Searching for Intruders
This was while Alethea’s cancer was taking over again, but before we realized it. We had been getting along well again, renting a house back in Reading. There was a heat wave, and we had no air conditioner. It was late, almost 2:00 A.M. We were naked in bed. She was caressing me, and we were about to make love when we heard the screams.
The Jill-Flirted Mare
“Here she is, Packsaddle Bridge,” Dad announced, and as I looked down through a knothole in the bridge floor I caught a glimpse of a narrow stream far below. “Right down there,” he said, “is where our Uncle Cager lost his team in the quicksand before the bridge went in.”
Almost three in the spring of 1933, I was sitting in the back of Dad’s lead wagon looking out over the tailgate when the distinctive clip-clop of the horses’ iron-shod hooves struck the heavy wooden timbers on the long, arching span over the South Canadian River in western Oklahoma. This is my first memory, the only part of the four hundred-mile trek from northern Kansas to the Needmore community in western Oklahoma that I can recall.
I remember nothing about the following year, when we lived in a tent, and almost nothing of our six-month stay in an old, abandoned schoolhouse after we came home from town to find the tent torched by a man Dad had got the best of in a trade. But getting ready to move to the Missouri Ozarks made a strong impression on me. Dad liked to describe the country where his folks lived as “the land of a million smiles” and “the land of milk and honey.”
Especially exciting was butchering day, when all the women and girls were herded inside Grandpa and Grandma Green’s house. They had to stay there until the yearling steer had been killed, skinned, and gutted. Going on five, I was plenty big enough to stand with my older brother, Fred, eight, and hang on to the fence outside the barn lot, watching, while Dad and Mama’s three teenaged brothers did the job that women and girls were not permitted to see.
Instead of dropping dead when Dad shot him, the dazed steer shook his head, then raised his tail high and raced wildly around the enclosure. “Catch him! Catch him!” Dad yelled, and the long-legged, high-stepping middle boy managed to overtake the bawling, wide-eyed animal and grab its tail while it pulled him around and around the lot, before collapsing in a corner. There the boys held it, and Dad cut its throat with the heavy, curved butcher knife that Fred handed him. As I craned my neck to get a good look at the gushing, bright blood and the animal’s dying spasms, I heard Dad say, “I hope all that excitement didn’t taint the meat.”
After Mama’s brothers helped Dad hoist the steer to a limb on a nearby scrub oak with wire stretchers and a singletree off Grandpa’s garden plow, they watched as he carefully skinned the animal, tied a stout string around its anus, then split the pelvis with an ax before plopping the guts into a washtub. Following Dad’s directions, the boys carried fresh buckets of water from the cistern and sloshed out the still steaming carcass.
Mama’s tedious job of cutting up the meat before packing it in half-gallon jars in Grandma’s pressure cooker failed to hold my attention. Nothing I’d seen in women’s work excited me anything like seeing the botched killing of the steer.
Before we moved to Missouri, Dad and Uncle Homer (whose real name was Oklahoma Territory Green) rode west into Texas, where Dad traded his two well-broke teams for a blemished bay mare and a spoiled paint bronc, drawing seventy-five dollars to boot. The new horses, one gentle, the other spooky, were jumped into the back of the one-ton Ford truck from the pond bank, then tied to the front rack and penned with wooden panels.
A jumble of things followed, including Dad’s square wooden box filled with the beef Mama had canned, the four-foot narrow pine box containing its precious cargo of perishables, several backless chairs and two sets of iron bedsteads and springs. Two thin, straw-filled mattresses covered with comforters were put down in the left-hand corner behind the horses, as far away as possible from the truck’s exhaust. There we, the four youngest–Joyce six, I four, Wanda three and Jay one–huddled safe with Mama under the gray tarpaulin.
The three men got to ride in the cab. There was Uncle Calvin, the drinking driver, owner of the truck, and Dad, of course. Fred, snug and smug in the middle, had earned his honored spot almost two years earlier by driving the second team, pulling a faded blue circus wagon across Kansas and half of Oklahoma.
The trip to Missouri took a lot of the starch out of the snorting bronc, Old Casey. Crowded in her corner, old Bird, the small bay mare, barely moved. After the twenty-hour February ride under the flapping tarp, accompanied by a tailwind and a skiff of snow, we welcomed the sudden rush of warm air, heavy with the smell of burning coal oil and peach pie juices, that spilled out of the open door of Grandpa and Grandma Holmes’ house.
We soon moved to the Wise place, a half-mile east, where Dad worked the mismatched team daily. He constantly curbed the plunging, wall-eyed outlaw while clucking approval to the steady mare. She was reliable and good; I wondered how she was blemished. Close-mouthed, Dad wouldn’t say. Finally, too curious to keep quiet, I risked his anger: “What’s wrong with old Bird?” Redder in the face than ordinary, Dad ignored my question. Then it hit me. It was her farting. She farted too much, especially when we went to town. Out on the farm, where rude noises abounded nobody minded, but the closer we got to town, the louder she sounded, bringing grins and snickers from perfect strangers. Meanwhile I, sitting in the back of the wagon, grew increasingly hard of hearing as I stared straight ahead.
On the way home once, I asked, “What makes her do that?” Dad’s curt, “She’s been pasture bred and she’s jill-flirted,” told me nothing but shut me up. More questions would have brought the belt.
Months later, a strange wagon pulled up in the barn lot. “Mr. Holmes?”
Wary with strangers, Dad nodded. “Call me Clay.”
“We’re the Gilhams, father and son, from up on the county line. We heard you’re a trader.”
“I’ve been known to trade. What’s on your mind?”
“Do you have any horses you’d swap?”
“I doubt it,” Dad answered. “My team there in the barn suits me pretty well.”
The older Gilham’s eyes brightened when he saw Old Casey. “Would you trade your spotted horse?”
“No, he’s my riding horse.”
“What about the little mare? Would you trade her?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I might if I thought it was a fair trade,” Dad answered in a flat voice.
“Bring her out here in the light so I can see her better. But before you do there’s something I need to say. Mr. Holmes, we’re Gilhams and we’re Christians. If there’s any cheating to be done, we’d rather be cheated than cheat.”
“I’m just like you, only different,” Dad said. “If there’s any cheating to be done, I’d rather cheat than be cheated.”
Dad brought the mare out, farting every step, where Mr. Gilham looked her over but didn’t raise her tail.
“How does she work?”
“She’s a good worker. You can put her anywhere.”
“How would you trade her for my offside gelding?”
Dad examined the scrawny horse with care, taking special pains with his mouth, feet, and legs as he asked, “How does he work? Is he sound? Will he balk?”
Assured, Dad continued, “I’ll tell you what. With a little extra feed I think your horse will match my paint better than the little mare does. I’ll trade with you, even up, and you can change them right here.”
“You’ve got yourself a trade,” said Mr. Gilham, smiling broadly as he stuck out his hand.
Dad shook, limp handed, and the Gilhams quickly exchanged the two animals and drove off. That fart, fart, farting fading into the far distance was the sweetest sound I ever heard.
Within the week a tight-faced pair of Gilhams, announced by familiar sounds, drove up in the yard. The older man sputtered, “Mister, you didn’t tell us that mare was jill-flirted.”
“No,” Dad replied evenly before waving them off. “I didn’t. The man I got her from didn’t tell me, and I thought he wanted it kept a secret.”
Within six months after we’d moved to the Wise place, the owner stopped and told Dad he had a buyer for the farm, “And if you folks’ll move right away I’ll give you back the two hundred dollars you paid me for the year’s rent.”
“I don’t care,” Dad told him. “My tomato crop’s already burnt up. We’ll be out of here as soon as I can locate another place.”
The eighty-acre Bowers place, atop a long hill two miles east, was the same size as the Wise place, and, according to Dad, the only advantage to moving there was the hundred dollars a year Phil Bowers was asking for rent. On his return from looking the farm over, Dad told Mama, “It doesn’t have much in the way of outbuildings–I could throw a grown cat through any side of the barn–but the three-room house is tight, and you’ll be glad to know there’s a cellar out in back.”
“Good,” Mama said. “Is it big enough for a bed? You know how scared I am of cyclones and thunderstorms.”
“Yeah, it’s a full-sized cellar.”
“I’ve prayed about it, and I think we’d better take it,” Mama said. “What do you think?”
“It’s likely as good as we’re gonna get,” he replied. “The boys can help me haul water until I can build a windlass so we can get started on digging a cistern.”
“We’ll make do,” Mama said. “The Lord will provide.”
After we had moved to the Bowers place, on the coldest and worst night of the year, Dad unexpectedly put all five of us kids in his and Mama’s bed in the bedroom, while Mama slept in one of our beds in the front room. “Now behave yourselves and be quiet,” he told us. “Your mother’s sick, and I’m going to the Old Lady Johnson’s for help. I’ll be back as quick as I can.”
We knew, from the few times we’d been in bed with the boys at one end and the girls at the other, that we could have a lot of fun tickling and goosing one another, but Dad’s fierce look scared us. Besides, all thoughts of under-the-covers shenanigans vanished when we heard the unmistakable cry of a baby. Unbeknownst to us, Mama had got up to use the slop bucket, and when she grunted, the newborn baby fell headfirst into the bucket. The mingled sounds of the baby and Mama’s crying confused us; we hadn’t known she was pregnant, and we’d never before heard her cry; but after Dad and the old granny woman finally got up the ice-covered hill to the house, the sniffling sounds subsided and Dad came in and told us we had a new baby sister.
Afterwards, I wondered if the baby had cut her upper lip on the sharp bail of the slop bucket, but Mama said that wasn’t it. “I marked her months ago, when I hit my upper lip on the doorjamb,” she insisted. Even later, when doctors at Children’s Hospital explained that a harelip was a congenital defect, Mama still believed she’d marked the baby.
Dad never said whether he was afraid they’d have another disfigured child–Mama’s youngest brother’s wife bore two sons with cleft palates–or whether he simply thought six kids in twelve years was enough. Whatever the reason, he started practicing a form of birth control Mama and all her family strongly opposed. “The Bible plainly says that spilling a man’s seed upon the ground is an abomination unto the Lord,” Mama argued, and she and Dad fought pitched battles night after night.
One morning, following an especially bitter exchange, Dad split a bigger-than-usual pile of wood for the cookstove, then marched stiffly off to the barn, where he bridled Old Bess, grabbed a gunnysack to sit on, and mounted up. “Mind your mother,” he told us kids, before he turned to Mama and said, “I don’t aim to come back.”
“Suit yourself,” she said. “If you’re not back in a week I’ll put the kids in an orphans’ home and leave too.”
The instant Dad was out of sight down the hill, I ran to the barn and climbed up in the loft, where I waited until I saw him far below on the crippled mare, headed west and then north over Crane Creek and out of sight, beyond where the one-armed Hutchinson and his family lived.
Although I didn’t expect to ever see Dad again, near the end of the week Wanda first heard and then saw him riding up the hill swinging a hand bell announcing his arrival. “Dad’s home! Dad’s home!” she yelled, and all of us except Mama ran out to meet him.
“Here,” he said, handing down a sack from the mare’s withers. “It’s a little late, but better late than never.” Inside the sack were tiddlywinks for Joyce, rag dolls for Wanda and Lottie Jean, and rubber balls for Fred, Jay and me. He also had enough oranges for everyone, including Mama and himself. Best of all, shortly after he got home, Dad caught the mumps, they went down on him, and he no longer had a reason to spill his seed upon the ground.
Then another big change occurred. I was asleep in the smokehouse, where Fred and I slept in all but the coldest weather, when Fred roused me to announce that Dad had just been saved at the Osie revival. As Fred told it, Brother Keith and Brother Ericson had taken turns preaching until Dad finally relented and went forward. “And I got saved, too!” Fred crowed. “Mama thinks from the way I shouted, I got the Holy Ghost!”
“What’s the Holy Ghost?”
“I’m not sure, but Mama said that lots of times people who get it end up preaching.”
“You’re too young to preach.”
“I’m not either,” Fred said. “I’m eleven, going on twelve, and I’m going to go to Africa and save the heathen.” As he babbled on about his new plans, and I drifted off, I wondered if Fred would quit grabbing my little fingers and bending them all the way back.
The next morning Fred didn’t mention Africa, and he was as mean as ever. Dad was more subdued than usual, and when we sat down to eat breakfast, instead of Mama’s short, “Bless this food for the nourishment of our bodies, in Jesus’ name. Amen,” Dad stumbled through a longer prayer that sounded as if he was thinking out loud.
After several such halting attempts, Dad turned the praying back over to Mama. “You go ahead,” he told her, and I never saw him pray again. He sometimes attended church, and he closed his eyes when others prayed, but he didn’t take to religion the way Mama had hoped he would. To hear Mama tell it, Dad was in danger of backsliding when he started slipping off and visiting with Buck and Thelma Reavis and other godless people in the community who never attended church.
“Birds of a feather flock together,” she’d say as he headed out.
“Maybe so,” Dad once answered, “but at least we laugh and enjoy ourselves, which is more than what happens around here.”
Following Lottie Jean’s birth, Mama got sick and lost considerable weight. After she gradually recovered her strength, she sold enough popcorn seed and white cakes to WPA workers who parked in our yard to send off to Sears, Roebuck for a severe, off-white dress. When she’d altered the dress and put it on, Dad asked, “Is that your new dancing outfit?”
“Dancing outfit my foot,” she growled. “It’s my preaching dress.”
“Preaching dress? Since when?”
“Since right now. I’ve felt the call for a long time, but I didn’t do anything about it until Brother Keith encouraged me to fill in for him on fifth Sundays and other times when he can’t make it.”
“You know how I feel about preachers,” Dad said, “Especially women preachers.”
“I aim to do the Lord’s will,” she replied. “And if you don’t like it you can lump it.”
Mama ordinarily hated to have her picture taken, but she posed proudly, if self-consciously, holding her Bible in her left hand, before she set out on foot wearing her new ready-made dress on her first preaching assignment. Sallow faced and skinny as a shikepoke, Mama had glistening black hair, hooded eyes, a prominent nose and cheekbones, and a tightly compressed gash of a mouth that betrayed the one-eighth Indian blood she’d inherited from her papa’s full-blooded Creek grandma, Narcissa, an early transplant from Alabama to Indian Territory.
