking
of a wrenching conflict with a man that day, a perverse use of
organizational power against him that made him think only of equity.
The full moon rising looked as large as the earth as it nudged above
the dark line of trees to the east, across the frozen lake he lived on.
The moon gleam off snow and ice seemed as bright as daylight.
Everything in his yard was washed with cool blue light-- a patio table
with a parfait layer of snow on top eighteen inches deep, dark hemlock
trees supported shining shapes of sculpted snow nestled among the
dark needle-covered twigs. Three wooden bird feeders stood forlornly
on posts as though abandoned. Nothing would ever come to them
again, it seemed. Beyond his lakeside yard, the support posts for his
dock, four by four posts frozen into the lake, appeared incongruously
black against the soft light.
He pondered the motives of men for a long time, but gradually
the beauty of his immediate world grappled with the dark shadows of
his mind and slowly overcame them like surfactants eating up a crude
oil spill. Thoughts as hard as flint and as cruel as the bayoneting of
pregnant women he had seen in Vietnam disappeared and he was
drawn into natural beauty his mind could no longer ignore.
There was nothing in Nature that surpassed the combination of bracing
cold and a deep winter’s cover of snow. The other seasons paled to
nothingness in comparison.
He wished to experience the beauty of the night first-hand as
he had done many times before. To get away from artificial things like
the pleasant heat from his wood-burning furnace. There was a certain
freshness in cold air, Owen thought, a feeling of cleanliness, an
elemental purity not found in the air of any other season and that was
why he enjoyed it outdoors when it was really cold. It had to be at
least twenty degrees below zero, with a cold air mass rushing in from
the Arctic to satisfy him-- the same air that had been fifty or sixty
below when it passed over Nome, the Yukon, Yellow Knife,
Saskatchewan.
He donned his pac boots and went upstairs to tell his wife,
Sherry, that he was going for a walk. Then he came back downstairs
and slipped into his goose down parka. Immediately the down started
trapping his body heat and radiated a hot flush back to him as though
the coat contained heating coils.
The pointer on his yard thermometer clearly read twenty-seven
below in the moonlight when he slipped out the door. Just about right.
As he followed a shadowy purple path to the lake, the ice on the lake
groaned and snapped as it contracted into nonagons, decahedrons and
dodecahedrons, some squashed this way or that and some as regular
and perfect as snowflakes.
Dogs were afraid of coyotes. A friend of Owen’s, who owned a
tract of remote forest land where he often came to relax for a weekend
and plant trees by himself, said that when he stayed out there in the
middle of nowhere with his huge male German Shepherd, the
Shepherd was deathly afraid of the coyotes they heard all around them
from sundown to sunup. The dog had to be dragged out the door in
the evening to empty his bladder. Once outside, the
door of the camper slammed tightly behind them, the dog scratched
frantically at the door trying to get back inside. When the man
dragged him bodily off the step, the dog wedged itself between the
man’s legs trying to find the absolute center of his human protective
zone. The man petted him and spoke reassuringly until the dog
awkwardly peed, usually splashing smelly, staining urine on the
owner’s shoes and pants. Damn it to hell, the man said, what a mess.
They would rip a dog to shreds, he said. Any dog. I don’t care how big
it is, they would find a way to kill it. And all dogs sense that. Can you
imagine one of those fluffy white poodle males surrounded by a pack
of coyotes? He’d die of fright before they even bit him.
Owen’s dog, Rouser, heard him as soon as he stepped into the
snow. The dog started a series of whining, begging yips which
immediately told the coyotes to leave because there was a human
present. Rouser’s yips followed him far out across the lake. There was
something irritating about the dog’s dumb possessive yipping after him.
The coyote howls, however, which came from all around the compass
rose, seemed a sacred chant from the cenobitic spirits of the forest.
In places a crust of ice thick enough to bear his weight covered
the snow and it was easy going. In other places the snow had drifted
boot-deep and the effort of walking was annoying. But the extra work
heated him up and he felt sweat forming on his arms and chest as he
sank through the deep snow. After he had walked a mile north across
the lake, beyond any pull from his house or dog, he dropped suddenly
to his knees on a patch of clear ice. The ice rumbled and quaked as it
always did when a cold spell hit. When he stood he felt it through the
bones of his legs. The ice shuddered like it was about to fly apart into
the sky and leave him unsupported in the frigid water. Doppler sounds
of running cracks raced toward him, then away like mini-jet planes
zipping through the clear crystals. The cracks seemed always centered
on him as though his weight was triggering them.
He tumbled onto his back in the snow, relaxed, and stared at
the moon, captivated by its remote beauty, tracing with his eyes the
edges of the shadowy seas staining the smooth-appearing globe, like
watered ink spilled on manila paper. He knew it would be frightfully
hot on the sunlit side he saw, but it was the cold back side that
intrigued him. It represented everything universal and unknown,
sidereal questions of his own origins as well as the significance of the
speck called Planet Earth here, but who knew what in other areas of
the universe. He was in touch with the universe when he was out in
cold weather. Coldness was space. Coldness was elemental,
something beyond grasping even though it was as simple as oxidization
and the pleasures of fire.
One autumn day Owen backtracked on the same trail he had
followed into quiescent, half-naked woods of red oak and white birch
and silver popple and spotted a coyote coming toward him down the
path he had walked. The wild dog’s nose was buried in the scent trail
left by the intruder-- he was totally absorbed by the fascinating odors
of man-sweat and leather and mink oil and the floors of Owen’s truck
and his house. All his inbred wariness was lost to the fascination of
these unnatural smells. Owen stood quietly and watched the coyote
approach. He wondered how close the coyote would come before he
saw him. The coyote snorted and snuffled and sneezed like he might
die in a fit of olfactory ecstasy at any moment. Twenty feet away the
coyote stopped, raised his head and looked straight into Owen’s eyes.
Surprise dilated his black pupils for an instant, then they constricted
rapidly before he yipped once and vanished into the dry bracken fern
and hazel brush.
Owen rose from the snow and quickened his pace, suddenly
conscious of his need to build up body heat again to counteract the
cold northwest wind seeping through his parka. Even though there
was little wind near the house, there was always wind out on the lake.
Now he thought of a grassy opening up on the high land surrounding
the lake. Surely it was covered with three feet of snow by now. Seed
heads of tall grass and the greenish tips of raspberry bushes would be
the only thing visible above the snow. All around the opening stood
straight silver shafts of popple touching the sky softly with feathery
twigs. Here and there the gray glow of reflected moonlight off the
trees would be broken by a scattered understory of unevenly triangular
balsam fir which let not a lumen of light escape them. The opening
somehow radiated spirituality like an ancient cathedral. It seemed to
be the focus, the hallowed ground, of coyote activity where the spirit of
a man seemed not to belong, like a drunk standing up at a church
service and arguing with the message of the minister. Owen
approached the opening as a supplicant.
Whenever he was outdoors at night, or even when he was
lying in bed awakened by their cries in the middle of the night and he
knew they were near his driveway, he saw the clearing in his mind. He
imagined a pack of a dozen or more loosely arrayed along the slight
ridge top across it, pointed snouts offered to the moon, ears laid back,
bodies trembling as an obligatto song poured forth and blended with
the howling of the others. The alpha boss of the pack claimed the
highest bump of the ridge. He led the singing, to anything within
earshot that cared to listen-- this is my space, brother. Stay the hell
out of it. The song of one begat the song of another before the singer
relaxed his mouth into a caricature of a foolish grin. Then he
apparently savored the singing of others briefly before rejoining the
chorus with a rapid upward snap of the head.
The wind pulled heat so rapidly the skin of his face felt like
thick paper without nerve endings and Owen pulled the furred edges of
his hood together. Heated blood slowly crept through his skin. The
clearing he was headed for was only a few hundred yards in from the
lakeshore. The walk to it on overland trails would have been three
times as far. He had thought many times of doing exactly what he was
doing now as he walked woods trails on his “listening expeditions”,
where he listened for owls calling and other night birds protesting
some version of intrusion, on more moderate nights.
He walked over the packed snow in the blue light of the moon,
watching his lockstep purple shadow verifying at least to him that it
was indeed himself walking along and that he alone possessed the
great sense to take advantage of this unique opportunity. How could
people ignore the beauty of a night like this? Why weren’t swarms of
pedestrians crossing the lake and falling down under the spell of the
sky?
Few people would venture out on a night like this. His wife
would be sitting in front of the television, like all of their neighbors,
worrying about him in the brief seconds she wasn’t captivated by her
program. She would imagine that he could somehow break a leg and
be trapped out in the heat-robbing cold, to die so alone. She wouldn’t
think to call for a search party because she would have to be damned
sure that a search party was really needed, or she would suffer Owen’s
wrath. She would imagine him perishing like a lost cheechako in the
wilds of the Yukon. The thought only made him savor the cruel cold air
and the rim of frost forming on his eyebrows and around the fur
circumference of the hood of his parka even more.
The snow sang sharp squeals of protest against being
pressured so rudely and unexpectedly by his weight. Owen wanted to
immerse himself in the bright moonlight shining off the snow and in
the music of the coyotes howling their odd, high-pitched frenzy. They
seemed to be celebrating something, sang to one another so, with
each trying to outdo his companions, that there had to be a spiritual
purpose involved. There was joy in their voices-- an animal chorus
that lifted spirits not unlike the Mormon Tabernacle Choir bouncing
their notes of praise and joy off the high ceiling of their cathedral or
the clamorous ringing of the Anvil Chorus.
Even now he heard their cries echoing from smooth white birch
and black-speckled mustard yellow bigtooth popple and dark hard
maples all around the shore of the lake. It was impossible to say what
was a cry and what an echo.
Owen was glad he was there, glad he ignored his wife saying,
“You’re going out on a night like this? You must be nuts, Owen. Why
don’t you just stay in? Have a glass of brandy.” What did she know?
Owen had long ago accepted the fact that she was bound by ordinary
thinking. She didn’t have the spiritual element that he had, the ability
to appreciate natural beauty or art. She only lived for comfort and
shopping and simplistic entertainment.
Up a slight hill as he crossed the lakeshore and entered the
woods, down a dip, then up a higher hill to level ground. His face
flushed with heat now that he was out of the wind. He walked on
shadows of tree stems and branches, every bump and branch a clear,
elongated, mauve-on-blue drawing of what stood at his right shoulder.
The creak, creak, creaking of his footsteps was painfully loud now as it
bounced back from the forest on both sides. How could he hope to
approach the clearing without disturbing, when the sound of his
footsteps would alert the animals long before he got there?
He tried walking more flat-footed, awkwardly stiffening his feet
so as not to dig up the small, white divots of snow that were the
source of the noise. But it was impossible to be completely silent.
Now the wild dogs were creating real bedlam ahead, a solid chorus of
rising and falling yowls and yips and barks. Owen realized he needn’t
be so cautious. He pictured a dog show in a huge arena where
hundreds of dogs suddenly snapped their ties to civilization, tipped
their heads back and proclaimed their ancestry and independence to
stunned former owners.
Moonlight glimmered from the snow and frost crystals on
rugose bark in the bright woods. Trees near at hand appeared as
distinct as in daylight. Soft light reflected off the snow on the ground,
illuminating the trees from the bottom as well as overhead, diffusing
their hardness into whispers against the cruel sky.
The lightening of the horizon behind the treetops foretold the
nearness of the clearing. Now he paused again to savor the singing.
He tilted his head back to see the sky as they saw it. Then he closed
his eyes to concentrate on the sound. Heroic images flashed across his
mind. The songs of several blended together, some yip-yipping while
others held onto long, moaning howls asthough they enjoyed hearing
themselves. In the back of his mind he thought he caught the highpitched droning of a two-cycle engine. First he thought he heard it.
Then it faded into silence. Again he heard it- now louder and
continuous and definite.
It could only be one thing- snowmobiles. What a desecration,
he thought. What kind of louts could be so oblivious to the beauty of
the night? He envisioned them smashing their machines through the
doors of a church during services and gunning their sputtering
machines right up the aisle to the altar where they would waddle
bowlegged off their machines and urinate in the corners.
Humans were divided into two classes in Owen’s mind-- people
who loved peace and quiet and natural things, and engine freaks who
valued things only if they were attached to an internal combustion
engine or electric motor. Hand work was unbearably slow and erratic
to the engine people. Put a damned motor on it and get the job done!
What is the value of a thing if it shows the imperfect nature of the
craftsman? Why waste time? Why go to all that extra work?
The coyotes kept howling although Owen knew that they were
aware of the oncoming machines long before he was. Of a moment
the howling stopped and he visualized their slender shapes and
shadows sliding toward the forest edge. Now all he heard was the
louder whine of the snowmobiles. He ran the last hundred feet to the
opening, hoping to see at least one animal. When he got there he saw
nothing. Straight across the clearing, like fireflies in summer, was the
intermittent flashing of headlights through the tree stems.
“God damn it,” he said. “God damn it.”
Swift Wing
She steamed in the door of my store with fire in her eyes, pointed her
finger at me and said, Don’t you ever do that again to me.
What? I said. What? What did I do?
You sent me some goddamned mail addressed to some fucking
bitch I don’t know, Charlene Miller. My name is Swift Wing.
Damned fool me for thinking Swift Wing a nickname, an
adopted name, if you will, and figured it might not be the name
recognized by the U.S. Postal Service as I was sure it wasn’t by the
bank, by the tax authorities, law enforcement, Ed McMahon and who
knows who else? The name Charlene Miller was printed boldly on her
checks, which is where I got it. But what do I know? Only that her
name vanished forever more from my mailing list with a punch of the
Clear key.
She verbally kicked my ass around some more until I told her,
Okay, okay, I got the message.
Indian. Native American. What the hell does it mean? It
probably means a freight-trainful of emotional baggage that none of us
would choose to carry around. It can also mean a steady bigtime rain
of dollar bills, a gully-washer, if you can prove certain things, like are
you one-quarter or one-eighth or one-sixteenth or one thirty-second,
depending on, as the guilty-from-birth whities throw good dollars after
bad in the vain hope of beating statistical odds that no man can beat.
She had told me she was an Indian a number of times, but it
was hard to believe. Not that I claim to be an expert, an
anthropologist, an ethnologist. I’ve merely lived near Red Lake, Cass
Lake, White Earth, Lac du Flambeau. Seen a few, gathered some
impressions in a corner, if you will. Thought I could pick out ninetynine percent of the Indians from the non. Especially when you throw
in that distinctive flat voice. Maybe not, though. Maybe I get my
Swedish ass into big trouble dealing with fractional parts. I never was
good with fractions.
You see this woman come in several times a week and you
don’t know what to think. You could draw conclusions, anyone, from:
always the same maroon wool pants, winter and summer, always the
ratty looking long black hair liberally laced with white, always an
amulet, a bird feather, a claw, black beads, always the distinctive tang
of dental decay, always the black cowpoke hat and cowgirl boots.
Some symbols symbolize, others uh-uh. Apparently. You see historic
pictures of Indians wearing cowboy hats but before western movies
thundered down the pike.
She comes to buy soy curd, lentils, organic honey, organic
flour, organic this and that. Blue corn chips. Dried partridge berries
for dysmenorrhea. My new business not overrun with customers so
she comes to provide emotional support of her own devising,
depending on my acknowledged tendency to be a good listener. She,
who places such value on names, could not tell you after twenty-five
in-depth, gut-wrenching, therapy sessions (and here’s your bill,
Madam. Please pay on the way out.) whether I be Tom, Dick, Harry or
Lester. Nor care. You will listen to what you, the collective part of
you, did to me, the collective part of me.
It be hell, it be torture, to be an Indian raised by strict
middlewestern descendants of the Deutsch and Martin Luther. Torture
literal as well as allegorical. Not fair, not fair, she say, to not know of
Iroquois and Seneca and Algonquin from the right side. Junior high
school, with guts grown tender to poke, poke, poke, when, she say,
she first hear from neutrals, squaw, then from former friends, Indian,
damned Indian, fucking Indian. In a small town like that, with people
jealous of this or that success– that farm ownership, that new car, that
seat on the board at the bank– they will find a way to add a little sting
to success, to even things out.
And the spearee go home heart beating hard to meet Poo-Poo,
Kantbee and Miss Guided. I don’t want to be an Indian, she cries.
Ridiculous, she hear–you’re not–can’t be, can’t be–might be, might be–
could be, could be–are. Why you not tell me, tell me, tell me? I see, I
see, this mirror don’t work no more for me. I always knew it don’t
work, ‘cause I see no thee in me. Wondered about that mirror. Need
a new one to construct a Phoenix bird, a thunderbird.
It takes a long time to build a self, a lifetime usually, and when
those first stepping stones are kicked rudely out from under you, you
set sail on a lonely sea without sextant or navigator.
I went to the woods to seek her spirit. Stumbled through
clumps of dogwood and hazel bushes, mountain maple and
honeysuckle vines, painful raspberry, blackberry, thimbleberry. Looked
all around in tree tops of ash and basswood and cedar and dogwood
and elm and right on up that alphabet. Nada. Grabbed onto heavy
limestone rocks festooned with soft green moss and hard white lichens
and little sparkling quartz grottoes. Turned them over and found what
little boys like: dampness and toads and spotted salamanders. No
spirit. Sent morels flying with the toe of my boot, squished false
morels underfoot as their falseness deserved, wiped their slimy residue
from my lugs with kicks in the brown duff. Heard horsetails crack
without breaking under foot, and acorns so.
Next time I saw her I told her of my fruitless quest for her
spirit. Not amused in any way, she looked at me with cold gray eyes
through black industrial-looking glass frames. Two bows, not one, and
little shields to each side as though she just stepped away from her
industrial lathe spinning stainless steel into a bomb fuse.
You will never find my spirit like that, she said. My spirit is in the
woods where a white man will never see it, one moment in the scarlet
tanager at the top of a sugar maple, another moment in the lost
feather of a blue jay lying rotting away in a clump of turkey-foot.
Maybe in the flash of heat-lightning from a hundred miles away in a
sky of even cobalt blue that you noticed only as a bump in your
heartbeat or an electrical flicker across your brain.
Her big-toothed smile reveals twisted and yellowed teeth that
seem appropriate to some form of life I can’t bring to mind. The odor
of dental caries sucks the profundity out of everything she says. The
self-proclaimed spirituality leaves me wondering– does the dilution of
the blood with heathen intermixture reduce spirituality in proportionate
steps?
The man who calls himself my father, even though he isn’t my
father, wants me to go to the nursing home to see his wife, who used
to call herself my mother. She treated me like shit my whole life and
now he expects me to feel sympathy for her, maybe to forgive her.
Love is mentioned somewhere in there. Forgive our trespasses, Lord,
as we forgive those who trespass against us. Words that echo in my
head as often uttered by our Wisconsin Synod Lutheran minister who
had no forgiving bone in his body. I wish the old son of a bitch, my
stepmother, would die. Just die and get the hell out of my head. Her
freaking seventy years on this earth didn’t do a bit of good for anyone,
anything.
Forty-five years old and ready to roll? No, forty-five years old
and ready for the freaking loony bin. I’ve popped some pills– many
the one, two, three– the reds, the whites, the yellows; done the sour
mash stomp ‘til I can’t move; fucked the men, the ladies, the boys, the
girls, all over the palette. Trying to shake that monkey who won’t let
go of my head, but here I am, still looking in my mirror for someone
who looks like me.
That woman’s ground rules changed from minute to minute,
from hour to hour, from day to day. If she wasn’t beating me for not
eating my food, then it was beating for eating. One day I may look in
my own drawer at my own clothes, the next day she may pounce on
me with her rock maple whuppin’ stick. I had a slamming
acquaintance with the cast iron radiators, the furniture, especially the
knobs and handles, the walls.
This kid, calico with bruises, moving stiffly like an arthritic
oldster, simply assumed that this was the lot of a child. I imagined my
little friends toughing it through as I. Calico kids, all of us.
Help me father, for I have sinned. Help me father, no-father,
complicity is thy name. Help me father, no-father, to accept this vale
of tears. Show me the course I must follow, I cannot make it out.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. You must
do as your mother says, he says.
When I was about twelve I grew bold enough or desperate
enough to want to get away from her. I decided once when she
chased me into the bathroom and stood out there hollering for me to
open the door this minute, that it would probably be safer to just jump
out the window, a long fall in that house, even if I killed myself. I just
couldn’t take it any more. She’s out there swearing at me, threatening
to do worse than she’s ever done before and my insides feel like
they’re going to explode. Oh no, please. No more pain. No more
maple stick. What did I do to deserve this?
And now the old man wants me to go see her. She’s your
mother, he says. What an outrage to hear that, what a perversion of a
loving word– mother. She’s starting to get Alzheimer’s now, he says,
but she’ll know you. I know she will. She’ll be happy to see you.
Don’t you want to make your mother happy? She talks out of her head
sometimes, but you just let that fly past your ears.
My mother, my mother. Where is she when you need her?
The nerve of this fucking silent complicitor. Look, Pops, I say,
she isn’t my mother and you aren’t my father. Where were you when I
was growing up without a childhood?
Just go and tell her you love her, he says.
Tell her I love her? Are you out of your freaking mind? No,
goddamnit. I feared and hated that woman for lo these many years.
Now all that’s left is hate. I’m beyond forgiving, it’s beyond my power,
and woe to him that would still forgive in my stead. Hate, that’s all
that’s left, Pops. Pure, simple, hate. She’s lucky she can sit and drool
all over herself and feel no pain. I would wish on her some horrible,
extremely painful disease and have all her faculties and nerve endings
sensitive to pain. Then let it linger and I’ll go to see her just to watch
her suffer. I’ll see her often then. I’ll tell her that it’s her turn to suffer
now for taking my childhood away from me. She destroyed my life.
Child abuse, they call it now, Pops, not just good Wisconsin Synod
Prussian rearing.
