The Two Smokers
Calvin Dyme Jr. inherited his father’s small dairy farm as well as his evangelism, and some day Calvin Dyme III would take over his father’s farm, as well as his evangelism. Next morning, while Bill was smoking a joint and drinking a cup of coffee he saw Cal Jr. pull into the yard.
“Oh shit. Wonder what the fuck he wants.” Bill quick pulled his boots on and ran out to the porch with his cup of coffee and shut the door. He didn’t like people looking in the house through the door and he never invited anybody in because he didn’t want people talking about what a bum he was. Cal’s tractor was acting up and he wanted Bill to take a look at it. “Can’t do it today” said Bill. “Got too many things to do.”
“Can you come out tomorrow?”
“Maybe. Gotta see how today goes.”
“All right then. Give me a call in the morning,” Cal said gruffly, as he slammed the squeaky door of his old Ford pickup. Two days later he called Bill.
“Kinda got it goin’ now but I still wantcha to take a look at it.”
“All right. Be there in about an hour.” Bill leaned back in his old recliner and finished the pot of coffee and four hot dogs he’d made for breakfast.
The Calvin Dymes, all three generations sprinkled references to “the good lord” in every conversation. Bill despised that. Not that he rejected their personal experience but that Bill could imagine Christ telling people like the Dymes that he, Christ, didn’t need a cheerleader. For Bill, each person’s spirituality was an internal, subjective manner, something he picked up from Emerson; his own reading of him, not John’s Hapflik’s. John’s self reliance seemed to lack love for anyone but himself. In Emerson, Bill saw everyone on the edge of the abyss, and at that moment of desperate knowledge sharing a place in their heart for their fellow man. For Bill, a man was his own worst enemy, Christ’s, second.
Good and bad, right and wrong boiled down to technicalities and legal precedent. But the Cal’s, father and son, carried on a passion for chanting. Only they didn’t chant on beads; they chanted familiar phrases of intolerance toward a liberalism that gave government money to beggars and artists, loafers and criminals. Their religious fervor was rooted sternly in their Calvinist belief in the bible as interlocutor of all knowledge. “The lord gave you so much to work with; why don’t you use some of what he gave you?” said Junior.
Bill turned away from the tractor engine and with icy sternness said, “you’re in my light.” His lips lifted, faintly amused at the irony. Seeing the slight smile Cal was encouraged.
“You seem to be an intelligent man. What do you do with your free time?”
Bill looked over his shoulder at Cal, who was leaning over him with a salesman’s smile, then looked back down at the tractor motor and said, “seems like a lotta people wonder about things that ain’t their business.”
“Well, it’s because they’re worried about you. What do you do by yourself all the time? Don’t you ever think about women? There ain’t nothing like having a good woman taking care of you…why…”
Bill stood tall and swung around, sending Cal stumbling backwards in his cowboy boots because he was standing too close. Bill was tired of Cal’s presumption and nosiness. “Nonna yer fucking business. Do I go around asking you what you do in your private time?”
“Well, that’s different,” stammering.
“Well, I was just concerned about you and now you’re going and taking it personal.”
“How else am I supposed to take it? And who says you need to worry about me? What makes you think I need to be as unhappy as you?”
“I ain’t unhappy, Bill.”
“Ya ain’t as happy as me or you wouldn’t be so fucking curious about how I spend my time. I don’t think you want me taking a look at your tractor. I think you just want to preach to someone.”
“Hey. Wait, now. I just thought you could use the money. Me and the missus were talking last night…”
“After church. Good sermon. Made you feel like you had to help somebody in need, huh? I hate to break it to ya, Cal, but I don’t need your fucking money.” Bill marched back to his truck and returned the stare of Cal as he left.
“The nerve of that guy,” said Cal to himself. “Who does he think he is?”
“Haha, I heard you let Junior have it yesterday,” said Dev Gavlin. Bill didn’t reply as he wrenched away at bolts under the hood of the ’73 Ford Pickup he was supposed to have done for Dev two days before. Bill’s back flared up and he spent a few days on the couch napping in front of soap operas and reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
“I wanted to tell him off myself sometimes. He’s not a bad guy; he’s just a little zealous about his religion.”
“Hey, got time to fix the brake line on Gail’s Falcon?”
“Leave it. Be ready tomorrow morning.”
“Sounds good. Hey, did you hear Ray Coop’s son died?”