Acutely aware of how she looked, Mama had improvised a strip of leftover material into something like a scarf to help hide the goose-egg sized goiter growing off-center at the base of her long neck. I halfway expected the goiter to disappear after she went forward and got prayed for at a special healing service, but it kept right on growing. Maybe Mama’s faith wasn’t as strong as I’d thought it was. But if shedidn’t have enough faith, who in the world did?
In the evenings, after the rest of the family had gone to bed, Mama spent long hours reading her Bible on the kitchen table, with its faded red and white checkered oilcloth. Any time one of us kids got up to use the slop bucket in the front room or to get a drink out of the long-handled dipper in the water bucket on the washstand in the kitchen, we’d see her hunched over next to the dim coal oil lamp, slowly tracing the strange-sounding words she muttered as she committed long passages to memory. As for Dad, whether asleep or awake behind the closed door in the bedroom, he was bound to be resting in his usual position, face up, stiff and straight as a board on the far side of the cold bed.
In the irregular times when Mama got to preach–never enough to suit her, we could tell from her feverish, dissatisfied look–Dad stayed home with the baby. The rest of us kids went to church with her. Many of her sermons followed a grim and predictable routine of describing sinners caught in the clutches of an avenging God. But at her best and scariest, she put aside her anger and gradually worked herself into a joyous and ecstatic state marked by outbursts of whooping and hollering and even speaking in tongues, something entirely too rich and out of control for most of the staid churchgoers. Only two or three women in the congregation, including Dollie Fenton, who later preached on the radio, tried to match Mama’s shouting, but they couldn’t hold a candle to her carryings-on.
When it came time for the altar call, Wilma Wilkin pounded on the piano and led the congregation in singing “Come Home” or some other doleful hymn, while Mama searched out the worst sinner she could find. When she was lucky, the two dyed-in-the-wool old infidels in the community, Amos Shockley and Buck Earnhart, were present, and she, fearless in her righteousness, would march back and take on first one and then the other.
Once when she had Amos cornered on the back row, I was watching him shift back and forth on his gimp leg when, to my surprise, someone took hold of my hand. Faye Hilton, our nearest neighbor woman, stood in front of me, crying. “Don’t you want to come forward and be saved?” she asked. “Your dad and brother got saved at the revival. Now it’s your turn.”
“No, I’m not old enough.”
“How old are you?”
“The Lord said to suffer the little children to come unto Him. Besides, your mother was five when she got saved. Don’t you want to be like her?”
“I don’t think so.”
By slipping up on me unexpectedly Faye had caught me before I’d had time to think out my objections. All I could do was shake my head, hang on to the school desk, white knuckled, and think that I hadn’t had enough fun, hadn’t sinned enough to warrant giving it up forever. Even so, I was weakening and would likely have given in, had I not suddenly remembered: Jesus Himself hadn’t started His Father’s work until He was twelve. I didn’t have to become a Christian yet. I had four more years to sin and have fun. This time, when I said no to Faye, she believed me.
Shortly after I escaped salvation, Fred was tormenting me, grabbing my little fingers and twisting them all the way back, as he often did; but instead of running from him when I pulled loose, I grabbed him and shoved him down on the rough wooden floor in the front room as hard as I could. Before he could get on his feet, I had him in a tight armlock around his skinny neck, an armlock which, for the first time, he couldn’t break. As he bucked and twisted, I held on in desperation while Dad and Mama, their eyes averted, said nothing.
At last Fred pleaded, “Turn loose. You’re hurting me.”
“You’ve got to say, ‘Calf Rope’ first.”
“Okay, ‘Calf Rope,'” he whispered, admitting defeat, and when I turned him loose I felt even better than when I’d avoided being saved. I felt confident that from now on, if I could get hold of him I could whip him.
After we moved to the remote Snuffer place, Mama’s increasing bulk made it impossible for her to continue wearing her preaching dress. With nothing else fit to wear to church, she fell into a deep funk and let herself go. She quit wearing her waist, a strange-looking undergarment she’d made out of white cotton sugar sacks. On wash days, after the girls hung the clean clothes out to dry on the top wire of the barbed-wire fence separating the yard from the barn lot, I noticed that Mama’s waist, with its long, flapping strings, was no longer on the line. One evening I carried an armload of wood into the kitchen, where Mama, caught up in one of her reveries, stood next to the cookstove stirring the gravy. Imagine my surprise when I clearly saw her bare left breast through the hole in her raggedy old dress. Instead of looking away, I pulled the bill of my cap down, and then slowly threw one stick at a time into the woodbox, all the while checking her out.
At first I was struck by the symmetry and beauty of her full breast, but as I continued to stare, I felt an overwhelming and gut-wrenching mix of desire and revulsion. I’d seen little pink titties before, as well as various shades of brown ones, including my own, of course, but I was shocked to see Mama’s coal-black nipple. I’m not sure how long I stood there, transfixed, but it couldn’t have been long . Mama would have knocked me into the middle of next week with a stick of wood if she’d had any inkling that I’d turned into a peeping Tom–and that she was the one I was watching.
Mama’s increasing size and shabbiness not only kept her from going to church; according to her bitter account she didn’t step foot off the place for over a year. That’s not quite true, because when she and Dad were having a particularly hard time getting along, she sometimes left the house in a huff and walked a mile north to the Old Lady Parvin’s, where she stayed several hours or even overnight, until things cooled off.
Later, when Dad took off, supposedly for wheat harvest, there was a freer-than-ordinary atmosphere around our place. Mama let us make tunnels by putting the bedcovers over the kitchen chairs; she jacked up the potato soup with onions, something Dad never allowed when he was there; and we could smile and laugh as we worked, again something strictly taboo when Dad was there. Dad was the hit of the party when company came, but as soon as company left, he turned sour.
While he was gone we sometimes went overboard, ripping and tearing around in our newfound freedom until Mama lost patience. As she corralled us she tended to become harsh–too harsh–reaching for the razor strap hanging behind the kitchen stove. If we felt especially daring when she overreacted, we circled her, dancing around and around, making absolutely certain we were out of reach, chanting: “She’s a mean old sow, she eats her pigs. She’s a mean old sow, she eats her pigs.”Our outlandish chant often caused Mama to laugh, after which she’d throw down her strap, and the dangerous situation would be defused. We never rubbed it in or pushed our luck after she conceded. We knew better than that.
Dad was still gone the last of November. Few neighbors were brave enough to question Mama about his whereabouts, but when the Old Lady Parvin asked, Mama glared and mumbled something about him following the wheat harvest into North Dakota. Although everyone knew the wheat harvest was over, no one dared dispute Mama’s word.
Maybe she didn’t know where he was. She rarely mentioned him, and when one of us kids returned from the mailbox, she didn’t seem to be expecting a card from him. Naturally, none of us had enough nerve to come right out and ask: “Where’s Dad? When’s he coming home?”
Since Fred didn’t have to work on Thanksgiving and I didn’t have to go to school, he and I were free to take Old Tuffy and the single-shot .22 and go hunting.
“We’ll try to kill something special for Thanksgiving supper,” Fred said.
“All right,” Mama replied. “I’ll have the potatoes on.”
As usual, Fred carried the gun. Because he was fifteen and I was eleven, he got to take the first shot any time we had plenty of shells. But because I was the better shot, he often deferred to me. We were on Lester Meadows’ place, where Fred cut sprouts for a dollar a day, when he hissed, “Listen, Old Tuffy’s hit a trail.”
“Yeah,” I whispered, “and it sounds like he’s circling this way. Shouldn’t I take the gun?”
“Not yet” was hardly out of his mouth when a large jackrabbit, something we’d heard of but never seen in Missouri, hopped into the clearing and stopped. Quickly, shaky as always, Fred raised the gun and fired. To my amazement the rabbit fell over dead.
“How about that?” Fred laughed. “You thought I’d miss him, didn’t you?”
“Yes, and so did you,” I answered.
“Here you go,” Fred directed. “You can carry him. Won’t Mama be proud?”
“Yes, she will,” I answered, and I gladly carried the jackrabbit, two to three times the size of a cottontail, the half-mile home.
We were barely in the front yard when Wanda shouted, “Look, Mama, look!”
Mama busted out laughing, “Why, it’s a jackrabbit, the first since we left Oklahoma. You boys clean it while I heat up some water. We’ll have ourselves a feast.”
Fred held the rabbit spraddle-legged while I skinned it. But something was wrong. Big worms as long as my little finger and fat in the middle worked alive in the rabbit’s upper legs and back.
“Mama, come quick!” I yelled, pointing at the wrinkled grubs.
“Throw that nasty thing away,” she said. “No self-respecting family eats meat with warbles in it.”
Later that evening we ate potato soup with onions. For anyone still hungry, there was plenty of cornbread and milk. Next morning Old Tuffy’s belly bulged. He’d eaten our Thanksgiving treat, worms and all.
In addition to willingly handing over to Mama the dollar a day he made cutting sprouts, Fred came up with the idea of making some extra money by getting a head start on other hunters and trappers in our area. Some six weeks or so before hunting season opened, Jay and I helped him dig a round pit, a holding pen about six feet in diameter and less than three feet deep, with walls sloping back at the bottom to prevent possums from climbing out.
Although Jay and I helped, it was Fred who best remembered where all the likely looking hollow trees were located in various nearby stands of timber, and it was mainly Fred who climbed the trees and stirred the leaves in the dens, in search of the grinning, hissing creatures. Fred was adept at tormenting the possums with a stick until they rolled up into balls and pretended to be dead, after which he’d grab them by their rough, hairless tails and drop them on the ground. Then Jay and I quickly put them in a towsack so Old Tuffy wouldn’t damage their hides. A few of Tuffy’s teeth marks would cause the fur buyer to offer no more than a quarter for a hide he’d ordinarily pay fifty cents for.
After one especially good Saturday haul, we had dropped several possums into the crowded pit when Mama came out to watch. “Whatever you boys do, don’t tell anyone about this,” she said. “We sure don’t want the game warden to slip up here and arrest you.” I didn’t know what a game warden looked like, but the thought of being on the bad side of the stocky, unsmiling constable who sometimes showed up at local pie suppers gave me bad dreams.
The evening before hunting season officially opened, Jay and I had watered the possums and fed them a big bait of ripe persimmons, when we decided to have some fun by poking them with long poles to make them hiss and growl, bare their white teeth dripping with spit, then finally sull up and play dead.
Fred was up early the next morning helping Mama do chores before going to work when we heard him yell: “The possums are gone! The possums are gone!”
Sure enough, the pit was empty of everything except one of the poles that Jay and I had been playing with the previous evening. One end of the pole was in the center of the pit and the other lay on the upper edge.
“I bet one of you boys left that pole there,” Fred said.
“We did not,” I argued.
“You boys shut up,” Mama said. “What’s done is done. Ever since we started breakin’ the law I’ve been afraid something like this might happen. We need to start rendering unto Caesar what’s Caesar’s, like Jesus said.”
That night, the first legal night of hunting season, we heard Efton Robbins’ good spotted hound barking treed time after time in the woods west of the house, on the tract of land old-timers called the Nine-Forties. After Bobby Lynn Wilkin told him what he’d heard at school about Fred’s escaped possums, Efton walked the mile and a half to our house one evening carrying a towsack filled with stretched hides. “Here,” Efton said to Fred as he emptied the sack on the front porch. “From what I’ve heard, I figure I owe you at least half of what I caught across the road the other night.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Fred said, but I could tell from the way he looked at the six pelts on the thin, curved pine boards that he was going to accept Efton’s offer.
“Just be sure you bring my boards back after the hides are cured,” Efton said. “By the way, have you heard from your dad lately?”
“No, not lately,”Fred said. “Much obliged, Efton.”
When Efton left, Mama gathered the six of us around the kitchen table. “I think the Lord knows that from now on we aim to obey the laws of the land,” she said, “and He sent Efton over here with them possum hides as a sign. Let it be a lesson to all of us.”
Before I went to sleep I wondered if Jesus kept as close a watch on possums as He did on people and sparrows.
A few days after Dad showed up in December, he and Fred and I removed the box from the wagon and went to the woods, where we worked hard cutting and piling red and white oak poles for firewood between the bolsters of the running gears. We had the poles piled high and were ready to start to the house when Dad’s normally red face turned gray and he slumped to the ground, moaning. Fred and I hardly knew what to do–we were way back in the timber–but we improvised a pallet of sorts with our denim jackets, then helped Dad climb up on the poles, and as I walked alongside the wagon, making sure Dad didn’t fall off, Fred skillfully maneuvered the team and its load along the narrow trail. Once he miscalculated, hubbing a tree, and the load shifted, crushing the rifle’s walnut stock, but Dad wasn’t hurt, and we made it home safely.
We helped Dad inside, where he stayed in bed week after week. There was no talk of seeing a doctor, just as there hadn’t been a few years before, in northern Kansas, when he was bedridden all winter. The doctor he’d seen as a child in the state of Washington, where he’d had rheumatic fever, had said that he would have recurring spells and only bed rest might help.
Joyce cheerfully ran errands and cared for Dad after school and on weekends, but Mama, hard-faced and capable, did the bulk of it. We especially dreaded the nights when Dad screamed, “It wouldn’t hurt any worse if someone stabbed me in the back with a knife!” Scared and confused, I wondered why I never heard Mama praying for Dad. Dad was gruff, hateful even, but did that mean he had backslid and couldn’t be healed? Or had Mama herself lost faith because her goiter had kept growing since she’d twice proclaimed it healed before she quit attending church?
Maybe it was my fault. I knew God worked in mysterious ways. Was He punishing me because I’d refused to go up front at altar call on the night Mama thought I was under conviction? The rest of the kids were saved early, but I wanted to do some serious sinning before I became a Christian, even if it meant jeopardizing Dad’s health.
