I grew up back in the low hills. There was more hills than people there, but the people figured themselves smarter than the hills and they reasoned that this was on their side. Some of the times it was.
For example; the people could count the hills (mostly). The hills couldn’t count the people. It took awhile for us to figure out how in fact this really was to the hills’ advantage after all; not ours. The number of hills was always the same. The number of people was in decline.
All the hills had to do was wait.
On hot summer afternoons you could see the wrinkles of heat in the air as they come up from that black rope of pavement that cut through between the hills. Out there, heat was like some kinda live animal; it squirmed in the air in front of you when you come down the road. By the time you get to it, it’d be gone.
When you looked through the wiggling waves of heat coming up, your view was sorta twisted. You would see things on the other side but different. Some folks said this is what you’d call a mirage. I don’t know about that. I know on some hot days, when you drove towards town but the town was still miles and miles away, you could look through the heat wrinkles and you could see the town just a-wigglin’; it was moved up way closer than it really was but otherwise just the same as the real one. Only different.
The road towards town was flat and straight. In a countryside covered with low hills this was so odd that it never even occurred to anybody to mention it. Everybody knew the road was there and so were the hills. There was no point in starting up talk about it. People would look at you like you was off-center.
I drove that road in the evenings during the summer when the hot daytime air was cooled, or else had just gone away to dance someplace else. The heat lines (they looked like snakes standing up on end) weren’t squirming in the air no longer. That air was clear. But instead now the road was sometimes littered with long rattlesnakes, stretched across the pavement. It was as if the hot air snakes standing up during the day had laid down on the road in the evening, and become solid things.
These rattlesnakes wasn’t coiled. They were just lying there stretched out straight. I think the blacktop was still hot from the daytime and as the night air started to cool, it made the snakes feel good to stretch their bellies along the road. Can you imagine how that would feel if you were a cold-blooded old snake? It would feel good.
Two or three nights a week in the summer I would drive into town around twilight to deliver a blackberry pound cake to my Uncle Laz. My mother would ask me to do this. I always knew when she was going to ask. But she always brought it up as if the thought had just come to her. Did I have plans or could I quick run into town to drop off a cake for her brother? I played along. Supper had been good and I liked the night air and if I stuck around somebody would make me clean the cream separator. So I just played along. I was thirteen years old at this time.
Ma could drive a truck but she wouldn’t do it, and would claim that she didn’t know how. When we was real little she drove us all around but later she pretended that it never happened. My little brother Rizz would start to argue her on it sometimes but I would shush him.
Our Pa had run off with a girl from the Norden family. I figured my Ma could have “real” be whatever she wanted it to be at that point. My Pa had gone off and disappeared with that girl Dandy Norden and she was nothing but a school girl. She was three or four years older than me maybe, if that. Her real name was Candace but everybody called her Dandy. Some folks said it must have been a kidnapping but those of us what knew something about Dandy knew she went of her own choice.
That was comin’ up on two years earlier. My bet was that she had run off on my Pa about as soon as she got away to some place civilized. She was just a girl but she was real pretty in a different kind of way – she looked older and she had a fire in her; you could tell. It even burned up through the top of her head into a big bunch of bright red hair. And the look in her eye would make you want to do things, people said. I figured my Pa had wanted to do things and after awhile he couldn’t stop himself.
My Pa was probably too scared or ashamed to come back around later on. I had to figure he likely got what was coming to him, sooner or later. Seems like we all do.
So I would drive to town in the pickup to deliver the pound cake to Uncle Lazarus. Them snakes was stretched out on the road the whole way, and for the hell of it I would run right over them. Just run straight over their long drawn out middles.
And never once did it hurt a single one of them. They noticed it maybe; they might crawl off after it happened or just move to a different spot on the road. But their long flat cool middle must have been filled with nothing but sort of soft spine bones and some food tubes or whatever. They stretched themselves so flat on that flat road that they was pretty much invincible, you’d say.
I liked them a lot when they did this.
That place was different from the city in other ways too. It was the kind of place where names either didn’t tell you nothing at all, or else they told you everything you wanted to know and then some. In town the streets didn’t even have names; well probably they did, but there wasn’t no signs and nobody knew those names if they even existed. At least they never used them. The stores had signs that spelled out names but every last soul knew what each business was and usually it got called by the name of the fella who ran it, or else just something real plain like “the shop” – which meant Orville Orwell’s machine shop, where things got repaired or sometimes invented or destroyed. Or maybe all three in the same afternoon.
