The Oklahoma Review Volume 16: Issue 2, Fall 2015
Published by: Cameron University Department of English and Foreign Languages
Staff Editor in Chief DR. BAYARD GODSAVE Faculty Editors GEORGE McCORMICK, , DR. JOHN HODGSON, DR. HARDY JONES & DR. JOHN G. MORRIS Student Editors CORRINE BINNINGS & NICK BRUSH Web Design ELIA MEREL & HAILEY HARRIS Layout DR. BAYARD GODSAVE Mission Statement The Oklahoma Review is an electronic literary magazine published through the Department of English at Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma. The editorial board consists of English and Professional Writing undergraduates, as well as faculty advisors from the Departments of English and Foreign Languages & Journalism. The goal of our publication is to provide a forum for exceptional fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction in a dynamic, appealing, and accessible environment. The magazine’s only agenda is to promote the pleasures and edification derived from high‐quality literature. The Staff The views expressed in The Oklahoma Review do not necessarily correspond to those of Cameron University, and the university’s support of this magazine should not be seen as any endorsement of any philosophy other than faith in – and support of – free expression. The content of this publication may not be reproduced without the written consent of The Oklahoma Review or the authors.
Call for Submissions The Oklahoma Review is a continuous, online publication. We publish two issues each year: Spring (May) and Fall (December). The Oklahoma Review only accepts manuscripts during two open reading periods. •Reading dates for the Fall issue will now be from August 1 to October 15 •Reading dates for the Spring issue will be January 1 to March 15. Work sent outside of these two periods will be returned unread. Submission Guidelines Submissions are welcome from any serious writer working in English. Email your submissions to email@example.com. Writers may submit the following: •Prose fiction pieces of 30 pages or less. •As many as five (5) poems of any length. •Nonfiction prose pieces of 30 pages or less. •As many as five (5) pieces of visual art—photography, paintings, prints, etc. •All files should be sent as e‐mail attachments in either .doc or .rtf format for text, and .jpeg for art submissions. We will neither consider nor return submissions sent in hard copy, even if return postage is included. •When sending multiple submissions (e.g. five poems), please include all the work in a single file rather than five separate files. •Authors should also provide a cover paragraph with a short biography in the body of their e‐mail. •Simultaneous submissions are acceptable. Please indicate in your cover letter if your work is under consideration elsewhere. •Please direct all submissions and inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Table of Contents Cover Art Sarah Nguyen, detail from “Great-Grandma”
Jeanetta Calhoun Mish 11 “Like a Fire on Dry Grass”
Chris Warren 29 “Ernest Hemingway in the Yellowstone High Country”
Jason Christian 57 “American Waste”
Kate Daloz 85 “Near Death: On ‘Bodies: The Exhibition’”
Images 92 93 94 95 96
Sarah Sarah Sarah Sarah Sarah
Nguyen, Nguyen, Nguyen, Nguyen, Nguyen,
“Emily” “Great-Grandma” “Urizen” “Jerusalem” “Woman Waiting”
Interview 100 George McCormick, “Her Nightly Torturer”: An Interview with LeAnne Howe
Reviews 102 Bayard Godsave, A Review of The Poets Laureate of Oklahoma, Edited by Shawn Holliday
103 Nick Brush, A Review of Jenny Yang Cropp’s String Theory 107 George McCormick, A Review of Jerry Gebriel’s The Let Go
Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
“Like a Fire on Dry Grass”
Through the bloody September twilight, aftermath of sixty‐two rainless days, it had gone like a fire in dry grass, the rumor, the story, whatever it was. Something about Miss Minnie Cooper and a Negro. —from “Dry September” by Wm. Faulkner Another Negro Is Strung Up Summary punishment for the killing of a Seminole county deputy sheriff was meted to John Cudjo, negro, about 30 years of age, when a mob of Wewoka and Holdenville citizens hanged the black to a telephone pole in front of the county courthouse in Wewoka. After being drawn up, with a rope around his neck, more than 100 shots were fired into the body of the negro. The mob, believed to have contained more than 300 men all unmasked, then quietly dispersed and the town was quiet. —Cleveland County Enterprise, 11/13/1913 My hometown, Wewoka, Oklahoma, seat of Seminole County, was founded by John Horse, a black Seminole, who, in 1849, established the first historical permanent settlement in the area. In 1913, another black Seminole, John Cudjo, was lynched in front of the courthouse by a mob with so little fear of legal repercussions, that no one wore masks. Despite Oklahoma’s long and ignominious history of lynchings, I had never heard anything about a lynching in my hometown until one afternoon in 2013, as I was searching “Wewoka” in pre‐ 1930s online newspaper archives; among the search results was a front‐page headline from a neighboring town's news‐ paper that crowed “Another Negro Is Strung Up.” A year and a half later, I now know there were 153 documented lynchings in hometowns across the state. According to Charles N. Clark’s Lynchings in Oklahoma, there were 111 lynchings in the Twin Territories from 1830 to 1907. Sixty‐one of the lynchings took place in Indian Terri‐ tory, 50 in Oklahoma Territory. Of the victims, 70 were white, 18 were black, 15 were Native American, 2 were “Mexican,” and 6 were of unknown or unrecorded race. The majority of lynchings during the Twin Territory era were for murder, horse theft (lynchings mostly perpetrated by the Anti‐Horse‐ Thief Association), and “unknown reasons.” After statehood (1907), there were 42 lynchings: 35 black people, 7 white. Thirty‐three lynchings were justified by murder accusations, 6 by rape and assault accusations, 1 as the result of a labor dispute, and 2 for violations of Sundowner Laws.
Editor Questioned But on the other hand, we do not believe it is right to take a life before a fair trial at law, when a suspect is captured without. We realize that the white man is master of this world and in proportion as he metes out justice will his kingdom stand and in proportion as he minimizes justice will his kingdom perish. —Editorial on the Cudjo lynching by M.W. Williams, The Wewoka and Lima Courier, newspaper of the all‐black town of Lima, 12 miles west of Wewoka, 11/ 14/1913. Statistics on Oklahoma lynchings reveal the shift from the victim‐ratio of almost 4‐1 white to black and 5‐1 white to Native American before statehood to a ratio of 5 blacks to 1 white after statehood. When their plans to enshrine Jim Crow in Oklahoma’s constitution was frustrated by fears that the constitution would be rejected by the federal government, state politicians passed a Jim Crow law on December 18, 1907, a mere month and two days after statehood was granted. Among the statutes in Senate Bill 1 is the definition of “negroes,” as follows: “all persons of African descent are negroes, while all other persons are whites, thus, for legal purposes, limiting our population to two races, and including the native American or Indian population and all other races, except the negroes, as white persons” (qtd in Loudenbeck). Those not from Oklahoma may find it puzzling that Indians were included as white in Senate Bill 1, but in doing so, legislators acknowledged four of the Five Civilized Tribes (Chickasaw, Creek, Cherokee, and Choctaw) were slaveholders before the Civil War. Moreover, according to contemporaneous news articles shared at Doug Loudenbeck’s Oklahoma City History blog, the bill gained a large measure of its support among voters by reminding whites that, after the civil war, slaveholding Oklahoma‐based Indians were forced by the federal government to grant their former slaves full citizenship and to share tribal lands and funds with former slaves remaining in their communities. Southern Indians’ relationships to descendants of freedmen are still contentious for some tribes today, like the Cherokees, who, in a series of tribal decisions beginning in 1983, rescinded the tribal rights and enrollment of the descendants of Cherokee freedmen. Additional fuel was added to the state’s official Jim Crow stance by the popularity and (political) power of the Ku Klux Klan; historian Danney Goble asserts that, in the early 1920s, “150,000 Oklahomans loyally paid their membership dues” to the Klan (164). Given that only the 500,000 or so white adult male citizens were eligible for membership, as many as 3 in every 10 adult white males in Oklahoma were likely members of the Klan. 12
Woman Lynched by Side of Son Mary Nelson, negress, and her son, 18 years old, were taken out of the county jail of Okfuskee county, at Okemah, Wednesday midnight, and hanged to the timbers of a bridge over the North Canadian river, six miles away. —The Shawnee News, 11/ 26/1911 O, don't kill my baby and my son, O , don't kill my baby and my son. You can stretch my neck on that old river bridge, But don't kill my baby and my son. —Woody Guthrie, 1948 One of the most infamous, nationally‐recognized Oklahoma lynchings occurred on May 25, 1911, the next county up from mine, in Woody Guthrie's hometown of Okemah. A woman, Laura Nelson and her son, J.D., were lynched off a bridge, left to dangle and spin from stiff new‐ rope nooses. Despite news reports, and, according the US Census, JD was only 14, not 18. Laura had at least one other child, a two year old named Carrie, and other reports also mention a newborn. According to some eyewitness reports, Carrie survived but the baby was thrown into the river. Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the Nelson lynching—it is rumored his own father was involved—and by the time Woody wrote the song in 1948, he had rid himself of any lingering Okie‐style racism and the song remains a mournful protest, along with several other Guthrie songs condemning lynching. In 2002, Terrence Hayes published “A Postcard from Okemah,” a poem about the Nelson lynching and the postcard that memorialized it. You can see the postcard, if you’re so inclined, at the Without Sanctuary website. I can’t bear to reprint it here. Here are the last three stanzas of Hayes’s poem: Now all of Okemah, Oklahoma, is hushed. Now even the children in attendance are dead. After that day in 1911, it did not rain again. To believe in God, this is the reckoning I claim. It is a Monday morning years too late. All the rocking chairs & shopping carts, all the mailboxes & choir pews are empty. I cannot hear the psalms of salvation
or forgiveness, the gospel of Mercy. I cannot ask who is left more disfigured: the ones who are beaten or the ones who beat; the ones who are hung or the ones who hang. Hayes’s question, “who is left more disfigured,” haunts me. I don’t know if any of my kin participated in Oklahoma lynchings or watched them as if they were tent‐dramas or traveling circuses. It is possible that they did. Certainly, my home state still displays its disfigured soul, electing politicians who write and pass bills to make it legal for businesses to refuse service to gay and lesbian people, to allow only people “of faith” to marry, and to refuse “that Obama’s” healthcare plan and its Medicaid extension while at the same time cutting social services and refusing to require schools to install tornado shelters, and this after the May 2013 tornado when several children drowned while taking refuge from a storm in a school basement. This essay is a reckoning of the extent of my state’s and my own disfigurement, the many ways in which race and race relations in America, in Oklahoma, and in my own life are still complex, difficult, and existentially important. Seminole Burning Spurred by the murder of a white woman by an Indian, a mob invaded the Seminole Nation and terrorized Seminole men and boys for more than a week before selecting two, who they took across the territorial boundary into Oklahoma to burn at the stake in a Baptist tabernacle a short distance southwest of Maud (Littlefield, 4). In the Twin Territories (pre‐statehood), Native Americans were almost as likely as African Americans to become the victims of lynching. Tensions were high between white settlers and tribal people, particularly in the border towns, and particularly in the Seminole Nation (later Seminole County). Part of the tension resulted from the recently‐passed Dawes Act which eliminated tribal ownership of land and, instead, divided tribal land into individual allotments, giving the “surplus” to whites. Whites resented Natives for holding land which they felt was underutilized; they considered Indians barbaric and lazy. Indians resented the whites living on land that was promised to them. Those tensions exploded on December 30, 1897, near the border of Seminole Nation, just east of the settlement of Maud, Oklahoma Territory, when an Indian man killed Mary Leard and harassed her children while her husband was gone to Oklahoma Territory (six miles away) to help his brother harvest corn. Although there was no evidence that the man who killed Mary Leard was a Seminole, the tribe was the closest in proximity to the crime. Therefore, a mob rode into the Seminole Nation to extract revenge, detaining, interrogating, and torturing Seminole men and boys, despite the fact that none of them answered to the description of the murderer given by Leard’s children. After a week of unsuccessfully hunting for the man who killed Mary Leard, the mob, kept agitated by Leard's
husband and other relatives, decided that it “would burn someone” to extract revenge for the crime (Littlefield 62). Around three a.m. on Friday, January 7, 1897, with the approval of a crowd of 125 or more men, Lincoln McGeisey (age unknown; he is referred to in most accounts as “a boy” or “grown son”) and Palmer Sampson, age 17, were burned alive. The murder of the two innocent teenagers led to the “first successful prosecution of lynchers in the American Southwest” (Littlefield 170). Sixty‐one people were arrested, nine received jail sentences, one received a prison sentence. The federal government paid $13,078.75 in restitution to 21 Seminoles for personal injuries, property loss, false arrest, and deprivation. Unfortunately, there would be no more successful lynching prosecutions in Oklahoma until 1922. The last documented lynching in Oklahoma took place in the town of Chickasha in 1930, 33 years after the Seminole burnings. Seventeen men were “charged with murder, inciting to riot, and destruction of property” for the last lynching in Oklahoma; however, “the case never made it to trial and the incident was shelved” (Clark 130). As I write this section on the Seminole burnings, I remember that I went to school with, and played on the WHS basketball team with, Seminole students named McGeisey, Sampson, Harjo, Palmer, Tiger, Coker, Wolf—all family names listed as receiving compensation for injuries in connection with the lynching of McGeisey and Sampson. As is the case for many athletes, our Lady Tigers' locker room was the scene of interracial cooperation, perhaps the most intimate multi‐racial space many of us will ever experience, where, in various states of undress, black, white, Indian, and mixed‐blood girls sweated, swore, joked, teased, and discussed tv shows, music, make‐up, and boys. Lynching In addition to lynching, racial violence had other manifestations. One was the “whipping party,” in which a large group of whites whipped or beat a black person who was suspected of an offense of some kind. In 1922 alone, according to Oklahoma Gov. Jack Walton, 2,500 whippings took place. Occurring in nearly a dozen Oklahoma communities around the turn of the century, a riot's usual purpose was to run the blacks out of town. Interracial violence occurred in Berwyn in 1895, Lawton in 1902, and Boynton in 1904. In Henryetta in 1907, whites burned the black residential district and established a ‘sundowner’ law, and in Dewey in 1917 a similar incident occurred. —Everett Lynching is a term that covers a multitude of sins; there does not have to be a rope for there to be a lynching, since the term in its most general sense refers to extra‐legal action against a person or groups of people. Hangings, home and barn burnings, “nightriding,” whippings, tarring and feathering—all of these illegally‐applied punishments can fall under the general heading of lynching. Then, there are “mass” lynchings, also often called “race riots.” According to
Clark's Lynchings in Oklahoma, in addition to the ones Everett mentions, mass lynchings also occurred in 1901 in Pierce, (Eufaula District of the Creek Nation, IT) and around the same time in Rosedale (McClain County, Chickasaw Nation, IT). Records of both these mass lynchings are scarce, and in the case of the Rosedale mass lynching, only one oral history of the event exists. Unlike the Pierce and Rosedale mass lynchings, the event usually called the Tulsa Race Riot is extremely well documented. On Tuesday May 31, 1921, whipped into a frenzy by an unsubstantiated report that a young black man, Dick Rowland, had assaulted a young white woman on the elevator he operated, whites invaded the Greenwood neighborhood, known at the time as “Black Wall Street,” killing people and burning homes and businesses along the way. At one point, a machine gun was mounted on a flatbed rail car, hitched to an engine, and pulled slowly through the area, in order to more efficiently terrorize the community. It's estimated that, during the 16 hours of the assault on the people of Greenwood, 10,000 blacks were left homeless, 35 city blocks and 1,256 residences were destroyed by fire. The number of deaths has never been rectified: the official count of black people killed during the riot was 39; estimates of the actual death toll range from 55‐300. Earlier, in 1907, Henryetta, Oklahoma, managed to squeeze in both a lynching and a race riot in response to one incident. First, a black man named James Garden was lynched for the murder of liveryman Albert Bates, and soon therafter, according to an oral history collected from Anna McMahan, Bates’s widow, the entire black population population of Henryetta was “encouraged” to leave town by roving white gangs led by the mayor, Dr. W.C. Sanderson, who “talked real loud to the negroes and ordered them out of town before sundown. Some of them left right then but others stayed a while. Several shacks were burned that night and they were made to understand the White (sic) people meant business” (McMahan). As recently as the 1980s, a “Nigger Don’t Let The Sun Set On You In This Town!” sign still stood on Old Highway 62 at the western city limits of Henryetta. I have seen it myself. Prominent Citizen Killed From all information at hand, it seems that a crowd of about seven boys went to the hotel about 8:30 Monday evening for the purpose of running the negro out of town. —Marlow Review, December 20, 1923 From historical accounts, it appears that Albert W. Berch, a white man, and John Jernigan, a black man, were murdered for violation of a Sundowner Law, which, like Henryetta’s post‐riot ordinance, would not allow black folks in town past sundown. These laws allowed for exploitation of black labor, while at the same time prevented black people from living in the city limits. Lynching, whippings, and other punishments for violation of Sundowner Laws can be translated to contemporary terms as “walking while black after dark” inside the city limits which, in Marlow, OK, resulted in the shooting death of Berch and Jernigan. Mr. Berch was the proprietor of the Johnson Hotel in Marlow; Mr. Jernigan was his porter. A “gang” of seven young men entered the hotel “for the purpose of running the negro out of town” (Marlow Review). 16
When Mr. Berch entered the hotel lobby, he was “shot through the heart and died instantly”; then, “his assailant turned and directed his fire upon the negro.” According to the Sandusky (Ohio) Star‐Journal, the gang was “attempting to force Berch to discharge the negro. Anonymous warning had been received by Jernigan ordering him to leave town.” Negro Assailant Lynched at the Scene of the Outrage On Sunday the entire country north of the Rock Island was being searched, a large number of negroes from Wewoka and other points joining the drive. [ . . . ] (Henry) Conley’s wife, with whom he fled from Seminole county last Saturday night, was located at Mill Creek, just north of Ravia, on Thursday. She is said to have declared that Conley had committed similar crimes before and made her help him to get away. —The Shawnee Daily News‐Herald, 11/17/1917 I was half‐way through the final draft of this essay when a friend from my hometown, another writer and an accomplished amateur local historian, contacted me to say that he’d heard from a couple of old men that there was another lynching in our town in 1917, four years after the Cudjo lynching. After checking Lynching in Oklahoma, I found a 1917 lynching listed as occurring in Holdenville, six miles away. Returning to the newspaper archive, I searched for “Henry Conley,” the man who was named as lynched in Holdenville for the rape of Mrs. Jessee Burford, a Wewoka resident. According to contemporaneous newspaper accounts, while Conley had been returned to Holdenville on the train after being captured in another county, the posse that spirited him away from the depot was composed of Wewokans, and he was hanged in Wewoka, at the home of the woman he was accused of raping. According to one man who was a child at the time and who witnessed the proceedings, Conley was “paraded” in an open wagon up Highway 56 from Holdenville to Wewoka then north of town six miles to the Burford’s farm where the posse hung him from a tree and fired shots into his body. One of the elderly gentlemen who confessed to this second Wewoka lynching was a young judge in 1917. He told my friend that someone came to his house and asked him if he wanted to stop the lynching. He said he would deal with it later; when he got around to doing something, the lynching had already occurred. On his deathbed, the old judge said his lack of action was his greatest regret. OU President David Boren Expels Two Students for Involvement in Racist Video University of Oklahoma President David Boren has expelled two students identified as leaders in a racist chant video recorded at an SAE fraternity event. —KOCO.com, 3/10/2015 In the years between Oklahoma’s last documented lynching in 1930 and my birth in 1961, the Civil Rights Movement fomented changes in Oklahoma as it did in the rest of the country. In 1946, willing to endure years of delay to her career in order to bring Oklahoma’s discriminatory
practices to the courts, Ada Lois Sipuel (Fisher) applied to law school at the University of Oklahoma. She was denied because of race. In 1948, the US Supreme Court ruled that the state of Oklahoma must provide instruction for blacks equal to that of whites. In response, the state created a law school at historically‐black Langston University, but further litigation proved that the hastily‐instituted law school was “inferior” to the OU School of law and therefore not an equal educational opportunity. OU was forced to admit Sipuel in 1949; she sat in a chair marked “colored” that was blocked off by a chain from the white students. George McLauren, a black man seeking admission to OU’s graduate school in 1948, faced a similar struggle; initially denied admittance because of his race, after a court case, he gained admittance although, like Sipuel, he was required to study in a separated area within the law library and to eat lunch in segregation. Such courage they showed, Sipuel and McLauren, matriculating at OU, where, just 24 years earlier, Edwin C. DeBarr, one of the four founding faculty members, first head of the Department of Chemistry, and, later, Vice‐President of the University, also served as the Grand Dragon of the Oklahoma Realm of the Imperial Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Oklahoma City African Americans Sit‐in for Integration, 1958‐64 They sat quietly at the lunch counter and ordered their Cokes. When they were refused service, they continued to sit in silence as the surrounding white customers unleashed a wave of threats and racial slurs. The manager called the police, who arrived and hovered over the children as the crowd of hecklers grew in size. —Global Nonviolent Action Database In August 1958, Clara Luper, an African‐American public school teacher director of the local NAACP Youth Council, took 13 children, ages 6‐13, to the segregated lunch counter of Katz’s Drug in downtown Oklahoma City. It took two days of sitting at the counter in shifts, two days of harassment, two days of courage and fear, before an employee served one of the children a hamburger. In 1968, Hannah Diggs Atkins was elected Oklahoma’s first female African American legislator. In 1952, Oklahoma City native Ralph Ellison, who grew up not too far from Katz's Drug, published Invisible Man. My hometown schools began the integration process by integrating the sports teams first, beginning in the fall of 1957 when my youngest uncle was a sophomore. According to my uncle, “We, as athletes, had absolutely no difficulty blending. The blacks attended Douglas High and we went to Wewoka High. Complete integration was accomplished by 1964. Your aunt indicates that in junior high some limited black vs. white problems arose, primarily with the girls challenging one another.” Yet, despite all this “progress” dearly purchased with the blood, sweat, and tears of people of color, when Oklahoma Today published its first African‐American issue in January of 2015, the editors received hate mail. 18
The Lynching at Wewoka It is true that the white people of this town and neighborhood hanged and fired about 100 shots with pistols and all sorts of guns into John Cudjo's body, on the night of the 4th inst., on a telephone pole in front of the courthouse. We had no trouble hearing the guns and screams of white women, a few of whom found they could not stand the ordeal. The wife of the under sheriff, whom John Cudjo had killed the previous Saturday night, asked that Cudjo be not burned; so the barrel of oil and roll of cotton bagging carried over to roll him in were not used, but returned to their owners. —The Crisis #7, Journal of the NAACP, January 1914 When I was growing up in Wewoka between 1962 and 1979, the population was 5500; by race, it was about 50% white, 20% Black, and 20% Native American—the last 10%, “Other.” The demographic of my friends was more like 35% white, 35% black, and 20% Native American— partly because I was a Head Start kid and partly because I was often uncomfortable and sometimes unwelcome around the white, middle‐class students whose parents belonged to the Country Club. Although Wewoka was a small town, we had a black community center and a white community center, a black swimming pool and a white swimming pool; a black library and a white library. In all things except school, we were segregated, even at death: there were black cemeteries and white cemeteries and Indian cemeteries. Where did the Indian kids fit in this black/white schema? Well, it depended. Some Creeks and Seminoles, since they’d been intermarrying with African‐Americans for years, hung out with the black kids. Others hung out with the white kids, especially those whose parents were middle class and those who played football or were in the band or in Campfire Girls. Mostly, though, the Indian kids stayed to themselves, particularly those who came from traditional families. Or, at least, that’s the way it seemed to me. Recently, I’ve come to realize that I knew very little about most of my classmates’ lives, other than the handful of people I counted as my intimates. I knew that my best girl friend, the one who’d saved me on my first day of kindergarten when I got lost walking down to the Head Start after morning classes— the one who, in 1977, came out as a lesbian in our small rural town—was living on her own during high school, in the trailer she’d once shared with her mother and half‐brother. I knew that a boy I liked was also living alone, escaping an abusive and alcoholic father, supporting himself by working in the oilfields on morning tower, from 10pm to 6am; after work, he showered, changed clothes and went to school. I was invited into only one black classmate’s home the entire time I lived there, and, so long as I was living in my stepfathers’ house, I invited no black classmates. There was an unspoken understanding that although our generation might be evolving toward more progressive race relations, our parents and grandparents, both black and white, were not. In high school, I hung out mostly with “the heads”: the partiers, the drinkers, the potheads. I also spent some time “over to nigger town” as most of my family would say. I called it the place where my friends had the best after‐basketball‐ and‐football‐game dances. After games, the white