Just like a kid, I always thought I could outwait her, because I
couldn’t allow myself to give up hope. Pretty soon she’d be on the
other side of the door shouting that she had to use the bathroom.
Then she’d sit in a rocking chair she kept out there. Sometimes she’d
rap on the arm of the chair with her stick. Sometimes it was so quiet
out there I thought she had left or fallen asleep, but as soon as I’d
slide the little bolt sideways and turn the handle, she’d wrench it out of
my hand and commence whaling me with her stick.
I jumped out of that bathroom window more and more as I got
older. Broke my ankle on a rock once. I finally figured out that my
freedom was illusory, because I always had to come back. I could stay
outside as long as I wanted, but it was scary in the darkness and I
couldn’t stay out there forever. Sometimes I saw her through the
window, waiting for me with her stick.
The old man comes out to my place in the country now and
destroys my yard all summer. He don’t care what I have planted or
decided to let go wild. He don’t care about the weeds I leave for the
chippy sparrows or the perennial prairie flowers I planted. Mow it
down, keep it neat, he says. Those tall plants favor the bugs, the
mosquitoes. When I try to lead him around the yard and tell him that
these flowers are my friends, he just walks away and cranks the
mower. When I put a padlock on the building where the mower is
stored, he goes down the road and borrows a big hammer and
smashes the lock to pieces. When I drive steel stakes in around one of
my friends, he revs the engine up and deliberately confronts steel with
spinning steel. He starts the thing up again and it hops around like a
Mexican jumping bean. He throws the damned thing in the back of his
truck, goes to town and comes back with a new one. Before he starts
it up he walks to my stake-protected plant, pulls his jackknife out and
cuts the plant into shreds.
I think about killing the old son of a bitch with my rifle. When
he’s out there cutting my grass, I take my loaded rifle, put him in my
sights and follow him around from window to window. I’m thinking,
just a little harder squeeze on this trigger, just a little teench more and
he’s out of my life. Forever. It’s tempting, but I know the polizei
would have my ass in a jail cell and then where would I be? Laying
under my lesbian lover thinking of how peaceful it was out on my farm.
What could I plead? Retribution? What goes around comes around?
The infernal baggage of my unhealable wounds don’t show. Justice,
for me. I like the concept of justice.
It’s not right to raise an Indian in a white culture. It just goes
against our basic nature. We’re just not into the white man’s ways of
thinking about success and power and using things up merely because
they’re there.
Father left Charlene Miller, as any good father would: condo,
farm, mutual funds, T-bills, savings accounts, checking accounts, a
Lincoln, a Chevrolet pickup truck, rooms full of doodads worth a nickel
for every dollar he paid for them.
Swift Wing says, Well, he owed me, didn’t he? Don’t you be
looking at me with those goddamned hardass white man’s eyes of
your, thinking about all my money. I don’t owe you nothing. I earned
every goddamned penny of it. I suffered like you can’t imagine.
Retribution – The Bull
Next to Judy Seymour on the side of her cupboard was a sixinch diameter, round metal-backed mirror mounted on an extensible
arm shaped like a series of X’s riveted together which could be pulled
out into fat diamonds or squeezed into thin needle-sharp diamonds.
She leaned forward over her kitchen sink as something red
flashed by. On the ground beneath her bird feeder the cardinal
responsible for the red banner picked up seeds one after the other and
tossed them aside. She sang along with Randy Travis singing her
favorite song, “Forever and Ever, Amen” on the radio.
Sometimes she pulled the mirror so she could study the
blemishes on her thirty-five year old face and look for gray hairs
sneaking into her mop of dark hair. Other times she swiveled the
mirror so she could see up the driveway to where it met the county
road. Straight ahead, looking up the valley that cradled their farm, she
saw a receding line of hills fading in steps of diminishing clarity and
density into diaphanous suggestions of hills at the horizon. So
beautiful, this country.
A bright red pair of male cardinals cracked sunflower seeds on
an open feeder, four mourning doves bobbed greedily around on the
ground near the other cardinal and every perch of her finch feeder was
occupied with goldfinches still molting from brown to yellow. As
always, a dozen or more sparrows dashed here and there, squabbling
with each other and harassing the other birds. The sparrows nested in
the hay mow of the barn and on all the cross braces in the machine
shed so it was impossible to get rid of them. Damn those mosquitoes
of bird life, she thought.
When she heard a heavy truck slowing out on the paved
county road, she shifted her mirror and in a moment saw a red cattle
truck with a large, enclosed, slat-sided white box on the back turn into
the driveway. It crept low-geared past her window toward the barn.
The truck would be hauling the new Holstein bull that her husband, Al,
had purchased at a cattle auction the week before. Al was somewhere
down by the barn. He would hear the truck come or else the driver
would go looking for him. Cattle weren’t women’s business.
Al talked about nothing else over his ham and egg breakfast
that morning. His body glowed with excitement. His blue eyes sparkled
against his round, ruddy face. The bull was young, only four years old,
and Al had bought him at a steal, considering the bull’s lineage, the
production of his forbears. “He was pretty,” Al said. “I fell in love with
his rangy prettiness.”
“Pretty?” Judy asked. “How can a bull be pretty? He’ll just have
shit stuck all over him like they always do. His big nasty balls will be
hanging there like two muskmelons. His mean little eyes will look at
you from that big thick skull. He’ll be goddamned ugly any way you
look at him.”
“No, Judy, you’ll see,” he said. “Pretty to look at and a pretty
damned good deal, too. Those other fellows must have been sleeping
when he sold. God, I couldn’t believe my luck.”
Al frittered away many an evening working with his herd
records on his computer. He studied each cow’s milk-producing
ancestry, sire and dam, and tracked her actual production record and
that of her children as he tried to project the increasing productivity of
his herd into the future. All the young bull’s ancestors were terrific
milk producers. His mother produced 26,000 pounds of milk one year
and one of her sisters almost as much. Although it would take at least
three years before the bull would have any noticeable effect on milk
production, he was anxious to let him get started breeding his cows.
Al was busy rinsing out the stainless steel bulk tank when the
truck arrived, so he didn’t notice it come. A wash of brilliant daylight
tipped Al backward when the driver threw the milk house door open.
His eyes were used to the subdued lighting in the barn. The door rarely
opened except under his own hand and that of the milk truck driver,
who had already been there that morning. The milk truck came twice a
week to haul away the milk in the bulk tank. Al was used to being
alone. Alone with his thoughts. At the moment he had been
considering how he might make his approach to Kathy Czarnowski, the
nice-looking wife of a long-haul trucker, who seemed to enjoy his
company when he saw her at the liquor store in town on his idle days.
“Al, how are you doing today?” the driver, Johnny Franklin,
said. One of the seedy Franklin clan from over in the next county. He
was like all of them, possessing a love for tap beer and a tendency to
do stupid things when drunk. But he had never personally offended Al.
“Well, Johnny. I’m alright. How about you?”
“Not bad, considering. Where you want this cantankerous bull
of yours unloaded at?”
“What do you mean, cantankerous? He give you boys a hard
time getting him loaded?”
“Boy, let me tell you. He didn’t want to go in that truck. Period.
We had to get real serious. Sonofabitch almost ran me down once. It
was a mean scene but when we made it painful enough, he got the
message. All the way here he kept smashing the sides of the box. I
thought he was going to by Jesus turn the truck over a few times.”
“Well, some cattle are just scared to death of anything strange.
You boys get more practice handling them than anyone I know of, so
you ought to be used to it. Tell you, I’ve got a chute just the other
side of the silo. Pull up past it and back her up to the chute. We’ll
make him feel at home.”
Al wasn’t surprised to hear the bull was hard to handle. Most
cattle don’t like to go into enclosed trucks. Handling them is not a job
for animal rights activists. The only way to get them to go where you
want them was to use stout poles with sharpened spikes on the tips, or
pitchforks, or electric cattle prods. Bulls are usually worse than the
cows. Their sullen dignity is not easily broken. Governed by sexuality,
they are used to dominating, to taking what they want when the taste
or smell is right. Any living thing other than a cow might be regarded
as a rival to their domination of a herd. They don’t like being pushed
around by humans or confined in pens or cattle trucks.
Johnny backed the truck up to the chute with Al standing at
the rear to guide him with hand signals. Al studied the half-inch gaps
between the slats to see what he could of the bull but there wasn’t
much to be seen in that dark space other than the vague shadow of
the bull moved restlessly about. The bull stamped his feet and banged
the box with his big head. The truck rocked on its springs. The bull
snorted as though he was trying to blow some living invader from his
nostrils. He wanted nothing but out.
Johnny turned the crank which raised the door in the center of
the back. The truck lurched violently as the bull turned around within.
When the bull saw daylight, he stuck his huge head out the door
tentatively, as though expecting more harassment, and when none
came, scrambled heavily down the chute and took off running. Most of
Al’s Holstein herd was in sight about a quarter-mile away and the bull
headed straight for them. He seemed not to notice the four-wire
barbed fence around the barn yard until he sailed right over it and
continued running toward the cows. The two men froze with awe at
the sight. Neither of them had ever seen anything quite like it.
“God damn, ain’t that something?” Johnny said. “I ain’t never
seen a bull jump a fence like that in my life. I thought he was going to
plow right through it first and come out the other side cut all to hell.
He wants to get right at earning his keep for you, I guess.”
“That bull is going to be a handful, I can see that,” Al said.
“We may need to build some taller fences around here, although I’ve
known bulls to go right through fences when they take a notion to go
somewhere. Uh-uh, I don’t know.” He shook his head.
Johnny left and Al stood watching the bull approach the cows.
The bull moved from cow to cow, sniffing their rear ends until, finding
one ready to breed, he climbed awkwardly onto her rear end. He
looked strangely grotesque with his nose high in the air above the
others. “Go to it, old somebuck,” Al said softly, as he envisioned a
cupful of semen sloshing inside the cow.
He headed for the house to tell Judy all about it. “You should
of seen him,” he said. “As soon as he got out of the truck, he took off
running and cleared the barnyard fence like a jumping horse. His back
feet tucked under him like he jumped fences every day. He sailed over
that fence as easy as a deer. Then, he already bred the first cow for
us. This is one investment that’s paying us back right away.”
“I don’t know, Al.”
“I hope we can control the sonofabitch. I’ll get some of the
neighbors to come over tonight and help me get him in the bull pen in
the barn.”
“I don’t know, Al.”
Judy didn’t like what she heard. At all. Coming from a farm
background, she knew about the dangers of dairy bulls all her life.
They were much more dangerous than beef bulls. Every now and then
a farmer was killed by his bull. It didn’t matter how long you owned
one. If you grew comfortable with your bull, you were an accident
waiting to happen. All it took was a slight carelessness and it was all
over. They seemed to lie in wait all their lives for an opportunity. The
savagery of their attack was stuff of legends. They used their massive
head, two or three times as big as any cow’s and with skull bones twice
as thick, as a battering ram. Human bodies grew wide and scarily thin
under the battering.
Judy said, “’Are you sure you done the right thing buying him,
Al?”
“Dammit, Judy. He’s a good bull. He just got here. Give him a
chance.”
“Well, I don’t like it. It sounds like he could be a problem. I
don’t want him hurting you or someone else.”
“He’ll be alright once he gets used to me and to the place. He’s
not going to hurt anyone. If he causes problems we’ll make expensive
hamburger out of him.”
That evening as the cows came back up the lane to the
barnyard for the evening milking, the bull walked placidly among them.
He stood at the far edge of the barnyard when the cows went into their
stanchions for milking. Al didn’t waste much time thinking about his
cattle, but it struck him suddenly that the bull looked forlorn standing
alone out there. He seemed like a new kid at school, ignored by
everyone else.
Al called two of his friends to come over after milking to help
him get control of the bull. The three men each got on a tractor,
determined to hedge the bull into a corner of the fence where they
could take control of him with a lead pole attached to his nose ring.
Bulls have traditionally been controlled with nose rings, a thick steel
loop placed through a hole punched through a sensitive area in their
nose so that a twist on the ring will bring the meanest bull screaming
to his knees. This bull had a new-looking, heavy stainless steel ring
dangling between his nostrils.
The men tried several times to hem the wary bull into a corner
but he seemed to anticipate their every move and eluded them. They
drew their tractors side by side and killed the engines while they
discussed alternatives. Finally, they decided to move a manure
spreader into one fence corner to cut off his escape route. This was
the missing element, and shortly they had the bull pinned right against
the fence with the tractors.
Al reached down onto the floor of his tractor, then stood with a
hickory lead pole worn smooth by years of use. He said, “All right,
boys. We got him. Now I can teach him some manners. This pole
has made a pussycat out of some real tough customers.”
The bull batted the lead pole away with his nose repeatedly
when Al reached for him with it but eventually he snapped the pole
onto the ring. “All right you sonofabitch,” Al said. “Gotcha. Now your
ass is grass and I’m the lawn mower.”
“You got him, Al?” one of his friends asked.
“Yah, I got him. Back those tractors away now so I can show
him who’s boss of this operation.” As the tractors gave him some
space, the bull tried to move away from Al, but Al, his heart pounding
with excitement, brought him quickly bellowing to the ground. The
intensity of the suffering in his groan made the hairs stand up on Al’s
arms and the back of his neck. The bull laid in the chalky dust panting.
Al panted with excitement that matched the bull’s. This great muscular
creature was at his mercy. He stomped his foot hard on the side of the
bull’s thick nose and pressed down with all his weight. “There,
sonofabitch,” he said. “You see what I can do to you. Now settle down.
Just settle down. Up now. Easy does it.”
Al pulled upward on the ring to make the bull stand. Just then
Al noticed the bloody areas on the edges of his skull where he had
been ramming the truck box and bloody bruises and puncture wounds
all over his flanks. Some of the wounds were still draining blood. He
looked like a surviving gladiator.
The other two men grabbed sharp-tined manure forks and kept
the bull moving straight with vigorous pokes as Al led him around.
“He’s learning real fast, ain’t he, boys? Let’s put him in his pen in the
barn. I think he knows all he needs to know about this nose ring for
now. We better put him in the bull pen until he gets used to this place.
He’s quite a jumper.”
The bull pen, a stout twelve-foot square constructed of eightby-eight timbers and three inch thick oak planks, was in a separate
area of the barn from the milking area. The inside surfaces of the wood
were polished and smooth like the finest hand-rubbed varnish and oil
finish from a long history of bulls constantly rubbing against it. Once
the bull was safely inside the pen, Al pulled him close to the side of the
pen and unsnapped the lead pole from the nose ring. The bull snorted
several times and banged his head savagely against the side of the pen
next to Al. Al watched the bull’s thick tongue dart from his mouth into
his nostrils where a steady stream of blood had started running when
Al forced the bull to the ground the first time.
The bull quickly checked out the perimeter of the pen, pushing
against all four sides as if to test their strength. Then he stood splaylegged and trembling, staring at the departing men.
Al went to the house for supper with Judy. “Well, we got him
under control, Judy. No problem at all. He was just excited about
coming to a new place. That’s all. He looks like a good one to me.
Goddamn, he’s big for a four-year-old. He’s going to be huge when he
gets his full growth. I’d like you to come down to the barn to see him
after supper.”
Judy thoughtfully studied his face. He was as excited as a child
at Christmas. He wouldn’t want to hear anything negative about the
bull. The bull was the most expensive and had the best bloodlines of
any bull they had ever owned. But she thought Al sounded afraid as
well as pleased. His voice trembled and he spoke much faster than
usual. There was a defensive set to his posture, whether from guilt at
having spent too much or from inadmissible fear. He was too proud to
admit any misgivings, she realized that. He was a man and he was the
boss and he had been a farmer all his life and he knew all about bulls.
“Does this bull worry you, Al?” she asked softly. He looked
stunned by the question. “For your safety, I mean?”
“What in the hell are you talking about, Judy? I ain’t afraid of
him. He’s no different from any other goddamned bull. You always got
to be careful of a bull. I’ve had close calls before. You know that. The
sonofabitches just wait on you to slip up. But I don’t think I’ll ever let
my guard down with this one. He’s just new. He’s scared of being in a
new place. He just has to get used to things, then he’ll settle down.
He’s my boy. He’s our future, Judy.”
Judy felt faint because of the fear she sensed in him. She had
no desire to see the bull. Bulls made her feel vulnerable because she
sensed that they wanted to ravage her sexually ever since she heard
the myth of the Minotaurs in school. Bulls well knew the difference
between a man and a woman. When a woman came around, they got
agitated. To humor Al, she agreed to go out to the barn after she
finished doing the dishes. When she could put it off no longer, she
said, “All right, Al, let’s go look at your damned bull.”
The mercury yard light near the house seemed to barely reach
the barn. The wind was strong and gusty and the amorphous shadows
of trees danced up and down the barn side like dervishes. Judy’s spirit
dragged her back toward the house as her body advanced alongside
Al. What the hell was she doing out here with the wind making a mess
of her hair?
They went through a door leading directly into a large area
containing a series of calf pens and the bull pen. Al flipped the light on
and was surprised that the bull wasn’t standing in his pen looking at
them. “He must be laying down,” he said. “Let’s go roust him out.” A
strange lightheadedness engulfed him as adrenalin pumped through his
body. He walked faster as he approached the pen trying to discern the
bull’s body in the dim light. He felt he would float to the ceiling unless
he grasped the top rail of the pen as hard as he could once he realized
the bull was gone.
“Well, I’ll be goddamned. He ain’t here. How the hell did he get
out of this pen? There’s nothing broke.”
Judy felt the hair stand up on the back of her neck as though
an electric charge passed through her neck and shoulders. “Ooh, I
don’t like this, Al,” she said quietly as she grabbed his arm. “Come on,
let’s get back in the house. You can look for him in the morning.”
“No, I got to find where he went.”
He walked over to the large sliding wooden door that led into
the milking area. “Well, look at this. I must not of closed this door all
the way. He must of stuck his nose in the crack and pushed right on in.
It sure as hell is dark in there, though. I ain’t going in there without
the light. I’ll have to go out around the outside to that other door to
get to the light switch. You stay here.”
“Al, you must be crazy. I don’t want to stay here by myself. It’s
too scary. I could just shit!!”
“Yah, you just stay. You’ll be alright. It’s safer here with the
light on.”
“God, Al!” she said, but he went out the door they had come
in. Judy had rarely ever been in the barn after dark by herself. Only
two naked 60 watt bulbs lit a huge area and the resultant long
shadows seemed to move. Dark corners seemed inhabited by living
things with beady eyes looking out at her. What would they think of
her and what might they do? The quiet was broken only by the
scurrying of rats in the bedding straw which covered most of the floor.
My God, she thought, why doesn’t he put in some decent lighting?
She thought about Al running into the bull out in the dark. She
was drawing shallow breaths so she wouldn’t miss any sounds. Why,
why, why, had she come out here? Then she heard an animal snort
over in the milking area and the sliding sounds of heavy cow hooves
trying to get up on a smooth concrete floor. God! What animal was
that? The cows were all out on the night pasture.
The bull suddenly appeared in the doorway to the milking area.
His little pig eyes seemed to look straight at her. At first she couldn’t
believe she was really seeing him. He was a lot bigger than the cows
she was used to seeing. He tossed his head and snorted. The heavy
nose ring bounced on the smooth pink skin of his nose. She screamed,
“Al! He’s in here! My God!” She screamed again in terror, “Ahhhh!”
The lights came on in the milking area behind the bull. The bull
stepped almost delicately through the doorway and moved hesitantly
toward her like a nervous suitor. She froze, breathless.
Al yelled from the doorway, “Judy! Get into the bull pen!”
She jumped into the nearby manger box, then rolled over the
back of it into the pen. “Oh, shit,” she said as she stood and flung her
hands to shed the urine dripping off her fingers. She wiped her hands
on her pant legs as she stumbled through the soggy manure to the
back of the pen. She knew the bull was just behind her. He leaped with
a crash into the manger box and stood there swinging his big head
back and forth. He stared a dead stare with first one eye, then the
other, as he swung back and to. He seemed to be reaching for her with
his nose. Long strands of slime swung with his head. His glistening pink
tongue slid in and out of his nostrils.
Al yelled again from the doorway, “Hit him in the nose before
he tries to climb in there with you.”
“Oh, God,” she said. How could she do that? She was almost
unconscious with fear, but the last thing she wanted was to have the
bull in the pen with her. Holding her breath, she slowly edged toward
him, dodging away when his head swung toward her. When the
moment seemed right, she reached for the bull’s nose ring, felt his hot
breath and slime as she grabbed the ring with all her might and twisted
it sideways as hard as she could. The bull bellowed, reared back
against her weight and shook his head. Judy let go and dropped on her
hands and knees into the soggy manure. The bull shook his head a few
times, then started running toward Al.
Judy, still on her hands and knees, watched through the side
of the pen. She yelled, “Al! Look out!” But Al was already sliding the
door closed between them. The bull smashed it hard with his head,
breaking several pine boards in the process. The sound of the collision
echoed through the barn.
The bull smashed it again and enlarged the opening enough to
stick his head through. The door screeched on its rusty iron track as he
forced his way through. Al ran for a crude stairway that led to the hay
mow and scrambled up it. Since it was early summer, there wasn’t
much hay in the mow. Faint light came up through the open doors
where he threw hay bales down to the cows all winter. He sat on the
floor as his heart pounded like a trip hammer. The only thing on his
mind was to be sure that Judy was safe. He made his way over to the
open feeding door near the wall of the barn behind the bull pen. He
hollered down, “Judy!”
“Al! Are you alright?”
“Yah,” he said. “I’m fine. Are you okay?”
“Yah. I’m okay.”
“Where’s the bull?”
“I don’t know. He’s not in here. He went out that door where
you were.”
