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Walking with the Dog to Dover

ISSUE:  Summer 2005
The strongest of all warriors are these two—Time and Patience.
—Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
The aborigines of New Zealand are called Maoris, a Polynesian people. . . . Among them, it was supposed that the seat of the soul was the left eye.
—Lincoln Library of Essential Information

Here’s how you do it: You drive your Chevy, the black one you’ll put everything you own into this fall when you leave for college, and with two buddies, Jimmy and Carl, you head west on the highway to that place where the macadam doglegs left for several hundred feet before it doglegs right, and near the center of those several hundred feet is where the railroad crosses, so of course that is where you maneuver the Chevy until you have its tires on the tracks, tires under-inflated so they’ll settle softly onto the tracks when you continue west, now not on the highway but on the tracks that parallel the highway, Jimmy in the front seat at your right, Carl in the back seat behind him, Jimmy that likable bag of wind telling you again, then again, not to touch the steering wheel, don’t even breathe heavily on it, he says likeably, his smile a mile wide, just let the car do its own steering, which if you keep your hands and your breath off the wheel it will, the under-inflated tires providing cushions to keep the Chevy on the tracks, and here you go, you and Jimmy that likable bag of wind and Carl, who is so quiet and devoid of expression he’s inscrutable, here you go, heading west toward Sharon where you intend to turn around and head back east, giving your Chevy its rein, its windows rolled down, one of your arms with a hand at its end waving to whatever asks or doesn’t ask to be waved at, birds and horses and cows and trees and clouds and humans who in their inferior vehicles traveling on the inferior road that runs parallel to the tracks wave back, they being probably both amazed and envious, and holy cow you haven’t had this much fun since Hector was a pup, since somebody’s mother, but not your own, caught a tit in the wringer of the Maytag washer. That’s how you do it, all right. In five years, give or take, that’s how you’ll do it.

Meanwhile, the passageway under our house was evolving into nothing short of a masterpiece, partly because my father took such pains to bevel its sides, and partly because by the end of October it was almost finished. Patience. If the dog continues to place one leg over the other he will arrive in Dover. Rome wasn’t built in a day, Mother told us each time we showed so much as a trace of discouragement, and though I appreciated the sentiment I really didn’t give one hoot in Halifax about Rome, wherever it might be or whenever it might have been finished.

One late afternoon as we were preparing to remove some additional dirt, Father told me to fetch him the longest nail I could find, so I went directly to the nail box in the tool shed, emptied its contents on the floor and began to rummage. Our nail box was perhaps misnamed. It was not a box, but a large can, and it contained not only nails but also nuts and bolts and screws and small hinges and maybe a dead bug or two. Even so, we called it the nail box, probably because in the beginning we had intended it to be exclusively a nail box. But somehow nuts and bolts and so forth found their way into the can, so that when we needed anything smaller than a John Deere tractor we went to the nail box fully intending to find it.

I selected the largest nail and because I believed that my father was in a hurry I did not return the scattered contents to the can.

I found my father in the house waiting for me, a hammer in his right hand. I gave him the nail, which he looked at approvingly. Then together we walked to that line where the living room and the dining room joined, and there, after two or three rather non-scientific measurements, Father drove the nail into the pine floor to mark the center of that place where he intended to locate the furnace.

Back under the house then, in the tunnel, Father manipulated the light until he saw among a network of smaller nail-points the larger nail, and then I saw it too, and I was delighted that it was not far from where the tunnel ended, and I believe that my father was equally delighted. He grinned. Not a trace of spite in his grass-green eyes, not a trace of anger. And I tried to remember: Had there ever been?

