The old man died in the doorway of the Fish Shack as we were coming in from a late day of harvesting grapes. The tractor-trailer rig had broken down on the way back from Altus, and we had had to wait for it to get back before we could load for the next day. So it was dark as we made our way out of the vines. Lonnie was loading the last vat into the back of the 18-wheeler rig and tying it down. Normally, I would’ve stayed to help him, but I had school in the morning. So I was getting ready to head home.
The old man looked back at the vines and then stumbled once. I reached to catch him but down he went; his head thudded on the gravel.
“Mr. Brasher?” I said, following him down. I reached down and shook him.
Somewhere behind me I heard Lonnie’s truck start up, heard the tires crunching gravel. I ran out into the road beside the Fish Shack yelling, “Hey, now! Lonnie!”
He pulled up to me. “What are you doing, running out in front of me at night like that, boy?” he said.
“Mr. Brasher,” I said. “He’s hurt.”
We worked the vines in the afternoons, after school and during holidays. The old man had been a cutter. Local folks, the cutters, came and cut grapes during the day. Daddy or Uncle Shug or Uncle Lonnie doled out snippers to them, and paid them a quarter per bushel basket, when I was younger. By this time, it was up to fifty cents.
When the baskets were full, somebody would back the tractor down the rows carrying a big round vat on the back and we’d dump the baskets in the vats. Daddy or Uncle Shug would pull a load up to Altus, up in the mountains. The truck got back usually in the afternoons, so we could load it back up after school. When it was full, they parked it and took the load first thing in the morning.
Of course, a small portion of the grapes were set aside for our own brewing purposes.
When I was a kid, I had to distribute the baskets along the rows before school, me and some of the cousins. We had to estimate how many plants it would take to fill the baskets up, when we set them out. This is something we got better at as we gained more experience. By the time Mr. Brasher died, I was to the point where I could make a dollar an hour, picking. I don’t know what he made, but it couldn’t have been that much more.
The day after he died, it was more subdued than usual in the vines. It was hard work, something you can do when you’re sixteen, but I didn’t know how an old man could have handled it. In August, when we did the brunt of the work, that Arkansas sun would just perch on your shoulder and stay there for the rest of the day. Even just getting to be eighteen, I was tired out after a couple hours.
A couple of boys I knew were working that afternoon, old Crow, for one. Me and him were pretty close. And Tommy was working. Tommy was about as poor as Solomon’s supper. He was thin and he always smelled like death warmed over. We hated working with him and Crow always did his best to run him off, but it didn’t matter. He always came back.
“How’d he go?” Tommy asked.
“Said he was probably dead before he hit the ground. Blood vessel in his brain popped or something.”
“He probably got a sight of you coming after him in the dark, thought you was getting frisky,” Crow said. “Man, we had some kind of eating last night,” Crow added, after a little while, sneaking me a look. “The Old Bastard made steaks.” Crow pronounced his nickname for his father in capital letters. “Had baked potatoes, corn on the cob,” he said. “How about you, Goodyear?” Some folks called me Goodyear because of my weight.
“We had fried chicken,” I said. “With cornbread and mashed taters.”
“How ’bout you, Tommy? What’d you have for supper?” Crow asked.
“I had a fucking bologna sandwich. With mustard,” he said.
We had a good laugh at that.
“Well it’s the mustard that makes it a meal,” I said.
After we finished picking, I went over to Crow’s dad’s trailer, over by the tracks, and listened to records. He’d picked up The Who, Live at Leeds.
“That’s some long-haired, dope-smoking, devil-worshiping music, right there,” he said.
He had a little room back behind the trailer, in a shed. Crow had an old box fan he kept in the door, but it still got to be a might toasty in there during the day. In the evenings, after working out in the sun, though, with the heat fading from the day, we sat back there and listened to music and drank soda pops. It was fine.
“Keith Moon’s a wild man.” I mimicked his beat on my leg with my sticks.
“You got Moon. You got Entwistle. You got Daltry. I wish Townshend was better,” Crow said.
“Townshend’s a thinking-man’s guitarist.”
