On the kitchen table was a note. It was under the pewter sugar bowl, crooked and pocked with its accumulated dents. Both the note and the ancient sugar bowl were my mother’s. Her notes were left for me every night when she prepared for bed, five hours before I could even begin to think about leaving the saloon. Then I’d find the notes at four thirty in the morning when I’d be getting going for early pickup, spidering through the kitchen in my underwear, feeling around for the bib overalls I had let drop to the floor, the shoes tipped against each other underneath, the trail I’d left coming home a good while after midnight. On this dim May morning again like an ungainly stork I balanced, slipping the bibs over each leg, in turn, and then drawing them up to hook them at my chest, leaving them open at the side buttons now that the oats were up and the weather looking toward summer. Because when it gets warm I don’t wear shirts, I put them aside until the leaves change back. The bibs flash a pretty good expanse of flesh, clear down to the strips at the bottom of my shorts. My enticing body. It’s like a trademark, all that skin. Because I’m Gus Jessup; everybody knows me; they know what I look like and what I act like. When things get slow the boys drink toasts to dependable things like me. And the broads, too, in the places where I go, most of them don’t mind; I’m sort of a classic, nothing much you can do about it.
So bare-footed on the cool linoleum floor I stood reading Ma’s note: “Eldridge,” it said. “2nd pl on left past Fulton on M.” And then on the other side: “Lady says no hurry.” I thought, “Well, that means something that ain’t no down animal and that ain’t no plugged sewage.” (I run a couple of rigs for them two purposes.) “Lady,” I said aloud, from the note. That is to say, well, you can’t ever tell, so when in doubt, shave. So before the fluorescent light in the bathroom I did a quickie on my face, edging the heavy sideburns that run almost to the corners of my mouth – sideburns that are respectably graying now – which, in combination with eyebrows that collide and curl, give me a Dickensian look. Not that such a likeness would ever occur to any of the clods I run with.
It was a slow Thursday, like most Thursdays. Just one early shipper cow. I did detour to pick up Billy the kid. He had walked out of school into the voluptuous spring air two days before that, talking wild about never going back. I’d have to lay a hard and dirty summer on Billy, maybe work the hell out of him and cheat him on his pay, and try to tarnish his fascination with the adult world. I’d done that before to other neighbor kids who’d tagged along lapping up all the excitement and colored lights and big money.
At three in the afternoon we did our usual pit stop at the Sundown for my three-four beers; pain was finally beginning to tap me on the shoulder even after pretty much a day off. Nobody around the bar. So we moseyed along figuring right along the way we could make a call, from the note Ma had written. We strained up the gravel drive past a repainted mailbox that said “Eldridge” not in stencil but hand-written clear and careful and sensible. Made the printing on my truck look sick. Up we came into the farmyard where toward the back two people were moving enough to catch my eye, so I geared down and idled to a stop near them.
They were building fence, a man and a woman. I noted as I flipped off the ignition, the sunshine line on the woman’s collarbone at the open neck of her faded shirt. I sat at the wheel lighting a cigar and the two people kept right on with their fencing. The man was holding a hammer in one hand and a pliers in the other hand, and the woman was on one knee, bending wire, looking once in a while at the truck. A few feet from them, a barred rock hen squatted to gather her brood from the first cool of the evening, a sight that makes you smile, God bless ‘em, in this day of egg-machine chickens in cramped wire cages. I said to Billy the kid, “Guard this payload,” and climbed from the cab, letting the door hang open.
I opened my fingers, patting my hand on the top of the fencepost, and said appreciatively, “Good fence takes plenty of work,” or some variation of that. That’s like a business card. I eyed up the fence and turned to the guy who stood bareheaded with close-cut white hair and a worried look. But it was the woman who answered me. “Just tired of patching it,” she said, “and this time we’ll do her right.” She said it with a half-grin, glancing up. Unpainted and muscular she was, with high cheekbones. A strip of white cloth bound her forehead, soaked with sweat. Wide eyes, I noted.
“Yeah, once they go through you’re signed up,” I said. My commanding voice scattered two roosters from dueling along the edge of a concrete water tank. I had been at this place a dozen times, but it changed hands often, a farm of sand hills that produced mostly rocks – had always left its owner hungry. Down by the barn several tan-colored cattle, half-grown stood chewing cud in the shade. “How many head you got here now?” I asked – another of my standard questions.
The man stood up, looking straight at me. “They’re Swiss; they’re Brown Swiss,” he said, looking straight at me, gesturing the pliers at me. “Brown Swiss,” he repeated, “that’s what they are.”
“Yeah, I see that,” I said. “You like Brown Swiss, do you?”
“Yes,” he said, peering at me. “We do.” And he said again thoughtfully, “We like Brown Swiss.”
“Ed,” said the woman’s clear voice, “Will you just get me four or five staples.”
“Five stables,” replied Ed, turning to look at her, “Yes, I can do that.” He reviewed thoughtfully, and, putting down his tools, turned and knelt over the rusty pail on the grass at his feet, digging into it earnestly.
