Authors: Ben Metcalf
Against the Country
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by Ben Metcalf
All rights reserved.
Published in the united states by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
Against the country : a novel / Ben Metcalf.
eBook ISBN 978-0-8129-9653-1
1. Family life—Fiction. I. Title.
Jacket design and illustration: Leanne Shapton
I was worked like a jackass for the worst part of my childhood, and offered up to climate and predator and vice, and introduced to solitude, and braced against hope, and dangled before the Lord our God, and schooled in the subtle truths and blatant lies of a half life in the American countryside, all because my parents did not trust that I would mature to their specifications in town. That their plan busted would be of some comfort to me could I find fault in its formulation, but these two were not stupid: I have spoken at length with the both of them and judge each one to be of the highest wit. Nor were they cruel: my brother and sister will no doubt attest to the fact that our makers never left us hungry and that they seemed, on the whole, at least partial to us. Nor may I safely argue that their verdict on town life, whatever torments I might ascribe to the sentence, differed in any large part from my own, so negligent was town in its attitude toward us, and so sorry a welcome did our line receive there after nearly three centuries spent adrift in the New world’s vast and terrible wilderness.
Town (by which I mean the middling depots of Southern Illinois, though from what I have seen of such places elsewhere they might have served just as well) was where a former farmboy’s peers led him with little effort to conclude that scholarship money was best put toward Scotch whiskey and unfiltered cigarettes; where in the resultant fog he resolved that only
marriage to, and abrupt procreation with, a woman met some eight weeks prior could plausibly avert commerce with the Vietcong; whereupon he watched a single child swell with remarkable ease into three and then learned from his town wife that an enormous effort would now be required to feed them all; whereupon in a panic he fell prey to what the French call a nostalgia for the mud and contrived thereafter to work only with his hands, sure that these hands would not betray him as the brain had; whereupon he discovered that town tended to confine such people to jobs concerned primarily with the assembly of prefabricated homes, whose authors balanced the monotony of their craft with a fast loyalty to amphetamine; whereupon an insipid despair left him open to, but deprived him of the imagination to accept, proposals from more motivated coworkers to help rob area fast-food establishments and drive tractor-trailers full of marijuana down into these United states from the fabled nurseries of western Canada.
Town was where a young woman, confident of her sophistication despite only a slim generation’s remove from the trees herself, married the farmboy to amputate herself, fashionably, from the trunk of her own family; and bore not the first of her children but certainly the subsequent two so that she might cauterize the wound, or else salt it; and soon enough grasped the illogic of union to a man unfamiliar with affluence and beholden to the dirt for his self-esteem and his sanity. Who was then clotheslined in her effort to aid the brood materially when, the aforementioned fine mind notwithstanding, no better task presented than secretary at the local rock radio station, WEIC, which position she would lose anyway at a time roughly concurrent with the loss of her husband’s job at UniBuilt.
Town was where this woman beheld the great locust wave of in-laws come in search of money she did not have or could not possibly spare, where out of empathy, or embarrassment, or guilt, or a confluence of these ills, she took it upon herself
to provide the odd car ride or bed, and to ignore this one’s taste for drugs, and that one’s taste for morons, and to stuff the more malnourished babies with what was at hand, and to keep abreast of each tragically unavoidable court date, until the afternoon came when she saw her husband exorcise the drunken swarm of them from his yard, after which they drove up and down the street and shouted threats to kill him, after which he shouted threats to kill them sooner, after which I find it hard to believe that my mother did not reflect upon the likelihood that she had thus far escaped this lot’s lot only by grace of the humble sums she still asked for, and received, from her kind if disappointed town parents.
Town for me will forever remain a place where one put a bag of questionable design on one’s head for Halloween, and acquired what candy as the bag allowed, and vomited in surprise and fury the next morning on the filthy tile floor outside an aunt’s efficiency apartment, wherein slept a beloved infant cousin whose metal-toothed sire was unaccounted for and who would in time (the infant) grow up to burn down his high school and find steady if unsung work as an adjunct to the beef industry. My younger sister’s memories of town may be few but surely include the day the worse-off people around the corner, whose sole consolation in life appeared to be the fried-chicken dinner an area philanthropist stood them to once each week, leashed a mutt by means of a frayed electrical cord plugged into an outdoor socket, so that the entire neighborhood might hear the poor creature’s shrieks as it caught fire and perished. She has shown a fondness for almost all God’s animals since.
Our brother alone seemed to extract some pleasure from town, being older and hence afforded friends and a paper route, and having gained for himself a measure of boyhood fame when in guile he lured the thieves of a treasured lunchbox down into the ravine through which ran the local sewage creek, and there received them cruelly with his friends’ fists and his own,
not to mention the impressive might of the sewage itself. His was the earliest recognition of, and the only real objection to, the fact that our family was set to quit the company of mankind altogether if it could and plant itself once more in the desolate slough from which it had but recently crawled.
We would have done well to heed the dissenter, for as frail as the rest of us found town to be it was, and always had been, the one conceivable bulwark against an annihilation that has hunted every human who dared, or was by circumstance forced, to set his foot upon this treacherous soil. Did the Indian not spread himself over the new land by band and by village? Did the spaniard or the Frenchman not pause in his slaughter of the Indian to put up his forts against the bear and the water and the wind? Did the Englishman not hurriedly arrange, in his attempt to destroy the spaniard and the Frenchman (and, of course, the Indian), the huts of his vanished Roanoke, and did he not raise up his Jamestown and his Plymouth all the faster? Did the Dutchman not hoodwink the Indian so that he might secure his New Amsterdam, and did he not war with the Englishman over that slight and others, and in the end swap the whole of the operation for some sugar stalks down in Suriname? I ask you: did the plantation not arise and have its run, however truncated, because it was, in effect, less a farm than it was a township populated and maintained by slaves? did the pioneer and the prospector not normally die at once, and can it be said that the lonely homesteader who survived was anything but miserable in his barren and pitiless surrounds?