The Great Divide
I’m trying to tell this simple story, but some folks can’t be reached, no way, no how, nothing in their lives save practical matters. Might as well live like cart-wheels if that’s your take on things. And it seems to me right along my kin here see the world as fifty sacks of ground-up corn and a pocket full of dollars. Keerist! I’m rounding out supper with one of my best, explaining how Captain Elmore came to this country, a trooper with the 38th, cookie at first, then working up to interpreter over at the Agency. How he used to have this blue stone about as big as two fingers, a wonderful stone, that he carried in his pocket right along. Hearing him talk, it made you lucky in gambling and in war, and matter of fact nobody could throw him down while he had ahold of it. And every morning he always found money in his pockets. Elmore could go anywhere he wanted and everybody was his bestest friend.
But the stone made him a slave.
Elmore couldn’t sleep nights. He started having awful bad dreams, the stone carrying him off on long, lonesome trips, and once it took him to an underground house all painted up, filled with birds of every kind – parrots and sparrows and eagles, magpies too — all dancing round a fire. And when they took a good look at poor old Elmore, these birds, they all rose up and threw him right into that fire, where he burned and sizzled like a knob of grease.
Next day he woke up all sore and scared, vowing to throw that stone into the Chana river. But when he did, it started crying like a child as it sank and the river boiled over like a cooking pot. And he could hear that stone weeping his name for a whole month, saying “Don’t leave me Captain, please don’t leave . . . .” It broke his heart and he just had to get away.
“Some story, huh?”
My brother Lonny shakes his head and breaks a fart to make Daddy laugh.
“Pup,” Daddy says straight to me, then “Haw haw haw. . . .,” slapping his knee, “Now you know Lonny here’s the entertainer. Haw haw haw.”
Lonny smiles shaking his big old head. “Now what’s the good of that damn fool story, that damn fool stone?” he says. “Throwing it away like that just ain’t real, Pup. If that were me I’d hang onto that thing come hell and high waters. Specially since it were magical and all.”
Daddy loves Lonny’s mule sense, him grinning and shoveling like a pie-eating machine.
“Keerist! It don’t have to be all real. It’s how you put a bead on things. Sometimes stories look one way when they’re another, and sometimes you’ve got to leave good fortune cos it ain’t what it seems. Magination, fellahs.”
“Still don’t make no sense to me,” says Daddy, running his tongue down the knife to the handle. “Good fortune’s just good fortune, plain and simple. Now shut up and finish that supper,” kinda ugly like.
Course I know they can’t see nothing in this house cos they’re blind, and about the only things they can get an eye on is precious money, weekend bottles, or some poxy gal over in town. Nothing wrong with that deep down, but yessir, when it comes to those stories they can see far as they want to, but show them some different they call you crazy. And then some.
“Now look see here. There’s more to this life than them mill-stones out there, grinding round every day and us sitting like grains o corn just waiting the turn.”
“Pup, don’t run down what keeps your trousers up. We’re important in these parts, good name and upstanding.”
“It ain’t standing-up in my eyes.” I clash down my god-damned greasy fork hard as I can, and it bounces off that tin plate right to the floor.
“Now Pup,” says Daddy. “No fits tonight.”
“Anyhow,” growls Lonny, “What you mean by these stories and fuss? What you playing here?” and he pushes that pug-ugly face into mine, clenching his fist under my chin.
“I’ll tell you what I mean as plain as you can foller. We’re squatting on the rim of this broke-down hole, grinding up their wheat their corn, day in day out, and for what? A loaf of bread! Some griddle-cakes! We’re pinned under them stones right along, squashed flatterer than bugs in a boot.”
Lonny socks me right in the ear knocking me off the chair with a ring in my head, and while I’m down he kicks me with them chisel toed boots, and Daddy stomps a heel, them both laughing big and loud.
“Goddamn Lonny I’ll kill you for that!” But screaming don’t stop the pain.
Daddy goes “Haw haw haw.”
“Daddy, that’ll be your last laugh on me,” and I take off running out o the kitchen into the night, which is where I spend all my time these days. I head on right to town, following those wheel ruts lit up by a sickly moon, hanging low and chilly. Oh those sons o bitches, sons o blind bitches, making me run off like a criminal man, and not even dressed like it was Saturday night. Damned Lonny’d get to go in town whenever he sneezed, but I have to steal the time when a rage blows across me, and damned if I don’t hate Lonny to death, with his new fool suit and slanty cut-aways, twirling that spangly chain. Keerist! Damned if I don’t hate him! Hate. Hate. Hate. Nothing but Hate for Lonny. And I’ll never forgive the bastard for seeing the elephant over on Son-of-a-Gun hill when Daddy made me work his shift.
I run past the church with a stitch in my side, past the box-car corral, the drunk fool’s bust like you wouldn’t believe, washed up high, dry, and godalmighty! Right on past those suckers slinging their empties after me screaming “You better run kid, cos if we catch yer, that hair’s coming right off!”
