Busting the Unions

Busting the Unions

The clerk’s ear is dark as a nickel tattoo. Mules block his path west, but not for long. He punches one of the damn mules in the neck and heads around the corner onto 8th street. The mule driver looks aflustered, but he’s a might small to do anything about it. Spits, though. Oh! Maybe he does have a fighting side. Mule driver yells out to stay the hell away from his business. The clerk turns for a bit but moves on.

I stop short of turning and roll tobacco ‘neath a store awning. I know where the bastard clerk is headed anyway, so I take my time. Ain’t no need getting spotted.

Half crocked roustabouts is on shore to help stevedores load cotton. I haint seen much in Cairo—river men off the boats working the docks. They is usually smoking their pipes, sipping whisky and such on deck, pointing and laughing as they do at the dockhands. The third clerk has left his station for a nip is what I figure. His quill pen is still stuck behind his ear from when I started following him along the levee. Clerks and bosses have that swagger to them when they hit town, as if they were born lucky and nobody can touch them. Well, his day is a coming.

That clerk’s a piece of work, that one. Never mind if he don’t look it. Hell all he does is consigns the bill of lading and such. Ain’t hard at all. Then he yells at the loaders. Yells out names he done made up like Canary Bird, Move Wagon, Skyrocket, Bad Boy—names he gived companies have a stake here. He come up with the names ‘cause dock crews can’t remember shit. They’re simple as hell and proud of it. I ain’t yet met a river rider can read or even pronounce Volgelsanger Hardware or Vandevan Mercantile Co. They’re river riders, working today, gone tomorrow maybe all the way to Pittsburg, or catch a steamer down gulf way and laze till the money’s gone all shiftless and self-willed. Only thing worse is a clerk doesn’t know his place. Gonna organize these simpletons. Hell no, goddamn traitor. Clerk’s job has good pay, steady. Traitor should be damn grateful but he’s gone mixed hisself up with the unions.

Damn! Whistles a sounding loud. Startles me fierce for a minute. Chicago Rock Island and Pacific flat cars rolling up, sounding their whistles loud just to bring attention. Loaders all the way to the freight yard can hear them I guess is why. Whistles sound and the haulers know to swarm out of the bars and come up from their shade trees. They come up to the dock like a herd of sheep looking for company work. Train’ll be picked clean in a couple hours, and on her way back to St. Louis most likely. New rails up that way, new engine all shinny and new. Trains hauls everything from lead shot to lady’s curtains. It’s a damn good thing what they done connecting up rails and rivers. What was it, just five years it took them? Steamers, all then damns they put in, and now the rails all coming in like clockwork—it’s a thing to behold.

Predictable. I take a look around the corner and see the Clerk turned into Duffy’s to run his damn mouth, talk about the worker and the company man and what not. Actions to be taken, he’ll say. The workingman is in the right and all them’s got to stick together. He says the same traitorous troubling nonsense over and again, ports all along the waterway. Dumb bastard led us to the sympathizers is what he did, unawares. Duffy’s on the list for sure now, reported all the way up. Half the men in there is probably organizers anyway. I’ll get ‘em all before the month is out, snag a big bonus.

Lumbermen pass me up all laughing and talking, in a hurry for a swig or two. Just got paid. I turn my head and stop for a look at provisions, tins of this and that, hats and trousers. Good looking boots I suppose, but I’m looking not to get noticed. By them lumbermen up around Cape Girardeau. The one on the right I recognized, come up from Monongahela area, worked as a climber, trimmer, or both. Now he’s another of them who thinks he knows best. He probably wouldn’t recognize me but I ain’t taking a chance and make it easy. We’ll see about his organizing in good time. Should have taken care of him in Girardeau.

I finish my tobacco, stomp it out and turn up the street. The rail whistle stops hollering but now steamboat whistles are blowing. Makes me think about getting on one of them and heading south. Maybe I’ll winter up in Mexico with them lovely little senoritas. Don’t cost much. Never really wanted to work for the operators anyway, not really, but the pay is good. I try not to think about what happens to the bastards I turn over to bosses. A man has to get paid. Good money in it. Hell, I said I’d get them identified. That’s all I done. Done what I set out to do is all. After that it’s none of my business.

Door to Duffy’s swings open to me just as I’m reaching out my damn hand. Out come these river whores with a big fella. Both of them taking him by the arms, taking him up the street to their spots. I watch them go for a bit then go in. Takes a bit for  my eyes eto ase into the smoke and dark, but I sit up at the bar. I done the same thing for the past couple of weeks, sit there, order a shot, get familiar. I like this one spot because I can use the mirror behind the bar to catch pretty much everything. I catch a name or two here and there, listen, take my time, learn who’s going where and what they’re up to. It’s just a job I’m good at. No need for pity or guilt.

I’ll be. There’s posting on the wall right of the bar, put up by organizers. Bastards. Claim they have a few hundred ready to go up against the companies and form a union. Not if I can help it. Operators Association is what’s really organized, and funded, too.

The damn clerk finally gets to me. He comes over smiling and sits next. I smile back like I don’t know him but I know. Leans his elbow on the bar. He chews tobacco and drinks bourbon. Smells like the hog he is even before opens his damn lips to the spittoon.