“I’m coming down there. Let me know if you see him.” He
threw a dozen hay bales down to have something to land on, then
dropped onto them. He climbed into the pen with her and wrapped her
in his arms. She shuddered and cried. She sucked in deep breaths as
though she couldn’t get enough air.
“Oh, Al,” she said. “He almost got us. What are we going to
do?”
“We just have to get you back to the house. Then I’ll handle
him. We have to find out where he is, first.”
They listened quietly for a moment, then Al climbed out of the
pen and cautiously approached the door into the milking area. He
looked through the door and saw only the empty room with three rows
of metal stanchions standing in mute uniformity.
“I think he went into the barnyard,” he said. “You go to the
other door and skedaddle to the house. I’ll watch for him and follow
you in a few minutes. I won’t feel safe until I have that loaded doublebarrel in my hands. Why don’t you get on up to the house now? I think
it’ll be alright.”
She struggled to climb out of the pen, then walked quickly and
quietly to the other door. She had just opened it a foot when it was
torn out of her hands and smashed off its hinges. She turned back
toward Al and screamed again, “Ahhh! My God, Al, he’s out here. Al!”
She started running back toward the bull pen and Al was struck by the
determined look on her face. She didn’t appear afraid, just totally
focused on reaching safety.
The bull scrambled behind her and knocked her flying with a
savage butt from his head. Al thought, the blow surely knocked the
wind out of her, she couldn’t breathe, flying through the air. He
watched her limp body float through the air like a big doll. Then she
landed heavily and he grimaced as her face slid through the manure
covering the floor.
“No!” Al shouted at the top of his lungs. “No!” He watched
transfixed as the bull nudged her with his nose, then straddled her
body and repeatedly bashed her with his massive head and pawed at
her with his large shit-encrusted hooves. “Hey, hey, hey!” he hollered,
hoping to distract the bull. The bull ignored him, so Al climbed out the
back of the bull pen and moved cautiously toward him, trying to
measure the safety offered by the door and the quickness of the bull.
Al kept yelling as he moved. Judy’s light jacket was torn to shreds and
her chest was covered with blood.
The bull stood over Judy sniffing her. Then he seemed to wake
from a trance and noticed Al. He lunged toward him and Al scrambled
through the door and back up the stairs to the hay mow. All he could
think of was getting help for Judy on the off chance that her body still
had a spark of life that might be nurtured. He had to get to his twelvegauge double-barreled shotgun which now rested in the coat closet in
the house. Where had he put those slugs after last deer season? Would
they be in the top drawer of his dresser, or had he stored them in the
GI ammo can in the bedroom closet? It would be just his luck to not
find them at all.
The bull was smart. Smarter than he thought a bull could be.
He eased back down the stairs and looked around. Nothing. The bull
was probably outside again waiting for him to try to get to the house.
Now all he had to do was to get to the milk room where there was a
phone extension. He would call the neighbor and have him come over
with a gun and shoot the bull.
As Al passed by the doorway, he saw the bull standing near
Judy’s body looking straight at him. Al saw him jump toward him and
heard the heavy clopping hooves heading for him. He heard the bull
crash against the door frame, heard him slide on the concrete as he
turned toward him, chided himself for his overweight clumsiness,
thought about how the twist handle on the milk room door should have
been given a shot of WD 40 a long time ago, thought how he had
made it to safety now that he finally had the door open in his hand,
was surprised at how hard the door wrenched his arm socket as it was
smashed open behind him, heard his own ribs breaking like kindling
against the door frame and didn’t have time to think about Judy or the
sharp cracking sounds of his bones breaking again as a wave of pain
obliterated everything.
The bull was seen two days later breeding Hereford cows in
Kenny Kriedermacher’s pasture, three miles down the road from Al and
Judy’s. Al’s friends disabled the bull with rifle shots to two legs, then
proceeded to make his death as slow and painful as possible with three
baseball bats, two axes and a small chain saw that sprayed blood over
six grim men.
Preacher Man
Mrs. Russell Terwilliger, seated in the second row from the front of the
church, jumped to her feet in front of the congregation five minutes
before the service started and shouted, “People! Listen to me! Hear
me, please.” The organist stopped playing. Mrs. Terwilliger said
loudly, “Warren Wilson isn’t fit to preach to anyone. Don’t you folks be
taken in by him. He’s a married man with three children and he’s
carrying on with a prostitute while his family is away visiting relatives.”
As soon as the people understood the gist of her message, they began
standing one by one. Two farmer-looking heavy men, sunburned,
rose, one to her right, and one far back to her left. They pointed thick
fingers at her and one, the one nearer the back, told her bluntly to
shut her damned mouth. Soon a babble of voices drowned her out.
They said that she was lying, that she was sick. She waved her arms
to quiet them as though she directed them in song. Those who
listened closely heard her say she was going to the news media with
her information.
Within an hour after she spoke, she called all the media she could think
of, as she had promised- local radio stations, television stations and the
local newspaper. And, of course there was the internet. A brush fire
raged through the ministry of Warren Wilson and, in his own words, he
was plum tuckered trying to beat it out. Every time he thought he had
it contained, some new allegation blazed up at him from the computer
screen.
“Praise the Lord!” shouted Warren at the top of his lungs. It was hard
to believe old lady Terwilliger would get up in front of the congregation
and run him down like that. She had always been one of his strongest
supporters, especially where it counted the most– in the cash flow,
which had turned into a deeper, broader river than he had ever dared
imagine when he started preaching locally at a Pentecostal church in
Gadsen, Alabama.
But he couldn’t worry about her perfidy now– it was just one more
painful rap on his clenched fingers which were the only things saving
him from falling straight into Hell. He watched the tight close-up of
himself on the television monitor and admired the sensuous pouty look
on his face. The look had been practiced in front of a mirror hundreds,
thousands, of times. His apple cheeks were highlighted with makeup,
his long blonde hair slicked over with conditioner. I’m a handsome
sumbitch, ain’t I, he mused. Milk those suckers. Milk those suckers,
Warren, he told himself. Come on, buddy, you are on a roll. You’ve
got them eating out of your hand here in the church. Look at the way
that pretty woman in the red dress is staring at you. She would eat
you up in front of this church full of people if you gave her a chance.
Look at the blonde yonder. See how her fingers rest on her pouty lips.
She will break down in tears in just a moment. Look yonder and
yonder and yonder. They all love you, Warren boy.
He knew he was good because he spoke of the Lord but he knew he
was bad inside. He alone realized that he had been a terrible person
without ethics since his early teens. He had no problem forgiving
himself for something beyond his control, something that was
obviously his personal fault.
“You have the power (I have the power, he thought) to change the
world for the betterment of all mankind, in Jesus’ name. All you have
to do is love the Lord and love one another. That’s all. Sounds too
simple, don’t it? You have the power (I have the power, but why can’t
I do it? Why can’t I sincerely beg for my own forgiveness? Why can’t
I love the Lord as I ask them to do?) to change the world for the
betterment of this one poor wretch...,” at this point, watching himself
closely on his monitor, he popped a clean white handkerchief from an
inner pocket on his suit coat and flagged it over his eyes like a
bullfighter plying his cape. It was a practiced move.
Also practiced, he crinkled his cheeks and milked impressive tear tracks
down the sides of his face. The tears were real enough, caused by the
soaking he had given the handkerchief with a bottle of pure onion juice
back in his office just before the service. Ooh, it smarted. He said,
“This wretch stands here in front of you today and again asks for your
forgiveness as you should ask your own forgiveness from Jesus.
Forgive me Lord!” he thundered. “Forgive me people! I am the worst
of the worst. I know some of you will find it impossible to forgive me.
I don’t blame you. I cannot forgive myself for being so weak. I know
the Lord forgives me, though, and that is the only way I can stand in
front of you today. The Lord is truly my shepherd. He is the rock of
salvation. He keeps me going. I have sinned. I have sinned worse
than any of you have sinned. Whatever you may have done, I have
done worse in the eyes of the Lord because I presumed to speak for
him. I am not talking minor sins like pride, I mean major sins.
Whatever evil thoughts you may have had, I have had worse. I have
had carnal thoughts. I know you thought of me as the eyes of the
Lord, the best one to guide you through life’s thorny paths and I have
let you down, my friends.” Shouting now, “I let you down! I knew
better! I knew I was letting you down and I plunged ahead!”
Dropping his voice to a whisper into the microphone, he said, “I’m
sorry, Lord.
I’m sorry, people. I ask for your divine and human forgiveness. I’m
sorry, my friends. Truly sorry.” You could have heard a pin drop
anywhere in that church. Warren couldn’t breathe for a moment as
though a boa constrictor had wrapped around him.
The onion juice stung like fire ants were biting his eyelids but he was
happy to make the sacrifice. Anything that worked was a gift. Tears
streamed down the cheeks of many adults. Children’s eyes were dry,
but opened to wide circles as they sensed that something
extraordinarily human was occurring. All of them were truly on the
ropes, right in the palm of his sweaty hand. Just where he wanted
them. Needed them to be. Hopefully the television audience was
similarly in hand. At this point, because of the charges against him,
there could be no outright pleading for money, but it must be
understood that cold cash was more important than ever. This
ministry was suffering. Financially, and big time.
“I thank you for your support. Thank you. Thank you so much. We
don’t deserve it but it is more important now than ever. If you can find
it in your hearts... Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much.” His
shoulders slumped as he passed the handkerchief over his eyes again.
Tears flowed anew as though his heart was broken.
That will get them, he thought. Come on and blubber really good.
Damn, he was convincing. He almost convinced himself to blubber as
he felt the wave of sympathy flowing to him from man, woman, child.
Now it was over. The ultimate public appearance of his life was done.
His lead singer, the beautiful Donnis McCullem, patted his arm and a
giddy relief swept over him as soon as the monitor changed from his
face to hers. A tropical breeze appeared from nowhere to ripple the
filmy red gown she wore.
Donnis had the cover-girl looks of one of those tall blonde Miss
Americas from Mississippi. She began singing “I Am Washed in the
Blood of the Lamb… It’s through the blood that I receive my victory,
it’s through the blood I have overcome, and it’s through the blood of
Jesus that I have overcome.”
One of his associate pastors, Roy Montgomery, would handle the rest
of the service. Roy’s ringing cries of, “Glory Hal-le-lu-jah!” had boomed
basso profundo throughout Jimmy’s sermon, evoking each time a
minor chorus of Hallelujahs from the congregation. Roy’s sense of
timing for delivering his glory hallelujahs was marvelous. Warren had
learned to let Roy’s cries resonate off the ceiling before he continued
speaking because glory hallelujahs bounced off the ceiling-- continuing,
diminishing-- like echoes across a small lake.
Roy was the one who told Warren before the service, “You done fucked
up big time now, Warren. And all for a little pussy. Or whatever you
want to call it. You done dug a deep hole in soft sand and the walls
are tumbling in all around us. You better be your pious best so we can
start crawling out of this hole. Damn, Warren, you disappoint me at
times.”
Now all he had to bear was the expressions of sympathy he would hear
from his parishioners. They were kind folk and would smother him
with comforting words. He knew he could count on them. They
wouldn’t even be here if they weren’t behind him. But he actually
didn’t care what they said.
Well-to-do country bumpkins, he thought, most of them not having a
clue as to what good sex was all about.
The long line of people worked slowly past him at the door of the
church; they wished him well, thanked him, and told him that they
loved him. The nice looking brunette in the red dress who he had
noticed in the congregation, hugged him, kissed him on the cheek and
said, “We love you, Reverend Warren. You are a great man. Just keep
on doing what you have always done.”
“Thank you, my dear,” he said, while wondering who she was and if
there was any literal meaning in her statement about keeping on
doing. Surely she must know what he was accused of. Her lips were
full and sensuous. Her gaze was steady and loving. Her perfume
wasn’t cheap. As he talked with other well-wishers he kept an eye on
her as she made her way down the steps through the crowd of people.
Halfway down the steps she turned and looked back at him as though
she sensed his eyes on her. She smiled and waved when their eyes
met. She seemed to be alone.
In his office behind the altar he shook hands with his male staff and
accepted sterile hugs and congratulations from the singers. “Thank
you, thank you all. Thanks for your support. I do ‘preciate it,” he
murmured, all but unintelligibly to anyone who heard him. He was
relieved but sad. He knew he had screwed up big time by the
appearance of his favorite prostitute, Mercedes, at his home in broad
daylight. Mercedes had been there many times before in the evening
whenever his wife was out of town and was getting increasingly pushy
about her right to come there whenever she damned well felt like it.
The damned woman had no sense of shame about who she was or
what she did. Her clothes announced her profession: mini skirts and
scoop neck pullover shirts that showed her ample breasts right down to
large nipples peekabooing over the top. When he told her to please be
a little more discreet about her appearance when she came to his
house, she told him she didn’t give a good goddamn what anyone
thought of the way she looked. She had a trade and she was proud of
it. Fortunately there were no neighbors close enough to the estate to
see her coming and going.
“Well, how did we do today, Roy? How do you think I went over?”
“I’d say you did just fine, Warren. You hit a lot of nails straight on the
head. Just by showing up they’re telling you they’re all on your side.
They love you more than they ever did. It reminds them of how mortal
we all are ‘cause you know some of them sin and sin and sin
themselves. We’ll be back on top within a month.”
“How do the collection plates look today, Doug?” Warren asked Doug
Plattner, his facilities minister. Doug was in charge of the collections,
all finances and bookkeeping.
“I think we done ourselves proud today, boss man. I’ve never seen
such a heavy load in the collection plates. There’s tens and twenties
and fifties like you never saw before. You pulled those dollars out of
them like a farmer milking the butterfat out of his prime cow.”
What could Mercedes have been thinking, showing up at his home door
at 9:45 in the morning just when twenty ladies on his advisory board
were meeting in his dining room for a prayer breakfast? He didn’t
realize what was going on at first as he spoke earnestly to the ladies
about the needs for his church to outreach into the community. He
accepted that there were certain trendy topics that demanded his
playing a role. The parishioners expected it of him.
Gradually he realized there was a squabble going on at his front door
with some loud-talking woman arguing with one of his assistants.
She talked louder and louder, swearing all the time. With a sinking
feeling he recognized Mercedes’ voice. He was still, the ladies also, as
she told someone loudly, “Goddammit he didn’t pay me last night. He
said he didn’t have no money. How could someone as rich as him not
have no money? Him on TV. And I need my money. He wants me to
spank his little bare ass like a baby and jerk him off, he’s going to have
to pay me. “
“Excuse me,” Warren said and sprinted toward the foyer. “Shut her
up, gentlemen! Shut her up!” In seconds he faced her with his hands
on her shoulders. “Ma’am” he said, “Will you please be quiet?”
“Ma’am your ass,” she said, throwing his arms away from her.
He was aware of footsteps behind him and in the eyes of the two aides
who had been confronting her he saw fear. Their eyes clearly said,
you’re screwed now, Warren. We’re screwed. Oh no, he thought,
what have I gotten myself into? I should have written her a check.
“Ma’am, please. I don’t know who you are or why you’re coming to my
home. This is not the time or place for you. You can’t come in here
making wild statements and swearing like that. This is the house of
the Lord. You can come and talk to me about the Lord most anytime,
but right now I’m tied up.”
“The lord, my ass, mister phony two-face. You know goddamned good
and well who I am. You owe me two hundred and fifty fucking dollars
for last night. You said you’d send someone over with it and I ain’t
seen it. Now where is it?” and she flung her palm in front of him.
“Boys, we have to get her out of here right now. Will someone take
her outside and give her what it takes to quiet her down?”
As Mercedes struggled against the clutches of his aides her large
breasts fell out of her scoop neck shirt and the men recoiled from her
as if hit with a cattle prod. She tucked her breasts nonchalantly back
in her shirt. The aides grabbed her again and skidded her out the door
like a log behind a mule. As she struggled with them she recited a
litany of words beginning with asshole and motherfucker and fucker
and faggot and ending with shithead.
Jimmy turned and faced a group of six ladies, Mrs. Terwilliger among
them, who had heard every word. “I’m sorry, ladies. I don’t know
who that woman is. She may be one of the mentally ill street people I
sometimes try to assist. She must remember me but I don’t remember
her. I’m sorry. Now let’s go back in the library and continue our talk
about outreach ministry and pray for her salvation.”
He drew a deep breath through his mouth as he walked behind them.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Russell Terwilliger took in every detail of the
appearance of Mercedes. She was the wife of a successful
businessman and she had given many thousands of dollars to support
Warren’s church.
She was a prim little white-haired lady who was always wore tasteful
dresses or tailored suits. She continued standing as they reassembled.
The other ladies were trading meaningful looks. “Warren,” Mrs.
Terwilliger said, “I believe you are lying about this woman. It appears
that she knows you very well. There is no indication that this is a put
on. I think you owe the ladies here an explanation.”
Warren’s head was still spinning from the appearance of Mercedes.
Sure, he was caught short of cash the previous evening and had
forgotten that he promised to send the cash over to her. But it didn’t
seem that important to him, and it was damned hard to get his hands
on any cash on short notice. She must have needed the money bad
for her pimp or for some drugs. Why had he forgotten? He took the
time to collect his thoughts before answering Mrs. Terwilliger.
“Mrs. Terwilliger, I understand your thoughts, only I ask you not to
jump to conclusions. I know that what you just heard was shocking
but I have never seen that woman before that I recall. I don’t know
why she came in here. Perhaps she is mentally ill. And, I do have
rivals in this trade of mine, you know – bitter, jealous men. Perhaps
one of them put her up to this. I can’t say. All I can tell you is that I
am innocent of any wrongdoing. Let us, ladies, say a prayer for the
soul of that sister and for those who put her up to this.” He bowed his
head and folded his hands on his chest. “Blessed Lord, we ask that
you shelter the soul of our troubled sister and those who directed her.
Though they wear a cloak of piety, they are unredeemed sinners and
know not enough to ask for your assistance. Have mercy on their
souls, Lord. Amen. Now, ladies, shall we proceed with our meeting?”
Warren stewed about the pickle he was in all day. Although he knew
that his cloak of sanctimony was nearly as impenetrable as Superman’s
outfit, he realized he had been walking uncomfortably close to the
edge. The lay people wanted to believe in his righteousness. They
had a vested interest in it. So he thought everything would be OK.
Two nights later, on a Saturday, he drove his Lincoln Continental back
to the red light district looking for Mercedes. She was at her usual
corner next to an all-night drugstore talking animatedly with a burly
black man, her pimp.
Stopping the car near them, Warren tooted the horn and when
Mercedes and the pimp looked toward him, he motioned for her to get
in his car. She looked sharp in her white mini-skirt, white boots and
low-cut brown blouse. She brought to mind a cowgirl.
Mercedes took her sweet time sauntering to the car and the pimp slid
along with her. She opened the door and they both leaned down and
looked in at him. Mercedes’ breasts hung exposed like two ripe fruit.
“How you doin’ tonight, Reverend?” the pimp said. He called himself
King Richard and Warren had never liked his attitude or his flashy
manner of dress, with three heavy gold chains around his neck and big
gold rings studded with diamonds on four of his thick fingers.
“I’m alright, Richard. How about you?”
“Can’t complain, Reverend. The Lord is treating me right.”
“What do you want?” Mercedes asked.
“I want your professional services, Mercedes.”
“I thought you was mad at me.”
“No, Mercedes, you know what I think of you. I don’t appreciate you
coming by my house at such an inappropriate time, but it’s alright. I
have forgiven you. You have other assets I value you for. Come on,
get in.”
“I ain’t going with you ‘til I see some money up front. I don’t do
nothin’ on credit with you after what you pulled. You ought to know
that. You about one of the lowest scums I ever saw.”
“Just come on, Mercedes. I have money tonight,” and he pulled out
his wallet and riffled through a neat sheaf of fifties and hundreds.
“Mm, mm,” she said and got in the car.
Richard said, “You have a good time tonight, Reverend. Tip the lady
well,” as he shut the door behind her. The whole way back to his
house she berated him for not paying her the other night. She’s
stupid, he thought. Damned stupid. She goes on and on about some
damned niddling little thing just for something to talk about.
In his house they hadn’t gotten all the way up to his bedroom yet
when the doorbell rang. “Who the hell could that be?” he said and
turned to go back down the stairs. “Go in my room,” he said.
He opened the front door and there stood Mrs. Russell Terwilliger with
a grim set around her mouth that he surmised must have echoed the
tightness of her sphincter muscle. “Why, Mrs. Terwilliger, what brings
you out at night like this?”
“Warren,” she said, “It’s no use pretending in front of me. You needn’t
put on any self-righteous act. I followed you all the way downtown
and all the way back. I saw you pick up that same prostitute who was
at this house the other morning and I know she’s inside right now. Let
me see her now,” and she pushed the door wide open against his hand
which held it nearly closed. She marched determinedly past him,
spearing him out of her path with a sharp elbow to the rib cage.
“Oof! Mrs. Terwilliger, I’m truly sorry, but I haven’t invited you inside.
This is my private house, you know, not a public space like my church.”
She stopped at the foot of the stairs and stood looking up at Mercedes
who was standing at a rail looking down on them. “Thank you,” she
said, and headed back through the open door. “I’ve seen quite enough.
I suppose you know what this means, don’t you, Warren?”
Warren couldn’t believe this was happening to him. He was just
minding his own business, looking forward to a long, sensuous session
with Mercedes, when Mrs. Terwilliger suddenly showed up. Never in
his wildest dreams would he have imagined that anyone would actually
follow him. Didn’t he have a right to a private life? And what of Mrs.
Terwilliger? Didn’t she have anything better to do with her time than
to play the gumshoe? She was obviously out to prove a point.
“Woe is me, Mercedes,” he told her. “That damned old biddy is going
to make my life hell. But I ain’t going to worry about it tonight. Come
on in the bedroom now and be good to your daddy.”
