MY GATHERING BOOTS ON
by Bill Bradd
I like it quiet in the cabin, I listen for a rogue wave that might get over the sandbar, I would hear it come under the bridge, troll-like tinker steps, the sounds of hundreds of pieces of driftwood rushing and bouncing together, like hooves the sounded, the rogue wave, a troll with driftwood stick feet, the skeletal remains of some ancient forest, brought to my swamp by a rogue wave.
The river must be blocked. The ocean had been big at night recently. You can hear it bellering away, just over the dunes. I listen for a rogue wave, something that makes it over the sandbar, the skeletal remains of something I knew well, yearns yet, for the fields of home.
I've made a fire. It's a gray, rainy, coastal day, the wind from the south. The rain comes via the Washington State corridor. The river is flat. Rain does that, as if the rain meets river and at this melding of the two water bodies a peace is achieved, a settlement. The river is docile: the logs meander, following the ducks in their wave. If I too drift off, following the ducks and logs, the cat calls me back by lying on the typewriter, her thighs pressing out Rosebud. She's from that part of the country. The edges they call themselves memories.
I went outside to have a leak and a small bird told me, the forest does not sleep easy in death. There is a vast movement, under the earth, and many, many small rocks move to the streams, silt them, stop them up, and now it all creeps towards the sea, whole ancient forest, gone from memory, gone from the hillsides, called to the ocean, skeletal remains, giggling cadavers, dancing zombies. An ancient forest, carried by a rogue wave, to my swamp.
The wind has shifted: it's all out of the west now. The rain has stopped. The ocean is bellering. The west wind is precise with its report. The logs and the ducks have separated. Taking advantage of the slight wind breeze, the ducks have sculled rapidly from the floating doom of the logs in transit. No need to associate with the unlucky as any gambler knows; and ducks, gamblers to the max, sense the unfortunate and move away, feet working the Argonaut position. The cabin is silent. River, though still, is busy. Somewhere at sea a million sticks are gathering, together with a million logs, a trillion dead frogs, in a deep impenetrable darkness that is a void, in the pit of a dead man's stomach. In the dying lost part of a dead man's memory, a churn begins, gentle at first, a churn under the surface, undetectable, yet with growing insistence, like the steps of times, like the coming of a moving tiger, upon you as a blink, in death. It was so rapid, so final this crush upon my soul, I am finished. Mother, forgive me and with this churn moves, an ancient forest, to the surface, as sad Marley growing to terrible dimension, a rogue wave, a suffocating influence, an ancient forest, a monstrous swirl of sticks, rocks, land, people, mythology, memories, pain pills, and pasts. A rogue can take all of it out, end up in my field, a bunch of sticks. I'll use you to start the fire, kick back with my own mythology, keep the cabin still, listen for a rogue wave; I have my gathering boots on.
You discover the best things when you're takin a leak in the country. I'm heading out of Fort Bragg, going to the off track betting parlor in Santa Rosa. By the time I get over the top of Highway 20, just before Willits, I gotta leak, so I pull over to a huge wide spot, hike down the hill a bit, hang on to a tan oak tree and let fly, so to speak.
I am standing on a rather steep hillside, sliding slowly downwards, not a new position for me, reminds me of the old days on the farm, holding on to a tough old limb and looking around.
Fog on the coast, I can see that. This means the river will be flat cause there's no wind. Across a bit, there's a steep meadow with some cows and they got a good lean goin, and so do I, so I figure, amen, brother.
I hear the cars shootin by up above. Every noise, I hope it's not somebody pullin in, a truckload of fishermen guys from Yuba City way. They'll all have to pee, and there's going to be a crowd of us shortly, all of us dangling from a tan oak branch talking about the fog on the coast. Talk about strange fruit and an acknowledgement to Billie Holiday in this Black History Month. There's a saying amongst the wild ones in the hills; "There's a person in every nook and cranny in the state." To prove it, pull over somewhere, make it difficult, say the Branscomb Road, not much traffic, vast empty spaces. Pull over, at the top where the locals from Laytonville have scribbled I LOVE OR HATE YOU NORMA in colorful chalk swirls, rural graffitists telling you that Boyd has cooties.
Pull over there, listen for anyone, cause you know they're out there, some homeless person asleep in the brush. Nobody is all alone, so you step forward and what the hell is that, it's a car coming right up the hill, oh, Christ they see me. So the saying is. If you're caught leaking by the roadside, and someone comes, you point up and pretend you are pointing to a hawk to someone sitting in the car. I've tried this and it works, but don't count on nobody coming.
Shit I can hear them, they've shifted into second gear to get up the hill, where an old guy is trying to relieve himself.
