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Going Back

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You leave a little town, and they speak of you--if at all--as if your departure, like a hailstorm or a miscarriage, were an act of God, not always understandable, but certainly part of a providential design whose immediate scribbles work out eventually (a blessing in disguise) for the benefit of all.

("Who can know?" said my mother-in-law, venting her opinion on my leaving for the city. "Perhaps it's best for everyone concerned." I can't write here--although the town believes it knows but doesn't quite--why her son stayed and I went.)

My heart hankering for it, my head saying both "forgive and forget" and "don't go," I return to land that was settled more than a century ago by Midwesterners, originally German, Scandinavian, and Scotch-Irish, and in the main, Protestant and pietist. On the Thursday before Labor Day, I unpack city clothes into country bureau drawers, while a gray-muzzled dachshund leaps at my feet. Framed photographs line the mantel: the night our oldest child graduated from high school; her sister, hair flying, riding her bicycle through a mud puddle. There are more. You can guess them. Think, however, of what no one photographed. The screaming in the kitchen. Leaning out the window to conjure heartrending sunsets, loathing the real horizon.

"This time," I tell myself, "look at it straight on, without music."

Its population maybe 12,000 when college is in session, the town curls into an oval valley, 25 miles long and 20 miles wide. A river runs between black basalt cliffs. Foothills fringe its edges, and beyond the hills, mountains rise up--staggering--snowcapped all year.

The bloodlines that intertwine are as complicated as the creeks that run into the river; they produce a physiognomy--short neck, brutish chin, thick torso, and sloped belly--that makes half the population appear to be first cousins.

Every local family tree has its poison apple and expurgated branches. Behind the lace curtains, what goes on goes on everywhere. A "good face" and a "best foot" are kept forward. There are "front rooms"--"front" itself is imperative, requisite. Appearances are everything. What you don't know, well, maybe it didn't happen.

The return ticket sits out on the dresser. I am just passing through.

Unpacked. Drive to the country to visit Delia with the heart of gold. Whom for years I had envied and tried to imitate--even her bashful lisp, her cheerleader high spirits. Whose apparent contentment eluded me, even when I, like her, wore myself down with what were, after all, superficial good works (knitted mittens for the Christmas bazaar, one afternoon a week pushing a trolley of games and toothbrushes through hospital corridors).

The rich soil that drew early settlers lies in dark strips between fields of hay. A red barn stands, its doors open. "Smile, Jesus loves you," in white letters arches above the doors. Far afield, corn harvesters drive down rows. Dust rises. Russet cows graze the green pastures--not one green, but hundreds. Orchards ridge the hills. Through drooping cottonwoods, you can see to the river. It sparkles.

A tankful of gas and no destination, I made this six-mile drive years ago, the tape player bleating Rickie Lee Jones's paeans to LA. "Something ought to happen," I thought then, looking toward the horizon to see if a rescue team would grow between sky and last black ridge. If a lone eagle, flying over, would drop down a rope.

Bang the brass knocker. Delia greets me, her arms out. Only her legs, in striped shorts, have aged. Her face could be her college-age daughter's. She hands me a frosty long-neck Lone Star. "See?" she fills up her brown eyes with meaning. "I don't forget." We settle back into needlepoint pillows (each one takes a year). Our bare feet up, toes wriggle. Delia polishes her toenails. Says: "Want me to paint yours?"

She wonders aloud, "Will we see you at the brunch?" An annual function, the "prerodeo parade brunch."

"I've promised to make at least a cameo appearance," I say.

"There are days," she sighs, and her voice trails off. "Larry, he's doing well." Carefully shaped eyebrow raised, "Are you still happy there?"

On the first evening home, my husband takes me downtown to dinner, in the only restaurant that uses tablecloths at noon and night.

My parents moved every year or so. This is difficult for me to understand: my husband has not suffered an "identity crisis." He casts for trout in streams into which his great-grandfather cast. In the eighth grade, he used a desk into whose wood his father had carved initials. Nights, under a lamp that was his grandfather's, he ties deer hair and rooster neck feathers into Joe's Hoppers and Royal Wulffs. A slight smile flits across his face. If you ask, "What are you thinking about?" he says, believing he tells the truth, "Nothing."