People had names but weren’t always called by them neither. Lots of times they come to be known by what they did, or what they looked like or what interested them on their own time. My older cousin Donny was all about picking rock. He always had been like that. Even in the grade school days he was always on about rocks. Look at this rock; there’s a rock over there that is bright blue and sparkles; you never saw a rock this shape before, and so on. He had an old Fordson tractor with a loader bucket attached and he used it to pick rock. He hired himself and his rig out on the farms and pastures to pick for the dirt farmers and the sheep ranchers. Nobody bothered him and damn sure nobody touched his tractor or his beat-up dump truck. When something broke down he wouldn’t even take it around to the Shop. He’d just fix it himself. More or less.
Some folks called him “Donny” but most of them called him “Rock Picker” or “Picker” or just “Rock”. Meet him on the street coming out of the post office or the old bowling alley and folks would say, “Hi Picker, how’s it goin’ today?”. His mom called him Donny I guess, and so did some of us other family members. My Uncle Lazarus was his dad, and come to think of it I never heard him call him Donny or “Picker” or nothing like that. Mostly what he called him was “jackass stupid” or “worthless son of a bitch.”
On a usual night after I ran over some stretched out rattlers and swerved to miss some ring-necked pheasants along the tall brown crested wheat grass by the highway, I would end up parked in the big dirt lot in front of Uncle Laz and Aunt Judy’s place. They had but the one child, Donny – at least he was the only one that they had now. His sister Ruby had grown to be about fifteen and then she went into the well.
She just disappeared one night and everybody in town looked and looked and finally they found her in the well, must have been a week later. I was still little then and don’t really remember much of it. She was all beat up from falling and so they decided she must have got out of whack in the dark and just stumbled in and dropped clear to the bottom – probably bounced off the sides on the way, making her get all the more banged up.
In fact it was Donny that finally found her, while he was trying to bring up a bucket of water so his Ma could water her tomatoes. Uncle Lazarus had mostly sat in the house after she disappeared and when Donny found her, from that day forward, my uncle was just so mad at his son and always cussing him out and so forth. Never had a problem with Donny until he turned up Ruby’s dead body. I figured he should have been just the opposite about Donny; what with Donny finding his sister and Uncle Lazarus not even out there looking with the rest of the town. Folks figured it all as peculiar but hoped at least it could all be put to rest now that the mystery had been solved so well.
I carried the pound cake into the kitchen through the back door. I didn’t bother to knock because: one, I knew if Aunt Judy was in the kitchen the knocking would just scare the giblets out of her (folks just walked in all the time); and two, Uncle Lazarus wouldn’t have heard me anyway. He was hard of hearing and was usually by this time in the living room. There was no TV in the house but he played the radio loud and drank his whiskey.
When I was thirteen I just mostly went along with everything. Folks said I was an easy going kid. But even then I knew all the whiskey drinking by my uncle wasn’t so good. It made the air in that house feel bad and it bothered me. In the last year or two I had never seen my uncle and aunt in the same room at the same time; or heard them say a word to one another. That house was an uneasy place. But there was a pound cake to be delivered so I went right in.
Aunt Judy wasn’t in the kitchen. So I walked right through and went into the living room; sure enough I heard that radio playing. Uncle Laz had it on a country station and there was a song playing about the Carroll County accident; I knew that Porter Wagoner was the singer. I also knew that he had used to be a religious singer with some big time Southern Christian group of brothers, but now he had been on his own for some time. He had a real tall stack of bright yellow hair on his head as I recall from some picture that I saw. It was kind of spooky.
Anyhow, I heard the radio and so I went on ahead into the living room.
I saw my uncle sitting in his easy chair. He called it an easy chair but it didn’t seem to be easing him much. He was downright rattled, and he was muttering and cussing like crazy. I couldn’t understand all of it – mostly because that Porter Wagoner fella was singing awful loud about a box that had a wedding ring in it and was under the dash on a wrecked car. I had no idea where in the hell Carroll County was supposed to be.
Uncle Laz was pretty strong into his whiskey and he looked up at me but his eyes never changed; they never cleared and I wasn’t sure if he registered me. And he was pretty much busy hollering.
“God damned worthless slab of sheep meat! Don’t have no brain in his head! Ain’t no damned way he is my flesh and blood – not a chance in hell. Musta been somebody else – somebody else what fathered that sumbitch!” He took a swig from his bottle and it looked like it was about finished off. I gathered he was mad about Donny again.
I still had the pound cake in my hand but my arms were just hanging by my sides now; I was thrown all out of whack by this fuss bein’ made by my uncle. I had seen him get going in the past but just walking in on the middle of it like this added to the bad feeling I had when I was in that house.
