Tuesday, July 3, 2018
TV celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who took his own life earlier this month, would have been 62 years old today. I thought this might be a good occasion to remember him briefly, because although he was best known as a “foodie” he was so much more than that.
Bourdain once described his TV shows as “stand-alone essays”. That was, indeed, what they were, outstanding literary pieces set to food and film excellence. Some years ago, I began watching his show, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations on the Travel Channel while I had my lunch, and quickly became an avid fan. Although I appreciate good food of all sorts, I’ve never given any importance whatsoever to the finer points of the culinary arts. But that wasn’t why I watched Bourdain’s program. I watched it because it was, perhaps, some of the finest writing on television. And it was, as well, a cultural gold mine, a guided tour of the world from the vantage point of native dinner tables and backstreet food stalls, where Bourdain not only delved courageously into abundant and outrageously varied food and drink, but also into the politics, history and grassroots culture of the places he visited.
Bourdain was the type of guy every writer wants to meet (and be). I remember feeling a moment of grief when I heard he had done a show in Buenos Aires and I felt as if I’d missed a chance to see if I couldn’t, perhaps, meet him and talk to him for a while. I would have liked to have gotten to know him well enough to call him Tony.
But writers, I think, must have also envied him his powers of observation—a kind of radar that seemed to come on automatically as soon as he touched down in yet another country—and his ability to take those observations and mold them into a powerful, accurate, yet pleasant and compelling portrait of the places he visited.
In my own case, I couldn’t help also envying him his gig, not so much the part that concentrated on typical cuisines and how they were made, but surely the part where he stood up from the table, walked the streets in the company of locals, and described so eloquently what he saw, smelled, felt and heard. He was, without a doubt, a traveler, not a tourist, a philosopher, not an investigator, and he did a full immersion course in every culture in which he found himself, literally, breaking bread with the world.
But the pieces he crafted were never travelogues per se. Clearly, it was more literature than TV show. Like an audiovisual version of Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, or John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. His competition was never other foodies, but the memory of other great TV travelers who preceded him, like CBS roving correspondent Charles Kuralt, or “the world’s foremost globetrotter” and 1950s CBS TV personality Lowell Thomas.
From the time I had watched Thomas as a boy and Kuralt as a teen, there was a voice inside me that told me that this was what I wanted to be, a traveler and writer. Seeing Bourdain’s show brought that longing back, made me want to be on the road again. Numerous times over the years, I’ve longed to put aside my other journalistic activities, the politics and the financials, and write about what really matters in life: the people, places and customs of different world cultures, what we all have in common and what sets us apart.Few have done that as well as Anthony Bourdain.
Wednesday, June 27, 2018
On April 8th, Palm Sunday, 1979, Breece Pancake went to Mass. In recent days, he had been giving a lot of his stuff away. Things he figured he wouldn’t be using anymore.
These things that he gifted to others included some of his guns. Like a lot of boys who grew up in the Appalachian hills and hollows of West Virginia, Breece had long been a hunter, though often a repentant one, with a real sensitivity for nature and a mind well attuned to the existence and lives of critters of all sorts that inhabited the hills of his homeland along with him.
But he didn’t give all of his guns away. One in particular, a Savage over-and-under shotgun, he kept with something like aforethought and intention.
|Breece D'J Pancake|
A few hours after that Palm Sunday Mass, Breece Pancake used that Savage shotgun to blow his own brains out. He was twenty-six and almost famous. But not quite. And so ended the life of a brilliant writer, who surely had compelling stories left to tell, but who decided—selfishly in the estimation of those of us familiar with his work, I’m sure—to leave behind only a tiny legacy of extremely well-crafted literature.
For the brief “quarter of an hour” that Breece was almost famous, he signed his work as Breece D’J Pancake. The pen name was the result of one of his first great successes, the 1977 publication in The Atlantic Monthly of a story of his entitled Trilobites. When the magazine printed the story up, there was a typo in his name, in which he included his middle two initials (for Dexter John). Breece liked how that out-of-place apostrophe looked and decided not to correct it. So, as if Pancake were not a unique enough name, the D’J in his nom de plume stuck—for the two years that he would live afterward and on his published works up to the present day.
Despite the deceptively back-woodsy settings and plots, and the simple style of Breece’s stories, he was not a self-made writer. Five years before his untimely death, he had received a BA in English from Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. As a graduate student, he later attended the University of Virginia’s creative writing program, headed up by National Book Award-winning novelist John Casey and by Pulitzer Prize-winning short story writer and essayist James Alan McPherson. With that education under his belt, he would later teach English at Virginia’s Fort Union and Staunton military academies.
Breece D’J Pancake was a short story writer. We’ll never know if he might ever have written a longer work. At the time of his death, his entire body of work comprised a dozen extraordinarily well-crafted short stories—six published in The Atlantic Monthly and another half-dozen only published posthumously. They are all anthologized in a thin volume entitled, simply, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake (© Helen Pancake, 1983, pub. Brown-Little, available on Amazon).
In Trilobites, probably Pancake’s best known short story, the main character is stuck on a failing family farm that he doesn’t know how to leave or where else to go. The surrounding hills contain trilobite fossils (an extinct prehistoric marine organism from the time when the oceans covered vast expanses of the earth). The unfolding story of the protagonist, who feels stuck in the middle like the fossils he sought as a boy, takes us on a guided tour of the flood of emotions that assails him when his mother decides to sell the farm and move to Ohio. Why should he want to stay, he wonders, when he has no knack for farming and is merely overseeing the spread’s demise? But still... I look at Company Hill again, all sort of worn down and round, the narrator says. It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I’ve looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, at least for as long as it matters.
