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.”
Sunday, May 13, 2018
This may sound strange, but lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Ambrose Bierce. Bear with me. At my age, this makes sense, and I think it might make sense to some of you as well.
Scene from a 1962 French film adaptation of "An Occurrence at
Owl Creek Bridge"
For those of you who don’t remember Ambrose Bierce, he was a famous nineteenth-century American writer, journalist and poet. He was an extraordinary short story writer. Perhaps his best known story—and one of the best known of all stories in modern American literature—is An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, a Civil War tale which, in short, is a description of everything that runs through a man’s mind as he is hanged from a railway trestle, from the time he is pushed from the bridge with a rope around his neck until the noose snaps his spine.
Not your lighter, more optimistic literature, mind you, but a masterpiece all the same. Published in 1890 and anthologized for the first of many times in 1891, it is also considered one of the great early examples of stream of consciousness.
Contemporary bestseller Kurt Vonnegut once described the story as “a flawless example of American genius, like ‘Sophisticated Lady’ by Duke Ellington or the Franklin stove.” He also defined as “a twerp” anyone who’d never read it. Biographer Richard O’Connor said that “war was the making of Bierce as a man and a writer.” O’Connor praised Bierce for his grim and graphic style, observing that he was “truly capable of transferring the bloody, headless bodies and boar-eaten corpses of the battlefield onto paper.” Even the often jaundiced and disdainful New York Review of Books and Washington Post critic Michael Dirda concedes, if snottily, that Bierce “is arguably the finest not-quite-first-rate writer in nineteenth-century American literature.”
There’s a substantial literary reason, then, why other later extraordinary writers (Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar and Vladimir Nabokov among them) were influenced by Bierce’s writing—just as he was influenced by Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe and other great and innovative authors who preceded him. But Bierce wasn’t just a writer. He himself was to become the stuff that fiction is made of—the subject of a mystery that remains unsolved and is the topic of vast research and speculation up to the present day.
Like me, Bierce was born in Ohio, but on the opposite side of the state, in Meigs County, which today borders on West Virginia, an area which is part of the Appalachian region. The tenth of thirteen siblings—all with given names beginning with the letter “A”—while he was still a small child his parents moved to Kosciusko County, in north-central Indiana, where he grew into adolescence. He would eventually attend high school in the town of Warsaw, the county seat.
If he wasn’t born with ink in his veins, young Ambrose would quickly be immersed in it when he struck out on his own at age fifteen and went to work as a printer’s apprentice at an Ohio abolitionist newspaper called, oddly enough, the Northern Indianan. Working at a newspaper was not a random choice. Although he came from a home of humble means, his parents were highly literate people and obviously encouraged him in his love of books and his penchant for storytelling and writing.
|Lieutanant Ambrose Bierce, 1862|
From the printshop, Ambrose would edge his way into journalism, but that career ended up being interrupted by the US Civil War, in which a still very young Bierce would attain the rank of first lieutenant in the Ninth Indiana Infantry Regiment of the Union Army, and would lead his men in such famous (and infamous) confrontations as Shiloh, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, Resaca, Kennesaw Mountain, the Atlanta Campaign and the Battle of Nashville, among numerous others.
Bierce was cited for bravery in one of the earliest battles in which he took part (and indeed, one of the first of the Civil War) and was seriously wounded at Kennesaw Mountain. Although he spent several months in 1864 on medical furlough because of the head wound he had sustained, he returned to battle in September of that same year and was only discharged from the Army in January of 1865, a few months before the war ended. However, his former commander, General William Hazen (who had recommended Bierce for admission to the military academy at West Point) re-commissioned him in 1866 to take part in an inspection tour of Great Plains Army outposts, a journey which ended up in San Francisco, California. There, Bierce was awarded the largely ceremonial rank of “brevet major” and resigned from the Army forever.
It was there, in San Francisco, however, that Bierce seriously delved into his career as a newspaperman and writer. As a journalist, he attained great acclaim while working as a reporter and columnist for the Hearst family’s San Francisco Examiner, as well as for other publications. He would continue to write for Hearst papers until 1909, just five years before his disappearance and presumed death.