Crow picked up his guitar—we called it The Veteran because it was so battered—and picked out the riff to “Young Man Blues” and then “My Generation.”
“They’ve got some good stuff, but we should play some Blackmore.” He plinked out “Smoke on the Water.” I accompanied him with the sticks.
“What about the Animals?” I asked.
“Eh,” he said.
“Not their commercial stuff,” I said. “’Girl Named Sandoz?’”
He fiddled around and worked out a couple riffs. “Maybe,” he said.
“Couple more weeks, and I’ll have enough to get a drum set,” I said. “Did you talk to your cousin about playing bass?”
The trailer door slammed open against the side of the trailer.
“Oh hell,” Crow said.
The Old Bastard came clumping in, carrying a plastic cup that might have once been red. It was full of something it shouldn’t have been.
“God damn McGovern,” he said. “Wallace should’ve had the nomination.” He spit on the floor. “You pansy-asses back here listening to your bumpty-bump music?” he said.
“Oh hell,” Crow said again.
“Goddamned McGovern on the goddamned radio talking about pulling out of Nam if he gets the presidency. I can tell you Wallace wouldn’t let America get its ass kicked by a bunch of VC.”
“Maybe you should vote for Nixon,” Crow said.
“Shit.” The Old Bastard walked over to the wall where Crow had put up a poster for Hendrix, ripped it off, wadded it up, and turned back to us with it in his hand, sloshing his drink on the floor. “You two cock-suckers ought to man up and get your asses over to them rice paddies, instead of wasting your time listening to this jungle music.” He threw the poster down.
“They won’t take you till you’re 18, sir,” Crow said.
TOB spit. “I signed up when I was 17. I ain’t got a couple pussies on my hands, have I?”
“No sir,” I said.
“Made a man out of me. Lord knows, you two could use it.” TOB was rocking on his feet a little. His face was nearly the same faded red as his cup.
“Yes, sir,” Crow said.
TOB puttered around, making sure we knew about his disgust with everything we represented and finally left. We sat in silence until Crow finally spoke.
“It’s Truman’s birthday this weekend.”
Crow’s little brother, Truman, had died years ago, run over by a train. He and Crow were playing with a ball at the rail yard, and it rolled under a car. The train car wasn’t moving, so Truman reached under for the ball and got stuck. Then it started moving. Crow was just feet away.
I got up and put a new record on. The opening chords to Mountain’s “Flowers of Evil” filled the shed. Crow and I sat and listened to it, not saying a damned thing.
In the vines the next day, I kept thinking about what The Old Bastard said about going to Nam. Probably a third, maybe more, of the Crowley’s Ridge High senior class from the year before had enlisted in some way or the other, either by draft or by choice.
“But what do I know about Vietnam?” I said to Crow. “I never been further north than St. Louis.”
“I don’t believe Vietnam is north,” Crow said.
“All right, smart-ass.”
“Just go to college,” Crow said.
“He ain’t got the brains to go to college,” Tommy said.
“Well he ain’t got the looks to wear a dress.” Crow turned to me. “Looks like you’re out of luck, my friend,” he said.
“At least I won’t be alone.” I patted Crow meaningfully on the arm. “But in the words of Yosemite Sam,” I said, “’I ain’t a goin’.’”
“They wouldn’t have you,” Crow said.
“Hey Lonnie, you were in Korea, right?” Tommy said.
Uncle Lonnie stopped cutting long enough to wipe the sweat from his red brow. “Yeah.”
“Catch any VD’s?” Crow asked.
“Nah, I’d already caught all those from your Momma.”
“Whoa,” Tommy said. “He got you!”
“Shut up, Smelly,” Crow said.
“You see any action?” I asked Uncle Lonnie.
“Sure. A bit.”
“Shoot anybody?” I asked.
“Yeah.” He straightened up and eyed us. “How about you kids get to work?”
“Yes sir,” I said.
Lonnie’s oldest would work as a cutter sometimes. He’d graduated last May and sort of drifted around town since. I made my way over near him. He nodded at me as I approached.
“Dan,” I said and nodded back. I cut a few grapes. “Big plans for the fall?”
