Bill’s horse was aging. Mellow was a chestnut quarter horse mare with a grumpy but affectionate disposition. Bill loved horses and through them found an outlet for his need to show tenderness. Mellow was about 5 years old when Dev first got her, a little more than a year after Bill went back to work for the Hapfliks. Mellow’s owner abandoned her, letting her loose when he left for a job in Idaho. A neighboring farmer stopped to complain to Dev about a stray horse that was grazing in his field, assuming it was one of Dev’s. Dev’s face didn’t hide his contempt for the presumptuous farmer but he was protective of any horse. He knew what both humans and horses were capable of, and only a handful of horses that he knew could ever be as mean as the average person can be from time to time. He leveled a cold look at the presumptuous farmer and simply said, “where didja say the horse was? Just let me get a lead and a halter and I’ll be right over to get it.”
“Well, he’s been in field for three days now. Didn’t you miss him at all?”
“Thanks for letting me know. I’ll take care of it.” And Dev hopped in his truck and slammed it into reverse, spinning out of the driveway. Gail came charging out the door to find out what was going on and saw the farmer shake his head at Dev and then turn to her with a scowl. Gail glowered at him and the farmer stepped quickly to his truck and also left.
Mellow was a name Dev laughingly gave the mare because she pinned her ears back at anyone she thought was going to take her out of her stable. The mares and the geldings had a pecking order of retrieval from their separate pastures when Dev led them in for the evening. One night, Bill was taking the horses in with Dev and the mare rubbed her head against Bill’s chest and shook her forelock which was matted with burrs. Bill led her back to her stall and took the burrs out while the horse fed on hay and grain. Dev noticed and offered to keep her for Bill if he would replace the transmission in Gail’s Dodge Polara.
For years, Mellow had taken Bill across fields, down paths, across water, and stood patiently while he sat on the ground and read poetry, being contented with foraging for tasty weeds and flowers. But now she had arthritis. Dev noticed the mare’s hind leg shaking while she stood and watched the condition grow steadily worse .Now, in the Spring of 1979, he told Bill that Mellow should be put down by Fall. It would be too rough on her to put her through another Winter. Bill was devastated. He knew that the day would come but he had hoped he wouldn’t have to hear about it until the day had actually come. He didn’t want to have much notice when Mellow died. The prospect of losing his horse every time he saw her at the stable was enough to bring tears to his eyes when he said goodbye to her throughout the summer but along with it came a sense of joy over the mourning; one must love something dearly in order to miss it dearly when it was gone. In Autumn, one windy, cold and rainy morning at the end of September, Mellow was put down.
In the Spring of 1979, Bill was working in the garage when a brand new Lincoln Town Car pulled into the driveway and Virgie got out. She didn’t say anything in greeting, just, “haven’t you been paying the taxes on my house?”
No. Bill had no reason to think he needed to have considered it. She thought she’d sent him a letter years ago to go to the county treasurer and pay the taxes. She received notification of a public sale of the property because the taxes hadn’t been paid. No. He’d gotten nothing from Virgie. He knew she never sent anything and looked at her with a “what do you want from me” look. Virgie said it didn’t matter. Her friend, Ms. Halfassor had already talked to the Treasurer and redeemed the property. Bill wanted to know why it even mattered but that would’ve involved talking to her. He said nothing. Virgie told him anyway. The value of the property had increased so much that despite the shape the old cabin was in a creek ran through the back edge of the property and its value supported funding for a lovely artist sanctuary. Well, stop by some time. Bill looked after her, not longingly, as she got back in her car and left.
Accompanying the lassitude caused by the mortality of Mellow was Virgie’s reappearance after nine years. Although it wasn’t quite right to imagine not wanting to see his mother, he realized that the anxiety caused by her reappearance wasn’t about having a cold conscience, it was about maintaining his self respect.
When Ms. Halfassor redeemed the property she also filed the deed to the property under a nonprofit corporation and provided the money to build a large outbuilding, called a garage for zoning purposes, which included a heated living area with a recreation room, study area, kitchen and bath. Once or twice a month Bill saw headlights careen off the bushes at night as a car descended into the chasm of dips and curves of Barnett Road before making their way over the bridge to Virgie’s property.
As long as Bill could remember, teenagers had gone for joy rides down Barnett Road. In 1975, four teens died when their car T-boned an elm tree where the road curved to go over the river. Kids had always drank beer and smoked weed along the winding path through the belly of the gully, pulling off into any of a multitude of two tracks and hidden deer trails. In the 1950’s, Bill witnessed dozens of gang fights between various groups of jocks, hooligans, greasers, burnouts, hippies, militants and dissidents. The Nero High football players met the Littlefield Cougars once a year at Simpleman’s Park in an event that always gave the loser of the two schools’ yearly football game a chance for revenge. The place had known knives, baseball bats, chains, tire irons.
He could see it all from the hilltop next to his mother’s cabin. Many nights he stood on the hill above, smoking and watching the crowd in the gully below. Occasionally, someone would see him from the crowd and yell up to him with a drunken bellow, trying in vain to get Bill to answer. Once, a group of teenagers crossed the river and climbed the hill looking for him but Bill stashed his pipe and followed a deer trail back to the porch of the cabin. He could hear the others as he listened from the back porch. They were drunk and yelling, trying to scare him. The Ox Bow Incident taught him what can happen with a group of people looking for trouble and he was ready to dial the operator to connect him with the police department. The crowd banged on the door to the cabin and circled it, yelling and laughing. Someone threw a beer bottle on the roof and the sound of shattered glass brought an eruption of approval.
