Thursday, February 18, 2016

Rickety Jack and Marvin

Jack Rickets mixed codeine and alcohol, until one day in the wooden shack in one of the distant fields he attacked Marvin, who fought back in self defence. The rest is taboo. Nobody talks about it. A loose tongue could get a man in a lot of trouble. 

The farm workers met on a rainy afternoon for a few beers in the quonset at Marvin’s farm on the edge of the wilderness. The men knew each others limitations, how far one could go and which buttons not to press. The incident with Jack occurred when Peter Stumps, who later became Lohbado, worked on Marvin’s farm. That was just before turning eighteen. Peter had come in from the tractor. There wasn't much to do, so he decided to take a nap in a truck parked inside the quonset. He leaned back in the front seat of a three ton truck and watch hundreds of house flies mating and moving about on the windshield and dashboard. He dozed off to the soothing buzz of flies and dreamed about a beautiful woman welcoming him into her arms.

He woke to the smell of diesel fuel and alcohol as rickety Jack walked in. He was about 50, but looked more like 70, thin as a rail, bulging watery dark eyes. He operated heavy equipment on the farm, mostly the combine. His clothes smelled of diesel fuel, oil and metal. Grease darkened the lines of his hands. Grit filled pores around his eyes, nose and neck. He looked half human, half fly in his coating of grit and oil.

Ben followed Jack into the quonset after parking a pickup truck at the edge of the mud clearing. Ben and Jack looked at each other and gazed at the row of trees around the clearing. Both had the same idea... beer time. Then Ed pulled up as it started sprinkling. A crack of thunder and more lightening... a thunder storm in the distance, time to come in and stay dry. The roads get sloppy after it rains a while. The fields get damp. In the spring, after snow melt, some of the fields turn into lakes, which take a few weeks to evaporate. Eventually the ground becomes firm enough for cultivation.

Then Phil and Marvin arrived. Four men plus Peter Stumps polished off a two four of beer in the space of two hours. They drank on average one beer every twenty minutes. Peter only had one. The first thirsty truth, the truth of beer... the second truth is a rye chaser. The third thirsty truth is a glass of wine at dinner. The fourth thirsty truth is porto for desert. Drinkers paradise... drink now, worry later. Don’t ever sober up.

Peter got out of the truck and scraped with a stick some of the mud from the treads of his boots. It was fun to slither down a soft muddy road on a tractor and to gaze at the furrows and the wind breaks at the edge of the field. Walking on wet mud... mud cakes the shoes. They become heavy as cement. Make sure your boots are securely tied. The mud could suck them off your feet.

Those men had been through the grinder. Mother took one look at her son and screamed. Father dragged him out back and beat him with a stick. If a boy gets out of line, give him a good swift kick in the pants. Beat him over the head. Knock some sense into him. Those men weren’t sentimental. Their religion was alcohol. They lived on the edge of civilization.

Peter Stumps planned to attend university in the fall. His boss Marvin, owner of the farm, was delighted to give him a glimpse of what it’s like out there on the edge. Peter hoped he could avoid sinking to that level of misery, of men living alone or in failing relationships and with neglected children. As he gazed at the sky, at the 360 degree horizon, he felt maybe he could do something with his life, maybe find some meaning or catch a glimpse of truth. Being on the farm during the summer was his first dose of life outside the family nest. 

Peter helped out as best he could. He drove the seeder, pulled a pesticide sprayer and was Marvin’s side kick, riding around with him in the pickup truck or handing him tools. When clouds filled the sky, it was time for beer. Beer clouds... that’s what they called them. When they got into the beer, the men reverted to a basic level, half human half landscape, as if they evolved out of the mud and grew into tough gnarly men.

It’s important to understand this in order to not make a hasty judgement about what happened to Jack that summer when Peter worked on Marvin’s farm. Jack Rickets had a lot of back pain after getting trampled in a bull pen during de-horning/castration season. Prairie oysters... they threw bovine testicles in the dirt. Ok, maybe it’s best to avoid gory details. The animals didn’t like it. But it was supposedly necessary. If the horns grew long, the cattle when put in a truck or squeezed into feed lots could gore each other. Castration gave a more tender meat, for your eating pleasure. The joy of being a meat eater... a creature has to die. Sometimes suffering is part of the process of keeping the price down.

Jack worked for Marvin. He hadn’t been doing so well. His routine was to ride off into the fields on the combine in the morning, a bottle of rye in his pocket. A few hours later, he’d turn off the machine. Alcohol took over. He was a good worker but couldn’t control the booze. Marvin was frustrated. It was costing him money. One afternoon, just after lunch, he invited Peter along and drove out to let Jack know he’d have to go home and not come back until he learned to control the alcohol. He was no use to Marvin as long as he was drunk.

