Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Or are you just looking for another father.
How many fathers does one boy need?
— E.L. Doctorow
His palsied hands shiver as he twists the fishing line one, two, three, four times around, then threads it through. He pulls the tangle of line tight and drops the blue-silver lure. It swings between us. “That’s a fisherman’s knot,” Pa Peters tells me, and he chuckles and pushes his thick glasses up the bridge of his bent nose. “That’s how you do it.”
I take my pole from Pa and thank him and step into the icy lake water and wade out to a dark, flat-topped rock. I cast, then reel in my line, cast and reel, again and again, and the sun arcs slowly over and down and finally behind the granite maw of the Beartooth Mountains. I lay my pole down then and sit cross-legged on my rock and watch Pa Peters. He is old, easily the oldest person I know. He shakes and cannot hear things; his hair is salt white. I don’t think he’s related to us by blood, but I am to call him “Pa” — do not even know his given name — because my father loves Pa Peters as if he were his own father. They fish together. Each summer, when the river back home slicks to dust and the grass goes dry-bone brittle, my father packs the cooler with white bread, bologna, and cans of Rainier, and then clamps the topper to the back of the pickup and says to me, “Get in,” and we haul ass up into the mountains, where Pa Peters meets us.
And in the half light of the canyon, Pa Peters is more than worthy of the title “grandfather.” I am only six years old, but I can tell he knows the water better than my father, better than any other man I’ve seen. He fishes that in-between place, half lake, half river, where the water starts to crash and pull again, his feet firm in the current, his hands shaking but in each small movement sure. I watch him cast, so long and true and lovely that each swell of line seems to float an hour in the sky, the fine mist of lake water falling, the lure dropping behind a slick rock — and then the strike. His pole bends, his reel sings, and for a few moments there is this give and take — wild splashing, silver belly flashing — before Pa Peters reaches into the roiling waters and with his trembling hands pulls the cutthroat into the fading mountain light. He is holding the fish; he is saying something; his lips are moving — but I hear only the roar and fall of the river.
Now they’re giggling in the back seat. Most likely Ole’s whispered something dirty to Duane — Nuts; or, Knockers, or, Ain’t that Nicole Ritterodt a nice piece? — and Duane has whispered it to Chip, and now Ole, Duane, and Chip are all bugging their eyes out and puffing their cheeks and giggling at Ole’s audacity, his priceless comic timing. It helps, of course, that we are just eight years old, and dirty words — though usually misunderstood and misused — are like gold coins we hoard and pull from our pockets to brighten the edges of our already-tired days out on the Big Dry, that stretch of riverless high plains in east-central Montana that we call home.
But I don’t care what they’re giggling about, not today. Today I’m riding shotgun. Today I’m listening to Coach Drease lecture on baseball, Ford trucks, redheaded women, and how we’re going to beat the pants off White Sulphur Springs. And this too, especially this: there is a half rack of Green River pop in the front seat of the car between Coach and me, and whenever Ole or Chip or Duane wants one, he has to tap me on the shoulder, and I look at Coach, with his left hand draped over the wheel and his right arm stretched across the back of the bench seat, and he works the bulging wad of Copenhagen that is always in his lip and nods, and then, officiously, I hand Ole or Chip or Duane a warm Green River. And Coach — whom I am supposed to call “Sir” or “Mr. Drease” but have been calling “Coach” because I am sure he won’t tell my father and because I don’t think Coach is bad or disrespectful — has sat me up front here as a kindness, has let me ride shotgun and pass out the Green Rivers because my father’s once-barrel chest has begun to cave and sink with cancer. Coach is only eight or ten years out of high school himself, but right now he knows what it’s all about. He’ll work the rest of his days pulling a mop across the schoolroom floors; the soft bag of his belly will sag, and his shoulders will slump before he hits thirty; he’ll hope for nothing more than a place to put his feet up and a few beers before the dark comes down. Coach knows what sitting shotgun and a half rack of Green Rivers means. So I am happy listening to him, letting the lemon-lime sweetness of the soda roll down my throat and fizz in my belly, watching the countryside rise and buckle as we make our way west on Highway 12 and up into the mountains.
“Listen. Listen now,” Coach says and slaps the wine red vinyl of the bench seat, his face going uncharacteristically serious. Chip, Duane, and Ole stop their giggling and lean forward. “We’re about to go under a train trestle. I’m going to punch it up to about ninety-five here, boys, because when you go under a train trestle at ninety-five, you’ll hear some things.”
“What things?” Ole asks.