Running and hating right into town, full to the brim with colored people, yellow-like and underfed, tough gangs of miners down from their huts hungry for a twenty cent meal and a smile from the waiter girl. Oh they’d had their shave, alright. They wore their new and shiny boots right along. But they walked like they’d never seen a pavement in their lives, and come Monday morning every trail’s jammed with lonely men heading back to their mines, all dreaming of that hotel girl. A sheep wouldn’t go where they climbed with a pick n shovel, some pork and beans.
I catch my breath by a tin lamp over the dance hall door, watch a moth battering over and over trying to get what’ll kill it. And some shrill wild woman stands up on the step, teetering in them high heeled boots, cursing her man, “Son bitch, son bitch, call that lovin! And you twenty years old! Be ashamed, oughta be . . . ,” and the back of his shirt cuts into the dark, him long gone before her whistling bottle chases him with its smash.
And the floor manager comes round back with the tip of his cigar glowing like coal. He takes one swipe with his big hand and knocks her off them stairs. “Keep yer croakin down,” he says. “Or I’ll cut you up like a chinaman.”
“You leave her alone or there’ll be someone sorry tonight!”
“Get on home, sonny,” he says to me, glass eye glinting, a rope of tobaccy spit spattering on my boot. He twitches his coat side open once, once enough to see that razor sat comfy in there. He’s a dangerous man with an empty face and I’ve sense enough to know it. He closes the coat and goes.
The more I see men the more I like dogs.
And right along I try to lift up that dead weighted woman, her rubbing the welt on her cheek. But she swivels to me and gives a nasty long hiss and crumples back down in her bombazine dress. So-long you both, you’re in good company.
And I’m pulled on down the short dark street by some music coming over me, damn nice music too. Women singers bright and chirpy, violins and thingamies all going in tune – it beat anything I’d heard before – and being inclined to the curious I edge in through a doorway to see what’s what, and there’s a long sloon with tables all across the floor and at the far end some girls dancing and singing in short dresses like circus ladies. There’s a lot o men sitting, doing their drinking and I think, where’s the harm in standing, looking? So I go on in and soon the gals stop their singing, take a drink around the room – all but the little one, who’s pale and doesn’t grin like the rest – and as I’m standing there one of the gals squeezes me tight, nudges a man to make him cough, then damned if she didn’t knock my hat off! Then kick it along that floor in the spit and shavings, my own good hat!
“Now hold on there miss,” I say, “That’s a three dollar hat and it lives all alone. It ain’t no football now nor never will be.” And she laughs right in my face saying “You’re a fool for loving hats too much. Have a whisky and think on what’s good for you.” And I sweeped up my hat and had the whisky like she said me to do. And then one more, and then another, everybody laughing and egging on and me wishing for Elmore’s endless pockets, the music grown bigger than that room can hold, them ladies dancing like birds all puffed out.
And damned if I didn’t end up on those steps with the shrieking woman round back explaining all my stories cos her face says she wants to hear.
“My stovepipe,” she grins gap toothed, sucking at my bottle.
“Sure enough I’m killing all o them tomorrow. Every. Single. One.”
“It’s beautiful,” she says, reaching into my pants.
“Everyone by eight!” And I take a long drink of my own.
“I believe that story o yours, that stone, –”
“The best I know of yet . . . .”
“It makes me want to live there n then — ”
“Goddamn there’s gotta be justice!”
“No. . . . Just this, just this. . . .”
And I kiss her till I can’t breathe no more. . . .
Morning mules bray, dogs cough, and Blackie’s hammer clinks out another set of shoes. My woman’s gone and left me laid out here all hungover. But quiet and calm just the same. And resolved. To go on home the only way I know, resolved about the whole damned thing.
I take Lonny down with a sweet shot from my ought-eight.
A clean shot through the forehead.
I lay the bead on him, settle my breathing, squeeze one right off. A puff o smoke, and Lonny’s in the weeds.
He’s coming through the grass round back of the house, down from the hill larger than life, dead rabbits dangling from the end of his stick. Now he’s out there like a sack o flour.
I go to the mill looking for Daddy on his morning shift, and it’s all dark in there, some sun cutting the dust and heat like lightning right where the boards don’t fit. And those mules plod on with the chaff and the dust coming smoky, those stones turning a deep smooth grind that sets my teeth on edge.
Daddy watches me and the rifle, his eyes wide in the dark.
“Here for your shift?” Friendly like.
“What’s the gun for, Pup?”
“Then why the gun?” His voice wobbles.
I cock the hammer, Daddy’s eyes narrow down and he moves back from the grind stones, the turning wood gears, the mules all twitching with flies. He nods cos he knows, rubs a big thumb over his wide leather belt and the corner of his mouth jerks out a smile. “Seen Lonny?”
The mules go round one more time and the stones keep to grinding.
“What you about, Pup?”
“All about done. And then I’ll be leaving.”
“Where’n hell you going?”
Daddy moves crabways and I let him turn me slowly, let him think he’s getting advantage by putting the sun right in my eyes. When he reaches for that rusty fork leaning agin the wall I shoot him up under the arm, up into his shirt-front, and he slumps down quick with a groan, face pressed hard on the boards. Another groan, a shiver, his boot twitching a bit.
