Makin’ the Grade
Led the horse to water.
All he does is eat.
Been slingin’ oats across my shoulder.
Wheels spin dizzy
and the hill’s lookin’ steep.
Don’t wanna be that locomotive.
’Cause I can’t make the grade.
I hung your picture.
But the wall wasn’t straight.
Been nailin’ cracks into the plaster.
Gotta keep on moving
and be the first one outta the gate.
But I ain’t gettin’ there any faster.
’Cause I can’t make the grade.
I can’t make the grade.
Life’s a game.
Don’t you know?
But the rules aren’t in the box.
Time’s a wastin’
Why you movin’ so damn slow!?
You start from where you are.
Gotta keep on playing.
Play your songs in the street.
A bit a change might find your way.
Gotta start believing
that you got some reason to be,
And you just might find a day.
That you’re makin’ the grade.
Just Eat Horses
Horse meat’s tender and horse meat’s lean.
Makes the best damn meal that you ever did eat.
It’s cheaper than beef and bigger than goat.
Horse meat is the way to go.
You can fry it on up, and you can grind it on down.
Makin’ horse meat patties and sausage rounds.
Fix it all fancy.
Fix it all plain.
The horse is dead.
It won’t complain.
So why don’t we all just eat horses?
I met a hippie girl at the jamboree.
She was a down home gal from upstate Jersey.
She said things would be better.
Better by far.
If we would just ride horses and stop driving cars.
She’d wrote it in a song that she played for me.
With her little hammer on and her C/add-G.
I sure did like to play that tune.
But with a change in the way that the horses were used:
Why don’t we all just eat horses?
You don’t have to feed ’em when they’re dead.
If horses are your friends
Why do you keep them in a pen?
Ain’t it better just to eat them instead?
Life is strange and what do you know?
I saw her next year at the same ol’ folk show.
I meant it as a joke, all silly n’ nutty.
But I don’t think she thought my sense of humor was funny.
’Cause she didn’t laugh.
And she didn’t smile.
I think it's fair to say that she thought I was vile.
But I swear didn’t mean my suggestion unkind.
That horses are better to eat than to ride:
So why don’t we all just eat horses?
You don’t have to feed them when they’re dead.
If horses are your friends
Why do you keep them in a pen?
Ain’t it better just to ride a bike instead?
What do you want to be when you grow up?
One time when I was in nursey school, Miss Shanahan had everyone sit in a circle and one-by-one say what we wanted to be when we grow up.
It was what you’d expect…
Race car driver
Engineer…and the like
Then it was my turn:
“What do you want to be when you grow up Bobby?”
I thought about it a minute, and said
That threw her for a loop.
There was no braggadocio involved.
No narcissism, no conceit, no misplaced pride
I didn’t think I had a shot at it or anything.
Just seemed to me that it would be the top job.
Can’t blame me.
Four Little Rooms
He lived in four little rooms
Locked behind the door
And the night shined through
Where a light shined before
A red flame burned ash and gray
Dying on the floor
So you move yourself along
And grind on down
And scrape The Path you drag around
Stumblin’ on The Way?
A new day with no grace to say
Starin’ down the ground
They’re softer lies to swallow
When you’re drunk
Or when you’re full of faith
And barely saved
It’s only things that fade
And leave impressions in the dark
And demons in the haze
Sunlight burns night away
And darkness into day
So sing inside your walls
And make the lamps low
And watch the white screen glow
Black on grey
The words that you say
And drain yourself away
Another night turned white by day
Blurs darkness into gray
Are you fated?
Or are you led?
Well either way the moon will grow
And spread out wide across the snow
Piled high and ploughed
Raised between the lines
And layered across the years
Layered across the years
Heather, Oh Heather
The worst waitress ever
Whenever will you come back to me?
I sit here forever
No service is rendered
And never do ever complain
Heather, Oh Heather
It’s so hard to remember
And it’s easy as pie to forget.
With so many orders
And Special de Jours
If only you could find your pen
Heather, Oh Heather
It sez here in the paper
That people are where they eat
Together, they’ll find us
Alone in the diners
Apart from the lives we lead
Heather, Oh Heather
The worst waitress ever
The service was splendored today
We’ll take us together
Away and forever
And never will ever complain
Flowers and Daisies
Once there was a boy who loved to pick flowers. He wished he could pick all the flowers in the world. He knew he could not do this, but it did not make him sad. There were flowers everywhere, more than he could ever pick.
And anyway, it would not be good to pick every flower in the world. For there must always be flowers growing in the fields. Flowers charm the earth, and they wish to be in the company of other flowers.
One day the boy came across a Daisy. It was his first Daisy. It was the most beautiful flower he had ever seen. The boy decided not to pick the Daisy. Instead, he would let the Daisy grow.
And grow. And grow. And live until a ripe old age. And then lay down to die, giving birth to new Daisies. The Daisies yet to come.
The boy thought there was something special about the Daisy. That of the flowers in the world, it was the most extraordinary. The most extraordinary flower that has ever been. He knew that this might not be true. Afterall, there were flowers he had never seen before. And no matter how long he lived, he would never see them all.
But the boy was right. This Daisy, like all Daisies, was extraordinary.
Because the Daisy is a perfect flower. It has always been a perfect flower. Daisies do not change. They have never changed. There is no reason for them to do so. They are immune to the laws of natural selection. They are faultless, unblemished, and without sin. They are the archetypal flower.
Do the Daisies know this? That is hard to tell. Who knows what Daisies think?
And why the Daisy? Of all the flowers in the world, why should the Daisy alone be perfect?
Was it the will of God?
Was it their destiny? No.
Were they lucky? Perhaps, if it pleases you to think of things this way.
But really it was happenstance. Pure happenstance. And that is the most beautiful thing of all.
My Sweet Petunia
Samuels Farm near Pike County, Kentucky, 1953
Chapter 1: More Prettier than Not
“Another day, another dollar.”
“Yes they are.”
“Aint’ getting’ no sheep today son.”
“I’ll get a few.”
“I'm afraid you’re off your game today Sam.”
“Yeah, I’m gettin’ old Ralph.”
“You ever get bored of the job?”
“Been workin’ the job for more than 28 years. It’s what I know.”
“But don’t it get tiresome? Me tryin’ to steal the sheep. You tryin’ to guard ’em
“Depends on the day really.”
“Alright… Let’s punch out and head to Jimmy’s for lunch.”
“We don't have to punch out for lunch Ralph.”
“I know we don’t Sam.”
“Well, lookee here! We got us a Petunia!”
“How you doing gentlemen? What can I get you?”
“You hear that Ralph? She called us gentlemen. Ain’t never seen you here before,
hon. You must be new.”
“I ain’t never been here before, hon, and you must be good at puttin’ two and two
“She’s a live one, ain’t she Ralph?”
“So, what would you like?”
“How ’bout you handsome?”
“You hear that Ralph? She called you handsome.”
“Beef sandwich with radish sauce.”
“It ain’t called radish sauce Ralph.”
“I know it ain’t Sam.”
“Anything else? Coffee?”
“I don't drink coffee. Gives me the jitters.”
“Me neither. I just don’t like it.”
“What do you think of Miss Petunia here Ralph?”
“I don’t know Sam. I met her a minute ago, just like you.”
“So, you’re dissatisfied with the job, are ya? What don’t you like about it?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s the same thing, over and over: Me tryin’ to steal the sheep. You tryin’ to guard
“I don’t mind it.”
“You know Sam, the job ain’t gonna be around forever. Sheep farming is on the
decline, has been since the war. Troops hated the mutton rations.”
“Don’t read the trade magazines?”
“The world is changing Sam. You can’t keep your head in the sand forever.”
“I can pull the wool over my eyes.”
“Not forever, you can’t.”
“Until I retire I can; that’s all I need. I ain’t retooling.”
“Here you go, gentlemen.”
“You hear that Ralph? She called us gentlemen again.”
“Radish sauce is good today.”
“Why do you call it radish sauce?”
“I don’t know. It tastes like radishes.”
“So, what’s your name, honey?”
“Honey. It's a coincidence.”
“What do you mean?”
“You called me honey, and my name’s Honey. It’s a coincidence.”
“I call everybody honey, Honey.”
“Well I guess you got it right this time.”
“She's a sharp one, ain’t she Ralph? Look, we eat here all the time. Might as well know what to call ya.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right Sam.”
“How’d you know my name is Sam?”
“That’s what Ralph here calls ya. Deborah. My name’s Deborah.”
“Deborah, huh? That right? I like that name.”
“I’m sure she’s glad to hear it Sam.”
“I don’t like being called Debbie.”
“Oh yeah? Why’s that?”
“Why you askin’?”
“’Cause I’m curious.”
“Well I ain’t tellin’, and it’s a crying shame I won’t, ain’t it? What line of work you
“You hear that Ralph? Now we’re boys. Stealin’ and guardin’ sheep.”
“Stealin’ and guardin’ sheep? What do you mean?”
“You seen that new cartoon on TV Deborah, where these two fellas work on a sheep farm, and one fella tries to steal the sheep, and the other fella tries to guard them?"
“Yeah, it’s funny.”