Pancake delves into the despair and darkness of the poor mining and farming communities of his native West Virginia. It’s a rugged world of truck drivers, mechanics, waitresses, miners, river rats and hookers. But there is always an underlying feeling of discontent and longing mixed with an itch to move on and a taste for violence. There’s a tacit darkness and foreboding also, never as well expressed as in Time and Again, in which what appears at first glance to be the story of a lonely man whose hogs are his only company, ends up making us wonder if a stranger who hitches a ride on a snowplow hasn’t just had an unwitting brush with a serial killer.
But then too, there is a stunning sensitivity that challenges the brutality of the society he describes, like when he opens a scene by telling it from the viewpoint of a possum and her young, steering clear of the danger posed by all men, or when he makes a fox the real protagonist of a story in which hunters play the antagonists.
Breece has been compared to Hemingway, and indeed he admitted Hemingway’s influence on him. But this is Hemingway without the ego. This is a world inhabited by anti-heroes and confused characters, people for whom life is a baffling conundrum, as it very likely was for the author himself. The simple complexity of his writing is stunning and tears at your imagination, but also at your deepest fears, your deepest feelings and at your heart.
Other powerful writers who admit to being influenced by the incredible craft demonstrated in such a paltry body of work include such successful fiction writers as Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk and the acclaimed author of House of Sand and Fog, Andre Dubus III.
Bestselling novelist Kurt Vonnegut once wrote the following in a letter sent to Breece’s former professor, John Casey, after the young writer took his own life: “I give you my word of honor that he is merely the best writer, the most sincere writer I've ever read. What I suspect is that it hurt too much, was no fun at all to be that good. You and I will never know.”
None of us will.
Sunday, June 17, 2018
Whitie, you were never what I would call “The Ideal Father”. But then again, hands on our hearts, whose was? Besides, if the collective evolutionists turn out to be right, I picked you before I reincarnated—if, indeed, I did—so perhaps I have no one to blame but myself.
That said, I’ve known of a few who pretty nearly were ideal for their kids—within the margins of human foible—and let me just confess to you that, growing up, I often envied those kids.
Be that as it may, “ideal”, I’ve learned, can have its drawbacks.
I have one friend who, when he talks about his dad, (and no offense, Whitie) he makes you want to crawl up into his ol’ man’s lap and beg him to adopt you. My friend’s dad was a shop worker who busted his ass for his family, but who always had time for his sons, and especially for my friend, who was a rare bird by any standard. But his dad always supported him in every endeavor. If my friend wanted to write, if he wanted to gather the stories of those who couldn’t tell theirs in their own voices, then he should, his dad said, throw himself into it heart and soul. Go after his dream. Not let anybody discourage him. He had a talent, his father said, and by golly, if you were lucky enough to have one, you should flaunt it.
He didn’t tell his son to forget his stupid fantasies about being a writer and learn to do something that would make him rich, or something that would give him a trade, or something with womb to tomb benefits. In fact, his ol’ man used to do more than encourage him. He used to help his son get interviews when he was still just a sprout, and drive him back and forth, and read what he wrote afterwards, and comment. Once he even told his son that the boy had gone far beyond his own understanding, that his dad no longer understood exactly what the boy was doing, but that whatever it was, he admired his son for it and that the boy should shoot for the stars.
I hear him talk about his father and, you know, Whitie, I get a lump in my throat thinking what I wouldn’t have given for a little, a fraction, of that kind of encouragement and understanding. But like I say, “ideal” sometimes isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And one day my friend’s father went down into the cellar, stuck a shotgun in his mouth and blew his brains out—in the very house where his sons lived, and where my friend still lives and writes today. I mean, all that had gone before in their almost ideal relationship was shattered in a thunder-clap. How could a boy, by now a man, who had felt so close to his dad compute this? That his father would want so badly to leave the world they shared that he was willing to kill himself to get away?
My friend still has the shotgun. It’s not some morbid “souvenir” of his “ideal” father’s death. On the contrary, the shotgun has become a celebration of life. Every year my friend and his brother take that very shotgun hunting, and after spending a great day afield together, my friend looks out at the great beyond as the sun goes down and says, “See what you’re missing, you sonuvabitch?”
But let’s talk about us, Whitie. I’ll have to say this, that you were never the everyday, ordinary dad. For better or for worse, you were unique. Obsessive-compulsive, manic, bipolar, most of the time at least mildly depressed, irascible and short-fused, ever worried about what might happen in some future that only God knew would exist or not, seldom if ever just living the moment and enjoying life, usually predictable but sometimes, exceptionally, off the charts, unfathomable. But some other times, once in a great while, countable times, happy and hilariously funny....like the time, during one of those lighter moments, when we were playing My Father Owns a Grocery Store and had exhausted every item on the grocer’s shelves so we changed the name of the game to My Father Owns a Drugstore and when somebody said, “My father owns a drugstore and in it he sells something that starts with ‘s’,” the first words out of your mouth were, “Is it bullet-shaped?” We still laugh about that sometimes!