When our digging of the passageway took us to a point directly under the nail, and after Father had beveled the sides to his satisfaction, we began the task of clearing a space large enough to accommodate the furnace. I had no idea how large this space should be, of course, but it turned out to be much larger than I had guessed. It seemed to me that Father, having begun the widening and the deepening of the end of the tunnel, might not stop until he had made space enough for half a dozen furnaces, but I had carried too many cans and buckets of dirt up the earthen stairs and out of the porch and across the driveway to dump on a hill that had become a mountain to lodge a complaint. Once in a while my subaltern, Johnny, would say something soft but unkind under his breath, something with which I did not disagree. But I pretty much kept my mouth shut. I knew that Johnny’s occasional utterances were more smoke than fire. I knew that deep in his heart my brother was less defiant than anxious. No more coal. No more goddamn coal. Doggedly, we traded an empty container for one that was full, or half full, and proceeded on.

Until you turn your head to say something to Carl, and you turn the head too far so that the torso moves with it, and the left arm moves with the torso, and the left wrist strikes the steering wheel and the Chevy veers to the right, jumping the tracks, and Jimmy that sweet sack of shit says O shit and Carl doesn’t say anything and the vehicle is bumping over the ties and the chat like the runaway stagecoach you watched the other night at the Rialto and before you can clutch and move the gearshift into neutral the car has stopped and the motor has died and there you are in the middle of nowhere unable to wish that Ray Wilson with his uncanny strength were here to lift the Chevy back onto the tracks, or to heave it over the rails and onto the right-of-way, because at the moment you don’t know squat about railroading because you’ll not be a gandy dancer until next summer but the green board you’re seeing to the west was red a moment ago and the change from red to green must surely mean something, probably that a train is approaching, and all you can do is sit there behind the wheel like a lump on a sinking log and pray for something beyond what you understand as human to deliver you.

When the space at last was cleared, and the lard can and the calf bucket hung on nails in the tool shed, Johnny and I were left with little to do but wait for someone else to do something. And someone else did. He was the local handyman, Philip Payne, and by the middle of November he had installed the furnace and had hooked this wire to that one, had screwed this gas pipe to another and had sawed a large rectangular hole in the floor at that place where the large nail had been driven and had covered the hole with a grate and had wiped his hands on his overalls before giving my father a piece of paper that said how much we owed him.

I doubt that we owed him very much, because Mother had a talent for swapping good hot meals for services rendered, and Mr. Payne liked good hot meals, and he liked my mother, too, as did everyone in town except much of the time my father, so I am speculating that the bill, whatever it was, was—in the context of the times and circumstances—minimal.

But anyway, who cared? The project had been completed, and each member of the family had contributed: Mother by goading Father into undertaking the project, Father by accepting and finishing it—his tunnel beautifully and amply sculpted—sister by working overtime at the cafe, sons by toting away uncountable buckets and cans of southcentral Kansas dirt. We were a family, after all, by god, and by god come the first cold snap we would be a warm and cozy family, a family not without its comforts, notwithstanding the absence of an indoor facility and something softer than a rock or a brick for my sister to sleep on.

You tell the others that the board ahead has changed from red to green and maybe that means something, maybe a train approaching, and Jimmy says O shit and the other breaks his silence to suggest that you try starting the car—and the car because you are praying starts, and in low gear, with Jimmy and Carl at the rear pushing and lifting and grunting like Neanderthals, you move the pre-war vehicle over the ties one at a time, smoke from under the car coming from somewhere, one tie at a time, and you can see that ahead, maybe fifty yards ahead, roughly half the length of the field last fall you defeated the Harper Bearcats on, there is thank you Jesus a road crossing, so that crossing becomes the goal line, pay dirt, reach the end zone boys and you can celebrate, the light ahead no longer red but green, greener even than your father’s eyes, so as you work the clutch and the footfeed to cajole the car over the ties one by one you look frequently in the rearview mirror, hoping not to see the eye of a monster growing larger behind you, smoke both white and blue rising from beneath the black Chevy that you bought with your own money, thanks to a summer job that paid handsomely, paid enough for you to buy the car and have enough left over for tuition and maybe room and board, and at the moment you see no eye of a monster in the rearview mirror, the crossing ahead coming closer, but very slowly, Jimmy and Carl with their strong young backs pushing and lifting and grunting, you working the clutch and the footfeed, the car bouncing up and over and down one tie, then another, one tie at a time, the Chevy smoking more heavily now and one tie at a time you pass the steel pole at the top of which the green light glows and you look in the rearview mirror again and you believe you see something well behind you on the tracks and you work the clutch and the footfeed with additional zeal, the Chevy continuing to respond, but not until the clutch has been almost totally released, the boys at the rear pushing and lifting and grunting in a rhythm that under less ominous circumstances might have suggested music.

