Spring/Summer 2002, Volume 19.3
Martin Naparsteck is a literary handyman who has published two novels, War Song and A Hero's Welcome. His collection of short stories, Saying Things, will be published by Lake Affect Publishing in New York, fall 2002. His shorter work has appeared in Mississippi Review, North American Review, Ellery Queen, The Writer, and elsewhere. He is the book reviewer for the Salt Lake Tribune, has taught at 10 colleges, is a free-lance editor, and runs writing workshops.
If Jack had changed the tire on the Chevy pickup, like I told him, I never would had met the New York Jew, so what happened was, really, Jack's fault. The tire went pop. I heard it. I'd never before had a flat and was surprised by the noise, like a balloon popping, sudden, not loud, and a small bit of fun, just like every new experience. I had driven more than a mile along the packed dirt road from our house, past the Johnstone's place, and turned on the county road, and almost immediately heard the pop. The truck pulled to the right, and a small pinch of panic grabbed my insides. I quickly realized it must be a flat, and I knew you aren't supposed to drive with one—could damage the wheel. So I pulled over, partly into the irrigation ditch. What the hell would I do? No sense walking home, since Jack was on the tractor on the far north tract, and he wouldn't be home for hours, and I didn't want to go to the Johnstone's, because Shelly just talked and talked and talked about nothing, and her conversation made me nauseous the same way being on a carnival ride that didn't want to stop once did. Then I saw a bicyclist, maybe a quarter mile away, coming down the road, and I hoped maybe it was the Smitten's kid, cause I could ask him to ride into Widow's Fork and have Justin Ballows drive his tow truck out. I never thought I might be able to change the tire myself. I wasn't even certain if there was a spare in the storage box on the bed of the truck. As the bicyclist got closer, I realized it wasn't Ralphy Smitten, but a man I didn't recognize. The panic that bit me then was different than the one I felt earlier. I felt scared this time. Alone on a lonely road, and I'd seen enough movies and TV shows to know what that meant. The strong reek from the manure spread within the last few days on the surrounding farms deepened the sourness of my circumstance. I grew up on a farm and have lived on one ever since getting married, and you'd think nearly four decades of the reek of shit would get me used to it, but it didn't. Not ever.
The man seemed to coast his bike as he got closer, as if he was evaluating me or the situation. I breathed deep, not voluntarily, but that helped settle me, and I convinced myself I could handle this man. He was about average height and looked like he was probably built pretty well, a little older than me, and he sweated heavy. Late spring in central Wyoming can be hot; is hot. He came to a stop maybe ten feet from me and said in a voice so soft I strained to hear: "Need some help?"
"Are you a farmer?" I asked. Not sure why I asked. Maybe I thought if he said yes it meant he was from around here, and that would make him safe, or at least safer. But it was unlikely he were from nearby. I would know. Not a lot of people live anywhere near Widow's Fork. Not much reason to.
"No," he said, his face smiling faintly. When I didn't respond right away he must have felt a need to speak, and he said, "Three good reasons to not be a farmer: long hours, hard work, and fertilizer."
I didn't want to smile, but I did. But I forced myself not to laugh, even though I knew that if a man I knew had made the same remark I would have thought it hilarious. But laughing to the remark of a stranger when there was no one else in sight seemed like a dangerous thing to do, like I'd be inviting him into a friendship I wasn't certain was safe.
"If you have a spare, I could change it for you." He added, "If you like."
"I don't know," I said, not certain if I didn't say more cause I didn't want to sound so ignorant about knowing whether or not I had one or cause I didn't trust his offer to help.
"Want me to check your box?" he asked, motioning with his chin. His chin seemed just a mite small, and his nose just a mite too wide, but except for them things, I thought he was a pretty good looking man, and I didn't like thinking that.
I nodded, by which I meant nothing, but he must have thought it meant he should check the box. Maybe I meant something by the nod, but I didn't know for sure. Anyways, I didn't object when he stepped on the back bumper, hoisted himself up, swung a leg over the back gate, and stepped over to the storage box. We never kept it locked—not in the middle of nowhere. He lifted it open and said, "Yup, you got one," as if he were trying to imitate a cowboy in a bad movie. As he said it, I realized he had an eastern accent, maybe New York. I'd never met a man from New York. Never knew if I wanted to. Not like a man from Paris or Rome who might seem romantic, but I am not one of them Westerners who's a bigot against New Yorkers, like so many out here are. He could be a big city Negro for all I cared—wouldn't make any difference to me. He lifted the tire out, threw it over the side, and I watched it thud and bounce slightly. Then I looked up and he was holding out the jack and the jackiron, wanting me to take them. I reached up and grabbed them and was surprised they weren't more heavy. He climbed over the side kind of gingerly, and I was surprised he didn't just leap, swinging his legs high as he held a hand on the edge.