“You’ll know it when you hear it, bucko. I promise you that. Just keep your ears peeled.”
Coach steps hard on the gas. He makes a big show of it, leaning back and putting both hands on the wheel, stiffening his arms. Around the angles of the Chevy Suburban the wind begins to whistle and keen. Fence posts and cottonwoods whip past my window, and I lean my head to the glass. Whatever there is to hear, I want to hear it. I try to block out the wind and the country music spilling from the radio. I listen.
“Here we go, buckos!” Coach yells, and he scrunches down in his seat like a race-car driver and speeds us under the oily wooden trestle that spans the river valley — and I hear nothing but wind and a broken lick of steel guitar.
“Hot damn!” Coach says and slaps the steering wheel, a grin he’d call “shit-eating” spread across his face. “Did you hear it? Huh?” He takes a big gulp of his Green River and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “Damn! That one was a cannon, huh? Like a big old cannon! Sonic boom! Best one I ever heard. Right, Joe?” He winks at me. “Right?”
“Yeah,” I say, the untruth soda-sweet and sticky in my throat. “It was loud.” But that doesn’t feel like enough, so I add, “Damn loud.”
Coach slaps me on the shoulder. “ ‘Damn loud’ is right! You boys in back hear it? You heard it, didn’t you?” he asks, peering at them in the rearview, a too-pleased note in his voice.
Duane shakes his head and starts to protest, but Ole grabs him and whispers something in his ear. They both laugh. Then Duane whispers to Chip. Chip laughs too. They are all laughing. Coach says, “What? You heard it, didn’t you? Joe heard it.”
“We sure did, Skinny,” Ole says. “We heard it. Just like Joe said. Damn loud! Right, buckos?” Duane and Chip fall all over themselves in laughter.
Coach watches them a moment longer, then drops his eyes from the rearview, looks my way, and shrugs. He takes another drink of Green River and turns up the radio. The Suburban fills with the crackling warble of George Jones.
I squirm down into the bench seat and lean against the door. I wish he’d left well enough alone. The front seat was plenty. I can’t even have pop at home. Didn’t you know it was enough, Coach? Skinny? I look at him and in my mind say it as mean as they did: Skinny. I watch him push his glasses up the long angle of his nose and scratch the back of his neck, where his thin, dishwater hair hangs unevenly, and I’m suddenly embarrassed for him, embarrassed for me, and, as always, mad at my strict, sick father, who never lets me call grown-ups by their first names, let alone their nicknames; who, even when he was well, thought baseball was a waste of time; who lies now — I can close my eyes to the running river and the cottonwoods and the far blue mountains, to everything, and see him — on the old brown couch in the front room of our drafty farmhouse, his bony chest rising with his breath. Then falling.
When the other elementary-school teachers aren’t looking, Mr. Hollowell lets us play tackle football in back of the school. He even plays tackle with us, three or four of us hanging off him, our thin arms wrapped around his neck, his waist, his thighs like the trunks of pines. He is short and stocky, his black hair bright in the early-winter sunlight, and he looks — oddly, uncannily; even my mother says so — like a younger, healthier version of my father. I tell him this once while we are back in our huddle getting ready for the next play. And he looks at me and smiles and says, “Well, OK, but you better block good for me now, because I’m going to take this one in for a touchdown.” So when he calls, “Hike!” I do: I block one boy, two boys — and, sure enough, touchdown.
When we go back inside, he’ll read out loud to us from The Outsiders or Where the Red Fern Grows. Or he’ll sit on a stool and play old Hank Williams tunes on his guitar, let us get up and sing and dance around. He jokes and kids and slaps us wonderfully hard on the back. Then, when someone has a birthday — say, Cotton Pinkerton or Wendy Coles or some other kid whose parents everyone knows won’t bring in cupcakes — Mrs. Hollowell comes to our class with all kinds of treats. She is young and slender and blond, and I think she is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. So does Mr. Hollowell. He holds her hand in front of us, teases her, calls her “honey” and “darling.” They are just out of college, only twenty-two, married a week before school started. They aren’t like the rest of us out here on the Big Dry. They have ambitions beyond a good footstool and a six-pack of Coors. They do things; they go places. They are full of what this town lacks: possibility. And as if they were cupcake frosting or Green River soda, none of us can get enough of them.