Although I know people like him, what he has isn't catching. I tried.

The salad plates are taken away, a nearby winery's white poured, and we talk. The hot and rainless summer, the subsequent fire danger in forests. The "sex crime," I'd read about in the letters between us: "Technically," my husband says, "'sex crime' is a misnomer. He panicked and dropped her before he could get to that."

One of my husband's old girlfriends from high school, cluttered by a silk print, strides across the low-lit room. She tilts her head to one side, as if that tilt turns her query casual. "Are you back for good?" she asks, and when I say I'm not, she shrugs and turns back to her table. My husband circles the pink linen with his index finger. One arm is larger than the other, from years of fly casting.

The chicken is reduced to bone, dessert and coffee have been brought, when a friend opens the restaurant's heavy front door, hurries to our table, and kisses the hollow of my temple. Holding me off from his seersucker jacket, he says, "You always look the same."

"Well, yes and no," I say, "yes and no."

Tomorrow night--Friday--is "family night" at the county fair. Saturday morning, the prerodeo parade brunch, and then a parade. A Saturday night dance at the club, and on Sunday morning, "Cowboy Church."

Oh! how I sleep, our doors unlocked and, on that hot, windless night, standing open. The dachshund wanders in and out at will.

Friday morning. "Not a cloud in the sky," my husband proclaims. A resonant tenor drawls the going prices for pigs, milk solids, feed grains, and soybeans over the 50-watt station. Kenny Rogers and Dottie West sing, "Don't Fall in Love With a Dreamer."

Out at Hazel's on the south-fork interchange, Hazel herself arranges breakfast on oval meat platters. She shreds hash browns from potatoes boiled that day, hand-cuts her fries, and doesn't charge for coffee past the first cup.

Barb and Joe and the grandson Gable push open the door. Big woman, big-busted, Barb's nursing-home uniform pulls at the seams. Joe behind her, his belly riding his low-slung belt, yells out, "Hi there!" to the wide backs leaned over the counter, and the men and women swivel on their stools and return greetings. Eight-year-old Gable's black hair is wet-combed off his broad, brown forehead. Below the waistband on his Little Man Levis, the size tag reads 32.

(A hundred years ago, the town creamery churned a high-fat butter that commanded a heftier price than was obtained for butter in any other section of the United States. Not just at Hazel's do bodies thicken early. We joke, "Our principal product is fat cells.")

Hunkered over his stool at the counter, eggs shaded green by his visor, Big Roy (jack-of-all-trades) asks the man at his right elbow, "Didja hear the one about? . . ." and the man, in brown Sansabelt slacks, owner of the Downtown Office Supply, slathering catsup on steak, is cut off--open-mouthed--by Big Roy's wife (clerk at Mode O' Day), who asks, "Anybody know the condition of the preacher's little girl, now she's home from the hospital?"

By a Yuban can, slit across its plastic top, Hazel has propped a newspaper photograph. The child, wearing white-collared plaid, grips a panda and holds her mother's hand. Hazel has taped a plea over the Yuban: "HELP . . .WITH MEDICAL EXPENSES."

What they talk about while Hazel refills coffee cups behind the counter, while her daughter-in-law fries onion rings two inches from pancakes, empties ashtrays, and swats flies that come in from the slaughterhouse down the road, is how the three-year-old daughter of the Nazarene preacher was abducted from where she played one weekday morning--the so-called "sex crime."

Says Big Roy, "That long-haired kid plucked her up right off her yard, threw her over his shoulder like a croaker sack, and run off."

The Downtown Office Supply's owner: "'There but for the grace of God goes my kid,' we were all saying." He folds a ten-dollar bill and slips it into the Yuban can. Hazel thanks him.

Hazel: "It wasn't minutes before police got the neighborhood cordoned off."

"Neighbor lady found her," says Big Roy's wife, "forty minutes after he got her. Two blocks from home, in a run-off from the crick. He'd stripped her of her play shorts and a little ol' Minnie Mouse T-shirt her mother dressed her in that mornin'. She was layin' face down, all under water, except a foot. It was stickin' out."