But then there were the dark, dark times when you’d hole-up in your room for weeks on end or check yourself into a psych ward, where you could hide out even from us, and it was as if nothing but your illness existed—for any of us, but especially for you. You barely recognized us. We barely existed in your world, and if we did, it was only as a burden, a responsibility, added noise and static you’d rather not have had. Especially me, I told myself, because that was what it felt like, as if I were what most vexed you in the entire world.
And then, all of the sudden, right after one of these psychotic episodes, you’d get up and, after a brief period that acted a lot like a hangover but wasn’t, because you never drank when you were depressed and only occasionally, socially, when you were happy (or on a manic high), you could be a completely different person. Especially around others. So much so that my friends would say, “Wow, you’re dad’s so cool. I wish I had a dad like him!” And, although it embarrasses me to tell you this, Whitie, I’d say, “You want him? Take him home with you when you leave. Strictly no return policy.”
You always had such physical grace. I admired that in you, Whitie. A natural sportsman, you were. As a boy, none of that rubbed off on me. If somebody had seen you walking down the street, marching with long strides and sure feet, your Popeye arms pumping, one-two, one-two with each stride, they would never have guessed that you were chronically ill. Nobody could have looked more confident and in control.
Clearly, I was overgrown and clumsy. You told me so yourself on many an occasion. I know it must have embarrassed and disappointed you. It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I learned to overcome that by training my body. Like in anything else, there are naturals like you, Whitie, and those who need to train like crazy, like me. I just wish I’d known that, wish somebody—like you, Whitie—had told me that when I was still a boy, instead of allowing me to believe, before the Army got hold of me, that if you weren’t a natural, you might as well get used to being a washout, a nerd, a benchwarmer. Confidence is so important in becoming athletic, and I didn’t have any. I had to find it and build it myself—with the help of a drill sergeant’s boot up my ass.
It hurt when I was a kid that we never tossed a ball together, that you never taught me everything you knew about sports, that neither did you take any interest in my interests, that we never hunted, or fished, or hiked, or camped together. I remember joining the Scouts, working hard to fit in, to get my merit badges, to be “one of the boys”. Not because I gave a rat’s ass about being a Scout, but because I thought maybe it would make you love me more and maybe take an interest in something I was doing. Mom ended up going with me to buy my uniform, accompanied me—along with widows and divorcees, since the other boys were with their dads—at the Blue and Gold Banquet, was there to cheer me the day I won the Pinewood Derby, while I’m not even sure you knew I was in Scouts. Which I wasn’t for long because, not surprisingly, I lost interest and quit.
And when I decided sports of any kind were a lost cause and excelled in band—head percussionist, student conductor, head of the percussion section in All-Area Band, head percussionist in the Buckeye Scarlet concert band my first and only year at Ohio State—you wrote me off, never came to a game or a concert, never acknowledged my achievements, never said you were proud of me. I didn’t realize it consciously then, but everything I did, even later when I found myself in charge over and over again in whatever activity I undertook, it was to seek your approval, Whitie.
Why was that? Because I always loved you. I still love you.
But I want you to know, Whitie, that, like I told you in those long-overdue talks we had while the cancer was killing you, there’s nothing pending between us. I’m okay, you’re okay, Whitie. It’s an EST thing. No blame, no regrets. Mostly, I feel bad for you. For how sad and broken you were much of your life. How you couldn’t break far enough out of your personal darkness to see us better. To see me better.
Still, if I seldom managed to make you feel proud of me, there were lots of times I felt proud of you. Like the time on a hot summer day that I took a black friend to your restaurant and soda fountain, the Teddy Bear, for a Coke. The chief of police was sitting drinking coffee at the long table up front, the only other patron in the middle of a slow dog-day afternoon. The same chief who’d held that post for as long as anybody could remember, mainly because he’d been so adept at keeping our all-white town that way. And he made a nasty racist comment, said he hadn’t known you were a nigger-lover, and you told him that if he could get out of there before you got out from behind the counter, it’d save you the trouble of throwing his fat ass out on the street.
My heart burst with pride that day, Whitie.
Or the time later when you were a route salesman, killing yourself working twelve, fourteen, sixteen-hour days on minimum salary and a three percent commission but pulling down the best money you’d ever had in your life, selling several million dollars’ worth of goods a year out of the back of a twelve-ton truck. One afternoon you stopped by the house to pick something up and the company president happened to drive by. That evening he left a note on the windshield of your truck where it was plugged in for the night at the plant. It said he never again wanted to see your truck parked in the driveway of your house at two in the afternoon.
You went inside and marched up to the president’s office. Pushed past his secretary who said that he was “in a meeting” and told her, “Don’t worry, this won’t take long.” You burst in, nodded to the president’s guests, then turned to him, slapped the note down on his desk top and said, “The next time you leave me a little note like this, I’ll personally shove it up your ass.” And then you turned on your heel and walked out, not knowing whether you’d have a job the next day—but you did! And not caring either, because no matter how much money you were making, it wasn’t worth letting yourself be humiliated.
That day too, Whitie, you filled me to bursting with pride. And there were others, lots.