So when my father dies, I am sad for a while. But then I am happy because Mr. Hollowell brings his guitar to my father’s funeral and sings, and when he hits that last note, he starts crying. Everyone’s crying, and I’m crying, and I’m happy. And when I finally come back to school and walk in the classroom door, Mr. Hollowell starts crying again. He lets me skip math, lets me stay after and finish my homework with him, buys me a Snickers and a Pepsi. I don’t understand it. I don’t care. Soon I’m staying after every day. Soon he is driving me home, telling my mother it’s no problem, even firing up the tractor, doing the spring planting my father had planned during his sickness. Soon Mr. Hollowell is showing me how to irrigate, telling me to step into the ditch and let the dirty water curl around my rubber hip boots, saying, “Don’t worry. You’ll stay dry.” Saying, “Tamp those dams down tight. We’ve got to flood these fields good to bring green grass up on this dry land.”
I’m delirious with his attention. I take root. I sway and rise. I am suddenly picked early — or, at least, in the first half — for football and basketball, chased around at recess by Nicole Ritterodt, who even starts telling people I’m her boyfriend. Mr. Hollowell gives me extra work when I finish mine before everyone else. He gets me moved up into the fifth grade for reading and math, somehow finagles a way for me to write the elementary-school editorial each month in the junior-high newspaper. And then, on my tenth birthday, Mr. Hollowell takes me to his folks’ place along the Yellowstone River. There we walk in the pine woods and fish for catfish all afternoon. His brother, a college football star, practices spirals with me. His square-jawed father lets me take the four-wheeler out for a drive. Late in the night I sit with Mrs. Hollowell by the fire and sip hot cocoa as Mr. Hollowell and his brother and his father pass around a bottle of whiskey. His father strikes a chord on the mandolin, his brother lets loose a jangling rhythm on the banjo, and Mr. Hollowell strums the guitar and begins to sing. He sings all night. I can close my eyes and hear him still, singing, “He jumped so high. He jumped so high! Then he lightly touched down.”
There are precious few things in this world as selfless and lovely as what Mr. Hollowell did for me. And few as confusing. Because of it I will come to expect a kind of deference or recognition from adults that I will not always get. Because of it I will come to believe that not having a father is a kind of blessing, a way to be special and blameless. No one is blameless. Because of it, when Mr. Hollowell moves away at the end of the year, I will more than need someone to take his place. And at that moment I will begin to look for someone to fill the gaping space made not by my father’s death but by Mr. Hollowell’s merciful and immoderate attention. I will look. I still look. I am looking for a father.
“Grandfather?” I say, but I might as well say, “God?” for he says nothing back to me. He is listening to the sparrows and meadowlarks, or maybe the soughing of the grass, or — improbably but truly — the skittery quality of the late-evening light, the throatlike curve of a coulee. He listens to the look of things, the shape of things, the way the stars position themselves in the heavens. I have seen it, have stood slack jawed, my own nearsightedness compelling me to watch not the world but him, as in the shadow of this late hour, the first, faint stars whisper to him their silver secrets. See how he listens to them? See him there? My grandfather — whose first crib was a shoe box on a wood stove; who rode every mile of these dry flats before barbed wire divided them; who lived on squirrel stew through the dirty thirties; who saved every dime he earned as a young buckaroo to buy land; who’s been bucked off some dozen horses and struck by lightning twice and calls himself lucky; who, after Buster Knapp, is the best rifle shot in the entire county — my cowboy grandfather, with his meaty hands ready at his sides, his head cocked back the better to hear the music of the spheres, his blue-silver eyes on the wide and darkening Montana sky: see him silhouetted there? I see him. I see him.
He turns to me, slaps dust from his bluejeans, and says, “We better get a move on, pardner.”
And now he is indeed moving, moving away from me, away and up the curve of a hill, over this land of his, this land he is — and the whole time I have heard only the wind, seen only the blur of dust and grass, the clean, hard lines of his face.
If some boys start messing around in class, he doesn’t look the other way or shake his finger; he throws them up against the wall. And not just the bad ones. He’ll take the good boys who are being bad only right then and throw them up against the wall too. He’ll throw just about any boy up against the wall and hold him there by his armpits or bunched fistfuls of his winter coat, his sneakered feet swinging just above the floor, and Mr. Whearty — his dark beard wild about his face; his black, thick-rimmed glasses framing his eyes; and that smell of him, of earth and spice and prairie weeds and burnt coffee, of someone who lives in a tepee down on the Musselshell River and doesn’t use deodorant and doesn’t care — he’ll say, “Tell me what you did and why it was wrong, and then you can go.”