“Well, that's what we do. He tries stealin’ them and I try guardin’ them.”
“Lost a few today, haven’t you Sam?”
“I’ll get ’em back.”
“That’s really what you do?”
“For a livin?”
“Just like in the cartoon?”
“Just like in the cartoon.”
“Well ain’t that something.”
“Alright Sam, time to punch back in.”
“We don’t have to punch out for lunch Ralph, and we don’t have to punch back in.”
“I know we don’t Sam.”
“So what do you think of her?”
“Deborah, who do you think?”
“I don’t know Sam. I met her 20 minutes ago, just like you.”
“Well, I kinda like her. I think I might just marry her someday. Where you think she’s from?”
“I don’t know. We’ll ask her next time.”
“Alright. So, thinking of quittin’ the job, are ya?”
“Think you’d be better suited for something else, do ya?”
“I don’t know, something else.”
“Yeah, I know something else. Don't string it out Ralph. I wonder why she don’t like being called Debbie?”
“I don't know Sam. We’ll ask her next time. A pilot.”
“No Sam, a pilot.”
“What kind of pilot?”
“An airplane pilot. I wanna fly an airplane.”
“For a living?”
“Yeah, for a living. That’s what I’m saying.”
“How does one become a pilot?”
“You take flying lessons.”
“At a flight school.”
“What kinda plane you wanna fly.”
“What kinda plane you wanna fly?”
“I don’t know Sam.”
“Whaddaya think of Debbie?”
“Deborah. She goes by Deborah.”
“Yeah, that’s right… You ever wonder about time Ralph?”
“Can’t say I have, ’least no more than the average person.”
“Well, I wonder about it, probably more than the average person.”
“What do you wonder about it Sam?”
“I don’t know, like, where’s it come from? Where’s it go? How long does it last? Stuff like that. Seems to run our lives, and you can’t even see it.”
“Can’t see gravity neither.”
“Well that may be true, but you don’t need to calibrate gravity. Sure do need to calibrate time though, dontcha? Seconds, minutes, hours. The whole thing seems arbitrary, don’t you think?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why, there could be whole different units of measure, with different names than they got now.”
“You want ’em to?”
“No, that ain’t the point! You ever read Einstein Ralph?”
“No, can’t say I have. You?”
“Yes I have.”
“You understand it?”
“I’m not sure. But he says this real interesting thing about time.”
“Yeah, what’s that?”
“Well, the faster something moves through the three dimensions of physical space, the slower it moves through time.”
“That so? What happens if you move backwards?”
“Don’t matter which way you move.”
“Well I do say that is interesting Sam, but what can you do with it?”
“What do you mean?”
“What’s it good for? What’s its practical value?”
“What do you think of Debbie Ralph?”
“Deborah. She wants to be called Deborah.”
“You think she’s pretty?”
“I don't know. I never thought about it.”
“It’s not the sort of thing you have to think about Ralph. Either she’s pretty or she ain’t.”
“No middle ground?”
“Alright, does she strike you as more prettier than not?”
“I don’t know Sam. She’s somewhere in between, most people are.”
“Yeah, I know, but which side of in between?”
“I don’t know. We’ll ask her next time.”
“Fine. So, what kinda plane you wanna fly?”
“You already asked me that question.”
“Well you didn’t answer it. Need more time to think about it?”
“Since you keep bringing up time Sam, doesn’t 28 years seem like a long time to be
working the same job?”
“Yeah, it does. But eight more years, I can retire with a full pension. Probably even get a gold watch.”
“That’s nice. What are you gonna with it? Wind it up and read Einstein?”
“You think sheep have any conception of time?”
“Nah, ain’t got the brains for it.”
“Think they like it here on the farm?”
“Yeah, I guess. They got a pretty good life. ’Till the day they sell ’em for slaughter, make
lamb chops out of ’em. You eat lamb chops Sam?”
“Never had ’em. Little too close to home. You?”
“Nah, I just don’t like ’em.”
“I guess we’re not eating any for lunch today then.”
“You hear that, Ralph? She called us boys again. Good to see you Deborah, and you’re right about it being afternoon.”
“Beef sandwich with radish sauce?”
“It ain’t called radish sauce Ralph.”
“I know it ain’t Sam.”
“Here you go, gentlemen.”
“You hear that Ralph? We’re gentlemen again. Couple minutes ago, we were boys. Now we’re gentlemen.”
“Time flies Sam.”
“Well, what would you two like me to call you: boys, gentlemen, or something else?”
“That’s under your control Debbie.”
“I asked you not to call me Debbie.”
“Yeah, you did. I’m sorry Deborah.”
“You know Deborah, I think Sam likes you.”
“Ain’t nothing wrong with it Sam.”
“Yeah, I know there ain't nothing wrong with it Ralph, but couldn’t you wait ’till I was in the bathroom or something to tell her?”
“Why you wanna be in the bathroom when I tell her?”
“Jesus, can we just eat lunch?”
“We are eating lunch.”
“So, this thing about you two stealin’ and guardin’ sheep. How’s that work?”
“Already told you Deborah: I guard ’em. He steals ’em.
“Lost a few today, haven’t you Sam?”
“I’ll get ’em back.”
“Where do you work? At Sam and Ralph’s Sheep Farm Emporia?”
“We don’t own the job company Deborah.”
“Well where is it?”
“Plural or possessive?”
“Neither. It’s the last name of the owner, Samuels.”
“Well why in the world would he pay you two for stealing and guarding his sheep? I don’t see the point of it.”
“Me neither. You Ralph?”
“Nope. Never have.”
“So how long you been in town Deborah? Where you from?”
“Three weeks and Milwaukee.”
“Milwaukee huh? Never been there before.”
“Most people haven’t.”
“Why’d you move here?”
“Needed the job.”
“Ain’t got no waitress jobs in Milwaukee?”
“None that I want… Alright, if you gotta know, me and my husband had it out, OK?”
“What happened? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“He killed himself.”
“Sure you didn’t kill ’em?”
“Nah, I didn’t kill him, and if I did, you think I’d be saying?”
“No, probably not. Why’d he do it?”
“I’m not sure. Just said he was bored.”
“Bored? Bored with you? I don’t see how any man could be bored with you Deborah. I mean, maybe they wouldn’t like you much, but—"
“He just said he was bored. Bored with everything.”
“How’d he do it?”
“Kill himself, you mean?”
“I’m not real sure how he done it. I just walked in the garage one day, and there he was, dangling from a rope with a noose around his neck.”
“Must have died by hangin’.”
“Damn Deborah, that’s horrible. I don’t know what to say.”
“Neither did he. Not much you can say, hanging dead from a rope.”
“You know, me and Ralph be happy to show you round town a little. Help ease the
“Well, that’s real nice of you fellas, really, but I ain’t ready for that sort of thing yet. You understand. Anyway, it’s called horseradish sauce.”
“The sauce you’ve been talking about. It’s called a horseradish sauce.”
“That’s right. You know why it’s called horseradish sauce Sam?”
“’Cause it ain’t fancy enough to call it hollandaise sauce.”
“Good one Deborah. Where they get the horses?”
“The ones they slaughter and mix into the radish sauce.”
“For Christ’s sake, Sam! I’m sorry Deborah. He don’t know when to stop sometimes.”
“Nah, it’s fine. Pretty funny when you think about it.”
“So, c’mon Deborah, let us show you around. Just hang out a little. No pun intended.”
“Must be some things you’d want to know about your new environs. Gotta have some questions you’d wanna ask.”
“Well that’s sweet of you Sam. What kinda questions you think I might wanna ask?”
“Maybe if there’s a law against hangin’?”
“Shut up Sam!”
“Nah, it’s fine. Pretty funny when you think about it. Or right after you think about it. You almost got me laughing right here in the restaurant!”
“Why don’t you Deborah?”
“I just moved here! I can’t be laughing in public.”
“There’s only three of us Deborah. I wouldn’t call it a public.”
“Well, God Almighty Sam! You got me standin’ here, laughin’ my fool head off, despite my best efforts to the contrary. You really wanna show me around Sam?”
“Pretty obvious he does Deborah.”
“Well I wanna hear it from him. You wanna show me around Sam or dontcha?
Ain’t no middle ground.”
“Pretty straight forward question Sam. I wouldn’t equivocate if I was you.”
“I would. Yes, I would like to show you around Deborah. That’d be real nice. I mean, whenever you got time.”
“Tonight. 7:30, when I get off work. Think you’ll be done stealin’ the sheep by then?”
“No, I’m the one that steals them, Deborah. He’s the one that guards them.”
“Oh, right. Sorry. Think you’ll be done guarding the sheep before 7:30 p.m. Sam?”
“Yeah, I will.”
“You sure about all this Sam? Probably should check your social calendar.”
“Shut up Ralph. See you tonight at 7:30 Deborah. That be real nice.”
Chapter 2: The McCoys
“Mornin’ Sam. How’d it go?”
“How did what go?”
“Jesus Sam, your date with Debbie, what do you think?”
“She don’t like to be called Debbie.”
“What did you do?”
“Went to Chelsea’s.”
“Chelsea’s? Chelsea’s diner? For Christ’s sake Sam, you took her to a diner?”
