Spring/Summer 2002, Volume 19.3
Erik E. Schoen
Madras, Oregon—Auction Yard and Memory
Erik E. Schoen works in Virginia City, Nevada, as an advocate for underserved populations. With his wife, he formed Creative Disability Solutions, an organization designed to encourage the inclusion of loved ones with differing abilities as part of the fabric of everyday life. This is Erik Schoen's first published work.
The original red vinyl theater seats still bear witness as well as a place to sit for the leathered ranchers and farmers in their Sunday jeans, freshly-laundered work shirts, and cowboy hats. Some of the men have their wives and children sitting with them. Up in back, cigarette smoke collects around the lights. A dirty yellow fly-strip covered with black specks hangs in the corner. The auctioneer's voice is musical and soothing.
A question from my brother breaks my reverie, "Wha? What was that you said?"
"I said, sure takes you back, huh?"
"Yeah, I guess it does." It's been a decade since I've last had the pleasure of her company. My grandfather, who was still chasing after cattle on foot in his late sixties, built the Central Oregon Livestock Auction in Madras, Oregon, a town surrounded by lush farms and anonymous straw-colored grass, dotted with sagebrush and the stunted growth of juniper trees. Through years of visits to my grandparents, I grew up in this auction yard—rounded-up cattle at age seven, bucked hay with the grown cowboys, and learned to wear my boots and eat eggs and bacon like my grandfather. If not for his influence, I would've ended up a woefully citified critter.
We'd been eating Mexican in town when my brother, browsing the local paper someone had left behind, told Dad and me about the auction and that it was happening as we ate. Did we want to go? We finished the second half of our meals in a quarter of the time it had taken to eat the first, threw down a pair of twenties, and piled into the car. As Mecca is to some, so is the Auction Yard to us. Did we want to go? Craig knew the answer to that before he even asked it.
We were surprised to find the Yard open on a Saturday night, when we knew her Auction Day was Wednesday. This was why, even though we returned every October for a weekend of hunting deer on Johnny's Hill—me from Reno, Craig from Portland, and Dad from Eugene—and even though we passed her on the freeway into town every year when we did visit, we'd never thought of stopping in. It wasn't that we didn't want to—it was just a basic unalterable fact of life impressed upon us when we were so impressionable: as the sun rises in the morning, so is the Auction Yard open only on Wednesday.
Given our excitement, I suppose it might've seemed strange for how quiet we were on the drive over. For my part, the questions in my mind wouldn't stop: Would it look the same? Would it have the same feel? Would it be strange to go into this place without Grandpa? After all, the last time I'd been into see her was before Grandpa died at age 70. Of all the places left, this was, perhaps, the least changed from our childhood and the best place, if we were lucky, for a last direct connection to a vital part of our past lives. I hoped, not consciously, that I would catch a glimpse of innocence unstained, like opening a time capsule, with adult understanding. And I wondered, though I dared not utter the words aloud as they seemed foolishly sentimental, would I see him?
From my vantage point in the auction arena I can see over the field of bobbing Stetsons down to the 20 by 70 foot crescent-shaped, sawdust-covered pit, the auctioneer's booth inset into the middle of the back wall. From his eight-foot perch, he barks into a microphone in a sing-song, while strands of heavy-duty wire separate the crowd from the pit.
Right now, the two men in the pit have their hands full. Whereas the last horse was a well-seasoned, mild-mannered dobbin, which had to be prodded with a snap of the men's whips, a fit-looking colt is now pacing the pen, nostrils flaring and eyes wide. The men step behind their metal shields whenever, snorting and bridling, he trots over to a side of the pit. Unable to escape the noise and bright lights, the young bronc circles nervously while three men bid up its price. After securing an offer, the metal gate to the left is opened. The colt dashes through, and the gate is closed, a metallic thud echoing in reply.
The man on the right, opening the other gate to a mature cutting horse and its rider, reminds me of my grandfather. With his cowboy hat and boots, dark blue Wrangler jeans and button up work shirt, a bulging pocket betraying the pack of smokes hidden within, cigarette dangling in his lips, whip in hand, and business in his eyes, I am tempted to wave to him, so strong is the resemblance. But I don't, because I remember being told at a much younger age that I might accidentally buy a horse if I did.
"Dad and I are going outside. Wanna come?" my brother again.
"No thanks, I'm gonna stay a while longer."
I watch their backs shrink as they take the stairs below. As they pass between the crowd and high-tensile steel cables, I notice the hand-printed signs advertising "Big R's Ranch, Farm and Home Supply" open seven days a week, "Steakout West" offering steaks and spirits down the way in Bend, and several others hanging on the back wall, framing the auctioneer's booth. From where I sit, the fact that these signs are up-to-date is the only noticeable difference betraying the forward march of time. Even the mysterious phone booth behind all these forward-looking cowboys looks the same as it always did.
