We sit in the tavern down the road from the ranch and you tell me that this time you’ve got it. I take a sip of my cordial and scowl because it tastes like perfume. But you won’t buy me bourbon out in public and because you won’t I am already disposed against your idea. You learned last year that cowboys have gone out of style: you came home with your arm in a sling and you slept on my couch for a month. My mother’s couch, really. But this time you’ve got it.
Johnny says he’s less than a month from striking oil down in Texas, you say between sips from a large schooner of beer; He says he’s gonna need a lot of men to work the rigs.
I tell you that you don’t know anything about oil or rigs or even Texas for that matter. And while I am not surprised I spill a little of my drink down the front of my dress. You pull a handkerchief from your back pocket like it’s a damned bouquet of roses and jump up to fetch me another. After a few dabs on the fabric I already know that I’ll smell like a hooker for the rest of the day, so I steal a sip of your beer and wait.
This is the same as the cattle herding, I say. And the train conducting before that.
But you shake your head and wipe some suds from your beard. You tell me that you’ve known Johnny since he was in diapers and he says that if you show up with your own clothes and a few days worth of food he’ll consider you a partner. You’ll get a share of the profits. Because you can see me trying to interject you put up a hand and say I know what you’re thinking.
Before you’ve hooked your last sentence to the next one, though, I say:
I’m thinking that you’re going out and maybe getting yourself killed for some jackass who promises you seven-hundred seventy-seventh lay.
But I’m too late. I can picture your station wagon flying over a vast field the color of burnt straw after the wildfires have come too close to the house and you have taken a ring out of your fields and though I see its wheels bouncing across rocks and stumbling over the apex of a hill whose grass has been trodden down over a thousand journeys and yours is just the thousand-and-first I can’t picture you in Texas. Between you and me I can’t picture anyone in Texas. You tell me that you’ll drive to the train station and that you’ve already bought a ticket but I know that means that you don’t have a return ticket. I can see an equals sign behind your eyes, where you’re taking the world I live in and holding a new one up next to it. You couldn’t be the next Billy the Kid so you’ll be the next John D. Rockefeller instead. Gold, yellow or black, never goes out of style.
At a nearby table someone knocks a bottle of beer onto the ground. The man that’s done it stands up and takes off his hat; he looks at the broken glass as though it was destroyed before he ever got there and I recognize the same look in your eyes. It’s how I know you’re not coming back.
Because there is a silence you say, again, Jenny I know what you’re thinking.
But you don’t. I am thinking of April. Rainclouds turning the fields gray. My mind has heard the starter pistol.
Once when I was child I saw my daddy smoking and watching the rain come up from the south. The clouds were the color of the granite stones lining the walk up the house and the way his smoke mingled with them looked like a swirl of children across the lawn. Some yards down the road, I could see before my daddy did, there were two or three men stomping across the lawn in their black leather boots. Their beards bristled with the same black and grey as the clouds and they pulled a wooden cart behind them, stopping every few minutes to switch who bore its weight. Maybe because one of the wheels was imperfect, they couldn’t tread a straight line toward us. They curved on and off the dirt path that led up to us and when my daddy noticed them they were veering off to the south. He turned to me and asked if I thought they were coming toward our house, for though he was on the porch he could see me through the open window. I said nothing, and he turned back toward them.
We were entranced by them. So much so that, though we watched them every step of their way in, we were startled when the shorter of the three rapped on the side of the screen door. I didn’t think they could see me where I was so I didn’t move, I just watched my daddy jar himself back awake and stand up. For a moment he couldn’t think of what to do with his pipe, and he took a last drag on it and let it sit atop a wicker table beside his chair and he shook some crumbs out of his coat and smoothed out his whiskers as he reached a hand out for the door. The short one was through the door frame before daddy could greet him and the other two hung back and unloaded a box from the cart.
Good afternoon, he finally said.
To you as well, said my father.
Have you noticed, he said, something missing from your life?
It was only then that I noticed the book tucked under his arm. Bound in black leather and with gold lettering down the side. I couldn’t see just what it was, I assumed it was a Bible, but it was clear that the spine was uncracked and the corners unfolded.
My daddy said no, not really, and asked him what he meant.
He was ready for the question, but he waited a moment. Giving the other two the chance to come up behind with the box.
The life of the mind! he said, when they were behind him. You look like an educated man, but when should education stop? The answer is so simple I need not even say it! The river of knowledge never stops flowing; it’s just that some men shy away, for fear or for indifference. You are not an indifferent man, are you, mister . . .
My father’s face had begun to turn red. He glanced for a moment back over to his pipe, which had stopped glowing some minutes ago, and found himself worrying that if the wind picked up it might scatter the dry tobacco over the floorboards. When he finally managed to shake his head the man ran a few fingers through his own beard and nodded.
