Drinks Like a Fish but Knows His Shakespeare
In the sea of faceless humans, we ache to have our identity confirmed through connecting with others who are kindred spirits. On a remote ranch in 1960s Montana, a boy’s lonesome quest to find others who aspire to a literary life turns up a questionable kindred spirit.
Haying season was coming on. My Grandpa Willis drove to Dillon and hired one of few available men right off a bar-stool. He brought him home in the back of the cattle truck and let him dry out in the bunkhouse. Next day Grandma instructed me to fill a small cream can with water and lug it to the bunkhouse so the new man could clean up before the noon meal. “I don’t want him stinking up the house. We got a good well so he can get what water he needs outta the hose.” With a sarcastic twist, she added, “Whether he thinks he needs to use it or not.”
Two knocks, no answer. Probably sleeping off the booze. I announced myself and eased open the door a crack. A pleasant voice replied, “Come in. I’m finishing this short story.” He was in the bed, leaning toward the lone window’s light, book in hand. He hoisted it in my direction. “Flannery O’Conner. Southern writer. One of the better ones. Have you read her?”
“You read much?”
No one ever asked me that and I did everything but wag my tail. “I read all the time.” Embarrassed pause. “I mean, what I can get from the Bookmobile when it comes up Sage Creek road once a month.”
He shrugged into a denim shirt and blue jeans. “Name’s Johnny Hardesty.” My arms ached and I remembered I held the squatty can filled with water. “I’m Terry and this is washing-up water.” I waddled across the room and set it by a wooden chest of drawers which bore a porcelain wash basin. “Um, Grandma wants you to wash up before you come in the house.”
He laughed, a full-throated roar. “Reasonable request.” He extracted his battered suitcase from beneath the bed, plucked a toothbrush and paste from a piles of books.
“What else you reading?”
He grinned. “Re-reading American classics of this century. Steinbeck, Hemingway.” He nodded in the direction of Tendoy mountains. “You know ole Hem roamed the country not too far across your mountains.”
I blushed, ashamed I didn’t know that.
He smoothed out his brushy beard with fingers. “You read him?”
“Oh yeah. I like the Africa stories better than the war stuff.”
He shot me a quizzical look. “Favorite?”
“‘Hills Like White Elephants’ is really good. I love the title, too.”
The raucous laugh. “Agree. You get what that story’s about?”
I glanced around to ensure no family members were within earshot. “The guy’s trying to talk his lady friend into an abortion.”
“Surprised you even know about that here in the hinterlands.”
“Cows abort if they eat some kinds of poison weeds.”
“You know your cattle pretty well.”
“Grandpa’s showed me a bunch. I learn lots of neat stuff from books, too.”
He sighed and tapped the book on the pillow. “Wish you’d been one of my students.”
“You were a teacher?”
His arms angled up and out, palms forward. “Guilty.”
“How come you quit?” His heavy eyebrows met as if conferring whether to reply. My youth blinded me from realizing some adults may not wish to recite certain verses from the epic poetry of their life. “More accurate to say the system quit me.” He explained how he taught sophomore English at a small college in Idaho. He asked students to read stories or books banned elsewhere in the U.S. or abroad.
“I loved to teach The Grapes of Wrath because Steinbeck is one of the few to write about common folk getting by in hard times. He delivered a gut punch to the wealthy landowners in California. He’s our Dickens, really.”
“It’s a whopping good story.”
“You read it?”
“I got a copy in a second-hand store in Dillon. I get comic books there, too, and I heard about Steinbeck’s book and dreamt about going to California someday.” I couldn’t curb my enthusiasm over books. “Why was that book banned?”
Johnny exhaled sharply to accentuate disgust. “They said it had vulgar language, masking the real reason. Big-time growers didn’t like how they were portrayed — with unswerving honestly.” He stared at me through angry slits. “Honest portrayals of how it was. And is. That’s what I taught and that’s what got me censured and then fired by the school district.”