I hesitate to enter into the lady approach to this problem, other than to say the ladies are a lot closer to the roadside shrubbery and so poison oak would be a consideration, or between open car doors on the ditch side, staring straight at a frog.
- Bill Bradd
White's Field, 1927
Somebody must have been over to Willits last night, because the news spread: the circus is coming and they have an elephant in a van. I myself got to town as fast as I could. I go to town every day. Every noon I lock the farm gate and drive to town to eat lunch. There's nobody but me at the house and I like the hot meal. I read the paper and eat lunch and drive back out to the farm. But today, though, I'm going in early, I'll get some tea and toast with marmalade and watch for the arrival, the circus is coming to town.
Well it was a disappointment right out of the box. First of all they snuck in the back way and got to White's field before any of us could think. Suddenly, from all over town, cars and trucks and school busses started up and headed out of town, all over to the White place. People sped in from all over and they filled out the back and parked on the old corn stalks.
The circus was humble enough: two trucks, four old station wagons. The large one could sleep at least six and a dog. And there were dogs. Probably trained ones, but dogs never the less, all little rat terriers, about 6 of them, and they flew about everywhere, digging holes immediately trying to catch gophers napping. I saw this was a good trick right off, and I thought maybe these guys are more than meets the eye. Maybe I won't rush to judgment yet.
There is a guy who looks after the elephant, the elephant's buddy, his good pal, an East Indian it seems. I found his look to be a bit discombobulating. Many rings and doodads, and a tattoo that stuck out from the top of his shirt. A sort of ridiculous man I thought. He ordered everybody to get back all the time even as we pressed forward, as is the wont of a "field side" gang. We can press forward with authority if we want to. And every last soul, standing in this cornfield, on this particular morning wanted the elephant parade to begin, so we pressed forward. Get back, the elephant man yells.
He is standing beside a small, tin covered truck, more like a bread van, double back doors. We all start backing up, those up front step back and there is a general stepping back happening, all very ritual, old dances, done usually around funerals and award ceremonies. Finally there is room to breathe at the field.
Whites was literally a field, old corn stalks were crushed over by the local traffic today. Suddenly from inside the tin truck; the elephant made a roar. Everybody did the Yahoo Back Dance double time, about eighty people moved as one, a Japanese deal, sort of. A step back, an elegant duck walk then straightened to upright toes, in unison, together as one, we were capable of greatness, and the elephant got us off on the right foot.
The van itself was ordinary enough. No great lurid picture, no bad taste, in fact the circus seemed rather circumspect: there was nothing promising nostrums that would grow hair on a billiard ball, or cure the lovelorn from loving too much. These performers encamped in an orderly manner, non frenzy. Some mingled; all were dressed as city people are, meaning well dressed and if they were sleeping in the station wagons, they were sober and honest folks capable of putting on a circus that could not only electrify but edify. And they had an elephant.
It was time for the parade. Now the field is about a mile, mile and a half down a dirt road, just east of town. Someone says "That elephant guy doesn't have the right boots for walking over gravel; his boots got high heels and he'll bust his ankle." "Naw," someone else says, "He's got soft footwear somewhere, all those Latin guys like slippers." I pointed out that this guy wasn't necessarily Latin, although I did also hold out the possibility that he might speak the language. India I knew had decent school systems, for anybody who got out, and this gentleman had a job, well paying I bet; he's the buddy of the elephant.
I seem excited to tell the story and I've left out an important part; the elephant. Its page 3 and all I've told you about is where the elephant wasn't, but soon was, that is, out in the field among the corn stalks. The back door of the bakery-truck deal opened. One side then the other. The elephant guy has ordered this; jig time, the doors fly open, and there is a very large rear end. A sort of off gray deal, it could almost be the front end of an animal. There was a big rear end that looked like a big gray face with rather high cheekbones and a limp nose. It had a puckered mouth. "No need to worry about this thing sucking me down." the little kid next to me said to God. He looked up at me and I said "Don't worry; this is its back end. The front's up front." And the thing begins to back out; one big step followed another backwards down the ramp. One big step, more became visible, a whole shuddering, another great step, more shuddering, and the elephant stepped backwards into White's field, raised its trunk and raised its head and raised its eyes and looked around at eighty farmers, some chewing grass, and the elephant must have had some good thought, because it raised its right foot off the ground, bent to one knee and saluted us with a terrific blast on its trumpet. The afternoon had begun.
Immediately a parade formed, the elephant going first led by some person in black coveralls. This man held the elephant by a chain around its neck and another chain around its front feet and this blackie guy had a spiked iron deal with a hook on the end, which he used to get the animal's attention, periodically. The elephant guy, with the rings and gewjaws, he walked beside the elephant, just behind his right ear. They moved off towards town. And so did we, cars could be gotten later, the parade had begun, the elephant was here, the moment was sun, the time was then.