“That’s where she wanted to go.”
“What did you eat?”
“We split a shake.”
“One straw or two?”
“What do you mean?”
“Did you each have a separate straw, or did you share one?”
“Really. Gonna see her again?”
“Yeah, tonight. After I crush your hopes of stealin’ the sheep.”
“What are you going to do with her tonight? Hang her?”
“Nah. But I’ll tell ya Ralph, she didn’t much like him.”
“Who? Her husband?”
“Think she hung ’em?”
“Nah, she didn’t hung him, but she’d been more than happy to. She told me she hated him so much, she could have shot him.”
“‘Could have’ as in ‘would like to have’ or ‘could have’ as in ‘might have?”’
“That’s what I asked her.”
“She said it could have gone either way.”
“That’s pretty funny.”
“I thought so.”
“Well, good luck tonight Sam. Don’t hang her.”
“Shut up Ralph. See you tomorrow.”
“It went good. We had a real nice time.”
“What did you do?”
“Went ice skating.”
“Ice skating? Where'd you go?”
“To the ice rink Ralph, where the hell you think? There’s only one in town.”
“Alright, alright. Did you do anything after that?”
“Yeah, we took a walk in the park.”
“You hold her hand?”
“I did, and it was real nice too.”
“She hold your hand?”
“Yeah Ralph, we held each other’s hand at the same time. How else you gonna do it?”
“Alright… Still thinkin’ about time?”
“Not much lately.”
“Yeah, I guess you wouldn’t. Wanna think about it now?”
“Well you gotta start the conversation Sam, and I’ll jump in as we go.”
“OK. I wonder if it exists.”
“You think it does?”
“I don’t want it to, but I’m leaning toward it does.”
“Why don’t you want time to exist Sam?”
“Because then I wouldn’t have to think about it all the time. ‘How much time before we can punch out?’ ‘What time’s the game come on?’ ‘What time is it in Hong Kong?’ Stuff like that. Slows you down in life.”
“What does Deborah think about time?”
“I don’t know. I never asked her.
“What’s she think about the job? She’s gotta wonder. Most people think it's just in the cartoons.”
“I don’t know. It’s never come up.”
“Seems like you don’t know much about what she thinks about nothing.”
“Don’t need to. I’m happy about whatever she thinks about everything. So when you gonna start flight school?”
“Started last night.”
“Oh Yeah? How long ’till you get your license?”
“Well, if I train a few times a week, maybe 4 or 5 months. Then I can start flying the little ones.”
“Well I’m real happy for you Ralph. I really am.”
“Alright, I guard ’em. You steal ’em. I think you’re in the lead so far this week.”
“Last couple weeks, actually. Does that bother you Sam?”
“I been working the job for 28 years. I don’t know what I think about none of it no
“Well, I see two ways you might think about it. One, is that as a veteran of the
occupation, you feel you shouldn’t be bested by a newcomer. Or, maybe you’re just getting tired of the work, and it’s time for you to move on.”
“You know, the more I think about it Ralph, the more I think you might be right.”
“Quittin’ the job. We could quit together. Then there’d be no need for you to be
stealin’ the sheep, and no need for me to spend half my goddamn life trying to guard ’em. The whole thing’s ridiculous when you think about it.”
“What about the sheep? Can’t just leave ’em here.”
“I don’t see why we can’t, but alright, I guess we do bear some responsibility for their welfare. Let’s say we took ’em with us. If we took ’em one at a time, maybe Samuels wouldn’t notice.”
“Not at first, but he’s got to eventually, no matter how many lug nuts he’s missing.”
“Well, if we stole ’em all at once, how would we get ’em outta here?”
“Good question. Here’s another one: What would we do with them? Slaughter them, cut’em up, pack ’em, and sell ’em? We ain’t got no customer base.”
“Well, I guess we could keep a couple of them. Too bad we don’t like eatin’ ’em.”
“Deborah like sheep? Maybe she could hang one in the garage.”
“She didn’t hang her husband Ralph.”
“I know she didn’t Sam. So, the guy who owns this place, Samuels…”
“What’s his first name?”
“Tom, huh? Tom Samuels.”
“That’s how he signs the checks.”
“Don’t he got a son who works here too?”
“What’s his name?”
“What’s his first name?”
“Tom, huh? Tom Junior… Now here’s something to ponder: What if Tom Junior’s
grandfather was named Tom Senior, grandfather on his father’s side. Wouldn’t that make Tom Senior a Tom Junior? And wouldn’t they keep getting more and more junior each generation?”
“I don’t know, maybe there’s rules about it.”
“Tom Junior, huh? What do you think Tom Junior thinks of his father?”
“Not much, far as I can tell. I think he resents him.”
“Don’t Tom Senior and the misses take a vacation in the summer?”
“Yes they do.”
“What if someone stole the sheep while they were gone?”
“You’re supposed to be stealin’ them. I’ll tell you though, them sheep worth a lot of
money. Maybe we help someone steal ’em and divvy up the profits.”
“Have to be an inside job."
“Well, Tom Junior does work here on the farm, don’t he?”
“You think Tom Junior likes to have a drink now and again?”
“I might’ve seen him with a flask.”
“What if we took him out for drinks to get his opinion on the matter. We suggest to him that if somehow all the sheep disappeared one night, neither he nor us would fret much about it. We don’t know how it happened, and he don’tknow how it happened, being as we weren’t there, and he was asleep. Can’t blame the boy for sleeping at night, can you?”
“No you can’t.”
“Ever hear of the Hatfields and the McCoys Ralph?”
“Well, the Hatfields picked up and gone a long time ago, but some of the McCoys are still around, ’least their offspring, and they don’t much like the Samuels, and the Samuels don’t much like the McCoys neither.”
“The McCoys are hard to find, but the Samuels are easy to find. The farm’s just sitting there, right out in the open.”
“So what if one night the McCoys, ’least what’s left of ’em, came by and stole the
sheep? Hell, we’d help ’em do it. If Tom Junior don’t know what happened, then Tom Senior don’t know what happened. And if the event were to take place on the weekend, ain’t no way we’d know what happened neither. The sheep be gone, and we could quit our jobs. Hell, we wouldn’t even have to quit ’em; it be a fait accompli.”
“What’s that mean Sam?”
“Means we wouldn’t have no choice in the matter. Our jobs would be eliminated by default.”
“What about Tom Junior?”
“What about him?”
“He needs to get something out of it, more than just being kicked outta the house by his father.”
“I’m not sure he does Ralph, but I’ll make sure the McCoys give ’em a cut. Them sheep worth a lot of money. McCoys sure be happy to have ’em. ’Course we’d get a substantial finder’s fee. You know what people sometimes call a herd of sheep Ralph? A flock. A flock of sheep. Makes it seem like they can fly, don’t it?”
“Guess ours just flew the coop.”
“I reckon they did.”
Chapter 3: Ice Skating
“Mornin’ Sam. When we takin’ Tom Junior out for drinks?”
“I don’t know, maybe sometime next week.”
“Next week? Samuels leavin’ ’round the end of the month, aren’t they? Seems like we should be meetin’ with Tom Junior a little sooner.”
“Ah, we’ll be fine.”
“I don’t think you’re looking at things realistically here Sam. If we wanna make the best of our time here on God’s green earth, I think we need to be movin’ a little faster.”
“Ah c’mon Ralph, it’s Thursday. We’re right upon the weekend. I’d like to relax a little before we set out.”
“Alright, Monday then.”
“Me and Deborah going to the ice capades.”
“The ice capades?”
“Yeah, the ice capades.”
“What are the ice capades?”
“They’re like a traveling entertainment show. The skaters are national champions.”
“Why aren’t they competing?”
“Well, they’re former national champions. They ain’t got it in ’em anymore to compete, so they put on a show.”
“Alright, Tuesday then.”
“Me and Deborah going ice skating.”
“Ice skating? Ain’t the ice capades good enough for you?”
“No, ’cause I don’t get no exercise. Gotta get exercise to keep God’s mercy.”
“You really like ice skating, huh?”
“I do. Makes me feel young again.”
“Alright, Wednesday then.”
“Gotta recover from ice skating on Tuesday. I ain’t no former national champion. Takes a lot out of me. It’s hard on my body. I get cramps.”
“Then why do you do it if it’s so hard on your body? Why not take it a little easier on yourself?”
“’Cause I enjoy it. Deborah too. Frees the soul.”
“Oh, yeah? Frees the soul, does it? Soul of Jesus. What, you gonna walk on water now?”
“Easier to skate on it than to walk on it Ralph, especially for a man of my age. I like to get out there early, a little before they open.”
“And why exactly is that Sam?”
“Because no one has skated on the ice yet. It’s all fresh and new. Nothing on it, just a blank slate as some philosopher calls it. Ain’t been all scraped up and scarred yet.”
“But it’s gonna get all scraped up and scarred, ain’t it? Some people gonna fall on the ice. Some people gonna die. The ice knows that.”
“The ice don’t know nothin’ Ralph. It just sits there, pure as the new fallen snow.”
“You any good at it?”
“Of skating. ‘Are you a good skater?’ is what I'm asking.”