“Ran his car off the road and hit a tree. Head on. Dead on impact.”
“Too bad. You wanna come hold the light for me?”
“How’s your mother been doing?”
“Good, I guess.
“Yeah? Ever see her drive by?”
Dev looked over at the coffee pot on the bench to see if there was enough in it to ask for a cup. There was half a pot. “Uh, mind if I get a little of yer coffee?”
“What’re ya gonna put it in?”
“Gotta cup in my truck.”
Dev retrieved the cup from his truck and got a cup of coffee and took up the conversation.
“So, hey, waddaya think about Peugot taking over Chrysler in Europe?”
“Ain’t gonna mean much. American cars will stay the same. Most Americans live in small towns like this. Tinker toy cars fall apart on these roads.”
“Yeah, I guess that makes sense. Still, probably some people around Chicago or Detroit might like a small car. Society women and shit.” And your mother, thought Dev, but he didn’t say it. Bill started feeling like Dev was lingering too much.
“Hey man, don’t mean to rush you, but I gotta get something to eat and then I have things to do; won’t have time until later to finish pulling this for you. Will have it done for you tomorrow morning,” Bill said distractedly as he wiped his hands on the front of his coveralls.
“Well, OK” said Dev uneasily. Should I stop by tomorrow then?”
“Yeah. I’ll finish it tonight. You can pick it up in the morning at nine.” Bill didn’t return Dev’s “see ya later” as he switched the lights off in the garage and pulled the door down. Dev didn’t take it personal. It was just the way Bill was. But he wondered if Bill was still going to have Gail’s brake line done, too. She needed the car for a trip to Ohio and would have to use Dev’s truck if her brakes weren’t fixed. He decided to tell Gail it would be two days.
“Oh, I just knew it” Gail uttered through tight lips. Whenever I want to go somewhere in that car it acts up. Why don’t I just take your truck tomorrow?”
“Why, where d’you gotta go tomorrrow?
“Gotta go to the hardware store tomorrow.”
“Maybe you ought to stop by Bill’s and make sure he gets my car done. You know he gets lazy. Just like you if I let you. Got a bag of trash needs to be taken out. If my car ain’t done by Wednesday I’m taking your truck,” she said and closed the bathroom door behind her.
Dev Gavlin’s granddad started Gavlin’s Livery and Tack in the late 1890s, stabling horses, leasing them, breeding them for race and show. Through the Great Depression, Gavlin’s kept a steady but slow paying business letting horses for work and transportation, but as the auto became ubiquitous Dev’s dad concentrated on breeding race hoses.
Dev was fifty four years old and had a small, wiry 5’7” frame that helped him become a champion rider in tournaments as far away as the Dakotas after he returned from World War II. With his boyish features and charm he was one of the most popular racers on an independent racing circuit until he met his wife Gail. They shared the Lutheran faith and went to weekly services along with their daughter Nellie, since moved to Kansas, and their and two sons, Keith and Tom, both killed in Vietnam.
Gail was a statuesque blonde who handled the attention of men and women alike. Erma Potter’s 15 year old daughter secretly professed her love for Mrs. Gavlin, as did Honey Finkpald, Dorothy Gilsh, Darlene Haysax, and Barbie Dooley. Gail was four inches taller than Dev but moved with quick and small steps that accented the bulge of her calves. Her fingers curved through her long blonde hair when she spoke, and her face flushed with a bouquet of dimply smiles that accentuated her hazel eyes. She had a long neck, high cheek bones, and a soft chamois chin, all of which performed like a choir when she laughed. Even the Deaconess was slightly disappointed if she failed to induce at least a couple of those angelic smiles.
After his sons were killed in Vietnam it was said by those of the church that Dev had lost his faith. He couldn’t believe that a God could ever choose sides in any nation’s struggles against another. Maybe the God of the Israelites commanded the destruction of their enemies but Dev couldn’t figure God listening to the American soldier any more than the Italian, German, Spanish, or French soldier. Bill once told him he doubted the Olympian gods paid any more or less attention to the Spartans or the Trojans. To Bill, the American soldier was the Greek gladiator; both were noble figures of fiction engaged in real life tragedy. Dev agreed. It may be a noble thing for America to rid the world of communism but God could care less. Everyone stood in a circle overlooking the abyss.