He had ahold of the arms on the chair with both hands. Then of a sudden he turned his head towards me – I was surprised to find he even knew I was there.
“You got a cake, boy?” he said with a voice that scratched on the air as it came out. “Did you get sent here on some fool’s errand or do you got a cake for me?”
I didn’t know what to say but I held up the cake. “Bring it here,” he growled.
I walked over and handed him that cake. He unwrapped the tin foil with his hands and just broke off a piece. I noticed that his hands were real dirty; it looked like grease or oil or something. Not just regular farm dirt.
Now he stuck a big piece of cake in his mouth and again commenced to trying to talk. I couldn’t make it out between the radio and the mouth full of cake but it sounded like just more cussin’ and carryin’ on. I wondered where Aunt Judy was keeping herself.
Finally I got up the courage to say something. “Uncle Laz”, I said, “are you feelin’ okay?”
Lazarus was busy jamming the cake into his cake hole but he somehow found his voice enough to say, “Young Caleb, go out to my truck and get me the bottle from under the seat. I’m runnin’ dry here.”
Around that low hill country, people pretty much drove everywhere – but almost nobody owned a regular car. Everybody had pickup trucks. We had a truck, Uncle Lazarus had a truck, the whole town was full of pickups of all ages. Most was either Chevys or Fords. You had one or the other, not both. Whole families had a loyalty to one company or the other, and there was considerable discussion about what was wrong with the other folks that insisted on buying the other make. It was sort of a vehicle feud along the lines of the Hatfields and McCoys and it had probably been going for about as long.
So one kind or another, everybody drove a pickup truck, and every pickup had two things under the front seat: a pistol and a bottle of Seagram’s Seven. Depending on the situation you would reach down and pull up one or the other. Once in awhile the use of one would lead to the need for the other. This just made sense; and when something makes plain and honest sense, there is no concerns over the right or the wrong of it all. It just is.
I got the whiskey and started back for the house. It wasn’t far but it was black as Coalie’s ass outside now and I didn’t wanna step in no gopher hole, so I was moving kind of slow and careful.
Next thing I knew I heard some glass breaking and somebody was yellin’ real loud and sharp. It was a woman’s voice first and then a man; and then the woman again. Somehow it didn’t register with me that this was coming from the house and that it must be Uncle Lazarus and Aunt Judy that were doing the yelling and carrying on.
Then I stepped up and into the kitchen and there they were, both in the same room at the same time, and all hell was pretty much busting loose. There was a bunch of dishes smashed on the floor. The table was pushed over and slammed into the wall by the fridge. The door on the fridge was open and the insides of it were all dark. There was no light on in there. No light at all.
“He’s a damn fool and he’s all yours, God Damn it!” Uncle Lazarus was yelling. He was up and kind of stomping around in a circle, like one of his boots was nailed to the linoleum. I didn’t know why he was doing this, and I still don’t know to this day. But it’s one of them things that might mean nothing but it just sticks in your memory.
My Uncle Lazarus threw his empty whiskey bottle into the wall. It’s kind of hard to break a whiskey bottle but he fired it so hard it must have shattered into a hundred pieces. I jumped at the noise when the bottle hit the wall. I couldn’t help it. I looked at Aunt Judy and she didn’t flinch; she was standing stone still and glaring at her husband.
“He’s always diggin’ shit up and makin’ a hole anyway! Let him climb back into his own damned hole!”
“Yes, if it was up to you, that’s where he would be! You ought to be ashamed! He’s your son!” My aunt’s voice was a ball of fire and she didn’t sound like someone who was about to back down on anything at any time in the near future.
Uncle Lazarus reversed his field and started marching his circle in the other direction. “Like hell he is! You got yourself knocked up somewhere but it weren’t nothin’ to do with me! A town like this, a town this small, and you with all the whorin’ around!”
Everybody in the room knew that none of that was true and then I realized that my uncle was crying. He was sobbing like a drunk cries, bawling like a sick baby. “She was my real daughter,” he said, a lot more quiet like. “She was mine. She was all mine.”
“NOT TO DO WHATEVER YOU WANTED WITH!” screamed Aunt Judy. “Damn you Lazarus! Damn you dead and gone to hell and back!” She started to move and turned her back on her husband and then just stood there, with her head kind of bowed. She started to speak – it was quiet and at first I couldn’t be sure I got the words right. But I heard it well enough I guess.
“You’re as good as dust,” she said. Her words were quiet and in her throat there was a hissing sound. I remember thinking it was like the snakes out on the highway with the heat under their bellies and the cold sky up above. “You’re dust to me now.”
