It was late, well after dark, by the time Lin and I arrived unannounced at Angie’s cabin. We had dawdled on the descent—a perfect day on the mountain, and the two of us had been in no hurry to expand our solo company. When it was just the two of us it always felt solo, which was not the same as being alone. Above the tree line Lin and I were one.
We were young then. Our bodies did what we asked them to do. Not even the altitude bothered us, carrying our 40-pound packs. Base camp had been at twelve thousand feet. On the way down, where we stopped for lunch, we had stripped and made love again and taken a nap, tucked together inside a sleeping bag. We seldom spoke when we were climbing. It wasn’t necessary. Whatever I knew she knew; the mountain shared its secrets equally and silently. Lin was good that way, inside my mind. A hand, a piton would be there when you needed it, a kiss, a caress. Our bodies had been made for each other. Her calluses were the same as mine. She told me once what I had dreamed; she’d had the same dream.
Angie’s place was in the foothills on the way out of the mountains. The plan was we would spend the night there before heading back to the city and our separate lives—Lin to her husband and job, me to my bachelor ways. We were in my old Dodge D-100 pickup truck. We had stopped at the first store we’d come to, at Chinese Camp. Lin was out of candy bars and I always savored that first can of cold beer after four or five days on the trail. Half a six-pack and two or three Almond Joys later we pulled up the dirt road to Angie’s place. Lin had to give me directions because Angie was one of her friends, not mine. Aside from that we still weren’t talking much, the peace of the mountain still on us. Angie didn’t have a phone up there, so there was no way to let her know we were coming or even to find out if she was there. “She’s in the field a lot,” Lin said. Angie was some sort of geologist or something. If she wasn’t there, we’d just break in. Lin said she knew where a key was hidden.
This was in the seventies. I have to mention that because already you are wondering why didn’t we just call Angie’s cell phone or text her or leave a voice mail that we were stopping by. She wouldn’t be in the field without her cell phone, would she?. Well, there weren’t such things back then. This was before a lot of such things, when stuff was simpler. But I won’t go there. The Dodge was a stick shift, and you could light up a cigarette just about anywhere. Yeah, fifty years ago.
It’s been that long since I’ve seen Lin. I don’t have much more now than I had then. I guess I’m not an accumulator. There’s been ten trucks since that Dodge. Thinking about Lin makes me wonder what I’ve done since. It didn’t seem like wasted time while I was using it up. Maybe a trick for getting through life is fooling yourself that you’re doing alright. But if any of it was important, you’d think I’d remember more. Mostly it’s the sameo sameo—moving on, making ends meet, staying out of trouble. I stopped climbing after the accident. I’ve never saved things like photos or letters. They’d just have gotten left behind someplace anyway. People have passed by like towns along the Interstate. You’re lucky if you can remember their names. It’s not like you stay in touch with any of them, or them with you. No kids that I know of.
Maybe having a family would have made things different, but I never have had one and never saw the need. As far as I could see from the outside, having a family was little else besides trouble. That’s all I ever heard when people talked about their families—fuck-ups and expenses. I do have a sister in L.A. We two could win a contest for hating each other. Why am I thinking of Lin tonight?
I had met Lin’s friend Angie a couple of times before, at parties in the city. She had been hard to miss and hard to forget, a pin-up tomboy. She dressed in men’s work clothes, but with pleasing bulges and curves. Her blonde hair was an unkempt mane. She rolled her own and drank cheap bourbon. She was one of that first wave of West Coast So-fucking-what? feminists. Late at one party she’d said to me, “I’ll leave you alone because I know you’re Lin’s toy.” I suppose there are women like that still around. I just haven’t meant one in a long time. Someone—a woman—once told me that I would never understand how the women in my life could be anything more than the objects of my desire. I still don’t know what she meant by that. They were each unique. Angie was.
When we pulled up to Angie’s cabin, one of her vehicles was there, her company’s truck, a beat-up Bronco. Now there was a vehicle I wouldn’t mind having my hands on again, one of them early ORV Broncos. Tough as a tank. In fact, it always felt like you were going off to do battle when you rode in one. Short little boxy thing, unbreakable. You almost never saw one without a big dog in the back bed. It was like you had to have a Golden Lab in order to drive one. I once shared the open bed of a Bronco with a Black Lab bitch in a blizzard going through the Rockies. I was hitchhiking and the front seat was full. She and I just hunkered down inside my sleeping bag with my pack as a wind break and went to sleep spoon-style. Warm dog them Labs. She only woke me up when she was dreaming.
It’s as if memories serve a different purpose now. They’ve lost all usefulness. Sometimes they’re like entertaining little film trailers of the past, and other times it’s like being on trial with no defense. I’ve found myself talking back at them, as if a memory had ears, or cared. And they’re as random as dreams. It’s not like you’re with someone and they say, “Remember the time….” No, it’s more like you’re alone in your room and there’s a knock at the door and there is this totally unsummoned memory that wants to come in and won’t go away.
