Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Hot Checks and Hogs

Rivulets of sweat turn to droplets that seem to freeze before hitting the hoof held between Burl Branchwater’s knees. He makes the finishing touches with his rasp, bends his neck up to check the curvature of the hoof and shoe for proper alignment and fit. Perfect.  He drops the hoof and stretches, his forty-five-year-old back hurting. 

He hears the pickup and trailer rattling and knows who it is without looking.  Burl groans.  He has already shod six horses since daylight and is looking forward to a few beers by a warm fire.  He is definitely not in the mood for Weldon Welch.  Weldon, sometime cowboy, sometime gravel-hauler, full time trouble, is probably bringing more horses just when Burl thinks he is through for the day.  Burl is relieved to see that the trailer is empty and even more relieved to see best friend Clayton Hall riding shotgun for Weldon. Weldon’s four-year-old daughter stands in the seat between them. 

He can tell they are in a Lone Star mood before they reach the horse lot. Burl wipes his face with a dirty handkerchief, feeling like a sober man about to converse with two old boys with a buzz on.  Weldon waves his arms in his usual disjointed manner.  “Godamighty, Burl.  You the only man I know can sweat when it’s freezin.”

Burl’s wife Lillie keeps two of Weldon’s hot checks under the salt and peppershakers on the kitchen table, a constant reminder to Burl of money his family needs. He thinks of the checks as he ignores Weldon and looks to Clayton to explain why the two are traveling together and why they stopped here. They are not exactly running buddies, and Clayton knows about the hot checks. 

Clayton lets Weldon ramble on, enjoying Burl’s curiosity and aggravation before finally speaking.  “Weldon’s on his way down the other side of Emory to pick up some hogs from a feller.  I thought you might want to come along.  Looks like you done shod all the horses here.”

It is true.  Burl is done for the day.  But he smiles at Weldon’s pretty young daughter Tess as he shakes his head.  “Guess not.  Don’t reckon I need no hogs.”

Clayton eases a little closer to Burl, his back to Weldon.  “Come on, Burl.  This boy got two cases of beer iced down in the back of that pickup.  How else you gonna get any of your money back?”

Burl is not an educated man, but he knows horses and he knows people.  He is like a bartender for cowboys.  People come to him with their own troubles and their horses’ troubles because he has a knack for getting to the heart of problems. “How the hell is goin’ off with you boys gonna get any of my money back?  He wantin’ me to take it out in hogs?”

Clayton lowers his voice as Weldon eases closer, figuring he is being discussed.  “Naw.  But he’s got to be carrying a little cash if he means to buy hogs. Either way, you can at least drink up some of his beer.  Come on.  It’ll be like old times.”

Burl recognizes the familiar glint in his old friend’s eyes.  There had been some good times in the old days.  Clayton is a single man again, and Burl feels a short burst of the type of anticipation he has not felt in years.  “I’ll have to see what Lillie says.”

Weldon hears and laughs.  “Hell, Burl.  You got to ask your old lady ‘fore you take a little trip down the road?”

Burl shoots him a look that says to leave mention of Lillie alone.  The sainted woman has stood by him during his and Clayton’s drinking and hell-raising days.  Burl has seventy-five pounds on Weldon and most folks accept that he and Clayton are not to be riled at any time, any place, by anyone.  The only speculation concerns who is meaner in a fight, Burl or Clayton.  Weldon once tried to cover bets on a match between Burl and Clayton, but he could never get the two friends mad enough to go at each other, though he had tried more than once. 

Clayton takes the lead rope of the just-shod horse and ties him beside the rest of Burl’s morning’s handiwork.  “Go on in there and ask her.  She can collect for you when these old boys come back for their horses.” 
Burl looks toward the house, a glimmer of anticipation starting to show in his face.  Emory is less than an hour away.  Not as if they are heading off to Deep East Texas.  “You boys comin’ right back?  Cause if you ain’t, I ain’t goin’.”
Burl is showered and dressed before Clayton and Weldon can crack more than two beers.  They are half an hour past Emory when Burl straightens in the back seat.  “Where’d you say them pigs was?”
Weldon turns away from the steering wheel to look back at Burl.  “Aw, just down the road here.”
Burl points toward the road.  “Might want to turn around and watch where you goin’.”  When they pass through Canton and are an hour and a half away from home, the girl is asleep and Burl speaks softly. “Where them damn pigs at?”
As Tess awakes and stands in the seat, Burl sees bubble lights reflect off her blonde hair.  “Shit.  We all gonna get throwed in jail.”
Next time: The rest of the trip.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Circle is Unbroken

As the four of us sat together in Chili’s I tried to visualize us as we were when we first became friends, but could not. We’ve all changed too much. We get together at least once a year, sometimes more. 