“Seen you in here a few times, mister,” he says.

“I seen you here, too,” I say. I look into the mirror. He’s studying me as a couple guys in the back watch the two of us. They’s working together it seems.

Clerk says, “You dress like a lumberman. Work the mills?”

“All my life,” I say, just squirrel piss.

“Tough life.”

“Don’t know much else,” I say. “Not much else I do sept maybe haul.”

Clerk looks me over. Easy to know what he’s thinking and he’s thinking, unions. Sure enough, he points to the posting. “Can you read? Got a meeting next week. Got anything against the unions?”

I look at the posting, inch closer and act like I’m reading it for the first time. It says ‘Meeting at the activity hall on December 10’. I take my time like I’s actually interested.

“I hain’t confederate or union, I don’t spect. I’m mostly from Kentucky.”  I say this with a confused face. The unions like recruiting dumb fellas.

Clerk laughs. “Union. Nothing to do with north south. A union is workers coming together to make their life better, stand up to the companies,” he says, interlacing his fingers. “Understand? Workers united. Get my meaning?”

I give him a dumb look.

“You work sun up to sun down, days on days?  Hell, that breaks men. Company owns the stores and all. Company owns everything and takes your wages from you by end of week. Ain’t nothing left. Don’t have a pot to piss in. Am I right?”

“I work good,” I say. “I’m a real good worker.”

“Well I know you work good,” clerk says. “But we aren’t talking how good you work. You ain’t getting paid enough is what I’m saying. And every man needs at least one day off work in a week. Logging is dangerous work, you know. Good men go missing arms and legs, some of them. Every man needs enough to get by and propser, and hard working men like yourself need a day to rest up or they break too soon.”

“Sunday mornings is off,” I say. The clerk seems agitated.

“Arguing for the bosses? Oh my. I’m telling you. We’re getting organized. The workers is all come together to get what’s right, what’s just. Come on down to the meeting on that there posting. The Union needs men just like you. Sure God needs angels. You and your friends are welcome to join up with us anytime. We free pretzels and beef there and free beer, pickled eggs and such. You gonna come?”

I look at the posting again and turn slowly to the clerk. I smile at his dirty face. “Which word is pretzels?” I ask thinking how this dumb bastard will lead me to every organizer in Cairo. I’ll turn in a sympathizer’s report come Christmas and get down to Mexico after, have a time of it with them senoritas.

I add, “I hain’t got no money, you know. I hain’t a contributor, but I got a hankering for pretzels. Can’t hurt nothing.”

Clerk laughs. Tobacco juice slides out the edge of his smile and I decide to play him for a free drink right in Duffy’s. Being a private detective isn’t all that bad, I guess. It’s a living. And taken with a few drinks, a few free pretzels—all the while being paid by the Pinkertons and them—one of my better jobs I’d say. I kind of feel bad what’s going to happen and all, though. “Hey mister,” I say to him. “Lend me the price of a beer? I’m down on my funding.”



The place we first discover how vast it all is, becomes the dream we revisit when life falls short. For Paul, that place is the Western North Shore of Lake Superior, where black rocks at the lake’s lapping edge rest smooth as rising dough beneath rhythmic waves.

Paul rose slowly from his bed and mindlessly committed yet again to the routine of coffee and shaving and showering and toast and pressing the button in the garage to raise the door on another day. He recalled a time and place in his youth with growing clarity, as if the synapse in his brain, the tiny gaps between this and that, had been bridged into a singular whole. His grandfather was found at the center of that whole, the epicenter of numerous vivid vignettes set against a backdrop of quintessential wilderness. Names of places came to him, names like Isle Royale and Thunder Bay, destinations in Canada somewhere. He was so young at the time he wasn’t sure. All that remained were the mental snapshots he’d retained all these years. Containers for something newly important.

Neal Young was from there somewhere – Manitoba or Northern Ontario. His were evocative songs nonetheless, especially when the singer, in that falsetto voice of his sang how memories left him helpless. In the car Paul tried to sing them, but all that came was a screeching smile. It was men like his grandfather who helped him recognize who he needed to emulate in life, and why.

Grandfather had been a lumberman, railroad engineer and wanderer. He was a man’s man in his time, slight in stature but unwavering in principles. He was the consummate storyteller. Something Paul remembered with haunting clarity was how frandfather said God lives in the forest and rarely comes out. Grandfather had said if you want to meet him, or your guardian angles, you have to go there and spend time, let them look you over and decide if you are worthy, and he should have known. Grandfather had heard God breathing, he’d said. Met his guardian angel, he’d said. Took in their company.

A friend to all creatures, Grandfather spent weeks at a time wandering in the north with only a daypack. He had nowhere in particular to be, and nothing more important to do than walk and sit and stay away, give quarter to moose, bear, the big cats and wolves, all of whom he’d met on many occasions and sometimes fought.

Paul was an accountant, and not proud of it. During lunch he wandered Google Earth. The path of his quest was the Trans-Canada Highway. Today at work, he explored Kama Hills. He’d been to the maps many times. But, the sound of the waves and loons, the smell of pine and campfire smoke, the warmth of the sun and chill of the water couldn’t be found in the pixelated shorelines and flattened topography of digital maps. He felt confused by his actions, a grown man hunting for something that he was sure could not be found. Or could it?