I forgot to mention that Lin knew Angie because Angie worked for Lin’s husband, who ran some sort of survey outfit. His company’s name was on the Bronco’s door. He was probably already a millionaire. I knew he had a lot of people on his payroll. I’d never met the man, and Lin never spoke of him. He was famous enough that I heard when he died several years ago. He’d endowed something at a university somewhere. There were no lights on inside Angie’s place, which in my pickup’s headlights looked more like an overgrown lean-to than a proper cabin. It wasn’t like there were flower beds and a porch. The front yard was just dirt. There was a big old tractor tire rim with a piece of plywood on top of it as a table with a couple or three used wooden line-men’s wire spools as stools. You sort of expected a junk yard dog to slink out and bark, but it was just as quiet as the night.
Come to think of it, all my memories are silent films. I mean, I may know what’s being said, but I don’t really hear it. There are no screams. I wonder if that’s true for everybody, but I have no one to ask. I know where Lin is now. I tracked her down to an address in Connecticut, and every now and then I think about just showing up there some day and saying hello—a memory knocking at her door. Now, what would that be like? The opposite of a memory. She probably hasn’t aged much. A well-kept woman, active still, and Chinese don’t show their age like we do. Maybe some gray in her hair, but the skin still young. Having never talked much, would we have much to say? Would she invite me in? Would she even recognize me?
Maybe all my life I’ve gotten memories and expectations all mixed together. That night I was looking forward to a hot meal, getting stoned with Angie and Lin, finishing my six pack, and going to sleep with Lin in a real bed, with pillows—looking forward to it so much that I can almost remember it, though it never happened. I wonder how many other memories are like that, histories as a déjà vu of hope? Also all my life I’ve studied maps, any and all maps—atlases and topos, road maps and old charts. I know a lot about places I’ve never been, places I always meant to get to. See, those places are real, too, because I imagined going down that road or hiking that trail or camping on that piece of coast. Sometimes I even made it there, confirming the entire illusion. Map makers are dream masters.
“Well,” I said, as we sat there in front of Angie’s place. “Should I honk or what?” That’s what I would have done if it were my friend’s place.
“No, wait,” Lin said. Inside the cabin we both saw what looked like a flashlight beam come on and flash across a room and then go out. We waited for the front door to open or for other lights to go on, but nothing happened. “Hold on,” Lin said, and she got out of the truck and walked up to the cabin. “Hey, Angie,” she called. “It’s me, Lin. You home?”
There was no answer, but I thought I heard some movement from inside and what could have been someone whispering. Lin tried the door, but it was locked. “Angie?” she asked again. Silence. For a good minute Lin stood there, her head cocked to one side, then she came back to the truck and got in. “Let’s go,” she said.
I turned the truck around and went back the way we’d come. A ways down the road I asked, “She’s alright then, you think?”
“Angie can take care of herself,” was all Lin said.
I remembered an out of the way place to camp not much farther on and found it in the dark. We got our two-man Alpine tent pitched just as it started to rain. Lin crawled into her sleeping bag and went to sleep without another word.
What I don’t like about what’s past are unsolved mysteries, like people who just disappear on their own, leaving things unfinished. I know I’ve done my fair share of that to others. I just don’t like it when somebody does it to me, when someone just walks right off my map. Am I contradicting myself? Well, maybe I am. It’s cool to pretend you don’t care; it’s harder not to. It’s easier to say you didn’t need them than it is to admit they were done with you. That Lone Ranger thing—“Who was that masked man?” My earliest dreams had me riding off into the sunset. Last week I had to fill in some form that asked who to contact if something happened to me, and I left that space blank. There was no one to notify. I never saw Lin again. I am still pissed at her.
The trip ended normal-like. The next morning, I dropped Lin and her gear at her car where it was parked in the airport long-term parking lot. It was still raining. She gave me a kiss and a hug and she paid me for the trip. We were both tired, unshowered, hungry. We went our separate ways, as usual. But then I didn’t hear back from her as usual, and after a couple of months when I tried to call her, her number no longer worked. I even wrote and mailed her a note, which came back return to sender.
A year or so later I was back in the mountains and I ran into Angie in a Silver City saloon. She was still looking good. I asked her about that night.
“Was that you with Lin?” she asked. “I should have figured.” I bought her a bourbon on the rocks. “There was just no way Gordon was going to let her in or let her know that he was there.”
“Gordon?” I asked.
“Her husband, you zero.” Angie gave me a disdainful look over the top of her glass. “Yeah, I fuck my boss. Don’t you? But she must have known, figured it out, heard his voice or something, because she never went back to him, just had her lawyer have him cut her a nice big alimony check. I guess what’s good for the goose screws the gander.”
