Excerpt

In the Country of the Blind

Edward Hoagland

November 18, 2016 
The following is from Edward Hoagland’s novel, In the Country of the Blind. Hoagland has written more than two dozen books in sixty years, including the novel Children are Diamonds and his recent short story collection Devil’s Tub. He later traveled the world from Yemen to Antarctica to Assam, writing for national magazines. He has received numerous literary awards and taught at ten colleges and universities.

Dorothy and Karl took him to the evening auction sales. At 8 p.m., with no movie house in town, people congregated Tuesday on the short set of bleachers facing a wooden ring in which aging dairy cows were sold, mainly for hamburger, and vealer calves, also for slaughter, if not singled out by a farmer rebuilding his herd. Rival buyers from meat companies in Massachusetts bid against each other for the frightened cows, mooing instead of lowing—old matrons who might have been leading a barn full of milkers out to pasture every day and back but had outlived their peak productivity and now were being disposed of. Crammed into an unfamiliar pen with strangers of their ilk, dominant till this morning but milling, terrified, they were in pain as well from not having been milked.

Press couldn’t see this, but heard all of it once Dorothy interpreted. The calves bleating, a few weeks old, and Rog, Rupert’s son the auctioneer, peremptory as a sergeant keeping order. Both Swinnertons had an expert eye for what an individual cow would weigh and her age and condition, but also how the farm family sitting there near them might feel watching her go to be ground up to be served on a bun with fries if they’d owned her. “It’s like taking your old car to the crusher,” said Karl.

“Good blood sausage there,” Rog barked harshly. “Don’t throw out the innards.” Rog was a better businessman than Rupert, Dorothy said, but people liked him less. Then, in fact, Rupert introduced himself to Press via a rough hand, at Melba’s urging. When Press asked if she was with him, “No. Wanda,” Rupert specified ironically.

A wheelbarrow was auctioned, a box of quacking ducks, some lawn furniture, and a bag of squawking chickens, in Dorothy’s description. Kids clambered up and down the shaky bleacher boards, while the little crowd bantered with Rog’s interpretation of his miscellany. A case of motor oil, truck tires, three Seiko watches (“Not hot, but warm”), and other stuff: to vary the procession of woeful, doleful, panicked cows being prodded offstage into livestock eighteen-wheelers for the trip to the slaughterhouse.

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“Look at the boobs on that lady, though!” Rog might interrupt his conventional spiel when a particularly udderly cow bolted into the ring. “You don’t want her throat cut yet, do you? Buy her for the farm. She’ll keep the milk truck coming. She’s got Holstein written all over her. The guy that owns her’s going out of business and he needs the money for the poker game.”

Like Rupert before him, Rog held a wee-hours game in his office after the show, at which sellers could lose what they’d earned earlier in the night. He was ruder, more grasping than Rupert, Karl said, but his patter was better and the bookkeepers were his mom, Wanda, and his Quebecois wife, Juliette, who was invaluable when dealing with French-language folk, who may have farmed here for forty years without learning English. And when you died, whether Yankee or French, Rog and his wife would show up to persuade your widow into selling cheap everything they could, in her grief and a necessity for cash, before the children arrived from California, or wherever they’d moved, to lend her some guidance. Land, house, and cattle.

“He’s a vulture,” Karl said. “But also a good fireman. Maybe he thinks there’ll be jewels in the ashes.” But he added, “No, he’s okay, a pretty good man. He’s backed me up.” Meaning in the famous steeple fire Karl and his cohorts were known for, when they saved the church, people in the village said.

Rog sold a bull; then a pony. When Rupert’s voice interrupted, kibitzing occasionally, Rog shook him off. “Look at that little brown Jersey. Wouldn’t she fit in your boudoir nicely?” Rupert couldn’t top lines like that. They were both ladies’ men, roaming the roads to pick out bargains, but that French wife kept a tighter rein on Rog.