During lunch Paul sat in the buzz of a coffee shop using WIFI. He returned to the search engines to explore now familiar park names, roadways and trails. For all he knew, someone purchased the land where he and his grandfather had camped back then. Everything is for sale. Someone buys everything. He’d sold his entire life to men that wouldn’t give him the time of day outside of work. The buyer would have built on the land and made that big rock, the curve of the shore and the creek, their home. His grandfather had said the land would never be developed, but even he may have been wrong.

A year earlier, rummaging through his dead father’s things, Paul had come across a postcard. It was faded and musty, but it was written while the two of them were having breakfast on Thunder Bay. He remembered how grandfather laughed at the pencil point, which was loose and wiggled as he wrote so carefully not to break it. The writing, in his grandfather’s hand, talked about their drive up. Seeing it flooded him with memories of how they turned out of the parking lot that day and drove north to a distant campground. They were in the Studebaker Hawk, with its cool lines and wings on the hood. A smoldering pipe of tobacco rattled in the ashtray and they talked about fish, traps and uses for pine pitch and moss. It was that trip that he heard about catching sucker fish in the spring with bare hands, flipping them onto the banks by the dozens and smoking them. In the spring it can be done because their bodies are still hard and delicious after a winter of struggling, grandfather had said.

Reading that postcard brought memories of crackling campfires, the flash of Northern Pike in clear water, knot tying, his grandfather’s jackknife, the smell of bacon, the clatter of cookware in a gunny sack, cedar bows over cool wooded paths and the frigid inviting water of Lake Superior. There were loons then, maybe still, but the news said they were having trouble. You could drink from creeks and rivers then.

“Things are different now,” Paul told his wife. If he went on the quest he’d be confined to a postage stamp of campground. It wouldn’t be the same experience, but he had to go.


Paul’s grandfather spent time as an infantryman in the second war to end all wars. There were others to come. He’d been 17 at the time he entered the military and he told stories of shells exploding up and down the line, and of dead friends hung up in barbed wire. He told of driving horses, arm wrestling contests at the docks in Two Harbors, winters in the far north so cold your pee could freeze into wire before it hit the ground. The stories can’t be found again and their retelling falls on deaf ears, but when grandpa returned from the war, his parents were living in the Poor House in Duluth. It was a shame, he’d said, to hold people for being poor like that, but then he laughed about it, too.

It took years to realize how old his grandfather was at the time they went camping. At the time he was to Paul, timeless, but actually, he was in his late sixties. He was from a time when men knew the land, could navigate on instinct, and cold fix every tool or device in their domain. there was a calm in his presence, which made age irrelevant. Paul had never achieved nor witnessed that way of being again. If he’d just done it right, and followed Grandpa’s lead, he wouldn’t have spent an entire incarnation as a damned accountant. He’d have found work that kept him young and in touch with the earth and, as grandfather had urged him many times, he’d have walked ground where few others dared to go.

Wandering, wilderness, nature, who had time anymore to sit by the edge of a river or lake, for even a day? But grandpa had done that all his life.


Paul’s wife had wanted nothing to do with camping or even sitting on a park bench for that matter. Her’s was a life of television shows and endless shopping. In her estimation, Paul was weak, and that was probably true. He had let her and his daughters dictate his life away – career, interests, even the size and configuration of his workshop at home.

Gratitude? He had a corporate identity, status in the church, history as a good employee. He was a dedicated husband and father, which everyone except for him seemed to value. To him, each piece of this cobbled identity was a hollow reed, buffeted by the waves he recalled from Lake Superior.

Eight months before taking retirement, sitting alone in a coffee shop, he broke down crying over a photo of his grandfather. A strange woman had touched his shoulder and asked if he was all right. For the  first time in decades, he said no, picked up his things and left.

That experience led to the plan. He became enthusiastic. There was something in front of him again, something worth experiencing. He would find that place shared with his grandfather, the truth would overtake him, bless him, and he would somehow find  redemption. He was going camping, and from that moment forward, frustration became quietude. Corporate noise receded. He would find time to sit on the huge rocks at water’s edge, watch the water lap or crash, however the weather, and walk again along riverbanks and in creek beds, and sleep beneath maple leaves, pine boughs, and northern stars.

When the time came to travel finally drew near, he realized just how long a drive it is from Redford Township near Detroit, across the state of Michigan from bottom to top, across the great bridge and northward through the Soo into Canada. He would have to break the trip into parts, stay at motels and take his time. That was the plan and that is what he did.

When Paul arrived at the campground he hoped was right, he just loafed to recover from the drive. He’d set his tent on a protruding root and had to move it, twice. If his wife were alive she would be complaining, wanting to go, and for a moment he felt the need to oblige her memory; as if he were in the wrong place himself, inappropriately dressed in a polo shirt and khaki shorts, there to connect with boyish dreams and clearly out of his mind.

