Authors: Terry Southern
Tags: #Fiction Novel, #Fiction, #General
or at Christmastime and Thanksgiving, the family had all their meals at the round oilcloth-covered table in the kitchen — a modest but comfortable and cheerful room, with a huge wood-burning cook-stove, which was nearly always going. A kerosene lamp was suspended from the ceiling above the table, and two more were in brackets on opposite walls of the room.
At supper that night, Harold’s grandfather, a lean and hawklike man of eighty, skin tough and brown as leather, his humor sharp — mischievous and cantankerous by turn — bent forward, eyes glinting from Harold to his father and back, and demanded: “What in the goddam Sam Hill is all this about a fifty-dollar calf?”
Harold’s father frowned. “Where’d you hear ’bout that?”
“Ha!” The old man chewed furiously at an ear of corn. “At the barbershop! Not in this house! Nobody around here tells me a goddam thing!”
“Now Granddad,” said Harold’s mother, “it’s not that we don’t tell, it’s just that your hearin’ is beginnin’ to fail you.”
The old man cupped one hand to his ear in an exaggerated manner. “What say?” he almost shouted.
Harold’s mother sighed. “I said —”
He interrupted her by slapping the table triumphantly. “I heard ye! It’s a
you silly goose!” He wiped his mouth on the back of his cuff, excited at having tricked her.
Harold had to laugh; so did his father.
“He can hear awright,” said Harold’s father, “when he’s a mind to — it’s just when he don’t want to hear that he’s suddenly struck post-deaf.”
His wife nodded. “I could of told you that much all along.”
The old man ignored them both. “Well, I’ll tell you one thing,” he said. “There ain’t a man livin’ or dead who ever broke even raisin’ a fifty-dollar calf — and that is a natural fack!”
“It ain’t for the money, Granddad,” Harold explained. “This here is for a Four-H project.”
His granddad scoffed. “Four-H! Well, I told you what that ‘H’ stands for, didn’t I? ‘Horse’s Ass’! Ha!”
“Aw, they been pretty good,” said Harold loyally, and turned to his father. “Ain’t they, Dad?”
“Don’t say ‘ain’t,’ Son,” said his mother.
“Yep, they have,” said Harold’s father, “and that’s a fact. Saved us a breech-born heifer a while back. One of their fellers was here to look at our feedlot setup, when that young black-and-white’s time come on her right sudden — three days early by the calendar — and I was over to Farney with Les, nobody here but Son and C.K....Hell, they hadn’t never worked no breech — we’d of lost the calf for sure, maybe both.”
“Aw, we could of done it,” muttered Hal. “C.K. seen it done once.”
“Well now, Son, that’s as may be — but the plain fact is, that Four-H guy stepped in there and did it, and I feel obliged to him.”
The old man scoffed. “Wal, I’m glad to hear they’re good for somethin’. Last time I talked to one of ’em, he didn’t know his ass from a posthole!”
“Granddad,” said Harold’s mother, “I do wish you wouldn’t talk like that — in front of the boy.”
“Boy?” exclaimed the old man, grimacing. “Why I bet he can cuss up a blue norther he’s a mind to!” He peered at Harold. “Ain’t you ’bout thirteen now?”
“Yessir — goin’ on.”
” said his mother firmly, “and he’s still a child.”
“Why hell, woman, time I was his age I’d been to ever cathouse — ‘sportin’-house,’ we called ’em then — in this county...and a few over the line to boot!”
“Well now that’s a big lie, and you know it,” said Harold’s mother.
“You been yet, boy?” demanded his grandfather.
“Aw, they done closed all them places down,” said Harold, without thinking, then glanced at his father. “Leastways I reckon they have.”
His mother stood up, looking at him, as she started clearing things away. “Well, now what on earth would you know about that kind of thing anyway?”
Harold was slightly flustered. “No, what I meant was that I heard...”
As his voice began to trail away, old Granddad, eyes bright, ignored her remark and leaned forward, one talon-finger raised on a hand gnarled and dark as wood, and gave Harold a narrow look. “Closed ’em down? Wal, I’ll tell you one thing, boy — you travel this wide world over, and wherever you find men, women, and money...you’re gonna find a whorehouse — and that is a goddam natural fack!”