The holiday season looked bleak until Grandpa and Grandma Holmes showed up with toys, a week before Christmas, in Grandpa’s black ’34 Chevrolet coupe. I especially remember the Chinese checkers. After noticing soft blobs of fresh paint clinging to the holes on the underside of the board, I guessed that Grandma, resourceful and upbeat as ever, had managed to find second-hand toys, which she’d painted in her slap-dash way with her favorite colors, lavender and purple. Even better than the Chinese checkers were the gaudy red and green popcorn balls piled high in Grandma’s gleaming copper boiler. The sticky balls, hard and knobby as Fred’s fists, were just the ticket, even if some of us kids did make ourselves sick by eating too many before dinner.
Mama had announced ahead of time that since the Snuffer place was too far out of the way for Santa Claus to find, there was no point in putting up a tree; but she changed her mind after Joyce said she thought it would be nice to have a place to put our unexpected gifts from Grandma. Finding a cedar tree wasn’t easy, but after Fred finally spotted a scraggly three-foot-tall specimen, he and I took turns carrying it home. The hardest part was making a cobbled-up stand for holding the prickly tree in place in the empty, closed-off dining room.
Mama was in charge, as the seven of us strung buckbrush berries and popcorn on alternate rows of sagging strings. We cut out idiot-faced look-alike paper dolls from the previous year’s wish book that we had retrieved from the toilet. Now masquerading as angels, they added their comic effect to the gaily decorated cedar. By the time we were finished, only an occasional glimpse of green showed where the sharp smell came from. The transfigured little tree, with its rough, triumphant star fashioned from crinkled tinfoil, leaned cockeyed against the east window.
Mama’s high Christmas Eve spirits were greatly subdued the next morning, and when I opened the door to look at the tree it was gone. Whether she and Dad had gotten locked into one of their late-night arguments, or she simply couldn’t bear to continue the subterfuge, I never knew. She’d thrown the tree and its trappings into a snowbank on the east side of the house, where drifting snow soon covered it. There it rested until spring, when chirping English sparrows announced its resurrection.
All of us kids were sober-faced as we ate breakfast Christmas morning, but afterward, when Mama opened the long, mouse-proof wooden box we used as a bench behind the table, our bitterness over the banished tree disappeared. Even Grandma’s wonderful red-and-green popcorn balls took a back seat to the huge white cake, overflowing with coconut frosting. Mama had saved up almost enough money to buy ingredients for a coconut cake, and when the Raleigh man had come by, despite Dad’s angry protest from his bed, she’d traded an old hen for what she lacked, a small brown bottle of pure vanilla.
The weather turned bad after the first of the year, and a winter storm dropped eighteen to twenty inches of snow, with waist-high drifts in places. Unlike most winters in the Ozarks, when warm spells tended to quickly melt whatever snow fell, cold weather hung on, and additional snow built up, making it impossible to go to school.
At first it was fun to keep all the stock confined. All the stock included half a dozen Jersey cows and three or four half-Guernsey yearling heifers, plus two small, perhaps eight-hundred-pound mares and two half-Percheron colts that might eventually weigh eleven hundred pounds each. In addition, there were game chickens and guineas to care for, as well as various goats and pigs. Dad’s four horses, tied fast in the shed next to the hay barn, barely tolerated the nanny goats that crowded around and underneath them, and the nervous horses trampled and killed several newborn kids. Although I was too big and too tough to cry over a dead goat, it was never easy for me to pick up a frozen kid and toss it over the hill out of sight, far enough away so the bleating nanny couldn’t smell it and continue her grieving. Our nannies, part Toggenburg, part Angora, weren’t heavy milkers, but I preferred the sweet-tasting, easily digestible goat milk with its ever-so-faint billygoat smell over cows’ milk any time. Maybe my preference for goat’s milk came, as Mama thought, from way back when, as a baby, I couldn’t tolerate either her milk or cow’s milk.
The novelty of caring for the beleaguered animals wore off quickly, turning into mere drudgery. And as the bad weather hung on, our scant feed supplies shrank at an alarming rate. The mixed timothy and lespedeza hay packed in the haymow was the most easily accessible, but following Dad’s warnings, we doled it out a few pitchforks at a time. When Mama countermanded Dad’s instructions, it was hard to know what to do. We knew that a man was supposed to be head of his household, but sometimes Mama’s judgment seemed better than Dad’s.
After milking the cows in the stanchions, Fred and I often hung up our buckets and then searched along the sides of each cow’s backbone for boil-like swellings, sure signs of warbles, which infested the animals. With practice, we became adept at pressing firmly downward with our thumbs and popping the grubs out of the cows’ backs.
“I get dibs on Old Pet,” I told Fred when we first started looking for warbles, and since she was special, I always saved her for last. The first calf in a string of extra-good muley heifers out of Old Frankie, who herself was sired by Wiley Wise’s naturally polled Jersey bull, Old Pet was the best cow Dad had ever owned. Heavier boned, deeper bodied, and straighter backed than most Jerseys, she was cream colored all over. Old Pet’s bag was extra big, her tits were just right, neither too big nor too little, and she could be counted on to give twice as much milk as any of the other cows, except for Old Frankie.
The prize cow had a couple of drawbacks, though. She was reluctant to let her milk down, and once she let it down she was hard to milk. Dad’s technique of milking, using forefinger and thumb, was slow and ineffectual, and Fred, too fidgety to sit still for the few minutes it took to milk a cow, couldn’t be depended on, which left Mama, the best milker of us all, to do the job. Later, when I’d mastered Mama’s furiously thorough style of milking, the folks relaxed and let me take over.
I became immensely fond of Old Pet. While I was both intrigued and repulsed by the increasingly numerous and colorful accounts I heard from fellow farm boys who more or less openly admitted, and even bragged about, their exploits with animals, I was in a bind. As long as Dad was bedfast I didn’t worry about him, but Mama was always nosey, and she was quite capable of slipping around and spying on Fred and me and then beating us with Dad’s leather horsewhip if she thought we were up to something she and Jesus didn’t approve of. More than once she had described how her mother had beat her brother Reuben with a braided blacksnake whip, “within an inch of his life,” as she approvingly put it, for some awful but unnamed transgression.
Prepubescent, and ignorant past belief or understanding, I was finally scared away from Old Pet by my fear of monsters. One dark night, after seeing what I thought was a witch wearing a cape perched in the top of a blackjack tree, I asked Mama, “Do you believe in witches?”
“I most certainly do,” she replied. “Don’t you?”
“Maybe. I think I saw one tonight. Where do witches come from?”
“They come from the devil. Witches do the devil’s work, and angels work for the Lord.”
“Was Jesus an angel?”
“In a way He was,” she said, “but He was more than an angel. He was flesh and blood.”
“And God’s a spirit?”
“That’s right, the Holy Spirit. Why do you ask?”
“I just wondered.”
“You’re asking entirely too many questions, young man.”
Mama would have skinned me alive if I’d asked her what I most wanted to know: If a cross between a human and an animal was bound to be a monster, as I feared, and a cross between the devil and a human was a witch, as Mama had said, what about a cross between the Holy Spirit and a human? Was Mama’s sweet Jesus just another kind of boogerman meant to keep kids in line, something like Old Santy’s job at Christmas time?
Early in the spring, after the weather broke but before Dad was able to get around, his rich sister, Anna, and her husband, George, from western Oklahoma came bearing two little cans of chop suey, which they insisted we have for supper. Mama heated it up, and we all tried it, but it wasn’t fit to eat. Mama’s leftover fried mush was much better. After supper George and Anna loaded us kids in their new car and took us to the Princess theater in Aurora, where they treated us to our first picture show, Tombstone, the Town Too Tough to Die. It was a grand experience, marred only by Mama’s disapproving looks upon our return. Even though Mama hadn’t seen any picture shows, she knew they were the work of the devil.
Next morning after chores and breakfast, Mama, George and Anna stood by Dad’s bed in the downstairs bedroom, where the four of them held a lengthy, whispered discussion. From our vantage point outside the open door we, the oldest kids, gleaned from bits of conversation that George and Anna, childless, were bent on trying out two of us kids, with the idea of adopting if everything panned out.
It sounded as if they were leaning toward picking Wanda and me. Fred, their first choice, was immediately vetoed, and Joyce was soon out of the question. Quick to please and hard-working, they would have been anyone’s pick. The folks sounded reluctant to part with Wanda and me, but they were weakening when Anna, trying to cinch the deal, said, “With four kids left, you surely wouldn’t miss two of them.” Outraged, Mama ran them out of the house and off the place.
After they were gone, Dad cried great heaving sobs, as if he were a big, hurt baby. That was when I learned that a grown man could cry. Mama didn’t cry, not then or later, when we overheard Dad and her agreeing that it looked as though they’d have to give up all six of us. I wondered how living in an orphanage would feel, and whether the authorities might send Fred to reform school, where older and meaner kids went.
By late spring Dad was able to help with the extra-big garden Mama had put out. Before the garden started producing, he traded a small ruptured pig he’d sewed up for a big rank billy goat, which we butchered but couldn’t eat. The long-whiskered billy goat, with his huge swinging balls, stank when he was alive, and none of us, not even Mama or Fred, could stand the stench steaming out from under the lid of the cast-iron dutch oven. As we disposed of all traces of the goat, Dad said he should have known better than to try to get ahead of Clovis Friend in a trade. We later ate possum with sweet potatoes–the sweet potatoes were much tastier than the possum–and Mama boiled five fledgling screech owls that Fred and I shot. Although they were young, the owls were stringy and tough. Even Old Tuffy turned up his nose at the prospect of eating screech owl.
The folks heard there was relief for the poor at the county courthouse in Cassville. At Mama’s urging, Dad reluctantly hired Joe Madewell, who took us in his touring car through the open range, on a farm-to-market road, to the square, where we lined up with many others needing help. I felt small and ashamed, but I dared not say anything. Our round of cheese, big as a washpan, looked and tasted good but I ate too much and puked out of the back of the open car on the way home. Grapefruit–oversized pale oranges, I first thought–were bitter as gall. The stiff blue chambray shirts were fine, but the work shoes had dead giveaway toes, and the overalls had stripes wide as a convict’s. At school Monday morning everyone would know. Oh well, who cared? Some of the others students would be wearing the same outfits.
After the weather had moderated and Dad had gained enough strength to be up and about most of the time, I became increasingly aware of how severely limited my opportunities for sinning were. I might have practiced my lying since I was so poor at it, but the returns looked slim. Not that I had reservations about lying. It just didn’t seem to pay.
But then the combs of the old hens started getting red, a sure sign they’d soon be laying. Although some of the hens returned to the henhouse to lay, most hid their nests in the barns, either under the mangers in the milk barn or in the hayloft of the log barn. I left the eggs alone in the henhouse, that kind of stealing was too flagrant, but I searched out every hidden nest I could find and soon had a bucket of eggs stashed under loose hay.
It would be a long walk to Osie, three miles each way, but maybe I could go on Saturday when Dad rode Old Barney to Aurora. I could give Fred and Jay the slip, as I sometimes did when I hid out and read a book instead of going hunting with them. As I uncovered the milk bucket brimming with eggs, I saw with horror that a hard freeze the night before had cracked every last one. Emmitt Hilton wouldn’t buy cracked eggs, so what was I to do?
A few days earlier I heard the the folks discussing how few eggs the hens were laying. Later Dad heard a racket in the henhouse, after which he chased off Mart Johnson’s redbone hound. Dad said little, but he picked a tiny hole in each end of an egg, sucked out the white, then carefully blew arsenic through a straw next to the yolk in the shell. Finished, he sealed the holes with paraffin and placed the altered egg in the nest where the broken shells lay.
While Dad kept vigil the hound returned. Again there was a commotion in the henhouse, but Dad quietly waited until the dog left before he examined the disturbed nest. “I believe that’ll break him of suckin’ eggs,” he said.
A couple of days later Mart mentioned that he’d found his dog dead in a manger.
“What do you reckon happened to him?” Dad asked.
“I don’t know,” Mart answered. “He was a young dog.”
“That’s too bad,” Dad said.
As I looked at my bucket of ruined eggs, I thought about Mart’s dead dog. Dad surely wouldn’t kill me if he found out, but he would likely give me a terrible whipping with the leather plow lines doubled, the same way he’d whipped Fred for a much smaller offense.
I thought about hiding the broken eggs in the woods. But then, remembering that Mama sometimes cooked with cracked eggs, I trudged to the house, bucket in hand, practicing the lies I’d been neglecting. “Look, Mama,” I said. “I found a huge nest in the loft. Last night’s freeze must have broken the eggs. Can you still use them?” From her narrowed eyes I could tell that she and God knew. But they didn’t have proof.
“Yes, I can use them.” My lie held.
After this narrow escape I backed off, but I still needed money. Then good luck came, and I didn’t have to steal or even lie this time. I was in the brooderhouse checking on a hen with a clutch of eggs that Mama thought was overdue, when, sure enough, baby chicks peeped out underneath her. When I lifted the hen, I saw that all the eggs–perhaps ten–were hatched except for a big, odd-shaped one resembling double-yolked eggs I’d seen.
After hurrying to the barn, where I quickly threw hay to hungry animals, I shirked other chores and raced back to the brooderhouse. When I lifted the hen off the chicks again, the big egg moved, and I saw that the last chick had almost finished pipping. Suddenly the shell split, and there lay an awkward, struggling, spraddle-legged, two-headed baby chicken. Strictly speaking, it had just one over-sized head, but two beaks and four eyes. As I watched, astounded, the grotesque creature gained strength. Soon it pecked at crushed oats and drank from an upended glass jar, first with one beak and then the other.
By midday all the rest of the kids had come to see my odd find. They wanted to hold it but I, remembering the fates of earlier handled chicks, wouldn’t allow it. Even Dad and Mama took time to look. With nightfall approaching, I left my post, confident that the clucking hen would take good care of my prize. That night I didn’t walk in my sleep, as I often did, but I slept fitfully and I had a dream in which I dreamt I was rich. Everyone passing down our road, whether in a car, on foot, or ahorseback, stopped and gladly paid a nickel to see my wonderful two-headed chicken.
Early the next morning before breakfast I raced to the brooderhouse, where the mother hen sat in a corner with her feathers fluffed out protectively over her new brood. Lifting the hen with one hand, I gently stirred the chicks as I looked for my precious freak. It was gone. Looking around, I saw it a few feet away, flattened, with dark blood oozing from a deep hole in the top of its head. I picked it up tenderly, then ran to the house to show Mama.