"Woman that found her," says Barb, "she was up visitin' the nursing home and told the gals that child was totally limp. 'Whole body was blue, even her eyes,' is what she said. No way did she think she could live."

"You know what he was wantin' to do with her," says Big Roy, wiping his mouth.

In the stockyard, cattle bawl.

"The guy that grabbed her," offers the retired rancher, "he sure musta wanted to get caught, way he left his shirt near where he dumped her."

"'Trouble is,' an old-timer in the neighborhood told 'em, 'I can think of any of seven or eight guys right around here strange enough to have grabbed a kid,'" says Hazel's daughter-in-law.

A retired rancher: "A neighbor knew the shirt. Police knocked. Kid didn't resist or nothin'. Said, 'I did it.' Said he grabbed her and then panicked an' tried to kill her."

"I tell you," Big Roy worries a toothpick in under his bottom denture, "police were all over that kid like a coat of paint."

Hazel offers Gable, fidgeting and restless, the flyswatter and says, "Give you a penny for ever' one you smash."

The conversation drifts from the charge of attempted murder brought against the boy to the county fair and rodeo. I finish my coffee and surmise that local history--oral, compulsive, revisionist--is right now growing several pages. That I was seen today laughing across pink linen; that "He has never divorced her, now can you tell me why that is?" Rumor will have it that I am at work on a novel set in the town. It will be said, "She has been a cross, God knows." To which the reply will come that "He has not, you know, worn himself out, carrying it." The man who says this will snicker.

Downtown proper is four blocks: two banks, the telephone company, real-estate office, two diet center franchises, one movie theater, a barber, a Christian bookstore, small businesses that come and go, cafes, the "tablecloth-at-noon" restaurant where I (incorrectly) will be reported as sipping iced tea and "scribbling fast in her notebook," when in fact I am dropping my husband off at the back door of his office, which is one story above the office that for years was his grandfather's. We plan to meet at the fairgrounds after he finishes work.

Fifty-year-old Sandy Biddle Jr. owns the men's clothing store founded between the wars by his father. Sandy helps his 25-year-old son--"Little Sandy"--carry a card table out onto the sidewalk and stack straw cowboy hats. "So," Sandy asks, "back to settle down?" His teeth gleam out of an ingratiating but abject smile. "Look at the highways! Look at all those cars and campers! You don't see them driving to the big city. You see them on their way here.

"Hills here," he points to ridges outlined against sky, "they're like having walls of your house around you."

He hitches up his trousers and motions me to follow him into the store. On a shelf among the work shirts, a radio plays Hank Williams Jr.

Little Sandy, rusty, thick hair like his father's, goes back to knocking flies out of the air with a rolled-up copy of Parade magazine. His father says, "Here, you know everything that's going on. That controls a lot of how you act and react in relationship to the mores of the community. That boy that grabbed the preacher's daughter, now he got put away." He snaps his fingers, "Toot sweet. In cities, those guys can get done what they want to get done and then run hide."

"Gettin' ready for rodeo?" Sandy asks a customer.

"No, for winter."

"It's comin', winter is," says Sandy. "Comin' like everything else."

A philosophy professor and I eat lunch in a cafe opened early in the century as a curtained tearoom for ladies. Vico is 55, full head of hair, tall and stooped, too thin. Cigarette burns on his slacks. Two decades ago, Vico and other men in their late 20s, early 30s took jobs at the local college, planned to stay a few years, then move on. They have been here ever since. "When my wife left me," says Vico, "a friend advised, 'Get out of here, change your name, go to Paris.' When he was here, last week, he said, 'You're like an old used tea bag, steeped in grief.'"

I quote a Jungian, "You may have escaped death in a holocaust or war and not yet have inwardly escaped." Vico looks at me hard, "You're just begging to be taken prisoner." When I tell him not to look at me so mean, he laughs and fishes out a clean, unironed handkerchief, blows his nose, asks how my hay fever is, and says, "Nobody here ever forgives anyone anything. But over the years, almost no one isn't guilty. It evens out."

My hay fever, I tell him, is worse here.