Millions of Americans take camping vacations. What Paul was not prepared for was how they were seemingly all there, all around him at the campground. There were Marlboro men with gadgets, lycra clad young executives riding thousand-dollar bicycles, and anglers gingerly parking $150,000 fishing boats. Everywhere there were loud children on the move, giggling and laughing, sometimes with iPads or smart phones in hand. RVs rested in long rows and he instantly had neighbors. Among them would-be naturalists groaned and shook their heads as dune buggies, three and four-wheeled machines, boom boxes and distraught city-dwellers fought over sites closer to the water, closer to the restrooms, closer to each other. Grandfather had often said that those who know what they are doing can carry all the essentials in a rucksack. For Paul, even a car trunk had not been large enough.

Watching the water helped. He sat on rocks, did that breathing meditation he read about, walked paths, and gradually felt a lifetime of worry subside. As his friend Bud had  always said, he was a victim of the things that never happened in his life, a victim now filling with memories and recognition of places, of rock outcroppings and the sense of place.

Early in the morning on the third day, Paul crawled on hands and knees from the warmth of his sleeping bag and pulled on his shorts with a chill. He unzipped the tent and stepped into the dim light of their pre-dawn campground. The only other person stirring nearby, another elderly man, looked to Paul like someone who didn’t know what to do with himself. They nodded to each other and went about their menial chores – two stiff old men surrounded by tents, trailers and contraptions, looking for a place to piss in the morning fog.

Paul made coffee, reviewed his maps, and committed to walking any trail that touched the lake. As he walked, he recalled loading the trunk of his Ford Taurus. He’d left in the middle of the night with his packed cooler, maps, and a sleeping bag and pillow in the back seat. A photograph of his grandfather and he, the two of them together on the front porch of his parent’s home in East Lansing years ago, sat on the passenger seat.

Twenty minutes of walking is all it took, far less time than he remembered or imagined it would take. The sun had already burned through the fog and he felt warm and alive. What caught his attention was a somewhat familiar fork in the trail marked by a large rock. Behind that rock, surrounded by a thicket of brush, he found the stream he was looking for, narrow, maybe a foot deep, cold water flowing over packed sand and pebbles. He removed his shoes and carefully followed the water upstream for ten or fifteen minutes to a waterfall. It was smaller than he remembered it. The creamy brown cascaded between rounded boulders and fell just a few feet before continuing to the lake. At that place, where the water fall sang, the world stopped. His heart raced. He sat on a fallen log amid a thick bed of moss and pine needles. Silver maples and pine boughs hid most of the direct sunlight. Water flowed through this place for centuries, his grandfather had told him. It was a reverential, meaningful place, made sacred to him by years of mentally returning  during meetings, during arguments with his wife, during every personal crisis. This slice of earth had not changed all that much. It wasn’t owned. It was, as his grandfather had predicted, remained the property of the state, of everyone. The trees seemed different, foliage certainly, but stone doesn’t change quickly and it all came back. Others had been there, it was clear. Wrappers and a rusted tin can, someone’s initials carved in cedar bark, but this was the place, their place.

Paul followed a stone outcropping away from the creek for what he calculated was twenty paces taken by an eleven-year-old boy years earlier to split rock in the shape of jagged and memorable arrowhead. He followed an imaginary line cast by that arrow for another ten paces knelt and brushed pine needles from the dark earth below. Beneath the bed of needles he found the three baseball-sized smooth rocks he and grandfather had placed there years ago. Breath caught in his throat and he nearly wept.

The unearthing didn’t take long. The small spade he carried soon discovered a rusted metal box. Inside the box, nearly deteriorated rags still cushioned a mason jar, and in  the jar he found the message he and his grandfather had written to themselves. Their secret bond, as grandfather had called the contents, was hidden there. He recalled the act but not the contents. He carried the jar to the arrowhead rock, sat and solemnly turned the lid open. In it were pictures of the two of them, a baseball card and a hand full of old coins, most of them buffalo nickels, one a silver dollar issued the year of their trip.

There was also a note in two parts.

“What I like,” Paul had written at his grandfather’s suggestion. “I like baseball more than anything. I like fishing and camping with my  grandfather. This is his picture. I am eleven and someday I will come back to this secret time capsule and read it and remember being here. I hope I have a good life and get to be a forest ranger.”


And his grandfather had written, “This is my grandson, Paul. I was so lucky to know him that words fail me.”

Paul returned the yellowed and mildewed contents to the jar and laid flat on his back in the pine needles for a long while. Before he left that place for good, he placed the contents of a new time capsule into the hole and covered it with ritual, with the movements of his  grandfather’s hands. He honored the spot, as the two of them had done years before, sipping a bottle of root beer.

Near twilight, Paul sat on a bench outside his tent watching flames rise and fall from his campfire. He imagined who could possibly one day find his message, cast not into the ocean, but into the soil, beneath the ground, beneath rock and trees, perhaps beyond the reach of history.

“My grandfather and I were here,” the he’d written. “We had this place in common. I missed him in life and I will join him in death. Not knowing what else to do with emptiness, I fill this void with words and place them here for you to find.”