“I know what you’re asking boy. And no, I ain’t. Shoulda done more of it when I was a child. Gotten all scraped up and scarred then, taken my lickens as one should as a child, and grown up to be a man. But I didn't, and that’s how it is. I have to live with it, and I’ll have to die with it too.”
“So, we gotta wait ’till next Thursday, huh? Just so your sorry ass can be young again.”
“That’s right boy. Just so my sorry ass can be young again.”
“You know Sam, you’ve taken to callin’ me ‘boy’ a lot lately. Why is that?”
“Because you’re like a son to me Ralph, son I never had.”
“You don’t really look that old Sam. I’m not sure old enough to be my father.”
“Sure I am boy.”
“Don’t look it.”
“Everyone says I look young for my age. Not sure if it’s a blessing or a curse.”
“Why would it be a curse? People like to look younger than they are.”
“Well that’s their business, ain’t mine.”
“You know Sam, you always say you been working the job for 28 years. You sure you been working the job that long?”
“Twenty-eight years is a lot longer to you than it is to me.”
“Twenty-eight years is longer than you’ve been on the face of the earth boy.”
“That may be true Sam, but you didn’t answer my question. How long you been working the job?”
“Ain’t your concern how long I been working the job. The more you ask, the less I tell. Don’t matter anyway. None of it does. You see Ralph, when we die, as the body decays, the skin pulls in a little leaving the hair and the fingernails sittin’ there for a while. That’s what you are then: bones, hair, and fingernails. Then the hair and the fingernails decay, and you’re just a pile of bones, nothing more. It ain’t pretty boy. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. That’s all there is. That’s all there will ever be.”
“So that’s why you skate, huh? Keep your hair and your fingernails looking good for when you die. You’re afraid to live life for real, ain’t ya Sam? So you figure, if I’m your boy, then you ain’t gotta do nothin’ ’cept be my pa. You can rest on your laurels, even if you ain’t got none. You just pass on your pearls of wisdom to the next poor soul, and tell ’em about the ways of life, when you never did a goddamn thing with your own.
You’re right Sam. I am still a boy, and there’s a lot more I gotta learn about life. But
you ain’t never learned it yourself. You’re afraid to learn it. You just hedge your bets, so that if I grab the world by the balls and crush it, you can be proud of me. You can call me your son. And if I don’t, ain’t no shame you didn’t neither when you had the chance. Either way, you can die in peace. You call me son and tell me how to find my place in life, ’cause you ain’t never found your own. Ain’t that right, pa? You just sit there on your throne playing God Almighty, lookin’ down on me, while I sacrifice my life for you, hanging on a goddamn fucking cross awaiting your judgment. You like it that way, don’t you Sam? Alright, we’ll talk with Tom Junior next Thursday. That’s fine. I’ll be there, standing side by side with you, eager as always, with everything I said tonight and everything you said tonight gone and forgotten. It’ll be a brand new, spanking clean, blank slate.”
Chapter 4: Tom Junior
“Mornin’ Sam. Sam, I said a lot of things last night I shouldn’t have said. I feel realbad
about it. It wasn’t right, and I hope you’ll forgive me.”
“No Ralph, everything you said last night was right. You gave me my comeuppance, and I rightly deserved it.”
“Sam, you look like you’re gonna cry.”
“I’ve been cryin’ since the minute you left. I love you Ralph. I love you dearly, as if you were my own flesh and blood, and I ain’t saying that as some washed up, wanna be father.”
“I love you too Sam. I really do. Now, let’s carry out this fiendish plot together. What time we meeting Tom Junior on Thursday?”
“Ain’t decided yet.”
“Whaddaya mean you ain’t decided yet? What are you waiting for, the Canadian crows to fly south for the winter? Goddamnit Sam! How are we gonna butter up Tom Junior if we don’t even know when we’re meeting him?"
“Maybe I already buttered him up on the side.”
“Why you gotta do it on the side?”
“’Cause you don’t know him like I do. You can’t go talk to him like I can.”
“What do you mean?”
“I know him a little. You don’t.”
“What do you mean you know him? What are you, friends with Tom Junior Sam?”
“For God’s sake, no Ralph! We ain’t no friends. I just know him a little, that’s all. I’ve been working on the farm a long time. You can’t help but talk with people.”
“I see. So what do you two love birds talk about?”
“Jesus Ralph, stop it! You’re acting like we’re in cahoots or something.”
“Well, are you?”
“No!!! I just told Tom Junior that he was a good little boy, and that we’d like to take him out for drinks. Told him we’d come up with a time later.”
“It’s gettin’ later all the time.”
“Alright, I’ll go talk with him now.”
“Eight o’clock. He said he’d meet us Thursday night at eight o’clock.”
“Jude’s Tavern. Let’s get there a little early to plot strategy, say 7:30.”
“Alright, 7:30 then.”
“Well, you made it here old boy, right on time, 7:30.”
“I ain’t feeling so good about this Sam.”
“It still bothers me you didn’t set this up a little more beforehand. Why’d you have to wait so long to find out when Tom Junior wanted to meet?”
“Don’t call him Tom Junior. He don’t like it.”
“Since when do you care what Tom Junior likes?”
“I don’t. I just mean don’t call him that when we meet. Could make our best laid plans go
awry. Well here comes little ol’ Tom Junior, now. ‘Tom! How you doing ol’ boy?”’
“Right fine, I guess. Didn’t expect you and Ralph to take me out for drinks.”
“Why not, Tom? You and I been working here together for a long time. Ralph is my colleague and my dear friend. You can trust the both of us.”
“Question is Sam, can we trust him?”
“Fair question. Can we trust you, Tom Junior?”
“Don’t call me Tom Junior Sam!”
“Alright, sorry Tom. Won’t happen again. Will it Ralph?”
“I didn’t call him Tom Junior. You did.”
“Yeah, you can trust me. I ain’t got nothin’ on ya.”
“Alright then. Getcha a beer, Tom?”
“Ralph, how ’bout you go up to the bar there, and get us a few beers?”
“How ’bout you do it Sam?”
“Alright, alright. It’s too fine a night and too many pretty girls to be wrangling. ‘Hey hon, bring us a few beers over here, will ya?’ So, Tom. I've been working for your father a long time. You notice things. And I can’t help but notice that you bust your ass around here, and you don’t get nothing for it.”
“Well Tom, seems to me when someone puts in a hard day’s work, they should get
something out it. Don’t you agree?”
“You don’t get paid nothin’ for what you do on the farm. Do you?”
“Don’t that make you a little mad son? Don’t that get you a little hot under the collar sometimes?”
“Yeah, it does.”
“Would me, too. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen your father give you the time of day, much less pay you anything.”
“No, he don’t, do he? Man, them beers taste realgood on a hot summer’s night. Real good. Alright, so where were we?”
“Yeah Sam, where were we?”
“C’mon Ralph. I’m just trying to help Tom Junior here see things a little more clearly.”
“Goddamnit Sam! Don’t call me fucking Tom Junior! I don’t like it!”
“Yeah Sam, don’t call him fucking Tom Junior! He don’t like it!”
“Tom, you know I don’t think of you that way. I’m just trying to make a point.”
“Well, make it then.”
“Tom, I’ve been working on the farm for 28 years, and it’s as plain as the ass on an
orangutan that your father keeps you under his thumb, every goddamn minute, of every goddamn day. He treats you like a child, when you’re about to be a man. Ain’t that right? You’re just one cunt hair away from being a full-grown man, ain’t ya Tom?”
“Yeah, I am.”
“That’s right. Well, don’t you think maybe you should be man enough to do something about your father?”
“Like what Sam? Shoot him in the back?”
“Hell, boy, shoot him in the front!”
“I ain’t shooting nothing! Jesus Christ Sam! You brought me here to ask me to kill my father!?”
“No Tom, of course not. I ain’t asking you to kill your father. Man signs my checks.
Pays me at least.”
“Fuck you, Sam!”
“Alright, now hold on, hold on. Calm down. I ain’t talking nothin’ ’bout shooting your father. I believe he’s leaving for vacation soon anyway. Going with your mama, bless her little heart. What’s that, in maybe a week or so from now?”
“Week and a half.”
“And you’ll be here running the farm pretty much by yourself, wontcha Tom?”
“Won’t get paid nothing for it, will ya?”
“All that wasted potential. You could run the whole goddamn kit and caboodle yourself. There’s a lot of money on that farm Tom, especially the sheep. Beaucoup dollars.”
“What? You want me to give you a good deal on some sheep?”
“No Tom, I ain’t lookin’ to buy your sheep. Why would I? Your father pays Ralph to steal ’em. Now you might not know this son, but there’s a long standing feud between your family and the McCoys, going way far back.”
“There ain’t no McCoys around here no more!”