Folks around town say, with a shake of their heads, that Mr. Whearty is a hippie, a tree hugger, a radical. But my mother — who won’t wear makeup herself and who, even though we don’t have the money to fix the turntable, every now and again gets out her Joan Baez and Gordon Lightfoot records and just holds them — tells me that’s because folks around here don’t know what else to call him, don’t know anyone like him. I think maybe my mother’s right. Sure, Mr. Whearty writes letter after letter to the president. Sure, he refuses to watch TV or pay a utility bill. But all summer he cuts and stacks cords of pine wood outside his tepee as good as any logger, and he stays as warm as the rest of us all winter. And you should see him teach. There’s no I’m-OK-you’re-OK nonsense. He simply will not abide students putting their heads down on their desks during equations. He makes us turn in our homework first thing every morning. He has us analyze Calvinist sermons. He has us deliver, in front of the whole class, the speeches of Chief Seattle and Chief Joseph. And he will especially not allow tardiness, bullying, or dishonesty.
This is all new to us. We have only just finished with dioramas and clay models as major educational undertakings. Mr. Whearty doesn’t care. He will not let us miss class for basketball practice. He makes us read real books, with chapters and lots of words. He has us perform Macbeth for the whole school up on the main stage. When Halloween comes around, he dresses up like a pancreas. He just doesn’t care. Or maybe it’s that he does care.
Anyway, Mr. Whearty plans a Squid Fest, complete with squid dissection, squid feast, and interpretive squid dance. There is a squid-trivia competition, too, which I win, making me the Squid King. I am proud to be the Squid King. And Mr. Whearty is proud of me — but not too proud. He still makes me work. He has me reading Hemingway and Baldwin and all kinds of books. I read and read and, like Mr. Whearty, do not apologize for it. In fact I begin to glory in it. I’ll get as smart and weird as I want, and I won’t care anymore what the other kids think.
Today, though, I have lost my book. I was reading Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. I liked it. I didn’t mean to lose it. I don’t know what’s happened to it. And because my face goes bright and hot at even the thought of doing something wrong, I have been trying most of the morning to figure out how to tell Mr. Whearty the truth and still stay out of trouble. Maybe, I finally decide, it’s a matter of presentation. So, when we sit down for our one-on-one reading session, I fold my hands in my lap and say clearly, as if there were no other way to put it, “My book was lost.”
“No,” Mr. Whearty says loudly, his jaw set.
I feel like I might fall out of my chair. I start to sputter.
“You lost it,” Mr. Whearty continues, cutting me off. “It was not just lost, as if you were not responsible, as if it had the power of locomotion. It is a book. It is not animate. It did not get up and go hide from you. No. You are responsible. You lost it. Tell me that you lost it.”
He has never said anything like this to me before. He has never thrown me up against the wall. I mean, I was the Squid King. I blink back tears, look at my shoes, and mumble, “I lost it.”
“Yes, you did. But we’ll find you another copy.” He rises to leave but looks down at me again. “And I don’t ever want to hear you use the passive voice again. It’s sloppy. It confuses subject and object, and then we no longer understand action. You know better than that. Don’t do it.”
I stare, shamed, at my shoes. And when, at the end of the year, the school board sort of encourages Mr. Whearty to leave, and he does, I pretend I’m as happy as all those boys he threw up against the wall. And all summer long, and through the next school year, and the year after that, laughing in the lunchroom or making fun of the one kid who gets picked behind me in PE, I keep trying to convince all of them, and myself, that I’m just like everyone else.
We are standing in a rough circle on the crumbling sidewalk outside the Sportsman Bar, spitting now and again and cursing this teacher or that teacher and drinking Green River. Now someone pulls out a can of Copenhagen and packs it tight with a quick flick of the wrist and passes it around. And we all take some, because we are, more than anything else, trying to act cool — though, being so far from everything we see on television, so far out on the prairie that most of us can’t get more than one television station, none of us is sure what cool is. We are maybe fourteen or fifteen. We are mostly boys, save Leah, Ole’s younger sister, who wears her Wranglers tight and her strawberry hair in curls around her face. And I have a terrible crush on Leah, so I am trying to act the coolest of all, which means I am standing unnaturally still and saying next to nothing.
But now the door of the Sportsman swings wide, the little bell clanging, and old Ed Barsilucci steps drunkenly out into our circle. He stands there a moment and grins, wheezes, lights a cigarette. Smoke slips from between his lips, then rockets out the winglike nostrils of his nose. I know Ed the way I know most everyone in town, which is to say I have maybe, in my entire life, said one or two words to him, but I know that he was a star football player in high school; that his youngest son was knifed in a bar fight and thrown in the Yellowstone River years ago; that, after drinking for weeks on end, he’ll sometimes see snakes crawling all over him, and he’ll yell and slap and thrash, though there’s nothing there.