middle‐class kids all went to some other white middle class kid’s house to drink and screw. I was not invited and probably wouldn't have gone if I were. Home basketball and football games were Friday, and for a while, every Friday night took me over to the black community center to dance the night away. I loved to dance, and I needed lessons, too, or at least that’s what A.B. said the first time I danced with my black friends. “All you white girls,” she said, arms crossed, shaking her head, “ain’t none‐uh you knows how to shake your booty.” A.B. and J. and T. and M. and S. and A.E. taught me a complex version of the Bump and coached me in the Bus Stop and its love child, the Hustle, which was enormously popular after Saturday Night Fever came out in December 1977, halfway through my junior year. I was lovingly tutored in the black‐girl groove: upper body mostly still, drop the hips with knees bent slightly, swing hips side to side in time to the music, while the feet moved in a circle, or shifted left and right or forward and back. The hips did the work. It wasn’t twerking; it was graceful and classy and sexy, and worked with most any song; it also got me through the jiving and hollering of a show‐off Stroll. A Night of Vengeance in Wewoka Mrs. Dennis, wife of the murdered deputy, had been brought downtown to observe the public spectacle. Across the street from the courthouse she and her seven (now fatherless) children sat in the front office of the Wewoka Democrat newspaper and watched as her husband’s killer [Cudjo] was lynched and shot to pieces. —Butler 185 Most importantly, for my teenaged awkward self, the dances I learned didn’t have any of those idiotic moves the rest of the white kids were trying out on their dates, no funky chicken, no disco duck. While the girls were grooving, the black boys got down, inventing proto‐break‐ dancing by combining a modern version of the buck and the straight jig with The Worm and funk‐inspired popping and locking. We were all influenced by Michael Jackson, P‐Funk, Kool & the Gang, and Sly, icons whose sounds we gorged ourselves on whenever we had a chance in those pre‐MTV, pre‐BET years, on The Jackson Five and later, The Jacksons, and Soul Train and The Midnight Special tv shows. Shows I wasn’t allowed to watch until after my mother divorced my stepfather, the stepfather who thought All in the Family was a paean to his white‐race‐ superiority philosophy. No “goddamn nigger shows” in his house. Negro Lynched [ . . . ] The officers were overpowered, after which the negro was turned over to a party of men and boys who hurried him cross‐ country to the home of the woman [Mrs. Burford] he was charged with attacking while she was alone in a cornfield. En route the crowd was augumented (sic.) by several hundred men, women, and children residents of Seminole
and Hughes counties. [ . . .] As Conley was swung into the air the victim of his lust shot six bullets from an automobile into his body. —Norman Daily Transcript, 6/18/1917 There are two documented lynchings of women in Oklahoma: one, Mary Nelson, the other, Marie Scott (Wagoner County, 1914). It will take another essay to suss out the complexities of women’s roles in Oklahoma lynchings, as accusers, as victims, as executioners’ right hand, as avenging “angels,” as wives, and as partners and family members suffering collateral damage, sustaining the loss of their husbands and sons and brothers and fathers and often their homes and livelihoods. One night at 3am, after I returned from dancing on the westside, the phone rang and when my mother answered, a male voice growled, “Yor daughter’s a nigger lover.” Cudjo Lynched While the officers were looking for Cudjo, they met up with Ed Carolina, a negro who was drunk and showed fight. He was killed by some of the officers. —The Okemah Sledge Hammer, (Socialist) 11/06/1913 Two of the friends I had danced with the night the phone call came bore the last name of Carolina, a family with deep roots in our part of Oklahoma. I don’t know for sure, but I imagine they are related to Ed Carolina, who was killed by deputies during the Cudjo manhunt. I haven’t asked, afraid I’ll hurt my friends’ feelings or open old wounds. I did ask a half‐dozen of my male and female black childhood friends that I’m still in touch with if they’d heard of the Cudjo lynching. I wondered if it had been told in the black community as a cautionary tale. One of the friends I asked, whose mother was a Cudjo, said that the lynching was “a big family secret not talked about around the kids.” Another said she’d heard of the lynching, but it wasn’t talked about much. Two others said they’d heard whispers of the Cudjo lynching and of others, but that there was no active oral transmission. “It’s history,” M.H. said, with a chorus of agreement from the rest, “and we’re glad it’s just history.” Another Lynching in Oklahoma John Cudjo, the negro who killed Deputy Sheriff John Dennis in this county Saturday night was captured Tuesday afternoon, and brought to this city at about 8 o’clock when a mob seized him and hanged him to a telephone pole in front of the county court house. After the hanging at least one hundred shots were fired into the negro’s body. The mob then dispersed very quietly and the town is quiet. A large placard on which was written “To the Memory of Lee Cruce” was tied to the negro’s feet as his body swung from the pole. —Tulsa Star, African‐American newspaper, 11/8/1913
Two Oklahoma lynchings, one following closely on the other, were used not only to satisfy the perpetrators' race hatred and thirst for vengeance, but also to send a political message. In both the November 1913 lynching of John Cudjo in Wewoka and the January 1914 lynching of Ben Dickerson in Noble, lynchers attached signs to the dead men’s bodies that referenced the then governor of Oklahoma, Lee Cruce. Cudjo's sign, hung from twine around his ankles, read, “To the Memory of Lee Cruce.” Dickerson’s sign, hung around his neck, read, “If Lee Cruce wants to help this nigger out he will have to go to hell to do it.” Governor Cruce was against capital punishment and had commuted the sentences of several legally tried and sentenced criminals. Those who preferred lynchings to trials used Cruce’s actions as a justification for lynching: if Cruce wouldn’t apply the proper penalties, then the mob must. Some sources went so far as to blame Cruce for the increase in lynchings: “Persons who favor lynching declare that Governor Cruce’s conscientious scruples against allowing any hangings during this term of office, his scruples against capital punishment, is the leading cause of so many lynchings in Oklahoma” (Norman Transcript, January 29, 1914). The human body, especially the female body and the body of color, has always been acted upon by the body politic—the anti‐Cruce slogans made the politicization of the two men’s bodies clearly evident. In 2014, the Oklahoma legislature tried to outlaw the wearing of hoodies; the statute banned wearing a “robe, mask, or other disguise” in the public at any time; if passed, the bill would have become an “emergency” statute, immediately in force—supposedly, it was “immediately necessary for the preservation of the public peace, health and safety.” When national public ridicule of the “hoodie law” began, some legislators tried to justify the bill by comparing it to Oklahoma Governor George Walton's 1923 law, still in effect, which prohibits concealing one’s identity when committing a crime, a law specifically intended to make it easier to arrest and prosecute KKK members. Walton fought against the Klan from the moment he took office; he was impeached and removed from office a mere 11 months and 10 days after he was inaugurated. Most liberal Oklahomans believe the 2014 bill was in reaction to the Summer of Ferguson. It failed. University of Oklahoma Regent Thinks His City Once Had a More Superior Gene Pool When I went on the school board 30... 25 years ago... a little over... we were, probably the best school district in the state. We just happened to have the best gene pool. But that gene pool keeps moving out. It’s moved to Edmond, it’s now moved to Deer Creek, and ya know, they’ll keep runnin’ as long as they can buy green fields and gasoline for their car. —BlueNationReview.com, 3/20/2015 When I was in graduate school at the University of Oklahoma, during a social event, I walked up to two women, both women of color whom I knew, and, reverting to the familiar way my friends and I spoke to each other just 40 miles east of the university, I said, “Hey, girl! 22
Whassup? Watcha doin’ for Thanksgiving?” One of the women was a professor in the English department; I was taking a class from her. Over the course of the semester, we had personality conflicts that led to accusations of misconduct on both sides. She told a faculty committee that I was a racist and had acted in a racist manner when I addressed her as “girl” at the social event. The accusation made me sick at my stomach. I had consciously attempted to rid myself of my upbringing, beginning when I was in elementary school. I hated my stepfather and I wanted to be whatever he didn’t want me to be, hence, I did not want to be a racist. For as long as I could remember, I had enjoyed warm and egalitarian relationships with white kids, black kids, Indian kids, and the Laotian kid who moved to town when I was in fifth grade. A year later, on the occasion of my 30th high school reunion, I was still unsettled by the racism accusation and the fact that it was incited by my use of a kinship term, a friendship term that also marked my working‐class and regional roots. I asked my friends there, black, white, and Indian, if they thought of me as racist, and if so, to tell me how so I could fix it. A unanimous roar of laughter followed the question. There was also some hard teasing about me being just like I was in high school, “too damn serious.” Then, together, we moved to the dance floor to memorialize Michael Jackson’s recent death by doing the electric slide and a few moonwalks to a set of ten of his songs. But now, after researching and writing this essay and thinking about the incident with my professor over the last seven years, I have to check my privilege. My hurt feelings pale in comparison to the quotidian harassment that people of color endure. I must remember that folks who do not know me might be deeply disturbed by hearing certain charged words spoken by me in my southern accent, no matter how benignly I intend them, because they evoke a history I can neither change nor fully redeem by my own actions. Unfortunately, racism is not relegated to Oklahoma’s history. Family Says Moore (OK) Police Beat Father To Death Three Moore Police officers were put on administrative leave while detectives investigate an in‐custody death from overnight. The family of the [black] man who died said police beat him badly and they recorded it with a cell phone camera.. [ . . . ] Lunahi Rodriguez said that five officers beat her father to death right in front of her, in the parking lot of the movie theater. —News9.com, 2/15/2014 The years 2012‐2014 were bad ones for race relations in America. Many of the names of victims of race‐related violence are internationally recognizable: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner. Perhaps the murder of Luis Rodriguez in a Moore, Oklahoma, movie theater parking lot is less well known. Rodriguez was not accused of any crime; in fact, he was trying to deescalate a domestic spat between his wife and their daughter that took place in the theater parking lot. His wife, who appears to be white, slapped her daughter, and a bystander called police. Luis Rodriguez was trying to stop his upset wife from driving away when Moore police arrived. It appears they assumed he was responsible for the domestic disturbance and stopped
him, demanding his ID. When Rodriguez attempted to continue across the parking lot to calm his wife, five officers took him down for not presenting identification when asked. They beat him with fists and knees and pepper‐sprayed him. The officers ignored bystanders’ (including the family’s) insistence that he was not part of the disturbance; likewise, they turned a deaf ear to concerns for Rodriquez’s well being. When officers finally handcuffed Rodriguez and turned him over (he had been face down), he was dead. And, as happened so often in the bad old days of Oklahoma lynchings, the officers were cleared of any wrongdoing and no one was indicted for the murder of Luis Rodriquez. Neither was anyone indicted for the murder of Mary Nelson and her son; nor for the executions of John Cudjo and Henry Conley. In Faulkner’s story “Dry September,” the motivations behind the lynching of innocent black man Will Mayes include race hatred and sheer meanness; the lynching is also figured as a sacrifice in response to drought. Like the body of John Cudjo which was made to serve as a political billboard, dead black bodies continue to serve their executioners as political statements and as sacrifices to exorcise national guilt and fear, as tribute to our increasingly authoritarian and militarized society, and as an outlet for individual violent tendencies. I wonder if no one knows the history of lynchings or if, as a society, we have truly decided that only certain lives matter. A dry‐grass fire is raging across our country, one not of rumors but of hatred and anger. It’s certain that if we keep going the direction we’re going, Oklahomans and Americans, of all colors, will continue to live increasingly disfigured lives in an increasingly disfigured society. And all of our home towns, all the Okemahs and Wewokas, will be hushed. Works Cited Butler, Ken. “A Night of Vengeance in Wewoka.” More Oklahoma Renegades. Pelican Publishing, 2007. Print. Census Bureau. “Census: Oklahoma.” Washington DC, USA: GPO, 1920. Print. Clark Kicktode, Charles N. Lynchings in Oklahoma: Vigilantism and Racism in the Twin Territories of Oklahoma, 1830‐1930. Shawnee, OK: Kicktode, 2008. Print. Everett, Dianna. “Lynching,” Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, www.okhistory.org Web. 15 June 2015. Goble, Danney. “The Ku Klux Kan in the 1920s.” Historical Atlas of Oklahoma. 4th ed. Norman: U of OK P, 2006. Print. Guthrie, Woodrow Wilson. “Don’t Kill My Baby and My Son.” The Woody Guthrie Foundation Official Woody Guthrie Website. Hayes, Terrence. “A Postcard from Okemah.” Ploughshares 28.1 (2002): 66–68. Print. Littlefield, Daniel F. Seminole Burning: A Story of Racial Vengeance. U Press of Mississippi, 1996. Print.
Loudenbeck, Doug. “Jim Crow in Oklahoma City.” Blog. Oklahoma City History Blog. N.p., 1 May 2009. Web. 2 Apr. 2015. McMahan, Anna. Interviewed by Grace Kelly, Oklahoma WPA. Indian Pioneer Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society. 1937. Oklahoma Senate Bill 13. Don Barrington, author. 55th Oklahoma Legislature, 1st sess., January 2015. Smith‐Estrada, Carmen. “Oklahoma City African Americans Sit‐in for Integration, 1958‐64.” Database. Global Nonviolent Action Database. n.p., 9 Dec. 2011. Web. 2 Mar. 2015.
This essay previously published in Oklahomeland. U of Lamar P, 2015.
“Ernest Hemingway in the Yellowstone High Country”
Introduction Cooke City, Montana, is a town unlike any other in the United States. It sits nestled among the rugged peaks of the Beartooth Mountains, just outside of Yellowstone’s northeast boundary. Even though the nearest stoplight is two hours away, Cooke City has always had a cosmopolitan feel; its proximity to Yellowstone has brought people from all over the world to this wilderness outpost at 7800 feet. Since the first accounts of Yellowstone’s smoldering landscape made it back east, people have come for their own reasons: Gold, fur, land, solitude, wilderness, adventure, or even as a place to lay low for a while. These days they come for Yellowstone, wolves, trout, elk, snow, wilderness, adventure or a place to lay low for a while. The year‐round population is under a hundred, there is no hospital, no high school, no grocery store. 500 inches of snow is not unusual for a year. Why then would Ernest Hemingway name this, of all towns, as one of his favorite places to write? How could a town this small and remote, end up on a list with such literary Meccas as Madrid, Paris and Hemingwayville itself, Key West? After my first couple of years in Cooke City I attended the University of Montana and took a course on Hemingway. His collection, The First Forty‐Nine Stories, was on the syllabus and as I picked my way through the stories I came across a line in the preface which mentioned Cooke City as a great place to write. When I returned to Cooke the following summer I asked around about this but found very little information and even less interest. That is until I met Ralph Glidden, the owner of the Cooke City General Store. Ralph had moved to Cooke in the early seventies and had been intrigued by Hemingway’s connection to the area. At that time there were still some people around who remembered Hemingway’s visits. Olive Nordquist, who had known Hemingway and still resided in Cooke, hired Ralph to help her with her hotel. Olive had run the L—T Ranch with her husband during Hemingway’s first three visits there and even went to see him in Key West. She was very fond of the Hemingway family and happy to share her memories of them. Ralph had also known a few of the care takers at the ranches in the upper Clark’s Fork Valley and through them had learned much of the history of Hemingway’s time in the area. (1) A few years later I met another character who would go on to become a great friend and a big help with my research. I met Tom Weaver while having a beer at the Miners Saloon in downtown Cooke City. He was hard to miss, standing six‐foot four with a white beard and sporting a beret. Tom, from Red Lodge, and a published writer himself, told me that his father had been friends with Hemingway during his time in the mountains. The next summer my wife and I opened a coffee shop in Cooke City and Tom came in to visit. He gave me a copy of True at First Light, Hemingway’s account of his second and final trip to Africa. Tom had dog‐eared a couple of pages where Cooke City and the Beartooth Pass were mentioned. After reading the
novel I realized that after twenty years, two marriages, a world war, a Nobel Prize and while living on another continent, the author’s mind still drifted back to his time in the Yellowstone High Country. (2) Soon after the publication of True at First Light I came across an article in the 2006 Fly Fishing edition of the Big Sky Journal about Hemingway’s first summer in the Beartooths. From this article I learned that Hemingway had spent time in Hoosier’s Bar, which was not only still operating in Cooke City but was the chief sponsor of our local softball team. The article also shed light on Tom’s connection to Hemingway, revealing that he was the son of Chub Weaver, who is mentioned in For Whom the Bell Tolls as one of the writer’s best friends. (3) At this point I realized that I had met two people (Ralph and Tom) whose generosity and enthusiasm had kept my interest in Hemingway alive until I had found those connections between Yellowstone and Hemingway in the work itself. It was then I decided to try and make something cohesive out of these clues I was coming across. My project began in earnest when I bought Carlos Baker’s comprehensive biography Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. From this book I was able to discern exactly when the author was here and who he came with. I then acquired two books of letters: Selected Letters, also by Carlos Baker, and The Only Thing That Counts, a collection of letters exchanged between Hemingway and his editor Max Perkins. By cross referencing the dates he was at the ranch with these two collections of letters I was able to get a good idea of what life was like for Hemingway. In Selected Letters there were many letters to friends imploring them to join him, and long accounts of his days hunting and fishing. In the letters to his editor there was a full account of all the writing he did there. In these letters I found many references to Cooke City and Red Lodge as well as many of the drainages, lakes and rivers that I was already familiar with. The biography and letters also shed light on a Hemingway I never knew existed; a family man who fished with his wife and taught his children to fish and ride horses. A man who joined in kids’ baseball games in the corral, and told ghost stories around the fire in a goofy hat. A man who could at one moment entertain his wife’s wealthy friends and the next head into some of the world’s most rugged backcountry. He was also a man burdened by the responsibility left him by his father’s suicide. Where was the media‐construct of the drunken, womanizing, egomaniac with the big white beard and cable knit sweater? Next I began reading the work. I found connections to the Beartooths, Cooke City, and the ranch in seven novels, several short stories, a half a dozen articles and countless letters. When I read the story “A Man of the World,” I realized that had I come across something special. The story is quite obviously set in Cooke City, Montana, but Hemingway has renamed it Jessup, Wyoming. Now to anyone who has wintered in Cooke the story’s setting is obvious, but to a scholar who had only read about the area or maybe passed through in summer, the nasty place described in the story would seem quite foreign. After doing a little research I found that “A Man of the World” was the last thing 30
that Ernest Hemingway ever published. It was published in the 100th Anniversary issue of The Atlantic Monthly(4) and was essentially dismissed by critics as an ugly little story not worthy of the author’s legacy. The little criticism that exists of this story fails to connect it to Cooke City and to Hemingway’s five summers spent on the ranch ten miles east of there. While one critic wrongly connects “A Man of the World” to The Nick Adams Stories,(5) another considers Jessup an otherwise unidentified town (6). After its appearance in 1957 the story disappeared for thirty years until the Finca Vigia edition of Hemingway’s short stories was published in 1986 explaining why it has been largely passed over by scholars. (7) When we look at where it was set and when it was probably conceived we see that the main character, Blindie, compares well with Ole Anderson in “The Killers” and the ‘Mexican’ in “The Gambler, the Nun and the Radio”.(8) Tom, the fictional narrator in “A Man of the World” would re‐emerge as Montana ranch owner Thomas Hudson in Hemingway’s posthumous novel Islands in the Stream. For Whom the Bell Tolls revealed the importance of the Yellowstone High Country to the author. The protagonist, Robert Jordan, hails from Red Lodge, Montana (on the other side of the Beartooths) and all of his memories and flashbacks are based on Hemingway’s time at the ranch. I knew from the biography that Hemingway’s father had shot himself with his father’s civil war Smith and Wesson, and that his mother had sent the gun to him just before his first trip to the Yellowstone. From Tom Weaver I knew that Hemingway and his father (Chub) had ridden regularly over from Red Lodge to the ranch, and on one of these trips they had stopped at a lake where Hemingway rid himself of the gun by dropping it in. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, while trying to drum up the courage to blow the bridge, protagonist Robert Jordan struggles with his father’s suicide and recounts the dropping of the gun into the lake, even mentioning Chub by name. It was then I realized that events in the Yellowstone High Country had major significance to both the work and the biography. (9) At this point I knew the exact dates of his visits but my resources were limited and at the time internet in Cooke City was painfully slow. So any time I traveled to a city— Missoula, Bozeman, and Portland mostly—I would head to bookstores and libraries to do research. I would then search indexes for any reference to his time here. Whenever I found something of value I would either buy the book or scribble down the important information and log it into my computer at the first chance I got. The question now was why hadn’t all this information been brought to light? Ernest Hemingway has had his life and work dissected and analyzed perhaps more than any other American writer in history. It seemed impossible that there could be a gap in the story. In reading all the criticism on “A Man of the World” I found no one who connected the story to Hemingway’s time in Cooke City. Even though Hemingway sent off final drafts of major works from the Cooke City General Store and post office, there was not even a plaque or a sign in town. (10)
As I continued my research there were highs and lows, times when I thought I was the sole possessor of some crucial piece of information only to find an article that had made the same discovery several years earlier. As I kept on digging I began to realize why the contribution this little corner of the world had made to the life and work of Hemingway had been so under examined and under‐valued. The L—T Ranch sits in Wyoming while Cooke City resides ten miles away across the Montana border. Robert Jordan is from Red Lodge, “The Gambler, the Nun and the Radio” takes place in Billings, Thomas Hudson from Islands in the Stream, owns a ranch in Montana, in The Green Hills of Africa he refers to hunting Timber Creek, which is a small creek twenty miles from any road, in True at First Light he remembers hunting in Wyoming. “A Man of the World” is set in Cooke City but it is called Jessup, Wyoming. To the south of the ranch are the Absaroka Mountains, to the north are the Beartooth Mountains and to the west is Yellowstone. In short, the location of the ranch and Hemingway’s use of so many descriptions had created an ambiguity that made it virtually impossible to connect all the literary and biographical clues. It dawned on me that if you didn’t have both knowledge of the work and biography and a close understanding of the terrain, you would probably not make all the connections. The fact that in more than fifty years no one has connected his last published work to Cooke City is a testament to this blind spot in the scholarship. In naming this region I have referred to Ralph Glidden’s history of the Cooke City area and decided to borrow a phrase from his subtitle and refer to the region as a whole as the “Yellowstone High Country.”(11) Next I set about trying to find people’s personal recollections of the famous writer. Ralph Glidden again proved instrumental. Ralph sent me copies of articles written in 1970 upon the publication of Islands in the Stream. (12) The authors of the articles had interviewed several people who had known Hemingway during his stays at the ranch, so I now had several first‐person accounts of Hemingway’s time in the area and the impression’s he and his family had made on the local residents. From these accounts I realized two things: one, that the people who knew the Hemingway’s best, Chub Weaver, Ivan Wallace, the Nordquists and Polly Copeland, all had very positive impressions of the man and his family. Two, that there was a tendency for people to embellish their accounts, and because it had been thirty to forty years since these lives had crossed, people sometimes just added their own twist to the tale. One woman from the ranch in the Bighorns, remembered ‘Ernie’ telling her that his favorite places in the world were Wyoming and Africa.(13) Well, Hemingway was at her ranch in 1928, it was his first time in Wyoming but he would not set foot on the African continent for another five years. Another source suggested that “Wine of Wyoming” was inspired by his time on the Clark’s Fork, (14) when in reality that story was published before Hemingway’s first visit to the Clark’s Fork Valley. Even Hemingway’s two most respected biographers, Carlos Baker and Michael Reynolds, differ on his initial arrival at the L—T Ranch. Baker has him first stopping at a ranch on Sunlight Creek before finding his way to the L—T, meaning 32
he would have had to come from the East.(15) Reynolds on the other hand has him coming through Yellowstone and Cooke City, meaning he would have had to come from the West. (16) So even before my story could begin I had to sort out which version was true. I turned to local folklore and an eyewitness account of the Hemingway’s arrival from Polly Copeland: “It was the first automobile that ever dared to travel the perilous horse trail, traversing the roaring Clark’s Fork at intervals from Crandall on.” Problem solved: he came from the East.(17) I realized that in order for my project to have any legitimacy I would have to be very careful about what I included. Also, since this is a work of non‐fiction I had to be very careful to not fall into the same traps myself. I could not fill in gaps with my own assumptions; everything I decided to include would have to be verified and cited. Rather than just paraphrasing other peoples’ work I decided to quote and give full credit rather than risk unintentional plagiarism. As I began to compile all this I realized that the story of Hemingway’s time in the Yellowstone High Country had a beginning, a middle and an end, conflict and resolution, that it was pertinent to both his work and biography, and to the history of the area. It began with the birth of his second son, the beginning of his second marriage, the completion of A Farewell to Arms, his first trip out west and the death of his father. It ended with the end of his marriage to Pauline, the beginning of the deterioration of his relationship with his sons, the fall of Spain and the resulting onset of WWII, and the completion of For Whom the Bell Tolls. In between there were three more novels, the trip to Africa, the great depression, many of his best short stories. As well as all the best big game hunting of his life outside of Africa, including black bear, grizzly, elk, deer and bighorn sheep and what he considered the best trout fishing of his life.(18) At this point I was feeling pretty good about the project when my wife Patty met a man, once again at the Miners Saloon, who would prove invaluable to the project. Dink Bruce is the son of Otto Bruce, long time Hemingway friend and driver.(19) Dink winters in Key West and summers in Livingston, Montana, and moves comfortably through the literary circles there. Dink was at the Miners with Jon Fryer the owner of the Sax and Fryer bookstore in Livingston. Patty struck up a conversation with them and eventually my project came up. That was when Dink revealed that his father, Otto Bruce, had been good friends with Hemingway. The two men were very supportive and gracious and to my astonishment a couple of weeks later a couple arrived at our coffee shop with a manila envelope with pictures from Dink’s personal collection. The pictures were stunning, here was Ernest Hemingway as a young man, rifle slung over his shoulder, here he was with Pauline and their fishing rods, Ernest with his Bighorn sheep, pictures of the boys with bear hides. Once again a local resident with similar interests, and personal memories and knowledge of Hemingway’s time here had come into our lives and generously contributed to the project by offering enthusiasm, support and this time images of the Hemingway family.