"It's the despair," he giggles. "It's thick. A delivery boy for the pizza place told me, 'As soon as we open, at 11 in the morning, I begin taking pizzas around.' He has to bang at doors--game shows and soap operas are booming. People in the underwear they slept in.

"Days here are long, and the nights, too. Years, however, speed by." He asks for the check, pushes my money back.

Outside, thickly leaved maples hang heavy and motionless over the sidewalks. The sun presses buildings down. On the corner, the tavern, open since eight this morning, keeps its doors ajar.

"No," Vico says. He won't go to the fair with us. "The minister who studies ventriloquism so that some Charlie McCarthy he sets on his knee can recite Bible verses will be there, selling barbecue beef and throwing his voice into corn on the cob. The emphysemic with oxygen tanks strapped to his back will be there. Fatties wearing dangling earrings to distract your eye from grinding behinds. Your in-laws and your friends will be there. Your husband," he snarls, "is violently anti-intellectual. He and his friends talk of nothing but trout. Hell, no, I won't go to the fair with you."

We walk off in opposite directions. I pass two old men who lean against a brick wall. Vico and I are 20, 30 feet apart. He calls my name. I turn, smile, am smiling as he yells: "The past is a hiding place."

The forsythia shadows a four-foot circle. I had taken for granted, when I dug out a hole for the three-branched seedling, that I would live here my whole life. This house--I expected to go gray-haired in it. Would tend my lilies and tight-budded peonies, put in chunks of potato in spring, and put up a permanent string for my Cuthbertson sweet peas to climb up.

(Look at it this way: When you're 18, there's the novel you like so much, it ends too soon. You're 40 when you read it again. What you thought went on wasn't it at all.)

The first of us fairgoers, shouldering through a perspiring melee of each other, walk onto springy grass as green as movie lawns. Hay bales and picnic tables sit opposite a long row of booths selling curly fries, hot pepper jelly and pickled garlic, tacos, barbecue beef, chili dogs, caramel corn, candy apples, pie a la mode.

Squeals stop me in my tracks. Inside a chain-link fence, as if in a theater in the round, eight piglets look out at us. Sharing the arena with the piglets are uncountable children and a half dozen adults, one of whom grips a microphone in one hand and cups his other hand to his ear, like an old-time radio announcer.

"In this event, one team member has to control a pig without hurting it, then the other team member has to put three articles of clothing on this pig. One's a pair of shorts. One's a shirt. And one's a bib. Bob and Carol will give us a trial run."

Outside the fence, hurrahs. Inside, Carol carries the shorts, shirt, and bib and idles to centerfield. Bob rushes the pigs, who run, short legs blurring, toward one end of the arena, then--like swimmers doing laps--turn and run back. Bob reaches down to piglets barreling toward him and nabs one by its hind feet.

"This is a timed event," says the announcer. "Six minute time limit. We would like to have everyone compete, but if the pigs get tired or overheated, we won't let that pig compete anymore."

Seven uncaptured pigs, shoulder to shoulder, press their buttocks into the fence.

My husband touches my bare arm in greeting and says, "The pigs now know, something bad is going to happen." He hands over an aqua Sno-Cone, and grateful in this heat for cool wetness, I suck ice while Bob dangles his piglet upside down. It squeals. Carol, grinning, slips the piglet's back legs into red boxer shorts, forces ears, snout, and wriggling foretrotters through a polo shirt's neck and sleeves.

Bob tosses the dressed pig snout-first onto the grass. Peculiarly humanoid in its shorts and shirt, the pig circles--once, twice--the bib flapping beneath its snout.

In the poultry and rabbit barn, "Orval Orpington," a nine-pound, smooth-feathered giant crowned by a serrated red comb, scratches at his wire cage, tosses back his head, and crows. A stooped stick of an old man, filling Orval's water cup, tells us, "It's his third time at the fair. People make him nervous." To keep him talking, I say, "Well, I guess Orval'll be glad when the fair's over, to get home."

"Naw, 48 hours from tonight, he'll be foreign to the flock. When I take him back, the flock won't remember him no more. He has to fight all over again to get back his place. I've had 'em killed that way."

