#30 The Confessor of Littlefield: Formative Associations

While John left for military service, Bill continued working for Hiram into the Fall of 1960. Hiram was voting for Kennedy, Rita was voting for Nixon. Bill didn’t like either, but would eagerly listen to Hiram refer to Rita as the woman with the “Republican cloth coat.” The future in “For the Future,” said Hiram, was a woman in a Republican cloth coat in every household. Bill laughed, still smarting from Rita’s condemnation.

One afternoon, Bill was driving to his job with Trenton and saw Dev Gavlin blaze down the road on a thoroughbred, kicking up a wake of dust while two men in farmer’s bibs drew up on him in a Ford pickup. There was a gun shot and the thoroughbred rared up and skidded across the road. Dev was able to tuck in his chin just before slamming down on his shoulder and jarring his spine. Bill tore around the corner in his Buick and slid to a stop. He jumped out of the car and lumbered over to Dev who was passed out. The horse had run off but could be retrieved later, so he carefully lifted Dev into the back seat of the car and took off to the hospital.

Dev had a separated shoulder, cracked vertebra and three dislocated ribs. The community rallied around Dev, brought him and Gail food, took up a collection to help pay his hospital bills. It was six months before he was able to walk to the barn and back. The two shitheads in the pickup were never identified. Dev said he remembered the men in the truck yelling at him and trying to spook his horse and there was a gun shot. That was all he remembered.

For his trouble Bill lost his job. When he came to work the next morning he was assailed by Trenton. It was inexcusable to not bother showing up for work. Trenton’s eldest son had to cancel a few hours of fishing to help out. Why hadn’t he bothered to tell him he wasn’t coming to work? He should’ve gotten somebody else to take Dev to the hospital so he could’ve been there to do his job. Bill gave the old fool a sarcastic look and walked away, which made Trenton irate and he jogged up alongside Bill, vilifying him as he walked to his car, bouncing against the far bigger Bill, jawing at him inches from his face. Bill was a this, that, and something else.

Bill’s leg bothered him so much he was getting spasms in it which he felt it up to his spine. He figured he was done with Trenton when, a few days later Trenton came barging into the cabin demanding to know when Bill planned on going to work. Had he enough boozing or whatever it was he was doing? Bill laughed at something on television as he sat on the sofa, ignoring Trenton. Virgie was awakened and came out of her bedroom. “Who the hell are you and why are you making a commotion in my house?” she demanded.

Trenton gave a sardonic smile as he swiftly moved across the room to Virgie. “I’m your son’s employer, that’s who!” he said triumphantly.

“My son said he doesn’t have a job with you, mister.”

“I never said that. I told him he was a bum because he thinks he can take time off whenever he wants. I thought he’d cool down after a few days and show up. Then I come up here and find him sitting around on his ass!”

Virgie was nonplussed; Bill saw she was about to explode. He got up and stood nose to nose with Trenton, glowering at him until Trenton turned and left, leaving a trail of curses. He slammed the door behind him and Virgie went into a rage, rushing out the door and yelling at Trenton, threatening to blow his goddamned head off. Bill knew she would, so he stood behind her on the porch when the old fool stopped and looked as if he was going to come back. At least he could keep the shotgun from her. But if he was stupid enough to come back Virgie was sure to beat him to death with her hands, feet, and whatever else she could get her hands on.

After John left for training, uncle Ralph bought a house two blocks away and was over most days talking politics, communist conspiracies and immorality; and when Bill was within earshot, perversion. Hiram told Bill to just let it go in one ear and out the other but after listening to a scathing harangue about crazy parents teaching their kids immorality, indirectly referring to Virgie, Bill couldn’t take it anymore. “You don’t know a goddamn thing about my mother or what she teaches me,” he seethed.

“Whoa, waitaminnit, son. I didn’t mean anything.”

“Then why’d ya say it? You gotta message for me or something?”

“You know, I don’t think I like your attitude, son.”

“I don’t give a shit what you don’t like, Dad. I don’t like YOUR fucking attitude! And you better shut the fuck up about my mother!” Bill’s fists were clenched and he stood in front of Hiram’s brother in law, crowding him.

Hiram just chuckled. Ralph looked at Hiram with a look of disgust for not saying anything and then looked at Bill, was about to say something and then thought better of it. After that Rita wouldn’t hear of Bill stepping foot in the yard again and Hiram was so exhausted from the years of hand to hand combat with Rita that he’d had enough. Bill had no income, but at least he had the Gavlin’s.