I spent that night at Angie’s place, finally. A comfy space, down to earth and very feminine as I recall.
At the start there is always someone watching from an upstairs window. Later, she will die in a fall down a picturesque staircase. He is not in those scenes. The cars are all 1940s models. Was that a streetcar passing? That bell? That is his tobacco-thickened voice reading the black-and-white voiceover script about his uneventful childhood. How much of history is conjecture? A memory of nuns. “What is black-and-white, black-and-white, black-and-white?” A nun falling down the stairs. Fourth grade. Eighth grade, Agnes, his first classmate with breasts.
There have been more flashbacks in the script of late, more pointless backstory, characters he can’t remember. Also editing tricks, like faces in a crowd of people dead from earlier episodes. He had long hence ceased looking for a through-story; each segment was one-off. There are only so many possible plots. Sometimes his is just a supporting role. At first, he had welcomed the location shoots—new places, different food. They usually went south, palm trees and such, exotic whores. Only later did he come to prefer his familiar routines.
Remember when the credits came first, not last? And you could walk out after only three minutes, after your name had flashed past on the big flat screen, out onto the Times Square sidewalks, where the real show, the next show was happening, the west wind wicked down the 42nd Street canyon. His anonymity came from looking like everyman. But the women all looked like themselves alone, no matter how hard they tried to hide behind their mascara and lip-rouge masks. All leading ladies, intent at some level of leading you on, back to the primal.
He had never used doubles. Even in corpse shots he played himself. The scenes where the morgue doctor pulls back the sheet so the witness, a woman who barely knew him, can nod and say, Yes, that’s him.
The book of Solomon Island stories set off my own wild escape from the now, back to almost 40 years ago, when I was still at ASCC. I had started a Samoan/Pacific Studies Program and was teaching a new course in Pacific Literature. An author from Western Samoa, Agafili Leau Tuitolova’a, had just published a 70-page chapbook collection of stories in Samoan. A first—no one had published fiction in Samoan. There were maybe a dozen students in the class, all Samoan. Together, we attempted a translation of one of his stories into English. I split them up into squads, then we worked on melding their different versions into something acceptable. Not a short process, but also not a waste of class time. Also fascinating. Agafili combined street—well, bush—Samoan with chiefly proverbial language. I dare say my students learned more about literature from that joint exercise than from my lectures.
I mailed a copy of the final translation to Agafili, whom I had never met and did not know, over in Apia. He sent the students his thanks and appreciation. At the time I was organizing a territorial arts festival, Arts Fiafia. (I got Mavis Rivers, a native Samoan, to come down from L.A. and perform.) I invited Agafili to come over to our island to give a reading. (I had NEA funding to spend.) He accepted. I invited him to stay with me at Atauloma. I was alone there in the big place at the time, Liam not yet adopted and my estranged wife, Sinavaiana, off in grad school at UH.
Opening night of the festival there was a reception on the grounds of the museum downtown in Fagatogo, at which a deceptive rum punch was served. At the reception, a good friend of mine, the poet and musician Eti Sa’aga, also from Apia, took me aside to ask what the fuck was that murderer Agafili doing there? An angry Eti gave me the story. Some years before, a village card game had erupted into an alcoholic brawl during which Agafili had been knocked over by Eti’s uncle. Agafili’s genitals had been exposed when his lavalava fell off. He left and came back with a shotgun and blew Eti’s uncle away. After which, Agafili was attacked with bush knives by Eti’s people and sliced up so well he almost died. Eti thought Agafili should still be in gaol in Apia, not feted by me.
Agafili drank a lot of rum punch. The canapes served at the reception he did not consider food. On the way home he had me stop for a six pack of beer, five of which he drank before we got to my place out near the end of the island. By now English was beyond him. I could not understand much of what he was saying, but he was not pleased and he was hungry. All I had to offer him was a loaf of local bread and a whole cold cooked slipper lobster. Agafili took off his shirt and consumed them both, washed down with the final beer. All that was left of the lobster, shell and all, was the quarter-sized thickest carapace of its back.
Agafili’s back—and front—reminded me of a baseball, the long raised seams of scar tissue stitches. He had been stitched back together. The torso of a big, brown, powerful, reassembled slayer. He was still angry. I wasn’t sure why. Maybe because I said in Samoan there was no more to drink. We were seated across from each other in the front room, a coffee table between us. Agafili stood up, getting angrier. I stood up. It was a good thirty yards back to the guest bedroom. I did it walking backwards, Agafili following, accusing me—it seemed—of something, threatening. When we got to his room, I circled until his back was to the bed. Then I pushed him as hard as I could, and he fell back onto the bed, where he passed out.