The woman said, “Ed is my partner,” and her eyes came across to me. “He is a good helper. He used to live out at the county farm.” Her voice was low as a man’s, her eyes glittering greenish. “When he first came to live here, the sun bothered him. After, you know, being cooped up for so long, y’know. But now, he’s gotten tough.” Ed, bending over the pail, murmured wordlessly. I watched his shoulders, emerging from the slashed-off sleeves of his shapeless striped coveralls the skin of his shoulders smooth and hairless.
“Lived there quite a while, did he?” My question, no standard question, came out slow and stumbling.
“Twenty-three years,” she said clearly, and Ed right after her, “Twenty-three years,” turning upwards from his pail to look toward me.
“Well,” I said hesitantly, “I’ll be damned.” My cigar neglected and unsuckled, had gone out. I began to dig in the front of my bibs for another match. Behind me the truck radio was twanging, You Don’t Want My Love, some cowboy’s poor lament. “Y’don’t seem to care a thing about me, druther live without me.” I told the woman “I did get your call, but my Ma, she didn’t really say what it was all about. I’m Gus Jessup, is who I am.”
Oh,” said the woman. “Sure,” she said, “Well, Mary Eldridge is who I am.” Her voice was an amused echo. She turned to Ed, up again and moving to her one hand full of nails, rolling them in his palm, flexing his fingers to stroking them like pets. Staples? Yeah, staples they were. “We got so involved in talking, your mother and I,” the woman was saying, “that I could have forgotten to mention dehorning.” She looked back at me, “Which is what we have to do here before the weather gets a whole lot warmer.”
“Five staples,” Ed said, as if he’d come up with the secret of creation. And the Eldridge woman continuing, to me, “Eleven head, well, this Saturday, I guess, or whenever you can, if you still do dehorning; I never did ask, did I?”
I took a look at the dun-colored cattle down the incline near the barn. “Yearlings are they.”
She had knelt and was placing a staple over taunt barbed wire, into the fence post between us. “Yes, eleven yearlings,” she said, and she nailed: seven, eight, nine, hammer blows, missing not once.
Then while she worked and Ed pretty much watched, I got to telling her how I like to do dehorning: she gets her animals into the barn morning of the day I’m coming over, and we’d park the trailer in the door, blocking the way the cattle came in, so that when we’d shoo ‘em out again they’d walk up the trailer into the trailer’s headlock, which is closed around the animal’s neck to hold it in place. Then, after the horns are cut off, the animal is released. “If I can’t make it Saturday, I’ll have Ma call you. Then if I don’t make it, won’t be all that trouble about rounding ‘em up early.” Presently I got my White Owl lit up. I stood nursing it for a minute and then said, “You here alone?” Except for – um – Ed?”
She said, “More or less.” She was still kneeling. “With a little help from my friends and the banker,” she added. Still talking over the hammer work, she said, “I didn’t expect you to drive all the way up here. I thought you’d call back.”
I said with generosity, “Oh, we go right past here all the time and look up at the Brown Swiss.” I winked at Ed’s troubled gaze. Public relations are always a grey zone. I asked if the cattle were hers.
“Well, partly,” she said. “We get to do all the work. That kind of deal.” Another staple, a few strong strokes of the hammer and the sound echoing from the barn wall. Ed was watching her with concern or admiration, his lips moving.
I asked how long she’d had the place, and she said, “Couple years and then some,” sounding amused. Now she was picking lost nails from the grass.
“Who told you about me?” I asked her then.
“Well,” she said with a sudden smile, “people point you out. Or, I mean, kids do. Kids come up here and talk to us and sometimes mention you and tell stories. One calls you the Mayor of Fulton.”
Fulton, twenty-some, wood-frame houses mostly family-built, has a colorful and sometimes off-color reputation. I bit down hard on my White Owl. “Anything else?”
“Said how you castrate ponies; someone was peeking,” the woman said, getting up. “Said how you throw yourself on top of them, hold ‘em down, and if they don’t settle down you bite ‘em on the ear.” She was winding a short leftover roll of new wire. “Said how you tend to be unpleasant to drive down the road behind.” She said that, I thought reluctantly, but without a blink of the eye or a thought to public relations.
I snapped, “Damn tailgaters,” and felt some bristles on the back of my neck. “Well,” I said, “I’ll tell you what, let me cry all the way to the bank about that. The cleanup jobs they don’t want to touch, that’s what I do.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” agreed Mary Eldridge.
“Any tailgater who wants to do it more hygienically let them buy me out, let ‘em leave the refuse lie there, and I’ll let the honey wagon sit and cool off, and I’ll go to Las Vegas for the summer. Or the winter.”
“Sure,” she said, smiling, “that’s right.” Ed was helping her, backing away from her to pull the wire straight in his uncertain way. I slapped the fencepost top and said loudly, “Well, then. I’ll let you know. Weather’s supposed to stay chilly.”
“That’s what I hear,” came her voice.
As I backed the truck away, breaking down the washboard of the drive and out onto M toward Fulton, I said through my cigar toward Billy, “High point of the day, Billy, some half- backed dame, but her money I guess is as good as any.”