In order to make this work accurate I have tried to use Hemingway’s own words as much as possible, using letters, quote’s and excerpts from the work. Of course, some of the quotes are little more than people’s memories and ‘the work’ is largely fictionalized accounts of the author’s biography, so absolute accuracy may be unattainable. My research has convinced me that these mountains that I call home, and the wildness that resides within them, had an undeniable impact on both the life and work of one of the most influential American authors of the twentieth century. What follows is a complete account of Ernest Hemingway’s time in the Yellowstone High Country. Chapter 1: 1928 In 1928, two years before his first visit to the Yellowstone High Country, Hemingway made an exploratory trip to Sheridan, Wyoming, and the nearby Bighorn Mountains. He had married Pauline Pfeifer two years before. On June 28th Pauline gave birth to Patrick, their first child together. Hemingway had another son Jack or ‘Bumby’ (as he was called when he was young) from his previous marriage to Hadley Richardson. Patrick’s birth was a difficult one: 18 hours of labor ending with a Caesarean section. Pauline’s recovery was also long and difficult and made worse by the suffocating summer heat of Kansas City. When Pauline was well enough they took the train to Piggot, Arkansas, where her parents lived. A month after the birth, when Pauline and Patrick had gained enough strength, Ernest headed west. He had a novel to finish.(1) At this point in his career Hemingway had published Three Short Stories and Ten Poems, In Our Time, and The Sun Also Rises. He had also bummed around Paris with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, and had developed a friendship with Jon Dos Passos. Before his time in Paris he had volunteered in Italy as an ambulance driver during WWI, been the first American wounded on the Italian front, and then fallen in love with his nurse. It was this experience that would be his inspiration for the novel he was trying to finish. He landed back in Kansas City to pick up his old Ford Runabout and meet his friend Bill Horne.(2) Hemingway and Horne had met in Italy in the ambulance corps. The novel was almost complete but it still lacked an ending and a title. The author hoped some clean cool mountain air, some rising trout, and time away from the family and the in‐laws would allow him the time and space to finish his book.(3) This was Hemingway’s first summer away from Spain and it’s bullfight circuit in six years, and he was at once eager for a new adventure and desperate to find an ending for his book. In an August 9th letter to his friend Waldo Pierce he describes his first couple of weeks in Wyoming: It’s damned lovely country though. Looks like Spain, Big Horn Mts. [ringers?] for the Guadaramas only on a bigger scale, same color, same shape. Drove here in 3 days from 34
K.C.. 340, 380, 320 . Jackrabbits with us as big as mules. Came to a ranch of a friend where there were 15 girls! Shit. Worked and fished as follows. 1st day‐ worked 4 pages, fished with Bill Horne caught 12. 2nd day‐worked 4 ½ pages, fished with 2 girls caught 2. 3rd day‐ worked zero, fished by self alone, caught 30 ‐ limit. Got up at 6a.m. on morning of 4th day and left without saying goodbye, went into Sheridan where stayed at old hotel and worked. 9‐6 ½ ‐ 9‐11. ‐ Then came out to an empty ranch and without dudes and did 17 ½ yesterday ‐ bloody near 2550 words. Probably shite too.(4)
His first stop with Bill Horne was at 7000 ft. on the eastern slope of the Bighorns at the Folly Ranch. While the visiting girls obviously irritated Hemingway, Bill couldn’t have felt more differently and began a relationship with one of them. Her name was Bunny and she would later become Mrs. Bunny Horne. The “old hotel” in Sheridan was the Sheridan Inn, formerly owned by Buffalo Bill Cody, which still sits on Broadway in downtown Sheridan.( From the same letter he writes, “I wish to God Pauline would come out and that I would get this book finished before she comes. Am lonely as a bastard, drank too much last night and feel like anything but work now.”(5) As eager as he was for the arrival of Pauline, the ending he had decided on for his book was going to be a little difficult to explain. He had decided that his novel would end with its heroine Catherine, and the child she was carrying, both dying during childbirth, an ending obviously inspired by their recent traumatic circumstances. On August 23rd in another letter to Pierce, Hemingway declared an end to the novel that he would later title A Farewell to Arms. While staying at the Sheridan Inn, the author had befriended the Moncini’s, a French family who lived on Val Vista Street a couple of blocks from the Inn on what was then the outskirts of town. The couple worked in the local coal mines and had two sons: August and Lucien. Upon Pauline’s arrival Ernest took her to meet his new friends. The Hemingway’s were able to speak French with their hosts while drinking their homemade wine. It was an amicable arrangement that the writer would later document in his short story “Wine of Wyoming” (first published in Scribners Magazine, Aug. 1930). They spent the rest of their stay high in the Cloud Peak Wilderness at a ranch owned by Willis Spear and his daughter Elsa, the Spear‐O‐Wigwam: The stone and log cabin in which the Hemingway’s lived sits at the edge of a clear amber stream. Inside, the furniture—the desk, chairs, beds—is of strong, rough logs, handmade more than 40 years before. Early in the morning, Hemingway could walk outside and look across the rushing stream, see cattle grazing on the hillside, moose and deer and elk feeding carelessly on the top.(6) They also visited western writer Owen Wister and shot some prairie dogs from the car before heading to the Crow Indian Reservation to shoot prairie chickens. The couple eventually pulled
out of the Bighorns and headed to the town of Cody, through Yellowstone National Park, and out the South entrance to Jackson Hole. They stopped to fish the Snake River before turning east and back toward Arkansas. As they returned from Hemingway’s furthest venture west, the author had finished A Farewell to Arms, gathered the material for “Wine of Wyoming,” and whet his appetite for the Rocky Mountains. This trip established a formula that would serve him well for the next eleven years. Whenever something needed finishing, he would head west for the summer and fall to a place where he could hunt, fish, and work. While he and Pauline would continue to catch trout, Hemingway would not have to settle for prairie dogs and chickens much longer, the big game of the Yellowstone High Country awaited. * Shortly after leaving Wyoming, Hemingway received word that his father had died. He headed to his childhood home of Oak Park, Michigan, and once there found that his father had shot himself with an old, worn, Smith and Wesson .32 revolver that had belonged to Anson Hemingway, Hemingway’s grandfather. While suicide in general would pre‐occupy Hemingway for the rest of his life, this particular event would haunt him for the next eleven years. A couple of months after Hemingway’s father’s death, a box arrived at Ernest and Pauline’s new home in Key West. Grace Hemingway had mentioned sending some paintings that she wanted to sell but Ernest wanted nothing to do with it. The box sat for more than a month before Pauline insisted on opening it. Inside were the paintings, a now moldy chocolate cake, and the Smith and Wesson.(7) This gun would be with him when he returned to the mountains two years later. As he drove west in the summer of 1930, though still only thirty, he had been to war, been married, divorced and married again, had two sons, published two collections of short stories and just finished his second novel. He’d lived most of the last ten years in France and Spain, before returning home to witness the death of his father and the birth of the great depression. With all of this on his mind, Hemingway headed west out of Cody, up the Clark’s Fork River, and into the heart of the Beartooth Mountains. Chapter 2: 1930 Ernest Hemingway’s time in the Yellowstone High Country began on July 13, 1930 When he first crossed the Clark’s Fork and settled onto the L—T Ranch ten miles outside of Cooke City, Montana. The ranch was owned by Olive and Lawrence Nordquist, the L—T stood for the first and last letters in the latter’s name. Hemingway arrived with his second wife, Pauline Pfieffer and his first son Bumby. Patrick his second son, first with Pauline, stayed in Piggot with her parents. Before arriving at the L—T they had been directed to another ranch on Sunlight creek owned by Simon Snyder. People there, when they realized who their famous guest was, “fell all over themselves to make him feel at home.”(1) In search of a lower profile Hemingway packed 36
his family into their car and headed further into the Beartooths to the Nordquist Ranch. The main draw of this spot was the Clark’s Fork River and the spectacular trout fishing it afforded. Upon arrival he entered the Clark’s Fork valley folklore by becoming the first person to drive a car all the way to the ranch, at that time the road was passable only up to Crandall Creek. The car he did it in was the Ford Runabout that had made some famous runs to Pamplona some years before.(2) Polly Copeland a resident of the ranch remembers their arrival: An old travel‐worn Model‐T ‘Tin Lizzy’ with an ax and shovel slung along the side, joggled through the L—T Ranch Gate. It was the first automobile that ever dared to travel the perilous horse trail, traversing the roaring Clark’s Fork at intervals from Crandall on. There at the wheel was Ernest Hemingway with his charming, black haired second wife Pauline Pfeiffer, and his seven year old son ‘Bumbie’ straight from Paris where he lived with his mother. One felt Ernest Hemingway’s magnetic, outgoing personality right away as he greeted the little group of dudes awaiting his arrival. He was tall, slender, with dark hair, mustache and laughing black eyes. He was evidently pleased with the beauty of the country, and the primitive quality of the ranch. It was not long before Ernest and Pauline, in genuine friendliness, were very much a part of the group. (3) His first couple of weeks were occupied with fly fishing and preparing his collection In Our Time for a second printing. In a letter to his editor, Max Perkins, mailed from the Cooke City General Store and Post Office on August 12, 1930 he wrote: Dear Max, Have gone over I.O.T. also The Up In Michigan. I’ve re‐written it to keep from being libelous but to do so takes all the character away… If I take the town away it loses its veracity…However I know you will not publish it with the last part entire and if any of that is cut out there is no story. The work on In Our Time seems to have been a distraction during this time with Hemingway preferring to spend his time at the ranch with Pauline and Jack either fishing or working on his new novel. From the same letter: Am going well on the new book ‐ have something over 40,000 words done‐ have worked well 6 days of every week since got here. Have 6 more cases of beer good for 6 more chapters ‐ If I put in an expense account for this new bullfight book it would be something for the accounting department to study.(4) The bullfight book mentioned is, of course, Death in the Afternoon. The Hemingway’s continued to get more and more comfortable at the L—T. Pauline would fish with Ernest
sometimes, but mostly looked after Jack, who at seven was becoming “obsessed with the idea of catching trout. Sometimes when his father fished close to the lodge, Jack was allowed to watch if he didn’t spook the trout.”(5) Hemingway spent his time working on ‘Death’, fishing and getting to know the ranch hands, gleaning information, drinking, and developing friendships with men such as Smokey Royce, Huck Mees, and Floyd Allington. It was Allington who he later told “…that the best fishing in the world was the Clarks Fork branch of the Yellowstone.”(6) He also developed friendships with Ivan Wallace, John Staebe and Leland Stanford Weaver or ‘Chub.’ In Baker’s biography, we see a typical exchange between Wallace and Hemingway: Sometimes he walked to the coral after breakfast, leaning on the fence watching Ivan Wallace saddling up the horses for the morning riders. Ivan, “How about a little fishing this morning?” Ernest, “Can’t do it, got to work.” A half hour later…. Ernest, “Ivan, you’ve ruined the working day for me. Let’s go fishing.” (7) Wallace worked at the L—T from 1930‐32. In 1970 he told Addison Bragg of the Billings Gazette that “Hemingway could be lured away from his writing by nothing more complicated than a friendly drink and talk.” And, “I guess I probably knew him when he was happiest…when times were good and happy…” “They were quite a threesome,” Laura Weaver recalled in the same article, “Ernest Hemingway, Chub, who had a nose for game and was an excellent camp cook; and Ivan a very good fisherman and fishing guide.”(8) Of all these men Hemingway was closest to Chub Weaver and the two remained friends their entire lives. In between rainstorms Hemingway fished the Clark’s Fork with moderate success until his buddy Bill Horne arrived with his new wife Bunny. Ernest and Bill hit the river and landed 49 good rainbows using particular fishing flies named “McGinty’s” and “Grey Palmers.” Hemingway had not always been a fly fisherman though, as his eldest son points out in his foreword to Hemingway on Fishing: “‘Big Two Hearted River’ more than made that point, as did ‘The Last Good Country’ and the trout fishing on the Irati in The Sun Also Rises. I remember that when we went to L Bar T Ranch near Cook City…There was a wide selection of Hardy tackle…” (9) In his book The Misadventures of a Fly Fisherman, Jack Hemingway gives us a little more insight into his father’s fishing tackle and strategy: Papa was a pretty straight‐forward wet fly fisherman. He used hardy tackle and his leaders were already tied up with three flies. His favorites were a McGinty for the top, a cock‐y‐bondhu for the middle and a woodcock green for the tail fly. He sometimes fished with single eyed flies and added a dropper. At the ranch, for these, he preferred a Hardy’s worm fly and the shrimp fly. Ninety percent of the time, Papa was an across and down‐stream caster whose team of flies swam or skittered across the current so that a fish taking pretty much hooked himself. He played fish gently and well and with 38
the necessary calm that eliminates hurrying a fish too fast or laying it too long which is just as great a sin.(10) As August progressed heavy rainfall muddied the river and on the 21st the Horne’s left. The next morning Smokey Royce, Chub Weaver, Ivan Wallace and Ernest Hemingway set out to check on a bear bait up the north fork of Crandall Creek. Ralph Glidden tells the story this way in his History of the Cooke City Area: Hemingway was riding a skittish mare named Goofy when she bolted into the trees. A sharp branch sliced Hemingway’s chin, and neither him or Ivan were able to stop the bleeding. Borrowing a car from the Ranger at Crandall Creek they sped to the nearest doctor in Cody. The doctor wanted to put the writer to sleep but all Hemingway wanted was some whiskey. Finally they got a bottle of Old Oscar Pepper and Hemingway’s work was completed.(11) They had arrived at midnight and the only doctor they could find was a converted veterinarian named Dr. Trueblood. The bootleg whiskey the doctor had on hand was apparently unacceptable so at Hemingway’s urging the good doctor wrote and filled the prescription for the Oscar Pepper. The Crandall Ranger had inexplicably sent his daughter with the two men to look after the car. As she drove the two men back from Cody to the high country she had to stop regularly to open the cattle gates and pass through. At each of these stops Hemingway and Ivan would take another pull off the bottle until they were back at Crandall. They slept it off for the first part of the day then headed back up to the dead horse Wallace had left for bear bait. After an experience he couldn’t have written or dreamt up; with Ivan, Smokey and Chub, while riding Goofy, patched up by Dr. Trueblood with a little help from Oscar Pepper—Hemingway discovered he had his first bear. It was a large brown colored Black Bear. The last of the whiskey was used to get through the skinning of the bear which had picked up most of the maggots from the rotting horse. The next day, upon returning to the L—T, Hemingway approached Lawrence Nordquist about buying Goofy. Lawrence tried to discourage him saying there were far better saddle horses in his stable he could buy. Hemingway growled through his newly askew stitched up face, “I don’t want to ride him, I want to shoot him for bear bait.”(12) Hemingway had to return to Cody to have his chin re‐stitched. Before leaving, he went back into the corral and ripped long strands of hair from Goofy’s hide which he had the doctor use to re‐stitch his chin.(13) By the time this episode had ended the river had cleared and the fish were rising. Hemingway took Jack up to the bait a week later and shot another black bear. Pauline and Jack left the Ranch on Sept 14 as preparations for the opening day of hunting season began. His excitement about the upcoming hunt is conveyed in this letter to Henry(Mike) Strater:
Sept 10, 1930 Dear Mike, I wish to hell you and Charles (Thompson) could come here to hunt. Take the train to Gardiner, MT. Stage will bring you to Cooke City ‐ I’ll meet you there with horses… License 60 bucks gives you 1 elk,1 deer, 1 bear, game birds and trout. 15 bucks extra for mountain sheep. You ought to see the west anyway. Hope I’ll here you’re coming, Best always Hem(14) That fall their hunt would not disappoint. Hemingway first claimed a bighorn sheep. After a couple of days ride he headed up Pilot Creek, this time on a horse he loved, Old Bess was a black mare with a white stripe on her face. He was able to take her on the sheep trails, rock slides and boulder fields flanking Pilot and Index peaks and shoot a big ram with a heavy curl. This was the only time Hemingway shot a bighorn sheep and he shot it right under the great peaks: The old ram was purple grey, his rump was white and when he raised his head you saw the great heavy curl of his horns. It was the white of his rump that had betrayed him to you in the green of the junipers when you had lain in the lee of a rock, out of the wind, three miles away, looking carefully at every yard of the high country through a pair of good zeiss glasses. (15) Hemingway would return to these same slopes two years later with his friend Charles Thompson, this time hunting for nine days with no luck, enduring what he called the “Damndest ledge work you ever saw.” (16)Next there was his first bull elk. Hemingway and Ivan crawled so close that through binoculars “they could see his chest muscles swell as he lifted his head” to reveal a trophy 6x6 rack.(17) * While his friends Henry Strater and Charles Thompson didn’t visit the ranch that fall, friend and fellow author Jon Dos Passos sent word that he was coming. Before he arrived Hemingway and Ivan took another trip up Crandall Creek. On this trip he met John Staebe and his first grizzly bear. Staebe, who would later appear in the Green Hills of Africa (as John Staib) was a German WWI veteran who had homesteaded the Ghost Creek Ranch near Crandall.(18) Although he was deaf, he was a mountain man of the highest order and was well respected by all of the hands at the L—T. The grizzly bear would make an even deeper impression on Hemingway as he would remember it nine years later: You heard a crash of timber and thought it was a cow elk bolting, and then there they were, in the broken shadow, running with an easy lurching smoothness, the afternoon sun 40
making their coats a soft bristling silver. (19) On the 21st of October, Dos Passos arrived in Billings and headed up to the ranch. He did pull an elk tag but was too near‐sighted and had little knowledge of hunting and firearms. He had remarked at the ranch that Hemingway “had the ranch hands under his thumb.”(20) Dos Passos, the outsider in the group, seems to have misread the reciprocal relationship forming between Hemingway and the men at the ranch. While he may well have had them under his spell he was most certainly under theirs. For ten days they travelled the high country: Timber Creek, Crandall Creek, and the Crazy Lakes. Hemingway and the hands hunted while Dos Passos enjoyed the scenery. On Halloween night the two writers, along with Floyd Allington, piled into Hemingway’s Ford with warm clothes, blankets, and a quart of bourbon. Floyd’s fishing prowess had Hemingway luring him during his four month stay at the ranch to ply his trade in the waters of Key West. Allington was excited enough at the idea that he was willing to ride in the rumble seat wrapped in blankets. They drove through Cooke City and the Northern part of Yellowstone, camping for the night at Mammoth Hot Springs, “within earshot of the retching gurgle of a warm geyser.”(21) The following morning they headed out of the park, through Paradise Valley, and on toward Billings until driving into a ditch outside Laurel just after dusk. Since ‘loose gravel’, ‘the lights of an oncoming car’ and ‘a car backing out of a driveway’ were all given as reasons for the crash, it is easy to assume that the bourbon might have had something to do with it as well. While Hemingway broke his arm and Floyd Allington dislocated a shoulder in the accident, Dos Passos escaped unscathed. A passing motorist picked them up and drove them to St. Vincent’s hospital in Billings, Hemingway riding in the back seat with his arm pinned between his knees. Upon checking in Hemingway was asked his occupation and he replied ‘writer.’ The receptionist, taking in his appearance, wrote on the form ‘rider’.(22) He was to spend the next seven weeks at St. Vincent’s. The break was serious, an oblique spiral fracture above the elbow, nearly compound. Three years later a graphic description of the wound and its effect on Hemingway as a hunter would appear in Green Hills of Africa: That day of watching the camel flies working under the horses tail, having had them myself, gave me more horror than anything I remember except one time in a hospital with my right arm broken off short between the elbow and the shoulder, the back of the hand having hung down against my back, the points of the bone having cut up the flesh of the biceps until it finally rotted, swelled, burst, and sloughed off in pus. Alone with the pain in the night in the fifth week of not sleeping I thought suddenly how a bull elk must feel if you break a shoulder and he gets away and in that night I lay and felt it all, the whole thing as it would happen from the shock of the bullet to the end of the business and, being a little out of my head, thought perhaps what I was going through was a punishment for all hunters. Then, getting well, decided if it was a punishment I had paid it and at least I knew what I was doing. I did nothing that had not been done to me. I had been shot and