In the morning it was as if the night before had never happened. We spent the following festival days in pleasant companionship. He helpfully corrected my broken Samoan. He gave a good reading. He did not have another drink.
It took several years for Eti and I to get close again. Connie and I were the only palagi invited to his daughter’s wedding reception. I guess ignorance is a forgivable excuse if you’re an outsider.
A Christmas story from Bob Sutton, of a time when Americans were not as fearful of each other.
Looking at a 2021 road atlas, particularly a trucker’s road atlas, the eastern ½ of the United States is a maze of 4-lane Interstate highways leading in all directions and connecting every major city to all the others. Let’s say I have to get about 1,100 miles from the Navy Base near Memphis, Tennessee to my parents’ home in a rural area west of Schenectady, New York. Out of Memphis, I travel east on Interstate 40 to Interstate 81 in eastern Tennessee, north on I=81 through Virginia and Pennsylvania to Interstate 88 in Binghamton, New York, and east on I-88 to Schenectady. I have to remember three road numbers—40 to 81 to 88—to get to the spot of my mom and dad’s house, and I mean literally, “get to the spot.” When I-88 was constructed in 1977, it crashed directly through their house.
If you were considering that same journey in 1962, my parents’ house would be there, but how you got to it from Memphis would be much less obvious and much more difficult. I don’t think that my fellow sailor friend and I had any real understanding of the distance or the complexity of the trip when we made a last minute plan to hitchhike from the Naval Air Training Station near Memphis to New York, three days before Christmas, December 23, 1962.
For both of us it would be our first Christmas in the Navy, and we both really wanted to be home. Also, my car was scheduled to get out of the repair shop and I wanted to drive it back to Memphis. I do not remember a single conversation relative to the actual “road atlas reality” of hitchhiking from Memphis to New York. He had to get to New York City and I had to get 150 miles north of that to Schenectady. We knew that we had to get north and east of where we were and that US Highway 51 out of Memphis ran north, and that seemed to be adequate travel information. Our only plan was that after Christmas my sailor friend would take a bus from NYC to Schenectady and would ride back to Memphis with me, in my car.
We agreed that we would travel light and would wear our uniforms, and in the early morning hours, December 23, 1962, we caught a ride from the Navy Base out to US Highway 51 North. I, as we agreed, was traveling light; my uniform, my Navy ID, and my wallet. I had saved up extra cash in my wallet to pay for my car repair back in New York. My sailor friend was travelling light, with one exception. He had a very large stuffed teddy bear, a Christmas gift for his little sister. We stuck out our northbound US Highway 51 thumbs and almost at the same time it started to snow very lightly.
Amazingly, a car stopped within the first 10 minutes. A man rolled down the window and said,” I am going to Wheeling, West Virginia if you want a ride.” (Wheeling, WVA, north, yes, east, not so much, it’s snowing). We hopped in the car.
The car we were hopping into was a fairly deteriorated two-door 1955 Ford. My friend climbed into the back seat and for the first time we noticed that there was a young woman in the back seat holding a very tiny baby, both wrapped in a blanket. I suppose we introduced ourselves and said where we were going and away we went. It became quickly apparent why the woman and her small baby were wrapped up in the blanket, the car heater was broken. The interior of the car was equally deteriorated, and because the heater did not work, the windshield defrosters did not work. The windshield wipers did work and kept the snow off the exterior windshield, but every so often it was necessary to take a cloth rag and clear the interior windshield so the driver could see the road. I do not have a clear memory of the outside landscape but I believe it was quite rural and I do not remember that there was very much traffic, so human intervention with a cloth rag provided all we needed for a clear view. As the snow continued, the roads became quite slippery. The car sliding around on the road indicated the tires shared the same worn-out performance standards as the rest of the “55” Ford. On the positive side, my new friend was a good driver. He seemed to have a good sense of his responsibilities and the limitations and frailties of his vehicle. We moved carefully, if a little slowly, across the Tennessee hills and farmland and into Kentucky.
The young mother kept the baby as warm as possible with the blanket and occasionally nursed the little child, and as I remember the baby stayed quite contented. However, my sailor friend in the back became very concerned and took off his Navy pea coat and gave it to the woman and she wrapped it around herself and the little baby.
The temperature went up slightly and the snow changed into a freezing rain. The temperature inside the car did not change but the protocol for maintaining windshield visibility had to be amended. The windshield still fogged up on the inside and, although the windshield wipers still worked, they could not keep up with the freezing rain forming ice on the cold windshield. This required that about every 20 to 30 minutes we stopped and I would jump out and scrape the ice off the frozen windshield.
I also started to notice a rather rhythmic thump…..thump….. thump….. coming from underneath the car. I do not know if it had been thumping from the outset of our journey and I was just getting around to noticing it, or if it represented a new level of concern. Having messed around with old cars much of my teenage life I had an uneasy suspicion, but, the driver showed no worry.