“Oh yes there are Tom. Not the original ones of course, but their flesh n’ blood. The
Hatfields up and gone a while back, but some of the McCoys still around. I don’t think even your father knows that. But I do. I even sees one or two of ’em occasionally. And I just happened to be talking with one of ’em the other day. You see Tom, the reason your family even have those sheep is that your great grandfather stole ’em, at least their forebearers, from the McCoys. The real McCoys. ’Course that never sat right with them, and their progeny sure like to get ’em back. Not just for the money, though there’d be a lot of it, not to mention the lambchops, but to wave their middle finger in your daddy’s eye. It’s personal Tom. But it ain’t so easy stealin’ flocks of sheep in this day and age. There’s all sorts of cameras, electric wires, booby traps and the like, all over that farm, even some you don’t know about. ’Course your daddy pays off the law to make sure there ain’t no thieves getting in. Hell, they even arrest the wolves. Put little wolf handcuffs on ’em. You never see no wolves on the farm, do you Tom? Point being, only way the McCoys could get them sheep is if it were an inside job. You see what I’m getting at here boy?”
“There ain’t no way my pa would let them get away with it, McCoys or anyone else. My pa ain’t scared of nothin. He’d hunt them down, shoot ’em, and hang ’em himself.”
“Not if he’s on vacation he wouldn’t. Couldn’t if he wanted to, could he Tom?”
“No. He couldn’t. But why should I want to do any of this anyway?”
“Them sheep worth a lot of money Tom. A lot. I’d make sure the McCoys gave you a cut.
How much you want?”
“Jesus, I ain’t doing this!”
“Could be a couple hundred dollars Tom.”
“Couple hundred dollars!?”
“Yeah Tom, I’m telling you, them sheep are worth a lot of money! I’m in good with the McCoys, and they know they can’t get ’em without ya. I’d make sure they take care of ya. Of course, that’s not the only reason you wanna do this Tom.”
“Yeah, what’s the other?”
“Ah c’mon Tom, what do you think? We both know how much you resent your pa, and you should too, rightly so. Get some revenge. Now I know revenge is a dirty word Tom, and it don’t exactly capture what’s in your heart, though maybe it does, but you’d get some satisfaction out of it, probably a lot. A little grin, grin, grin, under your chinny, chinny, chin. You’d carry that secret for the rest of your life. You could dangle your middle finger at your pa any time you want, in your mind of course, but that’s where all our feelings are.”
“Yeah, but he ain’t gonna believe the McCoys did it.”
“Be funny if he did though. What’s he gonna do? Round up a posse to chase down the McCoys? He’d be laughed outta town.”
“No, c’mon Sam, he’d know I was in on it. And I would be.”
“Yeah, I know Tom. That’s why we’re here.”
“My pa be spittin’ bullets! He’d kill me for it! I ain’t lying.”
“Oh, c’mon Tom…”
“He would Sam. You’ve never seen him in a fury. You’ve never seen him when he drinks. When my pa drinks, he could scare the coil of a rattlesnake’s ass. He’d fly off the handle and beat me with the pan, right there on the stove. He’d burn me too before he’d kill me. Push my hand to the gridle, and throw boiling water in my face, just to hear me squeal like a pig. You don’t know him like I do Sam. He already tried to kill me once. I mean for real. If my ma weren’t there, he’d a done it too. Hell, he’d kill her if he could.”
“Oh Tom, Tom, Tom. You really believe your father would think you were in on it? That you helped plan it? Little Tom Junior? Your father thinks you’re a stone butt idiot and you know it, more than I do. He ain’t gonna suspect you Tom, c’mon.”
“I don’t care what he thinks of my brains, he’d have to know I was in on it.”
“Alright Tom, how ’bout this? Let’s say we roughed you up a little. Not real hard of
course, just enough to make it look like you tried.”
“Fighting off the McCoys?”
“Jesus Tom, there ain’t no McCoys around here no more!”
“Why’d you say there were Sam?”
“Yeah, why’d you say there were Sam?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ve been in the business a long time, and I know plenty of folks that be real happy to have them sheep. Pay good money for ’em.”
“I ain’t doing this shit Sam!”
“What, you afraid boy? Man can take a punch.”
“It ain’t that Sam.”
“Well what then?”
“It ain’t gonna work! It just plain out ain’t gonna work!”
“You don’t think so, huh Tom? Maybe you’re right. I don’t think you’re right, but
“I ain’t talking about this no more Sam! I ain’t doing it, and that’s it!”
“I see. Well then let me ask you something, Tom.”
“None of this conversation ever happened, did it?”
“Ain’t gonna tell your pa nothin’ about it, right?”
“No Sam, of course not.”
“Sure about that Tom?”
“Yeah Sam, I’m sure about it. What are you, threatening me now?”
“No Tom, I can’t believe you’d ask me that. Now I know we ain’t confidants. As your father’s employee, wouldn’t make no sense that we were. But we’ve never had a squabble. Even had a few laughs now and again. I even think of you as a friend sometimes. You don’t ever think about me that way? Not even just a little?”
“Yeah, I do Sam. I’m sorry.”
“That’s alright son. I know you’re a man, and you know you’re a man. I think you’re
making a big mistake Tom, really do. But you gotta make your own way in life. Your own decisions, your own actions, all of it. I don’t know what more to say. Let’s shake like men. Feels good to be a man, don’t it Tom?”
“Yeah, it does.”
“You’re a good boy Tom. Getcha another beer? My treat of course.”
“Nah, I best be going.”
“Alright then. Not a word.”
“Not a word Sam. I give you mine.”
“That’s good. Now go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
“You too Sam. You too Ralph. Good to see you outside the job.”
“Goddamnit Sam! What the fuck! How’d you let him get away with that! He done up and left! He ain’t gonna do it!”
“Yeah, I know Ralph. I was sitting at the same table as you.”
“You said you were sure as shit he’d go along with the plan!”
“I don’t think I put it quite that way, but yeah, I did say something like that.”
“Traitor!? You callin’ me a traitor! I outta knock your ass to the floor, right here in public! I tried every goddamn thing I could think of to get Tom Junior to do it! Didn’t I? You got better ideas, you should have said so.”
“You shouldn’t have said nothing about beatin’ him up. I think that’s why he didn’t do it.”
“Nah, that ain’t why.”
“Well, why then?”
“I overestimated Tom Junior. I gave him too much credit.”
“For his determination to get out from under his daddy’s thumb. But he couldn’t do it. I guess Tom Junior just ain’t a man.”
“You knew it wasn’t gonna work, didn’t you? The whole time.”
“I didn’t know for sure, but I suspected it might not. It’s a tall order for a boy to cross his father, especially a father like Tom Junior’s. I knew it’d be hard to win him over.”
“Did you even want to win him over?”
“I wanted you to think I did.”
“Because I wanted you to think I had the guts to quit the job. So I gave it a try, and I left it up to fate.”
“Fate? You believe in fate?”
“Sure want to.”
“Because then I’m absolved.”
“Of failure. If I try and fail, I’m not chagrined. If I don’t try, I’m not ashamed. Ain’t no hangdog either way. It’s all in the hands of fate. Que sera, sera.”
“So fate gives you an excuse.”
“It gives me a reason not to care.”
“What are you so afraid of Sam? I don’t understand.”
“I’m afraid of everything Ralph. I’m afraid of life. You said it yourself. You told me I wanna be your father, so I can live my life through you. And you’re right. I do wanna be your father. But I don’t wanna be the father that raised me. That father was a cruel man. He hated himself, and he hated me for knowing it. You said I want you to succeed, so I can be proud you’re my son. My father didn’t want me to succeed, because I was his son. He didn’t want to live his life through me; he wanted to stop me from livin’ mine. He wanted me to fail, not to excuse his own failings, but to take me down with him. And I’m afraid I’m trying to take you down with me Ralph. That’s the thing I’m most afraid of. I’m terrified at the thought of it. But I won’t do it. I’d burn in hell before I’d let that happen. Thank God for that. ’Least the good Lord got something right. He got another thing right too: He gave you the wherewithal, so that neither me nor anyone else could take you down, including the Almighty Himself. You’re not bound by fate Ralph. You’re alive. You’re truly alive.
My father was afraid that God would send him to hell. He wished he was younger,
because he was afraid to die. I wish I was older, because I’m afraid to live. He tried to cheat death. I try to cheat life. I was never gonna quit the job Ralph. I’d rather stay with what I know, even if it don’t ask much of me, because it don’t ask much of me. That way, I can accept my lot in life and never fall short of reaching the stars. I’m lost in a netherworld of my own creation, more dead than alive, and I ain’t got neither the guts nor the brains to get out. That’s how I am. That’s how I’ll always be.”
“Stop it, Sam! You are alive! More than me sometimes. You got more guts and more brains than you know. I’ve seen ’em both. I’ve seen you take chances I would never take and wouldn’t have even thought to take. Hell, the way you masquerade them sheep sometimes confounds me. Yeah, you lose a few more than you win, but you take the chance, and the pay cut that comes with it. You’d get a lot more out of life Sam if you thought you deserved it. You’re not scared of losing Sam. You’re scared of winning. Thing you’re most afraid of in life is gettin’ your cake and eatin’ it too. You don’t try gettin’ it, ’cause you wouldn’t eat it. You wouldn’t eat it, so you don’t try gettin’ it. You can’t think like that Sam, especially about Deborah. She’s a damn fine woman, and more prettier than not. Dumbest thing ever come out of your mouth, ’least the dumbest thing I ever heard come out of it, is that you don’t deserve her. You do, Sam. You deserve her as much as anyone deserves anything.”