When the first cold snap arrived, and we clicked on the furnace, and the furnace clicked back and sent warm air up and out of the register, and the living and dining rooms became quickly comfortable without the odor of coal, we clapped like a satisfied congregation—or would have clapped, had we all been together, which we weren’t, Father and Mother having left early for the cafe, and their children, one child at a time, having arisen to prepare for school.

And to this day I believe that it was the advent of the floor furnace that introduced me to the wonders of a formal education, because the furnace not only warmed our bodies but it likewise warmed my mother’s heart—warmed it, that is, to a degree so exceptional that when a salesman one day in late November materialized on the front porch my mother not only invited him in, she also listened to him and believed him and for a sum of money not yet disclosed she bought his product, a thick reference book with gold lettering on its green cover: The Lincoln Library of Essential Information.

Jesus and boy howdy. Father was not altogether pleased, but he shook his head and mumbled a few words, perhaps expletives, and we children made a circle around the book and took turns holding it and smelling it and turning its veritable millions of pages. We had never seen a book both so new and so large, and it was ours, our very own, our very own library—The cover called it a library, so who could argue?—contained in a single volume.

Did Mother buy the book because the room she bought it in was being heated not by a smelly Warm Morning coal stove but by a furnace installed, more or less, by Ralph, her husband? Surely that had been a reason, however major or minor. Another might have been that the cafe was providing the family a decent income, probably because my parents and their hired cook, Edna Hatfield, kept the place open from sunup until ten or eleven at night. But a third factor must have been significant if not dominant: She wanted her children to have a solid education, and she wanted to express this desire with something impressively thick and tangible, something for which her children might praise her when they became well-educated and highly successful.

True, the school had a library, a small one, but there was no public library, and in any case there was no substitute for a family’s having its own library, especially if this library were complete in one volume and had been purchased by a mother who very sincerely wanted her children to make something of themselves, and to do this by using their heads for something far more than hat racks.

Mother had graduated from high school, from the same school that her children now were attending. She had married a man with a strong back who had not gone to high school, and thus had no diploma, because he and his strong back were needed to help with farm work on his father’s quarter section of mediocre soil in southcentral Kansas. My father’s story was an old one. His father had been one of many children that his German father had not been able to afford, so Grandfather left home and took to farming at an early age. No matter the size of the acreage, or the difficulties that its meagerness entailed, he considered himself lucky to be no longer under the dictatorial thumb of his father. My father, in turn, left home as soon as an opportunity presented itself; he did not want to exist under the dictatorial thumb of his father, and he foresaw, probably correctly, that his father’s acreage would never yield more crops than headaches. So he left, counting himself lucky to have escaped his one-cow environment, regardless of what he might find himself doing thereafter.

This is the man, then, that my mother married, and because she was a woman with an easy laugh and a sharp eye who always wanted to better herself, her choice of a mate must have been prompted more by passion than logic. Or perhaps she, too, wanted to leave home at an early age (she married at nineteen), her widowed mother a short wide ornery German immigrant who as a grandmother I loved and detested in large and equal amounts. So Mother might have taken Father as a convenient means of escape, perhaps believing that in spite of his constricted education he might somehow fall into a position that surely as a young strapping fellow he deserved—and she, as his wife, would harvest her equal share of the benefits.