The next day, Mrs. Terwilliger called all the members of the board of
deacons and told them what she had discovered. Most of them were
incredulous. It was quite a stretch for them to imagine that the man
they knew as a man of God and God’s wisdom would do anything like
she described. What proof did she have, several wanted to know? Did
she have any photographs? Why was she following Warren around on
a Saturday night, anyway?
She carried her charges to the Sunday services the following day.
Unknown parties leaked the story to the press and soon it was featured
on local radio and television. Then the national networks picked up the
story and Warren Wilson’s picture and video clips from his sermons
were all over the nightly news. His telephone trilled continually. Two-
person teams of young reporters and video cameramen climbed his
step and beat his door with their fists. “Reverend Wilson, what do you
say to the charges against you? Why do you suppose that Mrs.
Terwilliger is attacking you?”
Warren only answered the first reporter on video tape because he was
professionally courteous, because she was professionally intense and
because she caught him unaware. The woman reporter was a tall, thin
redhead. She looked like the kind that would be dry as a piece of toast
in bed. He told her that he was bewildered by the charges. Mrs.
Terwilliger had been one of his strongest supporters as he built his
ministry but she had suddenly turned against him and he didn’t know
why. The reporter’s questions grew more personal and Warren
excused himself and went back into his house. From then on he
carefully looked over everyone who appeared on his step from inside.
Most of them were reporters and he didn’t open his door again to
them.
Warren’s wife, Betty, called him from Pittsburgh and demanded to
know what the hell was going on. He blamed it all on Mrs. Terwilliger
even though he knew that his wife knew that he enjoyed the company
of beautiful women from time to time. She had a knack for sensing
when his yardarm was saluting another flag. But she had learned to
live with things because she enjoyed the lifestyle of a millionairess.
Betty would be staying in Pittsburgh for another month. He could stew
in his own juice for all she cared. She didn’t want to be dragged into it
and have to prop him up with hollow beams of spousal support. “And I
hope that little Goldilocks hasn’t been sleepin’ in my bed,” she said.
That Betty was a real cutter.
Warren’s church was not an island unto itself; it was part of the
Southern Baptist Association and theoretically answerable to the head
of the Association, the Reverend Roy Fathington. Reverend Roy called
and demanded to know what was going on. This type of publicity was
bad for the church. Preachers carrying on with women outside of their
congregations was practically unheard of and would be the death of
the church. If a male parishioner caught his wife in the arms of their
preacher, it might be a different story. It had happened too many
times in the church to be a novelty. If the husband wasn’t angry or
strong enough to manhandle the preacher himself, the Association
would discreetly transfer the preacher to a different church if the facts
seemed irrefutable.
If it was merely innuendo that the preacher was messing around with
women in his congregation, the Association’s hands were tied. They
could only deal with concrete facts. As in this case, where Warren had
flagrantly crossed the line by patronizing a woman who was not only
outside the church, but personally supported by sinful men shooting
their wads.
“Why, Warren,” the Reverend Roy wanted to know, “have you strayed
beyond the confines of the church? Why have you chosen to deal with
a,” and he clipped his syllables, “pro-sti-tute? And get caught at it?
It’s the getting caught that hurts, Warren. It was dumb. It was
stupid.”
“I have done no wrong, Roy. I have committed no sins.”
“I will have to discuss this with the board of deacons, Warren. We
may have to ask you to let your ministry lie low for a few months. No
television for you.”
“No way, Roy. I’m not giving up my television time. If I have to, I’ll
leave you and go out on my own. My backstabbing competitors are
behind this. I know it and you know it. They’re jealous of the way my
ministry has grown. I’m on thirty-five more stations than Jimmy James
and leaving him in the dust. He can’t stand it. This Terwilliger woman,
who I thought was one of my most faithful supporters, has been
gotten to by my rivals and is working at their behest. I know it. It
astonishes me. It saddens me.”
Stations dropped Warren as though he had announced that he was a
Muslim. Where he had been thirty-five stations ahead of Jimmy James,
he now was fifty-five stations behind. Mail contributions dropped to a
trickle. Warren lay awake at night thinking about the situation. He
came to believe that the best defense was a good offense.
He went to Atlanta, where Jimmy James operated from, and
interviewed four private detectives. One of them, Ben Bush, was
clearly the most sincere and trustworthy of the lot, in spite of his three
hundred pound bulk, rumpled clothing and the pungent stench of
dental caries from six feet away. Warren hired him to find out as much
as he could about Jimmy James. “I need something on him,” Warren
said. “Something really juicy. Can I trust you?”
“You payin’ me, Mister Reverend, he ain’t. I’m a professional.”
Five days later Ben Bush called and said, “Reverend, I think I’ve got
some news you might want to hear.”
“Already? That’s wonderful. Wonderful. What have you found?”
“It seems, Reverend, that Reverend James has a taste for prostitutes.
We’ve already seen him pick up three of them. He was too quick for
us the first two times, but we got his m.o. down now and we managed
to get a nice picture of him going in a fleabag motel with the third one.
Is this about what you wanted?”
Warren tapped his right forefinger against the arm of his chair like he
was keying out a telegraph message. “It’s exactly what I wanted, Mr.
Bush. I can’t thank you enough. Send me your report and that
photograph and negative by express mail and I’ll cut you a check
including a thousand dollar bonus. And, by the way Mr. Bush, I’ll pay
you another handsome bonus if you can put your hands on a list of
recent significant contributors to the ministry of Reverend James, say
for the past three or four months. I especially want to know if you run
across the name Terwilliger.”
Warren set up every reporter he could think of in advance. “I’ve got
something really big to release,” he told them. “You’re going to love it,
I promise. I’ll be in touch.”
As soon as he got the envelope he sprang into action, first getting two
dozen copies of the photograph printed at the one hour photo place at
a nearby strip mall. He passed them out at a press conference he
called. It was unadulterated joy to see the photo on television and
hear the reports on television and radio. Now it was Jimmy James’
turn to dance the hotfoot polka.
Roy Fathington was one of Warren’s first callers. “Warren,” he said,
“where did you get this stuff on Jimmy James?”
“Me, Roy? Whatever gave you that notion that I had something to do
with this?”
“Your name is written all over it, Warren. You can’t believe the turmoil
this is going to cause for me. Why couldn’t you have just let it go? It
would have blown over for you in a few months.”
“Me be done to by Jimmy James and just forget it?”
“Ye shall turn the other cheek, Warren.”
“This is not at my hand, Roy, but I will have to say that it purely tickles
the hell out of me.” He laughed. “Who would have thunk it?”
Warren looked onto his front step after hearing the doorbell and saw
an attractive dark-haired woman standing there. About thirty-five
years old, her hair stylishly cut, wearing a tasteful dress that
emphasized her narrow waist. No cameraman accompanied her. “Hi,
Reverend Warren,” she said with a sweet smile. “Do you remember
me?”
“I can’t say I do, Ma’am.”
“You remember, I was at your service several weeks ago. We spoke.”
“Ah, of course. I do remember now,” he said, but really didn’t.
She stood there expectantly, and when he said no more, she extended
her hand and said, “I’m Penelope Stanton. Aren’t you going to ask me
in?”
Warren was out of kilter, trying to recover from her appearance, but if
she wanted to come in, fine. Who knew where it might lead? “Oh,
forgive me, come in, come in, I’m just forgetting my manners, Ma’am...
Penelope. You took me by surprise, I guess.”
Although Warren had been planning on seeing Mercedes that night, he
didn’t. The night never really ended until about ten the next morning
when Penelope put her dress back on. She watched his program every
week and had been in love with him for a long time. Had fantasized
about lying on top of him and cupping his apple cheeks in her hands.
Cup away, Warren thought. Warren wondered how many more like
her there were out there. She loved him all through the night. The
inadequacies that haunted him were forgotten and, surprisingly to
himself, he loved her in normal ways. She lay in his arms and listened
in times of respite to his gut feelings about Mrs. Terwilliger and Jimmy
James and Roy Fathington.
“Don’t worry about those people, Warren, I know you will come out on
top.” She invited him to her house two nights later. “I have always
wanted to love you, Warren. I see the holy spirit in you. This is my
time. You’ll need a little time to recover from this, I think.”
“I believe you may be right,” he said. “My pecker is plumb wore out.”
A few days later Ben Bush called him from Atlanta. “Well,” he said, “I
think I found some more of what you want. It took some doing. It
took some cash. But I know you can handle that.” As Warren
suspected, Mrs. Russell Terwilliger had given twenty thousand dollars
to the ministry of Jimmy James in the past three months. Jimmy had
turned her over somehow.
That night he went to Penelope’s condo. The place was plush all
around. So much red and pink velvet it made his head spin. And there
on a bedside table stood his own framed photo. “There’s the man I
love,” she said, pointing to it. After they loved they lay in bed talking
and she let slip some mention of Jimmy James in response to
something he said.
“No, Jimmy isn’t like that,” she said as though she knew him
personally.
His suspicions were aroused. He grilled her like a hardened detective.
He ignored her attempts to arouse him again until she finally broke
down and admitted that she had once been the lover of Jimmy James.
For three years. “Jimmy James. Jimmy James. That man is coming to
haunt me. I know you told him you loved him many times just as
you’re doing with me now. I see that’s the way you are. You moved
here from Atlanta just to be with me, to throw your love at me for
some reason.”
“Warren, it’s true,” she said. “I did love Jimmy James once. But I
don’t anymore. All the while I was loving him I knew I loved you
more, just like I said I do, only I liked living in Atlanta. I’d never been
in Mobile. I watched you on television every week. I want to be with
you. I want to love God with you. I’m not working for him.”
“Penelope, I feel safer with a prostitute than I do with you. At least
she has no axe to grind. The only way I’m going to believe you care
about me is if you help me bring down Jimmy James.”
“I’ll do it, Warren. I’ll show you I care. We’ll smash him flatter than a
pancake. How can I help you?”
They rented adjacent rooms at the Atlanta Hilton, and with the
assistance of Ben Hunt, rigged one room with four microphones and a
hidden television camera and the other room with recording devices.
Penelope called Jimmy James, with Warren Wilson listening on another
phone, and said she needed to see him– she was wrong to have left
him the way she did and was having second thoughts about leaving
him. She missed him.
At first he was suspicious because she had dumped on him pretty good
at their final meeting: she told him she didn’t love him, he was a selfindulgent weasel, he was cheating on her with younger women, he
didn’t change his underwear often enough, he snored, he passed an
annoying amount of gas, and on and on. To top it off she said that he
was a boring egotist.
She was sorry, she said, that she had said all those mean old things
about him. She really hadn’t meant any of it. She wanted to do their
old routine with him.
He couldn’t believe she had come back to him. Penny, he called her.
This pet name made Warren mad. Penny, Penny, he thought. I’ll give
you a damned penny.
There was something odd about the whole damned stew, Jimmy James
said, but he would give her the benefit of the doubt for one more goround. But she better be good, he said. She better be naughtier than
she had ever been. She better work up a good sweat.
“I’ll do it, Jimmy honey. I’ll do whatever you want to bring you back to
me. Bring your prettiest clothes.”
Warren thought she was a little too convincing, that her heart was in it
a little too far. “What the hell is going on, Penelope? I think you’re
still in love with that guy. Such talk, such fluffy divinity you use with
that man. I can tell he’s still crazy about you and if you can talk that
sweet to someone you don’t even care for, according to you, what are
you doing with me? I think you only came to me because of him, to
knock the chocks out from my wheels and watch my forlorn behind roll
free down the hill and into the lake. It smells around here, Penelope.
My nose is sensitive to moral corruption and it’s a-twitching now.”
“Oh, Warren, you misread me so badly. I said I love you, and I do. I
do admit I know how to play up to Jimmy. I did it so much. But I’m
only doing this for you.”
It was easy for Warren to believe otherwise.
Almost two hours before the seven PM rendezvous, Warren, Penelope
and Ben Bush lounged in the adjacent room, watching television.
Several days later the doorbell rang about nine in the evening. Warren
looked out and saw an older man in a suit standing there. He opened
the door. “Yes?” he said.
“Oh, good evening, Reverend Wilson. I’m Russell Terwilliger. I
wanted to talk with you if I could.”
“Fine. Fine. Come in the house.”
Mister Terwilliger was trim and handsome in an obviously expensive
checked suit. Hmm, Warren thought, I’d like to have some suits like
that. They’d look good on television. Mister Terwilliger’s hair was thin
but still black, as were his soft eyes. He looked all around the room
before he spoke. Finally, he said, “Reverend Wilson, I’m going to be
frank with you. It’s about my wife. I know she’s given a lot of my
money, our money, to you and your church, and it’s never bothered
me. I felt it made her happy and it was going for what was supposedly
a good cause– a church. But when I drove up your driveway, when I
look around here, I wonder what it is that she is actually supporting.”
“Yes, I am successful at what I do, as you are, and I don’t apologize
for it, as I know you don’t for your own success, but looking at my
house will tell you nothing about all the good that comes out of my
church. This is just the cover of the book. I have appreciated the
support of your wife. She’s a fine woman. I know she doesn’t think
well of me anymore but I know she is still a fine, loving, woman. I
wish she’d come back to my church and I wouldn’t take another dollar
from her. We’re united in our love of the Lord.”
“Well, therein lies the problem. My wife believes in doing right, in
living right, according to what she thinks the Bible tells her and since
you’ve apparently let her down she’s gone off the deep end. Now
she’s caught up with this Jimmy James fellow. She flies over to Atlanta
every Saturday night so she can go to his services on Sunday morning.
She’s giving him twice as much money as she was giving you. I’d like
to put a stop to it.”
“There’ll be a stop to it soon, I promise you.
Norski
“It’s funny,” Ida Eide said, addressing her daughter Heidi, “Now
that you mention that old Dutch Peterson dying, it reminds me of the
time I pulled the reins in on your dad once. I almost forgot. I don’t
think I ever told you about this.” She leaned her ponderous bulk
against the back brace of a hoopback chair and looked up at the bare,
round fluorescent light tube over the kitchen table. Her chair creaked
in protest. She flapped one heavy arm over the other, across her
chest. She grunted as though it took a lot of effort to move those
arms around. The skin-encased fat of her thick arms rippled like
pliable, gigantic white sausages pocked with gray dimples of cellulite.
Her old vaccination scar loomed as scarily large as a corroded silver
dollar.
“He had been getting home from work a little later than I
thought he should,” Ida said. “Years ago, back in the forties when you
kids was little. So I asked him, decided to get to the bottom of what
was going on. Where you been now, Gunnar, I said as soon as he
come in the back porch one night. I leaned him right back against the
doorframe like this,” she said, jamming her heavy arms straight out as
though she was pinning his shoulders against the wall. Glunk! It was
easy to see how trapped his five-foot-eight body would have been,
surrounded by her flabby bulk which even now projected a don’t–messwith-me aura like a heavyweight boxer. Her arms settled back heavily
over her drooping breasts.
Her fiftiesh daughter, Heidi Eide Houston, sitting around the
corner of the kitchen table from Ida in the place that had always been
her only spot of private domain in the universe, eating the same lunch
she had eaten many times as a schoolgirl, canned spaghetti circles in
tomato sauce and fried Spam slices with French’s mustard in a viscous
pile on her plate, sensed the type of thing that was forthcoming, knew
it wouldn’t be fair to her departed father whom she had always
sympathized with, and assumed a cool, defensive look. With a slim
figure, blonde hair maintained with regular rinses and almost wrinklefree skin, she didn’t look her age and certainly bore little resemblance
to her wrinkled and obese mother.
Heidi had just commented that she had seen in the obituaries
column of the local paper where Dutch Peterson, one of the old-line
tavern owners in town, had recently died. She had walked, ridden her
bike, then driven, past that long gray shingle-sided two-story building
hundreds of times during her growing-up years. There was something
feminine and cozy about the curtains in the windows of the apartment
above the tavern and she knew she would like the woman who put up
the curtains. She wondered what it was like, living upstairs of a
tavern. It seemed it would sometimes be noisy. The tavern stood on a
corner on West Fifth Street, right in the middle of a residential
neighborhood. Large slabs of cream colored local dolomite formed the
steps, which stood catty-corner to the building.
“I knew he’d been drinking, I could smell it. That darned old
booze. Ishta. Where have you been, you sot you, I said.”
Heidi winced. She looked at her husband with a look of stifled
anger. He knew he would pay a price for sins he didn’t commit. He
could recite the litany of what he would hear when alone. It would
start with, “Goddammit, she makes me so angry,” and end later with,
“Just let me alone, will you?” Ida danced. He paid. That’s the way it
always was.
“Mother...” Heidi said and rolled her eyes to no one in
particular, but Ida was on a roll. There was no stopping her. Heidi
looked at her watch as though she had just remembered an urgent
appointment she mustn’t miss. The actual time didn’t register in her
consciousness. She squeezed the blood forward in a vein in her arm
and watched it pop back full. Her jaw muscles assumed an
unbecoming, mean set.
“Oh, I stopped over to Dutch’s bar (that was that Dutch
Peterson’s place, you know. I don’t know why they called him Dutch,
anyway. I think he was just a dumb Swede.) for a little while, he said.
That’s all. It was one of the guys’ birthday.”
“Oh ho. So that’s where you’ve been, is it now? Birthday?
I’ll give you birthday. And how much did you spend for beer?”
“I don’t know, he said.”
“A couple of dollars, I bet, didn’t ya?” The gleam of
righteousness in her eyes had not aged as she had, it shone with the
timeless vigor of the North Star. “He just looked at me with his bleary
eyes. No, no, I said. No more of that, mister. You’re not going to be
drinking away our hard-earned money like that, you hear me? Those
were the days when women didn’t work, you know, so we had to get
by on what he earned. Oh, he got all sheepish-like ‘cause he knew he
wasn’t doing right.”
Heidi said, “Mother, for God’s sake.” Heidi’s husband looked
at her, assessing how near she was to blowing her cork. Nowhere
near, he decided. Not yet. The pain of hearing chapter and verse on
the drive home was considered and dismissed because he was
perfectly happy to hear this unexpected tale. He could have told his
wife, “Save your breath. Go in the other room. Or, we’d better be
hitting the road.” But he would have suffered unnecessarily on Ida’s
behalf. Let her pay her own dues. He avoided meeting his wife’s
glance and gleefully drummed the tip of his table knife on the yellow
Formica tabletop.
“See to it now. Don’t be stopping there again, you hear me?
Ya, ya, he said, and I let him go.”
Heidi doodled a series of interconnecting loops through the
tomato sauce on her yellow Fiesta plate with the tip of her knife,
occasionally slashing angry diagonals and chords that showed yellow
lines quickly oozing back to brick red.
“From time to time he had to work late, I knew that, but I
started looking closer at his pay stubs, wondering where the extra
money was that he was supposed to be earning. Oh, there was a few
dollars here and there but I couldn’t see enough where he had been
working extra almost every day, so I started checking him when he
come home late. Smelled his breath. You know how that booze stinks
on a person. Ish! Sure enough, I smelled it on him again. Ah, God.
Once. Then more times. Goddammit to hell, it made me mad. Where
have you been, I would say each time, over to Dutch’s again? No, no,
he would say, I yust (You know he said that “y” sound when he should
have said a “j”. Isn’t that funny that he never could get that right?
He always sounded like a foreigner after living here all those years. I
never liked that.) been working late. Had to get another car loaded
before they’d let us go.”
Heidi rolled her lower lip into her mouth and rubbed her teeth
up and down on the skin below her lip. She glanced out the window
when a pigeon flew past. She noticed the masking tape, dry and
faded, still covering a crack in the window that her brother had caused
with a model airplane some forty years before.
“Hah, I said. I think you been to Dutch’s loading cars, haven’t
you? Then he started avoiding me, trying to stay far enough away so I
couldn’t smell his breath, staying outside all evening, monkeying
around in his garden until almost dark. He’d go get that garden hose
as soon as he got out of his car. He went all over the yard watering,
even if it had just rained the night before. The barberry bushes out in
front grew like heck. He had to cut them back every two weeks. The
tomatoes got so much water they split, every one. When everything
else was just about drowned, he just stood out there spraying the
grass. He wouldn’t even come in for supper. Ah, gosh. I finally had
to put a stop to it ‘cause the water bill was getting so high and he
wasn’t eating hardly any supper. Darned foolishness. I’d send one of
you kids out to tell him to come in, don’t you remember, but he
wouldn’t come in. If it was raining he’d find something in the garage
to fool with. But I knew what was going on, I’ll tell you. I’m not so
dumb, you know, “ she said, squinting her eyes and leaning forward, a
proud, foxy look on her wrinkled face that said only a damned fool
would try to put one over on her, then or now.
“I called over to Dutch’s one night when he was ‘specially late.
Is Gunnar Eide there? I asked. Sure, they said, and I could hear all
sorts of laughing and carrying on in the background. Thank you, I
said, and hung up the phone. I called a cab and went right over there.
I think it cost me seventy-five cents. That was a lot of money in those
days for a mile ride, so I let the driver know what I thought about that,
too.”
“There he sat with his cronies from work-- Schmitt, Olson, and
that Polock from down in the East End he used to work with, oh, what
was his name, laughing and having a grand time, playing some kind of
cards. God, it made me mad right away to see him laughing with a
beer glass by his hand thinking he was fooling me and I’m home
wondering why he hasn’t come home to the supper I cooked. There
was an empty sandwich plate next to his glass and a French fry basket
and bottles of ketchup. What made me maddest was him thinking he
was putting something over on me. Goddammit. No sir, I’m nobody’s
fool for long. And here I was sitting at home keeping his supper warm,
thinking he was still working and he must be getting hungry and tired.”
“What do you call it when they have cards on the table like that?
And money laying all over, a pile next to each one? Isn’t that poker?”