“Deborah is a wise woman Ralph. Wise beyond her years. Don’t know anyone wiser.”
“Then she ain’t no dumbass for liking you.”
Chapter 5: The Times of Our Lives
“Hello, my sweet Petunia. You’re looking pretty tonight.”
“Why do you always call me that Sam?”
“A petunia. Why a petunia?”
“It’s a pretty flower.”
“Lots of pretty flowers.”
“I just like petunias in particular.”
“You know, you always say I look good. Good for my age, you mean?”
“No, just good. I think you’re beautiful Deborah.”
“How old do you think I am Sam?”
“I don’t know. You never told me.”
“You never told me how old you are neither.”
“You never asked me. You always said it don’t matter, and it don’t.”
“Just curious though: How old do you think I am?”
“I don’t know Deborah, c’mon.”
“How old do you think I am Sam?”
“I don’t know! Why are we even talking about this!?”
“Because I want to.”
“From all appearances, I’m dating a younger man. Sort of unusual. Most men want to be with a younger woman. Most of them are. They don’t want to be with a woman their age, sure not one that’s older. People tell me I’m blessed, that I look good for my age, but that’s not the same as looking good. I’m 52 years old Sam. You can’t be more than 50, probably younger. You really want to be with someone my age? You gonna want to be with me when I’m 55? 60? You still gonna think I’m looking good then? You still gonna call me your sweet Petunia?”
“Of course I will.”
“I’m not so sure. I haven’t had much lot of luck in my life, especially with men. Why
should I be gettin’ lucky now?”
“I just look young Deborah. People always say I look younger than I am, same as you.”
“How old are you Sam?”
“About your age.”
“Little younger though, right?”
“It don’t matter. I don’t wanna talk about this anymore. Please!”
“Let me ask you something Deborah. First time we met at the restaurant, you said your husband hung himself. Then, when we got together that night, you told me you hated him so much, you could have shot him.”
“And then I asked you, if by ‘could have,’ you meant ‘would like to have’ or ’might
have.’ You remember what your answer was? You said it could have gone either way.”
“I did say that. You’re right. You thought it was funny.”
“I did, and I still do. But you’ve never said another word about your husband since. You won’t ever talk about what happened between the two of you. Why?”
“It was awful Sam. The most awful thing you can imagine. I feel bad for not talkin’ about it with you, I really do. And I will someday, I promise. I just can’t right now.”
“Can’t because it’s too difficult for you, or can’t because something bad might happen if you did?”
“What are you trying to get at here Sam?”
“Did you kill your husband Deborah?”
“Nah, I didn't kill him. I didn't need to. He was killing himself.”
“What do you mean?”
“He couldn’t live life. I don’t think he ever knew what it was like to be alive. And it made him feel dead, dead and angry. He was a violent man.”
“Did he beat you?”
“Sure he did. ’Till I was black and blue. ’Till I couldn’t walk, or even sit down.”
“You feel you had cause to kill him?”
“Yeah, I do, but I didn’t. But he did something worse than beating me Sam.”
“He lied to me. All the time. Up and down. Everyday. Just to do it. Even when there was no reason for it. He knew I hated it, so he did it more, and more, and more. But he was a sly one. I couldn’t always tell for sure if he was lying, and he knew it. He played with it. Sometimes he’d tell the truth, and sometimes he’d lie, ’till I never knew what was for real. And I’d cry. I’d cry so hard! And he’d say, ‘What’s wrong with you, Debbie?,’ and he’d beat me some more. Two hours later, he said he didn’t remember doing it. Next day, he swore he never done it.”
“He must have known he done it.”
“Sure he did. Maybe he tried not to, I don’t know, but it don’t matter either way.”
“Geez, Deborah. I don’t know what to say. I shouldn’t have asked you about it. I’m
“You didn’t do nothing wrong Sam. You didn’t know.”
“Oh honey, come here. I’d do anything to make that pain go away.”
“I know you would Sam, but I can’t let you see me when I think about him.”
“’Cause you wouldn’t like what you see.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I play it over and over in my head.”
“I walk in that garage, and I slip the noose around his neck. Then I tighten it, until his eyes almost bust out. But not enough to kill him. I make sure of that. I torture him. I torture his mind. I laugh at him wiggling in that noose. I say, ‘Aw honey, what’s wrong? Why you squirming like that? Here, let me ease that a little for you. That’s better, isn’t it love? Why would anyone want to hurt you? Why on earth would anyone want to hurt you? It ain’t right. You would never hurt me. I know you wouldn’t, honey. I know how much you love me. Here, let me tighten that up a little more for you. Wouldn’t want to see you fall down and cry. I only want to make you happy. That’s all I’ve ever wanted, is to make you happy.’
I play it over, and over, and over ’till I can’t take it anymore or ’till I’m bored. Then, I raise a shot gun, take a step back, look him square in the eye, and I blow his fuckin’ brains out all over the garage, blood everywhere. Then I just stand there, not laughin’ no more, not cryin’, not tremblin’, not happy, not sad, not even satisfied with what I done. I just look at him hanging there, for hours if I got the time. Fucking bastard. Ain’t no way I can let you see that Sam. I feel evil when it happens. I am evil when it happens. More evil than Lucifer himself. More evil than anyone that’s ever been.”
“You’re not evil Deborah. You could never be evil. You’re the kindest, most loving
woman I’ve ever known. God knows you are. The Father knows. What I don’t understand is why The Father would hurt you like that, his own creation. Why would He do that to you? Why would He sit there on his throne and let that happen? Why would He do it to any of his children?”
“Have you really worked on the farm for 28 years?”
“I have Deborah. Yes, I have.”
“What did you do before that?”
“You mean for work?”
“Oh Geez, it’s been a long time. I’ve done a lot of jobs…”
“Which one maybe you done the most?”
“I worked in a tavern for a couple years.”
“What did you do?”
“First, I worked in the kitchen, washing dishes mainly. Then, I was a bar back, and
eventually, bar tender.”
“Did you like being a bar tender Sam?”
“Yeah, I guess. It’s interesting. You get to understand people.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, people who sit at the bar for a while, especially the regulars, and especially
men, they tell you a lot, a lot about themselves, even their whole life stories sometimes. Of course you wanna get them liquored up, so you talk to them, you listen to them. You figure out what they want to hear, what makes them happy, what makes them sad, what they don’t want to know about themselves. Especially that, what they don’t want to know about themselves. So you help them. You help them pull the wool over their eyes.”
“Where did you work?”
“Like I said, first in the kitchen and then at the bar.”
“No, I mean what town?”
“Geez, Deborah, it’s been so long. I don’t remember... Oh, you know where it
was? Milwaukee! In Milwaukee! Ain’t that funny? What a coincidence!”
“You told me you never been to Milwaukee Sam.”
“Yeah you did Sam, first time we met at the restaurant. You asked me where I was from. I said Milwaukee, and you said you’d never been there.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“Sam? How old are you? Really? Please, don’t lie to me Sam. I don’t care how old
you are, I just want to know. Please Sam. Sam? Sam!? Sam! What’s wrong!?”
“I don’t know. I can’t breathe right.”
“Oh God, Sam! I think you’re having a heart attack. Don’t die Sam! Please! Please don’t die! Don’t die! I’ll call an ambulance.”
“Thank God you got here fast. Please don’t let him die!”
“We'll get him to the hospital as fast as we can, I promise. Do you have his wallet? I’m sorry to ask you ma’am, but they’re gonna want his health insurance card at the hospital.”
“OK, I’ll bring it.”
“Yes, can I help you ma’am?”
“Hi, they just brought my friend to the emergency room. I think he had a heart attack.”
“What’s his name?”
“Sam. Sam Widdershins. Is he alright?”
“I don’t know ma’am. Do you have his health insurance card?”
“Yes, here you go. Can I see him?”
“No, I’m afraid you can’t ma’am, at least not now. Someone will come out and talk with you as soon as they can.”
“OK. I understand.”
“Yes. Yes, I’m Deborah.”
“Hi, I’m Dr. Blanc. Are you Mr. Widdershins’ wife?”
“I’m his friend. Is he OK?”
“He’s gonna be OK, ma’am. We want to keep him here a little while longer, but he’s gonna be OK. How old is Mr. Widdershins?”
“I’m not sure. Let me find his driver’s license. It says he’s 48.”
“That’s pretty young to be having a heart attack. He needs to take better care of himself.”
“Yeah, he does. Can I go see him now?”
“Yes, you can. He’ll be discharged in a couple hours, but yes, you can see him now.”
“Sam! You’re alright! They say you’ll be alright!”
“Yeah, they say I will.”
“You will honey. You really gave me a scare. You gotta take better care of yourself. The doctor said you’re young to be having a heart attack.”
“He told you how old I am?”
“No, it’s on your driver’s license Sam.”
“I lied to you Deborah. I’ve lied to you a lot. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry!”
“Why didn’t you want me to know how old you are Sam?”
“Because I didn’t want you to think I might leave you, just like you were saying
tonight. But I would never leave you Deborah. Never in my life. I shouldn’t have lied to you. I’m so sorry. I’ll never lie to you again. I swear I won’t!”
