"What is it?" asked the artist, looking up from her work- table where she had, for the past several patient hours, been stippling textures into a series of book illustrations.
"How do I know? Felt like a meteorite, or a kidney-stone."
"Want me to look at it?"
"oh, it's gone now, but I scratched the lid trying to dig whatever it was out, so I think something's still there. Makes it an effort to do anything, though. Is there fresh coffee?"
"Not much any more, but if you add a little hot water it should be fine. The first squeezing of a fresh pot."
He scowled. "I'll just take the last, even if it's half a cup. I really hate watery coffee." He lurched into the kitchen, lit the burner of the wood/gas combination range, and then lost his attention to an old copy of the Des Moines REGISTER until the sparse coffee's boiling brought him back. Cursing, he put too much sugar and too much milk into the burnt-tasting, gritty liquid, which burned his lip at the first sip while he was reading a book from the living-room table. Jumping at the sting on his lip, he sloshed three hot drops from the cup, wetting his beard, staining his shirt, and stinging his chest. he cursed again, putting the cup down and slapping at his chest.
" '"Shut up!" he explained.' I quote, of course. Spilled hot coffee on me, as usual. Now, what do YOU want, dog?"
Gopher had come, timidly, but furiously wagging his entire fluff-tailed hind end, over beside the overstuffed rocker, and was nuzzling a warm, wet nose under the poet's wrist.
"G'wan, dog, there's nothing here to eat. Nothing but coffee. See? Coffee! Crawl away and let me read, will you?" But, blinking nervous eyebrows and pricking his fluffy ears, the dog persisted. "Cut it out, dog! What do you want? You want to go out, maybe? Hunh? Out?" The poet opened the front door to a chill early-autumn freeze. "Out? C'mon, dog. Out?" He made a grab for the confused, nervous little dog. Gopher yelped and cowered, breaking away to hide under the couch.
"All he wants is a little friendly attention," said the artist from the doorway. "He's just coming to say good morning, aren't you Gopher? Come on out, no one's going to hurt you. Will you come out if I give you a cookie?"
"Now just what has that darn mutt done to deserve a cookie?" scowled the disapproving poet.
"You frightened him," she said, opening the cookie jar. "And he has Such pretty ears, hasn't he? Yes!" Gopher snatched the cookie delicately and retreated under the couch to savor it.
"And he sure knows it, too, doesn't he? You spoil those dogs rotten. I don't like the idea of dogs in the house."
"It's just Gopher. Scar picks on him so much he's getting neurotic. He just needs a little rest and petting is all, don't you Gopher? Yes."
"They bring ticks into the house. Not to mention the smell. And that omnipresent slobbery mouth and snuffly wet nose --- yuck!"
"And those shy, trusting brown eyes. You just haven't any empathy, that's your trouble. Okay, Gopher, curl up in your spot next to the wood-box. I've got two more pictures to finish before going to work tonight."
"How's it going?"
"Driving me dotty," she replied drily. "But it's my own, distinctive style, and that's what they pay for. Sometimes I wish I'd learned how to do comic books."
She went back to the drawing board and he went back to his book and his coffee cup. Finally, after reading a chapter and a half, and twice trying to sip from an empty cup, the poet rose and, taking a winter coat (a little warm for the day) and a red- checked wool cap with earmuffs, he dressed and called from the open door, "I think I'll go milk the elk."
"I said I'm going for the mail." As he cupped his hands and bellowed into the next room, a frightened, furry meteor shot bumpily between his legs and through the open door. "Yes, NOW you want to go out. Stupid dog."
There was a wet breeze, but the noon sun was already warming the air. "Hiya, birds," he called, crossing the yard, and then as he walked beneath the row of racketing pine trees protecting the house from north winds, he yelled up into them querulously, "Ah, come on, grackles! I live here too, you know."
The straight, dipping quarter-mile of driveway ran between rolling fields. It was strewn with gravel and pitted with ruts and puddles. The poet felt the breeze slip through spread fingers, smelled the drying mud, and noted the small swift shadows of clouds racing across the landscape. As he passed scolding birds along the way, he tried to imitate the peremptory "SqueeYAAAAH!" with cracked whistling.
