A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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“But leave the wise to wrangle, and with me
The Quarrel of the Universe let be:
And, in some corner of the Hubbub coucht,
Make Game of That which makes as much of Thee.”
— Omar Khayyam
Jethro Nickel called it Halfway. No one quite knew why; it was a very private thing. It was not halfway to anywhere obvious. It was more than halfway up the mountain and less than halfway to Wyoming. It was not halfway north, by any gauge, nor was it particularly halfway south. It was not halfway to the river, or to Salt Lake, and it was much more than halfway to California. Jethro once said it was halfway humble, which was about as much as he ever said about it, but that was no help; and besides, he was joking.
He joked a lot, especially after he came to Halfway. He was known for joking about practically everything, but it had not always been that way. There had been a period of about twenty years when he had not joked at all. It had begun when he was seven and had lasted until he was twenty-eight. His mother Ruth, who suffered it deeply, said it began when his brother Moroni Walter was kicked in the head by a mule, and became what everyone called “simple.” Before that, she said, Jethro had been a joyous child, and had cracked jokes all the time. After that he became what everyone called “sober,” and what Ruth called “grave.”
This, then, was the family legend. Ruth had wanted to have the mule shot, as if that were going to help anything. Enos Nickel, the boys’ father, put a stop to that quick enough: no sense shooting a good mule for doing what mules did. Moroni Walter lay unconscious for three weeks in the little south-facing bedroom of the farmhouse north of Vernon. He had been named after that mule, Walter, and after the angel Moroni, who came to New York in 1823 and told Joseph Smith that God had some work for him to do. Smith had done it. He was later killed by a mob in Illinois, but a religion had come out of it, and it gave comfort to them all.
For three weeks Moroni Walter, named after an angel and a mule, lay in a coma. When he came to, he was simple, and could no longer do even the most rudimentary arithmetic: numbers had become an awesome mystery to him. He was simple, and Jethro, who loved him so, was grave thereafter. So Ruth remembered, and so went the accepted tale.
Two long decades later, digging the first of his deep dry wells at Halfway, Jethro remembered differently. He remembered abruptly one day, so vividly that he marveled, and wondered how he had ever forgotten. Remembering, six feet down into the dry well, he watered it for hours with his tears, the only damp that well would ever know. How, how could he have ever forgotten? For three weeks his brother Moroni Walter had been what everyone called “unconscious,” but he had talked to Jethro during that time, as clearly and as easily as could be.
Jethro remembered: Moroni Walter in the bed with the big white bandage on his head, radiant, smiling — grinning — propped up on big pillows with a big glass of chocolate milk, his favorite, on the night table beside him, placed there by Ruth in pained anticipation of his awakening. He was talking to an angel that Jethro could not see, and the angel’s name was Moroni. The angel told Moroni Walter, who told Jethro, that the mule Walter had kicked him in the head as part of a plan, and he — the mule, that is — was sorry if it had hurt much. It was a deal between the angel and the mule, and that was why he was named Moroni Walter. It all had to do with the real meaning and the proper use of numbers.
Moroni Walter told his brother Jethro all this as calmly as could be, and drank his chocolate milk.
Jethro would be beaten for that emptied glass of chocolate milk. He tried to tell Ruth that Moroni Walter drank it, and then she had Enos beat him more for lying. Moroni Walter was unconscious, in a coma. Everyone knew that.
It happened every day for a week. It became a sort of ritual. Jethro would come home from school — he was in first grade at the time — and ask Ruth how Moroni Walter was doing. She would reply, pained and heavy, that he was still unconscious, still in a coma. Jethro would go into the little south-facing bedroom all full of light, and there his brother would be, awake and alert, with the glass of chocolate milk by his bed. He would talk with Jethro, and tell him the latest things the angel had told him, and the latest things about the birds that played and sang in the tree outside his window. He was keeping close watch on those birds. Jethro would tell him jokes and stories about school, and Moroni Walter would drink the chocolate milk. Later, their parents would come in, and Moroni Walter would be out cold, and the milk would be gone, and Jethro would be beaten for drinking it.
In those beatings was all Enos’s bewilderment and hurt that his good mule had kicked his son into a coma, and all Ruth’s horror that her child was on the brink of death. It went on that way for a week, until Jethro could not sit down for the welts and bruises on his back and rear, and his ears rang so he could barely hear, from Enos’s cuffs and bewildered blows. Jethro was a stubborn child, and did not — would not — change his story, and his parents beat him as if it would bring Moroni Walter back. At last one day, Enos, in bewilderment and hurt and rage, hit him too hard, and knocked him against a wall. Jethro hit his head and was out cold. Enos, with both his sons unconscious now and feeling it was all his own fault, had the shotgun out and in his own mouth, and was ready to pull the trigger when Ruth came in. Her scream stopped him, and Jethro came to a few minutes later with no more than a headache, but nothing would ever be quite the same for any of them again.