This did not happen. My father bounced like an ill-devised rubber ball from one back-breaking job to another. Ironically, one of the first was that of farmer. From a man named Broce he rented a few acres north of town, and for almost three years he plowed and planted and milked two or three cows and raised two or three hogs and endured a confederation of chickens until two years after my birth Mr. Broce decided that he no longer wanted to rent the farm, he wanted to run it, so my father bought one of the cows and one of the hogs and he and Mother packed our worldly goods into whatever it was we called a motor vehicle and we moved into town. Then as a harvest hand he was out of bed before the chickens greasing the zerks on someone else’s combine so that the machine might run smoothly as he inhaled chaff and scooped the wheat he’d drive then to the elevator. As a common laborer for the county, Harper County, he repaired bridges and patched roads until a floating kidney and a double hernia and the loss of two fingers forced him to take the position of road maintainer, which meant that the position was an upright one, my father standing behind the wheel of a road grader that shook and shimmied from dawn until sunset, my father shaking and shimmying with it as with one hand he held the wheel steady while with the other hand, the one with two fingers missing, he worked the levers to adjust the almighty blade.

During these many years my mother laughed easily and never lost the sharpness in her eyes. During all these years she must have believed that, sooner or later, some reputable, decent-paying job would find them, or they would find it, and the family would enjoy the prosperity it deserved.

No, that image in the rearview mirror is not the face of a locomotive; it must have been a vehicle crossing the tracks, or maybe a mirage prompted by the urgency of the moment, and you check the mirror again to be certain, then you blink your eyes rapidly to clear them and with clear eyes you judge that the crossing ahead cannot be more than fifteen yards away, one first-and-ten plus five, so you grimace and to make certain that the grimace is sufficiently grim you check it in the rearview mirror where at its lower edge you can see Jimmy and Carl lifting and pushing, Jimmy’s likable cheeks filled with a portion of his inexhaustible supply of hot air, he having been the one to suggest that you try this adventure, he never having done it before but he knew it would work, he had measured the width of both tracks and several cars, Carl’s face appropriately resolute, Carl the farm boy who drives his parents’ station wagon as if he owns it, his parents like yours not getting along very well, so on Saturday nights you ride with him in the station wagon, ride and talk until midnight, then ride and talk some more, and this time when you check the rearview mirror what you see by god is neither a distant vehicle crossing the tracks nor a mirage but smoke rising from the stack of an unmistakable locomotive and you work the clutch and the footfeed to take the Chevy over yet another tie and there is no response, the clutch sure enough having burned completely out, not much smoke now coming from the underside of the car, and leaving the gear shift in neutral you jump out and shut the door and standing beside the car, one hand through the open window on the wheel, you add your own weight and thrust to that being provided by your buddies and the black Chevy responds and you arrive at the crossing barely in time to turn the car off the tracks before the train, a freight, sends its dark deadly shadow swiftly over you, over you and your buddies and your car, and you blink your eyes and hold your hands over your ears until the locomotive with its whistle and its thick rope of smoke swirls past and you don’t move as the traincars swaying slightly and heavily clickety-clack the rails and you look at that place where one of the rails joins the other, both held firmly in line by iron bars, and when the caboose passes and the man aboard smiles and waves, well you’ll be damned if you don’t smile and wave too.

My mother’s optimism perhaps prompted her to be, at least at times, something between a nag and a scold. She no doubt saw herself as one whose cheerleading was necessary if the family ever hoped to better itself. And the bettering would not occur, not ever, if she did not almost daily prod my father. There is an enormous difference between You must do it and You can do it. It is the yawning chasm between mandate and encouragement. I am guessing that for my mother this chasm was frequently little more than a hairline fissure.