"Well, hello there big dog," he called as a hip-high sand- colored camel of a dog trotted silently up beside him. "You expecting some mail today too?" Scar was an aloof, polite, self- possessed gentleman of a dog who asserted his rights about the harem of two females --- or about his precedence at the supper dish --- only when fluffy young Gopher forgot himself. Periodically he would disappear, alone or accompanied by the whole pack, for a night or a week of running deer, only to return stiff and famished to do little but lizard-out in the sun and snooze.
Near the top of the final hill the poet noticed in the "trick-rock", hauled by a contractor at ferocious expense from some local creek bed, something that looked like a bannister finial. The carefully turned spiral of rock, broken oddly at both ends, looked like a fossil snail-whorl. He dropped it into his pocket to have his artist friend dredge up some freshman geology student to identify it.
The mailbox was stuffed, but not with wanted missives. "Oh, no," groaned the poet, finding three manilla envelopes addressed to himself with his own handwriting. "Well, you win some, you lose some." There was a catalogue of books and records from the Publishers Central Bureau, and a gaudily printed envelope with the words "You may already have WON A PRIZE!!!" in red splashed across its front, and a "Dollar-stretcher" newspaper full of ads, and bills from the telephone and electric co-ops, and his almost-daily letter from his One True Friend back in Boston. "Ah well. One in nine is about par for the course these days. C'mon, dog, lets lug the goodies home."
Halfway back to the house, a sudden gust of wind rippled the drying corn behind a high ruin of weeds to his left, and the poet stopped, wedging the bulk of the mail under one arm while he groped in his shirt pocket for a notebook and ballpoint.
Corn Whispering About windhe scribbled, and then, after thinking a moment,
Pines And corn-fields Whispering
Better," he mused. "It's not two-three-two, but 'tis enough; 'twill serve!" The black birds on the wire above his head had displayed their scarlet epaulets and jeered down at him and the impatiently waiting Scar. "Okay, I'm going. I'm going already. Don't rush me." But instead of moving, again he wrote:
SqueeeyAAAH! Red-winged blackbirds Jeer
He frowned at the haiku. "Is that what they are? Or are they tanagers? That's a three anyway. 'Tanagers/jeering' ...? Where's 'Old Captain Billy's Bird Book' now that we need it? And what on earth am I doing here in Iowa after a quarter century of my adult life was spent in beautiful downtown Boston, Mass? Ah, well, just lucky I guess.' He thought a second, then grinning, he scribbled, 'Home is where, if they have to take you in, you have to go there.'"
He plodded on, avoiding the puddles. The farmhouse under the pines was connected to none of the parcels of land around it. Just seven-tenths of an acre as discreet and isolated as Luxembourg or the District of Columbia. And ours; all, all ours! --- in thirty more years. We'll be eighty before The Final Payment. God, what are we going to DO with it all?
When he entered the house, the artist called, "What news of the outside world?"
"Tell you later. It is Rewards-For-Work-Well-Done time." He went to the cookie jar and extracted two Oreo creme sandwiches and went to the door. "Here you are, big dog. C'mon. Cookie!" Scar padded shyly up and took the cookie delicately in his teeth. Behind him, Gopher and Ginger-Toes and Little Girl stood: perked, expectant, hopeful. "But none for the rest of you. It was Scar rode shotgun all the way to the mailbox and all the way back. A reward is a reward, after all."
"Then who's the other cookie for?"
"Who else walked all the way to the mailbox and back? It's for me!" And he ate it, grinning at the expectant ring of eyes outside the door.
"Oh, you can't do that! They won't understand." She dove for the cookie jar to unconfuse the starving multitude.
"They don't understand much except 'cookie', do they?" commented the poet, sarcastically.
"I squeezed the coffee," she said as he sat down. "Anything interesting?"
"Here, Stella, meat!" he quoted, tossing her the PCB catalogue.
"Gee thanks," she sneered.
"Now, now. I could have given you the bills first, you know."
"Or the Dollar-stretcher. At least we can read that funny preacher's ads for God. Anything for you?"
"Not much that you haven't seen before." He showed her the manilla envelopes.
"Oh, that's cruel. Three at one blow."
"Not so bad, really. Out of these envelopes and off again in new ones this evening. I still have about five more magazines to send them to before I run out."
"And what happens when all the stories come back from all the magazines?"
"Well, by then maybe I'll have a lot of new ones."
"And if not?"
"How deep did you say that Oneota River is I hear so little about around here."