By late afternoon we were still in a very rural area of Kentucky, and we needed gas. Luckily we came upon a little service station out in the middle of nowhere. We had agreed, when we were first offered the ride, to help pay for some of the gasoline costs and this stop was our turn. We fueled up, paid the owner and headed out. However, just as we were about to get back on the road, our driver, who up to this point had driven carefully and safely, accelerated the car, spinning the wheels on the icy blacktop surface. The rhythmic thumping increased rapidly, there was a loud bang, the thumping stopped and the car stopped. We got out and saw our driveshaft lying on the ground underneath the car. The driveshaft is the mechanical connection between the engine/transmission and the rear wheels of the car and when the driveshaft is lying on the ground the car goes nowhere, we were going nowhere.
I personally could not understand why our very dependable driver, carefully nursing his old car north for a “Home for Christmas” in West Virginia suddenly turned so erratic, spun the tires wildly and broke the driveshaft. I also could not understand what my sailor friend and I were going to do.
The service station owner came out to see what happened and, understanding our predicament, offered a solution. He knew a man that sometimes did work for him who could fix the problem. The man owned a junkyard, probably had the necessary part (the actual broken part is called a universal joint) and was a good mechanic. He called the man, we pushed the car up on to the service station lift and about 3 hours later the car was fixed, the weather had warmed up and we were back on our way.
Well, not quite on our way. The service station owner handed the driver a bill for the repair and his only response was, “I don’t have the money to pay this.” We are in the middle of rural Kentucky; I am trying to get to Schenectady for Christmas; and my driver, his wife and tiny baby, have no money to pay the bill. No-one is saying a word. It quickly becomes obvious to me that I am the only one that happens to have (ironically) car repair money in his wallet. I paid the bill, and now, we were on our way.
As the weather warmed we made our way out of Kentucky and into West Virginia. Around midnight we came to the cross roads where Wheeling, West Virginia, was to the left and New York was to the right. We thanked our West Virginia friends and we stuck out our thumbs hoping to get a ride, at least to Pittsburgh about 30 miles away.
Even though it was quite late at night, our hitchhiking luck held out and in a very short time a car stopped, the driver rolled down the window and said, “If you want, I can drop you off in downtown Pittsburgh.”
On our way into the city, my sailor friend and I discussed how our original travel plan was not meeting expectations. Neither of us had any idea how to hitchhike out of Pittsburgh and we began to believe we were not going to make it home by Christmas under any hitchhiking scenario. We agreed that the Greyhound bus was our only alternative.
But we had a more immediate situation. Our driver had dropped us off in a late night very alive section of Pittsburgh. Within seconds of exiting the car we were befriended by a welcome wagon of local residents. They were all very friendly and quite outgoing, but their conversation seemed to focus on “Can you help me out?” We were not exactly flush with cash ourselves, but we gave some of them a little change, and one of the more helpful men actually walked us to the bus station, not far away. The bus station was our hitchhike salvation.
Well, not entirely. At this juncture two busses were required, one that went north and east to Schenectady and one that went straight east to NYC. We went to the ticket window and I bought a Schenectady ticket. My sailor friend went to buy a ticket to NYC, but then I heard what was becoming a familiar refrain, “I don’t have the money to pay this.” I still had a little car repair money left and it was enough that both of us together, were able to finance the two tickets and now both of us were broke but, headed home for Christmas.
I don’t remember many specifics about that particular Christmas, but both of my sisters would have been home from college and being in our family’s house at Christmas is always a beautiful time.
The only less than pleasant news was that my car had not returned from the repair shop, and so now I had to reconsider the logistics of my Navy return. My Navy leave was from 12 midnight, December 23 to 12 midnight, December 29. The military is very strict about observing the actual leave time and date. Sailors must report their return from leave to the Officer of the Day (OD) in the uniform of the day. Any absence from the base after midnight December 29 would require the OD to file an official report. If late, I would be listed as absent without leave (AWOL), a serious and punishable offense. I had absolutely no cash, my plan to provide a ride for my sailor friend was no longer viable and was in direct contradiction with his plan to take a bus from NYC to Schenectady. I had no way of notifying him of the change of plans. I had not had the good sense to get his phone number.
I was not a teenager. In fact, I was only twelve days away from my 21st birthday. As I have thought back, it occurs to me that from the start of my “Home for Christmas” project, I was making decisions that were inconsistent with reasoned adult thinking and that ultimately the consequences would require adult intervention. Over the years my parents had certainly recognized the impulse-driven flaws in my decision making. I know they hoped and had faith that someday I would, as they say, “grow-up.” But in the meantime, my father agreed to pay for my ticket back to Memphis. My sailor friend showed up on schedule and I explained the change in plans. His response was something I had become accustomed to but my father could not have known: “I don’t have the money to pay for this.” My father also paid for his ticket.