“Looked to me,” sassed the kid back, “like you was making out smooth enough.” At sixteen, Billy knew it all, coolly working on two fresh sticks of Juicy Fruit gum.
I said, “But it’s funny. Her living there with a loony. At first I figured he’s her husband. Some loony’s all he is. A broad on alimony could be what she is. One of them wealthy bitches indulging herself. Maybe includes the loony. Wouldn’t be surprised a bit.” I flipped away the misshapen cigar. “He’s more likely protection,” I murmured remembering my hesitation with Ed’s bright, earnest eyes.
What’s Up Doc
Before I ever laid eyes on that woman again, or thought very much about her, my world jumped the track. Suddenly I was running alone and in shock: me, the guy who bites the ear of a pony. Ma, in the first place, got a call from Doc. I knew by that call the test might have come back, and Doc and me were in for a little talk. I told Ma it was a diet he wanted to put me on. She enjoyed the idea, or at least made noises like it.
She said, “He’s going to make you eat zucchini and okra and broccoli.” She turned her back to let the cat out, and I looked over the mail. No money coming in. And I grumbled as I fished into the Quaker Oat cylinder box for yesterday’s cookies.
Four hours later, I was in the waiting room paging through a trout magazine and doing a funny fake for the desk people, the music wafting from the walls. Then, later, surrounded by black-framed wall documents and blood-pressure charts, and a black leather table with silver cranks, Doc edged into the door too soon.
“How you been?” he asked. “Saw you last on the fourteenth of last month. You lost a little weight….not much.”
Of course, I didn’t let on about the bad days increasing some or the slower starts in the morning. I was almost out of pills; I didn’t tell him that, either. “You didn’t call me in here to waste my time and my truck gas,” I told Doc. “I’m a big boy. I was a big boy when you came to this here town. I got my share of stress. You got your share of stress too. Don’t tell me to go play golf.”
He was looking at the numbers, “We can get fooled,” he said cheerfully. “You got some cancer.”
“Who are you going to tell if you don’t tell me?” I asked him. “I’m going to hang it up when?”
“They’re making huge strides,” said Doc. He was reaching into a drawer near his knee. “And you’re a pretty tough guy,” he added. He drew out a pint of Jim Beam and unscrewed the top and handed it to me.
“Maybe if I quit the rough stuff and get into another line,” I said, and there was a silence in the room and I raised the bottle and the whiskey was cool in my mouth and teasing the side of my lips and warming on the way down.
“Six months to two years,” said Doc.
“No kidding,” I said.
“Some make it to five.”
“You’ll have me drinkin’ the whole pint,” I said.
“I have more,” he answered. “We’ll know better later. Lots of tests to do yet.” He took off his glasses, something to do, and examined them. “You are encouraged to see another – get other medical advice,” he said. “People have different reactions to….” He was providing me with an out, as if I were a catfish trying to regurgitate the hook.
“Yeah, I might surprise you,” I said.
“Yes, I get surprised every day around here,” he said, with a half-hearted laugh. “If you want a tip, I’ll tell you to go right ahead and live the way you might have wanted to, whatever you wanted to do when you got the money. See the world or take your wife on a Caribbean cruise.”
“Yeah, I might try that,” I answered, playing the game, trying to think about the whole thing. It was now a year and a half I’d been hurting: my back and some headaches. On top of that, I figured it was fear, the emptiness and gnawing stomach, a stalker lurking around a corner. Now the enemy had been identified. It should have been a relief. I lifted the bottle to my mouth.
Doc said, “We’ll be calling you to remind you of the next appointment.”
“Thanks,” I said, with no feeling. “Keep it to yourself will you, Doc? Will you let me call you?”
“Of course,” he said, lifting both palms, a peace gesture.
I began to think how beautiful yesterday was, but then as I was driving home I felt again the blind oblivion of one night when a the wheel of the truck something grabbed my mind, I lost track of where I was heading, why I was heading, why I was going, a lapse of consciousness; the rig got to the side of the road and I struggled to breathe deep enough to restore reason; cold sweat on temples and eyelids, and saturating the back of my shirt; and then later the traffic whining by in the night, penetrating finally the other noises between my ears, luring me back to numb awareness. How long had I been parked? As if I could escape, I began driving again, groping down unknown roads until presently something got familiar, a curve or a ditch lit by headlights. Stopping then at the first neon sign, I parked in a dark corner of a lot, got out to relieve myself standing close to the wheels and hearing the off-key sounds of a bar full of Friday-night people. Many flings I have flung, but that night, shaken, all I wanted was to be back in my own skin, to gain enough to make it home. Now, this afternoon, I wanted to be lost again.
Then it was Thursday and I’d forgotten about the dehorning date, and I counted back three days and a lot of horsing around, late hours, drinking late, and spending big. Avoiding thought, of course. The Eldridge job swam into my memory while I was starting out Billy and a couple other guys who owed me time, in a rural schoolhouse which I had bought cheap to renovate – lower the ceilings and redo the windows. When the hammering started, ten-thirty in the morning, I left not really intending to drive up the long lane to Eldridge’s. But there I was: oak trees on the Eldridge hill still barren in hesitant acceptance of spring. About letting you down, little lady…. And there she was, outside again, towels and shirts behind her on the clothesline, carrying a basket, and as I came from the truck, the breeze caught her loose t-shirt and teased her breasts, and as I run a hand through my hair, I felt dampness, anxiety or excitement, just like old times, despite the morning cool.