Mama knew everything. When I held out the limp chick she nodded approvingly, “Mothers know when something’s wrong with their babies, and they know what to do.”
As I stood in front of her, shaking, Mama had the same faraway look I’d seen many a time when she stood late in the evening in the dim light, watching over her brood of six. Only now, instead of lingering over the cruel scar on the baby’s upper lip, she stared at my big head.
I dropped the dead chick and ran like hell.
Poetry Feature: Margo Tamez
Featuring the poems:
On the Wing
A bull snake’s six-foot coil muscles the soil
in curls and messes. His tail is narrow,
pointed and taut.
I’m relieved he’s not a rattler.
I stand still over him,
ok, no problem, you be here,
I’ll move down the path,
his length woven around
limbs of September’s last Roprecos,
the remaining tomatoes dark, moist,
cool, near the earth where a sweet scent
implies everything is rotting: romantic.
The phosphorescent trunks swelling like throats
that spew green beads of nightshade dew.
The lizard, beneath the vitex’s blooms
of violet skirts, has a throat
in between birth and contraction.
Swirling like scrotum,
stirring S’s, the arched waves
above and below rippled flesh.
The lizard’s hazel eyes are horizontal slants
like a secret in my head,
the lizard I see in my husband’s face.
Is this the last monsoon
or is this autumn? I don’t know
when a season, a moment,
is anything different
than what it is. Change
is just change.
Here, the dark sky
and the city between us.
A few classes of English
will hold us over again.
You on the farm everyday.
The cries of our babies
behind your head. You recite the list,
make sure I get it over their cranky voices.
Your calmness a rope I will hold
through all the errands—
heater pump for the truck, frozen juice,
diaper pins, Darjeeling. Until I am in the dark
of our bed, your thighs folding mine
under warm blankets,
your nose finding its place
in the crease behind my ear;
Milpa nuzzling for the nipple,
tiny fingers on her free hand strum
the lobe of skin over my ribs.
Again the memory
that you brought chiles for me to preserve.
A coffee can in your rough hands,
you brought your body. In no good condition,
made me feel that I should learn
to be useful.
You came afflicted,
a thrashed old suit.
I gave you the key to the front door,
not saying anything.
I handed you other entries, ones without keys,
fists of flowers. You breathe,
dive, open everything in me,
push to the surface, go in again.
Daily the wounds are closing. Smooth, pink blossoms.
You find the parts, fix yourself,
the feared dream.
I see how you put things together.
Compare. Say nothing.
Begin the quiet. It is new.
I am new at this attempt at grace.
The Sound of Doves
I felt your body approach and pause
between the door and the hallway. I am in the bath,
the length of my body folded to fit
and parts of me submerged. I watch a delicate form,
thin layers of bubbles attach themselves
to the fine hairs of my body.
My hand glides in an arc, a deep fine furrow
around my stomach, a tree of veins.
I see as if outside the body.
Beneath frayed cuticles, unshaven legs,
this crescent mound. The tiny streams breaking, layering.
Skin like rough terrain and
water not enough to cover all the stretches
from pregnancy and births.
You ask me to show myself.
Layered folds of skin from the births
of our children, this scar above my brow
that points to the sky,
fine hairs from the navel forming a passage
to dark magentas in the center of my womb.
I hear doves through the crumbling ceiling
flutter their wings
like sprays of water.
I hear their muffled cries in my shivering body
like an uncertain chorus.
I listen to your breath
moving over my skin
like tiny wings.
On the Wing
The blue martins snatch
damselflies and stinkbugs
as they drift an evening thermal.
The largest of swallows, their size
is all in the tail.
I’m hanging laundry in autumn,
late in the day,
the stiff shadows of clothespins,
their oblique angle to earth,
and their large v-forms
oddly like martins
dipping and braiding for food.
With the blue martins’ return,
I surrender all my fear
to a past I can’t dismiss.
I won’t speak, nor forecast,
nor ask for a thing,
but just watch them
as they pull lavender-plum threads of evening
through the fiery kiln of sundown.
Tonight I’m praying for the buffalo
trailing that aurora,
a sky where night is day
and day is night and
what we say is dust
and what we can never say
goes into a prayer,
where I am you
and you are me
and we move this
into a spirit of the herd.
And when the herd returns
we’ll be hanging laundry on the line
we’ll be watching sparrows and doves
we’ll be listening to the children
when the herd returns
we’ll be painting the ancestors
we’ll be teaching under ironwoods in blossom
we’ll be suckling on our mothers’ soft breasts
when the herd returns
we’ll be asking for peace
we’ll be asking for a blessing
we’ll be making peace with our mothers
when the herd returns
we’ll make bread for our fathers and learn to plant corn
we’ll share our bounty with those who didn’t plant
we’ll eliminate poverty and hunger
when the herd returns
we’ll live with less
we’ll birth babies at home
we’ll sing them welcome songs when they crown
when the herd returns
we’ll be singing to bring rain
singing to heal our grief
singing to the moon.
I make a prayer for us.
That we’ll be singing like Inca doves
that we’ll be watching swallows on a thermal flow
that we’ll be the swallows eating dragonflies on the wing
when the herd returns.
Poetry Feature: George Bilgere
Featuring the poems:
When Sarah and Jill, after a few years
Together, decided Sarah should become a man,
They thought about it for a long time,
Staring at Sarah’s breasts in the candlelight
As they hung dejectedly
Like a pair of old dogs
Someone decided to have put to sleep.
And they looked between her legs
At that wild gate that was like the first sentence
Of a story they had grown tired of telling.
They seemed to hear a kind of music
Under the surface of her skin, a far-off joy–
Years later, after the hormones and the stitches,
The lopping and relocating,
I met a slim, serious young guy
Who had been Sarah
At cocktail party in Monterey
And we shook hands and had a couple of beers
While I smiled and tried very hard not to feel
As if a woman had slit open the sack
Of my scrotum and crawled inside,
Confidently palming my testicles in her strong hands,
Saying, There will be no more
Secrets around here.
When the guy in the dark suit
Asks me if I want to see my mother
As she lies in the back room, waiting,
I remember her, for some reason,
In a white swimsuit, on a yellow towel
On the sand at Crystal Lake,
Pregnant with my sister,
Waiting for me to finish examining
The sleek fuselage of a minnow,
The first dead thing I had ever seen,
Before we went back to the cottage for lunch.
I remember her waiting up for my father
To come home from God knows where
In a yellow cab at 2:00 AM
And waiting for me in the school parking lot
In our old blue station wagon
When whatever it was I was practicing for
Ran late. I remember her, shoulders thrown back,
Waiting in the unemployment line, waiting
For me to call, waiting for the sweet release
In the second glass of wine
After a long day working at the convalescent hospital
Where everyone was waiting to die.
And I remember her waiting for me
At the airport when I got back from Japan,
Waiting for everything to be all right,
Waiting for her biopsy results.
But when the guy in the dark suit
Asks if I would like to go back
And be with her in that room where she lies
Waiting to be cremated I say No
Thank you, and turn and walk out
Onto the sunny street to join the crowd
Hustling down the sidewalk
And I look up at the beautiful
White clouds suspended above the city,
Leaving her in that room to wait alone,
For which I will not be forgiven.
The gay man standing next to me to me
At the organic food store
Is squeezing the nectarines
With the same concentration
I would give a woman’s breasts
Or he would give,
Or might give–I don’t really know–
The weight between his lover’s legs.
He is trim, fortyish, wearing a pair
Of vaguely European loafers
And the kind of perfect haircut
No stylist has ever felt I deserved.
His slacks and T-shirt exist at a point
On the spectrum of casual elegance
Just beyond my ability to actually detect it
But they nonetheless make me feel,
In my jeans and JCPenny sports shirt,
Like a shambling, half-trained circus bear.
When standing next to a woman
In a supermarket I sometimes feel
As if we were back in the Garden,
A realm of fertile ferment
Where we walk in a kind of heady sexual buzz
Among the ripe fruits and frozen dinners of the world,
As we scan the zebra codes
Of our deliciously
And when I pass a straight guy
In the aisles, we nod, or raise an eyebrow
To acknowledge our place
In the hairy fellowship of predators.
But when this man and I
Look briefly into the Sanskrit, the blank
Scrabble tiles of each other’s eyes,
We smile briefly and go back
To thinking, quite seriously,
The boy’s been on the computer all morning
Playing virtual baseball, July
Sliding by in a huge yellow silence
Beyond the window as he clicks at the keyboard
To send the phantom players running
The base paths under a virtual sky
In a nameless city’s digital summer.
Naturally I brood about this as I work
In the garage at fixing his bike’s
Out-of-whack derailleur. In my day,
I find myself starting to say, before
My father’s fossil phrase
Catches in my craw–but no;
Better to speak with this tool in my hand,
This old-fashioned screwdriver,
Its Phillips head buried in the steel
Crux of the material world, the torque
Flowing from my old-fashioned wrist
So chain will rise from sprocket, and power
From a boy’s legs will carry him from home
And down the afternoon street to nowhere
In particular, or anywhere: places
I used to head for on a summer day.
Animals in the wild are perfect and know nothing
About pain. Also perfect
Is an Olympic sprinter pulling off
His jersey after a race; the body, flexing
For TV, blinds you; Oh, you say,
That’s what it’s supposed to look like.
But all wild animals are like this because they live
In a perpetual Olympics. There’s no
Margin for error out there,
And any ragged flock of gulls
Surfing a wind current, any rag
Of a jackrabbit poised by the roadside
Dwells in the lean, perfected moment; one
Busted bone, one gray hair, one
Moment’s inattention and he’s a goner,
Crunched in the maw of a larger, wilder
Perfection. That’s why
They’re wild; pain
Never has a chance to teach them
A thing. The parakeet in his cage
Of pain, the ferret on his sexy chain,
Nosing the nipple ring
Of a tattooed punker, the cocker
Spaniel tied by the neck
To the railing outside Starbuck’s, waiting
For the slim blonde in the pale
Translucent blouse to finish her latte
With a pale unshaven man she’s enjoying
Breaking up with; they’re not wild
But bewildered, like us, having learned
From us what pain is, what it is to be human.
Drowned Edward Tug
[This text is also available online as part of our online TextBox anthology.]
Edward Tug was nobody special to Step Hall, especially now that he was a dead man. Step waited on shore while Fred Titus and Elmo pulled the body onto the grass and laid him next to the half-submerged boat they’d found drifting among the cypress stumps that morning. Edward Tug himself was washed into the cypress cove and come to rest against a broken branch dragging in the water.
Poetry Feature: Camille Dungy
Featuring the poems
- Before My History Classes
- In His Library
- From Someplace
- How Quickly He Went
Before My History Classes
Grandpa was coming to visit that night,
and my sister wore blue jeans and a blouse.
In pajamas, I wanted to be old
so I could stay up with her to meet him.
I had religion on my mind and knew
what questions would stall Mother when she came
to tuck the little-girl sheets around me.
I tricked her into talking about Christ,
the Bible, asked what Heaven held in store.
Why should I sleep? I told her, When I die,
I want to meet all the dead. They’ll be dressed
and acting just like they did when they lived.
She snapped my sheet, a warning, kissed my head:
Someday you’ll be more careful what you wish.
In His Library
Grandpa’s wife lived in Springfield (where mobs killed
two black men to remind themselves they could),
and, I suppose, she gave him all those books
about The Great Emancipator’s life,
but I knew nothing of that in those days.
The best book proved villains could be vanquished,
and photos lent support. Conspirators
of John Wilkes Booth dangled, their hooded heads
all the evidence I needed. My folks
bored me, so I read while they asked Grandpa
if he would move back to Alabama.
Why? What good has that place ever done me?
At six, what did I know about anger?
How could I know, then, what I was learning?
Everything we wore that needed rescue,
pants we’d torn and shirts with ripped-off buttons,
went to Grandpa’s house. When we visited,
we modeled. Grandpa adjusted our clothes
with stick pins. Almost weekly, he saved us,
my sister and me, restoring the clothes
we’d lately damaged. You should teach the girls
how this is done, Mother once suggested,
her arms delivery mending, her eyes
collecting Grandpa’s hands, the snapped-tight box
that housed his machine, his needles. He ripped
her words as he told us never to do
with a hanging thread. Let them save their time.
He took the clothes. Let them do useful things.
Dreams are sometimes livable, provided
there is property enough, and each house
in Buxton had a little plot of land.
Every worker had to have a garden,
and black folks grew theirs right among the whites’.
Buxton Industries mined coal, fueled the turn
of another century. That far back,
and still, a Negro could make a life there,
and Great-grandfather, the village’s best
blacksmith, did. So it’s no shock, Grandmother,
that, in Springfield, you moved your boys
into the white district, wouldn’t let them swim
in that old mud hole called the colored pool.
How Quickly He Went
He was a man who walked beside failure
but had gone on living. At eighty-five,
he might have lived another twenty years
if he could hope the wife who pulled away
to stay on that platform back in Springfield
might change her mind. It was his desire
for her that had staked him fifty years. Love
was one slim woman with a nursing job
in Illinois. Life was a business,
a Gary tailor shop he could not sell.
And so his chance with her had gone. She died
in August. Before January slung
its shivers on the wind, he had stopped breathing.
What was the use of holding some body?
Those black men flew out of Tuskegee armed
with skills, and that diploma supervised
his store. Now there’s nothing but the mirror
in our basement and an oak spool-holder,
a plaque of thread my mother still consults
when she mends a hem. My father’s father
is a photo I barely recognize.
He lives in my uncle’s face. He reaches
for me with my father’s hands, but he died
before I knew anything about him
but cast-off things, died before I could write
a story for him about anything
but loss. What do I know if I don’t know
what it is that would have made him a man?
Moon Over My Mountain
I. Red Cedar, Alfalfa Hay
The blanket Ina lay on was wool, a scratchy, yellow-gold cloth like her coat. Rich women wore fur coats, she knew. She didn’t know what rich people’s blankets were made of. Ina took a few minutes a day to stretch out and rest. Dinner would be easy, canned salmon and soupy potatoes, rough mashed with extra water, a family favorite. There was no need to get up just yet.