It’s ok to drink, but you have to know when to stop. From what Peter could tell, they were all alcoholics, in various phases. Alcoholic was a taboo word. Nobody was an alcoholic. They liked to drink. If necessary they could quit. In fact, from time to time, to please nagging people, they would quit for a few days just to prove it, but then would return to drinking, twice as hard, to make up for lost time. They denied being alcoholics. Marvin had been in a drunk driving accident, no injuries, just damage to the vehicles. He lost his license but continued to drive. He kept a bottle of rye whisky under the seat. He reached down for a slug as needed. He drank beer throughout the day, with rye in between... two beers for breakfast, beer for morning break, beer for lunch and so on. He said he liked to drink. It wasn’t a problem. He didn’t trust people who didn’t drink. 

He could hold his alcohol. The nastiest side effect was his farts. He released vast quantities of sewage gas as a result of heavy drinking. When he needed a drink, he’d get cranky. You didn’t want to be around Marvin when his blood alcohol level was low. Alcohol put him in a better mood.

Marvin asked Peter to come along for the ride when he drove out to the shack to fire Jack. Marvin wasn’t afraid of anyone, but he wanted a third man. Maybe he wanted a witness, or maybe he wanted to teach Peter something.

Marvin liked Peter. Peter was a total klutz, green behind the ears, no sense of mechanics. He botched up most of the time. The furrows were sometimes crooked. He didn’t pay attention to details. Once he went out without first greasing the machine. Marvin was furious, but he could see something in Peter. He liked Peter  because he felt Peter understood what was going on.  He wasn’t afraid to listen to what Marvin had to say. Not being able to talk seriously with anyone could be painful sometimes. Marvin was glad to have Peter along.

The work eventually became more of a pretext. Marvin was basically paying Peter to keep him company and to listen. Things were always on the verge of crisis with the farm business. His relationship with Sarah wasn’t ideal. His two sons were alright, but they wanted nothing to do with their father. That’s when Peter had his first glimpse of the power of loneliness. Sometimes the heartache from craving suitable company could make a man desperate. There are lots of people around, but it’s not so easy to have a heart to heart or mind to mind connection. It’s easy to talk endless nonsense under a veneer of politeness, but the moment you wander off the beaten trail, then you see a side of human nature you wish wasn’t there. But if you’re a gentleman, the road becomes a little less painful. 

Marvin joked to Peter, “You’re a gentleman and a scholar, but you’re one of us. You have the mark of Cain on your brow. God didn’t choose you or me. God turned away from the grain offerings of Cain and favoured the meat offerings of Abel. God wasn’t impressed with the vegetarian fare of Cain. He wanted meat. You and I are of the race of Cain. God doesn’t want us. God didn’t stop two world wars or the holocaust. This whole God fantasy is irrelevant. I mention it as a metaphor.”

Marvin had been in world war two. When Peter worked on the farm in 1974, Marvin was in his mid to late fifties, a huge man, wide shoulders, giant belly, built like an ox. His fists were the size of baseball gloves. After the war, as a veteran he was eligible for crown land, on condition he plough under the bush and cultivate the soil. Marvin wasn’t into wheeling and dealing. The farm did fine but never prospered. He was too disillusioned with society to bother trying to do land speculation or transactions with the shysters. He saw on the battle field what so-called civilization could make men do. He preferred life on the edge of the wilds, far from the city. 

The farm was located about an hour drive from the small subsistence farm at a crossroads where he lived. Peter stayed in a hired hand’s cabin. Marvin saw his wife from supper time to breakfast. They still slept in the same bed. Occasionally they’d get into huge quarrels in front of Peter. He explained later how quarrelling is part of any relationship. Sometimes he made her angry. Sometimes she made him angry. They always knew to back off before the anger intensified into uncontrollable rage.

Peter believed Marvin was a fair and just man, according to the way of the land at the edge of northern wilderness. But sometimes his outspoken nature and impatient with bureaucracy stirred feathers. Some people wished he would accept an offer on the farm and retire. His property was beginning to become desirable. He’d done the work to turn it into fine farm land. Huge factory farming operations were itching to get their hands on his property. All he had to do was sign on the dotted line and he could spend the rest of his life in a beach chair, cocktail in hand, gorgeous servers hovering about on a south sea island. As a sales agent explained... money can make a man look irresistible and sexy. Even the biggest and ugliest scoundrel would be treated like a man of beauty and wisdom if he had enough money. Without money, you’re nothing. That was the logic. Marvin was from the old school. He believed in virtue. He valued a man for his qualities, rather than appearances. Life was a kind of journey you make once. Nobody is perfect. No point tearing each other apart. Everyone has flaws. 

Life wasn't all peaches and cream. Demons lurked in Marvin, a simmering rage and sense of alienation. He felt betrayed that leaders would have allowed two world wars and a holocaust to happen, not to mention the Vietnam War and the watergate crisis involving lies of shady dealings of President Nixon.

Sarah would sometimes get annoyed when Marvin went into one of his long and fierce tirades. She told him to not always be so angry. There were enough decent people on the planet to keep civilization afloat and to prevent people from tearing each other apart... “with their bare hands,” added Marvin. Sarah didn’t like it when Marvin finished her sentences. It’s like he put ideas in her mouth which she did not intend.