He was not allowed in his brother’s room after that. Even after Moroni Walter came to, Jethro was not allowed in to see him for months. Word came back that his brother was simple — his brain had been hurt. Jethro was not to bother him.
After that, Jethro was grave.
So, twenty years later, he remembered it. It was July then, his first summer at Halfway. The remembrance was so strong that for a while he just stopped digging, believing that his purpose in coming to Halfway was fulfilled. For two weeks, as July passed into August, he did nothing — he sang a lot. But then he began digging again. He dug on the same dry well until the snows came in October, and then he went to find Moroni Walter, who was an assistant counselor at a bad orphanage outside of Salt Lake City. He had not seen his brother for almost twelve years.
Moroni Walter recognized him immediately, which was a little surprising, because Jethro was sun- and wind-scorched to a deep red-brown, and leathery, and bearded wildly, and had not had a haircut in a year and a half. He had the dust of months of dry wells in all his clothes. He had been shot twice since they had last seen each other, once in a war and once in a bar. His eyes had new creases at the corners.
“I was wondering if you would ever show up,” Moroni Walter said. He couldn’t balance a checkbook, but he was good with kids. He was the best thing that had happened to that bad orphanage.
“Do you remember when you got kicked in the head by the mule and everyone thought you were in a coma and I’d go in there every afternoon and there you were, awake?” Jethro said. It was a demand, almost violent, fueled by months of mountain brooding, barely civilized. “God damn it, you were awake!”
“Yeah,” his brother said.
Jethro blinked, slowed. “Hunh?”
“Yeah, I was. I was awake sometimes.”
“You never said anything about it!”
Moroni Walter shrugged. “You never asked.”
It was true. They looked at each other. Moroni Walter’s face had already gotten a little pudgy by then, round and soft. Jethro was lean and urgent and weather-colored. Slowly, they smiled.
“No shit,” Jethro marveled at last.
“No shit,” Moroni Walter said. He was still simple. The kids laughed at him and called him Moron Walter, or Moronic Walter, but he was good with them.
Jethro went back to Mexico that winter, and was back at Halfway by first thaw. He had already begun to joke again; he had been telling jokes in bad Spanish all winter. He started the second deep dry well at Halfway that April.
He was still walking in those days, carrying everything on his back, carrying the shovel in his hands like a talisman. There was no road, just the faintest graded memory of a wagon trail, impassable, from the days of Jack Nickel, Jethro’s great-grandfather.
There had been water on the land in Jack Nickel’s days. Jethro had found the source, a deep hollow under a boulder, and followed the old dry bed of the dry stream down where water had run, past the big gnarled juniper that had seen that water, past the ruins of the house Jack Nickel had built during the Spanish-American war, with the broken clay pipes poking out. The faint straight trails of the old irrigation ditches could still be made out if the light was right, where stream water had been diverted to feed the garden. It required an intense act of imagination to picture the garden itself: a green overlay on the gray grid of those almost invisible lines.
So, there had been water. But there was water no more, not a drop of it. The hollow under the boulder was full of dust and juniper needles and deer shit. Jethro dug his first dry well there the first year, figuring the water was nearby somehow, just below the surface, or just off to the right — somewhere. He dug all spring and summer and fall. All he found was the memory of Moroni Walter, sitting up in his coma and drinking the chocolate milk, and the bones of a large bird.
The second year he dug near the juniper, figuring a tree needed deep water. He dug all spring and summer and into the fall, but there was no water, and not even any good memories. All he could really think about was Korea and Mary Claire Denken.
Korea was a war he had fought in and Mary Claire Denken was a girl who had married someone else.
He dug until the snows came — they came early that year, in late September — and then he went to New Orleans and worked on an offshore oil rig all winter. He almost died in a storm that swamped the thing, and still all he could think about was Korea and Mary Claire. He could reach no conclusions about either.
The third year he just dug at random — he threw a rock in the air and dug where it landed. He knew he had to dig, so he dug.
He was getting good at it by then. There was a layer of rock about nine feet down, laced, incredibly enough, with seashells. The first year he didn’t even get to it until the snows had started; and the second year he hit it in August. Now he had reached it by June, so he started another well at a spot determined by the fall of another rock. He was still thinking about Korea, and about Mary Claire, and then in July of that year, about four or five feet down in the new hole, he had a dream one night about water and woke up the next morning thinking about God. He thought about God for the rest of the summer and fall, until the snows came in October, and then he went to Texas for the winter and shipped out on a freighter from Corpus Christi. He was still thinking about God.