“Ain’t no hangin’ offense Sam. Just don’t kill yourself, alright?”
“I won’t. I love you Deborah.”
“I love you too Sam. Hey, Ralph just got here.”
“Ralph! Hey Ralph!”
“I’m so glad you’re gonna be alright Sam.”
“I thought I might die Ralph.”
“Deborah thought you might too. You ain’t gettin’ any younger.”
“Mornin’ Sam. You’re looking better Sam. I’m glad you took some time off work.”
“Yeah, I needed to... I'm real happy for you Ralph. You gettin’ your pilot’s license and all.
God knows you put everything you got into it. I’m sure gonna miss you.”
“I’m gonna miss you too Sam. Don’t worry, I’ll come around, maybe more than you want. You’ll probably get sick of me.”
“I could never get sick of you Ralph. I love you like a son.”
“I'm happy for you too Sam. I’m glad you’re gonna quit the job. Not with your full
pension, I know, but with a lot of it. It’s not a bad deal.”
“Nah, I guess not. You know what Ralph? They gave me a gold watch. How you like that? I thought it was pretty decent of them at first, especially as I’m leaving the farm. But you know what? It wasn’t made of gold. It was a cheap piece of crap. I saw one at the dime store just like it for two bucks. Damn thing broke in a couple weeks. You believe that?”
“You don’t need a gold watch to know how to live Sam.”
“Nah, you don’t.”
“You got a lot of good years left in you Sam. You’re still young.”
“Yeah, I am, and I should be happier about it. I’ll learn to. You remember what I told you about Einstein Ralph?”
“Sort of. He said that time isn’t real, right?”
“Not exactly. He said that time is relative.”
“Relative to what?”
“I'm really glad you got Deborah to care for you Sam. She's a lovely woman, and more prettier than not.”
“Yes she is. And I love her. I love her so much. My sweet Petunia.”
Reasonable people disagree about the nature of time, and these reasonable people include physicists. Some believe time is mere fiction. Though we experience the passage of time as if it were real, really it isn’t. Time is not “out there” in the physical world, it is only “in here” in our minds. It is not a fundamental property of the universe; it is an incidental figment of our imagination. Other physicists believe precisely the opposite. They maintain with equal fervor that time is real, really real, as real as real can be. It is indeed a fundamental property of the universe. Yes, we experience time in our heads, but it is there whether we experience it or not.
And then there is the theory of special relativity. This concept of time occupies a sort of middle ground. Einstein tells us the passage of time depends on one’s frame of reference. Time is relative to motion and to the vantage point of the observer. Relative to a stationary object, the faster something moves through the three dimensions of physical space, the more slowly it moves through time. The faster you go, the longer it takes.
Special relativity might seem to imply that time isn’t real, that it does not exist in an objective sense. Afterall, if people at different speeds and positions have different experiences of time, then time purely subjective. It does not reside in the nature of things. How else can you look at it?
But Einstein didn’t say that time isn’t real. He said that absolute time isn’t real, meaning that time does not exist independently of the perceiver; it is not just sitting there waiting for us to experience it. Subjective and relative are not the same thing. Einstein didn’t say that time seems relative; he said that time is relative. Time is real and it is also relative. It is really relative.
Happily, for our purposes none of this is important. A philosopher friend of mine once told me the issue at hand is not objective reality; it is intersubjective agreement, meaning that different people independently experience a given event the same way. And we do experience time the same way. We share the notion that one event occurs either before or after another, and that one event happens for a shorter or a longer period of time than another. With the aid of a clock, we even agree exactly how long an event occurs. Our shared experience of time is what we got, and that’s good enough for us. Someone else can wonder what time it really is; we are not going to waste ours trying to figure it out.
But there is one thing about time we know for sure: Time is one Badass Motherfucker. It is as vast as vast can be. It is for all intents and purposes infinite. It is as infinite as the universe itself. If the universe has no beginning and no end, then time also has no beginning and no end. If the universe begins at date certain and ends at date certain, then time begins and ends at these same dates certain. That’s just the way it is.
Time is also by nature, continuous. It is ceaseless, unbroken, and uninterrupted. It does not have fits and starts. It does not come in discreet categories, though we say it does. There are three categories, and we all know what they are: past, present, and future. Sometimes, we divide the first and last categories into smaller units. We talk about the recent past and the not-so-distant future. Historians need to divide the past; otherwise they cannot tell us about the Early Medieval Period and the Late Renaissance. We know these are just convenient fictions, but we should not chastise the historians. They write interesting books, and we need some way of carving things up.
We also know that time moves ahead not behind, forward never backward. Our metaphors of time depict its forward movement. The worst of these is “Time marches on.” This is a lousy depiction of time. For one thing, it makes time seem effortful, and time is not effortful. It is also lumbering and clunky, and we don’t think about time this way at all. A better metaphor is “Time flies like an arrow.” Here, time is sleek, and we can see that it moves forward. The arrow points the way to the future in the most literal sense possible.
But this metaphor also has its problems. For one, the arrow falls to the ground in a matter of seconds. Time doesn’t do that. It lasts much longer than a few seconds and it doesn’t plumet to the ground. And what lay behind the arrowhead? A long line. An infinitely long line. One arrowhead pulling an infinitely long line. Damn! To be fair, the arrowhead is not said to propel the arrow; it merely points the way ahead. So what does propel the arrow of time? The twang of an archer’s bow? Please.
The best metaphor is “the river of time.” For one thing, it does not constrain the geometry of time. It allows time to wander. Time moves along any way it wants, and it may not want to move in a straight line. The river of time also moves slowly. Time can take all the time it wants. Of course, we don’t know how fast time moves, but probably slower rather than faster. Because time has wisdom, and given how far it has come and how far it must go, time is in no rush. Time knows it is foolish to hurry, to move with undue haste. Time also knows that if it went faster, it would just slow down anyway. Such is the relative nature of time. And it’s just a nice way to imagine how we pass the time, floating along the river. This is much better than riding bareback on a whizzing infinitely long line with two-thirds of a triangle at the end. So, the river of time it is.
There is something else we know about time: It is, at all times, now. We are in the present. We are always in the present. We have always been in the present, and we will always be in the present. This we know is true. We may not always be in the same place, but we are always at the same time. And that time is now.
But there are stark choices in the narrative of time. They are unnecessary choices, and we can easily avoid them, but they are there, nonetheless. One is this: What is more real, the future or the past? We can say they are equally real, that one is more real, or that the question is pointless. It is tempting to say the question is pointless, cast it aside, and move on. And we can do this. But if we wish to tell the story of time, it is best we visit the question.
To the cavalier, the answer is obvious: the past. We have hard evidence of the past. It’s sitting right there in the Natural History Museum, and we can all go look at it. But there is no hard evidence of the future. There is no Natural Future Museum. So, we can verify only the past.
OK, so let’s go to the Natural History Museum, and look at something from the past: a clay pot thrown and kilned in the year 482 AD, somewhere in Mesopotamia. It’s sitting right there, right in front of us. Do we not see what is plainly before our eyes? Yes, we do. Can you show me evidence of the future? No, you can’t. So there you go.
But I can show you the future, just as easily as you show me the past. It’s sitting right there, right in front of us: the same clay pot, thrown and kilned in the year 482 AD, somewhere in Mesopotamia. In 483 AD, the pot is in the past. In 481 AD, the pot is in the future. And the clay pot over there from 687 AD. It is just as surely in the future any time before 678 AD as it is in the past any time after 687 AD. It’s just a matter of perspective, Einstein. Events do not halt; they continue. And they continue to continue, do they not? I await your retort. I see from your expression that it will happen shortly in the future.
OK, you say, what about this: If the universe will end at a definite point in time, everything in the universe, including time itself, then there would be no future; the entirety of everything would be the past. Fair enough. And if the universe began at a definite point in time, everything in the universe, including time itself, then there would be no past; the entirety of everything would be the future. So it’s a draw.
But I submit there is no past, none at all. We agree that at any given time we are in the present, and that the present moves ahead not behind, forward never backward. People say, “The future is now.” Does anyone say, “The past is now?” No, because it isn’t. All is in the present, and the present is never in the past. Never was.
One might imagine that the present disposes of the past. That as we move ahead, the past is gone, entirely obliterated. But that is being too charitable to the past. Time is a reference point, and this reference point is always where it is: in the present. And the present is always joined at the hip to the future. It has to be; it has nowhere else to go. So the present does not dispose of the past. It can’t. It knows nothing of the past.
The past is not gone. The past is not left behind. It has not decamped, vanished, or vamoosed. Because it was never there in the first place.
The Good Old Days
Gone are the good old days, a better time when families stuck together, neighbor helped neighbor, and no one locked their doors. People earned their keep. They took pride in their work and they understood the value of a dollar. Children played outside, respected their elders, asked to be excused from the dinner table, and said, “Aw shucks” and “Gee whiz.”
The most recent good old days take place in our parents’ generation. They were preceded by the grand old days of their parents’ generation and by the great grand old days of their parents’ parents’ generation, hence the terms grandparents and great grandparents. But really, there are only the good old days; they alone are the stuff of nostalgia. Before then is history, and that is a different thing entirely. We commemorate history, but we do not yearn for it. We yearn only for the good old days.