I close my eyes, letting it all wash over me. After a ten year migration, searching and asking unanswerable questions, after uncertainly forcing square pegs into round holes so that I might stand still, after forgetting that I was running, so used to the chase had I become, a piece effortlessly falls into place. I know this smell, this feel, this way. I slowly let out my breath before I surface from these depths and open my eyes.
I languish in her embrace a few more minutes before I follow my brother and father. I make my way around the stage, as men in the crowd continue to raise their black-and-white numbers in seemingly random movements, ceiling obscured with the swirling maze of their Winstons and Marlboros, and I see that the man who looked like my grandpa looks heavier now that I'm at his level. He doesn't notice me, so preoccupied is he with helping the auctioneer entice bids on a reddish brown filly and its mother.
I exit through a narrow hallway and come out at the back of the arena. Through the fences, I can see the horses lined up for their turns at center stage. Way back when, I could get to the skywalk from here. Now, the first step hangs in mid-air out of reach. I'll have to go back inside and try the steps out front. Before I do, I look for the Soda Hole at the corner of the building.
The sodas were a treat from Grandpa for Craig and me. The sodas kept us busy while he wrapped up business on Thursday morning. We'd go off and climb over the seats in the arena, race up and down the stairs, step inside the pit and pretend we were trying to keep a gnarly old bull tame, run along the skywalk, and do it all over again. Without the crowd, we'd have the Yard to ourselves to play with. She was always more than willing to watch over us.
When it was time to go, Grandpa would offer us a piece of gum. If we were lucky, which was often, he'd put a few coins in the machine and out would come two orange sodas in old-fashioned clear glass bottles. He'd pop off the lids using the built-in opener and hand the magic nectar to us. Often, we'd drain them dry before we got to the truck. If so, we'd run around back and dump 'em in a hole before leaving. The only thing is, it's no longer here. It is now covered over, a bush growing in its spot.
I go back inside, through the bare, gray hallway lit with a bare hanging bulb, to the sales office and cafeteria. It's noisy with all the conversations taking place. A cowboy and his wife are chatting up the sales gal as they complete their transaction. Two teen-age girls flirting with two handsome young bucks. An elderly cowboy, one hand fingering the cord, talks into the receiver of one of the three telephones banked on the wall. Buckaroos in their pint-sized boots run around while their parents try to keep them fenced in.
On one of the walls, I notice a few black and white pictures in wooden frames. One shows an aerial view of the auction house surrounded by fields. Another shows the outside holding pens full with cattle and horses. I see a familiar face smiling back from the last picture I happen to gaze at. It's Grandpa—probably taken when he was 50 or so, just after I was born. His short hair is darker than I remember it. Still, I see the mustard-brown work coat Dad got after Grandpa passed on, the hat that he took off for only a handful of occasions, one of those being going to church and another going to bed. I see the crinkle of his eyes and his mischievous grin. For a moment, I hear him snicker as though he's playing another practical joke on me.
Two women behind the formica-covered food counter are cleaning the soda fountain and counting the night's till as I head for the front doors. I try to order an orange soda only to be told that the jets have been turned off. Looking around, a plastic see-through tub filled with multicolored packs catches my attention. Curiously I see that the packs look familiar—the distinctive lime-green of Wrigley's Spearmint, glowing yellow of Doublemint, off-white of Wintermint, and bold color of Big Red. I buy one of each, leave a small tip for the two gals, and turn to leave. A smile crosses my face as I again hear a familiar snicker.
After the claustrophobic energy of the arena and cafeteria, it's nice to be outside again. Despite the new coat of paint I'd first noticed, she's still the same old gal that I knew as a kid. It's dark now as I take the stairs up to the elevated wood-plank walkway that stretches along the length of the auction yard. A dozen feet below, I can barely make out the mostly empty pens that will be full come another auction day. As I walk, I see my dad and brother at the other end.
"Wow, wobbly huh?!" I yell.
"Wha? Sure is."
"Remember how great it was to come up here?" I've closed the distance and am now standing next to the two of them, none of us leaning on the rail because we're not sure we could trust it to hold us.
Neither Craig nor Dad answer. The stars shine brilliantly as each of us becomes lost in our private thoughts. In time, the cool autumn scents of field and animal insist we take our leave.
"Hey," I say as I reach into my pocket, "I almost forgot." I pull out four packs of gum. Dad takes a piece of Big Red. My brother takes Doublemint, I Spearmint. The wooden skywalk sways over the sea of holding pens as we make our way back to the car. A few trucks are still in the parking lot as we pull for home, the taste of those youthful visits lingering on our tongues, slaking our thirst.