He looked from one to the other for affirmation. Harold’s father was ambivalent; he cleared his throat. “Well, Pa, things have changed a mite since...since then.”
“Not that,” said the old man sharply. “That ain’t changed, that can’t never change.”
“Oh, Grandpa,” said Harold’s mother, “don’t keep talkin’ so silly. Anyhow, Harold already has his eye on a girl. Isn’t that right, Son?”
“Huh?” said Harold, in complete surprise.
“Why that nice little Sara Jean Johnson,” said his mother, “the one you was in the school play with....She sure is a pretty thing.”
Moving from the table to the sink, she stopped, turned, looked at the three of them, then past them into the distance, her face taking on the veiled radiance of fond recollection.
“Do you know,” she said softly, “I can remember just as plain as day” — looking at Harold now — “the two of you standing there on the stage, when you handed her that bunch of bluebonnets...with the white summer dress and her big blue eyes shinin’...it was like
was a bunch of bluebonnets too...”
Harold and his father regarded her curiously, while Grandfather resumed eating with gusto. And then his mother came out of her reverie to ask: “But you do like her, don’t you, Son?”
“Why I ain’t even seen —” He corrected himself. “I
even seen her since that play.”
“Well,” said his mother with cheerful reassurance, “you’ll probably see her at one of the church socials. You have another look — she’s a mighty pretty little thing.”
She turned back to the sink, and Grandfather leaned toward Harold. “Hell, I’ll find out if they’ve shut ’em down — an’ then I’ll tell you where they moved ’em to!”
“Now, Pa,” said Harold’s father, “don’t go puttin’ him up to that — cost enough awready just keepin’ him in
growin’ like a beanstalk.” He looked at Harold, as this thought took him to another concern. “Them huntin’ boots gonna take you through next winter, Son? Your toes touchin’ the end yet?”
Harold was embarrassed at all the attention. “Aw, I think they’ll be okay.”
“Well, I gotta pair of insulateds,” his father went on, “that’s just a might snug on me...probably fit you about right.”
Harold’s mother came back over, continuing to clear away the table.
“Why now those would be way too big for Harold,” she said. “Besides he don’t want old hand-me-down boots. Do you, Son?”
“Hand-me-down hell,” said his father irately. “Them’s
L. L. Bean’s.
Cost me thirty-seven fifty...Why, they got five good years’ wear left in ’em. At the very least.”
Grandfather slapped the table. “L. L. Bean! Now there’s a first-rate outfit if there ever was one! I had a pair of their insulateds lasted me twelve goddam years, hard wear, an’ that’s a fack!”
“Well, even so,” said Harold’s mother, “everybody likes to have their own things...”
“Well, damn it all,” said Grandfather suddenly to Harold, “what I want to know is more about that fifty-dollar calf! What’s he got — two tallywhackers? Ha!”
“No,” said Harold, “but I think he’s got a whole lot of
in ’im....Don’t you, Dad?”
“Yep, mighty fine-lookin’ calf.”
“An’ I’ll tell you somethin’ else,” said the old man. “Half-breed stock’ll never dress out prime. Not unless it’s grain-fed, an’ there ain’t nobody fool enough to do that, at today’s price of corn.”
“Well, I’m gonna raise ’im good,” said Harold, “an’ enter ’im in the stock show next year...” He smiled shyly. “Maybe win us a ribbon, who knows?”
” said Granddad, scoffing and snorting. “Well now you just try choppin’ up some of them ribbons, hang ’em in the smokehouse, an’ see how far through the winter they git you!”
C.K. and Harold slowly walked a two-mile length of fence, looking for a break in the barbed wire, where the stock were sometimes getting out. Harold was bored and listless. “Heck, I can’t see where they’re breakin’ through.”
But C.K. was unperturbed. “Oh ah reckon we come ’cross it sooner or later,” he said. “We just sneak up on it.”
They reached a section of the fence where it bent slightly, then stretched away, unbroken, as far as the eye could see. Harold sighted along each strand, then straightened up with a disgruntled sigh. “Well, it sure as heck ain’t down that stretch.”
