My western art runs were fun.
Fun because dropping by galleries across the breadth of the Land of Enchantment beats the hell out of whatever I was doing the day before. Egg shell blue skies, sun-drenched adobe haciendas, rusty-red canyon walls, hills of marbled ivory and bloodstone, and we’re talking here about the glittering western art, not the land itself. The land itself you have to experience to understand, with its soft symmetry, its untouchable pristine beauty and its pervasive dryness. Of all the galleries with their southwestern pastel and their wild horse collections, only the Side Alley has a Hieronymus Bosch alcove. You don’t see much Bosch west of the Pecos. A table of loose prints is filled with brown and white spotted ponies and silver moons shining down on purple mesas.
The old man, Sanchez, takes his coffee, unmoved at my story of quitting coffee over the winter. Life, I suppose aloud, is taking on new good things, discarding bad old ones. Life, he says, is getting old and dying. We talk about the road and the conviviality you found there, among people who know how hard life can be.
“My last New Mexico run.”
He nods, squinting, pursing his lips. “Sorry to hear it.”
Another soft nod.
I had one last story. One I’d been saving.
Being a man of the dirt and sky, a shaman, Sanchez needed no affirmations from me. Because the connections that brought my last story around to him were not totally clear to me, I was the one needing affirmations. I’d carried it around for years actually, in recognition, I think, that there were, indeed, everyday realities beyond our common comprehension, and that Sanchez could be part of the tale.
This was down on the Green River.
I was on the run in those days, from myself mostly. Camping in the Rockies in the summer, living free and easy, I ran out of smokes one morning, went up to the general story at the crossroads. The place had a counter lady, Kay, with a worn, tired look about her, around my same age, which is to say she’d been out on the turf a while.
The news bulletin flashing on the TV screen behind Kay, a young Elvis singing on Ed Sullivan’s show, was my first dim awareness of something amiss. Kay had the sound turned off, but I figured what was up. Her eyes were red. She slid the cigarettes across the counter, put the money in the register and turned away without speaking. There was nothing to say. Part of what’d made us young was gone.
My two young neighbors on that Green River run, Jo and RC, were down about Elvis too, but it wasn’t the same. Elvis was old for them; puffy-eyes and a gut. They’d only heard about his best days, we’d lived them. Big difference. Sanchez nodded, reconciled, I guess, to my sometimes circuitous routes to my points.
RC was one of those wiry, fearless, coordinated guys you knew as a kid, who would climb towers and descend into dark places without thinking twice. Jo was skinny, affable and bright, mature beyond her years; a wispy, young poplar tree of a girl with light hair and blue eyes that darted everywhere and an easy-going grin. She was a couple of years older than RC, but they were both young enough to be my kids.
“There’s a lover’s leap up river,” Jo said. “RC’s going to jump off in Elvis’s honor. Come up and watch.”
Paranoid, slow to accept strangers, I can easily imagine myself trussed-up with baling wire, stuffed into the trunk of my rusted Audi for the sake of some used camping gear and crumpled bills. The RCs of the world, with their lack of any sense of self-preservation, their chain-smoking and their Death’s Head tattoos, had long since made me the severe prejudger and light sleeper I am today. Camping alone during this great lull in my life, an outcast zipped inside a mountain tent, I dreamed to the cooing of the night warblers, and avoided all but the unavoidable human contacts. At first, I was annoyed at their intrusion on my idyllic solitude, but their youth won me over.
RC lugged folding chairs from an old brown van he claimed once belonged to Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi. We drank some beers and rolled some smoke. The cool settled down on us like a fresh wintergreen balm. A time came when talk was in order. Convivial road people, more than anything, like to talk. Born in the parking lot of a truck stop on I-95, RC claimed, he spent his formative years in trailer parks throughout the Carolinas and Florida. “My parents were Wayne and Alma,” he said. “Alma means ‘kind soul‘. I don’t know what Wayne means. Mom was a kind soul.”
Literature was RC’s thing.