Cookie begins summer with a dozen old sweaters compressed tightly into Glad bags. Stitch upon stitch, row upon row, she disassembles them into the balls of yarn stored in her green stackable Tupperware bins. Many friends and neighbors from Mitchell county donate their old sweaters, scarves, and other yarn goods to her in the spring, when they are no longer needed, are outgrown, or due for repairs. These are church people mostly. Cookie tells them all she still enjoys the work.

It gets confusing. Is this one a friend or a customer, she sometimes wonders. They return in late fall to sip cider and see her work. Cookie entertains on the porch. She points to strands of their old hats and pullovers in her creations, and listens to memories and stories embedded in the sleeves and collars of her work. She’ll say so-and-so bought sweaters for her twins that matched your old cardigan, or she might joke how she made someone’s stocking cap with yarn from a dead man’s socks, winking then not to tell.

Townspeople can see Cookie is open for business when brightly colored blankets, sweaters, scarves, and other finished items fly like country flags across her porch. Sometimes she hangs her own embroidered flag with the yarn girl on it at the road. People see this and stop in, sometimes four or five cars at a time, to get a glass of free cider and talk this or that. If her husband is on the porch, which is thankfully rare, everything turns nasty politics and sometimes she just wanders off.

Evenings are busy with yarn throughout the year – recycling yarn; sorting angora, nylon, and fleece; counting rows – all the while thinking about her marriage, farming, distant places, gospel music, romance novels and images from magazines.


This all continued into the first warm day of June. A wide-mouthed sun tea jar with a spigot rested on the porch throughout the afternoon. It was dark tea by six and the tea grew darker as evening progressed. Sun widened from a bright white nickel to a molten orange dollar. Potatoes boiled in the four-quart Revere Ware copper-bottom pot, and a small pork roast rested in the oven. Working on the porch from late afternoon to early evening was usual for Cookie and would be the case through July. But this summer, the routine slipped. Discontent had set in, more than usual.

The porch view, like many in Iowa, offered a scattered horizon of grain elevators, Dixie cups she sometimes called them. Oak trees barely altered the flat horizon to the east. Everything seemed rendered plaid, squares of green and brown patchwork beneath a sheet of cloudless blue. Her world was once again breast high with corn, a cycle that would go on forever whether Cookie continued to participate or not.

The kitchen radio was on every day. Farm reports followed gospel music, which followed advertisements and more praise for God. It came to her through the screen door where she sat with a growing ball of yarn on the skirt between her legs. Out in the tractor, her husband Heath would be listening to talk radio, getting all stirred up.

“Lord, please give strength,” she said. She’d said to Heath how they needed a night in town or maybe a weekend up in the Twin Cities. That he needed to show more interest in things, but he’d just turned off as usual. Dinner conversation, when there was any, was always about the bankers, the lawyers, the God Damn politicians, second amendment this and that. Heath didn’t even hunt any longer, rarely shot, and why Cookie would wonder silently, would he care at all if their nephew in the city was a gay?

Always worse, never better, Cookie didn’t know if she could take another dinner conversation on politics – or corn yield, or bills, or anything else for that matter. The vinyl record of their song had long ago gotten scratched and was now finally broken.

Cookie watched the steel gray cab of the tractor turn toward the barn. It was like her chest just locked, like the horizon itself closed in. Heath, a man devoted to his God and farming, a man with rosacea on his nose and cheeks, with intestinal problems and a physician resistant personality, was behind that wheel; stoic as ever, barely approachable any longer, bitter and verbally abusive at times. He’d become more distant in recent months, if distant is the right word, a sign to Cookie of another turn in their marriage, deeper isolation probably.

The final sleeve of a golden fleece sweater Cookie was unraveling had dwindled to little more than a forearm when Heath parked the tractor in the barn, slid the barn door shut, and walked into the pump shed. In there he would take his hat off and dip his balding head into the trough. He would linger for a while doing whatever tired men do after a dozen hours of work, sit on the bench with his elbows on his knees probably, while Cookie got ice in a tall glass from the freezer.

Cookie got his ice and returned to the porch. Heath ambled across the lawn, stopping a couple of times to kick at weeds with the heel of his boot, absorbed in his own thoughts, never once looking up or waving or calling out her name. It was as if she wasn’t even there.

Trough water dripped from his head and shaggy neck. He passed the clothesline and came slowly to the porch steps with his hat in his hands, looking at Cookie only briefly, sporting the face of a defeated man, mute. When they’d still had dogs at least he’d horsed around with them, thrown a stick or something. Cookie imagined one day he’d throw something and tell her to fetch. That’d be the end of it for sure.

Now, Heath hobbled to the porch swing and sat heavily, looking older than he had at lunch.

Cookie handed him the glass of ice. “Tea or soda,” she said. Heath glanced toward the sun tea and nodded. She fetched I and returned to her unraveling. Heath took a short sip and placed the glass on the porch floor. He closed his eyes, rocked for a moment or two, and then was still.

When the sleeve she’d been working on was finally absorbed into the ball of yarn, she gathered her things and moved them into her project room. On the wall in there was a daring picture of a young man with long wavy hair wearing a scarf, but no shirt. He held onto the scarf like a boxer would hold a towel, draped over his muscular neck, his forearms young and strong with visible veins. He was dressed like a wealthy kid loitering about the campus at one of the Ivy League schools in the east. It came from a magazine, probably Cosmo, but she rarely bought Cosmo any more, with all the talk of sex, and interesting ways, and other exciting but not very Christian or even believable articles. Heath didn’t want that trash in the house.