I had been crippled and gotten away. I expected, always to be killed by one thing or another and I, truly, did not mind that anymore. Since I still loved to hunt I resolved that I would only shoot as long I could kill cleanly and as soon as I lost that ability I would stop.(23) In the hospital he was treated by a Sister Florence Cloonan, entertained by a small transistor radio, and accompanied in his misery by a Mexican gambler who had been gut shot twice over a card game. He was fond of sister Florence and must have had a sense of déjà vu given his relationship with Agnes Von Kurosky during his lengthy hospital stay in Italy and fictionalized in A Farewell to Arms. The Gambler, with his stoic acceptance of his fate compares well with other characters in Hemingway’s short fiction, such as Ole Anderson in “The Killers” who, like the Mexican, “follows his own stoical code and refuses to denounce his assailants.”(24) He is certainly kin to Blindie who also refuses to condemn the man who wronged him in “A Man of the World.” In fact, wounding and injury, and how men deal with them physically and psychologically, is a major theme throughout the work: Frederick Henry’s injury is central to A Farewell to Arms; Harry Morgan loses an arm; Robert Jordan breaks a leg, etc. So, as Hemingway lay there in St. Vincent’s he was dealing with his second serious injury of his visit and both the physical and emotional demands that came with it. This episode and its details would work its way into The Green Hills of Africa, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and was perhaps the blue print for the irrational, pain and alcohol influenced behavior of Harry, the narrator of Hemingway’s short story masterpiece “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” His stay at St. Vincent’s is covered by Carlos Baker in his biography and in a Montana PBS documentary entitled Paradise and Purgatory; Hemingway at the L—T and St. Vincent’s Hospital. The most entertaining account of the hospital stay however is from Hemingway himself. The riotous short story “The Gambler, the Nun and the Radio” is, according to the author an absolutely true account of his extended stay in Billings. Towards the end of his stay, as his arm healed, Hemingway was able to leave the hospital for short periods of time. He visited the home of his doctor, a renowned orthopedic surgeon named Dr. Allard. The doctor “who liked Hemingway personally, found his writing distasteful and often took him to task for the language he employed ‐ so much so that Allard’s son Joe remembered that he and his brother and sister were afraid at times that Hemingway, who appeared to the children to be a ‘bear of a man,’ would beat up their father.”(25) After leaving the hospital the Hemingway’s were able to reach Pauline’s home in Piggot, Arkansas, by Christmas. He already disliked Piggot and when, while still limping and unshaven, he was labelled a tramp by a large group of school children who then chased him through the streets hurling snowballs at him until he reached the Pfeiffer house. His dislike quickly turned to hatred and the Hemingways soon headed back to Key West. The accident and recuperation may have soured the memory of that first year in the Yellowstone High Country, but by the new year the experience had allowed him to finish his page proofs for the reissue of In Our Time, craft Death in the Afternoon almost in its entirety and 42
accrue the experience that would later become “The Gambler, the Nun and the Radio.” Along with the best trout fishing of his life, he had also shot his first bear, elk and sheep, seen his first grizzly, accumulated a few new scars and several new friends. Although Floyd Allington had missed the chance to accompany Hemingway to Key West, Chub Weaver seized the opportunity and delivered the repaired Ford to Hemingway and stayed on for the rest of the winter for the fishing. Olive and Lawrence Nordquist then flew out and by Valentine’s Day, just over a month and a half since the writer had left Montana, the Hemingways, the Nordquists, and Chub Weaver were fishing together, 3000 miles from the L—T. It was about this time that Hemingway found out they were pregnant with Gregory, his third son and second with Pauline. The baby was due by November, meaning the couple would not be able to return to the ranch in the Beartooths until the summer of 1932. After traveling to Spain to gather pictures for the finalizing of Death in the Afternoon, the Hemingways returned to the Midwest for Pauline to give birth. Hemingway had been planning a trip to Africa with his friends Charles Thompson, Henry Strater and Archie McCleish. The research had been done and arrangements had been made. In April of 1932 however, McCleish had bowed out and by June, Hemingway had done the same. He gave ‘his eyesight’ and ‘so much going on in America’ as his excuses but his actual reason seems to have been his eager determination to spend another summer and fall fishing and hunting at the Nordquist Ranch. One more motivating factor was that he was seething with “damned good stories that he wanted to tell.”(26) Chapter 3: 1932 th On July12 1932 the Hemingway family rumbled across the Clark’s Fork river and settled back into cabin #1 on the L—T Ranch. Hemingway was obviously happy to be back. Prohibition, approaching civil war in Spain, the Great Depression, and the upcoming election all seemed a world away. He spent his first couple of days re‐acquainting himself with the sights, sounds and smells of the ranch and the Clark’s Fork valley: The aroma of sage penetrated by trout, bacon, and onions wafting from the kitchen. Rising early each morning he watched the sunlight illuminate the peaks of Pilot and Index and ease down the slopes he had hunted two years before. Lawrence Nordquist introduced the writer to the Sidley’s cabin, which was on the river and provided a place to get away and get some work done. After the Hemingway’s first visit to the ranch they received a steady stream of visitors to their home in Key West. Floyd Allington tried to visit but only made it as far as Laurel. The Nordquists and Chub Weaver visited in the Spring of 1931, and the Sidley’s, part owners of the L—T, visited in the summer of that same year. During their visit, while Hemingway and Mr. Sidley were offshore fishing, Pauline and Mrs. Sidley went swimming at the Bayview Park pool. While it is unclear what exactly happened, Mrs. Sidley almost drowned in the pool and was thought to be dead when she was pulled ashore by
Pauline. She was resuscitated and taken to recover at the Hemingway home.(1) From that moment forward the Hemingway family was granted access to the Sidley Cabin whenever they visited the ranch. This cabin was bigger and was also perched right over the Clark’s Fork. Olive Nordquist remembers seeing Hemingway “emerges from the door, wiping his glasses, squinting at the intense blue of the cloudless sky, gazing at Index…inflating his lungs with the clean air, and padding softly back in his moccasins for another hour at the desk.”(2) While he had no novel in progress, Hemingway did have time to finish “The Light of the World.”(3) He would write and Pauline would type in between trips to fish, pick wild berries, or shoot birds. After pulling Mrs. Sidley from the pool in Key West, and holding her own on fishing trips and bird hunts, Pauline, with her fly rod, her .28 gauge shotgun and her cocktail recipes, had gained the respect of everyone at the L—T. During this time Hemingway renewed his friendships with Ivan Wallace and Chub Weaver. Prohibition was still the law of the land, but Red Lodge moonshine was readily available. The Allington brothers, among others, would run shipments of Red Lodge’s finest products over the 11,000ft. Beartooth Pass. According to Laura Weaver, a typical order—if guests were expected—would be two barrels of wine and a case of whiskey, some of which was always waiting next to a bucket of ice in his cabin at the end of each day.(4) While periodically working on short stories at the Sidley cabin, he had no major works in progress. With hunting season still two months away, Hemingway had time to relax and properly settle into life at the ranch. Olive Nordquist remembered that summer fondly: He was always being kind and considerate of people and took great care with his son Bumby. Somebody had to always be with the boy. I think he feared kidnapping. This was time of the Lindberg baby kidnapping. The Hemingways were staying at our ranch in Wyoming. We were sitting in the lodge and it was Bumby’s bedtime. It was dark and the boy was only 5 or 6 years old. We knew he was afraid to walk across the ranch alone but no one knew what to say without embarrassing him. All of a sudden Ernest jumped up! “Damn” he said “I forgot something at the cabin. I’ll have to walk back with you Bumby.”(5) While Gregory was too young to remember this incident, it didn’t surprise him: “He was always considerate of our fears of the dark, he said he’d been so afraid of the dark after his injury in Italy he had to sleep with the light on for six months.” Gregory would later tell Joan Haines of the Associated Press: “Some of my happiest memories are of the days we spent at a Cooke City ranch with my father.”(7) It seems the trips to the Beartooths were split into summer and fall. Summer was spent fishing the Clark’s Fork and its contributing creeks and hanging around the ranch with Pauline and the boys. There were trips on horseback, on foot, and in the Ford to Cooke City and Cody; once even to Powell, Wyoming, so Pauline could attend first Friday mass. In an interview for Montana PBS Patrick Hemingway remembered his parents during this time: “My dad and my 44
mother were both fly fisherman, in fact they would fish together—they’d wet fly fish, one on one side of the river and one on the other side. Fishing was very much an ingredient in that marriage.”(8) In September the Hemingway’s entertained their friends Gerald and Sara Murphy. They had known the Murphy’s since their time in Paris. They were very much a high society couple, Gerald Murphy even being credited by some for having invented the martini. While the cuisine at the ranch did not impress the Murphys, the beauty of the place did. Hemingway took the two families up to the Crazy Lakes to camp and fish and then took Gerald up Pilot Creek. In her 1982 memoir, Sara & Gerald, Honoria Murphy Donelly remembered: Of all her parents famous friends and unfamous ones as well, it was Hemingway who paid closest attention to her and her brothers, who seemed to care for and understand each one of them as if they were his own… Hemingway who had to catch more rainbows than anybody, made big campfires at night and sat around with the kids in a goofy Tyrolean hat, roasting marshmallows, telling scary stories.(9) When long‐time friend and hunting companion Charles Thompson arrived in Cody, Pauline and the boys left, along with the Murphy clan. Thompson was one of Hemingway’s closest friends. He was from Key West and was instrumental in Hemingway’s mastery of salt water fishing and provided inspiration for the Harry Morgan character in To Have and Have Not. A year after visiting Hemingway at the Ranch Thompson would join him in Africa. Hemingway, Charles, Ivan and Chub headed up Pilot Creek and back out onto the slopes of Pilot and Index where he had shot the first and only bighorn of his life two years earlier. Thompson struggled with the harsh terrain and the altitude and because the six day hunt turned up nothing they then decided to head down country. After a thirty‐five mile ride the four men made camp on Timber Creek hoping for bear and elk. It was Thompson who landed the first elk of the season, a large bull. Hemingway then shot one and they shot one together. After a celebratory evening of elk steaks, moonshine, and story‐telling around the fire, he confided his feelings on suicide to Chub Weaver, saying he would never hesitate to kill himself if the conditions were bad enough.(10) Although some of Hemingway’s happiest days were at the Wyoming ranch, suicide was a theme that ran throughout his time in the Beartooths. His father had killed himself shortly before his first trip out west and even though he considered his father’s suicide cowardly, he didn’t consider all suicide that way, often hinting that that might be his own fate. The fact that he had this discussion with Chub Weaver was an indication that Weaver was entering into Hemingway’s innermost circle of friends. As far his writing was concerned that summer, Hemingway was mostly editing work and answering his critics. In July he sent his final proofs for Death in the Afternoon to Max Perkins:
Hope you get these proofs and letter pretty fast am sending them in to Gardner— 64miles—to get them out today. …You haven’t even asked me what title goes on the front piece.(11) At the end of the same letter we see the beginning of the deterioration of the relationship between Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald: Poor old Scott. He should have swapped Zelda when she was still at her craziest but still saleable back 5 or 6 years ago before she was diagnosed as nutty. He is the great tragedy of talent in our bloody generation. Well here comes the truck ‐ must stop. So long Max ‐ good luck(12) From the final line of this letter we are given the image of Hemingway sitting on the stoop of the general store and post office in Cooke City, with the final version of Death in the Afternoon (published the following September) bundled under his arm and scribbling about the demise of F. Scott Fitzgerald while waiting for the mail truck to arrive from Gardiner. The remoteness of the ranch gave Hemingway the freedom and adventure he needed and his connection to the outpost town of Cooke City allowed him to keep up with his work and the goings on of the world outside. In his next letter to Perkins on Aug 9th , also from Cooke City, he gives his final go ahead for the publication of ‘Death’, and while he must have been excited to finish the manuscript, his real excitement seems to be toward the life he was living and discovering in the Yellowstone High Country: We have been down sage grouse shooting for five days ‐ finest shooting ever in my life – went down last Wednesday ‐ shot limit everyday ‐ Never shot better ‐ would have given anything for you to be there ‐ Just got back today and found final proofs ‐ hit rock and broke bottom of engine ‐ oil pan or crank case ‐ coasted 4 miles back to Cooke. Then back to being a writer and a husband. Book is to be dedicated ‐ To Pauline Now what else?(13) From here he goes on to offer “Mother of a Queen,” “The Light of the World,” and “An Homage to Switzerland” to Perkins at cut rate prices in an effort to “bitch cosmo” and take another swipe at Fitzgerald and his writer’s block. In a letter to Cosmopolitan Editor Bill Engel sent from the Nordquist Ranch earlier that summer, Hemingway explains the strangeness of the Switzerland story: 46
This is a damned good story ‐ 3 stories in one. The amount of dialogue makes it long in space. It’s a new form for a story. The fact that all three parts open the same way or practically the same is intentional and is supposed to represent Switzerland metaphysically.(14) The story ends with the main character revealing to a stranger who remarks that he would like to meet his father: “I’m sure he would of liked to meet you but he died last year. Shot himself, oddly enough.” “I am very truly sorry. I am sure his loss was a blow to science as well as to his family. Science took it awfully well.”(15) This exchange at the end of “Homage to Switzerland” is the first we see of Hemingway dealing literarily with his father’s suicide. The line “Science took it awfully well” tells us that his family didn’t. The rest of Hemingway’s letters that year were to friends and critics. The letters to friends are long and sincere while his letters to critics were short, scathing and often hilarious. It was from the Nordquist Ranch that he answered Paul Romaine’s famous charge that he was obsessed with “Lost generations and bulls”: I wrote, in 6 weeks, one book about a few drunks and to show the superiority of the earlier Hebrew writers over the later quoted Ecclesiastes versus G. Stein. This was some seven years ago. Since then have not been occupied with this so‐called (but not by me) Lost Generation. About Bulls—for ten years or so bull fighting was my recreation and amusements…I wrote a book to clear them up and keep them ‐ also something about Spain which I know a little about having lived there. I have to live sometimes and I have quite a few things to write and my mind is not occupied with lost generations and bulls. The address here is Cooke, Montana.(16) To the editors of Hound and Horn he wrote a response to their autopsy of Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, and himself. His tongue‐in‐cheek reply was filled with sexual innuendo and a thinly veiled attack on the masculinity of the article’s author, Mr. Lawrence Leighton. Hound and Horn published the letter in their Oct‐Dec edition in1932.(17) As harsh as Hemingway was to critics and fellow writers, he was himself immensely sensitive to criticism. So much so that he left a hunting trip with Thompson, Chub, and John Staebe on Timber Creek in order to check the mail for reviews after the release of Death in the Afternoon. During the thirty mile ride out of Timber Creek, down Crandall Creek and back up the Clark’s Fork toward the L—T, he encountered a moose at close range. Because he lacked a
license he was compelled to leave it alone.(18) Eight years later he would recall this episode in For Whom the Bell Tolls. When he reached the ranch he presented Olive Nordquist with a few sage grouse, made himself a whiskey sour and sat down to read the reviews. While not overly negative, the reviews were not glowing either. Hemingway was irked enough to reply to Bob Coates of the New Yorker immediately: But I’m damned if I wrote any petulant jabs about Faulkner and the hell with you for telling citizens that I did. All the petulant jabs you like against Waldo Frank (of yourself even, if you’re looking for them), or for anyone for whom I have no particular respect. But I have plenty of respect for Faulkner and wish him all the luck. That does not mean I would not joke about him. There are no subjects that I would not jest about if the jest were funny enough. (just as, liking wing shooting , I would shoot my own mother if she went in coveys and had good strong flight.) If it was not funny to you that is my, or perhaps your, hard luck. Always Your friend EH (19) While Hemingway was at the ranch with the reviews, Charles Thompson had teamed up with John Staebe to shoot a large black bear up Timber Creek. Hemingway was determined to get his own. On Oct. 11 he rode with Lawrence Nordquist up Pilot Creek to a bear bait. At dusk a large black bear arrived and began tearing at the rotting horse. Hemingway’s first shot sent the bear running into the woods. After following the blood trail through the snow, in the waning light, his second shot brought the 500 lb. bear down from twenty feet. The bear was a good deal larger than the one Charles had shot.(20) When they returned to the ranch they feasted on elk and venison while preparing to leave. On October 14th Hemingway sat down and wrote three long letters to some of his closest friends. To Henry Strater he explained the Africa postponement and summed up the months hunting with Thompson: We took a beating on sheep. I stalked 8 rams, spooked them all. Charles stalked 11. That sheep hunting is what gave Charles hell. Damndest ledge work you ever saw. I had to take my shoes off on one mountain for about two miles on a rock slide. Fell 9 times. Never got a shot at a ram ‐ if you’re a good climber you could have got a ram. I’m not a good climber. Charles shot a bull elk, we shot one together and I killed one alone. He killed two fine bucks and a bear and I killed an eagle(flying), trapped a coyote and killed a hell of a big bear. Hope you’re having good pheasant and duck shooting Best always Hem(21)
In his letter to Guy Hickock, his version of the birth of Gregory gives us a good look at how Hemingway felt about his family at this time in his life. Had baby ‐ 9 lbs 7 ounces or 19 lbs 17 ounces ‐ Hell of a big baby anyway with gigantic sexual equipment and deep base voice…Well Pauline is cockeyed beautiful ‐ figure lovely after Greg born ‐ never looked nor felt better ‐ Rode hard here all summer ‐shot and fished ‐She hunted here for the first 5 days of the season then went down to Key West to work on house.(22) Later in that same letter we see the effects of the depression creeping to the lives of the Hemingway’s and their friends. Don’t ever come home thinking U.S.A. [is] interesting ‐ It is just the same as ever only now they are all broke where before they were lousy with cash. The scene hasn’t changed. Just the condition of the actors ‐ I got 1.00 a word from Cosmopolitan for a story ‐ last May number ‐good story too ‐2693 words ‐ think of that in this time of Depression. In a good year should have soaked them about 5 bucks a palabra [word] I suppose‐ Well well well this depression is hell ‐ On the other hand we didn’t participate in the boom… Ernest The first line of his letter to Dos Passos continues to highlight the economic situation: Dear Dos, Won’t cash the 100 till you say you don’t need it right now. Thanks ever so much for sending it. This book looks as though it would sell maybe a grand or two over the advance. Hope the hell it does. I have a story out I will get money on too. By Christ it made me feel good to get your letter. It certainly did…We’ve been killing meat for Ivan and Chub to get married on. Rode all the way to Timber Creek cabin in a blizzard—read your damned letter over and take a shot of Red Lodge moon to keep warm.(23) Towards the end of the letter we get a rare glimpse into his politics. I suppose I am an anarchist ‐ but it takes a while to figure out. They poop on old Ferrer and Malatesta now but their names will sound honester in 20 years than Stalin will. Italia is running the U.S. Grant administration. I don’t believe and can’t believe in too much government ‐ no matter what good is the end. To hell with the Church when it becomes a state and the hell with the state when it becomes a church. Also it is very possible that tearing down is more important than building up. Well the hell with all this whisker pulling. Chub, Ivan and the Nordquists send you their best as does old Charles.
My Love to Kate … So long Dos. . . . Hem.(24)
Hemingway’s disdain for politics extended to the upcoming election between Roosevelt and Hoover which he considered a contest between ‘the paralytic demagogue’ (Roosevelt) and the ‘syphilitic baby’ (Hoover). While he could catch the occasional campaign speech on his portable radio he said he “liked the yowling of the coyotes in the hills far better.”(25) On October 16th he paid his bill for $1,620(27) before he and Charles headed out into a blizzard with a candle in a tin can on the dashboard to help defrost the windows. They stopped off in Cody and mailed off fourteen letters and some final signed page proofs of Death in the Afternoon from a Studebaker garage. He left the ranch that fall not sure when he would be able to return. In his future lay the uncertainty of the upcoming Africa trip and in the future of the mountains he had grown to love lay the Beartooth Highway. Plans had already been made to pave a road between Red Lodge and Cooke City and Hemingway was convinced this would drive all the game into the refuge of Yellowstone National Park. One of his favorite stretches of river, lower Pilot Creek, just above its confluence with the Clark’s Fork, had been destroyed by road builders searching for gravel. (This stretch is still home to a gravel pit used for road construction). Because of these uncertainties Hemingway had hunted, fished and lived with extra vigor that summer, and for good reason considering it would be almost four years before he would return to the Yellowstone High Country. End Notes Introduction 1. Conversation with Ralph Glidden. 2. Conversations with Tom Weaver. 3. Hart, Sue. “Writing the West: Hemingway, Fishing, and Friends at the L—T. Big Sky Journal, 2006. 4. Atlantic Monthly, 100th Anniversary Editions, 1957. 5. Hannum, Howard. “Hemingway’s Tales of the ‘Real Dark.’” Hemingway’s Neglected Short Fiction. Ed. Susan F. Beegal. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989. 339‐50. 6. Olivers, Charles. Ernest Hemingway A‐Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 1999. 7. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (Finca Vigia Edition). Scribner. 1987. 8. Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. 223. 9. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Chapter 30. 10. Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917‐1961. Ed. Carlos Baker. Letter to Perkins, 7‐27‐ 50
11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19.