By fifteen, he was expelled from high school. He read ‘On the Road’ and decided to follow Sal Paradise’s triangle from New York through Denver to San Francisco, south to Mexico City, back to New York. The beatniks were long gone by the time RC was born, but he was one in spirit. He offered me fifty bucks for my Levi jacket, said I’d probably be smart not to leave it lying around. If bullshit was strawberries, RC could’ve had the whole gang over for shortcake.
If the names Wayne or Alma meant anything to Sanchez, his steady eyes gave no indication.
Jo was in art school for a year. Her sketch book was mostly trees, faces, horse heads and fountains. Like the post war beats of RC’s idealized fifties, she felt the times closing down on her, strangling her. She was on for the first leg of the triangle: New York, Denver, and San Francisco. After that, RC was on his own.
Jo was raised on a farm
I gave her six bucks for one of her pine tree sketches. RC was driving with her to San Francisco, but there was nothing between them. She was either the older sister of his girl friend, or the girl friend of his older sister, I never did get that straight. Jo liked RC, but thought of him as a kid.
Pumped with beer, RC jumped on a stump. “I’m high wide and down the middle, not holding a whole lot of concern for tomorrow. I’ve been saving California for my personal Nirvana on account of I’ve never been there. I got more bullshit than bank account, but it ain’t a big deal. I get by.”
If my California was a land of disappointment and grotesque misperception, that was my problem. RC’s California brimmed with the promise of opportunity and pleasure.
Jo slept on a blanket by the dying fire.
She did another pine tree sketch for me the next day, which turned out very nice. She signed it, but wouldn’t take more money. She rolled-up my sketches, slipped them into a tube and sealed it up with Christmas tape; to ward off the wood devils.
RC slept in the van.
They’d been making slower progress since Denver. Gone early, Jo came back around three. RC rolled out late, came back at dusk. We had some beers, grilled some burgers and sat around the fire. Jo marked a line in the dirt with a stick. “A map of eternity”, she said. She read her poem, slipped a copy in with the prints, all nicely decorated with garlands in the margins, which I still have today. ‘Behind the line is being broke, wearing sooty collars. Behind the line is choking, gritty New York, with broken-down vans and busted mufflers cluttering the highway; where pork and beans cans pass for art and the rats come up on your park bench and grab your sandwich if you’re careless enough to set it down. Over the line is California, strung along the coast like a necklace of sparkling white light and good times. Over the line is blue dame San Francisco in chalk pastel, with her sun-drenched bay, her stairstep painted ladies and her glorious bay windows. Over the line is here and now, the rest of the evening, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, a long ride on short money.’
Jo was raised on a farm.
There were a dozen cats named for movie stars, eight goats named Precious, including Precious Isolde, Precious Leander, and Precious Siegfried. There were nine pigs named for famous generals. Hannibal, Bobby Lee and McArthur were fat old boars with not an ounce of godliness between them. Joan of Arc was the most prolific of the sows and most beautiful, if you can call a fat bristle nosed daughter of the Devil beautiful. Stonewall was a jokester who never missed a chance to jam up another pig. Napoleon slept a lot. By far, the meanest and most ill-tempered of the boars was Caesar. Caesar stayed to himself, troubling the other hogs to clear out of his way when he took over a shady spot in the slop hole. Nobody messed with him.
RC kicked back with an Iron City Beer, listened to all this hog talk from beneath his mop of ratty hair. His eyes never settled and were always peering in from just outside the local time. Jo imitated high-pitched squealing sounds coming on the wind. Grandpa Dave stood there in a threadbare jacket and heel worn boots. It was the day he found Caesar standing over what was left of one of Joan of Arc’s piglets, having eaten, as he put it, all but the tail and ears. Caesar looked up at Grandpa and snorted, as if to say, `Come on over here, old man, I’ll eat you, too.’
“We had this nasty hog that was only around because Grandpa Dave lacked the will to slaughter him proper,” Jo said. “Now, he’d killed one of the new pigs and there was strong sentiment for returning the favor.”
Caesar had terrorized everybody at one time or another.