“Hey, there’s hippies here,” Karl mentioned. “I guess they come to buy goats to milk, bedsteads and tomato plants. Maybe your girlfriend’ll come over.”

But she didn’t.

“Sorry,” she said, showing up unexpectedly early the next morning when Press was carefully heating water for coffee. “I haven’t been away but I’ve been dealing with the guy that built my house. He seems to think I owe him forever.” She actually hugged Press, didn’t merely tease him with a grope. They sat. She asked for news of his own two kids, Jeremy and Molly. Hers were at a friend’s house.

Suddenly, as the silence grew vaguely embarrassing, she said, “I’ll take you home.” He didn’t understand what that meant till he found himself winding up a short braiding of dirt roads to the small cabin he’d been near when he climbed along the stream, then settled in a threadbare upholstered chair of the sort you might salvage from the front lawn of a foreclosed house.

“This is what I do all day,” she said—meaning cut and manipulate stained glass. And he began to hear the click of tools, smelled the soldering iron.

“Not so bad?” she asked after a spell.

“No, no, I could spend an eternity in this chair, I guess, unless your patience wore out.”

She repaid the compliment by regretting he couldn’t see her work. “But this is what I do. And I’m sick of being hit on. I suppose that’s partly why I like you, because you can’t.” She laughed, moving over to poke her finger in his mouth to suck on like a cigarette. “And yet I hit on you myself.”

She rolled a joint, from the crinkle that he heard, and then the scent. “I need to wean this other guy off me.”

He smiled. “I hope so.” Carol continued working, after offering Press a cookie and tea. Eventually her concentration waned and she sat down with a sigh and said, “I have something for you.” He listened, hesitating stupidly for more of a hint while she waited.

“Are you not interested?”

He walked toward her voice, then, her shape apparitional in the other chair.

“I need a body rub,” she instructed. “I want to be spoiled.” He obliged, luxuriating. Afterward, she fed him peanut butter and jelly on hamburger rolls, which they ate by the stream, and drove him home before the kids returned.

For the whole next day he remained jubilant, alone, apologizing to the Swinnertons by phone for missing two lunches with them, but Dorothy said Karl was butchering a deer he’d shot and they were busy anyway with preserving the cuts of that, from lard and heart to chitterlings. He listened to Mozart and Bach broadcast from Montreal, combined with the creak of his swing on the porch, barn swallows harvesting bugs overhead, a teacher bird, and a wood thrush’s liquid fluting.

Jack Brook rushed tumbling down the mildish mountainside that led to Carol’s cabin. He wondered if he simply climbed it again and yelled for her, she’d hear him. If he turned an ankle, of course, no one might find him for several days, because she wouldn’t be notified that he was missing by Karl or whoever was faced by the quandary. Karl had often searched for missing persons in his heyday, with Fish and Game, the sheriff, or the state cops, using a hound he’d trained. Another hound would trail whichever furbearer he was after at that moment in the snow—leaving a raccoon’s track, for instance, if he pointed at a fox’s prints they crossed, which was more valuable, but then leaving the fox’s, perhaps, if Karl saw a bobcat’s, whose skin would fetch still more cash: as much as sixty dollars. A miracle dog, she could also smell and tell him which mink or beaver traps had a creature in them. Tree frogs and leopard frogs were singing, along with the birds, and Press was grateful to Karl for teaching him the distinctions—also peepers, toads, green frogs. Dorothy had written a column on the subject from Karl’s explanation; then later one on missing-person searches, when Press had drawn him conversationally out on that. What lost people did in circling, or where a murder victim had been dumped. In the war, Karl been a BAR man, toting that extra-heavy Browning automatic, bi-pod rifle; another story altogether. He didn’t discuss combat or recount how he had won his Bronze Star, nor want her to write about it. Just fire prevention, drawing on his recent expertise.

“You’re a breath of fresh air,” Dorothy told Press, meaning his knack for suggesting ideas for pieces for the local paper she had overlooked—like the novel viewpoint those summer boarders from the city had brought to her parents’ farm when she was young.