1932. Cambridge, 1982. Glidden, Ralph. Exploring the Yellowstone High Country: A History of the Cooke City Area. Cooke City Store, 1982. Articles by Lee Alan Gutkind, The Des Moines Register, 1970. Gutkind. Spencer, Ed. A History (more or less) of the RDS, B—4, L—T, and Hancock Ranches. Wordsworth Publishing, 2004. 13‐14. Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York: Avon Books, 1968. 271‐72. Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The 1930s. New York: Norton, 1998. 44. Spencer, 12. Baker Bio, 272. Conversations with Dink Bruce.
Chapter 1: 1928 1. Baker Bio, 250. 2. Baker Bio, 251. 3. Letters, Baker. Letter to Guy Hickock, 7‐27‐28. 4. Letters, Baker. Letter to Waldo Pierce, 8‐9‐28. 5. Letters, Baker. 6. Gutkind, Alan. “Hemingway in Wyoming.” The Des Moines Register. Series of articles running in editions from September/October, 1970. 7. Baker Bio, 257. Chapter 2: 1930 1. Baker Bio, 271. 2. Myers, 223. 3. Spencer, 12. 4. Bruccoli, Matthew. The Only Thing That Counts: The Ernest Hemingway‐Maswell Perkins Correspondence. Columbia, Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1996. 12‐13. 5. Lawrence, H. Lea. Prowling Papa’s Waters: A Hemingway Odyssey. Marietta: Longstreet Pess, 1992. 176. 6. Baker Bio, 272. 7. Baker Bio, 272. 8. Hart, 65. 9. Hemingway, Jack. “Forward.” Hemingway on Fishing. Ed. Nick Lyons. New York: Scribner’s, 2000. Xi. 10. Hemingway, Jack. The Misadventures of a Fly Fisherman: My Life With and Without Papa. New York: McGraw‐Hill, 1987. 109.
11. Glidden, 109. 12. Baker Bio, 274. 13. Gutkind. 14. Letters, Baker, 328. 15. “Clark’s Fork Valley, Wyoming.” Vogue. February, 1939. 16. Letters, Baker, 371. 17. Baker Bio, 276. 18. Green Hills of Africa. 19. “Clark’s Fork Valley, Wyoming.” 20. Baker Bio, 277. 21. Baker Bio, 277. 22. Hart, 68. 23. Green Hills of Africa, 147‐148. 24. Meyers, 228. 25. Hart, 70. 26. Baker Bio, 223. Chapter 3: 1932 1. Reynolds, 64. 2. Brian, Denis. The True Gen: An Intimate Portrait of Ernest Hemingway by Those Who Knew Him. New York: Grove Press, 1987. 3. Reynolds, 97. 4. Hart, 67. 5. Brian, 82. 6. Brian, 82. 7. Hart, 65. 8. Paradise and Purgatory: Hemingway at the L—T and Saint Vincent’s. Montana PBS. 1999. Documentary. 9. Hendrickson, Paul. Hemingway’s Boat. New York: Vintage, 2012. 241‐242. 10. Baker Bio, 298. 11. Letters, Baker, 364. 12. Letters, Baker, 365. 13. Bruccoli, 176. 14. Letters, Baker, 367. 15. “Homage to Switzerland.” 16. Letters, Baker, 365. 17. Letters, Baker, 368. 18. Baker Bio, 298. 19. Letters, Baker, 369. 52
20. Baker Bio, 299. 21. Letters, Baker, 371. 22. Letters, Baker, 372. 23. Letters, Baker, 373. 24. Letters, Baker, 374. 25. Baker Bio, 296. 26. Reynolds, 102.
1. Featherweight The first day I showed up to the jobsite in my friend Ernie’s puke‐brown car. The place was way in the outskirts down west I‐40, where some rich man was building a house in the middle of a fresh clearing surrounded by scrubby woods and flanked by two large piles of bulldozed trees, just asking to become bonfires. Stacks of lumber pushed into sand damp from a rare July rain. Tire ruts crisscrossed the inevitable red clay. Trash lay everywhere in sight. The other guys’ trucks—all of them had trucks—were parked in a crooked line off the main driveway, wedged haphazardly between pathetic stunted trees that constituted our woods. The clearing was large enough for the mansion we were building and a yard that somebody would roll out after we were gone. As I parked I killed the radio and saw through the cracked glass a short stocky man walking straight at me as though ready for a fistfight. He began speaking even before I left the car. “You the new guy?” he said. “Yeah,” I said. “My name’s Rice.” “What kinda fucking name is that? I won’t remember that.” This must be the boss. He turned toward the others who were moving quickly, carrying tools, unrolling cords and hoses, setting up for the day. I looked at my watch: five minutes early. The boss looked back at me and spat tobacco on the ground beside my boots. “Got any tools?” he said. “I brought a hammer, a tool bag, a tape measure, and a square. That’s what Hippie told me to bring.” I was hoping Hippie used that name around the boss. I was also thinking that I was lucky that I had a friend to borrow tools from. Of course I didn’t know how to use them, but that I wouldn’t admit. I was used to being judged by my exterior: black clothes, tattoos, and bright‐ colored hair invited stares. Anyway, I figured he’d act somewhat friendly since he’d gone to the trouble of recruiting a new worker. Besides, I’d cleaned up my appearance for his sake, for the job’s sake. But I kept quiet and played it cool. I had no doubt construction sites were unforgiving. “Pick up all the trash,” the boss said. “Anybody yells, do what he asks.” He turned around and walked toward his dented gray Dodge dually with red mud smeared all the way to the windows. I began picking up trash. The rest of the crew finished unloading tools, setting up saws and compressors and other contraptions I had no idea of their use. It was eight A.M. and the other guys were already laughing and chitchatting about women. Despite my best intensions I was anxious, and someone noticed. He said his name was Kurt, and he wore nothing but frayed cut‐off jean shorts that barely reached mid‐thigh, and tool
belt that seemed to enhance his round over‐sunned belly. His skin was dark brown and leathery like an old catcher’s mitt, his feet shod with formerly white Wal‐Mart‐looking shoes. Somehow, despite the belly, he ran across the top of the two‐by‐four walls as graceful as a ballerina. Real precision. Kurt said I looked as nervous as a whore in church. I asked him what I should be doing. “Boss already said pick up all the cut ends and make a pile. There’s the dumpster for the shorties.” He pointed to the green roll‐off dumpster across the yard. The side of the dumpster had the words “American Waste” stamped on it. I thought of that Black Flag song I used to like in my younger, idealistic days. “Yeah, but after that,” I said. “You know how to cut straight?” Kurt said. “Lost our cut‐man. Quit last week.” He turned away from me and flipped off the sky as if everything was God’s fault. I noticed he had a blurred tattoo of Wile E. Coyote on his right shoulder. “I learn fast if somebody wants to show me,” I said to Kurt. “New guy!” the boss roared from behind me. I spun around. “What the fuck are you talking for,” he said. “I thought you were working. You’re just standing there with your goddamn teeth in your mouth.” I said nothing. “Cut that stack down to ninety‐two and five eighths. We got the wrong order.” I had worked jobs where men barked orders but this was “slaves building pyramids” work. It was one thing to be told to wash a pile of dishes or pick up trash or shovel dirt all day, but another to quickly do skilled labor under a tyrant’s watch. It’s hard to explain why, but I needed the job to last, it was important for me to finish something that I had started for once, so I tried. I wrote the dimensions the boss gave me down on a scrap of wood, while hestood beside me staring, his nostrils flaring as he breathed. I couldn’t tell if he was older or younger than Hippie, who I had guessed to be about forty‐five. “I think I can do it,” I said. “Goddammit new guy, you better fucking know.” “Okay,” I said. “No problem.” I skittered over to the stack of lumber and noticed Hippie gazing at me from the second story floor where he was building walls. He had a guilty look on his face, probably realizing I was scared and trying to hide it. “Hippie, come down here and show this new guy how to do it,” the boss said, still planted in the same place. “Tell by looking at him he don’t know shit.” He was pointing at me with the wooden handle of a framing hammer, nearly as big as an ax handle. “All right, Junior,” Hippie said. Now I knew the boss’s name. I let him help me, did the job, and then they left me alone. Every instinct in me told me to flee. I struggled against the urge to drive away until lunchtime came. All six guys, besides the boss, smoked weed, ate gas station food and joked around. Lunch break was more than a break, it was a relief. At some point in the afternoon, boss left for some errands and never returned. I finished out the day with less worries, even allowing myself to stop to pet Hippie’s young brindle 58
pit bull that lay all day in the shade of Hippie’s beat up Toyota. Hippie said he always brought the dog to work. He called him Brutus. * Day two was easier. By easier I mean the boss wasn’t there most of the day. The work itself was backbreaking. They made me carry about a hundred four‐by‐eight‐foot pieces of plywood up a rickety wooden chickenwalk to the second floor. One after another, all day long, each feeling heavier than the last. At lunch, like the day before, we all piled into somebody’s truck and drove to the gas station at the interchange down the road. They had a hot box full of chicken strips, potato wedges, fried chicken, onion rings and other fried foods, the kind of food that won’t kill you but you don’t want to live on. I didn’t complain and, of course, no one else did either. We each bought our lunch and a 32 oz. soda pop. Then we went back for what they called “lunchtime entertainment.” “What’s that?” I asked Hippie in the truck on the way back, thinking that he was somehow closer to me than them. He said nothing. I didn’t want to repeat myself so I let it go. When we got back to the jobsite, everyone exited the truck and began setting his own personal lawn chairs into a straight line facing away from the house. I didn’t have a chair. I thought I’d just stand to eat or stack boards to make a seat. The heat was sweltering and the humidity was high. There was a dead quality to the air, that deadness you find in Oklahoma summers. “Got a coon for Brutus today,” Hippie said to no one in particular. “Missed one yesterday, but caught one last night.” Everyone laughed or began chattering in a knowing way. I still didn’t understand what was happening until he picked up a steel box from the back of his truck. It had been there all along. Inside the box an animal frantically clawed and shuffled from side to side. Brutus stood on two legs, whining, licking at the box. Hippie set the box on the dirt. Brutus began clawing at it and barking. The barks were shrill. He was still young. “What is this?” I said. “This fucking dog will learn to run off varmints, yet,” Hippie said. “I live fifty mile south of here in the country. I need a good coon killer. Those sonsabitches get into my food all the goddamn time.” “Let that sumbitch go, Hippie,” one of them said. “Tear up the walls of my trailer,” Hippie continued. “Last week they ripped out all the insulation. Decorated my house like a goddamn Christmas tree.” He released a little metal door, a full‐sized raccoon burst from the cage like a bull from a rodeo chute. The dog and raccoon instantly began fighting in a death‐like dance, rolled, scratched, bit. The growl of the dog was familiar, but the raccoon sounded like an angry tomcat
slowed down and deepened in pitch, something like an otherworldly lion’s roar, or maybe a lion in heat, sounds of rage, rabid sounds. The raccoon was vicious, ruthless. After a minute it managed to break away from the dog and run toward the trees, but the dog caught up quick and the dance began anew. Behind me the crew cheered, made a commotion. It felt like being at a bar, watching a featherweight championship on HBO. The dirt was torn up where the animals had been. Spots of blood here and there marked the animals’ paths. Eventually the raccoon broke away yet again and ran fast enough to lunge up a tree. Brutus went hysterical, barking and yipping and whining at the base of the tree, trying to jump into it and climb it, circling like a shark. Hippie skipped over to him, grabbed him by the collar and lifted him in the air, then walked back to the jobsite while Brutus looked back hard over Hippie’s shoulder toward the raccoon in the tree. “That’s a good boy, Brutus,” Hippie said. “Kill that fucking beast.” “Man, that bastard was tearing him up good,” someone yelled. I didn’t look to see who it was. So far, only one or two of them were separate people. “Varmint’s tougher than the damn dog,” another said. I didn’t look up that time either. Like Brutus, I stared at the raccoon in the tree. “Bullshit,” Hippie said. “Coon just got lucky. Dog’s still a pup, you know.” We went back to work. I finished lugging the stack of plywood, one board at a time, fifty pounds each, fifty‐seven more trips up the chickenwalk—I counted. I almost fell a couple of times. I tried not to think of anything but holding on to the board stretched across my shoulders. I was drenched in sweat and muttered under my breath like a mad man as I hunched up the chickenwalk over and over until five o’clock finally came. * That night at the house my friends were indignant. “You gotta quit that job,” Ernie said. “Fuck those rednecks!” He was vegan then, and had a dog of his own that he found in a dumpster one night while out looking for food behind the Homeland grocery store. It was a tiny puppy someone had wrapped up in a black trash bag and thrown away. He called it Yelp because it was yelping through the plastic when he found it. Then Dee chimed in: “You should sabotage their shit first. Slash their tires, or something. Or steal their tools and pawn them.” “Man, they know my name,” I said. “That would be really stupid.” We were drinking Side Pocket forties. Drunk for a buck, we used to say. Except I was trying to pull my life together, so I just poured myself a cup. “You want a bump?” Ernie said. His hair was spiky on top and dyed black. The sides were shaved revealing a tattoo of a screaming skull. “Man, I’ve gotta work in the morning.” “All right. Be boring,” Ernie said. “Just don’t forget whose car you’re using.” His eyes darted everywhere as though following a fly around the room. 60
“Turn up the music,” Dee said. All conversation was shut down by Napalm Death or something in that vein. Heavy, dark, violent music, an assault on our ears. Not the political punk that got us into this lifestyle in the first place. This was normal. We talked sometimes, but music and drinking was usually better. If I wanted intellectual stimulation I could go to my room and read. I had lived in that house off and on for three years. The house was Ernie’s, technically, though everyone thought of it as our own. Ernie inherited the house from his dad, who passed out one night drunk and fell into the swimming pool of some lady he was fucking, and drowned. He was the lady’s lawn man and somehow had breached her glittery world. Her rich husband was out of town when the accident happened. It was some kind of scandal on the news. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. We called the house “The Crack House,” which was supposed to be ironic but the front windows were boarded up from a party that had gotten out of hand, and we had definitely smoked crack there more than a couple of times. I had moved back in when my girlfriend Abby kicked me out. Ernie was happy to have me there, liked to tell me about every five minutes Abby was a stupid stuck‐up college girl. “Out of your league, man,” he’d say. “Probably be a lawyer or something, someday.” I deflected this talk or sometimes turned it back at him. “Maybe, if you’re lucky, she’ll save your ass from prison.” * The next morning was hell. I was so sore I could barely move. Somehow I had ended up drinking a Side Pocket after all, and then some whiskey, staying up half the night. By some miracle I managed to roll out of bed and make it out the door on time, and bought a barrel full of coffee on the way to our half‐built mansion. That day was like the one before: same rednecks, same yelling boss, same dog‐raccoon fight at lunch. We worked fast, the hot summer air echoed with rapid‐fire nail gun sounds, hammering, men’s murmuring and swearing voices. It sounded like war. Everyone was in a hurry and the boss yelled “hurry up, ladies” about once an hour. I was told to cut some boards and given a list of dimensions so somebody could make some headers. As I cut the boards my mind was somewhere else, thinking about how I shouldn’t have drunk so much last night, wondering why I was working at a place where I belonged even less than my normal jobs, when I cut right through the air‐hose. The hose wiggled and flopped in the air and I couldn’t catch it. The boss screamed at me, but somebody quickly fixed the problem and put me back on cleaning up and running boards to whoever yelled “new guy.” The week passed and the dog and raccoon scrapped every day. On Friday two raccoons were caught and, though they were on the small side, I thought they might get the upper hand on Hippie’s pit bull. On that day more blood splashed than usual. I wondered how much longer the carnage would last.
On my second week of work, on Monday, Brutus finally triumphed. Hippie had trapped a young raccoon the night before, and that day at lunch it fought just as hard for its life as the rest of them, but it wasn’t quite tough enough to hold its own. The raccoon nearly reached the trees, and I was secretly rooting for it even when Brutus clamped down on its neck and wouldn’t let go. He thrashed it in every direction, in spasms, whipping it like a Teddy bear around and around. Then he carried it to his master and dropped it at his feet. It lay there soaked in dirty saliva and blood, a ruddy ring around its neck, its fur spiked out with moisture. Its coat had a sheen to it, kind of like punk hair. The men slapped Hippie’s back and pet Brutus, who was prancing and wiggling his butt as though he’d won a prize. “All right, ladies, you’ve had your fun,” the boss yelled, as he came out of the port‐a‐john. I hadn’t known he was there. “Let’s get back to it. Throw that motherfucker in the woods before the customer shows up.” Hippie picked up the raccoon by the tail and walked to the edge of the woods and tossed it onto the tangled underbrush of briars. It lay there atop springy vines, several feet from the ground, swaying in the wind. I watched Hippie as he strolled back toward us, seemingly following the thread‐like trail of blood. It was all I could do to keep quiet. “What the fuck are you staring at, new guy?” the boss screamed from behind my ear. “Huh?” I said, without thinking. “Goddammit! Only faggots say huh. Are you a faggot, new guy?” The day was warm, but my neck was a volcano. I was powerless. I was enraged. I wanted to take a hammer and bury the claw in his forehead. But of course I did nothing. There was nothing to do. “No.” I said. “Good, cause I wouldn’t have one on my crew. Bring those studs upstairs, stud.” He pointed with a nod of his square sunbaked head. I hated him, hated his kind. I pictured his thrashed bloody body lying next to the raccoon’s on the briars, his tongue hanging out, his clothes in tatters. I wouldn’t do me any good to dwell though, so I put everything out of my mind and did what the boss wanted. For hours I hauled a pile of boards upstairs and stacked them for the walls the others would make. The whole place looked like a multi‐tiered jungle gym with diagonal braces going every which way, holding the walls in place until we could put a roof over all of it. It looked strong, but I knew it was still vulnerable without the braces. A good wind might topple the whole thing over. * “Oh my god. Somebody should call animal welfare on those fuckers,” Ernie said that night at home. “I don’t think they give a shit about raccoons,” Dee said. “I was talking about the dog,” Ernie said. “That’s animal abuse.”
“Yeah, but we don’t call the cops, remember?” I said. It was true. We always said calling the cops was cooperating with the state, and the state was a bunch of murderers. I remember being shit‐faced one time and arguing about it with some liberal college girl who was dating a friend of mine. I was out of my mind on speed, chewing my face off, not backing down in the argument. “What if there was a dead body in your house,” she had said at the end of our drawn out debate, as though saving it as her final trump card. “We’d compost the bastard,” I said. I knew that was a lie, but I said it anyway. The girl wouldn’t let my answer suffice, so I finally admitted we’d probably take the body and drop it off at the morgue or something. All of it was a moot point anyway because there wasn’t going to be a dead body. “Animal welfare isn’t the cops, dumbass,” Ernie said. “I think we should ambush that fucker and kick his teeth in and steal his dog. I’ll volunteer to take care of him,” he said. “The dog, I mean.” “I can’t do that, besides the boss is a bigger problem. I haven’t told you what he said to me.” “Why are you working there, man?” Ernie said. “Are you that desperate?” “Dude, get a job at a coffee shop or something,” said Dee. “Or sell weed again. It’s not like it’s speed.” “Sell your plasma till something better comes along,” Ernie said. I knew he was just trying to help. What they didn’t understand is that I was growing weary with all of this, the all‐night drinking, the filthy, squalid living, the gratuitous bumps of speed, not knowing where my next dollar would come from. “I feel like I need to learn a skill,” I said. “I’m twenty‐five‐years‐old. I should be trying to figure shit out, right?” * The next day I came to work prepared. I had plotted during the night. I bought a summer sausage and stabbed holes all over its surface and pushed rat poison into each hole. It would be a toxic weapon. At lunch Brutus had his daily fight for Hippie’s pride and honor. The raccoon was normal sized and fought like the rest of them, and survived, which was a comfort. I didn’t want to kill the dog but I didn’t see any other way. Wasn’t it okay to kill something to stop further bloodshed? When the fight was over the guys went back to wall building and I cleaned up the yard until I had a load to throw in the dumpster. I had cut up the summer sausage into four pieces, each exposing green pellets that resembled broken jagged Pez candy, the color of chalkboard. I squatted on the other side of the dumpster, the sausage stuffed down in my tool bag, waiting for the dog to approach.
While I waited I thought of Abby. She would be horrified if she knew what I was planning to do. She’d want me to call the cops on Hippie, but that fucker would sell me out in a second. He’d tell them I sold speed. It didn’t matter that I had quit. A house raid was a house raid. They’d find something there to put us all away. I couldn’t explain any of this to Abby. I wanted to call her again, it had been two months since she kicked me out. I wanted to tell to her that I was making changes, that I was working toward goals and learning things, that this job wasn’t much, but it might lead to better opportunities. Only now, as I write this, do I know how far from the truth I was in those longing moments. I thought I might call her that night and see if we could talk sometime soon. Have a coffee or something. Maybe work something out between us. She would be back from her parents’ house soon, to get ready for school to start. I peeked from behind the dumpster and noticed the dog lying on the dirt in his usual spot beside Hippie’s truck. I pictured him poisoned, walking in circles, licking the air, foaming at the mouth. I pictured him bloated and whimpering at his master. I knew then that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t kill an innocent, even a dog. Especially a dog. I might have killed Hippie in that moment, or the boss, but I didn’t do that either. I did nothing. I threw the sausage in the dumpster and stared at the trees for a while until I was yelled at to pick up the trash around the yard. * I didn’t go back to work after that day. Seven days wasn’t much, but it was the longest I’d worked in a while. I called Hippie a week later to tell him where to have the boss mail my check. At first he was irritated that I hadn’t shown up, but then perked up and told me Brutus finally killed a full‐grown raccoon. He planned to buy another dog, too, to train him to fight. He said he’d keep a weight around his neck and so he could beef up and kill other dogs. I hung up the phone before I could give him my address. I went back to selling weed for a while, just to get on my feet. I never talked about Brutus or the job again to Ernie or Dee. It was easier that way, to let the memory disappear into oblivion. The summer clapped to a close with me drunk every night, staying away from speed but still not winning any awards for success. I tried calling Abby a few times when I knew for sure she’d be back in town. I don’t know what happened, but she never picked up the phone. 2. Halfway Victoria was this goth chick I was with for a time who was good for me. She lived in one of those halfway houses for women, and even though she was two years older than me, twenty‐eight, they treated her like a child. At first they had her well under control, something to do with court orders, but once she managed to win over the guard, she was out most nights. She had an 64
arranged job during the day, under watch, and after “lights out” she’d score some Vicodins or Percocets or something equally numbing, and seek me out for late night meetups. We’d usually shut ourselves up in my room, turn off the lights and make love by the soft glow from the tall red candles we had stolen from a nearby Catholic church. She’d read me Anaïs Nin’s erotica, put on a Swans record or something equally dark and sensual, and we’d eat our painkillers (which we pretended were opium), and for the rest of the night we’d sit in my bed naked and talk until she’d have to leave and slip back into to her building before she was caught. I thought I’d reached the zenith of my life. But that isn’t the story I want to tell, not really. This story begins with a phone call I received one evening from Victoria. She wanted to know if an acquaintance she had met in rehab a couple of years before could crash at my house for a few days. He would be passing through in a week, just a pit stop before he went all the way back to North Carolina. I said yes, of course. I always said yes. I lived in a house where more people came through than a Motel 6, and sooner or later I thought that every punk or outcast in America would pass through our city and stay at our house. Besides, at the time just Ernie and I lived there, so there was plenty of space. * All I knew about the kid was his name, Max, and that he wasn’t part of our little enclosed punk rock world but more of a festival goer, someone willing to travel far to get high and listen to bad music with crowds of yoyos. Victoria warned me that he was young and bright‐eyed and probably came from money, but she swore I’d get along okay with him. A week later Max showed up at nine o’clock in the morning, unannounced. He was with a girl, his girlfriend Samantha, who had blonde‐orange bleached dreadlocks and hemp jewelry and didn’t look a day over sixteen. I was still wearing my boxers when I opened the door and let them in. They were full of thank yous and oh‐my‐gods, just bursting to tell me their story. I told them to wait until I could get some coffee inside me. They plopped down on the couch with anxious faces and I went to the kitchen. By that time Ernie was awake. I returned with a full pot of coffee and cups for everyone. “Rice,” Max said to me. “Do you know where we just came from?” “California,” I said. “That’s all I know.” “We just spent the last two months trimming weed,” he said. “We’re goddamn balling.” They both shifted around on the couch, acting tweaky. But I think it was just the excitement of traveling, the newness of everything, their unbridled youth. Max said they had spent a month looking for jobs all around Humboldt County and finally landing one where armed men hovered around them with machine guns, mysteriously and inexplicably speaking French the entire time. He said the work was mostly boring and long, but otherwise the whole thing was fine. “My mind was actually kind of numb from the monotony,” he said. “But I guess I’m okay with that.” He laughed and then so did she. I wasn’t awake enough to join in.