She looked in the son-in-law’s eyes and he nodded agreement.
“And Gunnar’s pile was the smallest one like he’d been losing.
He only had a few quarters laying there and old Schmitt, who he never
really liked ‘cause he was such a grumpy German bastard, he had a big
pile of money in front of him, lots of quarters and even some dollar
bills.”
“They stopped carrying on when they saw me. Got quiet as
mice. Then the whole place got quiet. I could feel all those men
watching, listening to me. Ah-hah, what are you doing here, I said to
him. Working late, I suppose? Is this where you been every night
when you told me you been loading cars? He just sat there staring at
me like I was a ghost. He never ever thought I would come in there
by myself. He found out right then how tough I was. By God, I’m
tough and I wanted the world to know it! The rest of them was
looking down at the table, looking sheepish, and everyone in the place
was watching me and listening and there was no other women in
there. But I didn’t care. Ooh, I was mad!”
“Mother, please,” Heidi said.
“One of those men I remember..”
“Oh,” Heidi said.
“.. he was an old fart with a grizzly gray beard sitting on a red
barstool near at hand. He smirked and covered his face with his hand
like this,” and she put palm to mouth and bent over, “With a big show.
He thought he was a real smartypants. Oh, God, he made me mad,
too. Oh, oh, he said, you boys done been caught in the act now.
There’s gonna be hell to pay. Your sweetie is going to cut you off,
Gunnar. I remember him saying that.”
“Ah, hell. You be quiet over there, goddammit, I said to him.
Now how much have you lost then, Gunnar? He said, I don’t know,
maybe five or six dollars. Six dollars, I said. That’s money you’re
taking right away from your family. That can buy a lot of groceries for
your kids. Well, we’re not going to let that get by. We’ll just take it
out of this pile here, and I reached over and started counting it out of
the pile in front of Schmitt. No, no, Gunnar said. You can’t do that,
and he grabbed me by the wrist. I shook him off just like this,” she
said, extending her arm then snatching it back with a muscular jerk so
the fat rippled in heavy waves up and down her arm. There was still a
lot of strength in that arm. “The hell I can’t, I hollered at him real
loud, I’m doing it. All those men looked at me real disgusted-like when
I counted out six dollars even and put it in the pocket of my dress.”
“Now you take a good look around here, Gunnar, ‘cause you’re
not coming back again, ever. I don’t want to catch you here again,
hear me? There’ll be hell to pay. I’ll have you shipped back to Norway
so fast it’ll make your head spin.”
“Bye-bye, Gunnar, the old coot said. We’re going to miss you
around here. Then the whole place got so loud ‘cause they all started
hollering at me and laughing. I think every man in that tavern was
hollering something, swearing at me, calling me a bitch and worse
names like that, but I just threw my shoulders back and acted like I
was the Queen of England. The hell with them. Damned drunks,
anyhow.”
“Come on, you, let’s go, I said. I felt strong enough to knock
a hole in a concrete wall with my fist. Outside I told him, goddammit,
I’m mad with you. I could just knock your goddamned fool head off,
pissing our money away like this in a tavern! Oh, no, mister, this is the
last time you ever ever do this to me.” Her voice rose. Her face
flushed. Fifty-year-old righteousness was reborn, unattenuated. She
drew a deep breath through her nose and sat quietly for a moment.
“The last time,” she said softly. “And he never did it again, either.
Leastways so I could tell. I kept him on a tight leash from then on-made him tell me exactly how long he worked, made him hand his
paycheck over to me on Friday night. I figured it all out to the penny.
I even caught it a few times when the company cheated him out of
something. That stopped once they knew I was checking on them.
Why, I couldn’t allow that to go on. I kept him on the straight and
narrow. He never did that to me again to me. See? I fixed him. I
fixed him good. There wasn’t nothing he could say. I tell you.”
Heidi’s husband sat there listening to this, surprised that it was
brought out but not surprised at the substance of it and thought, poor
Gunnar, that long-suffering, meek man, intimidated by her aggressive
stinginess and northern Bible Belt backwoods Lutheranism, and even
by his own Old Country origins, so that he never quite acquired the
social skills needed to ease through this American world, never felt
comfortable speaking English even though he gradually lost fluency in
Norwegian as almost sixty years passed. He’d hear a couple of old
farmers talking Norwegian at a farm auction and he had no idea what
they were saying.
She was bigger than he physically, but that wasn’t what
stopped him from finding a better life for himself. He knew how to
take care of himself if it came right down to it. He was used to
batching it before he got married. Part of it was the children and part
of it was that she had convinced him that the immigration authorities
were watching resident aliens like him, and at the slightest sign of
misbehavior, they would come for him and send him packing back to
Norway in chains. For many years he believed that if she complained
to ambiguous authorities he would be deported the next day. And he
had no desire to go back to Norway. Besides that, he was simply a
docile man to start with. Live and let live. He was as peaceable and
self-effacing as St. Francis.
He was a small man, but wiry and hard-working. One time a
foreman told a bunch of men that Gunnar was a tough little Norski
monkey and Gunnar repeated the story with obvious pride as he got
older (out of nowhere the story would be told repeatedly to the same
listeners and end in a chuckle with the statement- He said I was a
tough little Norski monkey. Ha ha.) until he lapsed into a catatonic
death-wish state in his eighties.
He wouldn’t have been afraid of her physical attack when he
was a working man. Not yet. That might come later, decades later
when he was in his seventies and obviously declining. Then she could
push him around at will because then the age gap between them
became more to her advantage, as well as her preponderant bulk.
Poor Gunnar, as nice a man as you could ever hope to meet,
trapped into a loveless marriage for the last fifty years of his life
because he had once knocked up a poor, ignorant,
Norwegian/American farm girl searching desperately for some fun,
looking for some way out of her drab, lonely existence pinching off
tobacco plant leaders and hand hoeing hardscrabble corn on hillsides
better suited to growing red cedar and post oak out in the coulee
country of southwestern Wisconsin. She carried the ticket for her
escape around inside her body for nine months but the train she
thought she was getting on never arrived where she hoped it was
going. Fifty years of hollow, lonely, togetherness followed each of
them like the dirty storm cloud behind that Al Capp character. But she
had her man. That alone gave her the strength and respectability she
sought.
Poor Gunnar, the Norwegian immigrant, pushed off his home
farm snuggled into blue mountains on shining Sogn fjord by a rigid
primogeniture which decreed that his oldest brother was to inherit the
home farm as oldest sons always did. What was there for Gunnar to
do but hop a boat for Amerika and find a new way to make a living? If
not a fortune? There were all kinds of stories floating around about
guys who went to Amerika and made a fortune. With a little luck he
could be one of them.
His knowledge of English wasn’t very good so it would be
most comfortable working for other Norwegians. Gunnar knew about
this one or that who had gone to Minnesota and Iowa and Wisconsin,
so he followed a tip from a guy who lived just a mile up the fjord and
had once lived in Wisconsin and Iowa. He ended up on a small dairy
farm in northeastern Iowa, farther from his native salt air than he had
ever imagined possible and never to sniff it again. It was no surprise
that the Norwegian farmer he worked for was a penny-pincher. It was
patch and scrimp and do without, just like his own father and
grandfather. The man was a cruel bully, besides, so Gunnar moved a
little further west and worked for another Norwegian. That didn’t last
long and he moved on to an old couple’s dairy operation five miles
from where he started.
After a year he had sized up Amerika to his satisfaction and
grew tired of five dollars a week plus all the baked beans and fatback
he could eat. He laid in bed at night disgusted with his own sulfurous
fartsmell. He daydreamed and nightdreamed about salmon fishing on
the fjord. He thought about a milkmaid named Sylvia who stayed in a
small cabin on the high mountain summer pasture milking cows and
making cheese. She was a sturdy blonde who didn’t mind taking her
blouse off. Her breasts were as perfect as turned bowls. Her fingers,
strong from hand-milking a dozen cows twice a day, reminded him of
the strength of tree roots. Lying in his small room in the attic, he
imagined those fingers sliding like a piston back and to on his erection.
On his occasional visits to a nearby small town he heard
about other things, possibilities he hadn’t known about before. There
was a lot to this sprawling Amerika. It wasn’t long before someone
mentioned a new railroad line being built near the farm where he
worked.
He walked four miles to check it out one evening, down dusty
lanes with flat crabgrass rosettes growing in the middle and fuzzy
timothy spikes and turkey foot and bull thistle growing in the ditches.
He found a Norski foreman and more Norskis on the crew, affable guys
from the old country just like him, sitting around playing cards in a hot,
sweat-smelling boxcar crudely converted to a bunkhouse. They said
they had room on the crew for one more. He went back to the farm to
get his belongings with a spring in his step. The old couple he worked
for were shocked when he told them that they would have to milk the
cows themselves in the morning, he had pulled his last teat. “You
ungrateful bastard. You sonofabitch,” the old lady shouted at him-she who had always seemed as meek as a lamb. They refused to pay
him his last three weeks’ wages. “You can’t leave us like this,” they
said. “We can’t do all the work by ourselves. Give us time to find
another hand.”
He laughed. “Too damned bad, you old skinflints, you’ll have
to do all your own work for once,” he said. He left toting a gray
woolen blanket rolled up over his spare clothing, tied with two big
loops of binder twine for his arms and holding dangling the handforged gracefully curved iron handles of a small dovetailed trunk his
grandfather had once made for him. In it were tokens verifying his
identity to himself: photographs of himself as a boy, of his family, of
the farmstead at home with grass and goats on the roof of the house
and barn, a Bible in Norwegian, a bone-handled fisherman’s knife, a
sewing kit put together by his mother, handknit wool socks and a
winter cap. A windup alarm clock.
The walk back to the end of the new track was noticeably
longer than it seemed earlier because of the pendulous strain of the
trunk, causing him to carry it at times like a butler with a tureen of
soup and others like it was loaded with lead bars. From time to time
he set the trunk down in the dust of the road and sat on it as the
sweet sound of bobwhite calling impinged on his awareness. Crickets
stilled as he passed, and toads. Bullbats tore the air overhead.
When he finally reached the fire he had seen from a long way
back, he found four men reclined on rich prairie topsoil talking in
Norwegian about salmon fishing on the fjords back home. One guy
was from Sogn fjord, only ten miles closer to the North Sea, and had
fished in the same waters as Gunnar. He felt nearer to home than he
had for a long time.
The next morning he started learning all about being a gandy
dancer. The crew worked in unison with stout crowbars shifting the
heavy steel rails around, then picked up slender-headed sledge
hammers to drive thick spikes into oak crossties with blows
synchronized among four men as curiously satisfying to each as
performing an intricate folk dance. The money was a lot better than
he had ever known before, and it was nice working out in the sun
surrounded by gently rolling hills of corn and wheat, with scattered
bur oak groves used by nesting crows and resting chicken hawks. He
had never liked working in stuffy cow barns doing the milking twice a
day and daily cleaning out the fresh cow shit.
Then, as the railroad job was about to shut down for the
winter, he heard about the big dams they were building on the
Mississippi River-- the great New Deal project to establish nine feet of
navigable water along the upper Mississippi all the way from Alton,
Illinois to Minneapolis. Hundreds of jobs on each dam, year around,
they said, for at least three years.
Gunnar met a man at a bar in Corning, Iowa, who told him he
had heard that Dam Number Five up at Alma, Wisconsin, was hiring
lots of people. So he took a train to the Mississippi Valley, then north
along sloughs edged with trashy willows, cottonwoods thicker than
flour barrels, river birch with sienna bark strips dancing in the wind like
party decorations and shanties with forlorn men sitting on weathered
steps watching the train go past. Here and there were patches of flat
black bottomland with tall corn shocks umber and mildewed looking.
He found the story was true for once. He was hired the first day he
found the office shanty for the tree clearing crew on the Minnesota
side.
While Gunnar worked on the dam in the fall and early winter,
he lived in a cheap boarding hotel in the next big town down the river.
In the coldest part of the winter, they laid off the whole crew. Then
every man had too much time alone with his thoughts. Cramped, dirty
rooms were filled with cigarette smoke and men listlessly lying on
odoriferous beds and staring through windows covered with dust and
smoke and frost at the few tall buildings visible and the rounded hills
all around the river valley town. Letters were attempted but the words
came hard. Men sat for days in front of blank pads of paper and
thought about their boyhoods on small farms. They thought about
brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers and ex-girlfriends. They
wondered how they came to be in this place and why they couldn’t go
back and live with those people. From a distance, they were all
beautiful and kind and loved one another. But deep-down, beyond
self-admission, they knew the reasons for their exile.
Wafting odors, from the fresh smell of baking bread to stale
urine and whiskey, ebbed and flowed down the hallways in curious
temporal divergence from their origins. Cracks in ceilings and walls
were studied thoughtfully for meaning and patterns. There were a
number of fights as men drank whiskey and layed around bored to
tears during the total work shutdown which lasted until March first.
Once a man was shot and killed with a .38 pistol when he grew tired of
waiting for a whore and busted into the room where she was plying
her trade. He never got to describe to his friends how odd the heavy
man who shot him looked, lying naked, facedown, on his cot with
white welts all over his buttocks and the naked whore standing
between his extended feet with a miniature horse whip in her hand.
In spring, summer and fall they lived in heavy canvas wall tents
at the dam site. There was always whiskey around and plenty of fish
in the river: wide-mouthed, frozen-grinned catfish as big as a man’s
leg, smoke-gray sturgeon looking as prehistoric as pterodactyls, and
walleyed pike with white flesh excitingly delicious as a ripe peach.
Bush lines hung from saplings into the river everywhere and two men
ran a one-hundred-hook trot line baited with crayfish across the nearby
Wilson’s Slough in a small white rowboat that had come drifting
mysteriously down the river one morning. An iron spider filled with hot
lard cooked the floured fillets to brown perfection. Gunnar enjoyed
fresh fish dinners every night as he always had growing up by the
fjord. He ended up filleting the trot line catch every day after he
watched a man waste half of the edible flesh of a large walleye trying
to clean it. One man watching observed, “I ain’t never seen a fish
cleaned that slick before.” That pretty well summed the feeling of the
onlookers and Gunnar pretended he hadn’t even heard the comment..
It was peaceable to lie back in the sand after eating and talk
about a hard-driving foreman or the weather or which fish actually
tasted best. They farted nonchalantly as the lard worked down into
their bowels. They heard whippoorwills calling nonstop while a bottle
of rye whiskey floated from hand to hand. Silver-haired and big brown
bats flew around in the gloom. Things weren’t so bad.
The pair of middle-aged whores who worked the hotel in
winter, going from room to room on all four floors and when a man
nodded, shutting the door behind them, came to the dam on weekends
in summer, sashaying their wide asses as provocatively as their feet,
shod in stiletto black heels, allowed them in the sand. The soft ground
forced them awkwardly to their toes like a charwoman cleaning the
stage at the ballet hall, walking en pointe in worn leather brogans and
turning clumsy pirouettes that satisfied her deeply.
“Come on, Swede,” a forty-five-year-old woman named Trudy
said to Gunnar. He had expelled his frustrations into her in the past on
those occasional days when she projected only timeless womanhood.
“Don’t you want to try some of this today?” she asked, and raised her
dress to her crotch, exposing the black fingers of her garter belt
against softly hairy white thighs.
“Go away,” he said. “I ain’t a Swede.” Gunnar was trying to
accumulate money in the bank, but occasionally he couldn’t resist the
temptation and she knew it.
“Okay, Swede? Want to see a little more now?” and she started
unbuttoning her dress and pulled the bodice open, exposing the large
milky-white globes of her breasts with blue veins running here and
there along the sides. “Two bucks, Swede, and you can crawl all over
me.” She watched his nostrils flare and pupils dilate and his pants
swell as he reached for his worn leather billfold. “Come to momma
now,” she said as she tucked the two dollars into her purse and led him
by the hand into his paraffin-scented tent.
One weekend in the summer he and two Norwegian friends
decided to go to a county fair in an adjacent county across the river in
Wisconsin. “There’s lots of Norwegians live in that country over there,”
one of them said. “Let’s go and see if we can find some Norski
women.”
On a hot August Sunday afternoon they mingled with crowds of
tanned farmers in clean pinstriped overalls and their cornfed wives in
print housedresses shuffling slowly past exhibits of exotic chickens and
ducks and geese and lopeared rabbits. In the cattle barn their shoes
seemed to slide as if waxed on a layer of bright yellow oat straw and
the air was thick and pungent with the smells of fresh manure and
urine and cow sweat and cow farts and methane-laden cow breath.
Here they spotted three country girls, maybe sixteen or seventeen
years old. The girls stood together near a soft-eyed Jersey cow and
smiled shyly at the men’s obvious interest in them. The paper sign on
the wall indicated that at least one of them was Norwegian, Sonja
Gullicksrud, from Arnheim Valley.
“Nice looking cow you have there, Miss,” Jorgensen said to a
tall blonde with a heavy braid down her back.
“Oh, thanks,” she said. She could have come out of any of
their valleys in Norway.
Jorgensen was a joker, a tall, smiling man with a narrow face
and hair like shiny copper wires. He took to himself the task of
keeping everyone in good spirits. His English was tinged with only a
trace of Norwegian.
“Kann du snakke Norsk?” he asked her.
“No, no,” she said, a look of condescending sophistication
crossing her face. “That’s for old people. This is America. We speak
English here.”
The girls crowded the cow as though her bulk protected them,
each laying both arms on her warm, gray, manure-smelling bulk and
stroking her sweaty hair with nervous palms. The men stood together
eying the girls, stupid, lecherous grins frozen on their faces by their
own shyness and a waxing and waning hope that things could actually
work out as their boisterous bravado when alone had predicted.
Gunnar eyed a plump dark-haired girl standing at the left
hindquarter of the cow patting the cow tentatively as though she
wasn’t really comfortable with cows. Nice big tits, he thought, and he
liked it that she was shy but raised her brown eyes to meet his with
several darting glances. She smiled once and he was thrilled the smile
was meant for him. Jorgensen asked the tall blonde where she lived
and a few other questions but the conversation seemed stiff and
pointless to all of them.
The men moved on but Jorgensen asked loudly, when they were
only a few feet away, “Aren’t they some nice ones, boys?” Thirty feet
away the men looked back and the girls were talking excitedly, their
heads in a tight huddle. They saw the men looking at them and came
within a muscle spasm of wetting their collective pants.
Jorgensen said, “Boys, I think they’re just what we came for. I’ll
come back here later and see if I can talk to that one. God, boys, did
you see how big and healthy they were? Every one of them had tits it
would take two hands to cover each one.” They all tilted their heads
back in just-us-fellows hopeful laughter and saw cobwebby roof trusses
overhead and a few sparrows flying around.
An hour later the men strolled through the carnival, tough prey
for the glib barkers at all the games they passed. “They’re all rigged,”
Gunnar said. “You can’t win nothing at them. Look at all those dumb
kids throwing their money away.”
But they couldn’t resist seeing the fat lady at the freak show.
The mustachioed barker chanted, “She weighs over six hundred and
fifty-seven pounds, gentlemen. Six hundred and fifty-seven pounds! If
she rolled on top of you, you’d suffocate in a minute flat.” And they
walked within three feet of her sitting on a large oak throne covered
with red velvet and her face was quite pretty and she said hello, hello,
hello, to each in turn in a cheerful voice and they all answered her
quietly, hello, hello, hello, embarrassed, as they furtively eyed the fat
rolls escaping containment from her two-piece spangled outfit. Out of
earshot they joked about which crack you’d put it in.
And the wolf boy was there, a dark-skinned, bored-looking tenyear-old who was supposedly raised by a pack of wolves on the exotic
island of Madagascar. “Mad-a-gas-car. That’s clear across the o-cean, ladies and gentlemen, clear across in In-do-nes-i-a. He won’t eat
anything but meat! His momma was a wolf.” A German shepherd dog
slept fitfully on the grass floor beside the boy, a small swarm of flies
flitting between a gnawed beef knuckle and the dog’s twitching muzzle.
And a calf with two heads-- both functioning and chewing on
wisps of hay as its four eyes looked around, oblivious to the file of
people moving past with dull single-brained awe at its double-brained
cognition of them; the people subconsciously wondering how they
might perceive the world from a similar predicament.
And they saw the three girls going down the opposite side of
the midway looking at them and huddling together again like ten-yearolds. The big blonde even waved back at them as Jorgensen smiled
and waved. He said, “Yah, we get you later, sweethearts.”
While they sat in the crowded grandstand watching the harness
races, Jorgensen said he was going over to the cattle barn to look for
the girl. He was gone for a long time but there was a big smile on his
ruddy face when he got back.
“Guess what, boys? I’ve got it all set up, but we have to get
going. They’re all riding home with one of their parents at nine o’clock
so they’ve got to be back here by then. But they’ll go for a ride with
us. I told them I got a new Ford coupe and a bottle of whiskey in the
glove compartment. I said we can go way down to LaCrosse and back
in that time and they’re ready to go. Come on!”
Gunnar found himself squeezed uncomfortably next to Ida
Ingvaldsen in the back seat, along with the other couple, Peter and
Sophie. Ida seemed to lean away from him, afraid to touch him, even
though touch was as unavoidable as breathing. Her heavy thigh
pressed against him and her shoulder joint pushed painfully against his
right bicep. He asked her questions and she wouldn’t look directly at
him when she answered. She spoke softly and stared at a spot on the
back of Jorgensen’s seat. Jorgensen told his big blonde to get the
whiskey bottle out of the glove compartment. He took the first long
swig as they pulled past the town square of the county seat, a small
grassy square with a white Victorian bandstand in the middle and large
elm trees at the four corners. Seventeen-year locusts whined loudly in
the summer heat. “Come on,” Jorgensen said, “Let’s all have some.”
He passed the bottle to the blonde.