Press felt energized by Carol’s opening to him, and Dorothy’s approval, Karl’s savvy and sympathetic stoicism, and the Avis and Darryl Clarks’ dependable support. Those multiple hugs in the Solid Rock Gospel pews solaced him too. And you didn’t know, or need to know, whether the lady was “pretty,” but maybe recognized her perfume from last week. Twice a week he went with Avis and Darryl to church, often sharing a potluck supper there after the service, or doing his shopping and mailing a check Avis had helped him fill out and sign. No call for Meals on Wheels or social worker visits, at least so far. The principal drag on his spirits remained only the inevitable pain of losing his children for this extended period. How could they visit him under the circumstances, and his daily phone calls were turning dutiful at their end. Their friendships he remembered were also turning passé. His night dreams when peopled with them tended to be affectionately reassuring, however. The one thorn in his shoe at night, so to speak, were occasional outside sounds. The tattoo of owl hoots from down in the swamp were fine, but the rasp of an ATV vehicle or faint shout after dark was not. Did he even hear footfalls on the trail his driveway led to, and then a car engine start on the road, as though a passenger had been picked up?

To live in a bootlegger’s old house had its ghosts, indoors and out, but what did it mean in terms of action now? And who could he ask? Karl as a fire chief cooperated with lawmen on suicides, lost hunters, suspicious fires, and ambulance calls, yet he also shot deer out of season and resented the Customs and Immigration vans that serviced the barrier and motion sensors blocking entry to Canada at the border on Ten Mile Road. It had never had a booth there, but people formerly could cross. The dead “Chinaman” hadn’t roused him to call the authorities, while the Clarks, for their part, seemed to have woven a Christian cocoon around their farm, regardless of outlaw neighbors like Karl’s dad and grandpa or lately the hippies. See and hear no evil was their solution to ambiguity when no neat wraparound answer, like asking Melba to clean for Press, was at hand. If Press continued to rub shoulders at the commune, it was his lookout, not theirs.

He did find an opportunity to tell them he’d never set foot at the commune, though hoping in the meantime that Carol would soon lead him there to further their intimacy. Her cabin by choice was the furthest outlier, almost out of earshot of the wilder pot-and-acid parties. Being a mother, she didn’t indulge in the latter. Sin you rebuff but not the sinners, so he hadn’t fallen from the Clarks’ good graces, not being a drunk or pothead himself. Yet monkey business in the swamp seemed a gripe not right to tattle about to them. Was it worse than the senior Swinnertons brewing corn whiskey and bathtub beer next door, or Benny Messer slicing up stolen cars with his torch, or Rog or Rupert soliciting a blowjob from a widow foreclosed on by the bank, without two pennies to rub together, only some torpid cows and spastic furniture to auction?

So, no fantasies verging on paranoia about night sounds from the swamp. It could be a raven quarreling with a loon, a porcupine with a skunk, not Mafia dons. Carol, wholesome like a mom, turned up with her youngsters for an ice cream and pizza outing. Then they discovered a trunk in the attic with dress-up clothes. The ladder itself was a scary delight, and the shade trees around his house were a different challenge to climb from the forest softwoods surrounding their cabin. “Not as cozy,” Carol claimed, but they didn’t agree. She herself, in a hot bath—letting him “watch”—later admitted his place was comfier, “But you’re not trying to change the world.”

Press couldn’t see if she was smiling in hippie presumptuousness or speaking straight-faced. “No, I’m in survival mode,” he said.

“Well, I’m here to testify you’re going to survive. And you can scrub my back if you want. Only that. I still want to draw you, when I have a chance. Naked Man Thinks of His Girlfriend. Then we’ll sell it at a garage sale.”

Hearing the kids, he wished his own Jeremy could know her boy, Tim, and Molly know Christie. Maybe in a perfect world it would happen, family on a visit. But now she took them home.