It was not the God of Enos Nickel, who had most of the time been a sort of benevolent loan banker but who, occasionally, whimsically, called in all debts. That God kept close books. That God judged a man by the success of his ventures. That God Jethro had stopped thinking about when he was fifteen. Enos had died that year, pathetically, and Jethro had seen in his eyes before they closed only relief that he no longer had to keep a parallel set of double-entry books for that God. That God was busy all the time, balancing numbers. Jethro had no desire for His heaven, and no fear of His hell.
No, this God he was thinking about was different. This God, as far as Jethro could tell, did not care about the books’ balancing — just didn’t give a shit, as Jethro put it to himself in some astonishment. This God left all that to another department. This God cared only that you did the work you did out of love.
Jethro had begun to love his shovel. He loved his calluses. He had begun to love the dry, stony dirt at Halfway. In fact it was only at that point, during his fourth year there, that he even began to call it Halfway. Before that he had called it what Jack Nickel had called it, which was “Hell and Back.”
Jack Nickel had no doubt had his private reasons. Jethro had his. Hell and Back — sanitized, in the local Mormon histories of the area, to “Hellenbach” — became Halfway, during that fourth year, and that was that.
Something else happened that fourth year. It had actually happened during the first year, but it was not manifest until the fourth: a flower grew at Halfway. A sunflower, in fact.
What had happened during the first year was that a cat named Seedy Gonzales had died. As a kitten, Seedy had been the gift to Jethro of Juanita Gonzales, his Mexican-American illegal immigrant girlfriend before he went to Korea. When he came back from Korea, Juanita was already fat and had two kids and a third on the way, and her husband, a legal immigrant, hit her every two weeks or so. She had kept the cat for him, though, and when Jethro went to Hell and Back that spring, and began through that long love affair with its stony dirt to make it into Halfway, Seedy followed him.
Seedy died that first August. Why, who knows: just died, a sweet cat. Jethro buried him near the old dry stream bed and watered his grave a little with tears, then moved on with his life and his other digging. Three years later a sunflower sprouted after a rain on that spot, in what was by then an exceptionally rich patch of Halfway dirt.
In the dry white-brown landscape of Halfway, and to the by then vast attentiveness of Jethro, the tiny initial green tip poking above the ground was as evident as an earthquake. He watered the mystery seedling all summer and put a fence around it against the deer and the ground squirrels. It got taller and taller and marvelously taller and at last blossomed as a sunflower almost five feet tall. Its huge yellow head drooped toward the blazing Halfway August sun, as Jethro nearby dug and placidly dug yet another dry, dry, dusty and stony well.
When the snows came that fourth year, Jethro went to see his mother Ruth. She was living in a little house in Salt Lake City, with a dog named Walter. Jethro took with him a packet of seeds from the sunflower. He gave her this tiny gift, a mere spitting in the wind of her upset at not having seen him for fifteen years. She didn’t recognize him at all; she almost called the police. Walter went for his leg repeatedly, and barked and barked. Jethro went back to the bus station and shaved his beard in the bathroom there, and came back, and still she didn’t recognize him: his eyes were different — they had a look, she said, a look. She believed him, that he was Jethro, but only abstractly. He showed her a driver’s license and a picture of her, and all this she acknowledged, but her emotions had not caught up.
By the time he had the wallet out and his beard off, the dog Walter had stopped barking. He stood five feet away from Jethro the rest of the evening, alert, poised, occasionally growling low, to keep him honest. Ruth went into the living room and turned on the television in an obvious effort to make things normal again. Jethro went into the kitchen and poured the sunflower seeds into one of the small precious china dishes — made in London — from the set that Ruth had bought one piece at a time the entire time he was growing up.