There is a certain gravitational magic about Christmas that pulls people back to their family and their childhood hometown. There have been hundreds of songs written about the happiness of going home for Christmas or sadness about not being home for Christmas. For the most part home is defined as the place you lived as a child, and on December 23, 1962 there were five people in a beat-up 1955 Ford just outside of Memphis, headed 1,000 miles north in pursuit of that happiness. Confronting the actual reality of the situation however, it seemed much more likely that their song would be written about the unhappiness of not being home for Christmas.
Christmas in the Middle of Nowhere
The old Ford sat silently,
The rhythmic thumping ended,
The cold travelers lost in thought,
Christmas joy suspended.
But my story, written 60 years later, is a journey of true Christmas joy, a story of mutual responsibility and concern for each other, a story of quiet grace and sharing the little that we each had.
The tiny baby in the back seat wrapped up in the old blanket and my sailor friend’s Navy pea coat was peaceful and seemed satisfied that her mom and dad were doing everything to keep her safe and warm and comfortable. Her mother held her constantly. Even when the car was on the lift in the service station she stayed in the backseat with her baby child. The mother never complained once about the cold or the weather or the car or anything. The sailor in the backseat gave up his coat, snuggled up his Christmas stuffed bear close to the mother and baby for extra warmth, rolled with the punches and accepted his lot in life in a very cold back seat. The sailor in the front seat cleaned off the fogged interior windshield, scraped off the iced exterior windshield and financed the unanticipated travel expenses. The service station manager got involved in the driveshaft problem and suggested and delivered a viable solution. The second driver, who picked us up late at night, got us into downtown Pittsburgh. The local residents helped us locate the bus station. Everyone contributed to the slow but steady Christmas journey. And my parents contributed totally to getting the two sailors back to the Navy base on time before midnight December 29.
Before I could tell the end of my story in 2021, I needed some serious professional automobile mechanical advice. Fortunately, I have a neighbor who is an excellent mechanic and has in fact rebuilt and restored many 1950’s cars since his teenage years and he is now in his 80’s and still doing it. I asked him if my initial intuition when the 1955 Ford started thumping was the universal joint failing and that it totally failed when the driver spun the wheels wildly on the frozen blacktop surface. He agreed spinning the wheels caused the worn-out universal joint to shatter and the driveshaft to fall off, but, he added, that at some point, it was going to happen anyway and we were very lucky that it happened at a service station. Back to my story.
Since we left Memphis, the West Virginian had been the most careful driver. He drove slowly in the snow and the icy rain. He knew the route so well he did not need a map, and he clearly understood the limitations of his car. He cared about his wife and child and he drove accordingly. Up until now I thought it was just some West Virginia thing, spinning the wheels showing off a little and that would have been my story. But that was so out of character with everything else about the man. My neighbor mechanic had said something that changed my thinking.
“You were very lucky” he said “that it happened at a service station.”
.I don’t think we were lucky. I am sure the West Virginian heard the rhythmic thump and I am sure he knew what it was. He knew the landscape and that we were headed into a very rural and hilly part of Kentucky, on a snowy late afternoon. He knew that we would have real problems if the driveshaft fell off late at night, in the middle of nowhere and that everything about that would be unsafe for his family. He knew exactly what he was doing. It was his gift to us all.
Chasing pigs. Maybe later it would become something funny, misadventure birthing anecdote. Big fucking sows, lacking only tusks. My shoes were not meant for this task—a muddy, stubby furrowed, harvested corn field dusted with snow. The sows were in their element, resolutely snouting into hummocks and chowing down on whatever was found. We were supposed to chase them back toward the gate they broke through. At the fence I had picked up a stalk to use as a flail, but I was afraid if I actually used it to hit a pig, it would just piss her off. If there was an appropriate thing to yell at a pig in such situations, I was unschooled in it. And because the Amish mother and her boys were out there with me, I couldn’t yell the swear words that I wanted to.
I am not a pig farmer; I’m an accountant. I work for MidWestOne Bank in Iowa City. I was there to assess property and stock value as part of a foreclosure proceeding. That’s not part of my job description, but no one else wanted to do it. No one likes foreclosures. They’re just a giant pain in the ass. I know they sent me out because I’m not a local. As I tried to cut off the escape route of a mud-splattered mini-hippo, I wondered what it was worth, dead or alive. The boys were a lot better at this than I was. They got their escapees close to the gate, where their mother got them through it. It was still flurrying. Very Grant Woodish Americana, in a tragic way. The mother had her long black skirt hiked up and tucked into her waist band—slender calves in black stockings. She was wearing a man’s brimmed hat.
