Earl the Pearl
A pump repairman or artificial inseminator does a service call and sends a bill later. It felt like a horse of a different color with Milo Ruszczyk. He had staked the hay from Missouri in the far end of the mow some time Monday midday. I had heard the voices, but a wall of fatigue had muddled the message, and I’d slept on, finding the hay a day later.
Now days later, there was still no bill. Meantime, there was fishing to think about. There is, I think, a Persian philosophy: “If you want to be happy for an hour, eat a good meal. If you want to be happy for a year, get married. If you want to be happy forever, learn to fish.” If that isn’t the saying, it should be.
I had believed in happiness through fishing for fifteen years. There was no use in questioning it at this point. An hour before milking time I call Frank. I did not worry what conclusions he might draw. Yes, he told me, he and Bob would be out at Otter Creek at four the next morning. I had just barely caught him; he was heading at that very moment to square things up, ever at the corner, where he and Bob were scheduled to play cribbage. How about I should get down there and get the word? Bob was sitting down there no doubt with Earl. It was the busy time before the night meal, when country people were about to head home and working people had punched out and headed toward “the third place” to neutralize all that stress. I had an hour to arrange things with Bob. That way I could avoid trying to talk on the phone into his bad ear. I could drink one single soda and not be stuck there.
Earl the Pearl, the village philosopher, was on his regular stool, and I grabbed the one next to him. Down a few seats the boys were already engrossed in their cribbage. I do admire cribbage players and have vast respect for cribbage itself, which is as uninterruptible as chess, even if you look like Greta Garbo and expect attention.
Earl the Pearl puts food into his slow cooker at home at ten every morning, and then comes to the bar and sits in his place and drinks brandy very slowly all day long. By four, he is shnokkered enough to forget how to end a sentence, but ready to start home with confidence at last in his food. Sometimes I have wondered whether he ever forgets to plug in the cooker. He is a cut-rate oracle, rural Wisconsin style, the kind of person who gives advice. His voice is soothing and low, giving the illusion that it’s worthwhile to bend in close to listen or even to sit at his feet if his barroom stool were lower. He works his best wisdom on multiple-choice, requiring simpler answers than essay problems. Earl’s wife gave up on him ten years back but they share the same house, which for the less-than-wealthy is the practical road to peace. Earl the Pearl slid one of his dollars to me and I ordered a can of Squirt. We had begun to talk of state corruption at the top when with a stir of interest I caught sight of Magnum, the feed-capped, weaving from the men’s room toward Milo, directly opposite Earl and me in the circular bar, an aproned woman serving in the middle. Milo saw us, nodded toward us, while Earl went on about the governor’s deep pockets, and directed the aproned woman in a voice I heard easily above Earl’s: “ – buy one for Bob and his buddy, and give one to Miz, aah – Diedrick over there.” Earl was talking lottery graft. I said to the woman, “No, I’m drinking one pop and that’ll be the end,” and leveled the top of the can with my palm in sign language; and she was a savvy woman and accepted. Bob called across from our left, “Otter Creek tomorrow morning, George?”
“How many worms do I buy?” I called back.
Bob turned to Frank for a translation. Frank yelled to me, “None, we got worms, we got five dozen.”
“I’m taking some time off,” I called. “We’ll need worms this week if you can keep up with me fishin’.”
“Well, buy some day after tomorrow,” Bob said, suddenly at my side tucking gambling earnings into his breast pocket. “We don’t want any worms dying on us.” There are many jokes about bait being misplaced under car seats. Eventually the smell saturates the clothing of the fisherman, who for days and weeks seems not to notice, although others do.
Then Frank was there, too, behind Earl the Pearl. He kissed the back of my ear, his breath warm on my collar. “You’re not going home yet,” he said.
“Getting to be chore time,” I told him. “I might try to locate a first-calf heifer tomorrow afternoon. Just have to count my money first.”
“Want some company?” offered Frank, in a heroic altruistic Air Force fashion I wasn’t sure he could survive the schedule, fishing at four and the rest of it, but I accepted his offer. He knew more about choosing cows, since he was an old-time Holstein Association big shot, and before that in his auctioneering days. I had doubts about needing guidance, but friends are hard to get, especially friends who give freely of their time. That’s where women score miserably. They never seem to own their own time.