Among obvious facts was that she wasn’t an experienced
drinker. She took a big swallow like she was drinking milk and
coughed and spit and belched. She turned as red as a ladybug’s
wings. “Ooh, that stuff tastes horrible,” she said with a grimace and
passed the bottle back to Gunnar. He took a healthy pull and passed it
to Ida who looked at it like it was stranger to her than an Incan
obelisk. She didn’t know what to do with it.
“Go on,” Gunnar said. “Take some. Take a good drink.”
She awkwardly held it in her thick hands and took a cautious
sip, barely a drop. Four of them watched her face intently. Her eyes
squeezed closed. She pursed her lips. “Oh, ish,” she said. “How can
you drink that stuff?” She passed the bottle to Peter.
As they drove down the narrow concrete highway, the men
kept the bottle moving back and forth, cajoling the girls into drinking a
little more each time. Whether from fertile imaginations or strong
alcohol they were soon all laughing and having a good time. Gunnar
howled loudly every time he took a drink and the rest of them cackled
and crowed like Romans at a Bacchanalium.
Gunnar finally got Ida to look directly in his eyes and he liked
the strength he saw in them. There was a child’s fright and a womanly
desire in them. Once she relaxed, her eyes locked on his. She was
mellow. He was hopeful. Blood rushed toward genitalia.
Jorgensen kissed his big blonde with long kisses while driving
down the road. Gunnar watched the two of them in a long kiss, saw
the car swing perilously close to the edge of the narrow shoulder and
looked at Ida who had also been watching them and smiled. Then he
put his arms around her and leaned into her small red mouth. He
knew by her soft, formless lips that she didn’t know what to do, but
she eagerly accepted his long kisses, lingering cloyingly when he
wanted to stop. His hands played, straying over her broad back and
up and down her sturdy legs. Soon he was brushing the sides of her
soft breasts and she made no move to stop him.
“Let’s stop when we get to the river,” the big blonde said.
“There’s a road right across the bridge that goes down to a little park
where they fish for catfish.”
Jorgensen drove slowly down the two ruts, splashing fans of
brown water onto clumps of quack grass and violets and toadstools.
“Goddamn,” he said. “I don’t want to get this baby dirty. I just
washed it.”
They all laughed like fools as though he had just said the most
amusing thing they had ever heard in all their born days.
“Let’s get out of this hot car,” Peter said. They all piled out, the
accumulated sweat in their clothes passing into the air in a fine mist.
Jorgensen walked around his car looking at the mud spatters. He took
a bucket and rag out of the trunk, dipped the bucket in the brown river
water and washed off the worst muddy spots. There was no one else
around and all three couples fell into lingering kisses, the men rubbing
their erections against throbbing clitori.
“Come on,” Gunnar told Ida softly. “Let’s go down there, down
by that big cottonwood tree.” He was eager to get something started
before someone interrupted them. He sensed Ida was his as soon as
he could get her alone. He laid her down on the ground in a spot
hidden from the others by a big cottonwood root. Her arms flopped
stiffly alongside her as he unbuttoned her dress all the way down the
front and pushed her rough cotton slip up out of the way.
“Ooh, that hurts,” she said as he pushed into her. “Oh, oh, oh,
that hurts,” as he pumped her full of his joy at having a tight virgin.
There was blood all over her slip when he pulled away. She stood and
took her dress and slip off. “Don’t watch me,” she said as she stepped
into the river. While she concentrated on her footing in the soft
bottom, he studied the profile of her large breasts, the swell of her
belly, her thick legs. The whiteness of her body loomed unnaturally
bright in the landscape of browns and greens and blues. There were
reddened patches on her shoulders and hips. She squatted in the
river, rinsed the slip, then streamed water over herself with it. She
rose and twisted the water from the slip with strong, tanned hands.
“Don’t watch me,” she said again when she was ready to step out of
the river.
Across the opening, Gunnar saw Jorgensen was still slowly
humping the big blonde with a practiced restraint. They heard her
moaning across the clearing. I’m going to do that next time, he
thought, make it last as long as I can. And inside half an hour he was
ready to go again and she was too. He thought he did a really manly
humping by lasting five minutes this time.
They all stayed silly drunk, then fell asleep in the muggy heat,
the couples sleeping in each other’s arms on the damp brown dirt, ants
crawling over them in random patterns of excitement at the potpourri
of new tastes. As the western sky turned coppery, they all coupled
one more time, then drove to a small root beer stand on the edge of
town and wolfed hamburgers and fries while they slaked considerable
thirsts with grandpa-sized schooners of root beer so cold it hurt the
palate.
It was almost ten o’clock when they dropped the girls off at the
edge of the fairgrounds. The men didn’t want to chance meeting any
angry parents. The girls looked embarrassed, guilty about something.
The men were embarrassed by the appearance of the girls– dresses
wrinkled and sweaty-looking, their hair in clumpy disarray, their faces
flushed with lingering passion. There was no clean underwear in the
group. They talked about meeting again the following Saturday night.
On the way back to their river camp, the men congratulated
themselves on conquering three virgins. “Goddamn, boys,” Jorgensen
said. “This must be a lucky day for Norwegians, huh?”
After that the men made several more trips together, meeting
the girls at the town square, then driving out to the spot by the river.
Gunnar decided he needed a car of his own so he could see Ida more
often and alone. He saved up enough by summer’s end to buy an
almost new Chevy, with barely enough money left to last him over the
winter. He liked having an American car and American girl all to
himself.
She soon found out that she was pregnant and told him they
would have to get married. There was no disputing this from his point
of view, either. It was the only thing to do: when a man got a girl
pregnant, he was expected to marry her. That was the American way.
Her parents were furious after he left from his first visit to their
modest frame house set broodingly under three huge white pine trees
in a lonely coulee. “He’s so old,” her mother said. “Twelve years older
than you. He shouldn’t have been fooling around with a young girl like
you. I’ll bet he enjoyed himself. You’ll have a time with him, I know.”
“Oh, Ma, I want to get out of this place. I hate it out here on
this farm. There’s never anything to do. I don’t want to spend my life
hoeing corn and milking cows. He knows he’s got to marry me and we
can move to the city after the dam job ends. He can get a job in one
of the factories there. I’ll have a good life away from here,” she said.
Her words rang hollow in her own ears, mocking her in the
middle of the night as she laid awake because she realized she had
made a serious mistake and would pay for it dearly. Was already
paying for it. His horse laugh made her cringe whenever she heard it
and he seemed so old now, almost like her parents. For the first time
in her life she noticed her teeth grinding together before she fell asleep
each night.
They were married by their stern, elderly, Lutheran minister on
a Saturday afternoon in a quiet ceremony at Ida’s home church. The
minister’s manner told everyone that he was superior to this affair, that
he was participating only because he knew his duty when God called.
He was much too busy, he said, to come to their house after the
ceremony. His attitude was understood and accepted by everyone
involved, although Ida thought he was carrying his godliness just a
little too far since two of his daughters were the loosest tramps the
county had ever known.
Jorgensen was there as best man because Gunnar told him his
instigation brought the whole thing about. Guilt and sorrow froze
Jorgensen’s normally mobile face into a caricature of a condemned
man. He hated to see a friend trapped. It wasn’t a joyous occasion for
any of the participants. They went home to a meal of meatballs and
mashed potatoes, rutabagas, fruit soup and lefse and huge crosscut
slices of tomato with sugar layered on. There was coffee and a polkadotted pitcher of grape Kool-Aid on the side.
Her parents were too embarrassed at her pregnancy to want a
public wedding. To think that little Ida had been lying down
somewhere with a man. And a grown man at that.. Imagine! What
would people think and say when a baby was born only six months
after the wedding? Besides that, how much would it have cost to
provide lunch for all the people who would want to come and freeload
and lord it over them for having a baby due in six months when
respectable people knew how to take care of such things? Oh, how
the neighbor ladies must be talking. Berta Tilden would be the worst.
Ida’s mother knew only too well how that was since she had taken part
in similar character assassinations with Berta many times. It was
almost more than a Christian family could stand.
Jorgenson left before everyone was done eating. “I better get
going,” he said as he suddenly stood and walked out the door. Gunnar
rose to follow him, but he barely got out the door and onto the
concrete stoop, and Jorgensen was already backing his car out. He
waved to Gunnar as he drove out of the yard. Gunnar watched the
yellow dust trail kicked up by the car until it vanished around a curve.
He felt strangely alone with a bunch of foreigners. Abandoned. Ida
hadn’t smiled at him all day and when their eyes met he thought he
sensed a gleam of cold superiority in hers.
When they drove to LaCrosse for their one-night honeymoon,
Ida wouldn’t talk with him and when they got to their flea-bag hotel
room, she wouldn’t have sex. “I’ll see what I feel like some time after
I have the baby,” she said. She was in awe of what she thought were
fine furnishings of their room. She stayed in the mohair covered chair
and fiddled with the radio dial until she fell asleep right there.
The baby was named Heidi Suzanne Eide. She grew up
oriented to matriarchal ideology and powerless men but her hands, her
fine hands, proved too tender to hold a leash.
My Dad Was Real Hard
When I was sixteen, I made up my mind I wanted to work on
the railroad when I grew up. They had railroad pensions way back
when that were the envy of everyone in this country. Old man
Schneider down on the corner was a retired railroad conductor.
Everybody knew how well off a railroad man on a forty-year retirement
was. The old man envied his position, it showed in the envious tone
that his voice took on when he started talking about that railroad
pension. People talked about it in those days, always with an envious
tone.
Mister Schneider was a tall thin old man who wore rimless
spectacles and khaki work clothes with maroon suspenders. He walked
with a peculiar rolling gait, swaying from side to side as though the
hard sidewalk was jumping up and down and side to side. My dad told
us that Mister Schneider walked like that because he was formerly a
conductor on the railroad and he had to walk like that to keep his
balance in the lurching train cars. It seemed kind of odd to me since
the sidewalks he walked down were not lurching from side to side at
all. So why did he do it? Why did he pretend that the solid ground
underfoot might throw him to the ground if he didn’t adopt his splayfooted kinetic walk? Sometimes I walked behind him down the
sidewalk, mocking him, careful so he wouldn’t see me, and felt the
utter uselessness of swaying side to side.
My father was obviously impressed with the worldly
accomplishments of Mister Schneider. He seemed to be the neighbor
who my father envied the most. “Those railroad men,” he would say,
“They don’t have a care in the world.”
So I sort of wanted to work for the railroad since I was a kid.
There was another kid came to town in the summer to visit his
grandparents from up north. He came from up in Hibbing, where they
had iron mines. That kid loved the railroads more than I but he never
talked about pensions. The grandparents lived across the street from
Mr. Schneider, in the next block.
He knew the schedule of every Milwaukee Road train that left our
town headed north and he knew the schedules of trains incoming from
the south. He had a little Pocket Ben watch and five minutes before
every train was due, heading out or heading in, he sat on the curbing
by his grandparent’s house, two-and-a-half blocks from the track, and
listened for the approaching train. If anyone was near him he would
tell them that the 425 heading for Chicago was right on time. Or
running a little late, whatever. The outgoing traffic was easier to track
because the old steam engines chuff-chuff-chuffed to get the heavy
train moving from a standstill. Steam boiled around the engine.
Incoming ones were more or less coasting at that point and made a lot
less noise.
He was not allowed to go near the track itself for fear of being
sucked underneath the train by the undertow of the engine pushing its
way through the heavy air, or because of the supposed danger of cars
derailing and smashing him where he stood. We didn’t worry about
that crap. We’d go down to the track when we knew a train was
coming and lay pennies and nickels and four-penny nails on the track.
The nails formed neat little swords. We just hoped that the stuff we
put on the tracks didn’t derail the train. It was scary the way some of
the cars swayed from side to side.
When I was sixteen I had had enough of my father’s hardass
attitude. I, for Christ’s sake, couldn’t do anything right to please him,
from choosing my friends to picking the onions out of everything my
ma cooked that had them in.
He hollered at me, swore and threw me around like I was a five-pound
bag of rice.
So I heard from the depot agent that the Milwaukee Road was
going to be hiring men for the section gangs early that summer. I
hitchhiked to LaCrosse the day before this was to take place to be sure
I was there on time. I slept under a bench in a big park along the
Mississippi River. I was awakened several times by the brilliant probing
lights of passing towboats on the river as they flashed up and down
the shore looking for navigation markers. I could faintly hear the men
yelling to one another out on the dark river.
In the morning I went to the maintenance shack at the railroad
yard and presented myself for work. “You in good health, son?” a
leathery-faced man asked me. “Yes sir,” I said. “Go right over there
with those men,” he said, and I did. No one paid any attention to me.
The men looked like farm hands and village lay-abouts.
The leathery-faced man came over and told us that we were
the section crew for the tracks between LaCrosse and St. Paul and that
we would be bunked on several shabby-looking old passenger cars he
pointed to. “Who’s the youngest here?” he said. “I am, I guess,” I said.
“Then you’ll be the cook for the crew,” he said.
“But, Mister, I don’t know anything about cooking,” I said.
“That’s all right, you’ll learn in a hurry. These men will be
hungry after working on track all day and if you don’t have some
decent meals waiting for them, they’ll hang you from the nearest
telegraph pole.”
The thought of cooking for all these men worried me greatly
for a while, but I felt better later on when the leathery-faced man took
me to the train and showed me the kitchen in the front half of one of
the cars. “You don’t need to worry about cooking,” he said. “Cooking
ain’t that hard. The food is simple. The men want ham and eggs for
breakfast and you just have to make dinner and supper. They’ll want
mainly beef roast, ham, potatoes, chicken, baked bread and fresh
vegetables. Lots of vegetables. And ice. Ice for the icebox and the
Kool-Aid. You can branch out when you learn a little bit. We’ve got
cookbooks here and as good as equipment as you’d find in the kitchen
of a nice restaurant. I’ll give you a hundred dollars every day to go to
the nearest town and buy the groceries. You can start out this noon
with store-bought bread and cold cuts from+ a butcher shop. They’ll
be wanting coffee and Kool-Aid to drink. Supper can be something
simple, like hash. Figure you’ve got thirty men to feed, although
sometimes there’s more when the big shots come to check on us. And
they’ll expect something a little better than the men usually get.”
My little brain couldn’t handle all that at once. Cooking for
thirty men and I’d never done more than fry an egg in my life. How
could I possibly learn that? And yet I did. After two or three days I
began to have some idea how much food twenty-four men would eat.
And I was left alone every day from seven o’clock to eleven forty-five
and from one till five-thirty.
There was no one who offered to help me. I dunno, I guess
they were too tired from their own work to give me any time. The
second day I went to the nearest bigger town where I figured they
might sell books and found a Betty Crocker cookbook. That thing has
got a lot of good information in. Pretty soon I got confidence that I
could do it. There weren’t many mistakes that the men complained
about. I wrote down a menu for a month at a time and stuck to it.
I had been there about two months when the foreman told me
I had to take the train to Chicago and have a physical from the railroad
doctor. He looked me over when I got back and said, “Well, son, I
guess I have some bad news for you. You’re not going to be working
for the railroad anymore, you’ve got a bad back.”
I was puzzled and disappointed by the news. Hell, I’d worked
in my old man’s laundry since I was a kid, handling forty and fifty
pound bags of wetwash. My back had never bothered me. But the
doctor said that the railroad had had too many men claim that they
had permanent disability from railroad work and they had learned to be
extremely cautious.
So I took the train back to LaCrosse and went to our work train
in the yard there. The doctor had already called the foreman, so he
was ready for me. “You can cook through Friday if you want, but then
you’ll have to go. We just can’t have guys with back problems.”
They gave me a train ticket back home and I went back on
Friday night. Hell, I was disappointed. I thought I could work for them
for thirty years. Now I had to go home and face my old man again.
When I walked to the house, I knew they would be in bed, so I had to
knock on the door to be let in.
“What the hell are you doing here?” was the first thing my old
man said. I stood there on the front step and told him what the
railroad had said about my back. “Hell, you ain’t got a bad back.
What’s wrong with those fools?”
“Well, Pa, I thought I’d come back and work for you. I figure
you’ll give me a dollar an hour and you can take my room and board
out of that.”
“Wait a minute now, boy. You’re still a kid. I’ll pay you five
dollars a week, and that’s it.”
“Pa, I ain’t working for that. I was making a hundred and fifty
dollars a week on the railroad.”
“Well, you ain’t working for the railroad, are you? That’s all I
can pay you.”
“Well, Pa, if that’s the way you feel, I guess I’ll just head on
down the road,” and I stepped off that limestone step at the house and
walked back down the poorly-lit streets to the railroad station. I heard
later that he hired a man and paid him one-hundred and twenty-five
dollars a week. But that’s the way the old man was. Nothing I could do
to change him. Hard. He was as hard as granite.
And that’s why I wanted to get my Cadillac, just to show him.
He had a green Cadillac that he was really proud of. He parked it
outside his dry cleaner’s store every day. He said, “I don’t want people
to think I’m making too much money from what I charge to dry clean
their clothes, but I want them to know that here is a man who
succeeded in this world. Started from nothing, worked hard and
watched where his pennies went. People don’t know nothing about dry
cleaning, anyhow. They think I’m a professional chemist or something.”
I knew that Cadillac was the one thing he treasured the most,
so I made my mind up that I was going to have one, too.
I went to Minneapolis and went to work for a big dry cleaner
up there. Started out at 125 a week, same as the old man paid his
helper, but they could see that I knew the dry cleaning business. It
wasn’t long and I was making two hundred dollars a week managing
one of their stores. I managed to save quite a lot. The old man taught
me to do that by the way he lived. In about two years’ time, I had
enough to buy a two year old Cadillac Eldorado.
I wanted to go down home on a weekday so my old man’s
place would be open and his green Cadillac Eldorado would be there in
its usual spot. So I took the next Monday off and wheeled her down
the road. God, my heart was pounding as I pulled my Caddy behind
his. I hadn’t seen the old man since that night on the doorstep. I
remembered the dark of the streets that night as I walked back to the
train station, trees swaying in front of the street lights, the summer
dead fish smell of the river in the breeze. Now it was getting on toward
late summer and there was no smell of the river. The business district
of our little town looked pathetic now that I was used to living in
Minneapolis. I’m surprised that I stayed there as long as I did and I
knew I would never be coming back.
I walked in the door, expecting to see the old man right off. I
knew he was there and thought he was in the back or I could have
seen him. The guy working there was about thirty-five, tall and thin
with Coke bottle glasses. His old beige dress shirt was wrinkled beyond
recovery. A cigarette dangled from his lips. “Can I help you?” he said.
“No, I just want to see Arnold. I’ll go in the back myself.”
“Ain’t no need, I’ll go get him for you.”
“That’s alright. I know this place. I’m his son.”
“Oh. Whatever you want,” and he gestured towards the back.
I went to the back and the old man was seated at his desk like
I knew he was. “Well,” he said, “If it isn’t my prodigal son. What the
hell are you doing here?”
If I was expecting a slightly warmer greeting, I was expecting
too much of him. If I was expecting to feel good at the sight of him, I
was expecting too much of myself. He was fifty-five years old then, but
he looked old and sagging and unremittingly stern. I always hated that
sternness when I was a kid.
“I heard from somebody, Pa, that you was paying that guy out
there a hundred and twenty-five a week.”
“Well, what if I am? It’s nobody’s business but mine and his.”
“Pa, I offered to work for you for a dollar an hour, remember?”
“Plus room and board, that I remember.”
“Ain’t it kind of ridiculous, Pa, that you would pay him that
much more than me when he didn’t know Jack Squat about the dry
cleaning business and I know about as much as you know? I found me
a job dry cleaning in Minneapolis and I’m the manager of a store
twenty times bigger than yours. I ain’t going to tell you what I make
‘cause it ain’t none of your business. I want you to come outside and
see the car I’m driving. It’ll make you proud. Your car looks a little
tacky compared to mine, Pa, I’d say. I know damned well I couldn’t
afford no Cadillac if I had stayed here working for you. So I have to
thank you, Pa, for being such a good bastard. I’ve never met another
man that could be as big a bastard as you. I don’t know what it is
about you, Pa. I don’t know what it is you gain by being what you are.
You’re a smug bastard, I know that, ‘cause it ain’t no different driving a
Cadillac from driving a Ford. You just think you’re better than the next
guy. You think you’re doing some good for you business, parking your
Cadillac out here every day? There’s people don’t like people who drive
Cadillacs, you know that? There’s a lot of people won’t trade with a
man who drives a Cadillac. They think you’re just rubbing their noses in
the dust on your bumper.”
He just stared at me with those hateful blue eyes of his. “Why
don’t you get out of here now?” he said. “Get out and stay out. I can’t
stand know-it-all sons of bitches. Never could.”
“I’ll be leaving, Pa. That’s for sure. I’d just like you to see my
car before I go.”
“I don’t want to see your goddamned car. I’ve seen Cadillacs
all my life. I’m not getting up from this desk. I have things to do. So
just get out. And don’t ever come around here with your shit
anymore.”
“That’s fair enough, Pa. I might come back to see you buried,
no sooner. And the only reason I’d come for that is for Ma.”
Back in my car, I gripped the steering wheel hard and blinked
my eyes. I looked into the store to see whether the old man was
watching me, but he wasn’t. I wondered what it was that made him
the way he was – so hard like he was a piece of granite with a voice.
Other kids I grew up with didn’t have fathers like him.
Mister Arnell
Jake Pinch and his wife Margaret lived rent-free through the generosity
of Mister Arnell and couldn’t imagine why anyone would live any other
way. Over thirty years with no rent or house payment made it easy to
get by on Jake’s cotton mill salary. Margaret had never taken the
notion to work. It wasn’t a woman’s place, the way she was raised.