Next day, he biked to the Swinnertons for shepherd’s pie. Often eating took considerably extra time, since he could hardly see his food, groping with a fork or spoon, enforceably omnivorous. “Blind men wear spotted pants,” Dorothy teased, telling him to wash his—and what he called “Sheila time,” petting the dog, who reminded him of the English setter he loved as a boy. Afterward, Melba was his only visitor. She wanted “macaroni money. But I don’t take charity. And although I’ll grant you I handled plenty of boners in my time, I never turned a trick.”

“Good,” Press responded, and explained when she asked that his name was short for Prescott.

“Never heard that one. Sounds like a senator’s moniker. Although I do admit that when some red-haired trucker gives you a lift from Elko to Council Bluffs, what are you gonna offer him? If that counts.” She began to work like a beetle. “Depends what counts,” she added. “These rich ladies that marry money—what are they doing? Or this hippie I hear is hauling your ashes?”

“I wish.” He laughed. He liked Melba, and pumped her for more information about Rupert and Rog than the Swinnertons or Clarks had provided. Did they prey on widows, for instance?

“Well, we’re all widows nowadays,” she answered sarcastically. “No, Rupert was a nicer guy than Rog. He liked horses, he liked old things. Had a whetstone of mine back in the woods. His idea of a square deal might not have been yours, but it wasn’t a scam. And you’d like his younger son, Al. He hauls the cows down to Springfield to the knackers. Gives them their last ride. But up in front he’ll have a hippie with him sometimes that wants a lift closer to the cities. From Springfield they can catch a bus to Albany or Bridgeport or Boston or wherever their folks live. He’s not prejudiced against strangers like the rest of these Woodchucks, or some. I’m a Woodchuck too. And he’ll tuck some pot in with the cow shit for them, because the cops don’t inspect a cow truck.”

But when he pushed for more, “ask your girlfriend where they grow it,” she told him. “Rog is not the worst in the world either. He’ll spring for a loan, although like anybody, depends on who you are.”

Press recited a few dicey aspects of the fix he was in, and his father’s death from bowel cancer last year, to persuade her of a sympathetic ear should she open up her litany of woes the Clarks had hinted at. She just murmured “Funerals,” however, as if that covered it.

Hated to see a front-end-loader. A son of hers had been riding for fun in the bucket of a tractor his father was driving and flipped out when it hit a bump. Her footsteps—the very shape of her body in relief against a window—changed as she recounted it. He didn’t mention that he’d heard wild gossip that she’d had a baby killed by a pig, but did tell Melba that he had skied at Aspen and visited Yellowstone, so knew the big skies she must love.

“Yeah, no, these people don’t know shit,” she said. “Some of them have never seen the Atlantic Ocean in Maine or a mountain worth the name.”

“It’s lonely, huh?” Press agreed, though maybe less so when all was said and done. Sleeping on a bed of canned foodstuffs beneath the springs, with three unsold Wyoming broncs nosing at the window for company. Hard-bitten, indeed.

“Critters help.” She liked orange cats. But when he used that opening to bring up the sounds from the swamp, she interjected, “Critters are pretty vocal if you’re not accustomed to them. They go north and south. We even get seagulls that fly all the way in to scrounge at the river or the dump.”

“But I mean, not animal.”

“Well.” She hesitated. “You’re an innocent bystander. You’re not responsible for what you don’t know.”

“Should I call the cops?”

She chuckled. “You’d lose that status, wouldn’t you then, in every direction?” She had no phone, she added, when he asked about calling her. And Rupert was not a law and order man either. “But who’s going to bother a blind guy, anyhow? He’d sell you a pistol!” She reminded him that since Karl knew the swamp best, “Why not ask him? Isn’t life mostly grinning and bearing it?”

Press produced a bottle of vodka—“against my better judgment”—and tonic water to share with her before she left; it did break some ice. “You’re not in AA, are you?”

“Hardly.”

 

 

From IN THE COUNTRY OF THE BLIND. Used with permission of Arcade. Copyright © 2016 by Edward Hoagland.




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