So that’s Ed, with his saloon-lazy eyes and gin-sloppy smile, the ridiculous way he just lets his cigarette ride his shifting lips, never taking it between his fingers, never ashing it, just drawing the smoke in and in. And now Ole is grinning, getting ready to poke some fun at drunk old Ed. And Leah — her hair slick and shining in the glare of the town’s one buzzing streetlight — is grinning as well, looking from Ole to Ed and back again to Ole. And this means, I am sure, that I have no chance with her. As long as things were boring and ordinary, I had some hope, for then — I’d imagined, anyway — I might have stood out: my almost-good looks, my quiet thoughtfulness, my long-suffering-but-noble adoration of her.
“Hey, barstoolie,” Ole calls, “seen any snakes lately?”
“Nope,” Ed says and smacks his lips. “But a drawbridge went up on me the other day, and sploosh! I was in the river!”
Ole is the first to laugh. He points right at Ed and laughs. I laugh too. We all do. Ed just turns in the circle of us and says, “Now, you little green-nutters remember what to do if you get hungry out there on the prairie? You remember, right?”
We shake our heads.
“Hell, you eat a cowpie and chew on a sagebrush!” he says, and smoke billows from his half-open mouth. He looks more than drunk: he looks unmoored, lost, drowned. But I guess it’s hilarious, because we are all still laughing, saying, “Sounds good, Ed. Will do! You bet!”
But now Ed stops turning. He’s staring right at me. “What the hell are you doing here, boy? Out here with me and the peanut gallery? You ought to be home studying or something. Well? What the hell?”
I don’t say anything. I’m trying to watch Ole, to take my cues from him and somehow play this all off as part of the joke. But Ed moves in even closer to me. I can’t see around him. His breath is hot and vinegary. I grin, hoping that everyone thinks this is somehow funny.
“I’m serious, boy,” Ed says, straightening up, snapping his cigarette to the gravel. “I knew your father. I know your mom. Talk about a good man. And a lady. You got to do right by them. Right by yourself.”
He says this and blows smoke out his nose and steps back into the bar.
I have been crisscrossing the horse-camp pasture on the four-wheeler for nearly six hours now, the dust of my passing forming a cloud around me as I roar up the sand rocks and down into the piney gulches of the Bull Mountains. I am after toadflax and knapweed, those blossoming but noxious weeds that have taken root across this logging-scarred land. It is mid-July, hell’s own season here in eastern Montana, and though the chemicals that slosh through the tank strapped to the back of the four-wheeler are milky and deadly, I have peeled off my hat, gloves, and shirt. When I find a patch of toadflax, I take the wand from the back of the four-wheeler and begin to spray — always the wind twisting around the sand rocks, eddying in the dry gulches — and the poison falls cool and lovely across my sunburnt body.
This is the work I do for Wayne Meredith — this and fixing fences and cutting hay and driving a grain truck: work that’s dangerous, muscle hardening, and mind numbing, and all there is in the way of a summer job for a boy out here. The Meredith Ranch is deep in the Bull Mountains, some twenty miles south of our place out on the Big Dry. During the week I live out here in an old homesteader’s shack in the hills and take my meals with Wayne and his wife, Rosella. I have done this — fixed these four-strand barbed-wire fences and trailed these ornery Angus bulls and sprayed this poison — for two summers now. I am sixteen and know no other life, but I wish mightily that I did. So I drift and dream, always somewhere else in my head, maybe in the last book I read or some bright world of my own making — so far away I don’t even notice the western sky going bruise black, the lightning like ragged scars. A peal of thunder snaps me back. The first small hailstones begin to fall and ring on the rocks. Hail. But thank Christ for a little rain. Let it hail all it wants, as long as there’s water enough to wet the dust and cool my boiling, poison-soaked skin.