I said right way, lowering my head like a truant kid, “Say, I clean for forgot about calling you last week. I got into a lot of trouble and got muddled up. I can’t remember I ever done that before. It slipped my mind completely.”
“Trouble?” Her smile was not unfriendly. The question hung there needing an answer.
“Well,” I said, “my mother. Had to go to the hospital. She got one of her spells. Just lucky somebody was around. Well, me. And I’ve been back and forth like a mail delivery ever since, to the hospital, twice a day, and the extra work at home and keeping this business going. Of course it can’t help but bother you….” It was a useful story, about Ma, and really had happened once, so it wasn’t quite a lie.
“Your mother?” asked Mary Eldridge. “She’s in the hospital?”
My throat was tight. I said something about oxygen and comfortable situation.
“She’s going to be all right, isn’t she?” asked Mary Eldridge.
“Well you know,” I said, forcing it out gruff, all business again, “she’s damn near eighty now. Getting right up there.”
“Well, eighty can be pretty old or not so old,” she replied. “I don’t know her so well, but the times I’ve talked to her on the phone, she was right with it. My kind of people.” Her laugh slipped out, short and triumphant
“She gets these spells,” I said again. “A guy is going to have to have another person around the place. Trouble is, she’s always been so kind of independent – but even so, last few years wanted me to stay home more, feeling neglected, gets all bothered and goes on about it, can’t understand. Makes you feel funny but a guy can’t just, uh, stay home. Just drop everything.” My damn mouth was galloping along dragging me behind. “Yes,” I said, “gets spells. Chest pains. Shortness of breath. Even if they aren’t real, they’re real enough.” My own voice in my ears and my eyes stinging; things getting away from me. I turned away not to face her, hands deep in pockets, and I said, “Where’s your man today”
“Ed?” she said, low-voiced. “He’s just in the barn. Picking up twine. He does that a lot. He has to stay busy, it’s a requirement.” Looking at me hard, “Are you okay?”
“No, yeah?” I retorted. “I don’t know. I don’t know”
“Is she in the hospital tonight?” she asked. The clothesbasket still on her hip.
“Yeah, still there, fifth day now,” I said off-handedly, wishing to be gone.
“And she will be coming home?” she pursued.
“Looks like,” I said. “Probably better off there at the hospital”
“How you figure that?”
“I got nobody to look after her,” I muttered. My head was turning toward the barn. Could she hear what I was saying?
“Oh. Well. Sure, nothin’ holds Ma down. She’s all over that place, trooping up and down the second floor, checking on everybody’s aliments, how are their kin. Regular circus.”
“Well, indecision isn’t a good thing,” said Mary after a pause. “Would she put up with having somebody around? You wonder what to do about her being alone, isn’t that so? Is that what you’re saying?”
I said edgily, “I can find some decent help if there is any or I can ship her off to a home. Some place where they tie you in a chair and you rot all day for whatever life there is left.” I cursed a long curse, having turned on the clamps. What I wanted to say was this: I wanted to turn abruptly and just leave. Instead I stood rooted like one of her oak trees.
Mary said, “If I could reassure you…”
I interrupted, “Did you ever take a look at one of them nursing-home places?”
She nodded her head, “I’ve worked in a couple.”
“Any good?” I challenged.
“I can’t tell you where there is a good one,” she said.
I run my hand back through my hair, and said, “Oh, great,” and I cursed again heartily.
“But I don’t know everything and I don’t really get around much,” she hurried on. “You know, you shouldn’t be assuming bad things are going to happen.”
“Shouldn’t I, huh?” I heard unplanned hostility in my own voice, and although I attempted a grin, it didn’t work.
“Does she hate the hospital?” Mary asked. “Does she get a lot of company? She must have all kinds of friends. She’s lived here for a long time, hasn’t she?” My distress, she was trying to re-route it. She turned and sat on the concrete step, the approach to the door, and I sat there too, and pulled out a cigar, my last. I figured I could smoke it there without contaminating anyone. It was a six-foot-er-so approach so we sat, plenty of space between.
I told her then how I had moved back here with my daughter, when she was ten, after the marriage washed out, how she stayed for summers for a few years and then moved in for five or six more years, buoyed by Ma’s stability, until she had gone off to art school and later helped run a daycare place in Berkeley. “Of course,” I said, “with the way my business has always been, I never got home much, just to sack out, same as right now. Ma, she’s always done the bookwork for me and taken all the calls, used to teach down at Fulton School. She and the girl, my daughter, they were always together; she was the incentive in anything that girl ever did. Nothin’ was anything much without Ma. Never was; my old man I don’t remember. I never knew my old man.”
Mary Eldridge said, “That’s the way it was with me.”