"Oh, you mean you're going to take up tubing to research fresh material?"
"Fie, woman, fie! No, but I may hang around with some guys with wet socks and kayaks and ask a lot of penetrating questions. No one Does anything any more; that went out when everybody learned Hemingway never really spent three days on a raft trying to catch Moby Dick with a hand-held line. Or was he after The Nigger Joe? I never did pay attention in Am. Litt. class. Are there eggs?"
"Yes. I bought some in LaCrosse last night. And I squoze the coffee, too. And now I guess I've got to go see some more dots before my eyes. Are you sure Seurat started this way?"
"He even Ended this way. Did about six paintings and popped off at about twenty-five. Consumption, they say."
"DOTS, I say. Ah well, back to the funny stuff."
The poet sliced a couple of mushrooms and part of a green pepper and mixed them into a brace of eggs with curry powder, tarragon, and soy-sauce, cooking the mixture in a little frying pan with too much hot butter. While filling the sink with water in which to wash the dirty dishes, he noticed again the dry body of a beetle hanging over the sink at the side of the window sill.
He had seen the long, hard body hanging there more than a month before. The beetle had apparently fouled one leg in a sticky strand of cobweb, tried to fly away, and ended up hanging, upside- down. At first it occasionally opened its wing-cases and fluttered its wings, to no avail. Later, hanging like a thick, horizontal compass needle, it had patiently strained, over and over again, with its other feet, trying to pull free of the cobweb. The only result of the effort was that, eventually, a second bent leg seemed enmeshed and useless. Then, for days, bobbing and spinning like a little pendulum in every breeze, it hung, with only its two long antennae slowly moving, groping, pleading. And, finally dried, even that motion ceased entirely.
The poet wondered if perhaps he should have tried to free the little beast, cut the filament tethering it perhaps, or even snipping off the fouled foot with scissors. Five feet and freedom would be better than six feet and death, wouldn't it?
But freedom for what? he wondered. If the beetle were free to buzz about the house, he would have swatted it immediately as he had others like it every day. And, outside, how many hundred bugs just like it were snapped up every hour by the ever-active brace of barn swallows that never ceased their flitting and munching. No, this imperial lepidopteran, dead and turned to clay, would find immortality one fine day, if only he could figure out a story in which to write about it.
The spices and the eggs were at war instead of harmony, but he ate them as he read his letter. "I thought things couldn't get worse," it began. "When they did, I thought maybe I'd kill myself, but I decided to write to you first. I know there isn't anything you can do to help except listen, but listening is a help sometimes. Do you understand?"
Well, he thought, at least we both know there's nothing I can do to help, except want to help. I couldn't do anything to help even when I was there. And when I ran out of newspapers to write for, I couldn't even help myself. Here, there are dishes and floors they let me wash three nights a week, to pay postage to editors who always, still, say no. But I'm alive here, and you're alive there, and what else is there to say? I've really got to write her back at least every tenth letter, whether I have anything to say or not.
His second cup of watery coffee was long ago cold when, a couple of chapters later, he saw the artist out of the corner of his eye reaching for her jacket.
"And what do you think you're going to do, me proud beauty?"
"I thought I'd start unloading some of the wood from the pickup."
"We decided that was going to be my job, didn't we? I'll get to it."
"Well, the truck has to be emptied tomorrow so I can use it for the co-op food-hauling run."
"Okay, so I'll get to it now. Go dotty-in some more picture, or something."
"I'll go batty if I dotty any more. I'll just get the load started, and you can... "
"I said I'll do it!" he snarled, flinging down his book. "We just have different timetables and priorities, is all." And he again took the hot coat and the hat, frostily arming himself for cold weather that hadn't descended yet. "Take a coffee-break or something. I don't see why we need wood so early anyway."
"I'll vacuum the rug; that'll make me feel I've accomplished something today. The wood was free, and you haven't lived through an Iowa winter yet; I have."
"I'ze doin' it, Massa. Doan' whup me ag'in!" he whined and went through the door.
The pickup's box was full. It was all slab-wood, waste from the tie-plant that had been chained into lengths to fit the wood-stoves, shorts for the Round Oak and longers for the Humble. And isn't it amazing how just a smattering of jargon makes me feel so knowledgeable!