When Cookie put up the picture of her young man, she made up all kinds of stories. She would make a scarf like that one, she liked the pattern, the boy looked like Heath in his younger years – just stories. Truth, she liked the young man’s smile and his body, and it did something for her. The photograph captured her attention.

She was prepared to deal with Heath as she always did, let that lie about the young man’s scarf roll off of her tongue, but he never entered her project room anymore, or if he had, he said nothing. Maybe that was the worst of it, him never even questioning her motives for that photo. He probably knew she had thoughts. That was the grit in it all.

Cookie went to the kitchen. The pork roast was well done. She sliced slabs of meat, mashed butter, salt, a dash of cream and cheese into his potatoes then sprinkled the top with chives grown in the windowsill above her sink. She grabbed a garden salad from her refrigerator and placed it next to Heath’s bacon ranch dressing on the table. He hadn’t come in yet so she called him to supper.

Heath called out he’d be just a minute. She knew that tone, ornery, tired. She might have to go out there when that minute was over and give him a piece of her mind. “What’s the point?” she found herself calling out, words that brought a blush to her face, but there was no reply.

Heath had leaned one shoulder against the railings on the step and dozed off. She sat in the dwindling light of the kitchen alone, picking at her salad, playing with her meat and potatoes then cleaning her plate from the table. As she rinsed a milk glass she looked out to see the last few minutes of light change the barn to silhouette, and she felt odd, as is she were both alone and free for the first time in years. She covered Heath’s plate with a lid, grabbed up her clothes basked, turned off the porch light and stepped onto the cool gress.

Crickets had begun their recital. The air was cooling and light in mercurial hues atop the pole in their drive drew small winged insects. Heath had moved. He sat draped across the porch swing, mouth open, clothes dusty, boots caked with soil. She thought to wake him but stopped. The barn had nearly disappeared into darkness – indistinguishable except for the faint outline of white trim on the door. It wasn’t just the barn that had disappeared. The whole farm had vanished into darkness. Supper was done, her plate rinsed clean, chores complete. It simply felt like time to go, and maybe for good. She thought to just pack and slip away in the truck, leave it at the buss station with a note on the dash.

The project room came to mind. She might miss a few things, but that’s about all that would happen. Heath would wake in the morning, hunt through the house angry and confused, but go to his tractor just the same and begin another day.

Striping clothes from the line, returning the pins to the hanging cloth bag, she recalled how Heath had taken time for dancing in their younger days, how they had sex in the barn on blankets in front of the wide open loft doors, and behind the barn on the bed of a trailer, and everywhere else. He’d been so creative then. No children, though.

There were nights up to the casino. Laughing, hoping people from church wouldn’t see their car in the parking lot, they’d spent money as if they had it. And with growing frustration, Cookie recalled taking the ferry from Wisconsin to Michigan, how the water looked so beautiful and clean. It was the longest time away from the farm in all their years, a whopping three-day jaunt to visit cousins in South Haven, the time of her life.

Light from the kitchen splayed across the porch floor. Cookie’s eyes adjusted to the darkness as intensifying moonlight revealed the shape of the barn again, this time against a sky pricked with stars. As she studied and reflected on it all, thought bursting into a thousand different directions, her being scattered. A good cry was coming she knew, or maybe that mysterious laugh she sometimes got.

Cookie just stood for the longest time, laundry basket waiting, no good reason to do so. She felt the lawn she had mown earlier in the day beneath her feet. She brushed it with her feet for a few moments then raised her thinning arms toward the sky. Cookie threw her head back and sighed deeply. Taking in air as long as she could, she just hung there, arms suspended from the stars, legs wide apart and anchored to the earth, eyes closed, crickets chirping – everywhere darkness, patchwork, and corn.

Should I leave or stay? The thought rose like burning lava. With a deep shudder in her chest, her eyes burst open in panic to see the most remarkable thing. Cookie saw a shooting star, a burning meteor, or whatever they are, trailing a single gold thread across the sky. It traveled for that longest time, finally disappearing near the horizon, its vitality gone, extinguished, but beautiful. And as the star fell so did Cookie’s arms, to her side, and she exhaled.

“Heath,” she called out. But, it was not spoken to Heath exactly. She still faced the barn, the sky, the distant horizon. After a long solitary moment, Cookie picked up her laundry basket and walked down the clothesline. Standing between sheets that moved slowly in the cooling evening breeze, she slipped off her dress and bra and stood quietly. Sheets brushing against her and the moon caressed her shoulders.

Cookie unpinned a fresh clean nightgown and pulled it on. She took her time gathering and folding sheets, a few work shirts, socks, and boxer shorts. When the basket was filled she carried it to the porch and sat again on her chair.

“Heath,” she whispered. “Heath. Wake up. Time for bed.”

Heath slept, his form now comical to her, a white-topped red-faced head flopped to one side, light from the kitchen across one arm and leg. Like a marionette abandoned by God, Heath rested unabashed.