He handled the bowl with two reverent hands, as he had been raised to do. Walter even respectfully stopped growling while Jethro was handling the bowl: it was no mean thing. During his childhood there had always been a special jar in the kitchen, “hidden” — they all knew where it was — behind the flour; money would accrete there in small, small bits over long periods of time. When there was enough cash in it, Ruth would make the special trip to a little knick-knack shop in Elko, Nevada. There the whole set was laid out, incongruous and exquisite, amid the pennants and plaster statues of women with red lips and big breasts and the postcards of jackalopes and plaques that said “World’s Greatest Lover” and bumper stickers that said “IF YOU CAN READ THIS YOU’RE TOO DAMN CLOSE!” and “HONK IF YOU’RE HORNY” and T-shirts that just said “Elko.” No one else ever bought a piece of that china. The pennants and postcards and key rings and plaster things came and went, the interstate was built, the shop changed owners three times and finally became an adjunct to a big casino that was built next to it in 1960. Over two decades, as three farms failed under Ruth and Enos, and their children were born or miscarried — they lost two, including the only girl — and, as the surviving children grew up slowly, and as Enos moved through failure and adventure and failure, and finally through despair toward dying, Ruth purchased that entire set of exquisite china piece by piece, trip by trip. One piece at a time, at intervals of months or years, was wrapped in the newspaper she brought along, and placed in the same sturdy cardboard box she kept just for those trips, and carried back in her lap from Elko across the salt flats in the same old Ford black pickup truck that they had from after World War II until Enos died, when she bought a black sedan with the insurance money. Enos lovingly built her a beautiful cedar cabinet after she bought the first piece of the china on their honeymoon. For a long time that piece, a cup with no saucer, was the only thing in that cabinet, in the poor early years, but eventually the bulk of the set was transferred intact from the shop in Elko to the shelves of the cabinet in Ruth’s kitchen.
Jethro noted now that she had the whole set. She had not, when he had left. It was a relief: he had gone to Elko once, five years after he left home, and the last of the china had been gone from the shop. His heart had sunk then, and he had prayed the china was hers. Now he poured the sunflower seeds into the bowl and carried it into the living room and set it on the cedar coffee table that was the second piece of furniture Enos had made.
Ruth would not touch the sunflower seeds. She sat stolidly watching television, a situation comedy. Jethro set the bowl very carefully on the table and sat down at the other end of the couch. She did not blink, glance at him, or murmur. They watched television the rest of the night, without changing the channel, without getting up during the commercials, without a word. One situation comedy after another, and then the Wednesday night movie, and then some late news, and then Johnny Carson, and then some really late news, and the late late movie, and some preacher, and a short about Tasmania, and the National Anthem.
They actually watched the test pattern for a while before Ruth stood up and stretched. The moment was normal; eight hours of television had done it. They smiled at each other.
“Guess I’ll go to bed,” Ruth said. “You can sleep on the couch here, I reckon.”
In the instant’s unexpected ease, she reached for the sunflower seeds, dipped her arthritic fingers into the bowl — and knocked it onto the floor. It broke into three pieces, and the seeds scattered everywhere.
Jethro held his breath. Walter leaped to his feet, quivering and alert, but unsure how to retaliate. Ruth stared down at the broken bowl and the scattered seeds. It was the first piece of that china that had broken in thirty years.
As the silence stretched on, Jethro laughed. He could not help it — he surprised himself, and laughed. It was just too much, the look on Ruth’s face. He laughed and laughed; Walter the dog, relieved, wagged his tail and barked once, and happily panted.
Ruth looked at the two of them and shook her head.
“It’s a mighty strange time to get your sense of humor back,” she told her son. Then she popped the three sunflower seeds in her hand into her mouth, and went off to bed. As Jethro cleaned up the seeds and the broken bowl, and arranged the couch to sleep on, he could hear her in the bedroom, crying; crying, crying. She was still crying when he fell asleep, much later, near dawn.
When Ruth woke the next day, her arthritis, which had plagued her right hand since around the time of Enos’s death, was gone. She could straighten and freely move the fingers, and the gnarl was gone. The hand was healed. It was a small miracle. Ruth, stuck for a cause, attributed it to the sunflower seeds.
Jethro attributed it to the breaking of the bowl, and the shattering of the set’s perfection in general. He believed it must have cramped Ruth’s hand terribly all those years, clutching that perfection. She was well rid of it.
Who knows about these things? Maybe it was the travelogue about Tasmania the night before, or even the mandalic effect of the test pattern. Jethro had no certainty. In any case, he let Ruth have her theory, and all the rest of the sunflower seeds. The next year he brought her another batch. For the rest of her life, she would daily, religiously, eat three sunflower seeds before she went to bed. She was very clear about this: the seeds had to be grown at Halfway. Her son found it ridiculous, but he continued to grow the sunflowers and bring her seeds. The arthritis never returned.
For his part, Jethro took the three pieces of the broken china bowl back to Halfway and glued them together. Except for the faint gray traces of its history, it was as good as ever — better, maybe, as the glue Jethro used made the thing unbreakable along the lines of its healing. He kept the bowl on a small cedar shelf he made for it, in his tent, near his sleeping bag. It was the first sign of human permanence at Halfway since the days of Jack Nickel.