I’d never realized teachers could get fired — figured like Supreme Court justices, they were appointed for life. Johnny rolled a cigarette and each spume of smoke seemed to vent his ire. His tone grew more philosophical. “I got one more job as a substitute in southern California. I was using Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. That got me in hot water when one of the parents raised a ruckus because of the sex scenes.”
I frowned. I’d read it too but didn’t recall anything particularly racy, though of course my experience with such matters was limited to what I had read or overhead in hushed conversations among grownups. “I thought the main guy couldn’t have sex because of his war injury.”
Johnny nodded. “Yessir, that’s right. One of the most critical school board members had an overactive imagination. The love scenes are muted.” He laughed sardonically. “Young people I taught were probably having more sex than characters in the book. I always believed one of the responsibilities of teachers is to support young people in their maturation process, provide inoculating doses of reality through well written literature.”
Grandpa announced at breakfast alfalfa was at the right bloom stage so the yearly ritual began. Johnny would mow because he had deep experience. Bill and Grandpa were on fencing duty to repair breeches in the barbed-wire enclosures where stacks would be built. When hay was down a few days and cured enough I’d drive the pickup truck pulling the side-delivery rake which rolled the cut alfalfa into fluffy windrows. Bill would man the hay-buck to zig-zag up a windrow until the head was full and then race the load to the stack yard where Grandpa ran the John Deer outfitted with a Farmhand F-10 stacker to lift the bucked bunches of dry hay up into the stack.
It all begins with the mower. Johnny knew I’d be his spotter and he warned me to stay alert. “I once mowed into a fawn lying in the alfalfa field and the sickle bar cut the poor little thing to hamburger. You keep your mind on the ground and make sure nobody’s in the path of that lethal slicer.”
I promised, which ratcheted up tension because the emerald green alfalfa stalks were nearly shoulder high. Pushing through the thick foliage spooked swarms of mosquitoes and I was like a windmill in a hurricane, arms pinwheeling constantly. I held up my hand for Johnny to stop and he jerked the tractor hand clutch into neutral. “Gonna smear on more 6-12,” I yelled up to him. I took the little yellow and blue tube from my jeans pocket and rubbed it on my face and hands. Even with repellent, by the end of the day I was pocked with bites. That day the only critter I rousted was a coyote who was a dozen yards ahead and vaulted away in rhythmic leaps like a dolphin arrowing through bluegreen ocean.
Second day we were on a new field and I was recalling a chat with Johnny about books and writers and my fantasy got away from me of being a popular author and being mobbed by appreciative readers. Suddenly, Johnny’s voice boomed over the popcorn-popping of the tractor’s engine. “Hey, numbskull, you walked right by a fawn!” I jolted from my reverie and backtracked and there she was, only two feet ahead of the front tires of the tractor. She lay curled, spots bright white, still as a stone. I felt shame and horror at the thought of what would have happened had Johnny not been alert. I stood near her, helpless. “Don’t touch her. Mama might abandon her if she gets your scent on her baby.” He stood on the tractor, scanned the fields. “Over there, grab that canvas irrigation dam. Carry her in that.” I fetched the skinny pine pole with attached table-size rectangle of faded green tarp. It was used to blockade water in the irrigation ditches so we could cut notches in the banks to let water flow onto the alfalfa ‘lands’ as they were called.
The fawn scarcely moved when I gently covered her with the tarp, tucked it under her, and carried her awkwardly beyond the edge of the field into a brushy area flanking the creek. Johnny said the doe would get the fawn’s scent from there when she returned at dusk to nurse her.
I apologized. Johnny rolled a smoke and waved a hand to absolve me of my guilt. Years later, when I got a lecture about how distracted driving can lead to mayhem, I would recall this moment when my distracted walking could have caused the innocent fawn’s bloody death. For the rest of my tenure as spotter, I paid close attention to my work and we had no other near tragedies.
Each evening I met Johnny on the east porch of the main house to talk more about literature and writing.