That hog’s meaner than a rattle snake with a toothache, Grandpa Dave used to say, rattling out many such clichés, always with a fake country drawl. Caesar had not a single friend among the shoats. The chickens and ducks hated his guts. The dogs feared and loathed him. The family wanted him slaughtered. Only Grandpa Dave’s unwavering partiality kept Caesar alive, which RC immediately saw for a scam, interrupting the story to point out that nobody ever gave him a kick’s worth of consideration as was shown here to a vicious hog. Grandpa taking the evil beast’s part against his own kind was nothing but a piece of cold control.
“Momma was headed down through the yard with the twelve-gage,” Jo said, “shoving in shells as she walked. Grandpa Dave was down by the hog pen. Everybody came running, gathered behind Momma like chicks around a hen. It was Grandpa Dave and that hog against the rest of the world.”
“He trampled two laying hens,” Momma said, madder than they ever saw her, “He ruined a row of tomatoes and now he’s killed one of Joan’s piglets.”
Grandpa Dave stood firm at the gate. “Shoot me first,” he said, “if you’re up to it.” Momma thought about that plenty hard. Her eyes were working back and forth between her father and the hog. There was a long, tense moment before she breached the gun and went back up to the house.
Caesar’s pa ran off with a young sow when he was a piglet. Caesar’s mother, in her grief, tried to eat him. Small wonder he hated the world. He charged a pack of chickens once. Momma came running off the porch in her fuzzy slippers and purple robe, shouting for Jo and Bud to get Caesar back to his pen before she got the shotgun. “There’s a demon in that hog,” she said, “a big, red-eyed tapeworm.”
Once, when nobody was around except Momma, that tapeworm stuck his ugly head out of Caesar’s rear end, and said to Momma, `Praise Satan, you shriveled old bitch.’ Momma threw a pan of scalding creamed corn at him. The hog retreated after eating the corn. She read the Bible the rest of the afternoon, and smacked Bud for laughing when she told the story. An evil imp lived in old Caesar was RC’s take; the wandering soul of some wretched spirit, doomed to roam the earth until Judgment Day.
Jo’s momma, godly woman that she was, bent on saving every soul in sight, told the Asian neighbor lady, Mrs. Chang, about evil abroad in the world, and how Mrs. Chang would do well to forsake her pagan ways and take Jesus into her heart before it was too late. `Say the word, Mrs. Chang,’ she said, `and the ladies of the Pine Valley Church will have your tarnished soul all shiny and proper by spring, and no one will remember you were once a Hell-bound heathen.’
In mud time, Momma invited the Pine Valley Church folks, Reverend Smiley, his ward, Sister Dawn, and the ladies of the auxiliary committee, out to the farm to discuss plans for the spring social which Momma hoped to chair. The boys bopped around getting the house ready. Bud brought cornbread muffins from the kitchen. Momma put pecan teacakes in the oven. Jo made sure the house was free of cats. Grandpa Dave stayed out in the barn working on a coat hanger sculpture.
After lunch, Bud spilled hot coffee on Reverend Smiley’s ankle. In the drawing room, Momma scrubbed coffee stains from Reverend Smiley’s pants while Bud cleaned off the Reverend’s alligator shoe. Sister Dawn put an ice compress to his ankle.
Outside, the day had grown gruff and foreboding. Large raindrops were pelting the tin roof. Thunder set the tea sets trembling on the shelves. Lightning flashed in the clouds. Reverend Smiley limped to the window to see the raucous sky firsthand.
“We should be heading back,” Mrs. Flint said. Mrs. Flint was the musical director and president of the ladies’ auxiliary. Her resentment of Sister Dawn drove her to assert herself at every opportunity. At the crash of thunder overhead, she stirred the ladies and herded them into the vestibule. Determined to get to the bus ahead of the storm, they slipped out, banging the screen door in their wake and shouting thanks over their shoulders as they made for the bus.
Jo’s momma was in the kitchen.
