#32 The Confessor of Littlefield: In the Footsteps of Our Fathers

Bill was called to the scene of an auto accident late one unseasonably warm December afternoon in 1968, and when he returned after dark around 6:30 PM the big garage door was still open. He knew that John had stayed up the night before with a couple of fellow veterans playing poker, drinking and smoking hash, and he tried asking him what his plans were but communicating with John was like talking to someone who was sleepwalking.

“Ahm gonna pull it up ‘n…ahh…gonna pull it up n’ ahh..,” <burp> And he staggered off into the yard.

When Bill pulled back into the yard Rita was waiting for him, anxious about John. He hadn’t come back into the house for lunch and she needed Bill to look for him in the yard. Bill would forever remember the shadow of the engine hoist as he approached the back of an Olds station wagon and saw John’s sprawling legs on the ground. The sheriff said that it looked like he was using the engine hoist and the car slipped off the hook and crushed him.

Rita realized the anguish it must’ve caused Bill to answer the same questions from nosy customers. “So, where’d it happen innywayz?” someone would say pointing to any direction of the yard, as though it were their casual right to know, like they were reading a newspaper. ”Heard John was a boozer.” “Heard he came back crazier than all hell from Vietnam.” “He was breaking into people’s houses with those hoodlums he was hanging out with.” “Heard he gave his father a stroke with all his carousing around.” Rita had heard enough second hand talk over the years to know what others were saying about her son; she had heard it ever since John had broken up with Connie Van Innern in high school.

Rita appreciated Bill for the esteem he showed John, and he now seemed to genuinely miss him. Bill ignored the remarks from customers; he didn’t care if others thought he was rude. He wasn’t in the entertainment business. When he read descriptions of crime in the newspaper the objective seemed more to feed the public consumption of leisure than to engage it to help solve a crime. The newspaper didn’t describe the build of the criminal, what clothes he was wearing, the color of his hair; only that he had attacked Mr. So and So in some parking lot by that one place we all know about. Won’t you be thinking about that if you go there to dinner? Talk about it among your friends and come spend some money. Now, a word from our sponsors. Bill wasn’t ready to explain Veblen, but he had the feeling he was finally beginning to understand Professor Huhn (one of Virgie’s visitor’s) after all these years. John’s death feeds public consumption. Everyone’s did. Everyone had at least a small public. A man without somebody to consume him has no value.

After John was buried Rita no longer shared her brother Ralph’s desire to talk about politics. She didn’t quite have the same outlook she’d had when Hiram and John were alive. Now, whenever Ralph praised the bombing and the killing in Southeast Asia she didn’t have the heart to agree. She thought of John in the jungles of Vietnam and explosions going off around him, kill or be killed; nobody’s son should have to go through that unless the cause was noble. She had lived through two world wars separated by a decade of depression; her two brothers were killed in WWI, quite a few relatives killed during WWII. There was the Korean conflict and southeast Asia. When she was younger, Rita adored her brothers and they adored her. In some ways she knew she sought revenge through John for losing her brothers to war but she couldn’t allow herself to feel guilty for not counting the cost. Everyone just did what they thought was right.

As 1969 came, it no longer seemed right to have to answer the question, “what are you afraid to hide?” when there were no charges to be made against you unless you incriminated yourself. In the 1950s, she’d heard Mildred the waitress turned in Virgie Haskins to the House Committee On UnAmerican Activities. At the time, she shared the enthusiasm of the other Lutheran ladies. It seemed the right thing to do. But now she didn’t share in any inquisition into the private lives of others. The thought of what happened to her Johnnie so people like the Van Innerns could raise suspicion with authorities against anyone they pleased repulsed her.

The familiar slogans of grace and goodwill among the ladies of the Lutheran church now seemed like the hollowest of hypocrisies. No matter where we were we never escaped the yard. Every generation played in the yard. In one corner a pair of hens cluck together, in another corner a hen is brooding, four others wander not too far from a rooster, aimlessly pecking, coming when he calls them to a cache of seeds. Rita had to wear the chicken suit but she could move to a different hen house. So she decided to ask Bill if he would be willing to take over the business for a monthly payment and she moved back to Ohio to live out her years with a sister in the house in which she’d been raised.

Rita thought about selling the business but she also thought about Bill. She couldn’t imagine Bill getting on in life without the salvage yard. The yard gave him a purpose. Within thirty days of John’s funeral, Rita had gone back to Ohio, leaving Bill most of the furniture, except John’s clothes, bowling ball, guns, and phonograph records which were given by Rita to her nephews who wanted something once owned by a war hero. Bill bought a single bed at a second hand store, along with a lamp and night stand to make him feel like his room was his and not John’s. He didn’t bother with a dresser, keeping his clothes in a pile in the bathroom upstairs and washing them by hand and hanging them over the tub.

He disliked being called at all hours to clean up auto accidents and decided against bidding for another traffic clean up contract with the Township. He settled into a routine of getting up at 8 A.M. and going out to the garage around 9, after a cup of coffee and a joint – which he would get from Dev Gavlin.

After Dev recovered from the broken collar bone he began getting pot from his brother in law who’d started smoking it while in the National Guard. For Dev, pot didn’t stop the pain so much as it made it less restrictive. He could move his body with coordination again and it didn’t feel like he was always suffering. Bill could smell weed in the cab of Dev’s truck one day and asked Dev if he would share. It elevated Bill’s mood whenever some of Virgie’s friends shared it with him and he had often wished he’d had some.

A few times a month, Dev stopped by the cabin just to get out of the house. Dev wouldn’t divulge it to Bill but he was lonely. When he was younger he’d had the hope of grandchildren and great grandchildren, but wars took precedence, not a man’s hopes and dreams. Dev wondered what Bill thought about a lot of things; politics, nature, spirituality. He found Bill a tireless conversationalist when asked the right question. The trick was to know what conversation to avoid; things like his mother, religion, and sex. He just liked to hang around Bill and talk; and it made Bill feel human, like someone was paying attention to him, like someone cared what he thought.

Once a week or so after he moved into the Hapflik house Bill took a walk at night to see if there was a light on at Virgie’s but he didn’t see a sign of her for six months. When he did finally see her she was surprised to see him. She asked him what he’d been doing while she was away. Good. It looked like he had a good life set up.

Virgie was with a man in his mid-thirties, dark haired, unshaven, in light blue shirtsleeves and straight legged wine colored slacks. He was busy loading some old art work and supplies into a van. She said she was happy for Bill but seemed more happy to tell him of an opportunity she had in Cleveland with a workshop and living quarters. It looked like they were both moving on from their little cabin in the woods. Bill wanted to hug her and when he reached for her she flinched then let him. It would be the last they’d see each other for nine years.

He went to the cabin the next day and everything of value in the house had been taken; there was no furniture, no dishes, none of Virgie’s clothes. In Bill’s closet was an old winter coat, a pair of boots worn out in the right sole, and a stack of notebooks and drawings which he took home and put in the attic where they would stay for 17 years. He had seen very little of Virgie the last few years; very little of anyone in the world since he was 22.

After Bill had begun again to work for the Hapfliks in 1963, Virgie returned to the cabin only a few times a year, staying in Cleveland, or Pittsburgh for months at a time, then moving on to Chicago for a month or two, Detroit for a week. But that is all Bill knew, and all he cared to know. She’d always have friends for a few days over Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day though, and Bill would have to do a lot of cleaning in a hurry. Of course, she’d always showed up a day ahead of her guests to supervise.

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