Mother didn’t listen to the radio anymore. She listened to the rain tap the roof stern as a bill collector, to the wind trying to drag the roots of each stalk of corn one foot to the right by yanking its brittle hair, to the train whistle as it slid corn from Portsmouth to the Orient, to the cricket’s blues, to her husband unscrewing the lid of a Mason jar full of lightning, to the wind as it tinkered with arrangements of bird and cloud, to the opium sizzling in a miner’s veins, to her son’s mind as it shuffled through its knowledge of weapons, to her pencil as she made a nightly list of chores for the next day, which was really her way of asking herself to not die that night, to the gremlins that crept into her mouth while she slept to steal the words she could have said in the morning to demand life the way she wanted, to the wind bully the landscape is if it was just matchsticks and cotton, to her husband drinking moonshine somewhere off past the coop and the dull crack of him slapping a horse across the face, to her son as he hurls rocks at doves, to the yeast quadrupling its molecules in the proving drawer, to her husband banging the front door, to the stock market drifting apart like ice floes, to the wind as it peels a cloud, to the flies attending their black platter of shit, to her husband apologizing in snarled bursts, to the shotgun shells shrieking for their kinetic energy to be loosed into any oxygen, to the wind ceding the floor to the rooster, to her husband call her names as he apologized, to the wind recommence because somehow there is never stillness or silence in a landscape that has few things or people, to her husband knocking now with his forehead as it turns the darkening purple of the clouds, to the wind to her husband to the wind to her husband to her wind husband wind husband wind husband but never anymore to the radio that sits in the dining room like a bystander checking his watch.
Father listened to Medical Question Box on the radio. Dr. John Romulus Brinkley sold nostrums for hemorrhoids and Formula 1020 for tiredness. He could cure any ailment through a steady rapid percussing or hammering of the spine. He could, by placing a drop of blood inside of a box full of wires, which, if attached to the head of a healthy person facing West, diagnose any disease. Using this same process, he could tell your religion. Most of all, he promised to cure impotence by grafting the gland of goat onto men’s testicles, like farmers “graft pound sweet on an apple spray!”
He listened to farmers call in to lament their barrenness, how they need, more than anything, sons. Sons to bail, reap, run, mind, shoot, remind, sow, agree, forget. Brinkley invited them to his clinic where he would make them, poor capons, men again.
The original Romulus was said to have suckled from a she-wolf and used a plough to mark where walls should be in the city where he would sit on the throne.
Father listened to Reverend Eugene F. Smith read from his book on how to prepare for the Second Coming, which will probably come in the next week or so.
He listened to Rose Dawn the Star Girl, Patroness of the Order of Maya, yet also still somehow a Christian. If you sent her a dollar, she would send you a sheet of paper three inches wide and twelve inches long that told you where the stars were in the sky when you were born, and therefore the main events of your future.
Father sent his dollar. He bought the book. He drank the formula.
Father gave up the wolf and the plough. He sat in his wooden chair at the dining table and fed upon the promises of strangers. He paid for nothing. I tell you again, he paid for nothing.
We never ate the food from the Salvation Army. Everyone called the soup line “Sally’s” like it was a restaurant. While you waited, they would tell you the good news about the resurrection. They would sermonize so ferociously that it was difficult to draw any other conclusion than they thought you were standing in this line because you were a sinner and deserved it. Sally would provide, but she prejudged you. This is all your fault. Here are your three ounces of chicken. A little trinity. You made of your soul cattail soup and rice with crushed peanuts. I can offer you milk everlasting. If only you would look at yourself like I do. You are to blame for the eighty minutes you’ve waited in this line. This is why we call ourselves an army. We are here to save you, and if you can’t see that your loss is God’s win, then I don’t know how to help you. Let me make it simple. Bowl=soul. Cot=confession. Line=prayer.
We burned our own corn to keep warm. It was worthless anyways — eight cents a bushel. We couldn’t afford coal.
I tore the stalks out of the ground and loaded them into Father’s arms. He took them to the back steps where we snapped them over our knees into lengths that would fit into the stove.
We didn’t let ourselves say so out loud, but it was thrilling. We spent so much of our lives worrying about corn, if it would yield, if the ears would have kernels all the way to the pointed tip or just peter out, if the whole ear would be empty sockets, if hail would whip the field to its knees, if, somehow, all of our corn would vanish in a rapture of grain.
Now we were the hail, the weevils, the calamity. We failed, and then we burned our failure, and it warmed us.
Sometimes, in winter, when Father came back from hunting, I would have to hammer his feet out of his steel stirrups. Wet from sweat from the hunt, they froze on the ride home. His feet were numb, so it wouldn’t hurt him until he reached the fire. Pounding on his boots while he was on horseback, with a dead wolf across his shoulders, I could almost believe he was a king.
I couldn’t farm. I couldn’t fix the machines when they broke or calm the animals when they spooked. The pigs caught scours. The beans were all legs. The thresher’s joints dried out and no grease could coax it out of rigor. The corn I grew was as gap-toothed and pale as my milkman Trembles, who allowed four months to pass without payment before one day he was knocking on my door with the butt of a half-filled milk bottle. His breath smelled like sugar and fish. I asked him what he was drinking. “Ain’t just cow” he said and winked at me hard as if his eye was suddenly in sincere pain.