When I get back in the evening, I tell Wayne how much ground I covered, how much spray I used. He nods and hooks his thumbs in his belt loops. The combine is in the shop, so I know that’s what he’s been working on this afternoon as the hail came down. Like some laconic Western cliché, we stare for a moment at the buttes and hills off in the west, the sun slipping slowly behind them. We don’t ever have much to say to one another. I don’t even know whether to call him “Wayne” or “Mr. Meredith.” If I can help it, I don’t say either. He’s a good man and all. I can see that. He runs his ranch right and treats his wife well. He pays more than most around here do. And he likes me, maybe once or twice a summer says, “Good job.” But I guess I had this idea that we would work together, and Wayne would see what a hand I was, how hardworking and savvy, and slowly we would begin to talk, to — though these are words I would never use with him, or anyone else around here — connect, form a relationship. We seldom work together. And this evening, like most evenings, we walk silently down the dirt road to the main house, where dinner — I can smell it as soon as I step in the door — is meat lasagna and lettuce slathered in ranch dressing. We unlace our boots and fold back the sleeves of our shirts and wash up and sit. Rosella serves us bowls of salad and plates heaped with cheese and noodles and meat. She brings Wayne a can of Coors, me a Mountain Dew. Then we eat. And, besides Rosella worrying over a burnt noodle or two, no one says a thing.
Later, the poison’s white stain still freckling my neck and shoulders, I drive fast down the gravel of the Custer Road, twisting my old GMC pickup through the moonlit hills, over the one-lane iron bridge, and into town. I know I must be up tomorrow with the sun. I know nothing’s going on, save maybe a few boys kicking rocks down Main, a knot of junior-high girls smoking in front of the Sportsman. But I feel if I don’t hear someone speak, if I don’t get out of my own head, if I don’t say something, I just might explode.
“He’ll hear,” she says, her voice small and breathy.
“No,” I say. “He won’t.”
And it’s true. He’s upstairs, one hand in the elastic waistband of his sweat pants, the other wrapped around a can of Keystone Light, watching whatever happens to be on television on a summer Saturday afternoon. He’s always watching whatever happens to be on television. He is no longer “Coach.” He is “Skinny.” Skinny because my father is near ten years dead. Skinny because I am soon to be a senior in high school. Skinny because I am young and strong and think myself especially smart. Skinny because I am dating his oldest daughter, who is kind and dark haired and in love with me; whom I will string along and then dump as soon as I leave for college. Skinny because, though not so old, he is already a big-eared, sweat-pants-wearing ghost haunting his own home — his wife out at the bar without him, his kids coming and going as they please. Most of all, Skinny because, just once, when I bring his daughter back stinking of beer and bonfire and river, I’d like him not to be already passed out on the couch. I’d like him to rise up and get angry, send her to her room, say, big shouldered and stern, Son, we need to talk.
“He won’t,” I say again, propping myself up on one elbow. And she looks at me with her wet gray-green eyes and nods and swallows, then slips her T-shirt over her head.
In my senior year I make the varsity basketball team. Even though only fourteen boys tried out, I feel sure I’m pretty damn good. I am elected student-body president, and even though I ran unopposed, I have visions of a political career. I am set to graduate as valedictorian, and even though there are only nine people in my class, I believe this makes me brilliant. Adrift out on the Big Dry, my imagination bigger, brighter, and fuller than anything I’ve thus far encountered, I have begun to think that there is little I can’t do.
The only hitch is money. My family has never had much. In fact, we’ve never had any to spare at all. And I want to go to a good college. I apply for every academic scholarship I can find and even get a few of them, but the tuition bills are too big. So I apply for and get an ROTC scholarship. I’m not excited about ROTC, but the money means I’ll be going to school for free, and then my mother, who just put my sister through college on her part-time schoolteacher’s salary, can save for my brother, only a year behind me.
I buzz around the halls of the high school with my scholarship news: I poke my head into Mr. Pollington’s math class. I interrupt Miss Tecca’s geography lesson. I yell to my girlfriend from clear across the library. Everyone’s happy for me, except Mr. Lind. He purses his thin lips, rubs his hand over his bald head, and sits me down in his biology classroom: dusty jars of pickled piglets along the walls; a flayed, finger-smudged, plastic human body up front; a row of cow skulls, white, off-white, yellow, and dun, along the table in back. He must be doing mammalian anatomy in his ninth-grade biology class. That was a pretty good class, though I wish it had been harder. I wish all the classes I took from him had been harder. Anyway, now he turns to me and says, “I don’t think the military would be a good fit for you, Joe. I think you need to consider your character, your limits.”
This is the first time in years anyone has said anything to me about limits. I don’t really know how to respond. I lean back, shrug my shoulders.
“OK,” he says. “That’s it. Just think about it.”
I tell myself I won’t, that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But nearly a month later, after I’ve already committed to ROTC, I call the admissions office and tell them: no ROTC. They ask if I’m sure. I do know that’s going to change my financial package, right? And I say yes and hang up.