“Heath, wake up,” Cookie said again, this time insistently. “Wake up. I’m not going anywhere, but we can’t live like this forever either.”

Cookie turned on the porch light, picked up Heath’s tea glass, dipped her fingers in it, puled out an ice cube and stroked the side of his cheek. Heath opened his eyes slightly and looked up at her.

“Time to wake up and go to bed,” she said. “You need sleep.”

Heath groaned. Confusion clouded his face.

“Time for bed,” Cookie said. “Tomorrow will be here before we know it. Lots to take care of.”

Heath mumbles something that didn’t matter to her. “Eat your supper and hit the hay,” she said, then unafraid added, “We have a trip to make. Leaving first thing. You’ll need your sleep.”

Electra Glide

Electra Glide

I drop smoothly onto the black leather cushion and lift my right boot to the footrest. I am planted solidly on the machine and love the feel of it. Here and there I flick away bits of dust as I polish the burgundy gas tank with my forearm. This is the burgundy of antiquity rediscovered — wine berry with pearl pinstripes and chrome ovals. I adjust the mirrors. I insert the key and hear the rhythmic bellows of my lungs inside the helmet. It is quiet. The visor is up. I turn the key and see the neutral light shine green in the dim garage. I adjust the choke wide open and start the engine. The garage instantly rocks to the sound of thunder.

I am in no hurry. There is uneven ground ahead of the garage and I study it as the engine barks, heats and begins to rumble evenly. I adjust the choke downward and the pistons canter together, their reins in soft loops trail behind and I feel them draped across the throttle. I pull on black leather gloves with air holes on the back and wrap their Velcro closures tightly around my wrists. The neighbor kids assemble and yell whatever kids yell, excitement on their faces. I zip the black leather jacket in four places. I drop my right foot to the ground, balance the weight of the 80 cubic inch Evolution engine, sit erect and slap the kickstand upward against the frame. I rev the engine once — twice. We all secretly cheer, the kids and I. I squeeze the clutch and drop the transmission into first gear. I don’t think I’ve forgotten anything.

I lurch forward, legs raised, elbows scattered as I slip to the left. I swerve at the fence, back toward the car and over the gravel pile sideways a bit then straight, head spun to the tree tops, missing the brake, alternately revving the throttle and crunching the hand brake, visor slapping, foot a-fly in the air, slide right, recover, loose it, bounce on the driveway. The jolt slams my teeth together hard. Bushes rake across my throttle hand and visor. I frigging crush outliers in the iris patch but hit the street triumphantly, managing a sharp turn into the proper lane before a green pickup truck chews a hole in my new ride.

Kids cheer wildly. They want it all again but I am off to Connecticut if I can find the sonofabitch this time.

That Guy Caulfield

That Guy Caulfield

[ As background, I was asked years ago to do a book report on Catcher in the Rye, a now classic coming of age story by J.D. Salinger. I chose to fictionalize the report. ]


It’s not like me to mess up on writing a paper, it’s really not. But what happened was, I was going home after class feeling depressed and I went down Howard Street which is the way I have to go, and I was thinking — am I a phoney? I had to stop at the train tracks and all because the Amtrak was coming by at about a thousand miles an hour. The train was going by, steam was coming up, red lights were blinking, my windshield wipers were squeaking, everybody was cold just sitting in their cars alone. It made me sad. You don’t want to go home if you’re sad and everything.

If you want to know the truth, I went to Bilbo’s. Guess who I saw there — Caulfield, Holden Caulfield. That killed me. Here I was just reading this book Catcher In The Rye, for your class, and I get all depressed like I do sometimes and I go to Bilbo’s and there’s the guy in the book sitting in a booth all by himself. I think about how he wanted to know where the ducks go and all and look at him sitting all alone like that and it bothers me like a bastard. It really does. So I go over there and he let me sit down with him like I was a regular guy or something.

Anyway, we’re sitting there and he asks me why I’m in school, being as old as I am. I don’t like to talk about myself when I don’t have to, so I asked him if there was any connection in his book to Janie from Their Eyes Were Watching God?  You know, how the dearest women in his life were Janie and Phoebe ? He wouldn’t say really, but he was smiling pretty good. I think he thought JD would have been interested in that. He didn’t ask me any more questions about myself at least.

I realized I had my bookcase along and I thought I would get The Catcher autographed and so I unzipped it real quick. It’s a really good book case if you want to know. It’s a Lowe. Lowe designed packs for the army. I carry it all the time now. Anyway, I get The Catcher out to get his autograph and he autographs it and all. Then he wants to see the Kinko’s packet for the class and I show it to him just as his pizza comes. He likes to read a lot.

He’s reading the stuff starting practically on the first page and I keep telling him to skip ahead to the Poe stuff or Fuller or somebody. I like the Fuller piece about her travels in Michigan and all. It’s goddam good writing. I try to get him to skip up there so I can ask him if he ever found out about the ducks, but he gets all involved in this Ann Bradstreet poem on page114? The Vanity of All Worldly Things. He’s pretty involved in it and all but his pizza is getting cold and that whole wheat crust tastes like wallpaper if you let it get really cold. So, I tell him if he’s so goddam interested in the poem why not let me just read it to him for a while as he eats.