I walked over to the window and pushed aside the lavender sheet that served as a curtain, and saw through the murky glass what they were driving: a beat up Dodge cop‐magnet I was surprised could make it across town, never mind across the country. The back taillight was broken and was covered with red tape that was peeling off and nearly touched the ground, like a pathetic wedding streamer. “How much did you get?” Ernie said. “They gave us each a thousand dollars cash,” Max said, pronouncing the words like a game show host. “And a massive brick of weed as the rest of our payment.” “What’d you do with the weed?” Ernie said. I could see his interest in his eyes. Ernie was my closest friend and probably the person with whom I’d been through the most. He liked to smoke weed more than me, and we had both sold it on and off for years. We were always looking for another hustle, a way to make money quick and avoid working too much. But recently I had been trying to get away from not knowing where my next dollar would come from, away from all the drama, from my natural paranoia that was only enhanced in that kind of money making. “In the trunk,” Max said. “We’re going to sell it in Asheville, one eighth at a time. We’ll make a shit‐ton off all those hippies.” “It’s in the trunk now?” I said. “Do you know about our state, how strict it is? “I doubt it’s worse than North Carolina.” “Jesus,” I said. “It’s a miracle you weren’t pulled over already.” “What are we supposed to do?” he said. I pictured him on the ground face down, a cop on his back cuffing his wrists and laughing at his naiveté. I wondered if Victoria knew about the weed, if she hadn’t said anything over the phone for security reasons, or if she was trying to finagle some for herself. “Let me make a couple of call,” I said. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try to help him. * I had a friend named Jim, whose brother, Nate, was a gangster‐type weed slinger who dealt in large quantities. Everyone knew to be careful with him. He was known to carry a gun, but he was also a friend’s brother, a man vouched for all day long by anyone who really knew him—and some of my friends had spent a lot of time smoking weed with him in various houses all around town. It was strange, and yet not uncommon to see drug‐dealing gangsters hanging out and smoking blunts with punks kids. We were all on the fringe in our neighborhood and had more reasons to have each other’s back than fight against one another. I got Nate’s number and made an arrangement for a meeting that night to discuss him buying the whole chunk of weed at a fair price. I called Victoria and let her know with vague language what was happening. I wanted to keep her in the loop. I wanted her to know that I was trying to help her friends get home safe. Maybe another part of me wanted to impress her, to show her what I was able to make happen with just a phone call.
Nate showed up to the house after the sun went down. He walked in wearing a puffy jacket and a flatbrim Seahawks hat cocked to the side. He looked the part of an urban hard ass, though I knew from Jim that he was raised as a Mormon white boy on the south side. Nate’s eyes scanned the room swiftly, glancing at the broken and tattered furniture in the living room, and then to an art piece nailed to the wall, a scrabble board with letters glued over the squares spelling the words, THE CRACK HOUSE, in three stacked lines. “Funny,” he said, without laughing. “Where’s the weed?” Max brought out the backpack with the weed in it and set it on the coffee table, which was covered with stickers of bands we liked or bands who had stayed with us over the years. Nate unwrapped the package that was not much smaller than a basketball, smelled it, broke off a nug and put it in a glass pipe and lit it. As we passed the pipe around, Nate took a digital scale from his messenger bag and set the weed on it. I was blazed out of my mind within seconds, barely able to speak. Nate sat quietly as if pondering the chemical makeup of the plant he’d just smoked and finally said, “This is good. I’ll give you four thousand but I can’t get it till tomorrow.” Everything he said was simple and direct, as if inflections or adjectives might accidentally emasculate him. “But it’s worth way more than that,” Max said. His voice was tremulous, either from fear or the drug he had smoked. “I don’t have to buy it at all,” Nate said. Simple and direct. Max and Samantha looked at each other and Samantha nodded. “Okay,” Max said. “Four thousand.” We all sat fidgeting in our awkward high until Nate got up to leave. He wrote something down on a piece of paper and handed it to Max. “Meet me at this address at five o’clock tomorrow.” He walked out the door and let the storm door slam shut behind him. “I told you I’d find you someone,” I said. * That night Victoria tapped on my bedroom door around midnight, just as I was winding down for the evening. I opened my door and she sat down beside me on my bed because that’s all I had in my room to sit on. I explained what happened, about the weed and the deal with Nate. She said she knew nothing about the weed but she wasn’t surprised. “How do you know you can trust this guy?” she said. She untied her tall black boots and kicked them off, onto the floor. “It’s a friend’s brother,” I said. I sat squarely facing her and tried to make my words mean something. “They won’t make it out of here alive if they don’t do this. I don’t know why, but I can feel it.” “Let’s buy some of it for us to sell,” she said. She had on her cute face and it pissed me off. I felt like she wasn’t listening to a word I was saying. Or rather, like all she heard was the one word that mattered, weed, and the word itself switched off an important part of her brain. “I need some real money for when I get out of that fucking prison of a house.”
“I’m not doing that shit anymore,” I said. I didn’t like what weed did to people. I didn’t like seeing the lust in people’s eyes. It made me question whether my friends were even my friends, whether I could trust the closest people I knew. Right then I remembered a conversation I had with my stepdad one time. He told me that friends were really just leeches, that they couldn’t be trusted, that they would try to steal your shit and sleep with your wife. He was drunk when he said this and I argued with him for a good while, and he just laughed at me and threw his empty beer can across the yard at a painted tree stump we kept for decoration among the crab grass. I had resented my stepdad’s view of the world, the brief time that he was in my life, before my mom threw him out, which probably reinforced his view of humanity. I never wanted to feel that way myself. If anything, I put all of myself into my friendships. My friends were my world, my real family, and had been for years. I sometimes felt nostalgia for a time when I was Max’s age, or even before, when life really was just fun with your friends, when we weren’t yet smart enough to take advantage of one another. “All right, babe,” she said. “You win. But what am I supposed to do for money?” “I can get you a job at the restaurant,” I said. I worked at a pizza place on North Western Avenue. I washed dishes, so the pay was shit, but at least I didn’t have to look over my shoulder every day to make money. Suddenly, Victoria stood up and grabbed her boots and started to put them on her feet. “What are you doing?” I said, and grabbed her wrist a little too hard without thinking. She whirled around and tried to hit me with the boot in her other hand, and I grabbed her other wrist and held them like a vice. “Let me the fuck go,” she said. She struggled to free her hands, still holing one boot in her right fist. “Listen,” I said, trying to remain calm. “I’m sorry. Just chill out and we can talk.” I let her wrists go when I felt her body release its tension. She let the boot drop to the floor and again sat down on the bed. “You don’t know what it’s like living under lock and key. You don’t know what I’ve done to get out of that house to see you.” “You’ve never told me,” I said. We had only been seeing each other six months and five of them she was held captive. I didn’t know how she escaped or how she passed her drug tests. I suspected she had to hook somebody up with drugs, but she never mentioned any of this to me and I never asked because I didn’t like to ask questions that I was afraid of the answers. “Well I’m not telling you now either,” she said. She stood up and sifted through records, skipping over all the punk and metal, and pulled out Brian Eno and put it on the turntable. She went out of my room and came back with a full glass of water and two pills in her hand. “Let’s just relax,” she said. We took the pills and relaxed, and lay whispering about nothing serious until we drifted off to sleep. As was our habit, she was gone by the time I woke up. * 68
The next day they called me into work at the last minute and I couldn’t say no, so I went in at four and I couldn’t go with Max and Samantha to meet Nate. Work was normal for a Tuesday, steady but not overly hectic. I was in the kitchen washing dishes when the manager came in. “You’ve got another phone call, Rice,” he said. I hated the way he pronounced my name, like he couldn’t stand saying the word. But I also needed this job and didn’t want to tell him what I really thought of him, that he was an insecure corporate automaton that probably actually liked his job. “Oh, sorry,” I said. I was trying to sound sincere. I set down the dish I was washing and dried my hands. “I’m tired of telling you to stop having your friends call you at work. If this happens again I may have to let you go.” He set the cordless phone on a drying rack. “I swear I told them not to,” I said, but he had already walked through the swinging kitchen door. I picked up the phone. It was Max. “That bastard ripped us off!” he said. “He put a gun in my face and stole the weed and drove off.” His voice sounded like crying that was trying not to. “Nate?” I said. I couldn’t believe it. “Was he alone?” “Yes he was alone,” he said. “And it’s your fucking fault.” “My fault?” I said. “How is this my fault?” I was going crazy the rest of my shift. The work didn’t help me take my mind off the problem. Washing dishes wasn’t really mindless. It helped you think better, to concentrate on the problem and hold on to it for hours. Nate probably knew what he was doing, exposing and ripping apart the fragile seam of connection between those two kids and I, of the supposed code of our friendship based solely on the fact that we were different from the norm, that we knew some of the same people and that was somehow enough put your life down on the line for each other. Or likely Nate had just seen an opportunity and nothing was going to stop him. He didn’t give a fuck about us. I imaged Nate at his house with his friends smoking the weed and laughing at us. I pictured him polishing his gun and calling us the same names we had been called in junior high. I had no idea what could be done. Was it even my problem? All I had been trying to do was keep those kids out of jail. After work I peddled my bike as fast as I could and when I got home Max, Samantha, and Ernie were in the living room pacing back and forth and winding each other up. A chair was turned over and I could see Ernie’s dog, Yelp, hiding under the coffee table away from stomping feet. “I thought we could trust you,” Samantha said. Her face was red and puffy. Until then she had been almost mute. Now it was like she was empowered by being pushed around, like they had each rehearsed how they would put all the blame on me and were just waiting for me to walk through the door. “Victoria said we could trust you.”
“Goddammit, you can trust me,” I said. “This isn’t my fault. I was trying to help. I don’t know what the fuck happened but I want to figure this shit out.” “What happened is we were set up,” Max said. “We keep trying to call him and he won’t answer his phone, the bastard. He has our shit and we’re helpless to get it back.” “I like that he knows he can fuck us over and we’ll do nothing about it,” Ernie said, like it was his weed that was stolen. “What does that say about us?” And there it was again. We couldn’t do anything about it. We couldn’t call the cops because it was a drug deal, and even if we could, we wouldn’t. We were against the cops. We were the ones usually getting hassled by the damn cops. We weren’t about to sic them on anyone else. “Remember that redneck guy I used to sell weed to?” Ernie said to me. “Remember what he did to that guy that tried to get over on him?” Ernie was smoking a cigarette inside. We had argued forever about smoking cigarettes inside, deciding finally against it. But here he was, puffing on a Bugler like it was his right, the situation nullifying any previous agreements. “Give me a smoke,” I said. “I’ll roll it myself.” I didn’t even smoke anymore but I wanted one just then. “What did the redneck guy do?” Samantha said with voice that sounded like it was coming from the bottom of a well. Ernie told the story as we heard it from the man himself, how one day the redneck came home to his trailer house and found it robbed. He lived outside of town in the country, so there were no eyewitnesses. Somebody had stolen his boat, his TV, and a few other things, and they stole a nice four‐wheeler that his buddy was trying to sell to him at that time. The guy who was robbed, I’ll call him Redneck 1, called his friend, Redneck 2, and told him about the robbery and his, Redneck 2’s, missing four‐wheeler. On the phone, Redneck 2 didn’t sound surprised (or upset) that his four‐wheeler was stolen, which alerted Redneck 1 that maybe something was wrong, that maybe it was actually Redneck 2 who robbed the house. Redneck 1 kidnapped Redneck 2 at gunpoint and took him door to door, all over the countryside, showing his face to every neighbor around, one by one, warning them to watch out for this spineless maggot thief he had by the ear lobe. Eventually he dragged the guy into the woods and tied him to a tree, beat him half to death, and put a gun in his face until the guy pissed and shat himself and admitted everything. Finally he let the guy. Redneck 1 told Ernie and me that he had “learned” the guy a lesson.” Ernie had laughed, calling it “swift justice.” But I didn’t find it very funny. I wondered if the story was a warning to us if the weed we were selling him wasn’t good enough. Or maybe it was just a story to show what kind of man he was, what men should be, and less and less were not. “We aren’t rednecks,” I said to Ernie, who was still moving back and forth across the filthy wooden floor while Max and Samantha sat on the couch, looking whipped and dejected. “And we certainly aren’t gangsters.” * 70
When some time later Victoria walked through the door, we were all sitting on the couch and were going over propositions of what could possibly be done. I had called Jim but he wasn’t answering the phone. I didn’t know if he knew his brother was a scumbag, or if Jim himself was in on it. For all I knew Jim had dreamt up the whole idea himself. Victoria was upset, of course, and she tried to get me to buck up against Nate, to threaten him or at the very least try to convince him to give the weed back out of the goodness of his heart. “Are you fucking kidding me?” I said. “We’re lucky if he doesn’t come after us now. Just for the hell of it.” That idea hadn’t entered my mind until I spoke the words out loud. “Would he do that?” Max said. “I mean would he actually do that?” “I doubt it,” I said. But, of course, I didn’t really know. We decided it was best to be prepared for anything. We looked all over the house for any kind of weapon we could find and only came up with a baseball bat and a couple of dull kitchen knives. It was well past four in the morning by then. Everyone was weary. I knew Victoria had to be back in a few hours or otherwise she would violate her court order and add time to her sentence, or possibly go back to jail. I was disgusted with what we had been reduced to: defenseless fearful children. We never slept that night. I borrowed Ernie’s car to take Victoria home, and by then we had let go of any anger, and our fear dwindled to a resigned fatigue. I wanted to protect her somehow, but I knew I couldn’t. I felt like a walking paradox. I hated chivalry and everything it stood for. I resented that as a man I was expected to protect her. But then, for once I wanted that responsibility too. I wanted what adults want. I wanted to show her that I could be there, that if things became dangerous she’d have nothing to worry about. We didn’t talk on the drive home. We spoke only after I parked the car a block down the street from her halfway house, out of sight of anyone with authority that might be awake. “I want you to work with me,” I said. “At the restaurant.” “I don’t care about that right now, Rice. What about the asshole with the gun?” “I shouldn’t have said what I said. Why would he go after us?” I said, and leaned over and kissed her. “I’ll stop by tomorrow night.” She kissed me and got out of the car and walked swiftly to her building and entered the back. On the way home I thought I saw Nate’s Cutlass at a gas station a few blocks from the house. When I drove past I realized it wasn’t him. I drove around a while looking for his car and never saw it. The sun was rising by the time I got home. I slumped into bed and lay there imagining the worst, letting one nightmare vision of violence collide with another until I drifted off to sleep. Max and Samantha left before I woke without saying goodbye. They wrote a note expressing their disappointment in me, for my lack of solidarity for friends in need. They said to tell Victoria goodbye for them, said they wouldn’t ever come back. I tried to call Jim again, thinking maybe it was all a mistake, that he could talk sense into his brother, rectify the
situation. But he never answered the phone. It was sickening the way you couldn’t trust a friend when you thought you could, how, at its worst, fear infects everyone and everything around you. I tried to reach Jim a few more times that day and gave up. After a long exhausting day I lay in bed that evening listing to music, anticipating Victoria’s arrival, trying to think about nothing but the numbness I would soon feel. 3. Sugar Punks We had been in Kemper, Montana, for about a week when Coal and Melanie stomped into our camp on a gusty October afternoon, each with oversized army packs, their dog they called Lost trailing behind on a threadbare leash. Everyone except Coal and Melanie had already signed up with the sugar beet company, had been issued day‐glow vests, white hard hats and safety glasses, and we were just waiting for the weather and humidity to cooperate so we could work. In the meantime life was an endless party. We played dice games or cards, went on walks, or milled around the campsite and chain‐smoked hand‐rolled cigarettes. Sometimes we sat with a paperback or journal, or chitchatted with a close friend or lover until the hour we could justify beginning to drink. Their arrival was momentous, signaling the gang was all there. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to see them. I had a secret I was keeping from Coal that I needed to figure out how to reveal. He was a good friend, someone who would take betrayal hard. But then, drama happened all the time. As I awaited his arrival, I kept telling myself, kept hoping, that anything could be forgiven. * That year the sugar beet company had worked something out with the county, gave us permission to camp at the fairgrounds a couple of miles away from the processing factory, and of course we made a mess of everything and I’m certain the company regretted it. The Mexicans we worked with stayed in a cheap motel somewhere in town. We tried to get to know them, though they seemed to prefer distance from what I imagine they saw as trouble. And it wasn’t just them. The locals were annoyed with us too, but they accepted us like you might a dormant disease. It would be years before I let pride in self‐isolation wither away, and that transition would be painful. I wasn’t ready yet. I was still just a kid. It was 1999. I remember because after working the sugar beets, some of the gang rode trains to Seattle to protest the WTO and were obliterated by the police. Or so I later heard. We were full of rage and self‐righteousness back then, but in Kemper, two months before Seattle, we were far less political. There were about twenty of us gutter punks from everywhere, all with the same plan: get as tanked as possible, as often as possible, and still manage to get a decent paycheck at the end of three or four weeks of hellish toil—twelve hours a day, seven days a week. 72
We joked that people wouldn’t want sugar in their birthday cakes if they knew lowlifes and fuckups made it from beets. * That first night with Coal and Melanie we made a fire against regulations. A dozen of us sat around the fire and played a drinking game called “Never Have I Ever.” The sky was overcast, which made it cold, but the booze kept me warm enough as we played. As always, the game began innocently, and soon turned to sex and debauchery. When it was Coal’s turn to play, he said, “Never have I ever fucked a Canadian.” As he did so, he gave an exaggerated wink to the group and took a drink. I swallowed without thinking, indicating that I too had slept with a Canadian. The idea was, if you had done whatever was said, you drank. Otherwise you didn’t. When I stupidly sipped from my can of beer, Coal noticed and asked who she was. “Nobody,” I said. “You don’t know her.” I could have just said I accidentally took a sip, but I wasn’t thinking. I could have lied, but I didn’t. “No really,” Coal said, “who’d you fuck, Rice?” Melanie laughed and held the bag of Franzia above her head and trickled red wine into her mouth and down her chin. “This girl I met at a squat in Montreal last summer,” I said. I didn’t know what to say. I usually didn’t. I was always saying and doing the wrong things. “Hey babe,” Coal said. “Throw me the space bag.” Taking the bladder out of the box made it easier to pass around. Melanie tossed the bag of wine to Coal who squeezed it like a bagpipe, guzzled, and lobbed it to someone else. Minutes went by and I thought he’d given up on the topic. We played a couple more rounds until someone inevitably blurted, “Never have I ever had scabies,” which obligated most of us to drink. I tried to think of something other than the tension I was feeling, wondering if I might find a gentle way to confess to Coal. Then, as though he’d been chewing on that dangling morsel the whole time, Coal said, “Melanie probably knows her. She’s from Montreal. What’s her name?” “Yeah, Rice, tell us her name,” Melanie said before I could answer, and then laughed. Her accent seemed more acute than before, which usually I found endearing. Now it irritated me. “I know Melanie’s from there,” I said to Coal, ignoring Melanie. “I can’t remember her name. Some blonde girl from out of town.” I gulped down the rest of my beer and opened another. Everyone around the fire was uncommonly silent, looking at me, the fire crackling between us. “It was when you were doing the blueberry harvest in Maine,” I said. “I was in Montreal for the Anarchist Book Fair.” “The book fair was way before the blueberries,” he said. “I was there and I never saw you. I had no idea you were in Canada.”
“I’m sure I told you I was in Canada.” “No you didn’t,” he said. “Who cares,” my friend Seth said, finally. “Are we playing a drinking game or talking bullshit?” Everyone was happy to have their mindless chatter back. We kept playing the game until we were too drunk to find it interesting. The night was growing more frigid. I was glad the familiar numbing feeling of alcohol was setting in. At some point I went to piss at the dark edge of the field. Coal snuck behind me and startled me. “I knew something was going on with you and Melanie,” he said. He leaned into me, our faces nearly touching. “You’re a fucking little scumbag, you know that? A slimy little worm.” “Man, it’s not like that,” I said. “You’ve got it wrong.” My slurred voice couldn’t convince a child. The truth was I had slept with his girlfriend, but it was all over by then and I was trying to forget anything had ever happened. I was always a bad liar, but that wasn’t all. I think I might have wanted to get caught, to make things even between us. “She’s been acting weird around you for I don’t know how long,” he said. “You better watch your back.” He poked me stiffly in the chest with his baton‐like index finger. He was much larger than me and about a decade older, in his early thirties. I don’t know why he didn’t beat me right then. * Coal was the oldest of all of us, had been traveling the longest, and therefore took the position as wisest. I looked up to him, but felt more like a protégé than an equal. I never knew if he respected me or even took me seriously. And yet I still admired him, we all did. None of us believed in leaders, though if we did, Coal would have been ours. Now everything was different. The whole time in Kemper I did my best to avoid Coal and Melanie. We slept and worked in the same places, but our worksite was so massive you wouldn’t see someone if they were assigned to another station. The company liked to spread us out so we would actually work and not yap all day with our friends. Management assigned me to Piler # 3. In my group there was Seth, three Mexican guys who didn’t speak English, and me. Each of us took turns sampling the temp on the occasional beet, guiding trucks in to drop beets off, filling bags up, while two humorless locals worked massive conveyer belts like a couple of pros. As it happened, Coal was across the yard in the factory, with more responsibilities. Melanie was half a mile from either of us with another group like mine. Still I was a nervous wreck for days. I couldn’t sleep at night. I dwelled and dwelled on what we’d done, wracked with guilt. I’d picture all the good times with Coal, going to shows or sitting around the fire telling stories, and again guilt took me in its claws. Then fear would overtake guilt when I remembered his warnings of pounding my face in.
