Saturday, 05 December 2015 05:12

Versed in Country Things - Complexities

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Versed in Country Things - Complexities

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. Jigs Gardner writes on literature from the Adirondacks, where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

On a bright February morning Fred drove in the yard, bringing with him Hank, Eldon, and Miff, Hank's brother, all crammed into the pickup, to enlist my aid in his latest deal. Elias Turgeon had had woodland he owned near the bottom of the hill cruised by the country forester, marking trees to be felled, and now he had induced Fred to do the work, paying him by the thousand feet of logs and cord of pulpwood, the job to be finished by the end of May. Fred rattled off the details with practiced ease; this wasn't the first, nor the tenth time he had recited them. Warming up, he couldn't stay in his chair; the subject required expansive gestures in the middle of the room, where now he spread his arms wide and declared, "It's all gravy, Jigs, all gravy!" This was his crew - a showman's sweep of the arm introduced the unholy three seated side by side on the couch - all it needed was a good man to stack the pulp - the other arm pointed to me - at seven dollars a cord, "All gravy!"

Whenever Fred invoked gravy, my heart sank. I knew that if Turgeon, a shrewd farmer, had any quantity of saleable wood to be cut, he would have sold it to a regular logger for stumpage; most of what the forester had marked would be small thinnings and dead stubs. And a deadline, too! I looked at the crew, which was looking a bit sheepish. They didn't seem to share Fred's enthusiasm, nor to give hearty credence to the "gravy line." They had heard it all too many times, they had been stung before by Fred's schemes (I recalled how disgruntled Eldon had been after the hay deal). But there are men like that - I have known them in other times and places - men like Fred, enthusiasts of the improbable, and men like Miff and Hank and Eldon, who resignedly sign on once more and shove off, with a feeble cheer, in the leaky boat. I knew that no one, and that included Fred, would ever see any gravy on that job, and I knew it as infallibly as I have ever known anything. Of course I didn't say that; I explained that my inexperience would hold them up, that I was too green to be of any help. Fred was disappointed, his spirits easily cast down by rejection. I assured him several times that the job sounded great and was obviously chock full of gravy, and he went away mollified.

Well, I said to Jo Ann, that's one fiasco I avoided. I spoke too soon.

Thinking about Fred and his offer awakened me to the significance of my relations with these men, and to other relations in our life. We had less and less to do with Willie and people of his class and more to do with Toonervillians. We had shifted our social base somewhat, and our social life would never again be as it had been. Our middleclass ties were not severed and never would be, but they were attenuated. Although we would be in and out of middleclass situations over the next several years, we continued to farm (if that's not too hifalutin a name for it), and we were regarded with puzzlement and some distrust, as people who disconcertingly did not quite fit into expected categories. We were obviously educated, cultured, competent people, but our ideas and opinions, insofar as others knew them, were at odds with theirs, and we lived such a strange life (we kept a cow in our garage in one place), doing things no respectable people did. We would never be fully at home again in the middleclass milieu. Not that we joined the rural proletariat. We certainly drew closer to the Toonervillians, but again there was a gap. Our education and culture, and all the interests and behavior engendered thereby, made them uneasy, a little apprehensive, just as our middleclass acquaintances were put off by the earthy aspects of our life. Of the totality of our life and thought, only fractions were shared by either group, a situation that made for some loneliness, but it broadened our perspective and freed us (to some extent) from the narrowness of a single class viewpoint.

That our state was ambiguous and that I, at least, was confused by it, was vividly, appallingly demonstrated one day late in the winter. Thinking to impress a visiting Tweedy student with my tough guy bootlegger role, we got in his car and took a couple of jugs of cider to Toonerville. Fred wasn't home, so we drove on to Hank's place, a once imposing Victorian house with a wide porch around two sides and elaborate gingerbread ornament. Only fragments remained; most of the intricate woodwork, along with some of the porch, had gone into the stove. The windows were broken, covered with cardboard or stuffed with rags; the whole house, long unpainted and with clapboards missing here and there, was a sagging ruin. Fred had complained to me once of Hank's improvidence: a water pipe froze, and since he was too lazy to thaw it, everything froze and cracked, and now there was no running water at all in the house.