Marvin and Peter put frontier civilization to the test after they drove a mud trail to the shack where Jack liked to drink after he turned off the machine. It was the remains of a homesteaders house built in the twenties. The paint had long ago worn off. The roof sagged and leaked. Weeds grew up through the floor boards. The place smelled of mildew and rot. A young couple tried to make a go of it about ten years ago, but only lasted one year. They couldn’t handle the isolation, plus the long winters and short summers with mosquitoes and black flies. She stabbed him during an argument. A dozen or so stitches took care of the problem. No charges were laid. They abandoned the place. Someone said the woman went east and became a legal secretary while the man went west and ended up in jail.

The men who gathered on a rainy day to drink at the quonset were talking about the incident just before Peter got in the truck with Marvin to go and see about Jack. They were men who had nothing to lose. They lived as long as they chose to stay alive. They had no ambition other than to avoid society. They loved nature. Maybe without the influence of nature they would have become monsters... or maybe they already had become half monster.

Take Dan's story as an example. After Dan’s marriage to Hilda broke up and his house burned down, he moved into a chicken coop and lived off eggs and coffee. His small property was about as isolated as the cabin where Jack liked to drink when he should have been working. Marvin told Peter about Dan... how Dan lived that way about five years then nearly lost the ability to use language. Marvin visited him about a couple months before Dan died. Marvin drove out there on a snowmobile. Dan heated the chicken coop with an empty oil barrel turned into a stove. He burned wood and scrap. Piles of magazines lay about. He spent a lot of time reading magazines. He had no TV or radio, no electricity or plumbing. In winter he melted snow to drink. In summer he drank from a creek.

Marvin mentioned Dan in order to give Peter an idea about the level of bleakness and desolation a person could experience out there. Marvin had seen huge men break down and cry from sheer loneliness during the dark short days and long nights of winter. Dan went for a walk one cold day and lay down and died. He’d had enough. No man should have to endure that level of heartache, sorrow and pain, said Marvin.

Life is cruel... if you’re a little too intense or a little rough around the edges, people avoid you like the plague. It’s nobody’s fault. That’s how it is. When a cow calves, if you don’t intervene, the runt gets pushed out and dies of starvation. The others won’t let the weak one suck. It’s almost like the ones who survive need someone to die in order to feel safe and secure.

You couldn’t drive fast on those section roads or you could end up sliding into the ditch. The path led between fields of yellow rape seed. Cumulous clouds covered half the sky. It had been on the verge of rain all morning, but nothing more than a few drops came down. They pulled up at the shack of grey planks about 1 PM. Marvin told Peter to wait in the truck. He didn’t want Jack to be overwhelmed. As Peter sat in the truck, he watched a coyote approach the combine, then it cantered towards a line of birch and spruce, a windbreak at the edge of the field. None of the trees grew very tall. The winters were too hard and the summers too short. He watched a hawk dive for some field mice. Beyond the fields began a system of lakes and rivers flowing to the arctic.

Peter’s reverie ended when Jack shouted. Then Marvin was shouting. Then the two of them were shouting together... a scuffle, the sound of glass breaking, a few thuds. Peter slowly got out of the truck. Marvin appeared in the door way of the shack, his dark eyes bulging, his face red and gasping for breath.

“Don’t go in there,” he said, still standing in the doorway, “Get back in the truck.”

The way he spoke indicated to Peter he should not ask questions. Something had gone terribly wrong. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. It was like a dream, Marvin exclaimed, a bad dream. It’s not really happening. He took the bottle from under the seat and gulped down a few ounces of rye.

“Gotterdammerung!” he kept exclaiming, cursing, grunting and groaning as they drove as fast as the truck could go without making the men bounce until their heads went through the roof of the cab. Twice he slammed on the brakes. The second time he jumped out a urinated on the headlights. He wasn’t himself. He breathed loud and sputtered like he wanted to fight somebody, but there was no enemy, other than himself. There was nothing and nobody to fear. And yet he was highly agitated.

“Jack made me do it,” he exclaimed an hour later. They didn’t go back to the quonset. They drove to a bar overlooking the highway, where motorists could pause for a drink. 

“Jack dug his own grave. He wanted me to do it.”

Then he tore open his shirt. A long bloody line oozed under his left nipple. 

“Jack tried to kill me. I acted in self defence.”

Jack Rickets was dead.  

“Tomorrow we’ll go back and bury him. Nobody needs to know. You saw the wound. I had no motive for killing him other than the fact he tried to shove a knife into my heart.”

Jack had no friends, no family. Nobody cared about Jack, said Marvin. These things happen. 

“That’s how Fred died. I’ll tell you another time. We all know who killed Fred. Nobody talks. The world is none the wiser. We’ll leave it at that.”

Marvin didn’t have to warn Peter not to talk. Anyone who drank beer with those men would understand the consequences of a loose tongue without anyone having to spell it out. Marvin was extremely moody and irritable for the rest of the summer. It put a dark cloud between them. Marvin was glad Peter understood the situation. He wished it could have had a happy ending. He wished he and Peter could have been friends. 

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