So, I get it that maybe there just wasn’t anything left over from your illness to invest in being “the ideal dad”. I get it. I understand. You were fighting that all your life. You were constantly struggling to overcome a handicap. If you’d been blind, or in a wheelchair, or missing an arm or a leg, I’d have gotten it back then too. But mental disabilities don’t show. People with them just seem to be “acting up” or “not getting their shit together.” Those of us who, right along with the person suffering them, become victims of them always want to say, “What the hell’s wrong with you? Why are you acting this way? Why can’t you just be normal?”
But, Whitie, I get it now. It’s like blaming a paraplegic for not being able to walk, or a deaf person for not being able to hear, or a blind person for not being able to see. You couldn’t reach me, because you couldn’t reach yourself.
But you taught me so much with your example, Whitie. You taught me that you only had your name and your word and that without them you were nothing. You taught me the nobility of work, of not owing anybody anything, of being your own man. You taught me not to back down no matter how scared I was inside. And also with your example, with your suffering, with your constant and losing battle, you taught me about depression, and I learned that you had to get it before it got you, that as soon as it loomed into sight, you needed to confront it, grab it by the throat and shake it, choke it to death, before it had a chance to grab you.
I don’t know if there’s anything beyond this, Whitie. But the day you died, you sent me a message. You know what I’m talking about. So if that was your way of telling me that there is something else, I’m hoping you are really in a better place, Ol’ Man. And wherever you are, Whitie, know that I love you and always did.
Oh, and, happy Father’s Day.
Wednesday, June 13, 2018
It had poured the night before. Truly torrential rain. And the morning didn’t look very promising either. There were patches of blue here and there. And the late-summer sunrise had been spectacular—reds, purples and fiery oranges, even before the sun crowned on the horizon, shooting rays, like a Hand-of-God church bulletin photo, through the thunderheads gathered there, and that elsewhere scudded across the sky propelled by a stiff breeze. Moments later, the sun was an enormous fireball that spotlighted the drenched landscape, taking my breath away, filling my chest with a feeling not unlike awe, and providing me with hope that the weather might change, that the rain, rain, would go away, and come again some other day.
I watched morning break from our backyard until my mother called me in for breakfast. I was six at the time and there was a semi-promise afoot to go fishing with my paternal grandfather...if it didn’t rain too hard...if he could see a few clients first...if he didn’t get stuck at the office...if, in short, he felt like it. I’d been up since six, driving my mother, Reba Mae, nuts with questions about whether or not she thought it would stop raining, whether Grandpa Murel would come even if it didn’t, whether maybe it was clearer at Indian Lake than here. “Stop fretting,” she said finally. “You’ll just have to wait and see.” But waiting-and-seeing when you’re six is an almost unbearably iffy proposition.
As the morning sky clouded over and it started to rain yet again, I invested my time wisely, praying that it would stop. But then there was that Methodist Sunday School pang of guilt. It worried me that perhaps I was being selfish. I mean, I didn’t want it to stop raining everywhere. Especially not in the parts of the country where there was currently a drought...or where the farmers needed it for their crops...or where wells had run dry...or where there were forest fires (the places Smoky the Bear reminded me of when he pointed at me from the TV screen like some furry Uncle Sam and said, “Only you can prevent forest fires!”).
Back then, I believed literally in the power of prayer—indeed, of my prayers and the specificity of my requests. Reba Mae was always quick to remind me that prayers weren’t to be taken lightly and that their subject shouldn’t be frivolous or selfish. In fact, prayer should mostly be for giving thanks, not for asking for more all the time. Most of all, you should be careful what you prayed for. What, then, if I prayed for the rain to stop, and it never rained again? I remembered the desolate Saharan dunes in Buster Crabbe’s TV interpretation of Captain Gallant of the French Foreign Legion, and I shuddered.
So I added a little addendum to my prayer, a kind of postscript in which I told God I was only asking for it to stop raining today...and only where I was going to be, not all over the world. Not even all over Ohio. And then I told Him that if I was being selfish, then I was truly sorry...but I really, really wanted to go fishing with my Grandpa Murel.
After praying, I stood, disappointed, in front of the picture window in the living room and watched it drizzle steadily outside, searching the sky for a patch of blue, some sign that my prayer would be answered. When I wasn’t sky-watching, I was continuing to badger my mother. By ten-thirty, she’d had enough and said, “Look, it’s barely misting out now. Why don’t you go down to the pond and fish for a while and stop driving me crazy until your grandfather gets here.
“Is he coming for sure?” I cried excitedly.
“I don’t know, for the thousandth time!” she said. “But go anyway before you drive me insane!”
I reminded her that I didn’t have a pole or tackle, that I depended on Grandpa Murel for all that, since, unlike his father, my dad, Whitie, wasn’t a fisherman. There wasn’t a rod, reel or speck of tackle in the whole house. So she gave me a length of butcher’s string and an open safety pin en lieu of a hook and instructed me to go find a stick to tie them to.
I found one under a tree near the pond and tied on the string and safety pin. Nightcrawlers were lying out everywhere, their tunnels flooded by the previous night’s storm, so bait was easy to come by. After skewering one on my safety pin hook, I put more with some dirt in a rusty tin can I found, to take along when and if my grandfather finally came to get me. He’d be proud of me for bringing my own bait.
“The pond” was actually a boggy lot two doors down on which an enormous puddle formed any time there was heavy rain. The rest of the time, it was a gateway to some other swampy land several blocks square that the developer of our neighborhood had never been able to sell, because it would take so much fill dirt to make it livable. Clearly, fishing here was a fool’s errand. But seeing its surface reflecting the oil-paint sky of that rainy morning—the scudding clouds that now broke a bit here and there to reveal a heavenly world of sunshine and blue behind them—for me, it might as well have been Lake Erie.