It was early for snow. This was only my second winter in Iowa, so I’m no expert, but it wasn’t even Thanksgiving yet. I got my pig turned around. Maybe she’d eaten enough or had remembered her pen back in the nice warm barn. The Amish mother had caught me as I drove up and said there was an emergency. The next thing I knew I was in this stupid field with the boys. I knew the mother’s story from my co-worker Beth Ann, who lived out here in the county. It had been the hot gossip topic back in the spring. To bring in extra income, the Amish farmer had rented out the vacant hired hand’s house on the farm to a couple from the university. Over the winter, when the student husband was gone to the campus, the wife had seduced the Amish farmer. When the affair was discovered, the wife and the farmer took off together. It was hot gossip because that sort of thing just did not happen on Amish farms. With the farmer gone, mortgage payments, already in arears, had stopped completely.
I never intended to be a banker. I grew up wanting to be a judge. The robe, the gavel, the throne above everyone else. “May I approach the bench, your honor?” “Motion denied.” “I’ll see you in my chambers.” All we have left of true feudalism, aside from the church. And religion was way too whacky, illogical, the opposite of jurisprudence. But I dropped out of law school, too much to memorize and the woman I was living with decamped to Modesto and I followed her. A career with numbers was the next logical choice. When we had the sows corralled, I took some photos of them with my iPhone.
“You are from the bank then?” the mother asked. Up close, she seemed too young for motherhood.
“They asked me to come out, take some pictures, ask a few questions, if you don’t mind.” We were standing in the gravel driveway to the barn.
“I have no say about what you do,” she said. The snow had picked up and was swirling around us.
“Can we go inside?” I asked.
“No. I cannot have a man who is not family in my house when I am alone.”
The two boys, maybe six and nine, were standing together five yards behind their mother, watching us. I took their photo. Their mother did not approve of this and turned and walked with them toward the farmhouse. I took a snap of them walking away into the snow. Before leaving, I photographed all the buildings and livestock and equipment. I lingered out of the snow on the porch of what I took to be the hired hand’s house, looked into the empty, almost barren rooms, the scene of the crime. I didn’t know what else I was supposed to do.
There was no snow to speak of in the following month. It didn’t look like it would be a white Christmas no matter how many times Bing Crosby sang about it in the stores. A plus of being Jewish is that you don’t have to do Christmas. If you are a nonpracticing Jew like me, you can pretty much ignore religious holidays altogether, both Christian and Jewish, while still taking them all off from work. This affords you a favored nonparticipant observer status, and you can feel secretly superior. Like a smug anthropologist you can surveil all the novel—primarily commercial—customs of the benighted natives. The schlock decorations and music and hype are easier to endure if you can view them ethnographically. You don’t have to watch Jimmy Stewart yell his way through It’s a Wonderful Life.
The downtown restaurants were fuller than usual with Xmas shoppers. I ended up for lunch at a place where I rarely ate. Usually, I bring something to read at lunch, but recently my eyes had been getting tired, looking at numbers all morning, and I had to give them a rest. Otherwise, I would never have noticed her. She was not my waitress, several stations away. I couldn’t place her at first. That was disturbing. I knew her, but I didn’t know why. A face that wanted to be plain and unmemorable but couldn’t quite pull it off. She bent forward, bussing a table, and suddenly I saw her, her face beneath a wide-brimmed man’s hat in the snow, the same resigned expression. I didn’t remember her name. Had I ever known it? She was busy; she never noticed me.
I have a sister who is into interpreting dreams, always has been, way beyond Freud. In fact, she’s a shrink now in San Francisco, charging people to analyze their dreams and defang their nightmares. It’s a science to her. She taught me to pay attention to my dreams, take notes, try to pull a thread out to follow back in, watch for repetitions. That night I had a full-on Bergman dream of Amish mother. I won’t bore you with details. The next morning at the office, I found and pulled up the photos I’d taken and printed out a copy of the one of her sons. It was a good photo. They were so clear and alive against the white-scrimmed bleakness behind them.
I went back to the same place for lunch and sat at one of her tables. She showed no flicker of recognition when she came to take my order.
“Hi, remember me?” I asked.
“You’re the man from the bank,” she said. “What will it be?”
“A Rueben,” I said. “How are the boys?”
“Anything to drink with that?”
“Coffee and a glass of water. I brought something for you.” I had the photo in a manilla envelope. I pulled it out to show her.
She glanced at it. “Cream with that coffee?”
“Yes. It’s for you. It’s yours.”
She took the menu from my hands. “You can keep that,” she said, nodding to the photograph. She left. She hadn’t looked at me. When I left, I left the photo in the manila envelope with my tip.