Outside, her youngest children had spent the afternoon throwing rocks at a telephone pole and drawing in the dirt by the back door, staying closer than usual, watching the road. Eddie’s voice came through the window, clear and deliberate. He was explaining to his sisters how their niece’s funeral would go.
“They gonta put Dar in a box, big as a cow trough.”
“It gots a lid, though,” Myrtle answered placidly.
“Lids can’t keep out worms, stupid.”
“Buster said nothin’s gonta eat her ’cause she’s pickled.” Myrtle’s voice was assured, the only sound at that moment in the afternoon circle of green all around and dust bouncing in the angled light. Night was far off; when it came, it would pull in darkness like a cover against a chill. It seemed full day, but it was later than that, Ina thought.
“Buster’s stupider’n you are.” Eddie didn’t sound as sure of himself as usual. “Mitch and Lydia just fed her clear whiskey, she ain’t pickled.”
The talking stopped, and the only sound was a rhythmic banging as the children kicked a tin can against the side of the house, then nothing but bootsteps. David Alva, Ina’s oldest boy, stood on the porch, talking to his father behind him, his voice grieved and tight. Ina eased herself off the bed and hobbled into the kitchen, stiff from her rest. She threw a knob of bacon grease into a skillet, dropping two lit matches into the kerosene stove before managing to get a burner alight. It was good to have the smell of cooking in the house when men came in.
“There’s money in strawberries,” David Alva was saying. “Once it’s cleared off and we burn the slash, we could plant early spring, get a little crop at least. Fast.”
“North slope won’t grow nothin’.” Royal had said the same thing many times. “We’ll be lucky to get back what we coulda kept off the timber. You’re just lookin’ for a way to throw my money away.” The boy was bigger than his father, but Royal was still the father, and David Alva was the son, so there would be no strawberries on the five acres now chopped bare and throwing up golden dust in the long July evening.
From the window all Ina could see was skidded dirt and pale yellow stumps lighted to brilliance from the west, but she could smell, too—the resins of Douglas fir and red cedar hardening in the sun. At nightfall, mown hay from distant farms, warm leather, axle grease, smells that waited all day in the heat, ripened and found a waiting window.
“That ground has too steep a pitch to fuss with,” Royal said. “It’ll wash, first rain.”
“Not if we plant it,” David Alva said.
“I’m keeping my hands out of the dirt,” Royal said. There was hate in his voice. He made no secret of it: he hated the hunched, wet cold of January, chaff-inflamed cuts, the sudden bloody slip of a steel blade on a stone sharpening wheel, the thump of the nozzle end of a milk hose against his ribs. His own father had stayed behind to die of a perforated lung in Chadron, Nebraska, but wherever the soil steamed black, or cattle ranged thin grass, the old man followed Royal Keane. It grated on Royal that his own son had fallen so far from the tree, a boy who could do anything with a motor. There was no accounting for it: bred to hate farming, David Alva liked to watch the same poplar turn the same shade of gold every fall, wanted the ridged and rain-whittled land covered with green, wanted to see his cows steaming up a cold barn in the early morning as their milk poured into the tanks. After all the months of quarrels, and labor sometimes dusty, sometimes half-mired in mud, David Alva could have endured even his father’s company for the sake of good yields in the same place, year after year.
“If we have a thin spring or two, we can always pick,” David Alva said.
“I’m not hiring my children out never again like beaners and smoked Irish.” Royal spit into the sink.
Ina set plates out, not saying a word, not calling in her girls to help. It was her way of doing things.
* * *
They had come to Oregon behind the crops and stayed, living in the apple cabins on half-rotten potatoes through two winters, the children waiting in the mud for the school bus on Okie Row. Many of their neighbors had done the same, summers at least, and into fall, through harvest. Living in the apple cabins all winter was a sign that the man of the family had given up or left for good, and all agreed that the Keane troubles began the year Royal disappeared without a word after apple harvest.
What did he do all that time? Ina knew that men like Royal drank down a whole season’s wages in Mexicali, scraped by picking cotton in Arizona, robbed men drunker than they were in Bakersfield and Riverside and Indio. All she could say for sure was that he came home after two winters, with three months’ Imperial Valley lettuce pay in his pocket—enough to lease five acres of timber with a house, his first venture. He said there had to be a way to make money off this country without digging in the dirt and waiting for bugs to slice off at the ground anything that sprouted, without doctoring dumb cattle and sterilizing cream cans.
* * *
Royal never spoke of it, but Ina could imagine the rush of relief he must have felt as he hopped a boxcar just down the road, flashing along the Columbia River in the fragrant snap of early autumn, heading as far west as the tracks went, and then south until the November nights were warm. A man could draw his pay and then cross into Mexico to stretch his drinking dollar, or step into a desert-city bar, where the first blast of swamp-cooled air and cigarette smoke would wipe out the smell of crop spray and irrigated silt, almost wipe out the memory of seven children and a woman’s hard-got silence. It was easier to provide than to forget, but she knew he hated his failure to forget. It was his last chance, and she guessed how he’d hated himself for failing again. He showed no tenderness toward Ina now.
The women from church had brought two fruit pies and a salty pink ham, but Ina had the unusually luxurious food hidden in the basement. It was for the funeral, and paltry for a bereaved family their size, though more than she had expected. She suspected the women’s manner toward her had something to do with her fingernails, which she could never make entirely clean, and with the state of her younger children, who played in the road with tin cans tied to strings and bundles of rags cinched in the middle in the guise of dolls. Ina didn’t really know their neighbors. Darlene, four years old, her first grandchild, was the first of the family to die in Oregon.
Lydia came into the kitchen and sat in the corner. She had moved home to bury her dead child and bear her next baby, sleeping wedged in with her sisters, ignoring their wide-eyed curiosity. She perched in corners and twisted the cloth of her dress, heavily pregnant, and heavy with something that looked like grief from the side but irritability straight on. Sometimes she cried about Darlene; sometimes she cried for her favorite cat. Mitch used the cats for target practice. He never hit her, she told her mother, but Ina knew there had always been something wrong in that house. David Alva had spent one night there during wood-cutting season, soon after Lydia and Mitch were married, and refused to go back. He hadn’t told Ina why, exactly, but Ina had no trouble guessing. All the children had seen too much in the apple camps, and so had she—things she hadn’t known happened between people.
Royal stood in the kitchen, looking from stove to counter. He liked to eat early. David Alva washed first at the kitchen sink, then slapped his pocket to make sure he had keys.
“I’ll eat later,” he said. “Thought I’d drive in to Mosier. Maybe grab a hamburger in there.”
Bacon grease snapped in the skillet, and Ina turned the flame down, dumping in water and potatoes cut into uneven chunks. Her back was to the men.
“You could stay,” she said. Some memory of childhood, of a coffin in the front room and people sitting around it, tugged at her. “Tonight is the wake.”
Royal snorted, but his eyes puckered, and he turned to the sink, drawing a glass of water, fixing his gaze on the treeline against the horizon. He liked seeing horizon.
“This is no time of year to set up all night. Boy’ll sleep, and so will the rest of us. We’ll have three hours daylight before time to go to church.”
It had been left to Ina to buy a plywood coffin and talk to the undertaker. Ina’s father had built coffins for her three brothers who died as children, but people out here hired it done, a woman at church had told her, taking her aside with a grudging sort of kindness. It was better times; rationing was a distant memory, electricity was cheap, and if you threw a penny into the ground, it grew back a silver dollar. That was what Royal had said years earlier, in the summer of 1948, when he came home with four brand-new tires and spit on the Nebraska dirt. Their youngest son had died on that trip. Seth. The wind in Wyoming could drive you crazy, Ina remembered. It had battered the car all night and kicked up cold and dusty as the sun streaked the sky deep rose behind them. There were towns along the way, announced by unsteady lights. At every one, Ina had asked uncertainly, “Should we stop?” Maybe a doctor? Maybe medicine there? Royal replied that he meant to make Boise by the next night. “We’ll drive some,” he’d said. The car burned oil, and they had to stop for gas, Royal banging tools and money impatiently at every obligation or delay, until, just after sunup, a gas station attendant—not much more than a kid himself-looked in the back seat at the sweating baby, turned off the pump and went for his own wired-together truck. “That baby’s goin’ a die, you don’t do somethin’,” he’d said, in the tone of a man unused to talking much. The stranger drove the child thirty miles, back the wrong way, to the hospital at Rock Springs. Royal cursed, and pushed the old Ford to keep up, but it was too late. Afterward, they told people it was polio, but the doctors said it was a bad throat. Ina thought maybe they didn’t know for sure, a little place like that.
* * *
It was just family at the funeral, and a few old folks, and town people with no hay to mow or cows to milk. Ina blocked out the preacher’s words about comfort in salvation and the certitude of the last days. It was easier to remember the other time, the humiliation of begging a strange minister, an underfed storefront Baptist in Rock Springs, for help. They hadn’t the money to pay for a coffin, not if they still meant to get to Oregon, and a nurse at the hospital had finally said, “We’ll make the arrangements. Ina did not know what the arrangements were. What did anyone do with a baby on such stony ground? . Here,
the soil was loose and heavy, always a little wet, an easy place to dig a grave.
The minister paused for prayer. From the church they could hear a tractor whining, pulling a stump or setting a fencepost. Myrtle touched her mother’s sleeve. “What’s a bale of tears?” she whispered.
After she judged that the funeral was decently over, Miss Owens, from Welfare, paid a visit. As soon as she stepped into the yard she noted that the one little boy wore ratty shoes, and the two barefoot little girls’ eyes were pink and watery. They looked as if they were being fed cheap meat stretched far with potatoes, but enough of it. Her training made her take such things into account. Miss Owens called Ina “Miz Keane” and Lydia “Miz Phillips.” She couldn’t quite manage to say “Missus”; the two syllables would have conferred on Ina and her daughter a status they had not earned as she had earned hers. It was a hard thing, but Miss Owens understood that providence exacts a tribute of gratitude, and she was grateful. She was fond of telling the younger people in her office that the government had rescued her, a near-starving high school graduate from the nowhere outside Pendleton, and given her a paying career, a National Youth Administration job at a WPA nursery school in Port-land. She had moved into the YWCA, stopped reusing tea bags and bought her first pair of decent shoes. She learned to inspect children’s scalps for ringworm and their faces for impetigo, to measure out doses of cod-liver oil in cups of government-issue tomato juice, as much a luxury for her as for the children. Toileting was done in one room, girls sitting, boys standing. Children who woke early from their naps were allowed to dress quietly, minimizing wet beds and undesirable habits. Miss Owens remembered the instructions, verbatim, from the training manual.
With her black hair combed once in the morning and the same shapeless gray suit for workdays and Sunday mass, Miss Owens was a very serious woman. She had disciplined herself to pay attention. She had twenty years of experience taking children from chaos and providing them with structure and routine. It was better to take them sometimes. There were people, she had come to admit with a certain reluctance, who were beyond help. Not even Mr. Roosevelt could have saved them, if he’d still been alive.
Sitting still at her own kitchen table, afraid to touch anything, Ina watched as the woman unrolled a pen from a felt wrapper and licked the tip. Lydia sat near the wall, silent, her pink-and-blue-checked smock dingy across her belly, her hair twisted into a single uneven braid down her back.
“Tell me your due date, please, Miz Phillips.”
She wrote it in a narrow blue ledger held open on a clipboard. “You will want to read this.” She handed Lydia a small paperbound book, rubbed soft around the edges and sized for an apron pocket:Sanitation for the New Mother.
Ina’s lips creased at the corners. “We know how to raise healthy children,” she said. “I can help Lydia.”
Miss Owens knew when to sit still. She listened, and the silence after her words and her listening made Ina continue.
“I know my mother didn’t teach me things. There are times . . .” She looked around her own kitchen: clean mostly, plates on a tea towel and jar of bacon grease on the stove. A scenic calendar from Valley Hardware, two years old, had come with the house.
“I know that some women wash their faces in the morning, every day. And washing your hands before you cook, things like that, I try to remember.” Ina lifted her hands, palms up, as if to show Miss Owens that they were clean.
In the distance, machinery groaned. It was the old Model A engine that David Alva had rigged to winch logs up the slope, but there was something wrong with it even he couldn’t fix, a bad bearing, metal fatigue. It stopped, and a bird called outside, a sound like a ball bouncing slowly and then faster. It had repeated the same song all summer. Ina heard it every day. Or maybe it was more than one bird. She’d never seen it.
Miss Owens looked around the kitchen: comfortless, respectable in its way. The calendar picture of the mountain, hard white above a field of daffodils, was spattered with grease from the stove, and the chain hanging over the sink was furred thick with damp and dust. The room had a musty odor, and something else that Miss Owens remembered from a summer she’d spent pulling flax at a poor farm and living in a dormitory with her mother: the stink of dishes and clothes washed in tepid water, never quite clean. Still, this was better than Lydia’s house, empty now except for the husband. Miss Owens had already visited there, and with rigid care documented in the blue ledger every squirrel carcass rotting in the yard, every rusting can piled under the kitchen table, every dirty magazine in the outdoor privy. What kind of woman could stand to live there? She was surprised now to find Lydia so young.
“Your husband told the deputy who visited your home that he intends to begin his military service next month.” Miss Owens stared at Lydia, searching her face. There was no sign that the girl was a drinker, but Miss Owens had seen her type before. She would pick up her coloration from any man she stood near. “The law will very likely not touch either of you. It is clear to me that Mr. Phillips committed manslaughter. Perhaps you do not agree. He will send a monthly sum out of his earnings to support your child.”
“He won’t do any such thing after he sees it,” Lydia said, her voice thick, as though her mouth were full of laundry starch. “Its daddy is a colored boy cooks for the bargemen. Its daddy is a Jap apple picker,” Lydia laughed. “Or maybe he’s a Cayuse fish cleaner with a big black greasy braid.”
Lydia laughed some more, but her eyes leaked tears. Miss Owens looked at Ina, who ran a glass of water and set it just out of Lydia’s reach.
“Talk sense.” Ina understood Miss Owens by now. She knew the woman could take the baby away, where it would be raised by strangers. The two older women looked at each other across the table, each with her own vision of disaster for Lydia’s child.