Bill stood in the window with the phone cradled to his ear and the group fled, throwing stones, sticks and beer bottles at the cabin. With relief, Bill put the phone down. Virgie taught him nobody needed the cops snooping around their house if they could help it. People call the cops to come help them but end up being snooped on.
During his teens, Bill knew all of the deer trails along the creek and all the breaks in the pastures within a five mile radius of the cabin. When he wasn’t surveying the land along the horizon from his tractor seat he spent endless hours walking through the woods. His aching leg was more of an annoyance than a hindrance back then. Then, he’d reminded himself of Thoreau. Now he didn’t like Thoreau’s erudite tone and his biting skepticism. Thoreau sounded like he was always talking down to his reader. Bill read Emerson’s Circles in those days, the mid 1950’s, and liked how he felt included in whatever it was Emerson was describing, which wasn’t all that clear to Bill.
His narrative voice was ordering his language to a naturalistic metaphorical context. In Emerson, he liked the pantheistic notion of life being defined in conflicting values, things felt, seen, heard, experienced, not with superimposed explanations but meaning understood through metaphor and context that could make his skin react with happiness, horror, joy, repulsion, fright, anger, confusion, courage.
In the early 1970’s, Bill saw an interview with the naturalist Loren Eiseley on late night television and heard the same compassion for natural science he’d read in Thoreau. He listened to Carl Sagan, who discussed with clarity the things Bill had so much trouble understanding when he was a teenager. On television, science had adapted the language of romanticism, while in school the term “science” was used to describe any of a number of boring subjects that involved some sort of experimentation. Loren Eiseley and Carl Sagan already did the research so Bill didn’t have to. And then delivered their science like storytellers. Sometimes, when Bill heard a learned and eloquent speaker he would think of Buddha and wonder if maybe someone like Buddha existed in clans everywhere, someone who was perceived as being more blessed than the rest, someone who seemed meant to lead the way into a cultured existence. Shakespeare was quoted by both Dionysus and Apollo, Emerson by the rustic and the scholar.
Bill had always used the language of naturalism to describe his existence but came to feel his own language was too inferior to be used for an art he didn’t have the ability to express. When he came across Tropic of Cancer at a garage sale in the spring of 1966 he was convinced that he, too, had a narrative voice. Henry Miller made it seem so simple – just write like you talk. Well, it wasn’t quite as easy as that, but a kind editor from a small press zine published Bill’s meandering open letter and he was a writer.
He recognized vague patterns of spiritual symbolism and was drawn to T. S. Eliot, Isaac Singer, Hermann Hesse. Eiseley and Sagan were voices that put the scientific universe into terms he could understand. Theirs was a voice that said, “you have evolved because your destiny is written within the cosmos,” not that he was predestined as a hopeless degenerate but for the grace of god. He had a hard time believing all life evolved by accident and chance but couldn’t rule it out.
But what seemed like the universe, really, was all that there was to discover? What would be the point to heaven if not to escape the regenerative cycle of earthy limitations? And if immortality be achieved then what? Science was not to be ultimately constrained with the “why” of a thing. For science, it’s not that we aren’t meant to break outside our own space time continuum, it’s that we can’t. (As I, Ramon write this in the 2020’s string theory is something that would’ve interested Bill because it provides the opportunity to discover other worlds, not just other universes.)
He felt kinship with the archetypal ghosts in the machine through books like Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment but when he came to create his own characters he could only recall his own experiences. He didn’t know yet how to carve his characters out of matter; that discovering a character was a collaborative process between plot, structure, tone and rhythm of presentation.
As he grew older Bill liked less and less the idea of everything spiritual. Life was a mystery but it didn’t have to be supernatural. When he was 20, Virgie laughed at him when she saw him wearing a Buddhist bracelet. It was people that mattered, not gods. People withstood countless generations of superstition, sacrifice to idols, blood for gods, and they still sacrificed in order to provide well wishing for their their competitive nature. The nature of hell is that you have no choice but to compete, so competition becomes a leisurely endeavor. With the help of Veblen’s terminology, what he understood of it, along with an elementary existentialism in place of the Emersonian mysticism, Bill began to define things for which he had the reason but not the knowledge to say.
If it weren’t for the devastating attacks on Christian prejudice by so many of Virgie’s friends Bill would’ve been tempted over the years to succumb to the admonishing Calvinist Christ of the Dymes, or the sheer Lutheran faith of Rita Hapflik. The community that he had known as a child was evangelical and a pervasive influence on him no matter how much he denied it. A person’s beliefs were patterned into his choice of words, and Bill could tell practically anyone’s religious denomination based on their demeanor, choice of clothes, the cars they drove, the types of jobs they performed.
His head still stung from childhood memories of Rupert’s constant haranguing about morality. Virgie used to say it was because his mother was an evangelical. In any event, Emerson gave Bill a voice with which to override the controlling voice of Rupert and discover the voice of his own conscience. When that conscience matured, it, like Emerson’s, soured on its youthful aspirations for human evolution and achievement, for both himself and the world at large. In his youth a man doesn’t accept the physical and ethical limitations that in his maturity he has no choice but to accept.