So my father, sufficiently bolstered, one day stopped working for others and started working for himself. He bought a service station, a filling station, and though it was the smallest station in town it nonetheless attracted a modest number of loyal customers, plus some strangers driving east or west along Highway 160, those who needed gas or oil and did not care to turn south and find a different station at the far end of the main street. It was a business comfortable in its smallness, or so it seemed to me, and unlike the other stations, the Mobil and the Champlin, it did not have a mechanic on duty, and that absence of a mechanic most certainly included my father. His method of healing an ailing vehicle was to look it squarely in the eyes and swear at it, soundly and thoroughly. Of course he used this method chiefly on his own automobile, and for the most part it worked. That is, he would swear at the beast until someone heard him and came to his aid, someone who owned a comprehensive set of tools and who knew a domelight from a camshaft. Always, it seemed, such a person would be out there, tool box in hand, waiting for some lost soul to call, and that person would respond, would bloody his knuckles while dirtying himself from cap to boots until the job was finished, and more times than not he would refuse payment, and my father, his anger ancient history, would thank him and shake his greasy hand and tell him to drop by the station, if at that moment he still owned the station, and he’d treat him to a free change of oil.

One lazy summer day I was inside the station, tending to business because my father had gone uptown to lunch, when a young boy walked through the door and asked where I kept the candy. I showed him—right here, I said, on the counter, and I led him to where our supply of candy rested on a display shelf atop the counter. The boy could scarcely see over the counter, but he managed. It was not a large supply— an assortment of gums, Juicy Fruit and Doublemint and Spearmint and Blackjack and Yucatan, some small packages of peanuts, a few little boxes of redhots, maybe a twist or two of licorice.

And one thin shiny packet of something I could not identify.

Because confession is good for the soul, or so they say, I’ll confess: I had found the small shiny package while in the act of snooping, an act that I had begun shortly after my father headed uptown for lunch. He had left me in charge because he knew that for the most part his customers could help themselves, and he trusted me, and everyone else, not to tinker with what little money there might be in the cash register. Business had been slow, and to relieve the tedium I explored the nooks and the crannies of our little station, the most interesting being the long shelf under the counter. Odds and ends had found their way onto the shelf, and because light from the overhead bulb was partially obscured by the counter these odds and ends took on a shadowy significance. For example, one day I found a box of used zerks, each of them, I suppose, cheap enough to throw away but nice enough to keep. At the time I did not know what they were. So I showed them to my father, who called them zerks and told me how they worked; he went so far as to affix one of them to the end of a grease gun, whereupon he pumped grease through the zerk, a fitting that attached to a vehicle would have delivered grease to whatever needed greasing. On another occasion I discovered a square board with some small holes in it, a board that looked new, like a game that had not been played very often. That’s a punchboard, Father said, and I want you to leave it the hell alone. I did not ask anything further. I put the punchboard back in its place, where I left it the hell alone.

But the small packets were another matter; they intrigued me beyond my ability to leave them alone. There were many of them in a cardboard box, all very neatly and compactly packaged, and each was shiny as a new dime in its wrapping of cellophane. I removed one from the box and felt its smoothness between a thumb and an index finger. At the time I knew very little about the fine art of marketing, but I knew that the little packet was pleasing to both eye and touch, and I concluded that such an appealing item should not be withheld from potential customers. So I had placed the shiny little package on the shelf with the candy, next to the Blackjack gum.

The youngster stood for a long time weighing his options. His right hand was a fist containing coins that he would give me when he made his decisions, which he did not make until he had touched each item, excluding the redhots, several times. At last he decided upon one package of Juicy Fruit gum and the small shiny packet that I had so recently put on display. I did not know what to charge him for this item of mystery, so I took all of his change, two pennies, I believe, and a nickel, and told him, You’re welcome, when he told me, Thank you, and he walked away rubbing the shiny cellophane and whatever it contained between a thumb and an index finger.

When Father returned from lunch I told him what had happened. He frowned, to begin with, then the frown turned to a smile and the smile moved into laughter and I couldn’t help myself—I laughed also, because my father did not laugh like that very often, and it was funny to see him laughing, and I wanted to be a part of his fun. When he was finished he said, Condom. O Christ! That boy bought a condom. Then he told me it was all right this time, but hereafter I was to leave the condoms the hell alone, which until I learned what the hell a condom was I did.