In those days I ran with a crew of four or five travelers. We’d meet up a few times a year, wherever it made sense at the time. We weren’t exactly homeless; we just preferred to sleep outside and avoid the lead anchor of a lease. For us, life was divided into cities and seasons. New Orleans was always good in the winter, as was Tucson. There were dozens of other punks there that would take us in, show us empty buildings to squat, invite us to shows and parties, point us where to shoplift and dumpster‐dive food. There was real solidarity in those towns. Minneapolis, on the other hand, was a good place to spend the summer. We’d meet up there, run amok, steal college kids’ bikes and ride them to any of the zillion lakes in the area and skinny dip in freezing water. Sometimes we’d even camp in the woods up north. Usually we stayed in tight clusters in one of the many punk houses throughout that city. When I say punk, I don’t mean it poetically. I mean something much, much more. The music was important to us, yes, but we were like a scattered and wayward tribe. We had the same dreaded manes, the same combat boots, the same hand‐sewn patches emblazoned with band logos and political slogans, fastened like quilt squares to our backpacks and off‐black clothing, gleaming with a patina of train grease and filth. We practically spoke our own language, had our own inside jokes and rituals. Where others saw a bunch of dirty, angry kids, we saw ourselves as a family. At that time in my life you could have blindfolded me and dropped me anywhere on the planet and I’d find the first punk I saw and make instant friends. Punks were everywhere, embedded in population like terrorist cells. My friend Seth liked to call non‐punks normals. We were abnormal which was fine by us. We didn’t want to mingle with others and it was mutual. In that little three stoplight, sugar beet town in northeast Montana, that place full of farmers and roughnecks, where you’d see more white pickups than squirrels, more cowboy hats than library books, we didn’t want to fit in. The few times we staggered into a local bar, on rained out days or after work, all heads turned toward us, indicated without words that we didn’t belong. Though, we didn’t respond to subtleties. We needed those words. We didn’t take hints because we felt like we owned the world. The camaraderie we shared made all the meanmugging we received worth it. All of this is impossible to explain to an outsider. It was like wartime, and we were the soldiers. That’s why it was all the more painful when I stabbed my friend Coal in the back. * What made things difficult was that the affair didn’t feel like betrayal when it happened. Or that’s not right: it felt exactly like betrayal and a frenzy of lust and love all at the same time. I sought Melanie out. She fell into my arms the summer before. I had gone to Vermont for a DIY music festival, at a farm that some older punks had pooled their money together and bought. I had been carrying the flyer for the festival in my pack all spring. I hadn’t known for sure if I was going until that week, when I spontaneously decided to leave Pittsburg, PA, where I’d been resting from the road. Melanie happened to be at the festival, alone, which surprised me. Coal had gone camping. He needed to clear his head, she said, and was skipping out on everything to save his sanity. On the first day of the festival I
found myself next to Melanie most of the day and into the night. At some point she whispered into my ear the sweetest, French‐accented invitation I’d ever heard. She said, “Will you lie with me and keep me company under the moon and stars?” I said, “What about Coal? I can’t do that.” “He would want his friend to keep me warm and safe. I want to be away from people, but not by myself.” We made a double pallet under some pine trees away from everyone. After hours of talking, we began to kiss and eventually made love. By morning, I found every way possible to rationalize what had happened. I said, “If we are two people who need love, who crave it and must have it, and we are willing to give that love to each other for only the right reasons, what could possibly be wrong with that?” Her head lay in the crook of my arm, both of us naked under two stained and crumpled sleeping bags. She looked up at me with her beautiful angular face and large chocolate eyes. Her features were elfin, her body slim and fragile. “This has nothing to do with Coal,” she said. And so we planned to meet again in two months, in Canada, when she knew Coal wouldn’t be there because of another trip he was taking. The first day of that visit was great. We cooked spaghetti and ate from chipped plates on the flat roof of her house. We explored the streets, walked arm in arm through a city park. I pushed out most of my worries and enjoyed the company of this exotic and lovely girl. But by the second day it was different. She was distant, irritable, refusing to respond to my questions. I knew she was torn. I was too. As the day went on she seemed to relax, which helped me ease up. My feelings again lay in balance. We flirted and kissed and fucked on her filthy twin mattress in the corner of a huge bedroom she shared with two friends who happened to be away. That day melted into nothing. The next day I was admiring her nakedness and smoking an American Spirit when, out of nowhere, she said that we couldn’t continue the affair. “Coal will be upset if he learns about this,” she said. “I thought he had nothing to do with this.” She felt guilty. She wouldn’t be dissuaded. I left because she thought it best. Since then I’d run into Melanie and Coal twice, in two different towns, and I tried hard to act normal around them and somehow failed. The last time we had seen each other was in Northern California, where we all made a plan to meet up in Kemper to work the sugar beets. Now that I was there I didn’t want to be there but had nowhere else to go. * For days after the drinking game I saw Coal only in passing and always around others. He was openly friendly, didn’t let on that anything was wrong, but when people were looking away he’d sneer, shake his head with disgust, mouth inaudible insults in my direction. I still didn’t know why he hadn’t destroyed me yet. 76
At some point, about a week after work began, I noticed a copper‐colored cloud belch from the distant smoke stack. The wind shifted just right and brought the chemical laced, dirty‐ diaper smell our way. A half hour later, the fat greasy foreman drove his white pickup beside us and said, “Hey Turdlocks”—that’s what he called Seth, infuriating him—“I need two volunteers to clean up a mess at the drier. You and your little friend.” The foreman pointed at me. “Saw the smoke, right?” he said. We had no idea what he meant. “Why us?” Seth said. The wind was blistering our layers of Carhart clothing. Seth took a sip from his thermos that was half full of coffee and half whiskey, then passed it to me. “Because you look bored. How’s that?” Every day, about once every couple of hours, the foreman drove by our piler and stared at us like a redneck peeping Tom. The Mexican guys never seemed to mind, or even notice. They just seemed happy to have jobs. Seth and I always joked that the foreman was probably playing with himself while he watched people work. “Yeah, we’ll do it,” I said before Seth could say no. Anything was better than the monotony of sorting beets. We walked across the barren dirt wasteland of a lot, between mountains of sugar beets and machines as big as Brontosauruses, to the factory, which was nearly the size of a football stadium. When we entered the cavernous metal building, we saw what the foreman was talking about. An old man in a blue hardhat pointed to the drier that looked like a fifty‐foot‐tall clothes drier and said, “Clean that up.” The beet pulp had burned and encrusted to the walls of the drier. They wanted us to shovel it out and dispose of it. Coal and a couple of locals were standing there with shovels and picks. Coal wore a sinister grin. It hadn’t occurred to me that he would be there. We spread across the huge machine. I took the far end, away from the others, with my back to the wall so I could watch them work as I shoveled. Within minutes Coal trudged through foot‐thick gunk towards me. I backed as far away as I could, into the corner where there was no escape. I braced myself for a beating as he kept slogging forward and sidled up next to me. He must have told the foreman to ask us to volunteer. “Hi Rice,” he said. “Barely seen you, lately.” “It’s not like you think,” I said. “How do you know what I think?” The stench in the drier was overwhelming, like burnt rotten potatoes and shit mixed together. “I don’t know what you think. Let’s talk about this.” “What is there to say? You fucked my girlfriend and haven’t even admitted it.” He shook his head and inhaled so hard his hardhat tilted to the side. I tried to take a step backward but my heel hit the wall. I looked past him at the others shoveling, all of them with their eyes on their work. “All right,” I said. “I admit it.” A constant hum of machines obliterated my voice though he must have heard me clearly. “Admit what?”
We went on like this for a while and I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth. I couldn’t just say that Melanie and I had three sexual encounters, and that I had been in love with her for a while but I was over it. Or at least I wanted to be over it. None of that came out. Eventually he gave up on a confession and pushed me down into the muck and walked away. We spent the next four hours silently shoveling the walls of hell for a pittance. I vibrated from anxiety and guilt. That night at camp I moved my stuff to a hidden spot under the bleachers at the rodeo arena, across the fairgrounds from where everyone stayed—I grew up near a rodeo so it somehow gave me comfort. It was getting colder every day, nights hovering in the teens. I was okay because I had my Vietnam‐era down sleeping bag wrapped inside a tarp like a burrito. When I crawled into my burrito, if I wore every piece of clothing I had, I kept warm. And yet I still couldn’t sleep. Insomnia made my skin so sensitive it stung like a sunburn. My mind felt as though it had imploded from the weight of repeated thoughts. My first night under the bleachers was no different than the others. After hours of lying in silence, I stepped out of my sleeping bag and went for a walk around the fair grounds, arctic gusts pummeling me at every step. The sky was black and the moon was a perfect yellow‐gray sphere. I took a rock and broke out a light that had been bothering me, before I went back to the bleachers. When I got there, Melanie was sitting on the bottom wooden bench near my sleeping spot. “What are you doing here?” I whispered, and sat down beside her. “It was too loud,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep.” She moved closer to me so our sides touched. “But why are you here?” I said, and scooted away and then stood up again. “You’re going to get me killed. I’m sleeping over here.” “I’m thinking of taking off,” she said. “I’m sick of him, sick of his shit.” I sat back down beside her. She began to talk about their relationship, explaining that Coal had been pushing her, shaking her, even hitting her off and on for over a year. Coal was raised in Alabama by Bible thumpers and couldn’t handle his past. Violence was in his blood. He liked to get black‐out drunk then freak out about Jesus and his dead mom. It was happening more than ever, she said, and she was losing patience. At first Melanie tried to comfort him during his breakdowns, but gave up and tried to steer clear of him altogether when he was in one of his moods. But every time she distanced herself, he clung to her all the more. Nothing ever lasted. He’d switch again, and without warning, would get angry and smack her around or push her down to the ground. The night we played our drinking game, afterwards, he held her down with his hand over her mouth and ground his elbow into her chest. Nobody knew anything about any of this, including me. Sitting on the bench that night we made a plan to skip our last week of work and hop a train to the west coast. We’d call the sugar company later and get our checks mailed to us. I 78
wanted her more than ever right then, more than the summer before. We kissed for a while, then she pulled away and went over the plan again: I was to continue sleeping under the bleachers for three more nights while she’d act like everything was fine. We’d work our twelve‐ hour slave shift, and on the fourth night, we’d walk to the highway before dawn and hitch out by daybreak. During those four days we’d stock up on food and keep our mouths shut. The next few days were the worst. Days were longer than usual, the work more tedious. My friends hounded me about where I slept and why I wasn’t around. I explained that drunken noise was getting to me, which was mostly true. During a break the next day, Seth must have felt bothered by my weak responses to his usual complaints about the job and the foreman and asked me what was wrong. “I’m just having a lot of doubts,” I said. I was thinking of Melanie, of course, but not only her. I had been wondering if I would still be sleeping in a tarp when I was Coal’s age, if I’d live off dumpstered bagels and stolen summer sausage. I was wondering about the future while I stood next to my friend who had the near illegible words NO FUTURE tattooed across his neck. But I said nothing about any of this. “Is this about Melanie?” he said. His face looked sober in a way that I almost never saw then quickly changed into a smirk as though he knew something I didn’t. He offered me his thermos and I shook my head no. “What do you mean?” “I was out and about the other night and saw you talking with her at the rodeo place,” he said. “Seemed serious.” “It is fucking serious,” I said. “Coal’s been hitting her.” “Man, you believe that? He told me she stabbed him one time for making a joke about her dog.” “I’m thinking of quitting and getting out of here,” I said. “Everything is fucked up. Our friends are fucked up. This life is fucked up.” “Dude, take me with you please,” he said. “If I have to hear the word Turdlocks one more time I’m burying that fucker under his own product.” Nothing was ever serious with Seth. Seriousness was for another time, another age, for other people. “Fuck it,” I said. “Never mind.” I didn’t know who was right about Melanie, but I didn’t want to hear his version. I couldn’t make him understand me anyway with that much whiskey running through his veins, and I was tired of trying. “I’m sticking it out,” I said. “Where else can we make four grand in a month, right?” “We’re the only ones dumb enough and desperate enough to do it,” I said. * The night of our escape finally came and I waited in vain by the fence post for hours. Melanie never showed. I was a mess, didn’t know what to do with myself.
I was sick with anticipation, with confusion, self‐doubt. I felt in those few hours that I really did love her, that I needed to protect her. But how? I couldn’t imagine what had changed her mind, why she had gone back with a man like Coal, a man who proudly named himself after a coal car he fell off one time while wasted. My thoughts crept back to when Melanie and I were first alone together, the summer before. The secrecy felt wrong but everything else felt like we were supposed to be there together, like we were sanctioned by something neither of us understood. She was pushing me away again and I had no idea why. The next day I didn’t see her at all, which wasn’t unusual, but I never managed to catch sight of her again until the last day of work. Every day fewer and fewer beet trucks were coming in off the farm. We all knew production was dwindling to a stop, but no one, not even the boss, knew when work would officially end. I kept to myself more than I had in years. I felt like an exile, a leper, afraid to tell others of his condition. I continued to ward off questions from my friends, sticking to my story of curing my insomnia. I went to camp one night when I noticed Coal and Melanie weren’t there. But my heart wasn’t in it and I left early. On the last workday the shift ended after just eight hours. We gathered at one of the beet pilers. Everyone was there. I tried to meet eyes with Melanie without Coal seeing me. The foreman gave us a pep talk, praised us, told us how happy he’d be to see us next year. But two years of beets was enough for me. I thought the next year I’d try apples, or maybe cherries. When the foreman went away everybody was laughing and joking and planning a feast. A couple of guys were taking orders for the store. With our pay advances, there was plenty of money for all the booze and food we could handle. I walked alongside the group to the road that led to camp. I decided I would eat and drink with them just like before. If I’d made it this long, there was no reason to skip the final party. As the night wore on, and we pounded drinks and stuffed our faces with hotlinks and fire‐ scorched chicken for the meat‐eaters, and grilled tofu for the vegans, Coal looked at me from across the fire, his look more proud than menacing. Melanie sat next to him, keeping one arm around his neck the whole night. Even when she drank from the wine bag she kept her hand there, snugly planted on his neck as though he were a life preserver. Our eyes never met once. The rest of the gang was ecstatic. People were wrestling, smoking weed, shotgunning beers. Everyone chanted “Sugar Punks, Sugar Punks,” over and over. A couple of guys had their boots off and their feet next to the fire, and gave themselves stick‐and‐poke tattoos of those ridiculous words on their toes, a letter for each one. The revelry lasted way into the freezing night and eventually they dropped where they sat, one by one. Coal and Melanie had sneaked off early back to their tent. Seth lay half across a young face‐tattooed kid from Florida. I stood up and weaved over to my spot under the bleachers. From my hidden place, I looked at the stars between two benches. It was time to roll up my bag and tarp and hit the road walking. I wasn’t sure when, or if, I’d see any of them again. I figured I’d at least catch up with Seth somewhere down the road. 80
I walked in the light of the waning moon and slept in the bar ditch along the highway. In the morning I hitchhiked to Minot, North Dakota. In Minot I hoofed it to the train yard and accidentally slept through the first westbound train. By morning I couldn’t bring myself to jump on the next one, and after watching several local strings screech through the yard I heard some noise coming from above, looked up in the wide and watery Northern sky at an asymmetrical V of southbound flying geese. I wondered where they’d end up and from where they’d come. I rolled a cigarette, lit it, and watched the geese disappear.
Parts of this story appeared previously in MASK Magazine and Frontier Mosaic, the student literary magazine at Oklahoma State University.
“Near Death: On ‘Bodies: The Exhibition’”
When you walk into “Bodies: the Exhibition,” the first object to confront you is a skeleton. Suspended against a plain backdrop, it instantly brings to mind other skeletons in other contexts—wheeling in for a cameo appearance in seventh‐grade biology; wearing sombreros and dancing in celebration of the Mexican “Dia de los Muertos;” cobwebby and toppling in any number of horror movies; or reduced to skulls as memento mori in Renaissance paintings. In its limp, jaunty way, the skeleton is reassuring. Nothing new here, it seems to say. Nearby stands what is clearly intended to represent the skeleton’s modern cousin—the body of a man, stripped down to a combination of bone and muscle. The skull retains its scalp, ears, and nose. Lidless eyes bulge above a toothy grin. One arm extends in a bony thumbs‐up. Through a small door lies the rest of the exhibition—22 real human bodies, preserved and dissected to reveal muscles organs and veins and posed into “lifelike” shapes. The preservation process, called “plastination,” replaces the bodies’ water with synthetic polymer and allows them to retain their color and flexibility. The word itself is well‐chosen—the bodies look like plastic, but not quite. The figure shooting the basketball, the sole full‐body female (posed on her toes like a Barbie doll), even the figures split down the middle to reveal their organs—all are clean‐ looking, calm and sterile. On a recent Saturday afternoon, despite crowds dotted with children, the exhibition’s carpeted, low‐ceilinged rooms were quiet. People leaned into each other to point out individual features of the free‐standing figures. If anyone was nauseated or upset, they didn’t show it. A burly man pointed to a specimen’s muscly calf. “I think that’s the one I pulled,” he told his wife. Nearby, a woman nodded towards a body arranged like a runner, his muscles pulled back from the bone so they quivered like feathers from his forearms and calves. “That, I found completely gruesome, I have to say,” she said to her companion. Some teenage girls stood in front of a spotlit glass case in which an arterial system floated like a piece of scarlet seaweed. “That is some crazy shit,” one murmured. When asked, patrons said that curiosity more than anything else had brought them in the door. But perhaps a better question might be, what kept them there? How is it that hundreds of people (and thousands more at similar exhibits elsewhere) could spend an afternoon, rapt and respectful, their children in hand, gazing in unsullied fascination at what in any other context would be cadavers, posed corpses and horrifically flayed and disembodied limbs and organs? What had been done to make this possible? Any answer must start with Gunther von Hagens, the German anatomist and inventor of plastination. Although “Bodies: the Exhibition” is careful to claim no affiliation with von Hagens
(it is run by an American company, Premier Exhibition, Inc, which also produces traveling shows of the Titanic), this exhibition is modeled—down to the welcoming skeleton—on von Hagens’s “Body Worlds” exhibitions which have toured Europe since the late 1990’s. Controversy has swirled around von Hagens from the start, but he doesn’t seem to mind. A 2002 New York Times article quotes him as saying, “Everything in with the body is fixed by culture. If showing anatomy is not done for some time, it becomes taboo to see it. I’m accused of being Frankenstein or Mengele, but to readjust our picture of the human body, we need controversy. I’m the centerpiece, the target of the aggression in this.”1 Perhaps in reaction to his own experience with totalitarianism (von Hagens lived in Communist West Germany for twenty‐five years), his exhibition philosophy takes on an anti‐ authoritarian tone. Alan Burdick, a senior editor at Discover, interviewed von Hagens in 2004. “He’s an interesting guy,” Burdick said recently. “He’s reacting to the sensibility that information about the body has been held tightly by scientists, that they have a lock on knowledge that is inaccessible to us.” In putting together public exhibitions, Burdick says, “He feels like he’s exposing state secrets.” In an open letter published by The Times in 2005, von Hagens wrote, “People relate better to their bodies after seeing my work. I’m very happy if they come in for sensational reasons. It draws people in and transforms them.”2 If von Hagens’s goal is for people to learn about their bodies, he has chosen a challenging medium for the lesson. In Death, Dissection and the Destitute, Ruth Richardson writes, “Dissection requires in its practitioners the effective suspension or suppression of many normal physical and emotional responses to the willful mutilation of the body of another human being.” 3 Doctors or medical students actually practicing dissection, might suspend their emotional responses by covering the cadaver’s face and hands, or (in less enlightened times) making it the source of macabre practical jokes. For a paying audience only observing dissected humans, the ability to move past death and into an open state of learning must happen in the same instant. How does von Hagens, or anyone else, manage to achieve this? The answer is aesthetic. He, and anyone who wants to expose the living to the dead without repulsing them, must strike a very careful balance between presenting the bodies as too human on one hand and not human enough on the other. If the body is too human—if it has a name for example—it becomes an individual (and the dissection appears as the horrific means of that individual’s death). If it is too far away from human, it risks being seen as a monster. To really learn from it, the viewer must be able to recognize, not another person exactly, but something like himself in the specimen. After the unnatural, “doll‐like” poses of his early plastinates horrified viewers at his first exhibition, von Hagens looked to the anatomist‐showmen of history for examples. One likely source of inspiration was the Florentine museum La Specola with its collection of the world’s most detailed and artistically rendered wax anatomical models. Created over several decades in 1
Ore, Mary; New York Times, “Anatomy as Art, Unsettling but Drawing Crowds,” July 9, 2002 von Hagens, The Times (London), “My Work Transforms People’s Attitudes to their Bodies,” June 4, 2005 3 in: Roach, Mary; Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, p. 30 2
the late eighteenth century, the models are a nearly complete representation of the mechanics of the human body as it was understood at that time. La Specola’s collection looks startlingly like its modern descendants: bodies in natural poses with their torsos opened to reveal tightly packed organs; limbs and faces with the skin stripped away to reveal overlapping bands of muscle and tendon in maroon and ivory; individual hearts, livers and spleens recreated to scale so that they might be picked up and studied. While any depiction of the human body in a state that would normally indicate death must always be somewhat shocking, it’s very easy to look at these antique Italian waxworks as art. In one example, a model of a man’s head rests on its left cheek. His right eye has been constructed to flip open and show its interior, but his other eye is gently closed. He has long lashes, a five o’clock shadow, full lips and a handsome nose. What looks like an Italian peasant’s hat resting just above his eyebrows on closer inspection turns out to be his brain. In a full‐body model, a nude woman reclines on a table, looking gently pained. Her thigh‐length hair twines beneath her, and she holds a small braid of it carelessly in one limpid hand. A door in her abdomen swings open to reveal her organs, removable for study. The faces are not of individuals, but are the work of the artist’s imagination. Because they had no way of preserving the cadavers they were using as guides, as many as 200 corpses might be used to make a single waxwork. But by giving their models faces, beautiful ones, La Specola artisans struck the perfect balance: not so human as to be individual, but human enough to avoid the horrific. Their audience, after all, was in large part the public. The museum sold tickets in two different price ranges to admit entry. A historical guide to the museum reminds us, “A dissection was regarded and experienced as a special public occasion which one not only attended but paid to attend. The promoters for their part likewise strove to satisfy the curiosity and sensationalism of the visitor, for which spectacular displays were particularly suitable.”4 Von Hagens, as he well knows, is not such an innovator after all. To humanize his figures, he has chosen entertainment over art as his aesthetic. The skinless faces of many of his plastinates retain their ears, lips, eyebrows, eyelashes, and even noses even when other similar skin and cartelage has been removed. In each case, the expression has been carefully constructed so that a football player with a ball tucked under his arm knits his brow in concentration and a conductor raises his eyebrows in readiness along with his baton. They are not exactly beautiful, but they are not monsters either. In other words, they meet an acceptable balance. But while the Italian models were only copies of human bodies, von Hagens proudly advertises the fact that the bodies he displays were once walking, talking, thinking, living people. He has given himself a challenge to helping his viewers overcome their abhorrence to seeing dead bodies that the La Specola artisans would never face. 4
Düring, Monika, “The Anatomy of the Human Body: A unique collection of the late 18th century,” p. 103; in: The Wax Figure Collection in ‘La Specola’ in Florence, Poggesi, Marta, ed.