The corn bread muffins were lightly buttered and lay neatly on Momma’s best silver platter, interspersed with the little red and green jelly tea cakes that Momma had perfected after weeks of trial and error. Fragrant raspberry tea steamed from rented mini-urns, surrounded by unused cups and saucers from the good set. Jo was by the window, watching Mrs. Flint lead the ladies into the jaws of the rowdy, gusting wind. They’d set off across the stepping stones like a line of ducklings following their mother duck, braving an occasional gust and a sheet of light sideways rain. Mrs. Flint held her hat with one hand and beckoned her charges with the other. They arrived at the bus only to find it locked. Breaking ranks, they scrambled for the sanctuary of the porch.
“Never mind other cheeks to be turned,” RC reflected by the fire. “Never mind neighbors to be loved as thy self. Every man for himself in a gale.”
Halfway to the porch, they stopped.
Blocking their path was a big, ugly hog. They had no way of knowing, but things were actually worse than they appeared. The hog was Caesar. He was riled, standing his ground, his head low, his beady black eyes glaring hatred at the trembling church ladies, his evil hog heart filled with visions of mayhem. From the porch, Jo’s momma cooed to him, saying, “Good Caesar, nice Caesar, go away, Caesar.”
RC got off on a fireside tangent at this point, talking about his Uncle Red, a utopian socialist and night instructor at the University of Chicago, who converted to panpsychicism ande H founded the Panpsychic Society of Chicago, defending his radical philosophical views in scholarly articles and debates. Like Jo’s mother, Red’s aim was to help others seek a higher level of reality. After retiring and losing his wife, he went west alone to become a shaman, a holy man. One of the cousins passed though years later. There was Uncle Red sitting cross-legged in a field talking with a mountain gum tree. “By my reckoning,” RC said, coming around to his point, “it’s a short hop from talking to a gum tree to being insulted by a demon living in a devil hog.”
Once, while gazing on a print of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, I flashed back to young RC in a small moment of reckoning. There he was, screaming down the Al Can highway, having gobbled, by his account, enough yellow jackets to keep the Lincoln Monument awake, getting his first Zen glimpse of life’s immutable secret at sixteen, he said, which is death. “The hog is a martyr to Christian sacrifice,” he’d ventured across the fire that night, “rendering to humanity for sustenance and tallow the temple of his own animus. This Caesar is a most holy and consecrated animal, having confronted the hypocritical, self-anointed and spiritually disingenuous and cast them aside with the contempt they deserved.”
Miss Flint had tried to flank Caesar but he butted her to the mud with a brush of his ugly rump, charging the line of terrified church ladies a moment later, head down, thick spittle flying all around his head. Some went face first into the hedges. Some took off for the porch, only to be headed off with a terrible snort. Caesar charged the stragglers moments later, running them straight into the fire bushes. Afterward, pawing the ground maniacally in a now driving rain, he glared at his tormentors, his head still low, his cold, evil eyes fixed on them as before.
Sanchez and I could talk, but his secrets stayed hidden.
That name itself, `Sanchez’, was commonly adopted as a kind of badge of honor after the famous shaman, Pol Sanchez, a contemporary of Hernando Cortes and Hieronymus Bosch. These Bosch touches, in fact, were established in honor of the original Sanchez, borrowing these classic medieval images, the musical triangle, the disembodied hand and the man-eating bird, which were all related to Sanchez’s mystical vision and his homage. On an opposite wall, a solitary Blue Ribbon sign shined bravely in the midst of a darkening desert landscape.
Down on the Green River, visions of Miss Edna Flint, the organist, danced like sugarplums above our heads, at one with the billowing camp fire smoke and the flying ashes, a wavering human flame floating somewhere between doom and salvation. She planted her heels, made her stand against the evil hog. It was at this moment that Reverend Smiley made his leap from the porch, landing between Miss Flint and the demonic hog as Jo watched, wide-eyed, from the window. Sister Dawn pushed forward to Smiley’s other flank, her hands coiled in fists, her eyes bright with the inner flames of righteousness. Reverend Smiley, holding his bible before him as a shield, kept saying, “Get thee behind me, Satan.”