It is Carl who hitchhikes back into town where he goes straight to the station wagon, then straight to the Mobil station for a length of chain, then returns to where you and Jimmy are standing on a gravel road beside a clutchless black Chevy, Jimmy laughing at what has happened, you laughing too, though maybe not as hard as Jimmy, it being your car that now sits on the gravel road, clutchless, and you wonder how much it will cost to replace the clutch, wonder if Hadsall at the Champlin station can do the work, how long it will take, what your father will say, your mother, wonder why you listened to Jimmy in the first place, the goddamn windbag, but likable, and anyhow it was fun, wasn’t it, sailing along on the tracks with your arm out the window like the wing of a bird, the Chevy like the bird’s huge unlikely body, folks in their cars on the highway waving at you and your wing waving back, and you help Carl attach the chain to pull you into town, Jimmy beside you laughing and talking and breaking into song, maybe a hymn, he has such a high sweet voice and he wants to be a missionary, and because you know the words to the hymn you sing along, the chain between the Chevy and the station wagon keeping you connected and moving—because Carl has such a heavy foot—much too rapidly along.

It took only a week or so for my sister to lose interest in The Lincoln Library of Essential Information. She had seen it and held it and had turned some of its pages, perhaps had read a couple of its sentences, and that was enough. She was at the edge of becoming a woman, Mother said, and that maybe explained it. And Johnny—well, the book was not as tall as my brother, and not quite as wide, but surely it almost outweighed him, so like my sister he deferred to me, and thus I became the undisputed keeper of the family’s one-volume library.

For a while I kept it on top of an upright orange crate beside my bed, on a white doily crocheted by my German grandmother. Beneath it, on the shelf provided by the partition at the center of the crate, rested several comic books—The Torch and Toro, Captain Marvel, Batman and Robin, The Green Lantern. These were wonderful books, and I did not neglect them. Almost every night I’d read one or two, my little brother beside me reading also, a box of soda crackers between us, something to drink, juice or milk, on Grandmother’s doily atop the orange crate. But when I placed the Lincoln Library atop the doily, I had no platform on which to rest our libations, except on the book’s green cover; so before long I lugged the book into the dining room and found a place for it on the table near the buffet where Father kept his coupons. It was an ideal location, plenty of space to open the book and turn its uncountable pages, to gather information that according to the gold lettering on the green cover was essential.

It is essential to know that Alabama’s state bird is the Yellowhammer, essential to learn that Attila the Hun was no less a windbag than my buddy Jimmy would be, Attila boasting that grass never grew again where his gallant horse’s hooves had trod.

On a blustery winter evening, our floor furnace purring like a large, mysterious, domesticated animal, I’d stand at the table discovering information that is indeed essential—and, by virtue of what was excluded, is not. Do you know that if a horsehair is thrown into a pool, the hair will be changed into a snake? That’s what many people, long ago, believed, and what some people living today still do. Boy howdy.

It was a special time, that winter of the new floor furnace. My brother and I had carried away the dirt that helped to make the warm air from the furnace possible (which meant that we no more were required to carry buckets of black dusty coal halfway across the continent and into the house to feed a Warm Morning’s insatiable appetite), which in turn had lifted my mother’s spirits—and my father’s also—and my sister was becoming a young woman and Christmas, Mother said, was just around the corner, and the memory of Father dismantling the old coal-burner for me to carry piece by heavy piece to the family junkpile at the edge of the alley between the barn and the outhouse provided additional warmth, and this: In 1870, seven thousand buildings in Istanbul, which is in Turkey, burned to the ground at an estimated loss of twenty-five million dollars.