Five years later, my final papers turned in, my long hair hanging to my shoulders, my head full to bursting with the ideas of radicals like Howard Zinn and Jonathan Kozol and bell hooks, I leave to go teach ninth-grade math in a public school in the Mississippi Delta, and I hear that a friend who graduated with me will be shipping out with the 173rd Airborne Brigade for Iraq — and the dun color of those bones lined up across the table comes flooding back.
The summer after my sophomore year in college I get an intern position with a software-development company in Seattle. This, I think, is everything I’ve ever wanted: I’ll be living in a real city. I’ll take a bus to work, walk down to the pier at lunch, make some money. I’ll be staying with a friend who lives on Lake Washington, a wet place of possibility, offering far more, I am sure, than the Big Dry.
And I do all of those things. But, except for the money and wandering the pier, the gulls arcing and crying, I hate it. Life on Lake Washington quickly begins to resemble a nauseating television show. My friend doesn’t have a job; he just stays home and readies his boat so we can go wake-boarding when I get back from work. There are girls in bikinis and booze I never have to pay for. Everyone’s always stoned or buzzed or looking to get stoned or buzzed. Sometimes I find myself in a boat or on a beach or leaning against the railing of someone’s cedar balcony overlooking a beach — but always the slap of wind and water — and maybe my friend is in another boat, or maybe he is inside; it doesn’t really matter, because when I look around, I know no one, but I am still talking, now with this tall girl, who is passing me a joint or wine in a red plastic cup. She’s telling me something, but I don’t hear a word she’s saying, a word I’m saying.
Work as a software engineer is, instead of backbreaking and mind numbing, belly softening and mind numbing. So, in my cubicle all day long, working alone again, I dream and drift. One day my team completes a project called “Expedition,” and I have coded some vital part of it — at least, that’s what my boss says. But in the end, after it’s been shipped and the big boss has sent us all a congratulatory e-mail, I don’t have any idea what Expedition actually does. The next day I’m handed a new set of requests. This time I don’t even learn the project name.
When I get back to college in the fall, I make an appointment to meet with my advisor, a thickly built, white-bearded Jesuit who is forever reading Finnegans Wake. He practices a type of Buddhist Catholicism, so he’s a bit detached, but he’s always been kind to me, and I need to talk to someone other than one of my engineering professors, who will just tell me to try another internship next summer in something besides software — maybe machine language or power systems; yes, power systems will be better.
I step into Father Kuder’s dark office and sit quietly in one of the chairs across from his desk. His back is to me. He could be praying, meditating, or sleeping — I don’t know. I am hoping for wise advice, for the kind of sage clarity he seems to carry everywhere. Slowly he turns to me, smiling beatifically. He comes out from behind the dark-wood desk, sits in the chair next to me, and leans forward, his fist under his bearded chin, looking right into my eyes, saying nothing.
I wait for a moment, then spill it: I don’t think I want to be a computer engineer. I didn’t like my internship — but, the thing is, I’ll be a junior this year, and I’m going to London in the spring, and if I switched majors now, I don’t know how long it would take me to graduate. I don’t know if my scholarships would cover an extra year, and I’ve never really quit anything before. I guess I don’t really know what I want to do with my life.
There is a long silence. “Yes,” he says finally, then closes his eyes. “Joe,” he says, “plunge into the din of battle, but leave your heart at the lotus feet of the Lord.” Then he opens his eyes, gets up, and walks back behind his desk.
Confused and grasping, I thank him and leave. I stay in engineering but start writing poetry.
In my first graduate writing workshop I am accused of pretentiousness of voice, muddled tonal qualities, poor metaphors, laughable ignorance concerning the Idaho backcountry, and, most notably, moral cowardice. It’s that last one, of course, that hurts the most, and it’s the one that comes from Professor Wrigley — or “Bob,” as he keeps telling me to call him.
The workshop is in a room usually used by the campus ROTC. On the walls are posters with square-faced young men and hipless young women in uniform. At the bottom, in block letters, are words like discipline, freedom, and self-control. Bob holds my poem out in front of him, looks it up and down, and says to the group, “OK, that’s enough.” As everyone begins passing the sheets back around to me, he asks if I have any questions. Did I understand all that?
“Yes,” I say. “No. . . . I mean, I don’t know. Thanks for looking at my poem.”
“ ‘Thanks’?” Bob says. “Jeez. We gut the guy’s poem, and he says, ‘Thanks.’ Well, you’re welcome!”