When Kennedy, the Catholic Democrat, was elected it was final proof we were in the last days before the Second Coming of Christ, according to Rita and Ralph as they sparred at the dinner table over which of them was more conservative. Without John at the table Hiram had no one to appeal to. After Rita demanded that Bill be let go Hiram stayed out in the yard late into the night most nights, repairing autos and listening to world news on a short wave radio. Rita told him to get somebody from the high school to help him but it wasn’t solely about having enough help for Hiram. He didn’t need to work so hard if he didn’t want to. The salvage yard was his life giver. It was compassionate consoling.

But after a few more years he was getting tired. His neck ached badly and he had taken a lot of pain medication over the years. Now he had an ulcerated stomach that he babied with soup and warm milk. Rita would watch him go out the back door every morning, come in for lunch and then go back to work until supper. After eating he would turn on the TV and listen to news while he fell asleep in his rocking chair with a paper in his lap. Still, he had more strength to do the work without Bill then to save Bill and fight Rita.

Gail Gavlin refused to listen to anything bad said about Bill among the ladies at the Lutheran church. The others talked among themselves about Rita’s scorn but Gail was far more liked and admired, and her favor spoiled what otherwise would’ve been Rita’s scathing assessment of that no good draft dodger who threatened her brother. But as Dev got better Bill knew he would have to spend less time at the stable, allowing Dev to get back to what he loved, taking care of horses.

Bill was alone much of 1961, as Virgie stayed in Chicago most of the time. Dev and Gail gave Bill a horse to pay attention to and Bill made a routine every day to walk the mile across Henneman’s field to the Gavlins to take his quarterhorse for a ride to Potter’s pond and back. Over the years Dev will keep the horse fed, its hooves trimmed and teeth floated while he charged everyone else at least a small fee. While Dev mended, Bill would bring a book, and after helping Gail in the barn he’d spend a morning or an afternoon reading under a tree on the bank of a creek. In the Fall, the countryside played a perfect environment for reading Thoreau, Hawthorne, Robert Frost.

Bill began reading two novels a week; John Steinbeck, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis. He talked with Dev every day at the barn. Sometimes Dev would be frustrated with Bill’s disconnectedness. But as he saw him more and more he came to appreciate having him around. He never bothered anyone. Just, a lot of people didn’t get a good opinion of him from appearances. He appeared standoffish and distant but he was simply resisting being pulled into the orbit of anyone’s influence.

Dev admired Bill. He was the goat who bore the mocking hatred everyone shows towards others from time to time. Dev never had trouble finding people to listen but never did anyone listen like they were attuned. Bill listened better than he let on, and would occasionally reward Dev with a smile upon greetings.

Bill was 20 years old and his mind was on his existence, which he sought to put into words inspired by Emerson. He tried to write poetry but despised everything he wrote. He told himself it was ludicrous to believe he could be a poet when most of the poets who were published were far more educated and had credentials. He tried to read the Beats like Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti but he couldn’t make any sense of them.

When Bill read fiction it didn’t seem to him that fiction was based on life. Rather, life was based on fiction. Virgie read his notebooks while he was away and recognized a personal style that needed polishing, but was promising. She wished she didn’t have to be so short with him sometimes but it was the only way to get him to do what he was told when he wanted to be belligerent. And if she wasn’t harsh to him now he would cling to her.

Bill was glad to lose the job with Trenton; it was through his time with Trenton that he discovered ennui. He had always been despondent when he saw mothers holding hands with their children, or when he saw a father and son flying kites. (During the 1940’s – 1960’s kites could be seen flying in the sky every sunny afternoon in the park in back of Casie’s Restaurant and around the countryside.) In his way, Bill was like a tribesman who had always been of age, or was supposed to act like it, but lacked the psychological orientation of the herd. He had no idea about his fate but there was no way he was going to ever reach the horizon driving a tractor. He missed Hiram. He had been a good role model, a decent man. He always showed Bill respect and asked what he thought about things.

And Hiram had a sense of humor, explaining the importance of unions to Bill and John, much to the consternation of Bill Staunchkiss, owner of the shoe store and member of the chamber of commerce who was waiting while Hiram serviced his car. Hiram told Bill he believed in the same God as the good members of his wife’s church; it was just that some of those acting as teachers of Christ seemed to be seeking recognition for themselves more than recognition for being like Christ.

Many times, Bill had seen Hiram and Rita, who shared a love for Alfred Hitchock movies, acting young, snuggled together in the front seat of a 1949 Cadillac that Hiram and John refurbished together while John was in high school. But Bill couldn’t picture himself snuggled with another at a Drive In show. And it made him sad.

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