Yes, Hadsall can do the job for you, he’ll have to send to Harper for a new clutch, and the cost will certainly diminish but not deplete your bank account, the one you took such pride in when you established it around the middle of May, signed over your initial paycheck to a certified fartknocker who once upon a time denied your father a small loan because he didn’t have half a million dollars in collateral, but it’s the only bank in town, and shitfire one banker is like all the rest, your father says, all of them together not worth the cost of the dynamite it would take to blow their fucking brains out, so you sign not only your own check but a couple of official looking papers and you walk out the door with a bank account, money enough by the end of the summer to buy yourself a car, an old ‘38 Chevy, as it turns out, with enough money left over for books and tuition and, as it turns out, a new clutch, your father having very nearly grinned when you told him what had happened, your mother’s anger and disappointment overwhelmed by relief and gratefulness, you anxious as a child with the heebie-jeebies as you wait for Hadsall to send for the new clutch and install it, your buddy Carl anxious too, the two of you cruising the streets of a town you say you can’t wait to escape from, Carl, one year older than you, not certain where to go or what to do with his farm-boy life, you about to head to a campus you know practically nothing about, you and Carl in his pale blue station wagon cruising and talking, both sets of parents coming uninvited into the conversation, both sets adrift in similar boats they cannot or will not stop rocking, and though it isn’t Saturday night the main street is active, business good in the Rexall drugstore and the pool hall and my parents’ cafe, and sooner or later you replay that near miss on the railroad tracks, telling each other more than once that except for someone touching the goddamn steering wheel that’s how you do it, all right, that’s exactly how you do it.

One problem with the one-volume library is that no matter how thick it is, it is never quite thick enough.

I learned this lesson when for some unaccountable reason I could not remember the real names of Batman and Robin. So I went to the Lincoln Library’s index where, no matter how closely I looked, I could find no information whatsoever related to my heroes. I was stunned—until it occurred to me that no book is perfect, that the editors had overlooked this essential information and that as a boy doing his best to follow the Golden Rule I should forgive them. So I did. But my compassion did not last very long, because when I tried to find other essential information—the name of the boy who by shouting Shazam! could transform himself into Captain Marvel, or the name of the people from whom Wonder Woman descended—I drew additional blanks. Clearly, something was amiss. Clearly, the editors of my one-volume library either had deliberately misled me with its title, or could not always distinguish the essential from the non-essential. I knew absolutely that the street names of Batman and Robin—Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson—were essential, knew absolutely that if one did not recognize the name Billy Batson or did not know that Wonder Woman’s people were the Amazonians, one’s education was woefully deficient—whereupon I compiled a list of my own essentials, and none of them, including the fact that some pinball machines tilt more readily than others, was in the Lincoln Library’s index.

My first impulse was to throw my one-volume library into the trash. But I didn’t. It had taught me a truth more significant than revenge—that experts who did not grow up in drugstores and pool halls and barber shops and filling stations deserve pity more than scorn. They probably had not read either the Sears and Roebuck or Montgomery Ward catalog, and it would not have surprised me if they had not memorized verses of Scripture, and thus did not know, as did Amos, that woe is in store for those unfortunate creatures who lie upon beds of ivory.

It is a good thing to know that experts do not know everything. Knowing this, I kept my one-volume library and smiled and shook my head each time I discovered yet another omission. And another cold snap occurred, then another, and the floor furnace kept pace, warming the living room and the dining room and removing some of the chill from the kitchen and the bedrooms. Two or three times during that winter I ventured onto the back porch to lift the door to the cave, then carefully descended the earthen stairs to wander the earthen floor with a hand raised until I found the string that, pulled, would switch on the light. And I would stand there looking at the passageway that in a minute or so I would follow to where the furnace sat in its ample space, purring. With the family shovel Father had beveled the sides of that space, and the sides of the tunnel, and with a calf bucket and a lard container my brother and I had carried the dirt across the floor and up the earthen steps and out the door and across the gravel driveway to dump it on a patch of bunchgrass just east of the outhouse. Dirt. And patience. And one leg over the other the dog walks to Dover. And when the mound rose halfway to the height of the outhouse my little brother stood atop it, claiming to be King of the Mountain—until his older brother with the full force of an entire Mongolian horde ascended the mountain and executing a flanking movement kicked the ass of his feisty but smaller brother squarely into the middle of next Wednesday, Father meanwhile whistling, or singing, the only lines he knew from The Great Speckled Bird.


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