But the futility of one more pretense, the exasperation with old worn-out lies, turned my tongue reckless: “Well, here, I’ll just tell you: the truth is, I never got home because I just never tried to get home. Had nothing to do with the business. Business is a handy reason that’s all. See, I was never there. They never expected me, and I never let them expect me. They spent most of them years working and waiting, and I spent ‘em out running. Daughter she comes home now, once a year…but she comes to be with Ma. She wouldn’t come atall if Ma wasn’t here.” At dawn, I had for no reason taking a shirt from the drawer, in the black clock-ticking silence, had put it on and buttoned the top three buttons, and now, trussed up in it, could feel sweat creeping on my spine. Without mercy I continued: “I’m old now but want to know something? I’m still worthless.”
“Worthless?” she asked. She didn’t even make light of it. “You’re being pretty harsh on yourself, aren’t you?”
I continued, “Out of all my working years, I’ve piled up maybe sixty thousand in property. You know where the rest went?” I waved my arm in the direction of the Sundown. “Went for drinking them good old boys under the table,” I said, “and that wasn’t all I done.”
“What else you done?” Now the mockery was back.
But I went on: “I’ll tell you what else I done. I brawled in every saloon in this state and Far East as Muskego. I never turned a fight down. Wrecked a dozen joints and cracked a good many heads. And I’ll tell you what else I done. Any woman looked my way, I screwed her.” The words was a surprise, to genteel for my taste. “Any woman atall,” I added.
“Screwed with her,” corrected Mary Eldridge, undisturbed. Then, she said, “But I’ve heard that your houses get rented out to people who are needy.”
“My houses,” I muttered.
“…and I’ve heard you let kids ride your old horse.”
I said gruffly, “I make them clean the barn first. Following day, I inspect the barn. Later in the week – maybe – they can ride the horse.” As if she knew ahead, she listened and smiled when I said that. “I don’t know what in the hell, I’m doing here,” I grumbled. “I can’t figure it out. I never in this whole time told anyone else about Ma.”
“You don’t have anybody to talk to?” she asked, a taunt, as if read from a textbook.
Yes … of all those people, that goddam lifetime of people, a million elbows rubbed, a river of beer bottled and raised glass by glass in manly salutes, could I not find one person to trust with the secrets of my vulnerability? “I don’t know,” I said to her. But I did know.
Ed the Loony had emerged from the barn and was walking toward us, tying knots in some twine he was holding, frowning at it and murmuring to himself. “I’ll be going,” I told Mary. “You got better things to do than cry about my troubles.”
“No,” she said, “not really. I don’t mind. I like company today.”
“You’ll be reporting to your business buddies about this,” I said drily.
“No,” she answered. “That won’t happen.”
Ed came on up, looked straight at me with one eye closed, frowning as if in an effort to remember, continuing to play with the rope. “I work here. I’m Ed Wheeler. Wheeler. I help take care of those Brown Swiss over in the barn. I’m a pretty good worker. I do lots of work –” He pointing with the looped-up twine toward where he’d come from and repeated his well-worn lines.
“Sure thing,” I said my voice too loud, as if he were deaf. “I met you last week, remember?”
Mary cast a look of concern at me, “How’s the barn, Ed? Pretty good?”
“Yes, it looks pretty good,” he parroted.
My hands thrust into my pockets, I moved the coins, the keys, the coins. I said, “I’ll be seeing you later. I can do your dehorning day after tomorrow? What I can do is, I’ll see about rounding up another guy. Then I’ll let you know. What I’ll do is…I’ll call you tonight.”
“Well,” she said slowly. “I’m here until ten-thirty.”
“Ten-thirty at night?” I sounded like an old fool.
“Yeah,” she answers, “I work nights. It’s respectable. Some places don’t close at night, Mental hospitals. I try to bend brains.” She laughed, sounding guilty.
“Call you at ten,” I said, backing away, looking at her as she dealt quietly with Ed, thinking, she ain’t that beautiful, but all the same, looking at her standing there while I backed away stupidly, I felt something, an old familiar twist that was not pain, in a remote part of my body.
Except for the outrage and grief of Mary Eldridge’s trusting animals, the horn-sawing went smoothly enough. They were complacent, friendly beasts that needed no beating. They would move for Mary or even for Ed, although they balked some at the thunder in my voice. Afterwards in the farmhouse, we cracked a twelve-pack, and while three of us talked about auction prices and trench silos, Ed fell asleep with his head resting on the back of a chair, face tilted toward the ceiling, big hands open on his lap. It was a spare and austere living room. There were about fifty books on pioneer shelves of cement blocks and planks, close to the floor, along one wall. Some of the books were tipped askew or bristling with notes. The books weren’t furniture. They were more like inhabitants, waiting. On a silver tray near the books, on the floor, were fruits, piled-up fruits: freckled bananas, and grapefruit and a couple of apples, and a thorny and uncut pineapple.
Mary too fell asleep. She fell asleep listening with a beer in one hand upright, her head slumped gently to one side, until her friend, an auctioneer who had come to help, covered her with a jacket and eased her head down, gently. From what I gathered, they fished together some. Any more than that I could only guess.