Just past jars of pickled okra, we find ourselves boxed in a crowd intent upon a plumpish woman who squeezes frosting dollops from a pastry tube. With frosting she "dresses" a cake that's cut to resemble a cartoon mouse in red western shirt, blue jeans, and boots.

"Is that butter-cream frosting?" someone asks.

"Yes, but we make it with Crisco because of the heat. But we compensate by using butter flavoring. So you get that wonderful butter flavor. Yum, yum."

Crafts on exhibit are for sale. Wooden ducks dressed in checked gingham, candle holders shaped as sitting hens, Pennsylvania Dutch hex-sign refrigerator magnets. "Isn't this darling!" a woman says, pointing to a black rag doll. Its body of overstuffed brown cotton, the doll is dressed in a print shift covered by a white apron. Painted onto the brown cotton, an outsize half-moon smile shows preternaturally white teeth. Yarn curls rise out of a bandanna. The feet are bare. On the tag attached to the doll: "Pickannini $19." Next to the "pickannini," a black man and woman, jiggered out of wood: their lacquered lips have been set in the half-moon, bright white teeth; they are joined together by a slice of watermelon. On the stand to which their feet are glued is printed, "Welcome."

Light gilds the hilltops. So many people line up at food booths, so many eaters stroll between the booths. We take small steps, not to bump anyone. The carnival riders scream, cattle moan, the rooster crows, and barkers outside food booths call out, "Burgers!" and "Corn!" From the adjacent rodeo arena, calves bawl and cheers soar. A barbershop octet harmonizes "You Are My Sunshine."

Blue smoke haloes the stand selling "elephant ears," wide wedges of fried sweet dough dipped in sugar. At a picnic table near the elephant ears, my husband's sister and her husband sit next to Sandy Riddle Jr.'s wife Janey. Sandy, his cowboy boot propped on the bench, talks to a man who recently bought out a farm equipment dealership at the edge of town.

"Years ago," says Sandy, "there was lots of jackrabbits around here. They'd come down at night and eat their way into the hayfields. My gramma had some summer fallow up above the ditch line. So some of the guys, we got in a car and drove up there, up above the ditch, and we found that, gee, you could take a .22 and drive along and shoot jackrabbits--they'd be right there, in the headlights."

A story I've heard before. Janey pleats and unpleats a paper plate.

"Real fast," continues Sandy, "that got too easy. We'd kill off 20 or 30 a night. One night, we'd run out of shells, and someone said, 'Next time, let's get clubs.' So we got a bunch of big flashlights, and we got clubs. We clubbed 'em. That was OK, too."

My husband's sister, elephant ear wrapped in napkin, mimes "Want some?" and my husband reaches across the table to take a portion of the pastry.

"But after a while, we got pretty good at that, and so it was pretty tame. One night a rabbit tried to run between one of the guy's legs, and he reached down and grabbed it up by the ears. 'So, what are we going to do with a live rabbit?' 'Hell, throw it in the trunk,' somebody said."

Three days from full, the moon is out: bumpy on one side and the deep orange of fertilized yolk. The line for curly fries extends to the edge of our table. Shrieks crescendo as the Super-Loop's cars--looping the loop--ascend. Its lights flash across us and color our faces.

"It right away got to be one of those things, 'Well, if he can do it, I can do it too.' Took no time before we'd caught a trunkload of jackrabbits."

I say to my husband, "I see a thousand familiar faces." (Matched sets of kitchen canisters: grandmothers, mothers, daughters.) A few feet from us, a tall blond in blue denim crop top, denim miniskirt, even high heels made out of blue denim--leans over and pulls up a lace-trimmed anklet. Her naked rib cage glows.

By the time Sandy finishes his story, its climax the setting of jackrabbits loose at a dance, the sky has turned navy blue. Far up, thousands of feet up, a plane's lights twinkle.

Kiss of breeze, and Janey, shuddering intermittently, asks, "Aren't you cold? Where you live is so much warmer." Each word trips her tongue as neatly as I remember she dices carrots.

To get to the brunch, we must park a block away, unusual here. From our host's two-story white house, guests crowd the front veranda (by which the parade will pass at noon), and voices call out, "Hiya, you two."