Lydia reached for the glass, gulped a sip, choked, cradled her stomach as if to support it as her body shook with coughs. Miss Owens waited.
“My baby’s daddy is Mitch Phillips,” she said. “Couldn’t be anybody else, could it? Bet you money, it’ll look just like him. Spit and image.”
Miss Owens stuck her pen back in the wrapper, tucked it in her pocket and stood. She wanted to take Lydia’s baby the minute it came, but then she wanted to do that often, more often than custom or law found suitable.
“We will review your file and visit you again after the baby is born. If you stay with your parents, the baby may remain with you. Your husband’s house is not suitable for children, or cats and dogs, as I believe you have learned.”
Lydia moved her feet, restless.
“A Hood River County caseworker will be assigned to your family—myself or someone from my office. If you choose to leave the area, you will please keep us informed.” She looked at Lydia and Ina again. “We want to help you bring up a healthy child.”
Outside, in the fresh gold air of the afternoon, cooling toward evening, Miss Owens repeated what bits of prayers she could remember to herself, slowly. Although her father’s Wobbly politics had crowded out the Catholic church early in her adolescent years, she felt sure that confessing herself heartily sorry, asking forgiveness for what she had done and what she had failed to do, was a task to perform regularly, aloud and in public. It could not but help. I ask blessed Mary ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God. Ina and Lydia had not asked Miss Owens, their sister, to pray for them. Miss Owens could hardly expect them to.
It was late, and a pale white moon, three-quarters full, hung above the mountain in the still-bright sky. It would not be dark for hours yet: limitless day, with a lightfooted night to follow. When Miss Owens had trained for her nursery work, she had visited a handicrafts studio where poor women, as poor as she was, sat through the long summer twilights sewing appliqued curtains for Timberline Lodge, a WPA masterpiece with stone fireplaces for skiing debutantes to warm their tender Portland-bred fingers, and deep padded chairs so tourists could sit in comfort and thumb Oregon motoring guidebooks written by WPA writers. It was a beautiful building, and she was proud of it, even though she had never stitched a curtain or welded a door pull. She was still a WPA girl, still part of the great work, however discredited it was by that big yokel, Eisenhower. It was partly defiance that prompted her to visit the lodge often, driving up to the treeline just to look again at the patterns: Cattail, Indian Pipestem, Shooting Star, Anemone, Fish in the Brook, Solomon Seal, Zig Zag, Autumn Leaves, Field and Stream, Moon Over Mountain.
Under the pale moon, the mountain stood, a long triangle of gray granite and snow dirty from late-summer winds, visible from all over the valley, slopes ringed by rows of Douglas fir, a tangle of larch and alder, touches here and there of apple, cherry and apricot. There were thousands of trees, miles away, but looking closely she could see them separately, each from each. Miss Owens pushed the starter on her almost-new Oldsmobile.
Still in the kitchen, listening to the car pull away, Ina turned to Lydia. “Are you proud, now?” Her voice shook, but she maintained her slow, careful Missouri diction. She had been to high school and spoke properly; her children’s drawls and innocent vulgarities dismayed her. She had never been allowed to speak like that. Perhaps her family was not fated to rise in life. It was a reminder of her own failure and Royal’s, bringing up children in the apple camps and the bean fields, where they had learned to speak like Okies, just as they had learned about men like Mitch Phillips. David Alva liked to sing a song about time slipping away, “. . . ain’t it funny . . .” Ina couldn’t see why a song, one that was written down, would have “ain’t” in it. David Alva laughed at her when she complained about it.
“We never had the Welfare to our home before this. Aren’t you proud of yourself?”
Lydia’s face, once tight and smooth and full of the dickens—she’d married at fifteen, and to heck with everybody—looked pasty and slack. She’d been living on mayonnaise sandwiches and weak coffee before she moved home. It was lean times for Mitch, who did electrical wiring and knew his job but could never seem to please a boss.
“I didn’t do anything. I was hanging clothes. Mitch was watching her, he had a jar like he always did, but he was careful, he only gave her sips. He did that sometimes; it kept her quiet. If she got too much she’d just go to sleep.” Lydia considered. “I guess when they’re four, they start having more of an appetite for it.”
“That sweet, innocent child.”
Unhappiness pulled between Ina’s eyes, not the involuntary tears she had pushed away at the funeral but a sense that her face was dragging itself into a new, permanent expression. She wondered if her younger children would someday find the one or two photographs of her in earlier years and marvel that she had not always looked so sour, that her mouth had not always turned down in that particular way. She had stood straight once, long-boned and almost smiling under light hair tucked firmly into pins. In the pictures, the flowers behind her were bleached to gray.
“I’ll take a breath of air.”
* * *
From the front step, Ina stared north, into the woods. The tangle of blackberry and vine maple absorbed all the available light, pulling it into the dark green bank. In the winter, the gray cover of clouds and the light-absorbing green on the ground made Ina think she was living in the darkest place God made, tucked in a draw behind a ridge on the north side of long twilight. Over the ridge and down a series of more folded canyons, invisible from the house and blurred by trees, the river ran to the ocean, stopped only by dams built for the good of people like herself. It took more juice to turn a light back on than to just leave it burning, Royal told her, and so the lights stayed on all the time. Electricity was almost free. Barges went by, invisible from the house behind the ridges, loaded with wheat from the dry valleys upriver, while all around them everyone got rich off fruit and grain and timber and salmon. This bountiful country, these useful people, could grow anything.
Ina turned and walked to the clearing. David Alva and Royal had the cover off the engine and were pouring gasoline through a funnel. The winch and tackle lay on the bank with a tangle of cut blackberry vines. They looked up at her as she approached, wobbling on the slashed branches and saplings in her flimsy shoes.
“I need you to drive me to town,” Ina said to her son.
“Wait two hours and I’ll take you to the store if you need to go,” Royal said, turning back to the engine.
“It can’t wait,” Ina said. “The funeral home office closes at five.” It wasn’t a lie. They did close then.
David Alva screwed the funnel back into its place on the gas can and slapped his pocket to make sure he had keys.
“I should teach you how to drive,” he said.
Royal turned on the engine and twisted the choke with the pliers, his face red. Royal had no luck with machinery—it never cooperated when the boy left him alone.
“You’ll do no such thing,” he said, speaking, it seemed, to the engine and not his son. “Car’s in bad enough shape without her wreckin’ the whole business.”
It was five miles to town and another six to Mitch Phillips’ place. Lydia hadn’t packed much when she came home.
“No sense in leaving all her things for the mice,” Ina said to David Alva, who looked away, keeping his eyes on the road.
“Mitch’ll shoot us, likelier’n not,” he said. She knew David Alva was afraid of his brother-in-law and his wild rages, his appetite for food and liquor and sex to be satisfied at once, no matter who was looking. Mitch hadn’t had the nerve or decency to turn up at the funeral. David Alva had claimed Mitch wasn’t human being enough to understand what a funeral was.
Ina told her son to wait in the car while she packed up the child’s things. Her son-in-law was nowhere in sight, and the house smelled stale, as if nobody had been inside for a while. An army cot that had been Darlene’s bed stood in the corner of the living room, covered by a gray sheet and a fuzzy pink blanket that didn’t quite reach the foot. Someone had pulled the covers over the pillow. It was the only orderly thing in the house.
The sheet wasn’t worth taking. Ina folded the blanket and set it on top of the pillow, then looked around the room. It all looked so cold and bare without the child’s bedding to cover the cot’s stained canvas. She took a knife from the drainboard and went outside.
The afternoon lay still and hot. A bird called, a rough chattering note from deeper in the woods, as Ina sawed at the branches and carried them
to the door. The green she judged too dark. It needed something. David Alva came through the house. “What is taking you?” Ina pointed to the stack of branches.
“Take those indoors for me. I’ll be in directly. Put them by the cot.”
Ina found blue flag and lupine at the edge of the clearing, and trillium a few yards into the trees, its three petals streaked faint rosy tan against the white. She cut a few sprigs off a late-blooming pink dogwood and pushed farther into the bushes, hacking Indian pipestem off at the ground, where it grew in a dry, dark patch of pine needles, and another plant growing deeper in the dark, with leafless red stalks and bracts. Spooky-looking, with no leaves or anything green, Ina thought, but nice against the cedar, for a change. She pulled handfuls of moss from the bottom of the fir, the color of green apples, a lighter contrast against the evergreens.
There was one intact chair in the house, and David Alva was sitting in it. He looked at Ina’s flowers as if they were a good idea, but with surprise, too. She realized he’d probably never known her to gather flowers before.
“Them for the cemetery?”
Ina shook her flowers, stepping on an ant that fell to the floor.
“I don’t want to get all pitchy. Put those branches on the cot so you can’t see the cut parts.”
Ina arranged the flowers and moss in clusters, one big one at the top, another smaller one at the bottom, three in a row across the middle, softening the design with moss. She worked without thinking ahead, doing what looked nice to her. She stepped back and looked, still not satisfied. It was too dark; the blue of the flags and the red of the pipestem disappeared into the cedar and the green canvas under it. David Alva stepped back, too, and put one hand inside another, as men do when someone wants to pray and they are not used to praying.
“It’s pretty,” he said.
“It’s not quite right.”
It needed something more, a yellow flower, a cluster of big orange blooms, to bring the light in from outside. Sunflowers grew wild in Missouri, all along the road through Nebraska, and stopped when the land dried out to the west. Nothing like that grew wild here, and Lydia had not planted any flowers in the cleared space around the house. A few daffodils had gone wild, Ina could see, leftovers from another woman’s care of the garden, but they had bloomed out. Nothing remained but a few long leaves wilting into the ground. Ina turned and walked back to the car.
“That’s the best we can do,” she said, slamming the door on David Alva’s reply. They were through town when he spoke again.
“That’s the kinda thing Myrna’d do,” he offered as they drove the narrow green corridor toward home. “She’s always prettyin’ things up.
Ina let him talk. David Alva loved Myrna Halvorsen, had bought her a topaz ring and smashed it with a framing hammer when she laughed at it. Myrna was one step above a lumber camp tramp, but she had a tight figure and clear brown eyes, and David Alva didn’t see the merits of plainer girls who could make him happy. Ina had been pretty once, and she knew that pretty mattered. Her own oldest girls got out of the house early because they were pretty, one living in town “to be closer to school,” as she put it, and staying with richer friends, and another in California with an aspiring preacher, gone for good to a marriage and family where no one knew her as anything but the minister’s wife.
Ina hadn’t given much in the way of advice to her daughters when they left home; she could have told them that beauty helped, but it was no protection. Ina’s ankles, thick now, ached under her tight stockings, and she’d been taken for Myrtle’s grandmother. She sometimes thought of herself that way and had tolerated the nasty comments at the hospital when her youngest children were born to an old woman. “It’s not a family, it’s a litter,” a nurse had said quietly to another, but loud enough for Ina to hear. They were a certain kind of people. All of her family, if they had not felt their lives settle on them before, would feel it eventually, she was sure.
“We could move to the other side of the mountain,” she said. David Alva was quiet. “Your father would like living in town.”
III. Lilies of the Field
The Keanes were gone, and Miss Owens had sent letters to all the surrounding school districts, asking to be notified when the children registered. A careful, conscientious caseworker, she wanted someone to keep an eye on the girl, that Lydia Phillips, after her boy was born. It would be a boy. Miss Owens had a feel for these things.
As the rains came that winter, Miss Owens pressed the starter of her car and looked through the fogged windshield for the hidden horizon. Winters were getting harder. Some years they seemed to last past June, and then the slash fires and field bums started, obscuring the sun with smoke through September, when the sun slipped from the north again. She still took a daily dose of cod-liver oil, but the glooms would come upon her anyway, making her wonder if perhaps women like Lydia Phillips shouldn’t just find their own level, descend to the depths they seemed so determined to reach, and take their hopeless children along with them. A few would get along all right, whatever anyone did. She examined the Phillips/Keane file, her last one, again and again, creasing the responses to her queries neatly in two as they came, all negatives, and tucking them into a special pocket in the folder. The children were listed in order of age. That Eddie, she suspected, would survive, and any efforts with the rest seemed futile if the children weren’t taken away, bedded down on rows of clean cots, taught a useful trade in an orderly way.
So went Miss Owens’ last winter. She was to be reassigned to an office, answering telephones; young men, college graduates, were to take her place and bring scientific methods to casework. Sometimes the sun came out, and her gloomy thoughts passed away, and sometimes after days of rain she forced herself to recall the words of Saint Teresa, not the comforting words, the ones that assure the faithful that all things pass, God alone never changes. Instead, her mind formed for itself the uncomfortable questions, the ones the nuns never spared her or anyone else. “What, Oh God, shall I do, so as not to destroy the effect of the wonders which Thou workest in me? My God, how shall I be sure that I am not separated from Thee?” What shall I do? The question was not asked for nothing, was not shouted out the window to the breeze with no likely answer, she was sure. It demanded a response, just as good fortune demanded gratitude. She would send the files to her successor, but she would keep her notes, and keep her ears and eyes open. She had an obligation to look after that Phillips baby if it was still alive, and a few others, too. She couldn’t take them away on her own, but she could cast a friendly shadow.
Miss Owens had heard the story of Saint Teresa but now could only recall the astringent questions and the image of the sweetly solemn nun with the cross and the book from a holy card wedged in a corner of her mother’s mirror. In any case, the abridged story told to children left out some of the details. One of them was this: the saint’s confessor ordered her to limit her mystical reflections to the few minutes each day when she was not at prayer or at the convent’s endless needlework. The work must have been beautiful stuff, offerings to the cathedral or commissions for wealthy patrons of the convent. The stitches were tiny, the designs intricate. All the nuns had to take their turn, had to take equal pains, or the difference would show. Saint Teresa, a Doctor of the Church, stitched altar cloths, curtains for the windows, shrouds for the widows. She humbled herself for God and wore rope sandals fit only for peasants, for the good of her soul. She stitched Cattail, Lupine in the Snow, Snakeweed, Valley and Forest, Bitter Wind, Lilies of the Field. She stitched Sun, Moon, Stars, River, Lake, Ocean.