“Siddown here, I give you my warm chair,” I told Frank, backing away and leaving my soda. My plan was to fake a “little girls’ room” trip as well-furbished ladies do. I had this hunger to talk to Milo Ruszczyk, unfinished business.
“You leaving?” asked Frank, frowning.
“Certainly not,” I assured him, trying to look cute and shy. “Be right back; don’t think twice, it’s all right.” Bob and Frank and Earl the Pearl would be together to curse or hold hands or whatever men do when they’ve been ditched. I walked toward the women’s room, slowed as if to make a turn, then kept right on to the Milo area. “I am checking on hay prices,” I told myself aloud. A dozen of the patrons could have quoted me hay prices; fortunately none of them heard me. I tapped on Milo’s shoulder. The group around him was talking of Cape Kennedy and a cancelled rocket-launch. Milo tore himself away and faced me, as if he’d been expecting someone. “Ah, Miz Diedrick,” he greeted me, and rested his hand on my hip; but then he thought better of that approach and transferred his glass to that hand as if to modify its behavior.
“Wondering how much I owe you,” I said.
He squinted, bringing forth figures from his head. “It’ll be two hundred. Next load will run about the same. After that –” Now he raised his voice above the tavern noise. “— it might go up. They got rain. They’re getting the rain. Enough to raise crops, but it’s not like they’re dumb, at least not with money.”
I leaned forward almost into his ear. Someone had turned on the music and there were shouts above it. “And the cow.” He looked blank, lowering his head, looking into my eyes. “The cow? The dead cow?” I said.
“Seven,” said Milo. “Yeah. Seven.”
“I wanted to be around to help you unload. The hay,” I said. His hair around his ear was flecked with grey and was kinky and wet.
“Well,” he said, lifting a shoulder, “there were two guys, you know. Unloading is what we’re there for. Part of the package.”
“I’m off work for a few days now,” I said into his ear, “I’ll be fishin’ with these two gentlemen, but I’ll still be hard at it in the barn every day morning and evening.”
“Yeah,” he said amiably, “hard to take a vacation when there’s chores to do.”
“So what I’m saying is you can come get your money any old morning or any old evening. In fact, I’m heading home right now.”
“Oh, you’re heading home right now,” he said. “Okay. You betcha.”
I smiled at him appreciatively and continued in the path of the circle I had begun when I left for the toilet. Three or four men behind me, and maybe Milo too, were laughing raucously as if at an off-color joke. Try to figure guys out. What would any self-respecting woman be doing in this place? I went back to Earl and the boys and said to Bob, “Okay. Three or so? I have to be back at six-thirty. That’s when I have to be back. Final word. I’ll drive my own car.”
Bob protested. “No need to drive your own car, George.”
“No, I have to. You guys, you wait at Bob’s until three. I’ll be there and follow you out. I’m not there, you go without me. I really must be back on time. If I’m going to be sloppy with milking, it has to be for a better reason than fishin’.”
“What would that be? A better reason than fishin’? laughed Bob, as if entertaining a ridiculous new scientific concept.
Frank was sitting directly in front of me, and now turned and grabbed my shirt front. “George is pissed off at me,” he said. The bar had grown quieter. For one thing, Merle Haggard had quit singing.
“I’m not pissed off. I’m too busy,” I said. “Let me be pissed off some other day when I can concentrate on it.”
“See?” said Frank, faking a small child’s pouting voice. He is certainly a candidate for what a backwoods recluse would term “comical.” “She is,” he testified, “sore as hell at me.”
“You got no drink, George,” said Bob.
“You see her go over to the other side of the bar and feel up them guys over there?” asked Frank.
“Leave ‘er be, Frank,” said Bob.
“I have to leave,” I said. “I’d love to hear more, but I must go.”
Earl the Pearl got off his stool unsteadily. “I’ll leave with you, Mary,” he said. “I said I’d leave when you left. My bean soup is home waiting for me.”
“Thanks for the drink, Earl,” I told him. “I just wish I could be home with you and help you eat the soup.”
“Well, it’s gonna be good, I’ll tell you,” Earl assured me, and offered me his arm, and we walked out together.
Stream fishing in the morning… Suckers can give you as good a fight as trout can. That Persian saying is right on the mark, no doubt about that. Marriage? A year isn’t very long for happiness. And it takes such a long time to get the poison out of your system – sometimes it darkens your life for the rest of your days, and maybe happiness never touches you again…. unless you fish.