In print, von Hagens defines his “plastinates” carefully. “It is not a corpse in the legal sense,” he wrote in his Times letter. “A corpse is a body destined for burial and not display, a body whose identity is known, an object of mourning and individual emotions, not an object of education and enlightenment.” In Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach puts it more elegantly: “One’s own dead are more than cadavers, they are place holders for the living. They are a focus, a receptacle, for emotions that no longer have one. The dead of science are always strangers.” The balance necessary to learn from the dead is more than aesthetic—it is personal too. Too much information, even as much as a name, would turn a specimen uncomfortably into an individual. Viewers don’t want to know exactly who the bodies were when they were alive, but it’s impossible not to think about them as once living. Knowing nothing makes people uneasy. “The main question I get asked is, ‘Where do the bodies come from?’” says Lindsay McNaughton, a volunteer educator for the New York Bodies exhibit. “[The exhibit organizers] legally can’t give out specifics to the general public,” she explains. “People don’t have concrete evidence, so they have a lot of questions,” And rightly so—where do the bodies come from? Von Hagens has spent years deflecting controversy about the origins of the bodies he uses for his exhibitions. Today he has a very careful accounting system and a long list of willing donors, but in 2004, he was forced to admit that he could not guarantee that some of the specimens he had obtained from Dalian Medical University in China were not executed prisoners. Two cadavers had been returned after bullet holes were found in the back of the head. Von Hagens has since broken ties with Dalian Medical University—and Premier Exhibitions picked up almost exactly where he left off. All of the specimens in “Bodies: the Exhibition” are Chinese, and all came from Dalian University under the oversight of Dr. Sui Hongjin, von Hagens’s former partner. Premier’s medical advisor, Roy Glover, has repeatedly maintained that the bodies were “legally obtained” from China, but human rights groups say that fact in no way rules out the probability that some of the bodies in “Bodies” are executed prisoners, including political prisoners. For now, Premier has avoided an outright scandal, but the questions persist. Questions about the origins of bodies will persist as long as real‐body anatomy exhibitions continue. If von Hagens can claim that all of his specimens donated themselves to his project, that as living people they chose to do this with themselves, he may be able to preserve the careful balance that makes his exhibit a potentially powerful learning tool. But for exhibitors like Premier who can’t honestly report that their specimens have made a choice about being used for public education and private profit, the balance between acceptable and morally reprehensible will always remain precarious. Walking around the New York exhibit believing that the bodies in fact did not choose to be there was a perfect example of what happens when the balance is off. The aesthetic choices that are intended to help middle America recognize itself—for example, the football, basketball and baseball poses or the occasional dyed‐blonde eyebrows and blue glass eyes—become, not 88
ways to humanize the bodies for their audience, but repellent jokes on the Chinese people they used to be. The room became what it strove so hard to avoid: not a place of learning, but a gathering of the macabre. Where they wanted you to think about life, all you could think about was death. Additional sources: Burdick, Alan, Discover Magazine, “Gross Anatomy,” March 2004 Hultkrans, Andrew, ArtForum, “Bones of Contention,” January 6, 2006 Jacobs, Andrew, New York Times, “Cadaver Exhibition Raises Questions Beyond Taste,” November 18, 2005 Poggesi, Marta, ed.; The Wax Figure Collection in ‘La Specola’ in Florence Roach, John, National Geographic, “Cadaver Exhibition Draws Crowds, Controversy in Florida,” August 25, 2005
“Emily” Sarah Nguyen Oils on Canvas 24” x 18”
“Great‐Grandma” Sarah Nguyen Oils on Canvas 34”x 24”
“Urizen” Sarah Nguyen Oils on Paper 54”x 33”
“Jerusalem” Sarah Nguyen Oils on Paper 54”x 33”
“Woman Waiting” Sarah Nguyen Oils on Canvas 12”x 12”
Reviews & Interviews
‘Her One Nightly Torturer’: An Interview with LeAnne Howe
By George McCormick The writer LeAnne Howe recently visited Cameron University where, during the afternoon, she gave a fascinating lecture on the parallels between cinematography and fiction writing, and at night delivered a gripping reading from her newest work Savage Conversations. An enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation, Howe’s books include the novels Shell Shaker (2001) and Miko Kings (2007), the poetry collection Evidence of Red (2005), and the memoir Choctalking on Other Realities (2013). She was also co‐editor for the anthology Seeing Red—Hollywood’s Pixeled Skins: American Indians and Film (2013). While I had originally planned a more substantial interview, time and circumstances truncated my efforts. That being said, I was excited at the chance to talk to LeAnne about her innovative new work. [McCormick]: I have heard you read twice now from the Mary Todd Lincoln piece (I believe it has a working title but for the life of me I can’t remember it; I apologize)—last year in Ada at the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, and earlier this month here on campus at Cameron—and I am absolutely taken by its ferocity. Mary Todd Lincoln seems to speak inside of some kind of fever‐dream. Is this your invention or did you find such panic and hysteria in your research? [Howe]: Mary Todd Lincoln’s character is drawn from research. Most everything she says, such as having her cheekbones cut out, her hair scalped, her eyelids’ slit and wired open by an Indian, and the “wandering Jew” stealing her pocketbook comment came out of her insanity file, and letters. I do not think she feels any guilt from Lincoln’s handling of the Dakota incident, either. She and her husband suffer from colonizing perspectives. [McCormick]: After the reading I brought up Sarah Winchester to you—the widow of William Wirt Winchester, inventor of the Winchester Repeating Rifle, and who was believed to be haunted by the spirits of all those who had been killed by the rifle—but you thought the comparison to Mary Todd Lincoln wasn’t quite right. [Howe]: I just think that Mary Todd Lincoln created one American Indian as her one nightly torturer. This is tied, not only to her prejudices, but Lincoln’s prejudices as well. Like a lover, the Indian comes to her at night and is intimate with her body and then he cuts her up. MTL doesn’t try to thwart her torturer; rather she seems to enjoy it. She’s a great narcissist. This is different from Sarah Winchester’s insanity as she was trying to stop her hauntings by building stairs to nowhere. [McCormick]: That the spirits that haunt Lincoln are also, at times, spirits she’s seducing. 100
[Howe]: Yes, if we believe Mary’s story about the Indian, then it’s easier to see she is the seducer. I chose to believe her. [McCormick]: You have written two acclaimed novels, Shell Shaker and Miko Kings, a prize‐ winning memoir in Choctalking on Other Realities, and yet this new piece is a long poem. Now, I realize you’ve written poetry before, but is there something particular about your new subject matter that seemed to demand verse over prose? [Howe]: The play, Savage Conversations, is essentially a series of monologues directed at a subject, the Dakota hangings. With Mary Todd Lincoln’s character there’s very little room to breathe and that is more easily accomplished in a poetic frame. She’s a mentally ill white woman, but she has premonitions of a future America in which black men are shot casually as the fulfillment of the Confederacy’s dream. (I’m trying to remind people that Lincoln said that he'd keep the union whole and free and no slave if he was able.) [McCormick]: You spoke during your reading about how sections of the new work are being currently adapted for stage. How is that going? Has it helped the creative process in terms of going forward with the poem? [Howe]: Yes. The actors and director came from the UGA theater department. They helped in staging a reading of the play Savage Conversations on November 18, 2015. It went well and clarified in my mind where the weaknesses are as well as strengths. [McCormick]: My creative writing students who are from Oklahoma never—at first—want to write about Oklahoma. They say it’s flyover country, that life is elsewhere. Do you have any advice as what I might say to this? [Howe]: Oklahoma suffers from a cultural inferiority complex because the state was created by children of thieves. For young writers and even older writers, it’s easier to look away from that white, hot center of Oklahoma’s story. My advice is to look deep into the contours of Oklahoma’s culture and find your characters at home.
Shawn Holliday (Editor). The Oklahoma Poets Laureate. Mongrel Empire Press. 2014.
Reviewed by Bayard Godsave
The Oklahoma Poets Laureate, edited by Shawn Holliday and published through Mongrel Empire Press, is an important book, even if it is not always an enjoyable one. Oklahoma has had some bad poets laureate through the years, as Holliday readily points out, but there have been some exceptional ones as well. The latter half of this book contains some remarkable poems by some remarkable poets. Oklahoma has long produced poets and writers, musicians, artists of all kinds. Rhymers, rebels, freaks, sonneteers. Today, the writing community is a close‐knit and stylistically diverse one; writers here recognize that they are keeping something alive, that expression, that giving voice to the voiceless—and giving voice to dissent—is vital. In any other place I have lived, I could not have named the state’s poet laureate, and I certainly don’t remember one ever showing up somewhere to read. In Oklahoma it’s different. The poet laureate is active, she or he is a presence, and in that respect it makes sense that a book like this should be published. The post of Poet Laureate is a political appointment, and one that since its creation in 1923 was meted out sporadically, often even forgotten about for long stretches of time. For almost seventy years, the duty of appointing a poet laureate has fallen solely to the governor and, as Holliday notes in his exhaustively researched introduction, governors aren’t always the best judges of poetry. For those first seventy years, our state’s official poets produced some at times rather mannered and unimaginative verse. While there are to be found some striking images in those early poems, their subject matter is often repetitive and their treatment of that subject matter many times obvious. There are more than a few well‐meaninged but cringe‐ worthy depictions of Native peoples in those early years, and as he discusses these Holliday does admirable work evaluating such poems through the lens of historical context, while at the same time noting, for example, the problematic reading that results from representing Native culture in traditionally western poetic forms like the sonnet. There are some bright spots, however. Violet McDougal (Oklahoma’s first poet laureate) describes the sight of an oil fire, in her poem of that same name, with a kind of vivid and startling grace, and her poem “The Knife‐Thrower” is a captivating dramatic monologue that has preserved for us a glimpse of the Western sideshow, a once familiar part of a now‐gone Oklahoma. Maggie Culver Fry (poet laureate from 1997‐1995) often writes of her Cherokee heritage, and the poems here, in particular “The Witch Deer” and “Willow Wands,” are dynamic and freer from constraint than many of her predecessors. In 1994 Governor David Walters supported legislation that would not only provide a definition for the post of Poet Laureate, which to that point had been largely unclear, even to many of the office holders, and attach a two year term to it, but that also stated specifically that the governor’s appointment would be selected from a list provided by “poetry societies and organizations.” Currently, the Oklahoma Arts Council organizes the nomination process, and 102
since the inclusion of such “poetry societies and organizations” in the nomination process, the quality of work by the state’s poets laureate has been drastically improved. As Holliday points out, there have been “some missteps,” but it’s almost as if the year 1995 marks a kind of sea change, and it is noticeable that something has happened when the book finds its way to that year’s appointee, Carol Jean Hamilton. In particular, Hamilton’s long poem, “Flatland” seems to deliver the thing I had been looking for but not finding throughout much the rest of the anthology: a panoramic, thematically and poetically complex, longview of Oklahoma as place. Written in clean, short lines, in irregular stanzas, the poem seems to owe a debt to poets like Charles Olson, Loraine Niedecker and William Carlos Williams, poets with an intimate feel for the line as measured by breath, and who all have a deep connection to place. Midway through the poem’s first section we see Hamilton making use of the poetry and cadence of place names: Plain View. Sand Fork. Red Rock. Stillwater. Lookout. Pond Creek. Driftwood. Ft. Supply. And after a stanza break, this: Last summer she walked onto the garbage pile burning there, thought of the creditors, and died as another bit of of refuse. The moment, as horrific as it is sad, could easily come off as melodrama, but the tone of it, coming as it does like another item in the list above it, has been stripped of its sentiment and left as only a bright and terrible image. From Hamilton runs a line of really strong poets laureate: Betty Lou Shipley, Carl Braun Sennhenn, Francine Leffler Ringold. Ringold’s poem “The Flume Maker” stands out for its employment of imagery and economy to elevate a simple moment, a bricklayer laying brick, to the sublime through language. Jim Barnes’s “An Ex‐Deputy Sheriff Remembers the Eastern Oklahoma Murders,” is a marvelous voice poem that, like Carol Hamilton’s poem, uses a kind of flat, objective tone to drain a subject matter fraught with potential melodrama of the sentimentality that might kill it—and there is a subtle kind of dissent here too, in the way that Barnes’s title specifically names the four killings in the poem “murders,” though one of them is the legal, if brutal, execution of a Choctaw man. Some serendipity must have been at work somewhere that, just as the production of this book was wrapping up—or so it seems—Mary Fallin named Benjamin Myers the state’s twentieth poet laureate. A perfect way to close the book, Myers’ poems are smart, trade in
arresting imagery, and often explore those places where the personal meets the historical. His poem “Bad Harvest” begins with a description of itinerant combine crews, moves through an exploration of the American tendency to construct its own narrative—focusing on the supposed link between William Henry Harrison’s pneumonia and his going hatless at his inauguration— and ends with the speaker as a young man, painting his uncle’s cabin. “I would run to the murky red lake,” he tells us, Myers’ descriptive prowess on full display, “feet slurping/through leaf rot and mud.” At the time, he informs us, “I thought I was writing a novel. Evenings I would watch the trotline bobbers nodding into the darkness and each morning wake beneath mosquito netting on the porch. I actually thought I was writing a novel. Thank god it didn’t turn out that way. Thank god, indeed. The standout in this collection is, of course, Oklahoma’s sixteenth poet laureate, N. Scott Momaday. Born in Oklahoma and spending his first year at his grandparents’ house on the Kiowa Indian reservation near Carnegie, Momaday’s The Way To Rainy Mountain is one of the finest examples of writing about place in general, and Oklahoma specifically. The poems included here showcase tendency in Momaday’s work to employ varying formal approaches. Poems like “Sun Dance Shield,” “The Wound,” “Fort Sill (Set‐angia)” and “Scaffold Bear” will be easily recognized by readers already familiar with Momaday’s work, though somehow they seem to speak more directly to and about Oklahoma in the context of this collection. The Poets Laureate of Oklahoma is a necessary book; even it must necessarily contain some forgettable, and sometimes bad poems—and, Holliday must be commended for his selection throughout, because it could have been worse—it preserves an important part of this state’s history. And, what’s more, it extends into the future what has become in recent history a fine tradition of poets laureate who are dedicated to the craft, and have dedicated themselves to being ambassadors of good poetry. Perhaps the best way to illustrate the good in what these pages contain (and because it is probably the only time we will be able to run something by Momaday in The Oklahoma Review) is to end with these lines from N. Scott Momaday’s “Carnegie, Oklahoma, 1919”: Oh, there is nothing like this afternoon in all the years and miles around, and I am not here, but, grandfather, father, I am here.
Jenny Yang Cropp. String Theory. Mongrel Empire Press. 2015.
Reviewed by Nick Brush
Everything in our universe is connected: mothers, daughters, kimchi, race, poetry. Jenny Yang Cropp’s String Theory envisions a world where all of these connections are visible, and the strings that tie these different objects together are plucked like a harp with one dissonant note. Beautiful music emanates from the work, but there is an underlying sharpness in Cropp’s words. Her self‐reflections and self‐actualizations reveal an inner strength that, before putting pen to page, she may not have known was there. However, through the use of poetry, her journey from present to past and future follows an asymmetrical pattern, a cat’s cradle with one side stretched farther than the other. Divided into three sections, String Theory is an exploration of the poet’s persona. Cropp is not afraid to put her inner‐most struggles on the page, allowing readers to experience a world that many do not even know exists. A world where a driver’s license becomes a symbol of racial identity. A world where a mother who abandons a young daughter provides advice when that daughter becomes a mother herself. A world where all things, no matter how different, all seem to be pulled together and tied up with the same strings that tug on the heart of someone learning about herself. Many of these pieces are visceral, forcing readers to examine themselves and their place within the confines of Cropp’s poetry. In “Hooker Hill,” Cropp’s search for her mother, “the m attached to other,” urges readers to not only follow a young girl as she tries to understand why her mother left, but to also explore their own relationships. Who hasn’t been that “lost child stumbling / through grocery aisles, hungry and hoping / each hem I touch will be the one”? This exploration of the self in relationship to one’s childhood is a theme that is carefully woven throughout the book. Likewise, a theme of compulsion, a demand from the author to readers that they look deeper into their own being, permeates every word found in Cropp’s poems. The title poem, “String Theory,” is perhaps the best example of Cropp’s urging for readers to take her story and apply it to their own existence. She describes the universe as a “moving, breathing thing, a fluctuation / in and out of possibility.” How appropriate this description is for everyone searching for meaning and understanding of their own lives. Every string, every particle, every moment, and every person plays a part in the grander scale, the universe, of Cropp’s work, and similar strings, particles, moments, and people play equally important roles in the lives of her readers. In short, String Theory is more than just a book; it is a pilgrimage of the soul for anyone who reads it. Every thread and every stitch is woven together to create a story that can only be told by one person, yet that story belongs to each and every person, too. Cropp manages to not only help readers understand her soul‐searching, but she also forces readers to do some soul‐ searching of their own. Cropp is able to make readers uncomfortable while comforting them at
the same time. It’s okay to experience emotions like loneliness, because we’ve all been there. It’s okay to experience moments of turmoil, because the universe itself thrives on it. String Theory is the net that gathers up every little thing that makes up the universe of our lives and presents it in one tightly‐woven package.
Jerry Gabriel. The Let Go. Queen’s Ferry Press. 2015.
Reviewed by George McCormick I’m thinking about times in my life where I took refuge in a book; times where if you would have taken the book from me I would have felt lost, aimless, a refugee. And I’m thinking about how many of these moments, many of these books are at once tied to a certain temporal marker in my life, but also to a particular location: reading Sebald on a Greyhound with a pen‐light somewhere in Minnesota; another bus, a local, near San Jose, reading Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America on my way to work after my car had been impounded; Gass’ Cartestian Sonata next to the frozen lake in Madison, my red and blistered fingers (dishwashing, double‐shift) turning the pages in the cold; or that early memory of The Red Pony, laying on my parents bed because it was the only room in the house that had air conditioning. What strikes me is that each of these books came by chance, and their importance to me wasn’t in any direct parallel between the content of their pages and the content of my life, but in a vastly more oblique and interesting way. I bring all of this up because a week ago, at the end of a long semester, I imagined that after I had graded my last paper, submitted my last ‘B’, I would take refuge on my couch and binge watch a show. Netflix had suggested The Leftovers and it looked pretty good. But a curious thing happened on the way to that couch: while waiting in the parking lot of my daughter’s daycare, I cracked open Jerry Gabriel’s story collection The Let Go and I was spellbound from the opening sentence: “The mechanism was simple: a phone call to a Laundromat payphone in Rush, nearly forty miles north of Shallsville…These were perfect conditions. Her father had examined every payphone within a hundred miles of Shallsville, she knew, because she had been with him for much of the search.” By the time my wife and my daughter had reached the car, and were patiently tapping on the window, I was ten pages into a story about a little girl, her father, and the political fugitive they were harboring. That night I finished the story and read on—a couple wake one morning to find that dream house they’ve bought is something else entirely; an Iraq war veteran returns to an Ohio that has grown utterly alien. Or perhaps he’s the outlier. The refugee. This question of where and how one finds home haunts not only each of these first three stories, but the entirety of The Let Go. If the book became addictive (I finished it in about a day; no small feat seeing that each story is about forty pages—and I could write a whole essay about what Gabriel is doing new here in terms of form[maybe I will]—and the book in its entirety is a solid 280 pages) it was because I was addicted to being moved. Moved by stories about characters who were not supposed to have much in common with me but who, each time, absolutely did. All of this against a backdrop of a southern Ohio I know next to nothing about personally, but seem to now understand emotionally. That’s what these seven stories do: they create spaces of empathy inside a culture of cynicism; they remind us how big‐hearted we can be. Netflix binges notwithstanding, can there be anything more important than that?
Contributors Nick Brush is originally from Arkansas, but he grew up in Oklahoma at the age of thirty. His poetry has been published in The Gold Mine and Cuento Magazine, and he has written book reviews for The Oklahoma Review and Cybersoleil. Jason Christian's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Atticus Review, Burningword Literary Journal, Cleaver Magazine, The Collagist, This Land Press, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. He is an editorial assistant at the literary journal 10,000 Tons of Black Ink. He recently graduated with an English degree from Oklahoma State University and plans to pursue an MFA. He lives in Oklahoma City. Kate Daloz received her MFA from Columbia University, where she also taught undergraduate writing. Her first book, We Are As Gods: Back to the Land in the 1970s on the Quest for a New America, is out from PublicAffairs in April 2016. She lives with her family in Brooklyn, NY. Bayard Godsave teaches in the Department of English & Foreign Languages at Cameron University. George McCormick as an editor and regular contributor to The Oklahoma Reivew. Jeanetta Calhoun Mish is a poet, writer and literary scholar; hermost recent book is Oklahomeland, a collection of essays published by Lamar University Press. What I Learned at the War, a poetry collection, is forthcoming in 2016 from West End Press. Her 2009 poetry collection, Work Is Love Made Visible (West End Press) won an Oklahoma Book Award, a Wrangler Award, and the WILLA Award from Women Writing the West. She has published poetry in This Land, Naugatuck River Review, Concho River Review, LABOR: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas, San Pedro River Review, Blast Furnace, and Protestpoems.org, among others. Essays and short fiction have appeared recently in Sugar Mule, Crosstimbers, Red Dirt Chronicles, and Cybersoleil. Anthology publications include poems in Returning the Gift and The Colour of Resistance as well as the introductory essay for Ain't Nobody That Can Sing Like Me: New Oklahoma Writing. Sarah Nguyen is a painter living and working in rural Missouri. Her work has appeared in solo and group exhibits and publications nationally and internationally. She received her BFA in Illustration from Rhode Island School of Design and her MFA in Painting from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She works as an Art Instructor at the University of Central Missouri and
Art Editor of Pleiades Magazine and Pleiades Press. She currently lives in central Missouri with her husband, the writer Phong Nguyen, and their three sons. Chris Warren is writer who lives in Portland, Oregon, and Cooke City, Montana. He is currently finishing a monograph on Ernest Hemingway's time spent in Montana and Wyoming.
Oklahoma Review, Fall2015