Sure, there was that short drive to North Carolina every day, but what
of that. There were no children, so she kept house, gardened, canned,
knitted, visited with her friends. Last but not least was afternoon talk
show city.
Jake’s free rent was not actually free. The price he paid was
that it seemed he had to be Mister Arnell’s whistle boy. He’d tell his
friends, “I’m Mister Arnell’s whistle boy. When he whistles, I better
come a running.” And Jake never called him anything but Mister
Arnell. Never thought of calling him otherwise. The man expected it
because he had the power to say yes or no. And Jake knew that
Mister Arnell would never call him Mister Pinch except sarcastically.
Mister Arnell owned the biggest independent sawmill in the
state of Virginia and accepted the fact that a successful business was a
thing of beauty. For a man seventy-five years old who had started that
business when he was only thirty and had always made a profit,
sometimes modest but usually over, and sometimes well over, a
hundred thousand dollars a year, even when a dollar was a dollar,
Mister Arnell was used to looking at things his own way. When he
spoke anything remotely sounding like an order, he expected some one
to hop to some thing. Anybody slow on the uptake wouldn’t last
around him. Somebody gives you grief, shows too much slackness,
you send them down the road packing their duffel behind them–
employee, tenant, lumber wholesaler, neighbor.
Mister Arnell lived in a big white Victorian three-story house
with round turrets on two corners down where the little paved road
that Jake lived on intersected with the main highway. So around a
mile between them gave Jake a little room to breathe. Had he been
within actual whistle range, he would have been run to death by Mister
Arnell. Mister Arnell’s whistle extender was the telephone. He’d tell his
wife, Mamie, who made all his calls, to tell Margaret, who always
answered the Pinch phone, “Have Jake run down and see me when he
gets home, Margaret,” or, “Have Jake run down here right now,
Margaret, I have to talk with him.”
Mister Arnell owned farms all over three counties and would
only allow people he knew, or were related to someone he knew, to
live at the farmsites. Sometimes he charged a modest rent, twentyfive dollars or so, but usually he let his guests live rent-free as he did
Jake and Margaret. “Just keep up the place,” he would tell them.
“That’s all I ask. I’ll buy all the paint. You keep the lawn mowed.”
Some didn’t understand those clear words due to careless
upbringing, and when Mister Arnell found out, usually when he and
Miss Mamie were out surveying their holdings in the evenings in his
bright red Cadillac with a cream top, they went on down the road,
unemployed. Could be the best sawyer on the East Coast, earning
Mister Arnell another thousand a day with his judicious way of splitting
logs into boards. He didn’t care. Show him where the bear shit in the
buckwheat and rub his nose in it. But nicely. A gentleman always
rubbed someone’s nose in bear shit nicely. No raised voices. No harsh
words.
Sometimes Jake wondered why he had been summoned.
Mister Arnell would talk about trivia and never come to: a question, a
point, a command. He’d be talking about the price of red oak common
lumber or the unseasonable coolness of the weather. Jake would be
waiting for some kind of transition in the conversation, a pause that
signaled that now the window dressing was out of the way and it was
time for a directive, or even a chance for Jake to merely express his
opinion, because he sometimes felt that Mister Arnell valued his
opinion about certain things. But nothing came sometimes, and he
went back home feeling like he had worked a woman up, gotten her
ready to go, then turned his back on her and walked away.
It didn’t seem to matter to Mister Arnell that Jake might have a
life, interests, of his own. Might have been right in the middle of some
task or pleasure. He’s collecting his rent, Jake thought. Damn his hide
the way he bosses people around. Thinks it’s his right. But Jake had
been Mister Arnell’s whistle boy so long, he didn’t dwell on it. Most of
the time his end of the teeter-totter seemed longer than Mister Arnell’s.
Mister Arnell had a thing about right living. Church on Sunday
morning, even though the run of young ministers they had the last ten
years or so upset him with their new ways of looking at things: the
casual dress, so many young couples living in sin, an apparent
openness to accepting homosexuals. Queers, Mister Arnell called
them. He’d tell the minister, “Not by me, Edwin,” or whatever name fit
at that moment. “They don’t call them queers for nothing.” He’d tell
Jake, “I didn’t see you in church on Sunday, Jake. See Margaret, not
you.”
Liquor was another thing. When Jake came to Mr. Arnell’s
house fresh from sipping a little whiskey alone or with his pal, TomBoy, Mister Arnell picked up the smell every time. “See here, Jake,” he
would say, “I don’t like you coming around Miss Mamie with liquor on
your breath.” And Jake would think, well, hell, I hardly ever even see
that feeble old Miss Mamie when I’m down there, and what the hell
does he think, that I might have sexual designs on that old prune just
because I had a few snorts? Furthermore, a little shot of sipping
whiskey every day would probably do both of them a world of good;
and besides that, you’re the reason I’m here, old man. Do you
suppose that I’m going to give up drinking just for the eventuality of
you calling me? My interest is in the way the whiskey bites my tongue.
“That wheelbarrow load of whiskey bottles has got to go,
Jake,” Mister Arnell said many times. “It’s an eyesore.”
Jake never rose to that bait. He kept a construction
wheelbarrow full of whiskey bottles parked near the house side of his
garage because of pride, of fond memories, because he wanted to
make a statement about the meaning of life and the taste of good
Virginia whiskey. Besides, he liked the way the barrow of bottles
glistened in the noonday sun. Prism beams of multi-colored sunlight
came through some of their house windows on the barrow side of the
house and moved slowly across the walls like moribund butterflies
expending their last feeble sparks of life, then suddenly disappeared.
Jake wondered how that happened in the blink of an eye. Sometimes
he caught the rainbow on the palm of a hand and studied how the
bands of color rippled across his skin like a circus parade. Sometimes
he spilled the rainbow off the edge of his hand and saw it greedily
jump to the wall.
Jake did not regard it as a personal flaw that he loved the taste
of whiskey. His gut feeling was that there was nothing wrong with
him, it must be with those who didn’t like whiskey. They must have
some defect of character that they couldn’t appreciate the way good
whiskey had of biting and warming. Pity how the world works and
some people get left out.
One hot summer afternoon Jake came home from work and the first
thing he noticed as he drove up to his garage was a forlornly empty
wheelbarrow. It startled him so that he forgot the tongue-lashing he
had received that morning from the plant superintendent, Warren
Suther, and that he had been chewing on ever since. Warren was
upset because the number two loom had been down since the evening
shift the night before and at nine-thirty Jake still didn’t have it up and
running.
Jake’s dander was rising since he had been doing all he could
to get it fixed. He had heard about enough from that bald-headed
New Jersey Yankee. That guy was always on his back about
something. The bronze bearing on an idler gear wheel had given up
the ghost and caused the idler to freeze up, which in turn caused
several teeth to break off one of the main drive gears and the whole
machine seized up right in the middle of knitting a bolt of one of their
finer damasks. Early in the morning he removed the defective idler
and took it to the machine shop. They had that back in his hands in
fine shape within an hour. But the drive gear couldn’t be fixed, it had
to be replaced. And the machine was imported through New York City
so he had to call there for a new gear. It would be sent immediately,
but since it had to be shipped express on the Greyhound bus, it
wouldn’t arrive at the bus station in town until about eight-thirty the
next morning.
Warren was jumping around like someone invisible kept poking
him with a sharp stick. All he could see was the cost of idleness
relentlessly building a large pile of dollars that might be tolled directly
off his comfortable salary. Although Warren was already jacked up
higher than a kite, he went over the edge when he reported the bad
news to his vice-president boss in Wayne, New Jersey and got an
unexpected tongue lashing. Then Warren had to take the tongue
lashing out on someone, and Jake was the man of the moment.
Jake forgot all that when he saw the empty wheelbarrow. He
walked over and studied it closely, expecting some show, some sign
that would tell him how it was done, if not who did it. There was no
indication that the wheelbarrow had been moved. The front wheel and
the two back feet rested on damp little piles of black humus that
looked undisturbed.
He went in the house. Margaret was watching some damned
talk show, as usual. He went to the television and turned the sound
off. Margaret blinked at him like a toad and her eyes seemed little and
mean against her wide face. She was about to say something to him,
but he extended his spread palm toward her, staying her words.
“What the hell happened to my whiskey bottles out there,
Margaret?”
“Don’t curse at me, Jake,” she said. “I’m tired of you cursing.
It isn’t right of you. I don’t know what happened to your whiskey
bottles. Leroy was here with that white pickup from the mill. He didn’t
come to the door, say anything. He just took his time, carried four or
six bottles at a time from that wheelbarrow to his truck. When he had
‘em all, he drove off. He saw me at the door, at the window, waved to
me once. I couldn’t figure what he was doing at first. It’s Mister
Arnell, I expect.”
“Oh, it’ll be Mister Arnell. No doubt about that. Wait ‘til after
supper. Then you’ll call Miss Mamie for me.”
Jake went back outside. He studied the empty basin of the
wheelbarrow closely. Rust had formed a crust over most of the inner
surface. Ten loads of sand would clean that up slick as new, he
thought.
Behind his garage was a green-painted lawn swing facing the
house of his neighbor, Todd Whitt, across the pasture between them.
Jake liked to sit in the swing every nice evening he came home from
work and drink a little whiskey and water until Margaret called him to
supper. He’d look out over the pasture, count Mister Arnell’s Black
Angus cattle just to be sure they hadn’t been rustled while he had been
at the cotton mill. Thirty nine cows and twenty-one calves since the
last cow dropped her bull calf in June. Sometimes he was able to
count them all in one go, but often he was a few shy. But since the
likelihood of a rustling was very slight, a few were probably around
behind the hill or laying down where he couldn’t see them. The count
would be right when he drove his pickup across the pasture after
supper.
He went in his garage to get the glass beer pitcher he stored
there along with two glasses and a case of quarts of Virginia
Gentleman. Tom-Boy would be along shortly. Tom-Boy knew what
time he got home. So Jake carried the whiskey bottle and glasses to
the telephone cable reel table in front of the lawn swing and continued
on with the pitcher to the cast iron well pump near the center of his
yard.
The handle of the pump screeched like some creature being
tortured as he worked it up and down. Then he felt the water coming,
rising in the pipe, and he slowed his pumping so the force of it
wouldn’t bowl the pitcher over. The pitcher filled and he kept pumping
so the water would pull all the heat out of the pitcher and he’d be left
with just the coolness of the earth in the water.
Back at the lawn swing he poured his glass half full of whiskey,
then filled it with cool water. The first taste was something special,
something he thought about all during the day. He’d be drilling a hole
in some metal, talking with some foreman and he’d think about that
first taste. How it would bite a little as he sloshed it around in his
mouth. How the skin of his face would flush slightly in anticipation.
He sat there sipping and looking for a few minutes, when he
heard Tom-Boy’s footsteps in the grass, felt Tom-Boy’s presence, then
a slight jerking around of the lawn swing counter to his own natural
movements. “Well, Tom-Boy. How’s the world treating you today,
buddy? Pour yourself a drink there before you tell me.”
Tom-Boy made sounds, “Boogle-boogle,” and glanced briefly at
Jake’s face, didn’t meet his eye, as usual. Poured himself a drink equal
to Jake’s. Tom-Boy never met anyone’s eye for more than a sharp,
quick glance, especially with strangers or people he didn’t know well
because he couldn’t talk. Jake and Tom-Boy’s sister that he lived with
seemed to be the only people he knew who could pretty well
understand what he was saying, and that may have been because they
understood his hand signals, the gestures broad and sweeping or
staccato flicks of his hands, his fingers, the palm to his chest or the
little dances, stutter-steps, leaning back like a majorette. Done with
child-like innocence. Purity of meaning.
Jake said, “It’s been quite the day for me, Tom-Boy. How
about with you?”
“Boogle-oo.” He extended his hand straight out.
“Damn Sam, I’m glad to hear something’s going right for
somebody. I hadn’t hardly got in the door of that mill this morning
than they jumped me. That number two loom broke down overnight
and that bully night man left it for me to fix. Couldn’t get to it, he said.
Too many things to do. Well, I know him, Tom-Boy. I heard many
times that he stays busy with them women. Got him a private little
area back in the warehouse where he takes ‘em. Cot and all. Padlock
on the door. I’ve seen it. Everybody’s seen it. So he was too busy to
work on that number two loom? Can’t be like that.”
“Boogle-oo.”
“You and me know what’s what, Tom-Boy. You know as well
as I do what a bastard that New Jersey honcho is. You know deep
down what Mister Arnell is really like. You know what he treats me
like. Poor white trash is better than he treats me, and you know it as
well as I do, Tom-Boy. Whistle boy, that’s a damned laugh. That mill
superintendent treats us all like white trash. Treats us no better.
Makes me laugh the way that night man is continually poking those
women, don’t it you, Tom-Boy?”
“Boo.”
“I tell you, Tom-Boy, it gives a man pause. Makes you want to
buy a new place and not be beholden. It’s just a foolish notion, TomBoy; I’m not saying I will. I wouldn’t like to be moving away from you.
But no matter what I do, Mister Arnell’ll think I’m still beholden to him
as long as he lives. I live ten miles away, he’ll still have Miss Mamie
call Margaret and tell her to tell Margaret that he said to have me come
on over, he wants to see me. Don’t, he’ll drive on over and look at me
with those watery blue eyes like it ain’t possible for me to tell him no.
He wouldn’t understand how a man wants to be free of another man.
That little shrunken skull of his ‘bout the size of a monkey’s, covered
with that thin white hog’s hair just can’t take in any new notions. You
can see it looking at him, can’t you, Tom-Boy?”
“Oo.”
“Like a melon still on the vine and leaves dying all around. You
wonder how it keeps on.”
They sat there in silence for a few moments, sipping on their
whiskey, watching the sun leaning toward the roof of Todd Whitt’s
house. Some little birds that sounded like grasshoppers buzzed from
the fencepost tops. A warm breeze tinged with a faint smell of cow
manure came and went. Fluttered.
Jake felt in charge of the world sitting there. His eyes naturally
rested on Todd’s house as the only significant thing in the landscape.
Todd’s son, Shaun, was visible tearing around his yard with his dog like
boys will. Why anyone would want to name a boy Shaun was more
than Jake could comprehend. He couldn’t recall ever meeting a man
called Shaun, and it didn’t seem like a proper man’s name. But the boy
was nice, as was the dog. Neither one messed with Mister Arnell’s
white face cattle, and Jake was glad of that.
Jake had had dogs and he knew how it was between a boy and
his dog. It was purer love than between a man and his dog, because
the boy knew nothing about the ways of men, of women. He felt a tug
connecting him with the boy, right across the wide pasture separating
them. He wished to tap into the boy’s mindless innocence. And then
the tap established and he felt himself zooming as tall as the sky,
where he could lean right over and touch the boy saddled with that
uncomely name and slice the boy’s skin and lap his innocence like a
vampire bat lapping blood from a victim who doesn’t realize. For a
moment, a song of peace echoed in him
“Tom-Boy, want to help me carry some of those whiskey
bottles I got stored in the basement?”
Tom-Boy oohed and nodded.
“Tom-Boy, why don’t you go up above in the garage and get
us each a bushel basket?” Jake went to the side of his house, lifted the
green wooden door covering the steps down to the basement and
unlocked the padlocked door. The musty bite of mildew engulfed him
as he stepped inside. He waved his arms to break a clear path through
the spider webs that crisscrossed the small room. They had just
carried their first basket loads and Jake was moving bottles here and
there in the wheelbarrow, looking for the best fit, when Margaret called
through the screen door that supper was ready.
“Not now, Margaret,” he said. “I’ve got a job to do here that
demands to be done. Watch some more TV until I get ready.”
Inside thirty minutes the barrow was heaping full of neatly
stacked bottles once more.
Jake said, “Thanks for your help, Tom-Boy. I do ‘preciate it,
helping me get my yard looking right again. I guess I better get on in
to supper now.”
He walked inside to find Margaret sitting in her favorite easy
chair in front of the booming television. Some slick young fellow and a
pretty young woman doing something. Smiling a lot. Waving their
hands, arms, around. He pushed the off button and told Margaret,
“Time for supper now, Margaret.” He didn’t notice anything about her
as she rose from her chair, or as he sat in his place at the table and
waited for supper to be laid out before him–baked pork chops, mashed
potatoes, gravy, mustard greens and iced tea. Mister Arnell occupied
his thoughts.
At six-thirty, when Jake was back in the lawn swing with a
drink in his hand imbibing peacefulness through his eyes, hearing the
whippoorwills crank up for the night, he heard a car coming up the
road, then stop, apparently in his driveway. Blat-blat-blat-blat the horn
went, and he knew it was Mister Arnell in his red Cadillac. At least he
wouldn’t have to run down to see him tonight. He set his drink down
and stepped around the garage.
When he saw Jake, Mister Arnell jumped out of his car as
though propelled by a heavy spring. “What in tarnation is going on
here, Jake?” he asked. “I sent Leroy out here to pick up those liquor
bottles this afternoon and now there they sit. He told me he throwed
the whole batch out at the dump. Leroy ain’t the kind to lie to me,
Jake. You know that.”
“I know Leroy, Mister Arnell. He’s a good man. Truth be told,
he done what he said, I imagine. There’s times, Mister Arnell, when
my job makes my bile back up. I get a sour taste in my throat. I hate
a man to come down on me unfairly. That New Jersey Yankee plant
superintendent of mine come down on me hard today.”
Mister Arnell’s arms jumped around. He twitched his head as
though about to spit, then said, “Jake, you’re not making any sense.
Have you been drinking again? Here, let me smell your breath so I
know what kind of a man I’m dealing with.” He came up to Jake, took
his arm as though he was about to kiss him and sniffed three times.
Jake breathed out the corner of his mouth, tried to blow his breath
sideways. “Come on, here, Jake. I think you’re holding your breath.
Blow some at me. Blow right in my face now.”
Jake did as told. Mister Arnell flinched back and said, “Sure, I
smell it now. I thought so. Lord have mercy. I tell you what I’m
going to do, Jake. I’m going to send Leroy out here again tomorrow
morning to get these bottles. It’s an eyesore. I drove by here the
other evening with Miss Mamie and she said it looks like trash lives
here. I’m not saying you and Margaret are trash, Jake, and she wasn’t
saying that. I hope you understand that. It’s just not respectable to
have these bottles out here like this. I don’t know why you do it
anyway.”
Jake thought: well.
He went back to the lawn swing after Mister Arnell left and
finished his drink. The boy Shaun was nowhere in sight across the
pasture and Jake longed for him to reappear. He went in the garage
and found a three-quarter-full pint of whiskey that comfortably fit the
back pocket of his overalls and started walking the road to Tom-Boy’s
house. Birds flew away from him in a slow wave as he walked–
goldfinches, a pair of bluebirds, catbirds, thrushes, doves. His face felt
the heat of the sun still radiating from the blacktop. Birds twittered
and called; a cardinal sang off in the distance.
Tom-Boy was slumped on his sister’s sofa when Jake’s feet hit
the porch, but he jumped up and oohed when he saw Jake through the
screen door. Jake silently held the bottle toward him and Tom-Boy
smiled, pointed his finger at him, then disappeared. Jake ambled over
to a big oak tree in Tom-Boy’s back yard that had big spreading aboveground roots high enough to comfortably sit on. Tom-Boy soon
appeared with two water glasses and a clear glass pitcher polka-dotted
with yellow and red and green and orange round spots the size of
nickels. Ice cubes tickled against the glass. Tom-Boy handed Jake the
glasses and Jake poured the glasses almost half-full of whiskey. Then
Tom-Boy filled them with water and set the pitcher on the ground.
“Mister Arnell been around, Tom-Boy, looking for satisfaction.
Looking to rub my nose in the mud, I reckon. I coulda laughed the
way he thought Leroy didn’t do his task at first. You and me, TomBoy, we fooled him. About put poor Leroy under the doghouse.” He
started laughing and punched Tom-Boy’s shoulder. He laughed harder
and Tom-Boy joined in with a falsetto cackle. They laughed and
whooped until…
“Oh goodness,” Jake said as he leaned back against the tree.
They sat quiet for a while, sipping their drinks. Had another one.
Listened to bird songs die off, except for the whippoorwills
monotonously declaring their affinity for the night. Crickets joined in
with their scratchy chorus. They watched the evening’s first bats
flutter, tentatively it seemed, in looped parabolas; smelled the dank
smell of swamp land flavoring the humid night air.
“You know what Mister Arnell’s going to do, Tom-Boy, after all
these years I been his whistle boy. You know what I been thinking
sitting here… I be a whistle boy down at that cotton mill too. Wheet,
they whistle. I better come a running, just like for Mister Arnell.
Comes a time it seems to me that a man don’t want to hear that
whistle no more. Don’t it seem so, Tom-Boy?”
“Ooh-oog.”
“You take them Black Angus. I counted each one so many
times I near about wore the hair right off ‘em. I ain’t agoin to count a
Black Angus no more.”
They sat there quietly, thinking about things.
“You know, I been thinking, Tom-Boy, that those whiskey bottles of
mine are well-suited to making those Molotov cocktails they call them.
Fill ‘em up with lawn mower gas, say. Stop ‘em up with a twisted rag
soaked in gas. Light that rag and let her go. Say one of those landed
smack in the middle of Mister Arnell’s Cadillac windshield, one of ‘em
landed right inside that open door at the mill where they keep all those
cotton linters stored close to that night man’s bedroom. Wouldn’t that
fix things up to a T? A man can imagine how that fire would light up
the dark. I bet you could see that mill on fire from way up here.
Wouldn’t take long, Tom-Boy. Wouldn’t take long at all. You lucky,
Tom-Boy, you never been a whistle boy.”
Tom-Boy’s whistle startled Jake and the way he stabbed his
arm towards Jake’s house. Was tonight too soon to live out his
dreams?