I happened to look back when I left the place. There were spatters of heifer-blood on her nose and on her forehead.
I began to wear, like Ma says sometimes, the sackcloth and ashes, the unfamiliar clothes worn by victims. Being a victim is a drag. I’d never been one before. Numbly, I found myself with nobody to take revenge on, no heads to crack. I made half-promises to a God whose existence I’d always doubted along with the absurd unthinkable possibility of my death. Bottles of pills began to collect and wait benignly for the furtive grasp of my fingers. Did I remember health and the freedom from pain? Sure, like an old sweetheart who had run off with some other lover. Sure. A good day was like a call long-distance call from a sweetheart who with a nice smile packed her bag and ditched you.
There was a type of steady spring rain which lasts two days, to uncover the arrowheads in the plowed field and start the corn sprouting, smelling of heavy wet weed and black dirt. Looking up into it, little black clouds against a grey background, I become a part of it, cooling like a lizard does. “Time is money,” I always told Ma; she knew I saved rainy days for collecting bills. See I am still using the old half-truths to glue life together. On reserve in my watch pocket were the yellowish horse-choking pills, two of them just in case. I drove the truck with windows open, listening to the singing whine of the wet tires. Up in the Eldridge yard, I sloshed with flung-open boots across to the barn. The cattle were drying inside, turning slowly from their contentment to look at me. Why had I come there looking for Ed? But for a while I stayed, kicking the hay in closer to the heifers’ heads, and then cleaning out a jammed watercup that was leaking, scooping out hay chaff with my fingers; by evening the whole manger would have been filled with water. I could picture Ed and Mary scooping it with shovels for half a day. The horn sockets on the cattle’s heads were healing well, a very oozing. There were notes and signs on the walls of the barn, phone numbers, and a poster, which said in round careful handwritten letters: Never let go of what you got until you got hold of something else. And a breeding chart with arithmetic on it. I went out, latching the door securely and after that tying it with twine; and while I tied it the rain began harder again, running down the visor of my cap off the end of my nose.
At the house, I raised the silver knocker on the door, and let it fall and bounce, and backed away, letting the rain wash over me from the eaves. She took a long time to answer. She was sleeping, I imagined, blessed by the natural lullaby, or maybe she had gone off in one of those persistent cars I kept noticing while driving by.
Mary didn’t act surprised or stand in the doorway blocking it, the way a married women tends to do. I said, “I woke you,” but she had a towel around her head; she must have just come from a shower. Shirt was big and loose, pants threadbare and faded like old pajama. Feet bare. I said, coming in, “I hired that woman you sent over.”
“Hey, all right,” she burst out, sounding like Billy the kid. “You wait – she’ll tend to business. When she was working as an aide, the patients, y’know, at the hospital, the patients loved her. But you know how some people seem not to have the knack to get along with fellow workers? That’s the way she was. Always being misinterpreted.” Then she said, “How’s your mom?”
“Home now,” I said. I drew out a handkerchief and wiped my face, cap fell off onto the doormat, and I tossed the wet handkerchief across the cap. I pulled bottles of beer from my jacket pockets. “Brought you a reward,” I said awkwardly.
“They are a reward,” she exclaimed. “The cupboard is bare. Hallelujah.”
I left my wet jacket on the pile near my feet and with relief I followed her to the couch where I had last seen her asleep.
She popped the beer without ceremony. She said, “That woman will probably bore your mother with hard luck stories. Last thing happened to her, somebody stole her freezer.”
“I didn’t pay much attention,” I said. “She mentioned your name, and I found out where she lived and when she could start working.”
“She’s a widow,” said Mary.
“I didn’t pay no attention,” I said. I sat leaning with my beer and watching her drink hers. The towel slipped off her head; she caught the towel with the spare hand and propped it back. She put the beer down and crossed the room, redoing the towel, and came back with money, “Why don’t you just take out what I owe you?” she offered, putting some bills on my knee and then perching on the other end of the couch, settling in. I gave her back the money as if correcting a child. “For Brown Swiss,” I said, “two bucks a piece.”
“She counted out the money, my share on my lap and what was left into the breast pocket of the shirt she wore. “I would have sent it,” she said.
“This going to make you short?” I patted the bills.
“No, it’s a bargain,” she grinned.
“I was out in the barn for a while,” I told her. “Ed wasn’t there.”
“Probably sweeping the granary. He does it every day.”
“Do you get paid for keeping him here?”
She answered, “Very little, but he’s sort of an old friend. I don’t know what would have happened to him if he hadn’t been able to come here. I had to try it; I could see what could go wrong. It isn’t perfect, you know, but it’s better than it would have been.”
“Does he ever get funny? I mean does he ever act up?”
“Yes,” she said slowly, “sometimes he seems to wake up in the morning, when I get home, extra nervous. Maybe he woke up when I hadn’t come yet. But I’m used to that. I got used to the way he is during the first five years I knew him at the institution. I just give him space, and I try to feed him well.” I watched her kill off the beer. I handed her the one I had. “I don’t really want any,” I said. “More in the truck.”