I should have been a lawyer. When they screw up, they have plenty of excuses and other people to blame. Not like balancing a spreadsheet. I didn’t know what the holdup was this time, but that Amish farm foreclosure was still not final, and we were into a new quarter, and the court had sent something back, and numbers had changed. Always a pain in the ass. Part of the problem seemed to be the missing Amish farmer, who had disappeared, and, seeing as he didn’t seem to be dead, the court wanted his signature on some documents or something. To complicate matters, some irregular anonymous payments on the mortgage had been received, nothing close to the amount in arrears.
I was sent back out to check on the property. I have no idea how I became the farm reality inspector. The farm is down near Hills. Hills is on the Iowa River, no hills around. Farther south five or six miles, off the river, in some hills, is the town of Riverside. I never did figure that one out. All flat farmland thereabouts, with roads laid out in straight-line, square-corner grids. Another wet, cold day, but March now, the only snow on the north face of furrows.
The place looked empty but not deserted, a farm at rest. There were fresh tire tracks in the dirt drive, but no vehicles in the yard. I knocked at the farmhouse front door to no answer. The barns were all padlocked. I had no way of knowing what equipment was still there inside them. No sows about. Everything looked the same; there was no point in taking more photos. I was headed back to my car, when a pickup truck pulled into the drive. When it saw my car it stopped, then backed up onto the road and drove off. It was an old pickup truck, a veteran Ford Ranger. A man was driving. I never wanted to be a cop, just a judge. A robe not a uniform, a gavel not a gun. It never crossed my mind to try to stop him or to follow him. None of my business. I had decided that it was late enough in the afternoon for me to skip going back to the office.
I recently read somewhere that the total gross mass of manmade stuff—roads, buildings, cars, machines, plastics, junk—had finally eclipsed the total gross biomass—all living things including plants—on the planet. Way to go, Homo sapiens. Hard to believe, though, driving through endless Iowa farmland with only widely spaced homesteads of barns, silos, and farmhouses. Personal truth and greater truth. Extrapolate from what you know and get it wrong. If all you have known is Nebraska, you think the earth is flat.
All payments made after the formal foreclosure notice had been filed were pointless, null and void. But the lawyers and the court were interested in who had made them. If it was the missing Amish farmer, then he was around, and if he could be found then the whole thing could be quickly finalized. In any event, the money was not the bank’s and had to be returned. I was asked to try and find out to whom. Pain in the ass.
The payments had been made in cash to tellers, irregular amounts at irregular intervals. My first thought was the Amish mother, making what payment she could from her tips in hopes of saving the farm. I went to where she worked, but she wouldn’t talk to me, refused to even listen to my explanation. There are four MidWestOne Bank branches in Iowa City. I attached an action-alert notice to that loan account requiring, if a deposit was made, that a record of transaction form be signed by the depositor and reported to me. Tellers do not appreciate this kind of extra bullshit, neither do I. But ten days later I got a signed form and I took down my notice.
The depositor was neither the farmer nor the Amish mother. The signature was hard to decipher—Stephen (?) Br…something. The teller at the Keokuk Street branch remembered only that it was a clean-shaven Caucasian male, nothing exceptional about him. I got the feeling that if there was more to tell, she wouldn’t have told me. MidWestOne management likes to portray the bank as one big family, but it’s not a very happy family.
Well, that was it as far as I was concerned. I issued a new action-alert notice that no additional payments were to be accepted on that account. The lawyers and the court could play the rest of their game without my participation. It took a couple more weeks, but the foreclosure was finalized and an eviction notice issued. That left the limbo deposits. I wanted to get them off the books. I proposed to Van Buren that we give it to the Amish mother. He knew her story. He signed off on it, and I had a cashier’s check cut.
She wasn’t at work at the restaurant. I was afraid she had quit but learned it was just her day off. I drove out to the farm. I had an excuse—to make sure the eviction notice had been posted. It had. The fields, the yard, the trees around the house were all washed with the soft, water-color green of spring. A pickup truck was parked in the driveway beside the main house, so someone was home. A young man answered my knock. He gave me a look that said Yes? Behind him, from another room, a woman’s voice, “Who is it, Stephen?” The Amish mother came out of the kitchen. She was no longer dressed in black.
“It’s me, the man from the bank. I have something for you, a check.”
She came up and stood beside Stephen. “A check?”
“A remittance of improper payments,” I said and explained about the payments and the rules.
“But who?” she said.
“I think you can thank this man here for the effort. Am I right, Stephen?”
Stephen didn’t say anything.
She looked at Stephen. “But why?”
“I… I felt responsible. I mean, I brought her here. I should have known. I should have seen what was happening and gotten her away.”
There was an expression on the Amish mother’s face now, but I wasn’t sure what it meant. I handed her the check. “Maybe this will help you get a new start.”
They were still standing there, looking at one another when I left. No need for a banker at swap meets.