A man’s life was supposed to have more meaning than to be used as fodder by those who knew what all the senseless killing was supposed to lead to but who could never be clear when explaining it to the public. It was annoying to hear the phrase, “God has his reasons,” or any similar derivative. “Containment of Communism” was a slogan that made Dev suspicious of propaganda. When a reporter mentioned the domino theory of governments around the world falling to communism and paying tribute to Moscow, it seemed silly that anyone could believe such nonsense.
When Rita Hapflik visited Gail, Dev was always cordial before dismissing himself for his chores. Senator McCarthy, politics and immorality dictated the derision and contempt for some person, nation, or institution for Rita, and Gail always liked to exorcise her contempt for some person or another. Both sharpened their contempt for the ill fated straw men and women in their social circles; the two women found in each other the companion needed to purge themselves of the dirty rubbings of their fellow women and men.
Dev figured Christ had chased the money changers from the temple, not the United States Congress. God warned the Israelites about appointing Saul; Christ said to render unto Cesar; a clear separation of God and state. God had already given man the kingdom. It had been his to lose all along.
Dev didn’t join in when people around him talked about war, and at church, chatting always revolved around God and country. The two had been mingled in newspaper editorials and country church sermons his whole life, but he was no longer angry with God for the death of his sons; it was the newspapers, politicians and civic leaders who appropriated God to drum up support for their causes who were to blame. They were the ones who claimed to be agents of good. The civic cheerleaders didn’t know what they were doing; they just had faith in the wrong direction, outward instead of inward.
Power would always intend to maintain control over the majority which did not need to know more than slogans, propaganda and editorialized context. And when two people began talking they became the conscience of a WE that acted like a judiciary over the language of SELF. Dev believed a man should be who he is and not worry if he is living up to anyone’s religious or political ideal. A man had to make sacrifices for his country, guard the vineyard, but that didn’t mean that what he did as a soldier was serving Christ. He didn’t see that Christ had anything to do with his sons being killed. The death of his sons was a general’s decision, not God’s.
Dev didn’t like how the women talked about Bill; and he reminded Gail that Hiram Hapflik was like a father to Bill. If Bill didn’t do bad to anyone he didn’t deserve to hear condemnation from others, and the acerbity of Gail’s ladies club was more than Dev cared to endure. Bill’s morose and dismissive nature were a welcome respite from the women talking about this person or that one and their supposed motives, or lack of them. And of course, he didn’t care to hear Gail wonder aloud to the other women whether she was going to have enough money for Christmas.
Dev showed up at Bill’s house promptly at 9A.M. the next morning and was surprised that Bill took up his offer to get some breakfast and ride along. Dev had to take the Ford motor to Gail’s cousin, twenty five miles to the east in Plunkettsville and Bill knew Dev would share a joint or two. The two men bounced and swayed on the bench seat of the pickup as Dev negotiated the hills and curves of the two lane highway through woods, past fields barren of oats, wheat and corn, now drifted over in sweeping snow. While in the hollows, bushes and trees teemed with chattering chickadees.
They drove past horse riders and deer as Bill told Dev about the Mennonite family in a buggy he’d helped a few years before. The buggy had a broken wheel and the horse had gotten loose. The children helped the wife fetch the horse while the husband helped Bill fix the wheel. They gave him bread, pie, and cookies.
“Definitely worth it,” Dev said, passing a joint. “Damn. Sure would like to run into them Mennonites right about now,” Dev said, and Bill nodded in agreement, took a hit from the joint and passed it back.
Bill said, “Nickel (his nickname for Cal Dyme Jr.) was complaining about how they (the Mennonites) all keep to themselves, like they reject the whole world around them or something; scared the rest of us are evil. I told him they gave me bread and pie and cookies, and he says ‘did they give you any money?’”
“As if they were engaging in some unfair unrequited act of kindness, or something…” said Dev.
“Yeah man,” said Bill as he took a cigarette from Dev. Bill appreciated the gesture and rewarded Dev by asking him what he thought about something, for a change. “Whaddaya think about the Shah?”
Dev twisted his lips as he often did when choosing his words carefully. “Well, I really don’t know. I mean, it’s a different part of the world; different culture. The Shah always seemed sort of like MacArthur to me, trying to convince the rest of the world he was a spokesman for a common man who despises him. To his own people he’s a foreign dictator. Nobody is gonna like that.”