C.K. leaned over to confirm it. “Naw,” he agreed, “be no use in walkin’ that stretch.” He stared out across the adjacent field. “Reckon we jest as well cut on over...thata ways.”
Harold looked at him briefly. “I reckon you mean over toward the tank?”
C.K. frowned and shrugged, not looking at the boy. “Well shoot, if we cain’t find no break, we cain’t find no break — now ain’t that right?”
“Is that all you ever think about?” asked Harold, trying to sound more responsible. “Catchin’ that old bullhead catfish?”
C.K. regarded him with mock surprise. “What? You done give up on that bullhead? Shoot, Hal, I sho’ thought you had more gumption than that.”
They climbed over the fence, and set off into the pasture that bordered the pond. They walked in silence, until Harold stopped to squint into the distance, where a number of cows were grazing; there was one cow, however, apart from the others, lying on its stomach, with its head stretched out on the ground in front of it.
“What’s wrong with that dang cow?” Harold demanded.
C.K. shaded his eyes with his hand and took a long look.
“She do seem to be takin’ it easy, don’t she?”
They changed direction slightly and began walking toward her. “Look like ole Maybelle,” C.K. said, squinting his eyes at the distance.
“Well, I ain’t never seen a cow act like that before,” said Harold, mystified. “...layin’ there with her head on the ground like a damned old hound-dog.”
The cow didn’t move when they reached it, just stared up at them; she was chewing her cud, in a rhythmic and contented manner.
“Look at that dang cow,” Harold muttered, ever impatient with enigma, “...it is old Maybelle, ain’t it?” He felt her nose and then began kicking her gently on the flank. “Git up, dang it.”
“Sho’ is,” said C.K., leaning over and patting her neck. “What’s the matter with you, Maybelle?”
Then C.K. saw it, a bush of it, about twenty feet away, growing in the midst of a patch of dwarf cactus, and he went over and began to examine it with great care.
“This here is a full-growed plant,” he said, touching it in several places, gently bending it back, almost caressingly. Finally he stood up, hands on his hips, looking back at the prostrate cow.
“Must be mighty fine gage,” he said.
“Well, I ain’t never seen no locoweed make a cow act like that,” said Harold, as if his own inexperience in the matter could somehow nullify what had happened to Maybelle, and he began absently kicking at the plant.
“That ain’t no ordinary locoweed,” said C.K., “...that there is
that’s what that is.”
Harold spat, frowning. “Shoot,” he said, “I reckon we oughtta pull it up and burn it.”
“I reckon we oughtta,” said C.K. with a sigh.
They pulled it up.
“Don’t gen’lly take to red-dirt,” C.K. remarked casually, brushing his hands. “They say if it do, then it’s mighty fine indeed — they reckon it’s got to be strong to do it, you see.”
“Must be pretty dang
awright,” Harold dryly agreed, looking back at the disabled cow. “You think we oughtta git Doc Parks?”
They walked over to the cow.
“Shoot,” said C.K., “they ain’t nothin’ wrong with
The cow had raised her head, and her eyes followed them when they were near. They stared down at her for a minute or two, and she looked at them, interestedly, still chewing.
“Ole Maybelle havin’ a
time,” said C.K., leaning over to stroke her muzzle. “Hee-hee. She
that’s what she is.” He straightened up again. “Ah tell you right now, boy, you lookin’ at a ver’ contented cow there.”
“You reckon it’s ruin her milk?” Harold wanted to know.
“Shoot, that red-dirt gage make her milk all the more rich. Yeah, she goin’ give some Grade-A milk indeed after that kinda relaxation. Ain’t that right, Maybelle?”
They started toward the fence, Harold dragging the bush of locoweed along beside him, swinging it back and forth, while C.K. looked at it in bemusement — spiced perhaps with genuine interest.
“Jest look at the ole root on that plant!” he said, laughing. “Big ole juicy root — sho’ would make a fine soup-bone! Hee-hee!”
He had twisted off a branch of the plant and plucked a little bunch of leaves from it, which he was chewing now, like mint.