I should say a word here about Hank and Miff. The former I saw sober only once, the opening day of the deer season, when Fred's father banned alcohol from the clan so they wouldn't shoot one another. Hank was stupid, maudlin, obsequious, and nasty. Miff was altogether different, quiet, sad-looking, with a wry sense of humor. He didn't drink nearly as much as his brother. They were beside the house, desultorily splitting wood. Oh yes, Hank would gladly buy cider, and he went inside for the money, while we kidded around with Miff. Hank came to the doorway, holding out the bills, but when I reached for them he retreated, luring me into the house. "Come on and see the missus." I knew she was an invalid with some form of arthritis, but the one time I had seen her, in a car with Hank, she had looked blooming, with a round full face and a rosy complexion. Somewhat uneasily, I stepped after Hank. The door led directly into a large room and sudden darkness: the broken windows were covered over, and the only light came from the open door. Charitable people gave the family old clothes, had been doing so for years, and this was the warehouse as well as the dump for their own cast offs, a mass of boxes, bags, heaps of old clothes, dirty, moldy, rank with filth, mixed in with junk - worn tires, a wheel rim, a baby carriage crushed flat - and piled so high, right up to the ceiling, that only a narrow passage led through the room, straight to a grimy kitchen range, its top covered by tottering piles of dishes so encrusted with the remnants of old meals that they could not have been washed in what? weeks? months? Understand that our progress was not slow, we did not dawdle to gaze around, and in fact I tried, after the third step, not to see anything.

At the stove we turned right, following another tunnel to a door that opened into what had originally been a parlor and was now the master bedroom. At the other end of the large room were three bay windows miraculously intact; before them was a small table and two rickety, wired-together straight chairs; just inside the door against the left wall was a camp bed, with another farther along in an alcove. The incredible, overpowering feature was against the wall on the right: a single bed raised on a foot-high dais, and everything about it - the framework, the sheets, the pillow, the blankets - was immaculate, absolutely spotless, bright, shining. Hank's wife lay in the bed, her rosy face turned to the wall. Stunned by the passage through the "kitchen," this completed my stupefaction.

Hank said in his wheedling voice, "Here's Mr. Gardner to see you, honey."

I mumbled greetings. Her face remained obdurately turned to the wall.

"She's got a little mad on at me," he said, gingerly sitting on one of the chairs. The student sat on a box near the door. Miff invited me to join him on his camp bed. Aside from the dais, the rest of the room was clean in the sense that there was no litter, no piles of garbage, but nothing less than a fire would ever rid its gray splintered floorboards, its cracked plaster walls, and its greasy wainscoting of the dirt of decades. Still reeling, blinking at the vision of the bright bed, my brain and will suspended, not knowing where to look in the awkward silence, I imitated Miff and stared down at the ornate grill in the floor at our feet. Inanely, I asked him what it was.

"Register for a hot air furnace. Don't work no more. . . . At night you can watch the rats runnin around," he answered in a low tone. Not low enough. Hank immediately took fire.

Oh, my brother's too good for his present quarters! Payin nothin, doin nothin, eatin my grub, drinkin my liquor, but he don't like the 'commodations. He was glad to crawl in here from that trailer, but now he's too good for us. Listen, Gardner: I seen the time when I got down on my knees and begged his highness here for money for a drink an he wouldn't give me a dime, not a goddamned dime! No, no, he was too good for that. He didn't drink, he wouldn't touch the stuff. Oh no, liquor was bad an I shouldn't drink it, an he pushed me out the door!

Bent over the register, I glanced furtively at Miff. His eyes were shut tight.

You never knew him when he was a farmer, did you Gardner? Yes, him, he owned the home place free and clear, paid off the mortgage, had a fine herd o' Jerseys with pretty names, too good for his brother he was in them days. But somethin happened to goody goody Milford an he took to the bottle jes like his nogood brother, an he'd lie on the floor dead drunk, and the cows wasn't milked, an they wasn't fed, an -

"Stop!" I cried, unwilling to hear what had happened to the innocent animals. In the sudden silence I could feel my normal functions returning; the shout had shaken me awake. A sense of horror; revulsion, and indignation rose in my throat.

Why do you live like this? Why don't you clean up the place? You could do it, you're able, you -

But he was having none of that.

Who do you think you are, Gardner, comin in here an tellin me what to do? A lotta people wonder about you, what you're doin up there on the hill. Who are you? Where do you come from? Whaddaya do for a livin?

He had struck at my weakest point. What account could I give of myself - even to myself? Defensively, I started to say I had been a teacher, but then I saw, what no one else in the room could see, Hank's three children running towards the house. "Here come your kids, and we have to go." I was out of the room, through the dark passage, and rushing into the fresh air and sunlight in seconds.

What the student thought, I never knew. I was in a rage of shame, and it was weeks before I could think of the episode with any degree of calm, years before I would remember it without an inward cringe. Recalling it now, writing it out like this gives me a new distance, so while I duly shake my head over my inadequacies - to put it charitably - I am no longer so concerned with myself, with my stupidity and weakness of character, with the confusion of class attitudes. I leave those judgments to the reader; the scene needs no gloss from me. But now it seems to me to spring to life, like a little play, and the complexities and ambiguities stand out as the very stuff of dramatic action. Nearly fifty years have passed, but as I write these words, the curtain rises, I can hear Hank's voice, I can see Miff's profile, and in the background, dominating the scene, there is the immaculate bed, there is the woman with her face turned to the wall. *

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