Mr. Hopkins, my name is John Everett. As he spoke the others rammed the box lengthways through the doorframe, scratching up the sides and their forearms. And my field, he continued, is irrigation, of a sort. I want to irrigate your fields so that the river of knowledge flows through it. So that you can dip your bucket into the well and come up with the mind’s lifeblood.
He pulled a knife from his pocket, then. I gasped and stood up, but sat back down, believing myself unseen, when he knelt down with it to cut open the box.
Mr. Hopkins, he said, kneeling before the opened box of books, I’m selling encyclopedias.
My daddy balked. He stuttered a second and struggled to respond. Without knowing why I began to hope that he would buy them. Maybe it was the binding or maybe it was just that they matched so nicely but I was sure we needed them.
When daddy composed himself, though, he started to shake his head.
What? No, he said. We certainly don’t need a set of encyclopedias. We don’t have that sort of money to throw around.
I could feel the man looking down at the fraying fabric around the hem of my father’s vest, and after a moment he smiled.
To throw around? What could be more essential, for your own sake and to pass on to your children, than knowledge? And, it’s hardly any money at all.
Daddy fumbled again. He stepped backwards to try and reclaim his pipe from the table and he searched with both hands through his coat pockets for a match. Mr. Everett took another step forward.
You’re not even going to ask, he said, how much it costs?
Umm, well. I . . .
Then he said a number. I don’t remember what it was, and it didn’t mean much to me at the time but I remember the way daddy’s face shifted. He put his pipe back down and he ran his hand over his mustache.
Just that much for the whole set?
Yes sir. We will just leave that box for you and be on our way.
I don’t know why, but my heart was pounding. And it didn’t stop when daddy nodded, and when he handed over the money and shook the fellow’s hand, and it didn’t stop when the three of them took back to their cart and started shouting to each other about running ahead of the rain clouds. I hadn’t even noticed that the rain had started but it was rapping against the roof and jumping off the white paint peeling on the porch railing. And when in a few moments my mother appeared on the horizon, walking the length of the field at what felt to me like a tortuous pace before she came inside, it was dripping from her hair and her clothes. Usually when my mother came home from church I would run up and hug her around the waist, and she would sit on the porch a while and retell the homily for those of us that had stayed home. Days later I told myself that I didn’t get up and go to her because she was soaking wet, but I think that I was just stuck.
She must have seen the salesmen running their cart beyond the fences on the outer edge of the property because she strode in with purpose, giving daddy a look like I’ve only seen from lawmen and picking a volume out of the box, which darkened along the side where her hair dripped along it.
You bought these, she said rather than asked.
For how much?
He told her.
I don’t think I had ever seen her truly angry before. Arguments with neighbors and scoldings were one thing but this was not that. When she wiped the rain from her cheeks it was as though she had peeled off a layer of white to get the raw and the red underneath. She opened up the book up and stared.
Achilles, she said without speaking up.
Daddy nodded and she let the book drop to the floor. My heart jumped, not at the crash upon the floorboards but in the instant before, and it followed my mother down, crouching, to the box where she picked up another volume and opened it.
Aeneas, she said.
He looked away. In fact he looked right toward me, through the window whose glass was smudged with pollen coming off of the trees in the wind. I crouched back down, as though there were some chance I had not been seen. That I had not been as embroiled in it all as he was.
With my back to the wall and my eyes pointed out into the hallway where lamplight shone groggily in the grey of the rainclouds I could hear my mother. Not shouting, but not speaking softly either.
They’re all A’s, she said. Aeneas and Achilles, nothing about Hector or Rome, and this is what you’ve spent our money on? Whom do you expect to benefit from this? Our kids can learn from the schoolhouse and even if they couldn’t these will be out of date in five years. Not that that matters, because they’re all the same letter. It’s twenty-six of the same volume and you spent money that we don’t have. You are the dumbest, sorriest son of a bitch I’ve ever laid eyes on.
When she stopped talking I could hear her taking strides across the porch and through the doorway. Though I was right beside it she didn’t see me as she walked past. A moment later when my daddy walked through the doorway he stopped and looked down at me.
It’s all A’s, sweetheart, he said.
Somehow that’s what I feel. All of it. I’m not sure whether you remind me of my daddy or I do but right up till the last moment it’s what I think of when I think of you and the thought runs through the grains in the wood of my four-poster bed and through the seams of the canvass tossed over the firewood outside and it trickles down through the topsoil and it mingles with the water before it comes back up through the wells. And it’s huge, the space between us, and every night I sit beneath a strange roof and unfold the space like fine linen and however hard I try I can’t help but drown it all in my father’s face as he turns to me. Gold never goes out of style but how would I know? We never got up to G. I just sat turning the same pages back and forth and knowing that every acre you cross has twenty-five more just like it that neither you nor I will ever see.
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