I walk unsteadily out into a late Idaho evening, the sun gone but gleaming behind the wheat-stubbled hills, the air just cool, frat boys tossing a glow-in-the-dark frisbee, a stereo with the hit song of the summer still turned up loud. Just two months ago I was clear across the country, living in the deep South, teaching pre-algebra to junior-high students in Indianola, Mississippi, the birthplace of the White Citizens’ Council and a town still divided by race: Whites north of the bayou; blacks to the south. Whites where all the businesses and paved roads and new two-story houses are; blacks where the liquor stores and dirt tracks and shotgun shacks are. White kids walking the shiny halls of the private academy; black kids behind the razor wire of the crumbling public schools.
The Mississippi Delta is the kind of place where words like poverty and dropout rate and infant malnutrition don’t even begin to tell the story. But the delta is also a place of cypress bayous, the sloppy blossoms of magnolias, and herons spreading their wings and lifting into the trembling sky. And, in my second year especially, there were days when the double-variable equations we were solving in the classroom mattered more than anything else I’d ever done. In those days, when we had finished with the pre-algebra text and kept right on going with the algebra, and my students had already mastered nearly three years of math in a single school year, it was like some dream of flight. The delta was so singular and strange, and teaching was the hardest, best thing I had ever done. Yet, lying awake late at night as the cicadas screamed, I caught myself again and again talking in my head to poet James Wright the way, as a boy, I’d talked to God.
So, though I applied late and for a long time wasn’t even sure I’d actually go, here I am in Idaho: the mountain dark coming down, Bob and I walking back across the quad together. He lectured last week on Cole Porter and metaphor. He was wise and challenging and funny, and I had hoped then for a moment like this — just the two of us. But now I’m nervous, unsure, embarrassed. I say next to nothing. He talks for a bit about what we’re reading in the other class I have him for, and about trout fishing in the Bitterroots. In front of the brick archway of the English building he stops and asks if what he said concerning my poem — the idea of my refusal to choose, of my Pilate-esque washing of hands — makes any sense to me. “Think about Wright,” he says. “ ‘I have wasted my life.’ Wright tells it to us straight. Do you see what I’m saying?”
I think, Yes. I think, No. I think, Maybe I shouldn’t be here.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Well, kid,” Bob says, “I know only one way to figure anything out: keep writing.”
He is sitting in an easy chair in his old house near the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains. His breath comes in hitches and gasps. He is so pale. He puts his hand on mine. My hand is a grown man’s hand now. His is a brittle, blown leaf. He says to me, “I don’t believe I’ll go to the water anymore. I tried, but there was nothing left in it for me. You see, when he died — Walt, that is, your daddy — I lost what it was that I had there.” He tells me this, and then, after a minute’s pause, he tells me again.
My father has been dead more than a decade, and Pa Peters still grieves. He and I have had this conversation, or some variation of it, the few times I’ve seen him since the funeral. He looks at me with his washed-out eyes, coughs, and says, “I always thought of him as my boy, you know, and he’s gone, has been for a while. But you were his boy, see, so I want you to have my fishing gear. It’s around here somewhere. Take what you want. I don’t need it. I don’t have it left in me. I won’t go to the water anymore.”
You, all of you, with your windblown faces and hands like hunks of pine — fathers, help me. For just now, from across the measureless galaxies of blood and good, good fortune, I have heard the sound of my own son’s grain-of-sand heart: that tidal surge and lunge; that whoosh, as of only the slightest winds saying that some warm and ripping storm is building, or perhaps has begun.
And you, little clot of cells, little mumble of mother’s blood, little swimming screamer, know that whatever wings we fathers wear, we must take them off in the end. Know that we have chosen whatever loves and betrayals we live with. Know that we love, even when we seem not filled enough with love. Know that we know so very little.
They fail us, our fathers. Yet I will tell you this: Long before the world was fashioned, the fathers gathered in the valley of the river that came down from the mountain. Before the many dangers of the mountain, the fathers stood naked and confused. But know, little one, that, even for their failures, they did some few things only they could do.
Joe Wilkins’s tribute to ten of his father figures [“You, All of You,” September 2009] hit me right in the heart and reminded me again why I look forward to your magazine each month. I’m past my sixtieth birthday and have raised two sons, and I can tell Wilkins that the search for a father doesn’t end. We patch them in, these surrogate fathers. Sometimes it’s a good thing, and other times it makes more trouble for everyone. I haven’t found any wisdom in the search, only noticed how it plays out in my life.