Back on her haunches, Sister Dawn readied a kick she learned before she was born again. Her real name was Madeline Wheeling. She was twenty four, divorced with two kids. The Reverend Smiley, a foolish old widower who should’ve known better, took to her right off. Jo’s Momma smacked Bud at the table once for suggesting that the reverend’s interest in Sister Dawn was more than spiritual.
Jo recalled that Grandpa Dave yelled out as the hog made his charge.
Some said afterward that Sister Dawn was hit the hardest. Some said Smiley got the worse of it. Sister Dawn’s shriek was heard a quarter mile away. The Reverend Smiley went down without making a sound. It might’ve ended then and there for Caesar, but for Grandpa Dave, who would not suffer the hog to be slain. Apologizing most profusely to a shaken but definitely not dead Reverend Smiley, Grandpa Dave drove Caesar back to his pen without once taking the Lord’s name in vain, which Momma surely appreciated but didn’t mention.
Caesar had long allowed Grandpa Dave near his pen evenings.
The hog fell very still when Grandpa blew smoke rings, watching them float above his pen with silent, rapt fascination; much as a saint might watch hovering flights of angels, Grandpa said, singing a soul to its rest. Grandpa collapsed near Caesar’s pen one spring morning, where he smoked his pipe even after Caesar was gone. They all shed heartfelt tears for Grandpa. Momma said it was his time.
Caesar died as he lived, as Jo remembered it.
Three guys came out. The plan was to pin the hog against a rail, stun him with a sledge hammer. When he went down, slip around and cut his throat. Standard procedure. Be over fast. Very humane. `We’ll bleed him out over the basin,’ one said, climbing in the pen with his hammer. “Next thing we knew,” Jo recalled, “they were running for their lives. Caesar ripped down the side of one of the pens to get at them. The hammer guy had a big gash on his leg where the hog had kicked him. His buddy had a nasty bruise, and the third guy dislocated his shoulder clearing out of Caesar’s way when the pen broke loose. Caesar got out and was soon terrorizing the hen house. The dogs were barking like crazy. People and animals were running everywhere. They finally cornered Caesar down by the barn and Grandpa Dave shot him twice in the head. It was a mess and a half. All the kids were up on the porch crying because they were so scared. We chopped him up good and proper, ate the hell out of him all winter.”
They buried Grandpa Dave in his boots and that ratty old Levi jacket he always wore. At the funeral, the good Reverend Smiley told the Biblical story of the legion of devils entering the swine. He didn’t mention Caesar by name, which some thought was petty, considering the hog’s close association with the deceased.
Sanchez wondered if I was glad to be getting off the road
“The fun has to end sometime,” I said. “We all draw our lines in the dirt.”
No telling how old Sanchez was. I’d known him for fifteen years, and he was old when I met him. Was he RC’s long lost utopian socialist uncle? It was a pretty hefty stretch. There was no real reason to suppose it. When I asked if he’d been back east, he said he’d given up his past when he became a man of the earth and sky. It might’ve just been my imagination but I thought Jo’s story set his eyes sparkling.
“RC will always be young and brash in my memory,” I reflected, “leaping off a bluff into the Green River shouting ‘Elvis forever’. Jo will always be a gentle girl with a righteous smile and that raucous laugh, brought out by RC’s impromptu Uncle Red imitation; squinting his eyes and pursing his lips in that most characteristic way. ‘Get kicked around a little, RC. You’ll come to understand that we live and we die.’
In the sunlight of the outdoor patio, I could see that the old man’s temples were singed with a definite rusty red hue. I’d noticed it before. If he was Uncle Red, he’d chosen to keep it to himself, which should’ve put the matter to rest. I say should’ve because there is one thing that that’s not quite clear. Jo said you had to have something to care about in this life, and that sounded right. I wondered if it sounded right to a guy who left it all behind to talk with mountain gum trees.
“They must have made it to San Francisco,” Sanchez said, smiling. “Otherwise, we would’ve heard, huh?”