I’d been dunking my writhing bait in the futile waters of the pond for a good half-hour, when I looked up the street toward home and saw my grandfather’s maroon Studebaker turning into the driveway. I tossed down my makeshift pole—string, pin, worm and all—and ran home as fast as my legs would carry me.
“You came, you came!” I shouted, and was even happier to see that not only Grandpa Murel, but also my Grandma Alice had come.
It was about a twenty-mile ride to the lake. But I might as well have been Marco Polo on the Silk Road to China. This was an unexpected journey, a weekday treat to accompany my grandparents to the lake while the rest of the adult world was occupied with workaday tasks. The road to the lake back then was a narrow two-lane strip, despite carrying US Route 33 signs. It wended its way through bucolic Ohio countryside, past pretty farms and lovely woodlots that were already, if you paid attention, a different, more autumnal shade, but not yet, not for another month, sporting the red, ochre and gold tones of actual fall. Occasionally the rain clouds parted fleetingly, letting through rays of glorious sunshine that spotlighted a barn here, a shed there, a seemingly special tree or hill, a silo that, in that golden light, could have passed for the Tower of Babel.
We passed through the tiny villages of New Hampshire and Santa Fe (pronounced Sana Fee in our neck of the woods), and then we were driving through Russells Point and I had my first glimpse of Indian Lake, past the famed, if now down at heel amusement park with its barn-like dance hall where swing bands of renown had played in the twenties, thirties and forties—bands that had made the records my mother collected: Glenn Miller, Stan Kenton, Billy May, Les Brown and others. On we drove to Lakeview, a short distance down the road and from there to a place that was apparently one of Grandpa Murel’s favorite fishing spots, a pier of sorts, made of concrete, with a parking lot above and a not wide but also not narrow strip on which to stand or sit below.
Just as Grandpa parked the Studebaker and we started to get our collective gear out of the trunk, it began to sprinkle once more. And I started to fret.
“Dang rain!” I complained, afraid this might be like when Reba Mae would say, “Okay, it’s raining, everybody back in the car.”
But Grandpa Murel said, “Why, what’s wrong with the rain, bud? Rainy days are the best days to go a-feeshin’. That’s when they bite the best. When it’s rainin’ a little.”
With that, Grandpa retrieved his see-through nylon raincoat out of the backseat of the car and pulled it on over his white sports shirt and cardigan. His battered, felt fishing hat—a faded dark green Mallory of Fifth Avenue that had once been a dress hat—was already on his head. His fishing shoes were scuffed old two-tone wingtips and his fishing pants the bottom half of a dark suit he no longer wore as such.
Meanwhile, Grandma Alice broke out her long-billed fishing cap—the one with the marlin emblazoned on the front—and pulled it down over her blue-white perm. Then she dug through the trunk for her faithful green men’s cardigan with the black leather patches on the elbows and slipped it on over her sober cotton housedress. She handed me the canvas windbreaker Reba Mae had sent along for me and I put it on, along with my red baseball cap.
Grandpa walked off toward the pier without us, carrying his rod, reel, minnow bucket and tackle box. Grandma carried a big picnic basket and a canvas bag with two Thermoses and an extra cup in it, while I carried her already rigged cane pole, the short section of cane pole Grandpa had rigged up for me, and my can of nightcrawlers. Once we’d deposited our stuff on the pier, Grandma and I went back to the car to retrieve two folding chairs for her and Grandpa and a folding canvas and wood camp stool for me.
By the time we got back, Grandpa had thrown his first cast, under a light rain, and was already fishing. Grandpa was proud of his casting ability and he would throw his line out so far you could barely see his bobber from the shore. With cane poles you could only fling your line out a few feet and fish from the tip of the pole itself.
“If the fish are everywhere,” I asked my grandfather, “why do you cast out so far.”
“I’m a-throwin’ it out there where the big ones are,” he answered with an ornery grin. And right then I wanted to have a rod and reel too.
I said as much to Grandma Alice, told her that someday, I’d really like to have a rod and reel. She said, “Any fisherman worth his salt can fish with a cane pole.” And then she added, “But Christmas is coming up in a few months. Put it on your list and maybe Santa will bring you one.”
With this tentative promise under my belt, I settled into fishing. I sidled up beside Grandma. We were the cane-pole fishermen. We left Grandpa to his casting further down the quay. This was his fishing spot and the lake was part of his life insurance sales territory. He knew people here and they knew him, so while he fished, he chatted with others on the pier. And they only moved to “try their luck” further one way or another, or drove off to find another fishing hole altogether when he started hinting that they might want to talk to him about expanding their insurance coverage.
After a while of watching him scare away the other fishermen—to say nothing of the fish—with his constant chatter, Grandma said, “Murel...Murel...Murel! Come on over here with us and eat something. And with that she left her pole to fend for itself on the pier, her line still in the water, and with an occasional eye on her bobber, and opened up the picnic basket. There was never anything boring, like carrots or celery or apples in Grandma Alice’s picnic fare. And today was no exception.