“What’s it taste like?” asked Harold.
C.K. plucked another small bunch and proffered it to the boy.
“Here you is, my man,” he said.
“Naw, it jest makes me sick,” said Harold, thrusting his free hand into his pocket and making a face; so, after a minute, C.K. put that piece in his mouth too.
“We could dry it out an
it,” said Harold.
C.K. laughed. “Yes,” he said flatly, “ah reckon we could.”
“Let’s dry it out and sell it,” the boy went on.
C.K. looked at him, plaintive exasperation dark in his face.
“Now Hal, don’t go talkin’ without you knows what you talkin’ about.”
“We could sell it to them Mex’can sharecroppers over at Farney,” said Harold. “They all smoke it.”
“Hal, what is you talkin’ about — them people ain’t got no money.”
They went over the fence again, silent for a while.
“Well, don’t you wantta dry it out?” Harold asked, child of twelve, yearning for action, projects, planning...
C.K. shook his head. “Boy, you don’t catch me givin’ no advice on that kinda business — you daddy run me right off this place somethin’ like that ever happen.”
Harold started breaking it up.
“We’d have to put it someplace,” he said, “where the dang stock wudn’t git at it.”
C.K. nodded sagely. “Don’t want
foolin’ with it.”
Harold sighed. “We don’t want nobody to
“That’s jest what ah say,” said C.K.
“No, you didn’t.” Harold wished to correct him. “There’s a difference between somebody
it an somebody
with it. Don’t you know that?”
“They is a difference,” C.K. agreed. “If they don’t find it, they don’t fool with it.”
Not entirely satisfied, Harold was ready to pursue it, but C.K. stayed him with a raised hand. “An’ ah know jest where we put it.” He gestured toward a huge sycamore tree directly ahead. “Up in the ole tree-house tree. Ain’t nobody gonna go up in there. Right, Hal?”
Harold seemed to consider it for a moment before he spoke. “That’s fer sure,” he said.
Now they were beneath the great tree, looking up to where its high canopy spread above them like a giant’s umbrella, the outermost branches swaying slowly in an imperceptible wind. So, after C.K. secured the root of the big plant under his belt, cinching it carefully as if for a walk on the moon, they started up, climbing what was left of a crude ladder of short narrow boards nailed to the trunk of the tree.
“Ah wudn’t go puttin’ a whole lotta faith in these here ladder-steps,” C.K. cautioned, after he had yanked one of them off the tree and tossed it to the ground. But they continued without incident until they were almost halfway up, already high enough to see the distant tree-circled pond and, in another direction, Les Newgate’s barn, and Harold paused, his hand resting tentatively on the next makeshift rung of these ladder-steps, thinking that if it was at all loose he would jerk it out and fling it with a powerful motion to the side that would cause it to sail from the tree like the deadly boomerang of some ancient hunting tribe — thinking this, and in his mind’s eye, seeing it, the movement of his arm, and the whistling trajectory of the weapon, when he became aware of a startling reality: about three feet away from him, so close he could have leaned out and touched it — or much, much worse, could have accidentally hit it with his pretend boomerang — was the largest hornets’ nest he had ever seen, so big indeed that it was at first unrecognizable as such, a deathly gray cocoon of monstrous proportions — the shape of a football but somewhat larger. It was, in fact, so uncommonly large that C.K., two rungs above, had passed without noticing it. But he saw it now.
“That there,” he said quietly, “belong in a sideshow.”