She took the beer. “I like to drink two and then relax,” she said gaily, “making no apologies.” She gestured toward the kitchen. “I was going to make rhubarb pie.”
“Ma used to make that,” I said. “Back of our place there’s rhubarb nobody can keep ahead of. I used to go out and pick it and eat it sour. If you ever need any….”
“I’ll buy some from her,” she said with a frown. “Mine doesn’t grow much. Too much shade.”
“Na, you don’t pay for our rhubarb,” I scoffed, “we should pay you for taking it. You and Ma would hit it off pretty good.”
“We already do,” she nodded.
“Does it ever get too quiet for you up here?” I was looking around the room, drumming my fingers a little.
“What do you mean?”
“You ever get fidgety? Lonely?” I was thinking, got nothin’ to lose.
“I guess I’ve never had much trouble with ‘lonely’ because I require time for thinking. I need the time alone.”
“Time for thinking about guys like me?” Words running together, getting reckless. But suddenly I was vulnerable, an old turtle who had in a moment of haste lost his shell.
After a time she said, “Oh, I always think about motivations.”
“Like who do I think I am, coming here instead of sending a bill,” I added.
“Probably just a pattern,” she murmured.
“It’s automatic,” she explained. “You rise to the old challenge, however you learned it. But that’s okay. None of us change very much, even if we want to.” The refrigerator was humming and somewhere a faucet was dripping, or the rain. I sat silent. “But what you don’t know is how peculiar I am, “she said, “because I pick my own friends. I have not patience for time wasted.”
There now: she had gone and laid a packaged-up rejection on my lap on top of the dehorning money. I pulled a cigar from my breast pocket, thought better of it, and put it back in. “If you’re going to read my mind, I don’t need to talk,” I said, under cover of a grin.
She went on, looking at the beer label. “My life is pretty well complete, orderly and meaningful. And as for your life, well, you don’t need me for the next feather in your cap. What good do ego-trips do you anyway? They add to your guilt collection and then you can call yourself worthless some more.” I saw that she too was smiling.
I couldn’t remember when I’d listened to women-talk. It was usually a make-out ritual. You listen and you unbutton. “Well, don’t concern yourself,” I told Mary. “I won’t bother you. I’m no kind of man any more, anyhow. And what would a dame like you want with slob like me?” I sat on the edge, leaning my elbows on my knees, and listened to her finishing off the beer. I said, “You are easy to talk to, no real involvement.”
Any answer was better than no answer atall. I seemed to have lost the initiative again. I fingered the bills on my lap, pretending to count them.
Mary stood up and walked up one step to the kitchen and dropped the bottle into a basket. She burst out, walking back toward me, “Do you know how attractive you are? What is it some men have? Vibrations? One time long ago across a bar room, you were filthy and loud and ridiculous-looking. The boys pointed you out. But something in your face. In your manner. You fill the place up. Everybody turns and everybody knows. Certain people even take it home. That was what, I did.” She rolled her eyes like a comic and slapped her forehead. I was catching up. I was thinking, where exactly are we now? Mary was still clowning. “There, one more time, just in case you need bolstering.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I remember vibrations, but I think you got me wrong.”
“Got you wrong?” Her eyes sparkled. “Yeah, right, I’ve got you wrong.”
To get mad would be to fall her way. “There’s some other stuff going on,” I said calmly.
She said back, “Well, yeah, you’re down, you’re upset about your Mom.”
My cigar was hollering to be lit. I did that and I laid the used match inside my open boot. “About Ma,” I said, “it was a lie, what I told you.”
Mary said, with a touch of sadness, “I know: I talked to her that day.”
I smoked and looked at her. Witch. She is a witch. Sure as hell, she’s hexing me.
“Still,” she said, “you seem to be concerned about her. Planning ahead for her care. Kinda depressed. Maybe brooding about getting old.” She cast me a perceptive glance, half-smiling. “I’d like to give you more credit. It may be low key but you seem to be sniffin’ around like a stallion. I can be wrong about that. What does your depression have to do with me? What’ve I got that your buddies haven’t? Probably it’s the season of the rut. I rest my case.” She put her cheek on her hand, pretending to sleep.
There was the pull to joke along with Mary but I had come too far to have it ending in a game. “Need some strength from somewhere,” I said. Feeling her eyes on me, I looked across to the window, streaked with rain. “See, I grew up big and strong, pushed people around, that’s all I ever bothered about.” Forcing the words out was worse than the dry heaves. “The boys I run with, there’d be no kind of sensible talk; it would be a runaround or, I don’t know, maybe they’d just disappear. You don’t hang around sickness. No real man’s ever soft or scared; you don’t watch a guy mush up.” I raked my hand through my hair, aware again of the beginnings of pain in my head. “Fate or whatever it was, I don’t know that I ever thought about you straight; you just sort of come into focus when nothin’ else did. I don’t know what else to say. Sue me.”
“You sound like you’re on Death Row,” she said.
“I am,” I said.
After a while, straightening her shoulders, she asked, “Just a guess?”
