Driving homeward on the hills and curves of southwest Wisconsin, I was sharply aware of Frank, slumping in his seat, his cowboy boots shoved deep under the dash. “You coulda had that animal for three fifty,” he grumbled. “You don’t have the dead one paid off yet. You got to pay off two cows with one unproven heifer.”
“You’d give the man his price if you were buying,” I said, keeping the speed needle at forty five. “The great wide Brotherhood of Man! It hurt him to sell her. Are you my accountant? I don’t need your protection.”
“I’d give him what she’s worth, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he snapped. “Old coots, they get attached to their livestock and start thinking they’re part of the family.”
“Yes, they do,” I said, “and they are.” I reached for the car radio.
“You got no head for business,” said Frank. “You act downright foolish.”
“I s’pose,” I said. “But the guy sold the cow to get money for his taxes and a hospital bill. Maybe I was meant to get took a little.”
“Get took a little!” sneered Frank. “That what you’re after?”
“I mean for the common good.”
“That ain’t what you meant.”
“Okay, Frank.” On the radio, Shelley West was singing, “Did I kiss all the cowboys? Did I shoot out the lights?” and I turned her up. That wasn’t a cool thing to do. I suddenly had a flashback of how angry I used to be in the last bitter days of my marriage when a loud car radio would stifle any communication between two people. I said to Frank now, “Wow, I’m sorry; I used to like that song.” I turned it down. The words still came through clearly: “Did I start any fights?”
“Tell you what,” said Frank lightly, “why don’t you just let me off at the Decoy?”
“Your car is at my place.”
“Hell with it; I’ll get a ride with Jerry or Earl.”
“Listen,” I said, “I’m sorry. Thanks for coming with me today. I know you’re sore it didn’t drag out longer. I didn’t mean anything by that. It was planned. It was a wonderful drive and I could never have found the place without your help. You want to tell me what’s bugging you, Frank?”
“Don’t talk to me like you talk to those lightheaded folks of yours down at the loony bin,” he said.
“Ah. Don’t you think we’re all a little nuts?”
“I can see right through you,” he retorted, fingers drumming on his knees.
“No, you can’t.” On the radio Shelley West was singing, “Who is this cowboy sleeping beside me?” I said, “What I think is, I think I haven’t lived up to your expectations.”
“Jesus,” he said, “will you just stuff it?” He focused his gaze onto a defunct farm out the side window, its buildings splitting apart, its fences twisted and tugged into the overgrown grass, as nature reclaimed the property like an impatient forecloser.
“Come on, honeybun,” I said. “It’s not worth throwing a snit. Forgive me, but doesn’t Dale Carnegie go on about that? Whatever I did or whatever you think I did. It will never float. You have no jurisdiction over me. You are not my keeper.”
“We can change that,” he murmured.
“No, we can’t change that.”
Frank watched the light poles slipping past, as if he were transfixed by a Grizzly Adams re-run.
“Sure,” I said, “I want you to be as happy as you can be. But I am not in charge of your happiness. I never applied for that job.”
“Well, you’re overqualified anyway,” he snapped.
“Uh-huh,” I replied. It was one of his cynicisms, a new one, I guess. I didn’t want to know what he meant. I said, “Are we going to cook these fish we caught this morning? I mean, are you going to?”
“Ah, throw them out. Give them away. They’re worthless.”
“Is that why you’re sore at me? Because I scored better, for the first time in my life?”
“What are you, running for head jackass?” he snarled.
“We aren’t throwing those trout away. Do anything: put me on the rack, hang me on the yardarms, but don’t refuse to fry up those beautiful trout we caught!”
“Fry ‘em up whenever you guys tell me.”
“When can Bob get loose?” I turned off the radio. “Tomorrow noon, you think!”
“My place or yours?”
“How about my place?”
“Clean up your damn kitchen, and I’ll hunt down Bob,” said Frank.
“Let me off at the Decoy. He’ll be down there or I’ll get him down there later.”
“I am forever indebted,” I said, edging the Fiat up to fifty. “I was going to clean up the kitchen next month anyhow.” I was trying to recall whether the proverb was Armenian which says: “With a soft tongue, you can even pull a snake out of its nest.”