He shrugged. “Might try to get on at Halstead’s.”
“Yeah?” I was surprised. I guess I’d expected more of a plan from him than factory work.
“I don’t know. What about you?”
“One more year.”
“Yeah?” He brightened up. “Enjoy it, man, it’ll be over before you know it.”
“I know. Then I’ll be 18.”
“Yeah.” He didn’t bite.
“What’s your number?” I asked.
“It’s high, man. It’s real high.”
He stopped cutting and looked out over the field. “If it will get me the fuck out of this shithole, I don’t care.”
I looked out over the field. The sun was high. Hardly a cloud drifted across the deep blue of Arkansas sky. The vines were heavy with fruit, shaking a little here and there where someone worked. A line of dust rose stark and white to the south as someone drove Killough up from the highway, around the edge of our land. You could usually see fox and deer on the other side of the road, just below the tree line.
“Huh,” I said.
“Might sign up, anyway. Dad wants me to.”
“Make a man out of you.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Got to do something.”
We got paid on Friday, and Crow and I went out and got some blackberry wine from a cousin of mine and took it back to his shed. We listened to Sabbath and took turns swigging. Tommy showed up after a while, and Crow reluctantly let him in. Tommy had a paper sack with him.
“You got an oven?” he asked.
“No,” Crow said.
“Come on,” Tommy said. “I need to heat up my burrito. I haven’t eaten all day.” He dug it out of the sack.
“Yeah, come on.” Crow led Tommy into the trailer, stomping around and sulking like he was being put out.
Tommy put it in the oven. “I need to hit the head.”
“God damn, you’re difficult,” Crow said. “Don’t stink it up, or The Old Bastard will have my ass.”
Tommy waved Crow’s warning away and went to the bathroom.
“Watch out,” Crow said. He undid his pants and slid them down.
“What?” I said.
“Watch for him.” He took the burrito out of the oven, bent over, and spread his ass cheeks. He slid the thing along his crack, and then shoved it in and squeezed his cheeks together like he was holding off a turd. I heard a noise from deeper in the trailer.
“Crow,” I hissed.
He pulled it out, holding it gingerly, and put it back in the oven and pulled his pants up. Tommy reappeared a couple seconds later. A smell like rotten meat came with him.
“God damn it,” Crow said. “What’d I say?”
“What? I just pissed.”
“Well it smells like death’s ass.”
“I got a powerful stream.”
We went back into the shed and listened to “Fresh Cream” for a while. Tommy smacked his lips with relish as he ate his burrito. Normally, Crow would’ve yelled at him, but he just sat there, grinning.
“Why you guys listen to this crap?” Tommy said. “Do you got any Bread albums?”
Crow and I laughed. “Yeah,” I said. “I think so.” I went over and dug out an album and put it on. Tommy started rocking in place as he finished his burrito and licked his fingers. The opening to Uriah Heep’s “Gypsy” started. His face dropped.
“Oh,” he said.
Me and Crow and Tommy had a lot of the same classes. Crow did okay, but a source of great irritation for him was that Tommy consistently did better. We’d get a test back, and Crow would turn to me. “What’d you get, Goodyear?”
“86,” I might say. Crow would hold up his 92.
“Hey guys,” Tommy would say, holding up his paper to show us his 95 and nodding with his goofy grin.
We finished the grapes a couple weeks after school started, which gave Crow and me nothing to do in the afternoons but listen to records and plan out the band. We spent a few afternoons like that, until I came over one day to find all of Crow’s albums scattered on the floor, busted. Jagged pieces of plastic and torn cover art were strewn around. Crow was sitting in the folding chair, just staring at it. I went in and sat down.
“The Old Bastard’s been riding my ass,” he told me. “Wants me to get a job.”
“You just had a job.”
“Picking grapes ain’t enough for him. Hell, I don’t want to be like that old man, drop dead making fifty cents a bushel.”
“Mitchell’s Grocery might need somebody,” I said. The Mitchells were cousins of mine. “I’ll ask Round Boy.”
“What about you? Got anything lined up on the farm?”