Seen in this perspective, so alarmingly close, the hornets’ nest appeared unreal — as if conceived and constructed by a bizarre master-artist, using only papier-mâché: either layer after layer molded into a solid mass, or stretched as a gray membrane over some painstaking skeletal armature; impossible to tell which, because the whole thing had no apparent use or function, like a monolith designed merely to celebrate pure and unadorned symmetry. It would not be until one perceived that at the very base of this structure of seamless perfection was a black hole the size of a silver dollar — not until then that one might suspect something less theoretical, something strangely exotic was at hand; but still without menace — that is, until the arrival of a single hornet, ribbed with black and gold, large enough, at close range, to be considered as an individual being, with weight, texture, eyes, mandibles, antennas, and, all too apparent in its quavering anticipation, a thornlike stinger at the tail. And when the hornet crawls, slowly, and seemingly with great confidence, down the surface of the nest and into the black hole, it is only then that one becomes inescapably aware of the true nature of this edifice, and its potential for apocalyptic horror. For someone like Harold or C.K. — no strangers to the trauma of a hornet encounter — the sight and proximity of the great nest was as momentous as it was ineffable. Only C.K. could have been irrepressible enough to say, “We come back tonight an’ put a stopper in that hole, then drop it down ole Les Newgate chimney! Hee-hee-hee.” The image, as farfetched as it was, made Harold shudder slightly as he eased himself up the next rung.
Near the top they reached a wide three-limbed crook in the big tree. Large rusting nails protruded from two of the limbs — the last remnants of an ill-fated tree-house of yesteryear.
“We use these ole tree-house spikes hook the plant onto,” said C.K., and he began to do so.
“Ah bet you done forgit the ole tree-house, Hal,” he added, knowing it wasn’t entirely true.
“Oh sure,” said Harold, “I jest wish I
forgit the dang thing.” His mind flooded with fragments of unwanted recollection even as he spoke.
But C.K. deprecated the notion with a wave of his hand. “All them things was jest part of growin’ up ’round here, Hal,” he assured him. But Harold was by no means convinced of that. The tree-house had been built — for his eighth birthday — by his father and C.K., working late into the long summer evenings when it stayed light right up to almost nine o’clock, using the old boards from a derelict chickenhouse and limbs cut from the tree itself. But his real present that year was his first gun, a single-shot .22 rifle — each of these things being a widely practiced Texas tradition; namely, that a boy be given his first gun at eight, and that it be a single-shot .22 rifle. This was considered both manly and prudent — manly in that it was an actual gun, not an air rifle, and prudent in that it was a gun of the smallest caliber, and like his hand-me-down twenty-gauge, a single shot.
For the first six months or so, he was not allowed to shoot the .22 unless he was with C.K. or his father. If he wanted to go out shooting on his own, he had to use his BB gun — a Daisy air rifle, manufactured to resemble a pump-action shotgun, that shot copper-coated pellets a scant forty yards or so, but with at least bird-killing power. Except for the farm animals, he was allowed to shoot almost anything that moved. He was discouraged from shooting certain birds: hummingbirds, mockingbirds, and whippoorwills; all others he was more or less encouraged to shoot because presumably he was training his eye for the time when he would be good enough to shoot dove with a .22. Dove, like quail, was a great dinner-table favorite, and a good shot with a .22 would pick them off a tree branch, one at a time, and in some cases could take the heads clean off— “and without,” in his grandfather’s words, “ruffling a single feather.”
The first winter after the tree-house was built was one of the coldest in Texas history — “the year of the Big Blue Norther,” it was called. Milk froze in the pail between the barn and the house. On the third morning of the norther, Harold went out to collect the eggs from the chickenhouse; he opened the door and was astonished to find the white leghorns sitting on the ten-foot perch in perfect alignment, like cutouts at a shooting gallery, frozen solid. C.K. came into the chickenhouse while he was still standing there perplexed.
Harold gave him a look of concern. “We gotta thaw ’em out,” he said.
“Cain’t be done,” said C.K. “Them birds be long gone.”
“We could thaw ’em out in the oven,” Harold went on unconvinced; but C.K. was adamant.
“Nope,” he said, “ah seen this happen onct before durin’ a real cold spell...” He crossed to the perch. “But ah gonna show you sumpthin’ ver’ funny, Hal, hee-hee. Now jest watch this...”
He reached out to the perch and gently pushed the nearest bird backward, then the second one — and each in turn executed a full 360-degree vertical spin, revolving on claws that were locked frozen around the perch in a perfect ring.
“Are you crazy?” Harold had demanded, but he was soon trying it himself.
And now that image, of hens doing frozen loop-the-loops, caused a torrent of memory — all connected to his grandfather’s ranting rampage against the deer that had ravaged the apple orchard.