While he changed the tire, he asked me, "Do you live around here?" and I said I did. And he asked, "You live on one of these farms?" and I said I did. And he asked, "Lived out here long?" and I said I had. Not sure if I didn't want to get into conversation with him—or maybe it was something else. Actually, I knew it was something else. I had this sense if he were a New Yorker he must have a sophistication I lacked, having lived my whole life in Wyoming and having never been to no other states but places like Utah and Montana, places that touched on mine, and if I said anything I wouldn't have felt confident I could hide my hickness. Like so many of us from Wyoming, I'd often ridiculed the sophistication I associated with big cities in the East, but in truth, I always realized, I was scared of it, scared encountering it would expose some failure in me, some failure that couldn't hurt me as long as it lay dormant deep inside.
He hoisted the flat onto the bed and put the jack and jackiron in there too. Then he climbed into the back and put them all in the storage box. When he was done, he did what I had hoped he would do earlier; he swung his legs in a graceful sweep over the side as his hand braced on the edge and flew the four or five feet down to the ground, so he landed maybe a foot from me, facing me. He smiled pleasantly, not the big grin smile young cowboys use to begin a seduction, but a gentle smile, like a brother might use to tell a sister she's pretty. He said, "The flat is pretty bald; I don't think it can be fixed."
"Well," he said, "you should be able to get wherever you were going."
I nodded again, but didn't speak. Maybe it was shyness or maybe I still felt some of the scaredness I felt earlier. Whatever, I climbed into the cab, started up the engine, and pulled out slowly. I watched him in the sideview mirror as the distance between us expanded. And I felt bad. Real bad. Why in shit was I so rude I didn't even say a thank you?
I drove on in to Widow's Fork and went to Smitty's and bought a lot of stuff, flour and spaghetti and soda pop for the kids and Budweiser for Jack. Spent near $50. Seldom spent that much at Smitty's, specially lately, cause the wheat and corn and oats prices been down and Jack makes barely enough selling them to pay the mortgage and the payment on the new tractor, so I try to grow as much as I can out behind the house. Got nearly half an acre to grow carrots and peas and squash and other stuff and I can it and the chickens lay eggs regular, so guess we never have to worry about food. But we worry about other things.
I loaded the bags on the passenger seat and pulled out of the lot, and in front of the Spider's Utensil Cafe I saw a bicycle chained to a telephone pole, and that surprised me, cause nobody in Widow's Fork chains up their bikes. If one were stolen, chances are everybody'd know who took it. So I figured it was the man with the accent that might be from New York, and I told myself I should go in and say thank you, but even at that moment I think what I really wanted was to see him again. Him maybe being from New York and all.
So I parked and went in and told Maybell I'd have a cup of coffee. Just Old Gus and Little Larry in there, playing darts, and I felt disappointed, but then the door to the co-ed restroom opened and out came the man who might be from New York. I was still standing and Maybell hadn't given me my coffee yet, and I tried to avoid eye contact with the man, and Maybell asked me where I was going to sit. I paused a moment and the man said, "Will you join me?" I stuttered but didn't say anything, but Maybell put the coffee cup on a table that already had one, so I sat at it and the man sat down across from me. Those are little tables they got at the Spider's Utensil, so we weren't sitting but two feet apart. He said, "Your truck running all right?"
"Why, yes, it is," I said and immediately felt foolish cause I know I sounded phony, like some high school girl who's got a crush on the quarterback.
"Those Chevys sure can take a beating," he said, "but of course the tires aren't made by Chevy."
"You know a lot about trucks?" It was just a question. Something to say.
"No." He smiled. "But I never let the fact I don't know what I'm talking about get in the way of having an opinion."
Soon as he said it I broke out laughing. I laughed real hard, like I was alone in my livingroom and heard a dumb joke on television and couldn't control myself. Old Gus and Little Larry and Maybell they all looked at me. I've known them years and I bet they never heard me laugh hard. Not something I do in front of other people. Only in front of my TV. Even if Jack or one of the kids is there, I won't laugh like that. Suddenly I realized that and my laughing stopped. I stood and looked around and felt as foolish as I've ever felt, and I went to the door, stopped, and left. Outside I realized I hadn't paid, so I went back in, and when I did I saw the man who might be from New York standing at the register giving Maybell money. I started to take money from my jeans, but the man said, "It's on me." He smiled his pleasant smile again. Kind of a shy smile.
He walked up to me. "Want to finish your coffee?"