On paper plates she served each of us a sandwich of pressed ham and American cheese on the whitest of Wonder Bread, slathered with butter. On the side she shook us each out a generous portion of Dayton’s own deliciously salty Mikesell’s potato chips. There was plenty of both, so I, for one, had seconds and nothing had ever tasted better, especially with piping hot sugary coffee and cream from one of the Thermoses. For dessert, there were Milky Way candy bars, Grandma’s own favorite. We all had a sweet tooth. It seemed everybody on my father’s side of the family did.
Now it was drizzling a little harder. Not a soaking rain, just a heavier drizzle. And Grandpa had been right. The fish were starting to bite. Grandma was the first to snake one out of the water with her cane pole. It was a nice-sized bluegill.
Grandpa, of course made light of it, said, “Hang on, in a minute or so I’ll show you some real feesh. They’re a-nibblin’ at my bait right now.”
Grandma said, “Shut-up, Murel,” and re-baited her hook and put the fish she’d caught on a stringer.
Then it was my turn to snag one. I pulled it out, a beautiful silvery fish that flapped on the pier until Grandma helped me get it off the hook. Grandpa said, “That there’s a nice little 'croppy',” accent on “little”. But he was the only one to belittle my catch. It was a weekday. Younger adults were at work or at home caring for their kids, since school hadn’t begun yet. I was the only kid on the pier with a number of mostly retired, grey-haired men and women like my grandparents and a few other, younger men, who looked as if they were fishing for survival rather than for sport. So when I pulled out my first fish, I heard applause from a few of the anglers down the way from me and some, “atta boys!” and “way to go kids!” to celebrate my catch.
When I pulled out a second bigger crappy, however, their enthusiasm waned and by the third one, they were ignoring me completely and tending to their own lines. Grandma Alice pulled out a couple more fish as well. Grandpa was livid with envy, since his professional casting was turning up zero results. So he went back to the car and returned with another sectioned cane pole and line that he kept in the trunk. He put his chair between Grandma’s and mine, clearly hoping some of our luck would rub off on him. Eventually it did, and before we knew it, the three of us had harvested a nice mess of fish.
As the afternoon progressed, a breeze stirred up, ruffling the water in front of the quay and heaving up whitecaps further out on the lake. The sky began to clear as the sun sank lower and our outerwear felt good despite the sunshine’s appearance after a day of steady drizzle.
As quickly as they had begun, the fish quit biting, and one by one, our angler colleagues decided to call it a day, packed up their stuff and made their way back to their cars to leave. Eventually it was only us and the hungry-looking fishermen on the far end, passing a bottle of Gallo among them, who remained. And soon, Grandma also decided to pack it in and said, “Come on, Murel, let’s go.” He complained that “this was just the time when they were gonna start a-bitin’ again,” but even as he said it, he was packing up to go.
By the time we headed for home, we had an ice chest full of fish in the trunk and the three of us were feeling happy, satisfied and accomplished. Grandma Alice divvied up the remainder of the sweet coffee in her old scotch-plaid metal Thermos among the three of us and offered Grandpa and me a sugar cookie from the tin canister she’d brought along. Then she took one for herself as well, and for a while we all rode in contented silence, munching our treat and watching the scenery in the last light of day.
We’d had a wonderful afternoon and the crappies, bluegills and rock bass that we had caught—worthy pan fish all—would make a delicious fish-fry. The sky was clear now, and it was growing even cooler. I snuggled into a corner of the backseat, covering myself with an old Indian blanket Grandma kept in the car, and finished my few sips of coffee and my cookie while watching the sun sink low.
Just before it reached the horizon, the sun became a huge glinting orange disk, its light now sufficiently muted by twilight that, if you peered across the open fields that whizzed by outside, you could gaze right at it. To me, it looked like nothing as much as an enormous orange sucker, and I said as much. “Hey Grandma,” I said, “ever notice how sometimes the sun looks like a great big orange sucker?”
Grandpa Murel harrumphed and said, “A sucker!?”
But Grandma Alice was less quick to belittle the proposal and turned toward the passenger side window. She took a judiciously long, appraising look as the setting sun came to rest on the western horizon, smiled and said, “Y’know, bub, I think you might just be right!”
That evening, that big orange-sucker sunset was all mine, the perfect end to a perfect day, to carry with me for the rest of my life.
Sunday, May 27, 2018
Jake and Russ were sitting on the back steps. Both men quiet for the moment. Jake had just stuffed a fresh cud of Redman deep into his left cheek and was sucking it against his back teeth, letting it get wet down with his saliva. Russ had been tamping a Chesterfield short on the broad side of a new pack and now he stuck it in the corner of his mouth, worked the brass Zippo out of the watch-pocket of his jeans and lit it, inhaling deeply and sighing the smoke back out again.
The steps were home-made, not store-bought. You could tell. Like a big three-tier box with no banister. They made a deep, satisfying clunk when you stepped on them wearing work boots. They were a little splintery and were painted battleship grey—probably the only color available in the shed at that moment, and the paint was for protection, not aesthetics, anyway.
Like everything Jake had built in the house, since he and his family had moved to town, the steps weren’t pretty, but they were sturdy and functional. They led to the closed-in back porch that he had also built on.