I could no longer handle it; the grieving moved over me, my grieving for myself. “Not a guess,” I said woodenly, “the real thing.”
Endurance shrivels and dams break. I laid my face into my open hands, closing up, my last attempt at camouflage.
When I finally began to come up out of it, the rain against the window and the sticky stiffness of my face pulled me back into the reality of the spare and austere room. Some imposter had taken the cigar from my fingers. I saw my big loosened boots, heard my irregular breathing in my ears, nobody saying anything, not for a long time. But it was okay. Better than I thought it would be.
From the other day I remembered the bathroom and I got up and clumped in there, clawing out the pill from the watch-pocket. I washed my hands and face twice with green strong smelling soap. Everything I did in that bathroom I did with the door open; noisily: what was there left for me to keep a secret? “Throw me the hell out,” I said in a loud voice as I zipped up.
“Easy for you to say,” said Mary, and she was there by the door with a glass of something, not water, handing it to me and looking me over.
“I got to sit down for a while,” I said. “Maybe twenty minutes. Twenty five.”
She brought me more lemonade. “What are your plans?” Her voice was thin. “Going to mend some fences?”
“Ah, the throats I’ve cut,” I said gruffly, looking around the room. “I got nothing coming from anybody. Nobody anywhere going to give a rip.”
“So you figure you’re bringing doom down over your own head,” said Mary.
“Well, what?” My laugh was fakey. “I call my daughter, well, I never call her. I’m going to call her now? ‘Come on home, honey, hold my hand, now that the brakes are locked, talk to me like I never had time to do for you, for twenty years.’ She’ll have to come hold my hand and keep me company. That’ll be nice for her.”
Mary said, “You could leave it to her, though. You can give that much away. She deserves it even if you don’t deserve it.” There was always space while we talked, silence, words hanging there and time to think them over. Mary said then, “Love is love; don’t be ashamed if it isn’t perfect, that’s the way it comes. Let her do the rejection this time.”
In the middle of my muddle there was a phone ringing, maybe from a bedroom somewhere. Nobody made a move. She let it ring. The phone rang four times and then it quit ringing. I kept looking at Mary.
“What else?” she asked.
“There’s a dame I bought off a few years ago,” I said, running fast as if it were a joke, “she tried to drag me through the court to get money for a kid I was supposed to have sired; I got some character witnesses and really fixed her up – “ The smile faded from my face and in the silence I regretted everything I had said, immediately. Are we down to paternity suits? How about battery or murder?
She waved a hand. “Do what you have to do. You know what to do. Make it feel better. How many of us get the chance you have to make anything right? What is it you can’t afford? Time? Money? Your pride?”
“Any abuse she got from me, she had coming – “ My mouth running away from me as if it would make my body quit hurting. You idiot. I put my fingers to my eyes and I moaned and I signed.
Mary moaned, too. “Is moralizing what we’re into now?”
No doubt about it, she was as spooky as a witch, her hands together as if in mock prayer. She had talked to the folks in my past, people who cursed me but made mistakes of their own. And I thought too about her friends coming and going and parking their cars in her yard and bringing her brandy and helping her with electrical switches and faucets, all of them holding hands or talking politics or cutting and frying up the fish they had caught together, making their mistakes and never being held to it. And reminding each other of old jokes.
Then there was Ed, coming into the entry, with a great deal of noise, scuffling and bumping around. He stood there thoroughly wet, his hair matted and heavy, murmuring in undirected concern. Mary said to Ed, “Just hang up your jacket on that wooden hanger behind the door, Ed. I left it there just for you, it’ll dry there, because I knew you’d be coming in soaked. You waited a long time for it to quit, didn’t you?”
Ed said, “Yes, I did, I waited. It was raining pretty hard out there.” Thoughtfully he reviewed the truth of that, and then eventually it occurred to him what he was going to do…he was going to remove the wet jacket. I thought, By God. He acts just like I do. Damn if he don’t act just like me.
Mary said, “Here,” and she tossed Ed the towel beside her to use on his own head; and he caught it, with a sudden surprised coughed-out laugh, his eyes bright.
“You going to let me come back?” I asked her. She turned to me solemnly, as if she had not heard. “Got a little time to go on another bummer?” I rephrased the challenge, trying to be funny. “Should I say ‘please’?”
“Well, it could be a bummer for you, too,” retorted Mary. “You don’t half know me. I’m moody. I get restless and I pace and I snarl at innocent people and slam out the door. I’m not always the gentle touch. I walk in the fields for hours sometimes; often I am demanding as hell. Sometimes I force people to play catch with me. Nothing they’ve done. I have no time, no time at all, for insincerity. I’ll give you once.” She stopped as if in thought, wondering whether to blather on. “Well,” she said, and shifted where she sat, toward me, “on to the rhubarb pie, I guess. You bring along rhubarb next time.”
In a sudden kind of apology for leaving the couch, she impulsively leaned forward until her face was close to min, and stretched across to kiss my cheek. But I turned my head to her and with my finger I steered her chin until we kissed properly and sincerely with our mouths, while Ed held the towel to his wet hair and looked across at us wordlessly.