Poetry Feature: Anna Meek
Featuring the poems:
- Langue De Femme
- Cookbook and Guide for Modern Living
How to Break a Side of Beef
When I was a boy, my otherwise opinion-shy father decided that my head required a rubbing before I went off to take a test at school. Algebra, history and chemistry tests gave equal cause for this ceremony, and even, to my bafflement, phys-ed, in which swift, lean boys captured the highest grades by racing two miles in less than twelve minutes. As I left the house on exam days, books piled against my hip, he stood at the front door waiting, always dressed in a white, short-sleeved dress shirt and black pants, a combination made more severe by his eternal crewcut and square-framed glasses. As his cool fingers tousled my perfectly combed hair, he’d say, “That’s for high marks!” Or, “Good luck today, hey?” On some days it was a nonchalant rub on the top or back of my skull, executed in a soft circular motion. Other times—perhaps in proportion to the difficulty of the pending test—he rubbed with vigorous, bone-grinding determination, as if he hoped to ignite mental sparks.
This ritual began as a casual gesture one morning before what I feared was going to be a grueling chemistry test. I hated the subject, but had labored over the material daily. When my father suggested a scalp massage to help “activate” my brain, I first balked at the idea and then capitulated as a measure of insurance, in case my many hours of study weren’t enough. After my report card confirmed his powers, the rubbings became de rigeur, continuing well into my high school years. If I resisted, my mother predicted academic doom and lifelong failure, and my father stood righteously at the front door, poised to rub with all the more gusto.
I often wonder if his rubbings held an actual power that continued to affect me long after I ceased being a teenager. What else could explain my passage through law school, through three years of unprecedented levels of test anxiety compounded by an intense disdain for the subject? Recently I’ve also wondered whether my paternal grandfather, whom I never knew, rubbed his son’s head in times of school-induced pressures. Did my father, as a child, enjoy the benefit of the same prescriptive ritual?
In fact I knew little about my own father’s education, perhaps because I’ve always had a solipsistic obsession with my own. For thirty-two years he devoted himself to a job that required study, but I’d heard nothing about his training and preparation for the work that kept him away from home most evenings. For many years he’d leave the house, clock his hours and return late, after I’d gone to bed. On his day off he rested or took us out for a meal, and once a year we went on short vacations. As a kid, I didn’t know what led to my father’s position in life. He never spoke about it, and I never asked. Nearing middle age, I felt compelled to find out how he acquired the skills that helped feed us and, more to the point, fed his soul. And so, determined to learn, I asked.
Before he was formally trained to cut meat for a living, he told me, my father was drafted into the Army. In April of 1953, after six weeks in boot camp, he was sent to Cooks and Bakers School at Fort Riley, Kansas. The Korean War was in full throttle, but Korea itself would remain a far-away and exotic abstraction. His trenches were dug in Kansas, where he learned how to scramble eggs and bake bread for a hundred famished men at a time. This first excursion away from home was a momentous journey of less than a thousand miles. Scrawny, pale and twenty-one, he had grown up in northern Michigan’s backwoods, where ice and snow encase the land seven months a year, and the locals, practically Canadian by virtue of their proximity to the border, attach “hey” to the end of every spoken sentence. He was the youngest of three and the only boy; when he was born, in 1932, his mother and father were relatively old to be adding another child to the family, his mother being forty and his father fifty. Perhaps because of the generational divides between my father and his parents and between him and his two substantially older sisters, his childhood was quite and solitary. He played by himself, and preferred the company of a pet cat. Early on he concluded—or perhaps was told—that the path of higher education had not been paved for him. When I asked him about his time in high school and how he’d decided what to do after graduation, he responded simply that he could not have gone to college. His calm matter-of-factness suggested that he had not been prevented by inadequate grades or poor preparation, but by other obstacles—lack of money, the need to care for aging parents and an assumption, probably incorrect, that he did not possess the makings of a college man.
Before his draft number came up he bellhopped in the same hotel where his father worked as a clerk and played back-room poker. My father, I am speculating, might have stayed on at that hotel indefinitely if the army hadn’t snagged him.
Why Cooks and Bakers School? His brother-in-law, a young pipe-smoking professor of engineering, had offered this advice: “Tell the army you’ve always wanted to be a cook, and if you pass the test they’ll enroll you in the military equivalent of culinary college.” It was sensible advice, and my father, who had no particular aspirations other than to endure two painless years as a draftee, acted on it.
At Cooks and Bakers School, the critical mission of all trainees was to keep everything as clean as possible to ensure that servicemen didn’t succumb to bouts of diarrhea, otherwise known as the GI’s or, more colorfully, the trots. All students began their training in the small-quantity kitchens, where they first learned how to make meatloaf and spaghetti for two. The lessons addressed basic seasonings, utensils, kitchen procedures and presentation. Small Quantity served as the army’s kindergarten of cooking—beginning home economics for young men who, for the most part, had never cooked anything more elaborate than toast. After two days, my father graduated to Big Quantity, where he practiced scrambling eggs and baking biscuits for a hundred or more empty stomachs every morning. At lunchtime in Big Quantity, elbow macaroni boiled furiously in enormous steel vats. If the proportions weren’t right, all the water evaporated, leaving a blob of glutinous casserole crusted black at the bottom. Big Quantity tested wits and muscle, as the men kneaded and rolled hundreds of pounds of dough, concocted infinite gallons of stew in barrel-sized pots, hefted endless sacks of flour and rice, and daily deliveries of beef and pork. True culinary toil was the mark of Big Quantity, where young men had dreams about twelve eggs and a single loaf of bread feeding the entire armed services.
After mastering Big Quantity, the trainees advanced to the mess halls. Here my father was assigned to groups of twenty hungry men, whom he would feed breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week with unwavering regularity and dedication. But as in Small Quantity, feeding was a secondary goal. The first: be careful not to torture your boys with stomach cramps.
From Fort Riley he was shipped off to Camp McCauley, in Austria, a facility once used as a Nazi airbase, not far from Ebelsberg, one of the largest and most modern SS camps during World War II. Inside Camp McCauley’s barracks and halls, meticulously polished wood floors shone like glass, and the air, smelling of disinfectant, shocked my father’s lungs. He was assigned to a mess hall serving twenty-five hundred ravenous troops. Twenty-eight cooks worked every shift, and each shift lasted up to a day and a half.
Breakfast prep started at three in the morning and required fifty cases of eggs—cases, not dozens; my father doesn’t remember how many dozens comprised a case—hundreds of gallons of coffee and milk, now-legendary amounts of biscuit dough and pancake batter, fatty heaps of bacon, sausage, potatoes, butter. Breakfast was served until eight, but lunch prep started at seven sharp. During that one-hour overlap, the kitchen became a confusing frenzy of pancakes and pork chops, hash browns and meat loaf, with overlapping shifts of cooks and clean-up crews battling against a hunger-driven clock. He worked until six in the evening, nearly twenty-four hours after he started his shift, then collapsed on his cot in the barracks, too tired to shower away the layers of grease and sweat.
I could stop his story there, at the former Nazi airstrip, and easily conclude that his training in the army was more grueling than all my combined physical labor over the past twenty-five years, beginning with my first job mowing the neighbor’s lawn in punishing summer heat. As a teenager I endured the dreaded burgers-and-fries rite of passage, but the demands were slight compared to those of Camp McAuley’s mess halls. Later, during a college year in London, desperate for pocket money, I waited tables at Wellington’s, which served “good” steak and kidney pies. Three or four nights a week I took orders, chopped loads of carrots and potatoes, polished wine glasses, mixed drinks and cleared tables, but in retrospect the work was light compared to my father’s duties in the pre-dawn chaos of breakfast prep. Late at night, after finishing my shifts, I felt sorry for myself for having to work as a waiter in a country where restaurant patrons were philosophically opposed to tipping; but in the morning all was forgotten when I woke to my schedule of literature courses and coffee hours.
In the army my father had enjoyed dealing with all those tons of food, but the meats especially captivated him. The moist weight in his hands felt satisfying and essential. Meat occupied a central and primary position: meat and potatoes, not vice-versa. In those days a cook first had to decide what meat to prepare, and then everything else followed. My father secretly relished his small power in choosing the meat for his soldiers, then turning the bulk delivery of beef or chicken into a main course that sustained the masses, at least until the next meal. After leaving the army he decided to become what is commonly called a “butcher,” although that term is often misunderstood and misused. A butcher, strictly speaking, works in the slaughterhouse where cows, pigs, and lambs meet their grisly fate and then are skinned, gutted, drained, beheaded, washed down and packed for shipping. For millennia, this process was a hideous bloodbath, now made slightly less messy thanks to technology. Butchers kill. A meat cutter, on the other hand, is the white-coated man or woman who slices, grinds, trims, fillets and packages meats in the local market, although most of these procedures now are completed before the meat reaches the gleaming supermarket. Today, a meat cutter’s principal job is to place the already cut and packaged products into the display cases or provide special customer service—removing trout heads, cracking crab, grinding extra-lean hamburger or, if the cutter is truly dedicated, as my father was, stuffing a turkey for Thanksgiving. His profession was meat cutting, not butchering. Not the taking of life, but the transformation of flesh to food. Yet when I was growing up, he was known in our neighborhood, and by his customers, as the Butcher.
In the hunter’s paradise of Upper Michigan, my father had skinned and cut up deer shot by family or friends. The large, lovely animals were carved up on the garage floor or down in the cool basement, away from the children. The chunks of fresh meat were wrapped in extra-strength aluminum foil, then stored in oversized freezers; some of the meat was hung to dry for jerky. Although he took part in this rite, he never participated in the hunt. He could never have shot the life out of any living thing. While growing up, my sister and I kept dogs, rabbits, and chickens as pets, but in reality they were my father’s pets, not ours. He loved the animals more than we did, and he did a much better job of taking care of them. One spring, his favorite brown rabbit (which had grown accustomed to an early morning delivery of fresh vegetables to its cage) died. My father sat on the back porch and cried. This seeming contradiction, his dual role as animal lover and butcher, is one of the grand ironies of his life. But haven’t we all witnessed similar contradictions in ourselves? I have a picture of him in a Japanese deer park, surrounded by the large-eyed animals he once carved up for hunters, offering them dried pellets, his expression unambiguously blissful. I now understand that it was not easy for him to slit the smooth belly of a lifeless buck.
After his honorable discharge my father enrolled in the Toledo School of Meat Cutting. He never talked about his training at the Toledo School, and I never knew the name of the school until his retirement day, when I asked. It had never occurred to him that this might be interesting information, and it had never occurred to me that meat cutters learned their profession in an academy that charged tuition and issued diplomas. Back then, in the Midwest of the 1950s, a young man attending the Toledo School of Meat Cutting was proud of his affiliation. “I had to study, and after studying I had to work in the meat store,” my father told me. “That’s where we learned how to be a professional.” Now, if pressed, he displays a nostalgic pride when speaking about his six weeks spent studying in Ohio.
Pondering my own formal schooling—college, graduate school, law school—I realized how parochial my attitude has been toward education not traditionally considered “higher.” I was the first to attend college in my family, and there was never a doubt that I would take any other route. Once immersed in college life, my world simultaneously shrank and expanded. I would never become a meat cutter or a hair stylist—or, to put it another way, I would never learn the correct way to cut meat or hair. One weekend in my freshman year, I went home and told my family, over dinner, about a discussion in philosophy class. My professor had stood before us and asked, “What is yellow, really?” At home, my far-out college story was received with eye-rolling consternation. This is what they teach you at that big, pretty campus? This is what your scholarships are paying for? My mother and father were dumbfounded. Would I ever be able to pay the bills and keep myself decently clothed? Had my father’s head-rubbings gone to waste?
After arriving at the Toledo School, the first item my father received was a book. “Our first assignment was to read the whole book,” he tells me. “No knives allowed until we were done.” This part of his story surprised me—that a student at meat cutting school was required to read a book before angling knife against flesh and bone. I imagined something else: lectures and demonstrations, followed by try-it-yourself sessions. I saw, in my mind, my father’s hands gripping knives and saws for the first time; I did not see him poring over texts, immersed in words and diagrams. Yet he and the other students had to finish a book before they were permitted to go anywhere near the tools of the trade.
After reading his book, he received a set of knives, but that still did not qualify him for the perilous testing of a blade against chilled meat. In his profession, knives are almost sacred, and members of the cutting guild learn to treat them with reverent caution, for with one minor slip they can injure, maim or kill. One must establish respect for the knife before removing it from its sheath. And contrary to common wisdom, sharpness is not the primary reason for careful handling; dullness is. The impatient and determined cutter tends to force the instrument, and with that stubborn force comes an increased possibility of injury. One evening years into his career, my father was supposed to be working the late shift when my mother received a phone call from a hospital. His unsharpened boning knife had slipped, plunging blade-first into his abdomen. Luckily, it had not penetrated very far into his flesh, and had missed puncturing a major organ. When he came home from the hospital in the early morning hours, we gasped at his stitched-up belly and clothes soaked with dark blood, darker than the beef or pork blood that usually stained his smock. Many years later, nearing retirement, he put his hand in the way of an electric saw, which sliced off the soft padding of his left thumb. Seeing him for the first time after the accident, I recoiled from the hand that once rubbed my head for good fortune. A tough, gruesome scar was forming over the wound but the healing tissue did little to conceal his mistake. A small portion of him had been turned inside out, exposing a raw reminder of our mortality. Today his thumb remains disfigured, the area where skin and muscle were cut away still appears tender, freshly burned. During visits, I notice the scarred digit at least once a day, and I am reminded of his life behind the meat cases, the air chilling his lungs, thirty-two years worth of meat passing through his hands.
After receiving their knives, the Toledo students spent the next three days learning to use a butcher’s steel to properly sharpen their new tools. Only then were they allowed to carve. “After teaching us how to sharpen our knives,” my father said, “they taught us how to break a side of beef.”