I shook my head no and turned and left.
He came out right after me and we stood in front of the Pepsi machine, and I reached into my jeans feeling for quarters, and he just popped two quarters into that machine as if he already had them in his hand. Maybe he did, from change. He said, "What kind you want?"
"Diet," I said, and I felt awfully forward for saying it.
He pushed the button and the can dropped down, and he picked it up and snapped it open. "Here you go." He held it out for me.
"Aren't you going to have one?" I asked. I didn't know if I wanted him to join me so we could talk or if it was just a reflex thing to say.
"I'll have a swig of yours, if it's all right."
I handed him the can and he took a long swallow and handed it back. He kind of sighed when he finished. I asked, and I still don't know why, "Are you from New York?" The suddenness of my question, I know, was rude, as if being from New York was a bad thing. He looked at me askance and his lips sort of smiled but then quivered a tiny bit and finally they flattened out. But he didn't speak. I said, "I should have thanked you for helping me. Thank you. I'm sorry."
"You're welcome." And then we talked. He told me he wasn't from New York, but from New Jersey, that he was a sculptor and he was renting a house about a dozen miles outside of Widow's Fork, and working on some statues, cutting them out of wood. He said he didn't sell a lot and barely made a living. He said his work was abstract and he couldn't sell it regular. "People want representational art," he said. "Busts, heads, animals, religious things, stuff like that."
"And you can't make that?" I asked. My tone turned sarcastic, and I repeated something I heard on the TV once. "Violate some artistic principle? Make you feel like you were prostituting yourself?" I might have sounded rude. I don't know. I expected rudeness from a New Yorker, and New Jersey's just a suburb of New York. That's the way everybody in Wyoming thinks.
"I would be quite willing to prostitute my principles," he said, and for the first time I saw his eyes sparkle, "If I had any principles to prostitute."
I broke up laughing again, feeling foolish for doing so. My mouth opened wide, my teeth must have been fully visible, top and bottom, and a hearty guffawing must have come out. But unlike when I was in the cafe, I didn't mind. No one else was around. Only this New Yorker. Byron Rathers, he told me his name was. "Byron Rathers, you make me laugh." I blushed so hard I felt the burn on the skin of my face.
Then I did something I know I should not have. I reached out my hand and with my fingertips I touched the back of his hand. Just for two seconds at most. Then I pulled my hand away. I saw him smile, almost grin. Then I walked real quick to my truck, got in, started it up, backed up, and didn't look at him again. All the way home I thought about touching him, trying to figure out why I did it, what it meant, did it commit me to something. I liked Byron Rathers, liked him a lot, that's why I touched him.
Next few days, when Jack come in from the far north tract late in the afternoon, smelling of the manure he spent the day spreading, I'd think of how much I hated fertilizing time. I hated the smell of shit on my daddy. I smelled it on him even when I saw him in the coffin. I didn't say anything to mama about it, never, but she must have smelled it too. And when she died I stood near her coffin and asked her silent like if she were glad to be away from the smell of shit. Once when I was a little girl, daddy and mama and my sisters and brothers and me, we all went on a picnic on our farm, and daddy led us in prayer and said, "Dear Lord we know there can't be much difference between heaven and Wyoming," and I said, "Bet they don't have no manure in heaven," and mama said, "Hush, Blossom," but daddy laughed the loud way he sometimes laughed. The way I never laugh in front of Jack or my kids. The way I laughed for Byron Rathers, the man from New York.
Jack stripped his clothes on the back porch and put them in the box he build out there, and he washed himself up at the outside spigot with the Lava bar we kept there. And I know he scrubbed himself real good. But I couldn't get the smell out of my mind. I lost five pounds or more every year at fertilizing time. Couldn't eat with that smell. Thank the Lord Jack never wanted to touch me much any more in bed. Our youngest one was twelve and we didn't do much in bed since then, no more than once every other month. It wasn't just the smell of the manure, but that was a part of it. Big part.
But Jack was a good man. Worked hard. Provided good as he could. Never hit me or the kids. Or yelled at us. Took me to Cheyenne whenever I wanted to go. Tried to help Johnny, our middle one, with his algebra when he had trouble in school, but he didn't know much about those things. I felt sorry for him at the parents-teachers meeting when Mrs. Clocksure said maybe he shouldn't help Johnny, maybe he was doing more hurt than helping.