While Dev talked, Bill’s memory was rapidly mining and constructing paraphrases from books and magazines, radio and television (Again, it’s 1979). His intellect visualized these bits and pieces of associations into harmony with the syllables of a field of musical tones his imagination always had ready. Sometimes, these refrains would play over and over in his head, driving him insane. So he composed ballad lyrics into piles of words in notebooks, sorting them out as associations and meta-associations. When he read these lyrics later it would be as if his memory had no knowledge of the progression of musical tones his imagination had assigned while composing phoneme and syllable. Of the notes, images, patterns of associations, he would be lucky to find a half dozen small piles that his imagination could conjure into a sculpture of extended metaphor.
Most anything Dev said was going to be agreeable, Bill assumed, while he thought of language before the Great Vowel Shift. Bone locker sounded far more expressive than the word “body.”
“Mao instead of Chiang Kaishek: the American can’t ever really know why, but the Chinese can. Same thing with the Ayatollah and the Shah. We can’t know “why” any more than they can know why an American would vote for Reagan over Carter.”
Dev took a long tug on his cigarette and continued. “At least I like to think my fellow human isn’t as stupid as I am supposed to believe he is; just a little predictable. Like, we all know the man we are voting for is lying to us; we just hope he is traditional enough to do the predictable.”
Bill was thinking about the Shah being a fake King of Kings, an appropriator of symbols, and it reminded him of ministers on the old time gospel hour who discovered riches by confessing their sins. The conqueror always identified himself with what is good. He took money through the symbol of state. The king and the mafia exchange favors and loyalty; money and power go hand in hand.
Dev said, “of course, we have separation of church and state in America. Sounds like they never had that in Iran.”
“There’s no separation of church and state in America,” said Bill, and he glared at Dev for some reason which Dev found unnerving.
They stopped at a cafe in Bendtville, across from a sawmill on the Chundt river, and took a corner booth. Next to the cafe was a motel, and Bill watched a man and woman argue as they packed the trunk of their car; their bone lockers heaving on their leashes at each other.
Dev ordered sausage and eggs, pancakes and toast. Bill hadn’t had a good plate of sausage and eggs with pancakes and maple syrup in ages. He’d heard that a person could buy a machine that made the coffee taste like the restaurant’s, but the cost was far too prohibitive for him to entertain. He watched the reflection of an elderly man in the window behind him take a slow sip of coffee behind a raised newspaper. There was the tingling of silverware; glasses clanging against each other; the smell of coffee; cigarette smoke; flannel wear. Dev was talking but Bill had no idea what he was saying. He interrupted Dev in mid sentence, “man, sorry, I wasn’t paying attention to you. I gotta getta newspaper.”
When Bill returned with his paper Dev said, “hey, when we get there you gonna be okay to help me get the motor out of the truck? Don’t want you to hurt yourself.”
“I’m fine. Today anyway,” Bill said nonchalantly, and he turned to his newspaper. Dev continued talking, with Bill giving an occasional, ascending “mmm hmm,” or descending “mmm mmm.”
They drove the rest of the way in silence, digesting their breakfast, and when they arrived they unloaded the motor with a hoist that was hanging from a tree in the front yard. Bill noticed Gail’s relative watched through the window but never came out; then gave Dev a cursory wave when Dev and Bill were leaving.
On the way back Dev turned up the radio to listen to country music, shared a few more cigarettes and talked about his grandfather, even though he knew Bill wasn’t listening. Bill was like a pet that liked to listen to the various tones of the human voice – the meaning of things was determined by voice inflection, mood and emotions, like anger, compassion, sorrow, antipathy, and not so much in the meaning of words. If a person felt like being nice he was, if he didn’t feel like being nice he wasn’t. There was little more meaning to most of the words exchanged between two people.
Sometimes, like now, Dev’s expostulating was like classical music in the background to Bill: a soothing effect like birds chattering in the bushes. Dev kept on talking because Bill at least gave him a stage that Gail didn’t allow him. “Honey, I don’t care to hear you talk about that; talk about something else” – it was one phrase, among others that Dev become accustomed to over the years being married to Gail. At least Bill allowed him to walk out onto the stage and make his speech. He might even give a polite grunt if he didn’t find you disagreeable.
“Thanks a lot, man,” said Dev. I owe you one.”
“Don’t owe me anything,” Bill said. “Knew you could use the help.” And he smiled just as he did to the Mennonite family.