Does the average person—let’s say the average meat-eating American—know which part of the cow’s body is the filet mignon? A mouth-watering flatiron? In the supermarket of America, we gladly distance ourselves from the gross anatomies that provide our prime rib and rack of lamb, but to become a meat-cutter the student must intimately know the whole animal and thoroughly understand how its body parts relate to one another. My father had to dismantle an entire side of beef with a single knife, and recognize each type of cut, every bone, organ and muscle mass. One of his teachers would walk into the classroom and throw a slab of meat on the butcher’s block. “What’s this?” the instructor sternly demanded of the class, then chose a student to specify its origin.
When my father recounted this scene, I remembered a story about a professor of medicine who presented a similar challenge to his students. He walked brusquely into the classroom, tossed a segment of human organ on the desk of his victim, then asked for a description of the specimen. If the unwitting student said, “It looks like a piece of liver,” the professor severely reprimanded: “Don’t try to identify it until you’ve objectively described it!” He had wanted a methodical account of the size, color, texture, and shape, not a label. The lesson supposedly taught that systematic observation led to accurate identification, a premise that has guided science, scientific integrity, and indeed much of Western thought. I pictured my father standing at the butcher block, holding a portion of cow or pig, turning it over and over as he described its musculature and hues, the warmth of his hands dissipating into carrion.
This is how a professional breaks a side of beef:
While the meat hangs from a ceiling hook, you use a hand-held electric saw to separate the hind and front quarters. With a freshly sharpened knife you then cut the hind into sections known as retail cuts—round steak, porterhouse, T-bone, sirloin steaks. The front quarter yields the short ribs, briskets, chuck roast, rib roast, and all the trim that goes into hamburger or perhaps a hearty stew. In the front quarter you also find the dross: soup bones, dog bones, kidney suet, the less desirable bits and pieces my father calls junk meat. At home, we ate bowls of rich soup made with large knobby bones boiled until they looked polished. We threw handfuls of rice and cans of stewed tomatoes into the broth, and my father, reaching into his memory of army recipes, chopped up yellow onions, carrots, and sometimes chunks of ham, dumped everything into the liquid, liberally salted the pot and let it simmer for hours. He liked to stand over the stove, watching the bone meat melt into the soup, inhaling the savory aroma that clung to the kitchen air.
It took him three weeks to learn all the cuts and to break a side of beef correctly.
The most difficult part of the cow, from a meat cutter’s perspective, is the liver. Weighing about twenty pounds, this mammoth conduit of bile is slippery and slimy on the exterior, making it especially dangerous to cut. In his first attempt to slice a liver, my father’s knife slipped and barely missed cutting off a couple of his fingers. The liver slid off the butcher block, landing in the layer of sawdust covering the floor. Everyone laughed, of course: a whole slimy liver breaded with wood shavings, ready for the frying pan. My father laughed, too, but the blunder had deeply shaken him. He had almost lost his fingers before starting his career in earnest. And then what? How would he cut meat without all his fingers? What would he do for work? After forty-five minutes of clean up, picking and scraping off the coat of sawdust flecks, he wrapped the organ in cloth to form a grip, then sank his knife into the stubborn tissue.
At the Toledo School he progressed from beef to pork to lamb, a sequence without apparent logic. Unlike cows, lambs arrived intact except for their heads. First he had to remove the legs. While sawing them off, he reminded himself that this was no longer an endearing farm animal with a soft wooly coat—it was now only an icy approximation of a formerly living creature, slung before him for the purpose of a class exercise. Gripping a leg in one hand and the saw in another, he tricked his brain into seeing something other than a lamb. Surely his animal-loving heart had to shut down. How did he anaesthetize his emotions? How could he have continued with the limb-breaking, the visceral ripping-apart? I imagine that he underwent a radical de-sensitizing similar to a medical student’s transformation in anatomy lab. Is that so different from what many workers do to get through a day’s labor? At one time I tried to convince myself that my heavy, tedious casebooks were not actually books—they were a strange species unrelated to the novels and travelogues I read hungrily before entering law school.
From mammals to fowl: my father moved on to chickens, which arrived whole, plucked, and, back in the early days, relatively free of hormone injections and chemicals. After maneuvering the big animals, dealing with chickens was a cinch. He reached into the body cavity and pulled out the insides, washed the bird thoroughly, then chopped it up into pieces familiar to the consuming public—breast, wing, drumstick, thigh—that we rarely associate with the feathered whole. Gizzards and heart were set aside for separate packaging. Chickens were a smooth operation: quick, satisfying results, with little stain to his smock. In an hour he could fill the poultry case.
One year, my sister and I received eight newly hatched chicks for Easter. For the first week they lived in an empty aquarium on the floor in the kitchen, with an overhead light keeping them warm. Everyone adored those chicks, my father most of all, but to my parents’ dismay they marked the beginning of my vegetarianism. Suddenly I was protesting the meat and eggs put on the table, outright rejecting the steaks and ribs my father had cut at the store. While our chicks huddled in the aquarium, the breaded chicken breasts frying noisily in hot Crisco became, for me, repulsive. Surely children who grew up on farms could cope with playing among the pigs one day and sending them to market the next. Surely they could emotionally disengage from a pet that might end up as breakfast bacon. But I had never set foot on a farm, and until the chicks arrived I never had a pet that was also a staple in the American diet. The chicks chirped while the breasts sizzled and popped in oil. I couldn’t handle it. Soon the odor of cooking meat—any meat—turned my stomach. I winced at the wedge of prime rib pooled in red juices on my plate and refused the hamburger grilled medium-rare over coals. At nine or ten I preferred, Bartelby-like, not to eat the meat that quite literally put food on my family’s table.
Although he did not say it, my father was crushed. In desperation he tried cooking meats more thoroughly, hoping the absence of blood might turn me around. He gave me smaller portions and concocted elaborate brown and white gravies to mask the offending entrees. He suggested white meat instead of dark, but to me it was all the same. My refusal to eat meat was a colossal disappointment to him, tantamount to turning away from everything our family stood for—the Midwest, hard work, simple sustenance, tradition, survival. My strange rejection of meat was a rejection of his livelihood, a betrayal of his pride in providing for us.
One summer, a woman in our neighborhood circulated a rumor among my playmates: “They eat well because of all the free meat the butcher gets!” It was a terrible thing for a child to hear; it was untrue, and yet the gossip persisted. I encountered the presumption often—that we benefited lavishly from my father’s position, devouring free steaks and prime rib nightly. Yet he never took anything that he didn’t pay for, except once a year during the holidays, when his company gave each employee a turkey, or when he’d occasionally take a few bones that would have gone out with the garbage. The bones were for our dogs (which admittedly were the happiest pets in the neighborhood). But then any customer who asked for dog bones usually got them.
After six weeks of carving his way through a narrow portion of the animal kingdom, my father began a full-time assignment in the Toledo School’s retail shop, where he learned the art of selling to discerning customers. Like any other food commodity, meat doesn’t sell if it doesn’t look appetizing. In the retail shop, my father had to become a salesman with a window-dresser’s aesthetic. In those days, before the reign of heat-sealed plastic trays, the fresh cuts were placed in large steel pans, lined up in refrigerated cases. Liver and offal sat in trays deep enough to hold the sea of blood and juices. My father learned how to alternate pans of lamb, pork and beef to achieve a contrast of shades and textures, for optimum display appeal. For a touch of color, he added bunches of fresh parsley between the pans, which were kept fully stocked and neatly aligned at all times. (Cost-cutting measures eventually required plastic greens in place of parsley.) The meat case presented a classic retailing challenge: to transform fragments of dead animals into objects of desire, to make one’s mouth water for a product that, hours or days earlier, was bound by cowhide. It was a daunting task. The old-school butcher had to master his knives, but he was also something of a village artisan charged with pleasing the eye before the palate. On shopping trips with my father, I watched him pace up and down the meat department floor, scrutinizing the displays, looking for oversights–a T-bone steak with too much fat remaining, a lack of greens (real or plastic), empty trays, and, most offensive of all, any meat whose color did not suggest the strictest standard of freshness. He often left the house to check on a competitor’s store, and returned with either a glowing appraisal or utter disgust. My mother suffered through this market-as-mistress syndrome. If my father was nowhere to be found, if he suddenly disappeared from our motel during vacation, we knew where to look.
The Toledo School also trained my father in the art of meat-cutting diplomacy, whose central tenet was and is, “the customer is always right.” He trimmed fat if requested, ground a new batch of hamburger on demand, boned chickens, emptied and flushed turkey cavities, chopped off fish heads out of view of children, sliced ham just a little more thinly. Besides offering these technical courtesies he was called upon to display an always-agreeable case-side manner, even if his customer was less than pleasant—or honest. For the woman who returned with a perfectly cleaned bone but no receipt, complaining the meat had been tough, he offered a full refund. “Can you believe she had the gall to stand there and wave a bone at me?” my father said. “I mean, a bone with not a speck of meat on it?” He gave away his own recipes for stuffing and stews, and he was known to roast a customer’s turkey in the store’s oven. For those who were clueless in the kitchen, he seasoned prime ribs, marinated kebabs, breaded pork cutlets. When his customers came back to thank him, they paid their highest compliments in stories about dinner guests who had been dazzled by a cut of meat–my father’s cut, prepared according to his own detailed, hand-written instructions.
I realize now that meat cutting and cooking were forms of meditation for my father. Under the bright lights of the cutting room he focused solely on the task before him, preparing a slab of beef for consumption. After positioning the meat on the butcher block, he examined it, lightly pressed his fingers into the firm, cold mass and then inserted his knife. He placed the cuts in a pan or, if a customer was waiting, wrapped them immediately in clean white paper, the same paper he often brought home for us to draw and paint on. At day’s end, he thoroughly cleaned the butcher block, swept and hosed down the floor, sanitized the saws and trays before storing them in their proper places. In keeping with the army’s drill, cleanliness reigned above all.
At the block he achieved the unwavering concentration of a person whose work depends on dangerous tools. Focusing on meat, knife and hands, he found a personal quiet, a vast, empty space in which he contemplated the meals he wished to cook, the vacations he hoped to take, the next day’s tasks or, if he preferred, nothing at all. In the meat department, he entered a zone of peaceful transcendence, where all worry and thought were purged. At home, his wife and two children asked for his attention on their terms; he had bills to pay, and duties he did not like (and, frankly, was not very good at)–yard work, house repairs, car maintenance. With a roast in his hands, he could let go of the world.
In the gourmet meat shop near my neighborhood, the displays look nothing like my father’s cases. The proprietor, whom I’ve never seen actually cutting meat, sells pork loin stuffed with apricots, cranberries, and mushrooms; veal roast filled with bacon, rosemary, and garlic; flank steak rolled with roasted red peppers and feta cheese; strips of chicken bathed in Mexican spices. The exorbitant prices fail to rattle browsing customers—professionals in business attire stopping by on their way home from work and psychotherapists who occupy the sleek office located above the “European” marketplace that boasts separate boutiques for cheese, wine, bread, coffee, flowers, meat. They can afford the gourmet prices, but they can’t afford the time to buy plain pork loin and fix it at home. I thought my father might feel alienated by the gourmet meat case, but when I brought him there one autumn afternoon he was impressed by its striking visual appeal. Not a speck of sawdust or meat-scrap can be seen—and not an ounce of hamburger, either. Perhaps this is the type of shop he might have opened had he been born with entrepreneurial drive, a shop where highest quality meats are transmogrified by an avant-garde culinary vision.
Recently I’ve started shopping in Chinatown. Glazed red ducks hang in store windows, and heavy racks of pork drip grease over pans filled with fatty ribs, chicken feet and innards. In the butcher’s shop you can still order a whole pig, head and tail on. Although I haven’t eaten red meat in more than fifteen years, I do like seafood, and in Chinatown I buy fresh fish and crabs from a shop located in the basement of an old brick building. Down below, the owner and his wife preside over long glass tanks swarming with live catfish, lobsters, crabs, eels and turtles. On a recent visit, I saw a customer point at her choice of plump catfish. The owner’s wife climbed up on a stool, dipped a net into the water and snagged it. She slapped the struggling thing on a wooden block, and before it had a chance to flop to the floor, she whacked it once with a club. In less than a minute she had cleaned and gutted the fish—smiling all the while—and handed over the customer’s order in a plastic bag tied with a rubber band. Fishmonger, butcher, meat cutter, all in one. From beginning to end, I was in awe of the transaction, from the first dip into the fish tank to scooping out the undulating guts. Who taught her how to clean a fish, and had she taught others? Did she enjoy her job? Her smile begged the question. And why do I choose her shop in Chinatown instead of the local supermarket? The answer, I think, is simple: I am my father’s son, and despite my preference for broccoli and spinach over red meat, I am drawn to this place where the human hand works close to the vital origins of our food.
Once, years ago, while visiting my father in the meat department, my sister and I ventured into the freezer’s inner chamber, its steel walls coated with frost, the ceilings a daunting network of sliding hooks. My father closed the heavy vault-like door behind us. We screamed hello and goodbye to no one.
We screamed at the top of our voices, but no human could hear us. Inside the freezer our words meant nothing. From the ceiling hooks dangled stiff, skinless cows—they still looked like cows, even without the heads—and pigs with eyeless faces, the animal equivalent of Greek statues I’d seen in books. They seemed to hang in limbo, between distant states of breathing and grazing, and the pending (and almost unimaginable) state of cooked food on someone’s dinner table. We screamed again and dared to let our fingers touch hardened fat. The room smelled of meat and, yes, death; it was the supermarket’s morgue. We stood shivering in the frozen heaven, watching our white breath roll toward the sacrificial beings, and wondered how much they had suffered and whether their ghosts would come back to haunt us.
From the outside, our father shut off the freezer’s inner lights, and at that point we wanted no more of the game. We pounded on the door and he let us out.
What have I learned since then? That the rubbing of my head and the cutting of meat were acts of profound devotion, that a simple man has layer upon layer of complexity, that a dull blade is deadly, that butcher paper makes an excellent canvas, that a cow has many incarnations on earth, from life to death and back to life again. That the meat on our plate, like the words on this page, descends from a higher being.
The week before I got out of Gamblers’ Rehab Ranch, my wife, Katie, left me, closed our bank account and took a waitress job in Bullhead City; the day after I got home from the ranch, my father moved in with me. I don’t know if this is a coincidence, but it was also right about that time that I started hearing voices from the poker room.