"I'm going into Widow's Fork tomorrow," I announced one night at dinner. "What for, Mommy?" Sarah asked. "Just pick up some things. Anybody need anything?" Jack asked if I would see if Smitty's had any of that ice beer he saw advertised on TV, and Johnny asked for vinegar-flavored potato chips, and Edmond wanted to know if he gave me money would I rent him a Madonna video. "I think you're a little young for that, young man," Jack said, but he said it more teasing than like he meant it, so I said I would see if they had it. I knew they wouldn't. Lots of things you can't get in Widow's Fork.
When I turned the truck on to the county road I drove real slow. Guess I wanted to see if the New York man would be out on his bicycle again. All the way into Widow's Fork I watched for him. And in town I looked for a bicycle. When I didn't see one, I went into Smitty's and bought the potato chips and ice beer. I couldn't find a Madonna tape, but I rented a Mariah Carey one. Sarah hadn't asked for anything, but I bought her a Hershey bar. She favored them. I tried to stretch my shopping out. Only four places to go into in Widow's Fork. After Smitty's I went into the post office and bought some stamps, though I didn't need any. Then I walked by Ballows service station but couldn't see anybody in there that wasn't from round here. Only place left were Spider's Utensil, so I went in and ordered a Coke. Sat and sipped it real slow. I waited. But nobody from New York came in. I went out, got in my truck, and drove out of town feeling real lonely. Feeling like when I got close to the farm land again and smelled the manure I would collapse, like all the life in me would just drain out, like I would wither up and die.
Then I saw him. The man from New York on his bicycle coming towards town. I slowed and waved but he must not have seen me and he went right by and I made a U-turn and blew my horn and he moved to the side of the road, probably thinking I just wanted to pass him safe like, but I pulled up alongside him and slowed to keep even with him and waved a little wave, a silly wave, my fingers kind of flapping, and he grinned and lifted a hand to wave back and his bicycle turned into the truck and my stomach felt like I had to throw up. There was a thump and he disappeared. I pushed my foot hard into the brake, the motor stalled, and I got out and ran around back, thinking maybe I was going to cry, but I saw him standing there, looking all right. "You all right?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said. He looked at his bike.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," I said. His bike was bent in two different directions, like it was some modern sculpture. "I'm so sorry."
"Well, I'm not sure it was anymore your fault than mine." He added, "No real harm done." Then he added something else. "You can make it up to me by buying me coffee at Spider's Utensil." I nodded and he lifted his bike to the bed of my truck and we went to town. We sat real close to each other at the little tables and talked about the weather and how big the West is and things like that and I just blurted out, "You a Jew?"
"O, Lord, I'm so embarrassed. I didn't mean to say that. I'm so rude. Please forgive me."
"Yes, I'm a Jew."
"I'm not. Nothing wrong with being a Jew."
"I mean I'm sorry I asked. It's personal. I had no right to ask." I felt small.
"Are you a Jew?"
"Me? No, of course …." I still felt small. "I'm a Methodist, but I don't go to church much."
"Ever meet a Jew before?"
"No." Then, "I really am sorry."
"I'm not mad." Then, "I like you. I think you're very nice."
"Oh." I couldn't think of anything else to say.
"Could you give me a ride back to my place?"
"To your place?"
"Yes. My bike won't make it."
"Oh. Yes. I can. I will, I mean." So that's how I ended up at the house he was renting. It was a stone place, only three rooms. A kitchen, a livingroom, and a bedroom. And there was a barn he used as a studio. I stood at the doorway of the barn and looked at his carvings. They looked pretty but they didn't look like anything. They had mostly curves and a few straight lines. And he had polished and polished and polished the grain so it looked deep and you could see yourself in it, like looking in a brown-tinted mirror. "Stand here," he said and put his hands on my shoulders from behind to position me, and I saw myself, distorted like in a fun house mirror, with narrow hips and wide knees and a fat chin and I smiled. "You're beautiful," he said. I said, "I look like a cartoon," and his hands turned me around and he said, "No, you are very beautiful." I kissed him.
I kissed him real quick, my lips not on his for more than a second, and I must have blushed real hard. He leaned his face into mine and one of his hands was on the side of my face, and he kissed me long and tenderlike, and I put my tongue inside his mouth, and he took me by the hand and led me to an old overstuffed chair in the dark part of the barn, and he sat down and pulled me on to his lap, and we kissed and he touched me and then we were undressing each other.
When we were done I made him dinner. He kept bread and fresh fruit and a large can of Dinty Moore stew. So I heated the stew and apologized for not having more to cook a decent meal with. "Not exactly home cooking," I said, and he told me a story about how when he was little his mother made large quantities of food with no seasoning, so everything was plain, and when he got into the army and the army gave him large quantities of food with no flavor and all the other soldiers complained they wanted home cooking, he told them, "What do you mean, this is home cooking, this is exactly how my mother used to cook." And I laughed real hard. I don't think I thought it was so funny, but I liked laughing, and it was OK to laugh for this Jew from New York.