Cowboy hats, each with its own "signature" crease, litter mahogany tables. "Bloody Marys, champagne and orange juice?" I'm asked, while one of my husband's fishing buddies grips his shoulder and screams, "Why not have a wild pig feed and call it fun? Ay?" His eyes check me out, from flat-heel shoes to mouth, where he stops.

The dining-room wallpaper depicts a Venetian canal. "How did you make this?" A blue-lidded woman addresses our hostess and points out a chafing dish set 'round with Wheat Thins.

"Two packages frozen chopped broccoli and Cheez-Whiz." She smiles, showing lipstick on her teeth.

Rex Barber, real estate and insurance, salacious slow dancer, called "Mule" in high school, wriggles a finger to greet me, then quickly reassumes his serious mien. Rex says to a bald dentist, "You have the candle burning at both ends, you got to blow one of them out."

Husband lost in the crowd. Across the outsize Sony (sound, low), baseball players run bases. I lean against antiques, say no when my mother-in-law's friend, who has said I am "looking lovely," asks if I am "back for good."

Rex cups my bare elbow in his palm. "It's been so long. Last year, this time? You're writing a book. Am I going to be in it? Listen, I miss you."

I hear my father-in-law's voice, sister-in-law's, hear Janey, hear women with whom I served in Altar Guild. Over Rex's shoulder, I meet my mother-in-law's eyes. She lifts her eyebrows in hello.

"Must be pretty wild there," says Rex, who claims he doesn't believe me about my life in the big city, that it's mostly hard work.

While at my right, as the high-ceilinged living room heats up, the middle-aged daughter of a "third-generation" family purrs to the inheritor of an early-century real-estate stake, "He told us, 'You have to own your own ecstasy!' Well, Jerry about died. . . ."

To my left, a man protests, "It's instinct, something like what that kid did to the preacher's child. C'mon, a wolf doesn't learn to kill a sheep. You're being suckered by those for-the-underdog types."

"But, do you feel fulfilled there? In your new life?" Rex asks, leaning over, gripping my wrist. His question lifts stray hairs across my forehead.

Delia's voice trills in from the porch. Excusing myself from Rex, who holds my wrist tight enough to leave marks, I find her. Violet silk. Off-white linen trousers. Mauve toenails.

A kiss. A hug.

She goes in to grab a drink, whispers, "Stay here. I'll be right back." It is hot and windless. The sun is almost at noontide, and spectators on the sidewalk across the street await the first band and seek the shade of overhanging branches. Not even the leaves move.

On the porch, two of my father-in-law's hunting buddies--Joe and Matt--tell a third man, our host's houseguest, about how in the old days, "us boys" would pile up the pickup with ducks, then drive by and leave off the birds for the "colored boy," who plucked and cleaned ducks for a dime a carcass. "Ol' Black Jake," says Matt, "he'd pluck those suckers clean."

"Oh, yeah," adds Joe, slurping his Bloody Mary, "he shined shoes down at the Deluxe barbershop."

"He had him a goose dyed purple that he walked, every year, in the rodeo parade. The goose and Ol' Jake, they went everywhere together."

"I always thought that was some strange niggerish thing to do, havin' a pet goose," Joe chortles. "But who knows. When did Ol' Jake leave town?"

"Fifty-six or fifty-five, mebbe."

"It's the best damned rodeo parade I ever saw," Joe laughs.

"It hasn't even started yet!" comes Matt's reply. (It hasn't but is about to. From a distance, snare drums clatter out a beat.)

"By God, you're right," Joe laughs hard enough to loosen phlegm in his chest. So he coughs before he says, "The goddam street is empty."

Drums. Piccolo. Trombones. Brass slides, vigorously drawn in and out. The Sousa march emerges in disconcerting unison. Everyone hurries out front onto the porch, down the sloping lawn, the women digging high heels into sod.

The color guard, red faces streaming sweat, passes by. Cowboy hats go into hands, hands go to hearts. Faces slack from Bloody Marys stiffen to attention.