Actually, it was more like he’d turned the back porch into a mud room that ran the entire width of the house. Mostly, it was where everyday outerwear, caps and hats hung on pegs attached to the siding that had once been the back of the house. That’s why, oddly it seemed, there was a window that had once looked into the front room, but which now usually had a barn coat, slicker, fawn-color hunting coat or plaid flannel jacket hanging over it. On the other side of the wall, the opening had long since been boarded up and plastered over, so now it was a view to nowhere anyway.
There was usually a bushel basket of fruit stored at the far end of the porch, where it was cool and dry. What was in it depended on the time of year—in the summer, pears or peaches, right now, autumn, it was apples. Sometimes it would be walnuts still in their aromatic green skins. Whatever was there, it perfumed the back porch with wonderful fragrances the year round.
A long, wide shelf attached to the outer wall, beneath a high sash window that looked onto the backyard bore an assortment of items including a clothespin bag made to hang from a clothes hanger and that was shaped like a tiny house-dress, an old flat-iron, a glass bowl with a collection of keys in it (many of which no longer opened anything, but you didn’t just throw keys away), and a coal-oil lamp with a shapely glass chimney and a thick glass tank with delicate flowers hand-painted on it that sat on a brass base. An old barn lantern and a smaller railway lantern hung side by side near the door, all throwbacks to the days when Jake and his family had still lived in the country, before the coming of rural electrification. But all three were still well-dusted, wicks trimmed and fueled up set to go, just in case. Many a tornado and snow storm had pressed them back into use when the lines were down.
Jake had had a hand in building the entire house, back in the thirties when this land had been part of one of several tenant farms he had worked over the years for the Hirsches, the biggest landholders in this originally German immigrant community. Even though the block where the house stood still ended on a field that had once formed part of the farm, this lot was now located on the south edge of town, which, over the years, had expanded out this far, where the factories of several cottage industries has sprung up. They had built it very much in the style of a barn, but with windows, upstairs bedrooms and inner walls. Barns were what they knew how to build. Why mess with the model? They had even raised the downstairs like a barn, building the sides on the ground, then pulling them up with ropes and spiking them together, before climbing up and raising the second storey and gambrel roof.
When he’d first moved the family to town, Jake had rented the house from his former employers. Later, once he got steady work, he’d taken out a mortgage loan and bought it. It had taken him twenty-five years to pay it off but now it was his free and clear.
Russ was Jake’s youngest boy, the male half of what Jake called his second-wind family, a son and a daughter who had come along more than a decade after the younger of he and his wife’s older two children, also a son and a daughter. The older two had always lived on the tenant farms that Jake worked before they left home, the boy to join the Marines, the girl to get married and live in town. They had always hated farming, hated not having electricity or greater creature comforts, hated bathing in a tub in the kitchen and having outdoor toilets, hated being “country kids”, brought up in one-room schools, in a high school full of “town kids” who tended to look down on them. The youngest daughter had been too young to remember much about the farms before they moved to town. She too, however, was all town girl.
But Russ had loved the farm, despite not having gotten along well with his father back then. He wasn’t alone. Back then, Jake had been a hard-drinking, often violent man who broke his animals with violence and broke his wife and children the same way. When Jake spoke back then, you lowered your eyes and said “yes sir”, if you knew what was good for you.
When they moved to town while Russ was still a pre-teen, he had felt cheated, like a fish out of water. He knew rural life, trusted it, the work and the play of it. He had felt self-sufficient out on the farm. If you knew how to farm you’d never starve, you’d never be poor even if you didn’t have a penny in your pocket. Out there, when food was short, you could live off the land, hunt and gather. It was the best possible life a man could hope for. That’s how he’d felt about it.
Rather than try and fit in with the town kids, he had been rebellious and belligerent. He’d been in almost constant trouble for starting fights and disrupting classes, and at sixteen Russ—and the principal—finally decided he’d had education enough and he quit.
By then his father had been, for several years, the caretaker at the local cemetery. Russ had been obliged by Jake to work there part-time, Saturdays and after school, since he was thirteen. But now, Jake put Russ to work full-time as one of his team of laborers, mowing, trimming, digging graves, fixing the internal lanes, all the tasks that went into maintaining a well-kept graveyard.
Russ hadn’t minded the work. It was outdoors and it was working with the land and with his hands. But working with Jake as his boss was a different story. Jake was always trying to make an example of Russ for the rest of the crew. That meant he was constantly riding Russ, constantly ordering him around, constantly criticizing his work. Ever threatening to whip his young ass.
That’s what Russ, now a middle-aged man, was thinking as he sat quietly on the steps smoking beside his father, who was now an older, tamer shadow of his former self.
Finally, he broke the silence saying, “Hey Jake, ’member that skeleton we dug up in that old abandoned cemetery down by the river?”
Jake turned, stared at his son and narrowed his eyes, as if trying to recall just which skeleton Russ was referring to. As if reading his mind, Russ said, “You know the one I mean. The pink one.”
Now Jake grinned, showing his remaining three tobacco-stained front teeth and managed to laugh around his huge cud. It was as close to a hearty laugh as Jake ever got, a hissing, pulsing, almost silent laugh like steam escaping in bursts from a relief valve. He stood, walked over to the grass and spat a dense squirt of yellow-brown juice into the grass and then sauntered back, hissing again in breathless laughter that shook his entire body before he sat back down on the step next to Russ.
“That there was a long time ago,” he said, “What made you think o’ that?”
“Dunno,” Russ shrugged. “Just crosses my mind from time to time. Wonder why them bones was that color. So pink.”