The artist would have loaded her arms with wood and carried it, load by load, into the wood-porch. The poet, instead, mounted the truck and, one by one, slung the flat slabs underhand toward the open door. After a bit of practice, he found he was fairly good at it. He was using a modified Zen approach, attempting to surprise himself with where the slab would actually land, rather than trying to think his arm into doing as he wanted. He would pick out the place he wanted the wood to end up, swing and release, and more often than not the slab would come to rest where he had foreseen. Frequently the slab would slip altogether and miss wildly, but often what he thought was a terrible trajectory would end with the wood Bouncing precisely where he had wanted it to go.
Maybe we should contact Dr. Rhine, he speculated. I wonder if I'm actually correcting my bad throws by telekinetic means? But why should we let those statisticians get their grubby fingerprints all over this? In softball, say. Or no: horseshoes! Sure, pitching horseshoes is a big thing around here, isn't it? And with my natural abilities, or my secret powers, we could probably clean up.
After an hour of throwing, considering that the distance from the front of the pickup box was greater than that from the tailgate, the truck was empty and at least half the load was somewhere inside the wood-porch. The poet figured he deserved a little beer and relaxation as a reward before he dealt with the misses that were scattered across the yard.
As he entered the front door, he heard the artist talking on the telephone. Probably to Betty. The illustrations she did were magnificently detailed when finished, but that detail was maddening work to execute and she could invent all sorts of distractions when she needed a break.
"Well of course he doesn't pay his way," she was saying. "None of them do, do they? But you can't just turn them away and see them starve."
That's how she acquired the widely varied pack of four dogs, the poet noted, and that was down from a high of fourteen, two years before. The soft-heart syndrome.
"Oh, but he's so cute and cuddly. He looks at me with those soft, hurt eyes and I just melt. No, of course he's not worth it. But I love him, is all."
Hah! thought the poet. She admits it. The only reason to keep pets is because people need...
"...I just wish he didn't hate my dogs so much.'
The poet stood for a moment while his mind whirled around and around that sentence. Well, damn it, eavesdroppers get what they deserve, don't they? He turned and quietly let himself out the door again.
He surveyed the strew of wood in the yard as though he had never seen it before. He suddenly felt like a total stranger. Well, it was his job, and he'd better get at it. Better get that damned wood in where it belonged. But his control was off. Perhaps it was standing on the ground, without the "pitcher's mound" of the truck giving him an advantage, he thought. Perhaps it was fatigue. The first few slabs refused to arc as expected. Two of them bounced off the wood-porch door, and another off the top of the door-jamb. Damn it, wood, behave! Got to put more English on it, he thought, whipping his wrist. The slab swirled smoothly, swiftly in through the wood-porch door and smashed the lightbulb in the ceiling. Oh hell! Chagrined, he tried again, frowning for more control, and the next slab caromed off the door-jamb, shattering the two panes of glass in the door.
The artist's head appeared at the front door. "What happened?"
"What the hell does it look like happened?" he snarled. "Parallax problem, I think."
"It's different here on the ground. I'm just trying to get used to a new perspective, is all."
"Well, don't wreck too much of the place. Want to take a break?"
"No, I just want to get the damn work done, okay?"
"Suit yourself." The door slammed.
The poet surveyed the yard, frustrated, beaten. Taking a deep breath, he bent and, puffing and stooping, picked up an armload of wood, walking it into the wood porch, and then walked heavily back for more. Once the yard had been cleared of the pieces, with the hinge of his back creaking, his knees stiff and shoulders throbbing, he walked back into the house. As he opened the fridge for that beer, Gopher's alert, slightly smiling, nervous face appeared in the kitchen doorway.
"What the hell do you want, dog?" the poet glared. Then, a little more gently, "I know what you want. You want a little empathy, don't you? Hmmh? Isn't that what everybody really wants, dog? A little empathy?" Gopher flinched as he extended his hand and softly scratched the dogs head. "You don't understand, do you dog?"
As the poet straightened and opened the cookie jar, the artist appeared from the other room, looking puzzled. "What on earth are you doing?"
"I would converse with this philosopher," he said pompously. "He doesn't understand empathy." He extended an Oreo sandwich and Gopher, after an instant of hesitation, took it gently in his teeth and quickly retired to his spot to eat it. "But he understands cookies."
from GREEN'S MAGAZINE
(Fiction For The Family)
Volume XVI, No.1, Autumn 1987
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