He chain-smoked and paced and I could tell he was restless. “Your Grandpa is a decent guy but I asked one thing of him and he said no.” He flicked the burning nub of cigarette into the grass, something he had not done before. I nonchalantly walked over and crushed it under my heel. “Don’t suppose you’d drive me?”
“To that gnat’s ass of a town out on the highway.”
“Guess that’s the name. All I care is it’s big enough to have a bar and I need to wet my whistle.”
I conjured an image of him drunk and barely conscious and offered the excuse that the only thing I was allowed to drive was the tractor and only on the place. Most hired hands eventually wanted to go to town to drink. Usually, Grandpa drove them there on a Saturday night and fetched them Sunday afternoon after they’d slept off their drunkenness. Johnny’s big, scarred fingers trembled as he filled the thin trough of cigarette paper from his bag of Bull Durham tobacco. He licked the edges and rolled it into shape and lit it. Took up pacing again.
“How far is it over there?”
“By the road I think it’s about four and a half miles.”
He swore. Paced. Turned toward me, waved the hand with the lit cigarette in my face. “Come on, son. You drove the pickup while your little brother operated the dump rake from the back.”
Memory fetched the kind of men Grandma Erna used to describe that Grandpa brought home from the bar. Mean drunks. Alcoholics. Rum-dums. Once she said, “Willis, you’ve got to stop bringing home those kind. If we stand between them and a drink one of them might be a danger.”
I tried to gently deflect Johnny’s obviously raging thirst for booze. “You ever read Fitzgerald?”
“You ever read John Barleycorn by Jack London?” His tone was accusatory, something I did not understand. “No,” I replied shyly. “I love White Fang, though.”
“I hate that book. Waste of a good wolf-dog who becomes namby-pamby and is domesticated in the end.” A pause, then, “Call of the Wild’s much more worth your time. That’s the way I want to live.”
Johnny smoked, paced, growled words the night breeze floated away to oblivion. At last, he bent close, almost shouted, “If you’re gonna bother to write, don’t write like a pansy. If you don’t speak truth in your words you’re not worth whatever the Muses give you.” He strode away. I figured he’d work off his anger in his bunkhouse room, smoking cigarettes and finding comfort in one book or another.
Next morning he didn’t show for breakfast and Grandma asked me to bring him to the table. Grandpa groused, “He’s sore because I wouldn’t chauffer him to the saloon.”
I knocked and knocked and finally nudged the door a crack and said, “Morning. Breakfast.” Still no answer. I peeked through the narrow opening and saw the bed was empty. A quick search showed his suitcase was gone. Guess the call of John Barleycorn was too strong.
Grandma gave Grandpa a withering glance and he shrugged. “Bill, you’ll mow. Terry, you spot for him.” He grumbled, “Shouldn’t have written his weekly paycheck. Probably all drunk up by now.”
That evening after another long, mosquito-infested day in the fields, I snuck into the bunkhouse. Grandma had already swept the place and disinfected it. The odor of bleach was overpowering. There was no sign Johnny had ever been there. I walked sullenly around the house to the open porch on the east, sat on the end of the warped floorboards, stared at the grass where I’d had my conversations with Johnny. I’d never met anybody who was highly skilled as a field hand and deeply affectionate toward literature. Maybe that’s what the booze was for, a medicinal that allowed him to bridge alien worlds. I hunkered on the porch until well after dark, fretting about whether I’d ever be able to ride herd on a life of relentless labor and books without staring down the glittering barrel of a shot glass.
Terril L. Shorb has been a rancher and journalist and now teaches Sustainable Community Development at Prescott College where he founded that program. He and his wife, the poet, Yvette A. Schnoeker-Shorb, co-founded Native West Press. His publications include The MacGuffin, Kudzu House, QU Literary Journal, Cargo Literary Magazine, bioStories, Green Teacher Magazine, and Projected Letters.
1 thought on “Drinks Like a Fish but Knows His Shakespeare”
I could envision the life that Terril Shorb writes about with the vivid details and the heart of an avid reader. I’d like to read more of his work!