“What you . . . . what you. . . . what. . . .” his breath sucking in out quick,
string-spit all down his chin, his eyes rolling, fixing on this then fixing on that then fixing on me. His fingers touch at the hole and he pokes the tip inside knowing he’s going to die.
So I tell him a story to help pass his time.
The one about Henley, how on his grubby death bed he took Jock and Webster back to the year of his camel train, strung across the high desert. You should’ve seen us, he says, should’ve seen us cavalry-men high and haughty hanging onto those humps, great hairy humps like buried tits, those spook-footed bitches loping slow past the salt hills, right past them indians running in terror who’d never seen the like.
They rode a regular saddle. They rode a side saddle. But either way they rode up sore, and nearly all chose to lead their beasts. See, the camels hated carrying both the men and their gear.
And Henley’s last words? The mule’s still the best, don’t forget that. Get over the fancy in this life, boys, and stick with your mule. And with that he shut his eyes tight, crossed his fingers, and let go a long last breath.
“I ain’t a mule, Daddy.”
Finished up, whistling, I go back happy to my room and sling together a bag figuring I’ll be gone forever. I yank out some thick wove mountain shirts, some cheery kerchiefs, and an oil-coat for the rains to come. Some powder, some shot, and Uncle Frankie’s scrap-wood fiddle. Damned if he didn’t love them Norwegian tunes with their crooked melodies, and us reeling round the hog-pen till the flies filled up our mouths. . . . Oh. And money. And the mare. A good strong horse that one, and Lonny’s saddle cos it’s the best thing he owned.
Then I’ll be damned if Sparrey doesn’t come creaking into the yard surprising me right along, so I throws down the bag, charge out to head him off, and leave my gun leaning right inside the door. “Howdy, Sparrey. Weren’t expecting you till Tuesday”
Those eyes slits, his face browner than dry turd, he says. “I got some extra grindin for yer Daddy.”
“He don’t need no extra right now,”
“Told me awhiles back to bring along some extra,” He winks, them slits thinner than nickel slots. “If you get my meanin.”
“Meaning or none, he ain’t here nomore.”
“Say?” Sparrey cups a dead ear and leans down to catch me.
“He ain’t here,” louder like.
“Don’t rightly foller,” he says.
“Sparrey he ain’t here. Can’t be no plainer than that.”
“So where he be?” And he climbs on down from the buckboard seat and looks straight up in my face. Searching without searching he thinks, but I know better.
“Gone off way up to Alaska. Gone right along to see his frozen brother.”
“Laska? Brother?” He turns once to see the yard then looks straight into me. “Pup,” he says, “I seed him just the other day and he said nothin bout nothin. Save this here extra which is the only why I’m here.”
“That may be old man, but he’s went just the same. Set away yesterday.”
“So he ain’t here?”
“Nope. Long gone.”
“Lonny? He round the yard?”
Sparrey lifts his hat to scrat his brow, rubs the lines slow and gentle, studying that sweat all greasy down his fingers. He flicks a looks across his shoulder, the corn bags all piled up like teeth, then cocks his good ear to the grinding stones. He looks me up and looks me down. Real slow. “Well. . . . I’m owed.” he says.
“I’m owed now, Pup. It’s my livin here we’re talkin about..”
“That’s about right. How much?”
“See here,” Sparrey reaches in his duster and drags out the brown account book. He licks a big thumb to move the pages over. “Jumpy, Pup?” And finding my family writ there he says “Seven nineteen, anyhow.”
“You come all the way here for seven nineteen?”
“And the extra.”
“You a narrow man, Sparrey.”
“Narrow, wide. T’ain’t no difference to me nor you. Just keep up your grindin, son, and we’ll all stay happy.”
“Maybe,” I say, go back inside and sneak a look down at him standing in the yard. He starts up a whistle, a jiggy little tune to hide his growing snoop. I pull a quick twenty and run back down the stairs.
Sparrey smiles, a devil round dinnertime. “I cain’t give you no change,” he says.
“What you mean?”
“I don’t have no change.”
“Keerist! It’s all I got,” the bill waving there between us.
“I need somethin smaller. You need smaller, Pup?”
And I run off inside all jittered up, my plan going cold aound me, and I fumble ten off of the roll, run back and shove it straight at him staring.
“Can’t break that neither.”
“Sparrey, take your money. Make change next time round!”
“Ain’t good business, Pup.” And him stretching out that turtle neck, seeing up every creaking stair, undoing them buckles on my bags, on into those empty rooms, then out to Daddy and Lonny all stiff in the sun.
“Then we’ll pay next time,” I say.
“That ain’t good business, neither. Cain’t be no next time. Now’s now.”
“So now’s now.” I trot back into the doorway and come right out with my gun to put a shot straight through his head. “That’s all I got, Sparrey.”
I calm his horse, give her some feed, and go back to packing my gear. Without no distractions. Can’t make change!
And then I wave so-long to the mill and head out on my way.
And why not Alaska?
Must be something over that great divide, and hell, I only want a peek. One look out onto the west that’s laying all unknown. Just like the arctic sea. With peace and stories and silence so deep the voice of a fly comes human.
BIO: Paul Hansom has an MFA from the University of Southern California and lives and writes in Ithaca, New York.