“Not till Thanksgiving when we start selling fish.” I bent down and started gathering the broken records and trash up.
“Leave it,” he said. He had a look in his eyes I didn’t like. I straightened back up and sat down.
“You talk to your cousin about playing bass?” I asked.
“He got drafted,” Crow said. It hit me like a punch in the gut.
“What’s he going to do?”
“He’s going to fucking Vietnam.”
We sat there in silence for a few minutes until Crow just got up and left. I followed him out and went home.
I saw Crow in class, and he seemed his usual self, but when I talked about hanging out in the afternoons, he said he had to work.
“I can hang out,” Tommy said.
“That’s all right, man,” I said.
When Thanksgiving rolled around, I had never been happier to start skinning fish. We did a brisk business in catfish and buffalo fish to a mostly black clientele. Dad would joke with them while he worked. Uncle Shug would get in on it, their knives flying through the fish. We had a waiting room set up in the back, but nobody ever waited there; they preferred to stand and watch us work and listen to us bullshit.
In the evenings, Uncle Lonnie would show up after his job at the post office, and we’d sit around and drink and tell stories. Dad and Uncle Shug were forever picking at Uncle Lonnie like a scab.
“What’s that you’re drinking?” Shug asked.
“Vodka.” Lonnie poured some in his glass and held the bottle up for Shug to see.
“Ain’t that Russian?” Shug asked. “You some kind of Commie?”
“I drink it cause it gets the job done,” Lonnie said.
“Fucking a sheep gets the job done, but you don’t let anybody see you doing it,” Shug said.
“I ever tell you about old Linwood Taylor?” Dad said. “A while back, his wife decided she wasn’t giving him none anymore. So he went out in the barn to feed the calves. He got to thinking, and he climbed up behind one of them and went to it. Next thing his wife knew, he was hollering for her to come help him cause the calf had backed him up against the wall when it started getting good to it.”
“Did she leave him?” Lonnie asked.
“Went and married a butcher,” Dad said.
Crow showed up one night, a week or so after Thanksgiving. He pulled up as we were cleaning the Fish Shack out and laid on the horn.
“We’re closed!” Shug yelled. Crow kept honking. Shug picked up a knife and headed to the door. Crow got out and stood up. “It’s that cock-sucker friend of yours,” Shug said. He tossed the knife back in his sink. “Don’t think you’re leaving me to clean this up by myself.”
I went outside. He was standing beside a red, 1965 Ford Fairlane.
“Like it?” he said.
“Who’d you steal that from?” I asked.
“Bought it with my grape money.” He was smiling that shit-eating grin. “And The Old Bastard loaned me some.”
“Your grape money?” I asked. “I thought you were going to buy a guitar amp and a microphone?”
His smile faltered. “Well,” he said. “I need a car. What am I going to do with an amp?”
I didn’t answer.
“So do you like it?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said what he would’ve said. “It’s the ugliest piece of shit I ever saw.”
His smile spread wide. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go for a ride.”
“I got to finish up,” I said. “Can you wait?”
“Yeah, I’ll swing back by,” he said. He got in and spun out.
“Watch the damn rocks,” Shug said.
We finished up and Lonnie showed up. Dad came back from the liquor store, and they all set down to tell stories and pick at each other. I kept an eye on the clock, but by midnight, Crow was nowhere to be found.
“Got to piss.” I headed for the door.
“Close it behind you so the skeeters don’t get in,” Dad said.
I pulled the door to. The stars were out. The vines were a dark mass to my right. I could hear a little bit of breeze rustling through them. This had been one of the last sights Mr. Brasher ever saw. I wondered if that was a bad thing. Dad came out. I about jumped ten feet when the door opened. He went over to his truck.
“Got to clean the tire.” He unzipped his pants and let loose. I was just kind of listening to the wind and looking at the stars. I guess now I was listening to him. He finished and came up beside me. We kind of stood there for a minute, listening to that rustling.
“Kind of nice, ain’t it?” he said.
“I reckon so.”
“Come on back in,” he said. “I got a good one to tell you.” He opened the door for me. I went in.