Battle scene from Kennesaw Mountain, where 3,000 Union
soldiers and a thousand Confederates were killed, and where
Bierce was critically wounded.
Ambrose Bierce’s trenchant commentary and in-depth reporting not only brought him fame, but also the rancor of many of the powerful people he wrote about. It is to the credit of the highly controversial William Randolph Hearst—who in the 1880s inherited the Examiner at age twenty-three and with whom Bierce had an often combative relationship—that, despite what must have been intense pressure to fire Bierce with the aim of silencing him, the famed newspaper owner kept the writer on his payroll for decades. The opposition pressure on Bierce himself was such that he is said to have started carrying a pistol with him wherever he went. As I have learned in my own career as a journalist, if you please everyone with what you write, you’re not doing your job. If you write an in-depth piece or an editorial that elicits praise but no opposition, you need to ask yourself what you’re doing wrong...or find another profession. The irascible if cruelly witty Bierce was the clear embodiment of this principle.
|Bierce in the early 20th century|
But he was also—like many journalists who are writers first and foremost—a multi-faceted artist who also excelled in satire, short story writing, fantasy and early sci-fi, humor, criticism and poetry above and beyond his notable work as a newsman. Some of his best known work, as O’Connor points out, was based on his vast military and combat experience during the Civil War.
What I’ve been mulling over recently, however, is less about his writing than about his way of approaching life. After an admirable career as a man of letters, Bierce could easily have retired, written the odd story or commentary, traveled a bit, dabbled in his memoirs and been the toast of the town. But that would have been completely out of character for Ambrose Bierce. He was a man of action.
In 1913, at age seventy-one—in an era when the average male life-expectancy in the US was between forty and fifty—Ambrose Bierce had already lived to a ripe old age. But what was left, he must have wondered, to sit in a rocker on the porch and wait for death? Not likely. He hadn’t been a particularly good husband or father, but now even those tenuous ties were pretty much gone. His former wife, Molly Day, had passed away some time before this, but he had already been estranged from her for years by the time she died. Of his three children, only his daughter, Helen, who was nearly forty years old by this time, was left. One of his sons, Raymond Day, had committed suicide in 1889 at age seventeen, and the other one, Leigh, had died of alcoholism-related pneumonia in 1901, aged twenty-seven.
Some accounts claim that the thought of being put out to pasture was weighing heavily on Bierce when he decided that sitting still wasn’t an option if one was alive, and set off on what was very probably his last great adventure. There are a number of conflicting accounts of where Bierce went and what happened to him, but the most plausible story appears to be that he started out from Washington DC on a research tour of Civil War battlefields that eventually led him to the Texas border with Mexico. He is thought to have crossed the border at El Paso.
|Francisco "Pancho" Villa|
From there on, the story becomes hazy and speculative. Some versions have Bierce being executed by a detachment of federales for his relationship with Pancho Villa. Others have him being shot as a spy by a rebel firing squad. One town even claims that it was there that he died and has erected a monument that is visited by tourists. But the body of Ambrose Bierce was never found.
|Mexican military ruler Victoriano Huerta|
There are strong indications that Bierce accompanied Villa’s army to the city of Chihuahua in northwestern Mexico. In a last letter to his niece, Lora, Bierce is purported to have said that he was writing to say good-bye. “What an intolerable world this would be,” he wrote, “if we said nothing but what is worth saying! And did nothing foolish—like going into Mexico and South America.”
He added that “if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs.”
His last communication read: “I don’t know where I shall be next. Guess it doesn’t matter much. Adios.”
Much of Bierce’s fiction is said by critics to highlight “the inscrutability of life and the absurdity of death.” His own disappearance and probably violent death ended up being as inscrutable as it was absurd for a man of his age and literary stature.
Whatever the case may be, while some observers have claimed it was tantamount to suicide for Ambrose Bierce to wonder into the Mexico of Huerta and Villa like some ad hoc septuagenarian foreign correspondent, I consider it a declaration of independence and freedom, and an act of uncommon courage. It was a clear choice to live life to the fullest, right up to his last breath. It’s a philosophy each of us facing the so-called “golden years” might do well to ponder and, to the extent that we can, and each in our own way, to imitate, in the interest of making the absurd worthwhile.