When did the good old days begin? I feel like they begin sometime in the early 1920s, probably 1922 or 1923. But actually, they date back further. The good old days began on August 4th 1842, when a gracious 72 year old woman stirred a pitcher of the finest lemonade ever known. Scarlett O’Hara had the good fortune to drink a glass from this pitcher when she was a child. Though most genealogists believe the old woman was Scarlett’s grandmother, no one knows this for sure. But we do know for sure that she lived in Georgia.
Nothing rivaled the lemonade in Georgia. Now, you could also find some damn good lemonade in the neighboring state of South Carolina. Virginians liked to think they too made fine lemonade, and it was better than anything north of the Potomac. But the best was in Georgia. And people in the good old days really did drink their lemonade on a lazy late summer afternoon on the front porch of their wooden house as their kindly old dog, usually a Labrador or a golden retriever, lay down by their feet. It happened exactly like that, just the way you’ve always pictured it.
But really, we don’t know when the good old days began. Maybe there have always been the good old days, and they get better and better the further back you go. Well, that’s great for the people in the good old days, but from our vantage point this trend is rather disturbing. Things have been going downhill for a long time. The people of the nowadays are always at the bottom of hill, and right now those people are us. And things will only get worse. Parents want their children to have better lives than their own, but it’s a constant uphill battle.
What can we do about this? We can hope that the quality of life was extraordinary in the early good old days; that way, even if things aren’t what they used to be, they’re still pretty good. We can take comfort in the knowledge that people died younger in the good old days. Maybe they enjoyed a better quality of life, but they didn’t get to enjoy it very long. So, I guess things even out. Despite our fathers’ pronouncement to the contrary, maybe life is fair, at least over the long haul. And maybe the quality of life declines only slightly with each new generation. But to hear our parents and grandparents tell it, things were a lot better then, and so they must be a lot worse now.
Thank God none of this is true. Life was not better in the good old days. Was life better before public sanitation, indoor plumbing, and the polio vaccine? Water filtration systems? Refrigeration? Fire departments? Penicillin? Did the average American housewife in the 1940s and 1950s brag to their daughters about how great it was before washing machines, when they scrubbed clothes by hand for their ungrateful husbands? Did fathers tell their sons about the good old days before indoor heating systems, when they spent their childhood chopping wood to burn in the living room stove as they lay shivering in their beds upstairs? Maybe a few did, but they probably beat their children too, and much harder than fathers do today.
One might object that these examples go back only to the 19th century. After all, there are always exceptions and perhaps we need to go back further to observe the long-term trend. So, let’s go back further. A lot further. Back to when humans discovered fire.
Evidence for controlled use of fire appears as early as 1.5 - 2 million years ago. This technological innovation afforded major benefits to homo erectus. Fire provided a source of warmth and light, and a means to ward off nocturnal predators. It allowed our hominin ancestors to make better tools for hunting and butchering and to cook their food. Comfort, safety, and a full belly brought peace of mind. For the first time in our evolutionary history, humans could kick back and enjoy life.
Hominin tribes with fire also had a leg up over the neighbors. They enjoyed higher status and bragging rights. They had superior weaponry and they could track down their fireless foes at night. Sadly, they would not know the joy of burning down enemy villages, and you can’t burn down a cave, but at least they were spared knowledge of their misfortune.
Fire also shaped the development of human culture. Fire allowed early humans to interact more closely and to build a sense of community. It hastened the development of spoken language as people gathered around the fire to share stories. Did the elders at these fireside gatherings reminisce about the good old days before fire? No. Everyone knew it was better to have fire.
But maybe now we have gone too far back. So let’s fast forward to the dawn of modern human civilization near the Fertile Crescent of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Here we find that great exemplar of modern human innovation: the wheel. The wheel was invented in the 4thmillennium BC, well over a million years after the discovery of fire, and about 300,000 years after the first appearance of homo sapiens. Ancient Mesopotamians used the wheel to help shape clay into pottery. Later, wheels were used for transportation. This greatly improved the quality of life. Those who innovated the wheel could go further and faster; they were literally miles ahead of the competition. No one yearned for the good old days before the wheel, not even luddites.
Other helpful advancements include irrigation, the written word, numeric systems, the printing press, sedentary agriculture, the combustion engine, electricity, and most recently the digital revolution. One that rarely makes the list but should is alcohol. This welcome discovery dates back to approximately 7000 BC, close to 3000 years before the wheel. Many of us consider alcoholic beverages to be among the greatest inventions in human history, and we would not want to live in a world without them.
We have also become a more civilized society. Back in the good old days, child laborers worked 12 hour days, 5-6 days a week, for 50-60 cents a day, segregation was legal, women couldn’t vote, gay people hid in closets, and the sun never set on the British empire. We are a better people than we were then, and we will become a better people than we are now.
So much for the good old days of old. But there is another kind of old days: the good old days of youth. Why do we see these days through rose colored glasses? We didn’t see them that way at the time. Back then, they were ordinary, run of the mill. We welcomed the latest technology, and we marveled at the possibilities for the future. Kids like to be on the cutting edge, and the cutting edge is always the edge between the present and the future, never the edge between the present and the past. Social movements also look to the future. Activists are the vanguard, never the rearguard of social change. The harbingers of change may look to the lessons of the past, but always as a guide for the future.
When we were young, we yearned to be adults. We became adults and we yearned to be young again. Why should this be? Research in cognitive psychology shows that children and adolescents are prone to “negativity bias,” wherein we attend to and remember negative events more so than positive events. But as we age, this negativity bias shifts to a positivity bias. As older adults, memories of positive experiences linger as memories of negative events fade.
When our elders tell us stories of their younger days, they are not telling us what happened; they are telling us their memories of what happened. And most of what we remember happened didn’t happen as we remember it, or it didn’t happen at all. That’s what makes the story telling fun. We laugh and say, “Oh grandad, you didn’t really do that. You didn’t walk five miles to school through 10 feet of snow.” “I did too!” he says. “Everyone did back then. I knew a guy who walked 20 miles to school, each way.” And he grins. If pressed further, he will concede a little but still embellish. “OK, maybe not five miles, but it was at least three miles. And the snow was at least six feet high, no less than five. We had the best snowball fights when I was a kid! I knew a guy who could throw a snowball half a mile. I actually saw him do it. And boy, the summers were great. I practically lived in the woods. We had BB gun battles all the time! Red Riders. I shot a kid in the eye and he never saw right again. Don’t tell your mother about that. One time, we saw Indians, real Indians! One of them showed me how to make a bow and arrow. I used to bring him home for Thanksgiving.” “No way grandad!” “Well, that’s how I remember it. All you kids do is sit around playing with your phones and all that other crap. You don’t even go outside anymore. I played outside every day without a care in the world. It was a great time to be a kid.”
The past is fantasy. We write its narrative as we choose; we tell its stories as we wish them to be. And when we die, our stories become tales, and the tales become myths, and the myths become legends. All bound by the mystic chords of memory. These are the good old days.
I hate you. I detest you. I despise you.
I will loathe you till the day I die.
I reject you outright.
You are no good Fate; I am sure of it.
Que sera, sera.
Whatever will be, will be.
I suppose you are right Fate.
Thank you for your hollow statement.
Thank you for your vacant presupposition.
Thank you for your impotent drivel.
Thanx for nothing.
You are elusive Fate.
We can not pin you down.
You are immune from scrutiny, invulnerable to examination.
You fail to meet the most elementary criterion of science.
You have no cause for concern, no reason to be afraid.
We cannot prove you wrong Fate.
Good for you.
But you are wrong Fate.
Our lives are not foretold. Our stories are not written in advance.
There are no paths to unfold, no destines to fulfill, no predetermined series of events. Things are not supposed to be as they are; things are not as they are supposed to be.
It doesn’t work that way.
You got that Fate?
You are Calvin’s bread and butter.
His bastard child.
You give salvation by your grace, damnation by our sins.
All eternity predestined by your will.
Yet we have choice, you say.
We act voluntarily, not by compulsion.
Why the conundrum, Fate?
Things are confusing enough as they are.
Why do you veil your objectives?
Why do you trifle with us?
Is this fun for you Fate? Do you take pleasure in your trickery?
In our bemusement?
Do you grin and chuckle at us, hapless and unaware?
You are despicable, Fate.
Your malevolence exceeds even that of Yahweh.
Your curse is more horrific than plagues of grasshoppers and locust.
Even death of the first born child.
You void all human experience.
All that we do, all that we have done, all that we will do.
All the bravery, all the grandeur, all the malice.
All the trials and tribulations of human endeavor mean nothing.
You knew it all along.
Didn’t you Fate?
And another thing, Fate:
You are not mysterious.
There is nothing mystical about you.
You are neither strange, nor cryptic, nor enigmatic.
You are uninteresting; you are a bore.
There is no wonder in predestination.
No puzzle to be solved, no answers to seek, no future to create.
Que sera, sera.
You offer us nothing Fate.
Release our autonomy from your grasp.
Return our volition, our discretion, our Will.
Let us try and succeed.
Let us try and fail.
Leave us to our own devices, Fate.
Just leave us alone.