High school band. Golden shakos on crimson hats. The rodeo queen and her princesses bounce atop creamy Appaloosas. Goose-stepping Shriners, yellow and green ribbons striped around massive bellies, the sweat sticking white shirts to their backs, are cheered. Indians, their feathered headdresses limp, straddle skittish roans. Their women walk, papooses on their backs. Round-faced children in fringed hide hold one another with one hand, clutch a paper Coca-Cola cup in the other.

The heat rises. "Booze is getting to me," I tell my husband.

He leads me inside, to the air-conditioned den, draperies pulled closed, ice tinkling in glasses, odor of bourbon deep as shame, where a home movie of this same parade flitters on the screen. "How long ago did you all take this?" my husband asks our host. The film is forty years old. An out-of-tune band passes. Shriners. Golden shakos. Indians. Jake. The purple goose.

Late in the afternoon, at home and fanning myself with a newspaper, I ask, "Before we left, I did tell Delia good-bye?" I did. I ask then, "Can't we skip the dance, go back to the fair, and walk around the carnival? Maybe ride the Super-Loop?" Which is what, after dark, we do. A blue haze, "because there's no wind to take off cooking grease," my husband says, hangs over the grounds.

"Moon one day closer to full," he nods toward the black sky and adds, "Don't you ever wish? . . ."

". . . that things had turned out differently?"

But they didn't. If not a little town, there's the past or nostalgia that you "may not yet have inwardly escaped."

"Cowboy church." The sun pours down on the rodeo arena's north bleachers over several hundred worshippers--locals, rodeo participants (from among whom the morning's preacher will come), a few carnies--who sit on risers, frowning into heat. "Everybody's got a talent," a young cowboy is saying, as we take a seat. "My talent just happens to be trick ropin'. But God's chosen you, too, plucked you into special areas of life."

Bibles lie open across denimed knees. Here and there are red eyes, dolorous with hangover. Several heads are bowed, lips moving. Others stare past the roper onto empty bleachers across the field.

"Just like the guy who is captain of his ship," warns the roper, "you'll see, out there in the ocean, that you gonna have to confront some maybe very adverse and stormy weather."

Under the bleachers, calves bawl. Out in the arena, a truck, a tank fixed on the back, sprays water onto the dusty ground.

"Life's like that," says the trick roper.

Down several rows, Rex Barber ties a handkerchief over his bare head. Ranged next to him, his three towheaded boys sit straight. "I don't see Delia and Larry," I whisper to my husband.

"But if you man that ship, you're gonna get where you need to go."

Carrying a portable radio, two petite blonds, sisters--pink jeans, pink-and-white checked Western shirts, pink boots--step into the spot vacated by the trick roper. "My sister and I are gonna sing 'Can You Reach My Friend?' and our mom's gonna harmonize on it." Their mother also wears pink. While they sing, a cowboy hat is passed for the offering.

The trick roper bows his head and squinches his eyes closed. "Let us pray," he urges, then intones, rapidly, "I just turn myself over to you, Lord. I just pray that every need is met, Lord, Lord, I just give you the praise and the glory, I just pray in Jesus' name, Lord."

"Amen," from the bleachers.

"Bulldoggers," he drawls, looking out at us, "we cain't be very smart. We get on a nice quarter horse and ride 40 miles an hour and jump off it. But me and my wife Samantha, we've made ourselves available, on the rodeo circuit, to serve Him.

"I'm not no way a Bible scholar, but I'm gonna share with you what the Lord has shared with me, and He's gonna anoint it. If you came to hear us, you gonna be let down. If you come to hear God, you not gonna be let down. I'm just an instrument He's usin'. Let God be liftin' us up."

"Amen."

"Through my and Samantha's eyes, just this year, God has answered prayers. One night we left Casper, Wyoming, and we had to be in Dodge City next day, and it's a long way we had to drive. Got 25 miles out of Cheyenne, traveling in our motor home. Blew out both tires. I got 'em changed hour and a half later. Two o'clock in the morning. I was tired. I was mad. I jumped in the motor home, turned the key on, battery was dead."

"Ohhh"s of disappointment drift across the bleachers.

"I messed with the battery. I turnt the poles. Our battery was ruint so bad, it wouldn't hold a charge. Wouldn't even run lights, wouldn't even honk the horn.