We went into the bedroom for about ten minutes but then I told him I had to leave. He helped me dress. "Are you married?" he asked.
As I drove away I told him I didn't know if I could come back. He said, "My lease will be up in a week and I'll have to go back to Asbury Park."
Even as I drove off his place I began thinking, maybe I could tell him I wanted to go to New York with him. And when Jack came in that evening with his smell of manure, I told myself, I want to go to New York with the Jew. At the dinner table, I listened to my kids bicker, remained silent when Sarah told Johnny to shut up, didn't scold Edmond when he belched, his dad's belch, watched Jack put food in his mouth and talk so the potatoes showed, tasted the plainness of the meal I'd prepared, knowing it meant I didn't care to please anybody at that table, and told myself how I hated being a Methodist housewife in central Wyoming. I felt so God awful alone. When we went to bed, I touched Jack between the legs just to see if I could feel like I meant it, and as soon as he turned to me and I could smell the manure on him, the manure smell I know he scrubbed away completely, I knew there was no place in the world that was less like heaven than central Wyoming.
All the next day I thought of going into Widow's Fork to see if Byron was there. And the day after that. And the day after that one. I thought of driving out to his place to be with him, to see if he would invite me to New York. I would try to convince myself I loved Byron. Then I would tell myself it was only lust, but lust is a good thing, and I have a right to lust. Alien thoughts invaded my mind: I was just being used by Byron; Jew men wanted only Jew women; I could never fit in in New York. But these were, I knew, trick thoughts, sent there by my mind to test me, and I would allow myself to enjoy my lust despite them. I'd earned my lust; decades of denying it entitled me.
Byron had told me he would be leaving very early Thursday, so on Wednesday I drove into Widow's Fork and went to all four places of business. When I didn't see him there, I drove out to the place he rented. As I drove up, he came out of the barn, a chisel in his hand, wearing a smock over his naked chest. His chest had a lot of thick curly hair, mostly black, a little gray.
I didn't say anything. I got out of the truck and walked into the house, into the bedroom, and laid down. He followed me in, took off his smock, bent over, kissed me, touched me, laid down beside me.
A while later I was lying with my head on his chest. He asked me, "Have you ever been to New York?"
"No. I'd like to see it some day."
"Would you like to see it this Sunday?"
"That's how long it will take me to drive there. I'm going to the city for a few days before I go back to Jersey."
So that's what an invitation to run away with a New York Jew sounds like. To run away from your husband and family. A bit askance. But direct enough. My head was still on his chest and my eyes were closed, and I saw skyscrapers and heard the thunder of subway trains and smelled the hot chestnuts sold by a vendor I saw in a movie once. I opened my mouth and my lips and tongue formed the words, Yes, I'd love to go to New York with you, but I didn't speak the words. I wanted to know what saying them would feel like. My face was turned away from him and he couldn't see me. I pushed myself up, turned to face him, and said, "No, I couldn't do that." Then I got dressed and left. We didn't speak again until I was climbing into the truck. He said, "Will you give me your address and phone number? I'd like to keep in touch."
"No, I couldn't do that," I said.
He told me to wait and walked quickly into the barn, his studio, and came out with a statue. It was a piece of oak shaped something like a covered wagon, something like a giant stapler, something like a whale. Abstract and beyond my imagination to figure out. It was four or more feet long. It was highly polished. I could see Byron struggled a bit with its weight. He put it in the passenger side of the cab, one end on the floor, the other sticking up so somebody looking quick might think I had a passenger with me.
"I can't take that," I said. I meant, of course, I couldn't take it home cause Jack and the kids would ask where I got it and I doubt I could lie convincingly enough to not reveal something about me and Byron.
But Byron said, "Of course you can take it." He added, "I was offered a lot of money for it by a museum in Philadelphia, but I turned them down. I always thought I could do better than their offer. It's probably the most saleable piece I've ever done. I want you to have it."
"Thank you," I said sadly. I didn't want to talk to him any more, so I drove away. A few miles down the road I stopped and threw the wood sculpture into a field of sage.
When Jack got in from the field that night, I told him, "Scrub real good this time. I'm real tired of the smell of manure on you. Me and the kids, we shouldn't have to live with that smell." He said, "What's gotten into you?" And that night I told him I wouldn't sleep with him any more. I said I would sleep on the couch, but he insisted he would be the one to do that. And two days later he started building a lean-to against the north side of the house. It would be, we agreed, a bedroom for Sarah, and he would take Sarah's room.