Uncle Lazarus stumbled and then he moved forward and he stumbled again. He was shaky on his feet to say the least of it. He turned and backed up and he lurched past me and out the door into the night time air. He stomped on the porch like he was wanting to bust through the boards. Then he staggered down into the dusty yard and was wandering into the darkness. I couldn’t see hardly nothing but I could just barely make out that old well off by the edge of the cornfield.
I looked at my aunt, and she was looking straight at me. I thought there was tears in her eyes but the light in that kitchen wasn’t too good so I wasn’t sure.
It’s funny how when somebody’s life changes, often as not the whole thing happens in but a second.
“Men are all the same; sooner or later they all act like men,” she said to me. “Don’t you ever become one like them, Cal. Men end up dead a long time before they hit the ground or they ever get around to stopping to breathe. There’s still a movement there when all of what matters is already dead and long, long gone.”
She turned and went back into the back part of the house. I stood for a minute and then I stepped out into the cool night air towards our pickup. I was going back home. There was no sign of Uncle Lazarus in the coal black night. And I still had the bottle of Seagram’s in my hand. I had forgot all about it.
The next day I somehow got to go into town again on an errand, and of course I had to go by Uncle Lazarus’ place. I wasn’t sure what had happened the night before but I wanted to see the place for some reason.
I didn’t see no sign of either Aunt Judy or Uncle Lazarus. The day was already startin’ to get hot. It was going to really be a hot one.
I noticed that Donny’s tractor was over on the edge of the yard. It looked to be half pulled out into the cornfield. Donny was there too. He was standing by the tractor and slowly rubbing his hand over his oily hair. He looked either confused or mad or maybe both.
“Rock,” I said as I walked up. He nodded to me but didn’t speak. “What’s going on?” I asked. “Where’s your Ma and Pa?”
He seemed like his brain was somewhere else but spoke an answer without looking at me – his eyes seemed to be glued to the ground under the little Fordson tractor. “Ma’s around here somewhere,” he said. “She made me some hotcakes. Now I don’t know where she is. I asked her about my dad and she didn’t say a word.”
“Are you goin’ out and do some pickin’ today? Do you have a job lined up?”
“Well I was going to go out to Henderson’s and pick a couple fields for them; one of ’em’s new sod and a hell of a mess. But now it looks like I ain’t going nowhere.” He got down on a knee and looked under the tractor, then stood back up. It seemed to me like he had probably already gone through this a couple times but was trying to puzzle something out and it just didn’t want to take.
“I left this tractor here yesterday,” he said, still looking at the tractor and not at me. “I run it up here and shut it off and left it. Now I come this morning and try to start it and it won’t crank over. I try and try and it almost took but there was a hell of a racket once it did and I think the motor done froze up. Just that quick.” He sounded like a man who had lost something that he never before figured might ever be taken off him.
He reached down and rubbed his hand in the grass under the tractor’s engine. He picked up his hand and showed it to me. It was black with oil. Dirty, thick oil.
“Plug’s gone from the crankcase,” he said. “Somebody took it out and drained all the oil out. All over the God Damned ground. And I don’t know this of course; I don’t know this when I get here and I try to start her up and them cylinder walls are just bone dry, and she starts and then she seizes up. Now everything is done gone to shit.” He sounded like he might cry.
“I don’t know where the hell my damned dad is, or I’d ask him what the hell. I don’t know what went on around here last night. Do you? Ma’s not herself and the old man’s disappeared.”
I looked at my cousin but I didn’t know what to say so I didn’t say anything at all. I remember I wished there were all sort of snakes stretched out on the highway right then so I could get back in the pickup right that minute and go out and drive over them. Drive right over them again and again and not hurt them at all but just keep going back and forth on top of them. That’s what I remember thinking about.
Donny looked at his black, greasy palms again and then wiped them on his pants. His face looked like he was a lost soul who just found the blood of an innocent lamb all awash on his hands.
“First thing I gotta do is scrub up somewhat,” he said. He headed off towards the well intending to pull up a bucket of clean, clear water from under the earth.
So I went back to the pickup. I got in and pulled the door closed after me. For a tick I just sat there. I knew it would be but a minute before Donny started to crank up that bucket. I reached down under the seat and I felt my hand wrap around somethin’ cool and hard and smooth. I closed my eyes, and tried again to think about the waves of heat and the highway.
Some folks get to feel young and happy-go-lucky their whole lives. But the rest of us . . . I heard Donny let out a yell, and I kicked open that pickup door and stepped back out into the world.