We split the rest of the bottle in the backyard, using stripped umbrellas to poke a wet fire. He explained how he made his liquor out of corn, yeast and the radiator of a Ford 1 Ton Express. Mixed it in with milk and drank it on his route.
“But,” he said, “I’m runnin’ out of corn. Can you imagine? All these farms around here and I can’t keep myself in corn. Like a no snow es-ki-mo.”
Then, as if he hadn’t noticed he was surrounded by thousands of acres of open fields, looked around and asked, “This place yours?”
As if he was asking about the horizon.
“Yes,” answered I of the quarter-silo’s worth of languishing mouse-infested grain.
We came to an agreement. I would supply the corn, and he would move his operation out to my property so his neighbors would stop poking around his garage. He would man the still and teach me the art. The art of what? The art of dregs.
Said Gun and Trembles’ Moonshine Recipe: Grain bill= 8 ½ pounds shattered corn, 1 ½ pounds shattered malted barley, liquor= 5 gallons water.
To shatter grains: place inside a pair of Trembles’ dead father’s voluminous blue jeans, cinching each leg and the waist closed with twine. Beat with a crowbar into hilarity or earnest aggression. Heat water. Add corn, then barley. Stir. Leave covered for the amount of time it takes for Trembles to excuse himself, enter his house and make crashing noises as if he is turning over furniture searching for something he has lost, then return muttering something about back taxes with a small gold-flecked spider traversing the back of his head. Add yeast.
Pour mash from one container to another to aerate. Cover for three weeks, during which you attempt to procure a WPA job laying road, during which you vomit discreetly into your lunch bag and quit after a single day’s employment, after which you have a visceral aversion to tar.
Siphon into the still, connected to the Ford radiator (submerged in cold water) on both ends with copper tubes.
Steam from the still will pass through the radiator (a worm box, essentially, condensing the steam back into liquid) and out through a hose whose spout should be covered with Trembles’ dead mother’s pantyhose as a filter.
Dip a spoonful out and set in on fire. If the flame is red, then lead or antifreeze from the radiator has leached in, which can cause blindness or death. Only drink this if some immediate need for numbness demands of you such a risk.
If it burns blue, it’s true.
I’d sell Mrs. Pharoah half a dog of booze every other week. Sheriff Ball would search houses he knew we delivered to, but our customers almost never got caught. They knew exactly where to hide the jars. They used the mouse part of their brains.
Mrs. Pharoah would keep it on a stool behind where she’d hang her coat and hat on a nail. The Webers dropped quartered cucumbers into the jar and pretended they were pickling. Some used the fireplace, a snow bank, a hollowed book, trap door, well, tree trunk, inner thigh. Yearsley hid his gallons inside of pig carcasses. 3 AM poked holes in his eggs and filled them with liquor using an eye dropper. He’d sip from the shells in the wet first light of his small yard.
Mrs. Pharoah got fed up with the sheriff pawing her possessions, and presented him with the jar he was looking for. She knelt to one knee as she handed it to him, ecclesiastical. He took her down to court. She asked the judge how he knew it was booze. Ball took a swig. It was urine. He spat it out onto his own shoes. Case dismissed.
The Bottoms were southwest of town. It was the mangiest impromptu catchall of the county. It was cinder, newsprint, punk board. There wasn’t a right angle to be seen. Every once in a while you’d come across a truly immaculate object that had somehow survived intact: a French cast iron bed frame, single cut glass champagne flute. Some bothered with house numbers. Their stoves were mostly made of gas tanks removed from automobiles. Most of the roofs were tar paper and had to be weighed down so as not to blow away, so on top of every shack there was piled anything heavy, tires, barrels, baskets, shovels, rope, stones. They looked like altars on which sacrifices were piled, as if up above there was a God of Useful Trash looking down, and could be tempted by a watery mattress.
It was segregated by race, but they all had one mayor. White Frost West was black with a white storm of hair. He organized teams to monitor what was tossed out of the back of the restaurants and inns. There was a team in charge of collecting paper. There was a team of boys in charge of fishing. He gave curt judgments on disputes. He was the postmaster. He oversaw the redistribution of someone’s belongings after they died. Even men from City Hall were said to visit the side of his cot for consultation. His shack was no bigger than a piano box. In his previous life, White Frost West was a pipefitter. Then he became the jarl of jetsam, tending to the forgotten, landless.
The price for pigs was so low they killed them. Six million pigs in September. They buried the bodies in pits.
A couple of farmers walked to the Bottoms and talked to a man carrying a broomstick full of rats strung up by their tales. He was the rat catcher. A naked little boy laid on the ground next to them, sweeping his doorway with a dead Christmas tree. The farmers told them where the pigs were buried.
The men from the Bottoms dug up the pigs. They even took the Russian thistle the farmers had been reduced to feeding the pigs and made soup out of it.
Their bellies finally full, that night they all thought and thought in bed for hours.
Living takes so much doing. What else would you want to be. Think of snails. Think of minnows. Think of a mammoth trapped in ice, the vast grasses inside of him.