"Samantha was sittin' there on the other seat. She said, 'Why don't you just pray?' An' I said, 'What do you think I been doin'?' Whenever I said that, the Holy Spirit sorta tapped on me and said, 'Hey, He'll do it, if you'll ask Him.'

"I reached over and took Samantha's hand and said, 'Father, in the name of Jesus, start this thing and get us out of here, and we thank you for it in Jesus' name.' I reached down and turned it over, and we had a new battery. That was an answered prayer."

"Hallelujah!"

"Isn't nothin' anybody can say, it was God fixed that battery. He can work miracles today."

The cows low. A rooster--Orval?--crows.

"Samantha and I went out on the road in January. We got down to the end of February, and our money was all gone. We hadn't won a thing. Things were tough. We'd been prayin' all winter, 'God, let us win a rodeo. Let us place. Just give us money to keep goin'.'

"We got to Houston, Texas, down there to the world's biggest rodeo, one of the richest rodeos. I had my first steer, and I didn't come close. Friday night is when I had my second steer. Friday morning I got in prayer, and God spoke to me, 'Watch the 700 Club.' I was watchin' it, and it was real good. But toward the end of it I said, 'God, this was real good, but there wasn't nothin' here for me though, what did you tell me to watch it for?'

"You know, we got a knower down in deep. In my knower, I knew that God told me to watch that. But it didn't seem like there was nothin' there.

"To'ard the end of the program, a guy on it started givin' words of knowledge and prophecy, prayin', an' he said, 'God, You're showin' me something right now about a rodeo. I don't know where it is. I cain't see it.' He raised up, and he looked at the camera, and he looked me in the eye. He said straight to me, 'You're sittin' watchin' this program, and you've got a problem on a rodeo circuit. God wants you to know right now, He's in control, He loves you, and He's gonna take care of everything tonight.'

"We went to the Astrodome that night, an' Samantha tol' me she wanted somethin' to eat. We put ever' bit of the money we had left, $257, for an entry fee an' had to borrow that and had bills at home, and we were away down in the hole. Samantha wanted a caramel apple. They cost a dollar. I had 86 cents. I bought a bag of potato chips, an' they cost 75 cents. I had 11 pennies in my pocket.

"I went in there into the arena. I said, 'God, all I am is yours.' We won $4,700 that night. God, He made my time into His time."

"Praise the Lord!" the congregation shouts. And even my husband (who does not believe in God. What's here, he says, "it's enough") raises a fist and says, "Praise Him!" with the crowd.

"The third way God answers prayers is to just say no. Not a cowboy here right now that hasn't rode into this box and got into a chute down here and said, 'God, let me win,' and then went out there and fell off on his face. God does the way He wants to, not the way we want to.

"It's tough. I know. Because things hadn't been the way I wanted them all year. I'm a rookie this year, and I wanted to have a chance to win Rookie of the Year, but things got to be the way God wants it to be.

"There's one prayer God always answers. It's the prayer that asks God into your heart. If you never done it, He's available, this mornin'. If any of you never opened the door and let Him in, do it. I don't know what's in your heart, but do it, say, 'Here I am, Lord, take me.'" The bulldogger spreads out his arms.

Rex Barber hurries to catch up with us as we leave the arena. "Where were you guys last night?" he asks. "Talk about your bacchanal! Like my Greek?" he bows at me, then nods toward my husband. "Your folks--your dad was dancing like he was all new." Delia, he tells me, "I bet that gal hasn't moved a limb yet. An' I wouldn't either, except the wife had me bring the little tuckers here." He points to the bulldogger-preacher, kneeling in an aisle at the edge of a riser, hands cupped on a weeping man's head.

Leaving the fairgrounds, I say, "Every year I wonder if grass will grow here again."

We are on the way to the airport. The concrete roadbed shimmers in heat.

Fly at night across the west, and from 30,000 feet, look far, far down: for miles and many minutes you see darkness boil past. Then your eyes pick out a small town's glow. Forehead pressed against the cool, thick pane, you sense the town's vulnerability, its heartbreaking distance from everywhere. Consider your past, your relation to it. Consider nostalgia. And ask yourself what no one took pictures of. Ask what you have not yet escaped.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.

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