Mary Dance
Mary Post liked the way Livingston Sardoni looked so big and solid
when he rolled into the scalehouse office of the Northline woodyard
where she ran the big Prescott truck scale and kept the books. There
was a baby-fat likability about him in his bib overalls that seemed to
have nothing to do with sexuality. For some reason she didn’t like,
Mary daydreamed about beating on his chest with her small fists. She
knew sound would roll forth like from a Native American log drum.
He dressed in ironworker brown duck canvas bib overalls in
winter and Iowa farmer pinstripe bibs in summer because, he thought,
his barrel chest and big stomach looked so good. He was proud of his
heft-- it cost him a lot of money and time at buffet restaurants to keep
it up. He loved stroking himself with his big palms, up and down, from
belly to chest, chest to belly, when he stood talking with skinny guys or
women he found attractive. And he found Mary attractive. It wouldn’t
have been inaccurate to guess his weight at well over three hundred
pounds. People who knew him called him The Bear.
Mary saw comfort in the obvious strength of his nimble bulk
and broad shoulders. He had a nice easy way of joshing her with a
twinkle in his crinkled eyes. He called to mind a Chinaman the way he
looked. A peaceful one. A wise fool. Why, he said to her, you’re so
tiny, Mary, I don’t think you’re a woman at all. Why don’t you admit
that you’re just a smarter-than-hell fourteen-year-old out to fool us
grownups? What did she weigh, anyhow, he wondered. He would like
to pick her up just to see, he said. Would she mind? No, don’t, she
said, but she had nowhere to run and he backed her up in a corner and
scooped her into his cradling arms. There was no sign that her weight
strained him anymore than a roll of insulation batts. She felt like a
baby in his arms. He looked down at her tenderly from inches away
and said, you don’t weight no more than a damned bumblebee.
Through all his bullshit, she thought that the undercurrent to
what he was saying was that he would like to smother her small
breasts under his big hands, lie his bulk down on top of her and ravish
her with a tool of unknown size. Experience had convinced her that
the size of the warrior had little to do with the size of his spear. But
she had never taken a man as big as him and she wondered how it
would feel to have him lying on top of her and how her arms would
feel wrapped around his bulk in a welcoming embrace. He could
squeeze the liver right out of her if he let all his weight rest on her
body. She imagined being unable to breathe as her liver bulged out
her throat and choked her.
Livingston had come in the scalehouse for the two years she
had worked there to pick up his load tickets, but for a long time he
hadn’t seemed to really notice her. And she paid no special attention
to him. He was just part of the routine, the same grungy file of pulp
truck drivers day after day, some in only twice a day and some in four
or five times. Then, for reasons not known to her, one day he leaned
on his elbows across the counter toward her and started talking about
the country music he liked. Meanwhile his truck blocked the scale for
other truckers. Soon a driver came in the scale house and told him he
better get his damned truck outen the damned way. Then he went out
and moved his truck alongside the scale and came back in.
His thick fingers clenched and unclenched as he spoke. Mary
saw a hard layer of callus across his palms. An easy smile played
constantly across his face. His leathery skin was sunburned and
windburned and frostburned to the fall color of red maple leaves. He
came around the corner of the counter into the open space near her
desk, then leaned against the door jamb near her. He jammed both
hands into the front pockets of his pants and kept fooling with them,
jangling his change, rubbing his lower belly back and forth, clenching
and unclenching his hands. What in the world was he doing in there?
she wondered.
At first after he started coming in, he just talked about general
things: what was going on in town or odd tragedies that were featured
on the national news-- a plane crash in Pennsylvania, a flood in China,
a serial killer in New York City. Gradually, without her being able to
recall just when, he started asking all sorts of questions about her
family life and her feelings about this and that. Many of the questions
set her teeth on edge because there seemed to be an underlying
sexual connotation that was not quite flagrant enough to alarm her,
but just a tinch away from it.
He told her that he wasn’t married, that he lived with his
unmarried sister who was a little on the wild side and had an Indian’s
baby. The black-haired baby annoyed him, he said, with its constant
crying night and day. He could barely stand it, he said. Hard on his
nerves, especially since she had been messing around with a
goddamned Indian. He thought about the Indian every time he looked
at the baby; he knew the guy. There was no trace of his sister on the
baby’s face. Just a little papoose.
He used to drive an over-the-road semi and loved to tell her
about places she had never been or imagined herself in. Seattle, San
Diego, New Orleans, New York City, Miami, Vancouver. He had been
all over the map. He kept his .357 magnum in his lap when he was in
the big cities-- those bastards weren’t about to get him. Oh Christ, he
said, you hear about truck highjacking all the time out by New York.
You go to a truck stop and that’s all they talk about. Leave the driver
laying on the side of the road with his head smashed in like a pumpkin.
At least you don’t have to worry about that kind of shit around here.
This northern Minnesota is the place for me. I ain’t ever leaving again.
Mary couldn’t recall exactly what she had said or when she
said it, but Livingston picked up on something negative she had said or
implied about her husband, Fernell, once. Most likely it was said in jest
since everyone in town knew that Fernell was a unique free spirit.
And Livingston said once, that Fernell, he’s sure a different
sort, ain’t he? What would a nice educated girl like you see in
someone like that? She smiled wanly in reply, trying to not let her
exasperation show because of her employment.
There was no one quite like Fernell, she knew: he was an
independent savage. Even she herself, before she married him,
occasionally enjoyed a chuckle over the latest anti-societal thing he had
pulled. He might have disrupted a county board meeting or outfoxed a
game warden or posted a sign protesting nuclear war along the
highway. She may have even been in a blue mood one day, or ticked
off because something going on in the woods had drawn Fernell away
from some work that she had in mind that he was supposed to
accomplish. Something was probably blooming or fruiting or breeding
or migrating out in the woods. Who knew but Fernell? He knew what
he was talking about. And what business of it was Livingston’s?
She sat relieved when Livingston left and shook her head in
frustration. She wondered again just what it was she had originally
said-- she wanted to blurt out and ask him: Just what exactly did I say
and when? But she couldn’t quite do it. In a way it might even be
true that she lived without storybook romance, without the sense of
romantic love. She knew what she was getting into when she had
married Fernell and storybook romance with a prince was not included
in the package. He had never fallen short of her expectations.
Occasionally he rose above them. With sparkling blue eyes
and a warm smile, he brought her flowers from the woods. He named
them for her-- Turk’s cap lily, buttercup, blue flag, columbine, aster,
ox-eye daisy. He pointed out the beauty in the details: shades of
colors, fine purple lines against creamy backgrounds, shapes of seed
chambers, sweet perfume. She had never realized. Mary liked Fernell
fine. She admired him in many ways. But she felt the one thing
missing from her life was the sting of Cupid’s arrow. He was just
Fernell, for better or worse. She kicked herself for not correcting
Livingston early on, when she had the chance. Now it seemed too late
for that. He seemed to have an unshakable notion. In that way he
was way ahead of her in his thinking.
She was stuck in a place where she had to be at least civil to
Livingston. After all, he was one of the mill’s biggest suppliers of
wood. He knew that she would be there all day and every day, and
frequently alone, since Lance, the boss, was often away on some
business of his own. Livingston was a smoke blower, a word spinner.
And he loved to talk with Mary. He slumped into a chair if another
driver came in, then waited in silence for him to leave. That guy is full
of bullshit, he might say after the man left, or that man is a damned
lush.
People in town wondered why Mary had married Fernell. After
all, she was one of the town’s best and brightest-- she graduated
second in her high school class and went to a small private college
down near the Twin Cities in some sort of computer specialty. Fernell
had just squeaked through high school by the grace of kindly teachers
who knew he had no aspirations which might come to haunt them
professionally should he seek out higher education.
Most locals believed that Mary could have named her own
ticket somewhere. There’s big money in computers, they said,
especially for someone as smart as Mary. It was widely believed
around town, based on teacher talk, that the salutatorian of the Eagle
City High School Class of 1976, which Mary was, was a one in ten-year
or twenty-year kid. The valedictorian of her class had gone on to
medical school and Mary nipped at his heels all the way through
school. He was also her last-moment senior prom date even though
she didn’t care for him, but she wanted to go to show her friends
something. Known only to the two of them, after the prom he drove to
the remote Millstone Lake boat landing and ripped Mary’s lowcut dress
from her bodice and exclaimed while kissing her breasts, Geez, Mary,
you’ve got nice little knockers. I didn’t know you even had any
knockers. She struggled against his persistent advances for half an
hour before she ended the evening with a reverse jab from her left
heel into some solid protrusion in his crotch. Oofta, he said. Geez,
Mary, why’d you do that? She kicked him again.
When Mary came back to town in 1983, she told her parents
that she just couldn’t stand living down in The Cities. Too much traffic
and polluted air, crime, noise and fast living. Good job opportunities
were available to her but they were all in larger, worse cities. She just
had to think things over. They were happy to have her back. Then
her mother heard that the weighmaster job was open at the local
woodchip mill and urged Mary to apply for it.
There weren’t many marriageable men in Eagle City when she
arrived, and Mary knew there wouldn’t be much to choose from. This
was a town that young people left. But Mary had sampled enough sex
in her college dorm to know that she liked to lay down with a man
from time to time. She hated to think of the dreary two-tavern bar
scene to find a man when she was in the mood. There would be few
choices after some local, unwashed pulpwood cutters, philandering
husbands, or tourists weekend rich with two hundred unaccustomed
dollars in their billfolds. Most were fishermen away from the old lady
for a weekend looking for a woman who looked passably good while
they were still sober; and the woman must be naive or desperate
enough to think it a privilege to provide them a free roll in the hay.
But Mary vowed to herself that she would be goddamned if she would
let herself be used that way.
Fernell had proclaimed publicly and often that he was never
going to work for any man. He lived in a little shack in the woods on
the back side of his father’s three hundred and twenty acres. Mary
saw him occasionally at Shyler’s Cafe, the least lipid-ridden of the local
eateries. She joked with him about taking her fishing some time. One
bright green spring day she met him on the street and he begged her
to go fishing with him that evening because the crappies were really
biting on Little Sand Lake. She wasn’t sure, but went and had a good
time. They pulled in about a hundred fish, most of them slab crappies
bigger and thicker than a man’s hand. It took over an hour to clean
them. Gray guts and red gills filled a five gallon bucket. Scales piled
up in shiny windrows.
He wanted her to take them home to her parents, but she said,
What would I do with all those fish? I’m not that crazy about any fish
but walleye. He said he guessed he knew someone who would pay
good money for them, but he would have to get going and deliver
them since they had to be fresh. Later, he tried to give her half of the
fifty dollars he got for them.
They fished over the summer and Mary got used to him. He
wasn’t anxiety-ridden or driven like so many young hotshots she had
known. He projected gentleness, honesty. They always went to his
shack after fishing and played cribbage and drank beer, and one night
Mary was just in the right mood and they were horsing around and
ended up tumbling onto the khaki wool blanket covering his bed. They
made love four times. Fernell couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. He
said he had never had a woman before and she believed him. Oh God,
he said, this is so great. I always wondered what it really feels like. It
beats a hand job all to hell. You know, Mary, I never thought you liked
me growing up. I was just dirt under the feet of you and your girl
friends in high school.
No you weren’t, she said. I always sort of liked you but you
were so shy in those days. It was like pulling teeth to get you to say
hello.
She soon discovered she was pregnant after that giddy night.
He made an ugly face when she told him. He dragged his feet. Tried
to avoid her. She had to go to his shack late at night to find him. No
way, he said. She spent days at her desk conceiving psychological
hammerlocks and full Nelsons. Finally he broke under her pressure.
Only then she vowed they weren’t going to live in his shack. They had
to find a decent house with running water, a nice kitchen with curtains
at the windows, a carpeted living room and three bedrooms. Fernell
fought for his shack. She racked her brain thinking strategy. He told
her to go to hell more than once. She understood. He told her the
shack contained everything he had ever wanted. She admired him.
He told her he now knew how a mink caught in a one-and-a-half
leghold trap felt. She knew things were downhill for her after that. To
make him feel better, she told him he could keep the shack and go out
there whenever he wanted.
He was used to living off the land. She was used to living off a
supermarket. She liked Sara Lee products, frozen pizza, chocolate, and
Weight Watchers frozen dinners. He liked venison liver, fried potatoes,
big bologna sandwiches on white bread and morel mushrooms.
He loved poaching northern pike and walleyes on spring nights
when the breeze carried the chill of winter from unmelted snow lying in
the woods. The fish swarmed up ridiculously small creeks to spawn.
Their firm cold bodies bumped into his hip-booted legs as he stood
midstream with a miner’s flashlight strapped around his forehead.
Sometimes he literally threw the fish out of the stream with a pitchfork.
Other times he used a long-wooden-handled spear with six recurved
points hand forged by his grandfather. He quietly peddled hundreds of
pounds of fillets to restaurant owners anxious to buy all he could
supply at half the market price.
The money he earned from poaching easily kept him in his
basic needs: salt, pepper, beans, flour, large pails of peanut butter,
bread and cooking oil. The terms “balanced diet” and “net worth”
were not known to him. Most of his clothing was picked up at garage
sales in summer for a quarter or fifty cents per item. His main expense
was maintaining his rusty Japanese pickup with well over a hundred
thousand miles (or two or three hundred thousand miles) on it. Fernell
knew intimately every junkyard within a hundred and fifty miles.
In the fall there was venison to be harvested for a meat dealer
down in the Twin Cities who supplied wild game to gourmet
restaurants. The guy would take all the venison Fernell cared to
deliver. The same for wild ducks. Each fall Fernell kept a close watch
on a number of muskeg-surrounded potholes that were used every
year by the same species of ducks as rest stops during migration.
Some potholes were used by blue-winged teal in October and different
ones by bluebills in November. When the ducks were in, he and a
friend or two filled the sky with flying lead shot at dawn and dusk.
They heard bird shot rattling off the ducks’ wings like pellets of sleet in
a storm. They shot ducks by the gunny-sack-full and sold them in lots
of twenty-five, gutted, at two dollars per duck.
Occasionally he guided a musky fishing or bear hunting trip
and thought he was picking in tall cotton when he made a hundred and
fifty dollars a day. In winter he worked in a heated workshop in his
father’s idle barn making bird feeders and carving duck decoys. When
it wasn’t too hot in summer he sometimes went to a flea market and
sold things.
Trucks full of one hundred inch long aspen pulpwood pulled slowly
onto a huge platform scale that weighed the truck, load of wood, and
change in the driver’s pocket. Ninety two pounds of Mary weighed
trucks grossing over a hundred thousand pounds with the punch of a
red button. She looked out at them through scale-side windows,
waited a moment for the scale to stabilize, and punched the button.
She waved the ticket at the driver after the gross weight printed. He
drove out to be unloaded, then came back over the scale for his empty
weight and came inside to pick up his copy of the ticket.
Mary was the official chief scaler and she already knew more
about pulpwood than she ever thought the subject contained. It was
nothing for her to distinguish Balm of Gilead from popple just from the
cut ends of the sticks. And then she would ask the driver, what is that
bam doing in your load? Better watch it. You know we don’t want
bam.
She could accurately estimate the cordage on a truck just by
noting how high and how neatly the load was piled. She seemed to
have a sixth sense about rotten wood hidden in the load-- when the
loggers loaded their trucks, they turned the worst ends of the load to
face the side away from Mary’s windows. They all knew she hated to
go outside when it was hot or bitter cold to look at the opposite side of
a load, so that’s when the mill received their worst wood. When she
did venture out, it was because she knew something was amiss, and
woe be to the logger then: she would cull his load brutally just to make
a point. Then she stood below the truck cab and cranked her arm
around, and when the driver rolled his window down, she told him,
Don’t bring anymore of that shit in here or you’re done hauling in here,
okay?
I’ll tell ‘em, he would say, even though he was the one who
had loaded the wood on the truck in the first place, knew that he had
buried the rotten sticks as best he could but maybe he had a hell of a
bunch to get rid of. That was his job. A man had to know how to
think. That bitch Mary, she wouldn’t even know how to start a chain
saw, much less run one, and what did she know about the poor run of
wood a man might buy by mistake, merely because he needed
something to keep him going?
The drivers and loggers all thought Mary was sleeping with her
boss, Lance Washburn, ever since one of their rank arrived in the yard
in his pickup one day, quietly came in the door, and caught the two of
them playfully wrestling in Lance’s office. There was nothing going on,
to Mary’s mind, just a random outbreak of childish behavior. It
happened to everyone. But the story spread through the logging
community like a wildfire pushed by a fifty-mile-an-hour wind and ten
percent humidity. One driver told another over at the gas station, then
the story spread to the taverns where some of them played cribbage
on Wednesday night, then out to the smoky shanties made of old
bread delivery trucks without engines they used as mobile tool cribs,
grease barrel toters, and lunchrooms, and wherein the fragrance of the
day was always number two diesel fuel which soaked their boots and
pants and gloves.
More than one man was heard to say, Damn, I’d like to fuck
that little thing.
The story took on a life of its own and was embellished and
embroidered with conjured detail and ended up in some versions with
the two of them half-naked and ready to go at it when they were
interrupted. Others heard that Lance was caught with his arms around
Mary while holding her body completely off the floor and swinging her
in a circle, her short arms wrapped around his neck like a little rag doll.
She smiled dreamily into his eyes while his stiff poker bulged out his
pants like there was a softball in his front pocket. People wondered
why he would do that when his own wife, Paula, was a gorgeous
blonde with a Hollywood body that inspired more than a few wet
dreams in those jack pine savages who lucked on a close look at her.
Paula tooled around in a little Porsche convertible which cast her as a
pretty fool to the loggers who knew that that little car wasn’t worth
diddly shit in the winter.
Mary was small and nimble as a gymnast and had loved to
dance ever since she entered her teens. Fernell didn’t know how to
dance, had never attempted it in his entire life, and had no desire to
learn. When Mary first came back to town she started driving in the
evening twenty-three miles to the Grand Falls Holiday Inn so she could
dance. The bands weren’t quite as good as they were down in the
Twin Cities, but they all had a beat and amplifiers big enough to rattle
the windows up in room 324. Before they were married she told
Fernell he was either going to learn to dance or she was going dancing
without him, married or not, kid or not. Suits me, he said. You go on
ahead and dance all you want. I ain’t planning on learning soon.
Long ago she had told Livingston Sardoni about her dancing. I
have never known how to dance, he said. Oh, if I’m drunk enough at
some wedding I’ll get out and make the floor bounce, but I wouldn’t
want to see no movies of me doing it. How can that man let you go
dancing all by yourself and you with a kid at home?
He trusts me, she said. I told him before we were married that
I’m a dancing fool, and I was going to dance, with him or without. And
I have no doubt it’ll always be without.
Damn, he said, some of us ain’t intended to dance. I was him
I’d put my foot down. You wouldn’t be going on like that if you was
my wife. I’d have to put a stop to it. Let you stay home and take care
of your kid.
Huh, she snorted, annoyed at his predictable sexism. You
wouldn’t be stopping me. It’s his kid, too, and he knows how to take
care of him. It was all agreed on in advance. You think a man can
just go back on his word once he’s given it? I couldn’t stay with a man
like that for another day.
He grumbled possessively anyway, told her she ought to stay
home before something happened. You never know what kind of a
goddamned kook you’ll run into up there, he said. You’re not thinking
straight, Mary. I know what I’m talking about. Forget the goddamned
dancing. Some people don’t think it’s right.
I don’t care what anyone thinks, she said.
Damn, Mary, you picking up guys up there?
She was mad now. She said, Livingston, will you get off the
subject?
Otherwise, why you keep going up there? I don’t want to pry,
Mary, but maybe Fernell has some problems keeping his wife satisfied.
Could that be?
Goddammit, Livingston, you’ve gone too far now. My life is my
life and it’s none of your damned business. Now just stay the hell out
of it. If you please.
After that day he continued coming in every day. He fenced
carefully around the subject and found out that Wednesday and
Saturdays were traveling band nights and she always went on
Wednesday. And the next Wednesday night, for the first time ever, he
appeared at the lounge at the Holiday Inn. He walked right past her
and nodded, then took a nearby table. He looked like a different
person than the man she saw every day. Finally she realized he was
without the billed chainsaw cap he wore every day. He wore casual
slacks and a loud plaid dress shirt.
She walked over and stood near him. What the hell are you
doing here, Livingston? she asked.
Nothing, he said. Nothing. A man’s got a right to have a drink
when and where he wants, don’t he?
Goddamn, you make me so mad, Livingston, she said and went
back to her table. Men came and asked her to dance and sometimes
sat at her table afterwards. The first one who stayed more than five
minutes was tapped on his shoulder by Livingston. Livingston
motioned the man away with his thumb. What? the man said to
Livingston. What do you want?
I think it’s time for you to amscray from this table, friend. You
been here long enough.
What the hell are you talking about?
You heard me, move out, or you and me are going outside.
The man considered the heft of Livingston and looked at Mary
for an explanation. I’m sorry, she said. I think he thinks he’s my
protector or something. Livingston, I told you to leave me the hell
alone, now why don’t you get out of here?
Move, I said, he said to the man and wrapped his big hand
around the back of the man’s neck and forced him to his feet.
Livingston took his seat again and people stared at him. After a while
another man stayed too long and the incident was repeated. Then
another time. Around eleven o’clock he asked Mary, When you going
home, Mary? I got to get up at four-thirty.
I’m closing the place up tonight, Livingston.
The hell you say, he said.
About midnight, three loggers known to Mary and to
Livingston, but not haulers to their mill, came over, nodded to Mary,
and beerily greeted Livingston. Well if it ain’t the bear, old bear, one of
them said loudly to him. How’s the wife and that new baby doing,
Livingston old man?
Goddammit, he said. Supposing you done fucked me up now.