“Dunno,” said Jake. “Maybe the soil, or how it decomposed, the wood of the coffin. Hard telling. You see some funny stuff working in a boneyard as long as I have.”
“Yeah, hilarious, I’ll bet,” Russ snorted.
“That was ol’ Lester Schultz’s great-grandpa,” Jake went on, pushing a sweat-stained Stetson to the back of his head. “Wanted him buried at Oak Lawn with the rest of the family and got himself an order to exhume. Then he didn’t even bother to show up for the transfer.”
“Good thing he didn’t, as I recall,” said Russ.
Jake hissed again before saying, “Goddamn bottom come plum out o’ the coffin when we picked it up to load it on the bed of the truck.”
“Yep, and there was Les’s granddad just pink as a flamingo.” Russ said, setting off another fit of Jake’s hissing laughter.
Russ was picturing it in his head, he and Jake hauling the crusty old wooden coffin out of the ground with ropes, with Jake’s red ’47 Ford pick-up backed up almost to the open grave. But when they each grabbed an end to lift the box up onto the tailgate and shove it in, it suddenly went light on them, there was a thud and they both looked down under the box to see a coral-colored skeleton lying on the wood-slab bottom between them at their feet.
Catching his breath again, Jake said, “You looked at me and said, ‘Now, what the hell do we do?”
“Yeah, and I no more ‘an I said it, till you nodded for me to help you flip the coffin over top down, then you reached down, grabbed that slab and flipped that skeleton into the box face down and put the bottom on like a lid.”
You had to be a gravedigger to find the humor in this, but by this time Jake was swept away in full-hiss laughter, which only intensified when Russ said, “Wasn’t nobody around when we got him back to Oak Lawn, so we just nailed down that lid and stuck that poor ol’ bastard in the ground like we’d brought him, face down.”
“Aw Russ, he wasn’t in any shape to give a damn by then,” Jake wheezed, snatching a red bandana from his hip pocket, pushing his wire-rimmed spectacles up onto his forehead and wiping his eyes with it. “’sides, if he was anything like Lester, I figure he was headed thataway anyhow.”
For a while, they sat there in silence again, Russ lighting another Chesterfield, Jake chewing the rest of the good out of his chaw.
“We had some fun, didn’t we, Boy?” said Jake.
“Yeah, I guess it wasn’t all bad, Jake,” his son said.
“Wasn’t none of it bad,” Jake said, turning to look at Russ’s profile.
“Well, when I went off to join to Navy it wasn’t under the most amicable of conditions, as I recollect,” Russ answered.
“Water under the bridge,” he heard his father mutter.
Russ recalled how one day he’d had enough. They used crank-starter mowers back then and if you didn’t get the motor to catch on the first crank, they could be harder than hell to start after that. That particular morning, Russ hadn’t hit on the first crank and now he’d done about ten more and the mower wasn’t having any. He was cussing now, and sweat dripping into his eyes. Ohio summer it had been and hotter than hell even in the early morning.
And now there was Jake, berating him. The three hillbillies who formed the rest of the crew were digging a grave within earshot and it was humiliating to have them see him being dressed down by his ol’ man.
“Whatsa matter, Boy? Can’t you start that goddamn mower? Come on, Boy, there’s work to be done. We don’t have all goddamn morning.” And now Jake was standing over Russ, breathing down his neck, literally, and shouting, “Gimme that goddamn crank and lemme show you how to start this thing. Come on, Boy, gimme that sonuvbitch, give it to me! You had your chance. Plain to see you don’t how to start it, so step aside and let somebody that knows how do the job. Come on, goddamnit, gimme the goddamn crank!”
And with that, Russ had sprung to his feet, hollering, “You want it, you cantankerous ol’ sonuvabitch? Here!” And he hit Jake up side of the head with the steel crank and knocked him cold.
For a moment he stood there looking at the stunned faces of the three hillbillies and then at his father’s inert body lying on the ground, blood pouring from a wound that had split his eyebrow where it met his temple. He suddenly realized it was the first time in his life that he hadn’t been physically scared of his father. But then the reality of what he’d done hit him.
“My god!” he’d thought, “I killed the sonuvabitch!” For a second he almost stooped to check Jake’s pulse but then thought better of it and, instead, connected the crank, gave it a sharp turn and heard the mower roar to life. “I just don’t give a damn anymore,” he thought, and mowed around Jake and down between the first row of tombstones.
Turning now, where they sat on the back steps, he saw that Jake still carried the reminder of that day, a scar that still split his left eyebrow and a small indentation where the brow bridge had cracked. That was nothing, however, compared to some of the permanent scars Jake had left on him. No remorse here. But he guessed if Jake could let bygones be bygones, so could he.
“Naw, I got stuff to do,” Russ said.“Tomorrow’s Sunday. What the hell you gotta do?”
“We’ll go out early. You can do your stuff later.”
“Okay, Jake, maybe,” he muttered.
Their hunting trips always started at Oak Lawn. It was on the far western edge of town, just outside corporation limits. Jake knew every woodlot and every farmer for fifteen miles around. So they would leave the car at the graveyard and hoof it cross country from there, like always.
“Back to the scene of the crime,” Russ thought.
“What time should I pick you up, Boy?” Jake asked.
“Don’t bother,” Russ said. “I’ll meet you there.”