Where is the man can say, “Lo, I have found

On brittle earth a consolation sound”?

What is’t in honour to be set on high?

No, they like beasts and sons of men shall die,

And whilst they live, how oft doth turn their fate;

(Bradstreet 14)

He’s eating his pizza and listening and some babes at the next table are listening and I feel kind of foolish. Old Holden seems to like it though so I go on. It’s pretty good too, for being so old and everything. I am trying to like it because I think Holden likes it. Bradstreet is saying that there is nothing on earth that makes sense. Everything is phoney. Everyone and everything will let you down. That probably means her too. I know it means me.

What is’t in beauty? No that’s but a snare,

They’re foul enough today, that once were fair.

(Bradstreet 14)

Even the things that aren’t phony? They die away in the end just when you get used to them being around. So, what’s the use? It’s useless. Maybe you’re beautiful, like that guy Stadlater in The Catcher, or maybe you’re a nose picker like Ackley or something, but it really doesn’t matter. That’s not the point. These are “But vanity, vexations of mind” (Bradstreet 14). What matters is getting to “that living crystal fount” (Bradstreet 15). That is what Bradstreet calls God or something. I don’t think they had New Age back then—old age? It must be God or maybe it’s just purity of thought. Crystals are pure. You can see right through them and see if there’s anything phony in them. Anyway, you drink from this fount and all your troubles are gone. Everything’s swell from then on. Even death can’t touch you.

Just then, after the line “Nor death shall see, but are immortal made” (Bradstreet 15),  Holden interrupts me and asks how many more stanzas are in the poem. I count the lines and feel my face getting red. “Six lines,” I tell him. God I hate being interrupted when I’m reading couplets out loud to someone.

“Well, you can read them I guess,” he says and goes back to eating. I look at him and he has sauce on his cheek but I don’t say anything.

This pearl of price, this tree of life, this spring,

Who is possessed of shall reign a king.

Nor change of state nor cares shall ever see,

But wear his crown… (Bradstreet 15)

“How many lines left now,” Holden blurts out. He looks kind of pissed so I stop.

“I can’t keep reading couplets if you interrupt all the time,” I tell him. There is nothing I hate more than being interrupted when I’m reading. “If you want me to read to you, you can’t interrupt me all the time. You interrupted me about 50 times already.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m a goddam atheist. This is the kind of phony stuff I hear about all the time. First Bradstreet talks about what everybody knows already — everybody’s phony. But then, instead of offering some kind of practical advice or something, she blasts off into this crystal thing. What’s the next one like?”

“You won’t like the next poem either,” I say to him kind of angry like. He wouldn’t either. If you don’t believe in God and all, how are you going to relate to Ann Bradstreet?

“Skip a page then,” he says, but I don’t feel like it.

“You’re not an atheist,” I tell him. “Being an atheist takes a lot of concentration. You have to really stick to the point a long time to be an atheist. Besides, you exaggerate about a hundred times every minute. You have some doubt about God and stuff and you’re pissed about the world being phony and all, but you don’t have the focus to be an atheist. I know. I’ve tried it for a long time being a Buddhist and all, and it’s really hard. It’s probably not even worth it. Look at you. You ended up being a phony atheist. God that’s depressing. If you weren’t, how come you believe your brother Allie’s ‘soul’s in Heaven and all’” (Salinger 156).

I could tell I really put him on the spot when I said all that and I might have hurt his feelings. I don’t think of what I am doing sometimes. But what would you do? The guy interrupts all the time.

Another time old Sally called him “a sacrilegious atheist” (Salinger 137) after they watched the Christmas thing at the Radio City Music Hall, and he said he probably  was. Probably!  I don’t like to push or anything but it takes a lot of concentration to be an atheist.

“I’m feeling a little tired,” Holden says to me. “You want a drink, or some coffee or anything?”

I look at him and I am sorry for what I have said. Really sorry. I am a real phony that way. I think Holden is really compassionate, actually, in some ways. Really. I like him probably as much as this waitress at the Arcadia Cafe. She said Holden is her favorite character. She read the book 15 frigging times. He isn’t my favorite character or anything, but I like him. He wants to look out for the ducks. He wants to catch the kids before they go over the cliff. He loves anything that doesn’t make him accountable.

Why then, am I trying to make him accountable?

I tell him I’m sorry for all that stuff about his brother and everything and I try to change the subject, but I can see it’s too late. He is already digging through his pockets and pulling out quarters and dimes — a few crumpled bills. He looks like I hurt his feelings. It really depresses me to see a guy so famous fumble with change trying pay his pizza bill.

Anyway, he gets up and leaves me sitting there in Bilbo’s all alone thinking about how off-kilter life can be sometimes. What right did I have getting on Holden about anything? JD wrote the thing. Thinking back, I want to cry about it practically if you want to know the truth. It really depresses me.

Salinger did a good job though, except for that didactic section with Mr. Antolini. It’s really didactic as hell, him getting hot like a madman and all, quoting that psychoanalyst Stekel. “The mark of the immature man is yadda yadda, the mark of the mature man is yadda – I can’t even finish it’s so boring.

Hell with it actually, I gotta go.







The Ending