Jake lives the farthest away, so I see less of him. He grew up in Klondike, a small town that used to be much larger, but has hovered just over a hundred in population for as long as I can remember.

John is from the Shiloh community (smaller than Klondike) and has returned to his childhood home to spend the rest of his days after years in the Metroplex.

I lived between Shiloh and Klondike near the old West Delta School and now live outside of Commerce about fifteen miles from our old homeplace.

Charles grew up in the big metropolis of Cooper (around 2000) and moved to Winnsboro many years ago. John, Jake and I went to West Delta School and we all went to high school in Cooper. 

Jake and I have been friends since first grade. Our mothers worked in the sewing factory together and were also close friends. Our fathers were drinking buddies. His brother dated my sister. Another older brother was a friend of my older brother. I attended a particular church for a period of time simply because I knew Jake went there and he made me feel like I belonged when I came back from the Panhandle. We played Little League baseball together (though on separate teams). He had a terrific curve ball. You get the picture. Our roots go deep.

John came along just a few years later fresh from living in Italy and Japan as his family traveled with his Army father. I thought living in a whole ‘nother country was pretty exotic because I had never been out of Texas. But John never boasted about his world travels. We quickly became best friends. We sometimes walked the ten or twelve mile round trip between our houses to get into mischief together or to swim in snake-infested country pools. 

I had to rise most mornings before dawn to help in our dairy. John sought and took a job doing the same thing despite my warnings. We bought mopeds (a bicycle with a motor) at the same time. We talked a lot. John is irreverent and possessed of a dry wit that kept be laughing then and now. I borrowed a horse for John so that he and I could play hooky on April Fools ’ Day and ride all the way to Pecan Gap when we were about twelve. We sometimes raced home in our cars after going out on separate dates in Cooper (not recommended). 

Charles and I were enemies in high school, but became close friends about a decade later. On a wild and mischievous night when I was a senior, he sent a fist to my face that sent me tumbling  and blackened the whole side of my face. His nickname in high school was Moose, for good reason. Thirty-six years later, we traveled across Texas together with him driving a covered wagon and Cousin Marion and I riding horses. He was also a client of my CPA firm and my western wear store until I sold them. When he traveled with his father Dutch on another covered wagon journey to the Fort Worth Fat Stock show, he wore a hat I had worn for months.  We have history, and it’s all good after we got over our high school feud.
My family moved to the Panhandle when I was a freshman, and when I came back two years later, West Delta School was closed and Jake and John had moved on with their lives at Cooper High School. They were friendly and welcoming, but things would never be quite the same. 
I am the oldest of the bunch, but not by much. I graduated a year ahead of them, and we lost contact for a while after high school, although John used to fill in for me when I needed to be away from my college job as a delivery boy for City Pharmacy. After that, they went their separate ways and I went mine. Let’s just say that they had a lot more fun in those post high school years than I did and leave it at that. Ironically, Charles and I were the first to establish a new, adult friendship. 

 Among the four of us, only one parent remains. Chrystelle, John’s mother, is ninety-seven. In addition to our parents, Jake lost two brothers and I lost one, all at young ages. John lost his wife, a brother, his dad, and two sisters-in-law.

When John moved back here, he and Jake and I made a couple of trips to the State Fair, trying to rekindle boyhood memories of Rural Youth Day at the fair. It wasn’t the same. As we walked the fairgrounds, one vendor beckoned us to try the newest gadget, a magnetic bracelet. He told us that all the players on one super bowl team were going to wear the bracelets during the big game. They were supposed to improve balance. 

He coaxed Jake and me to stand on one leg with our arms forward and one leg back with and without the bracelet. I’m not sure the bracelets made any difference, but I’m sure Jake and I looked pretty foolish. When the vendor asked John to try it, he replied with his usual dry wit, “No thanks, I don’t do much of that kind of thing anymore.” You had to be there to appreciate the humor.

About three years back, Charles was shredding along his pool bank. He turned his tractor over, pinning himself in the mud underneath it—an accident that would have killed most men. He was flown to a hospital and kept unconscious for several weeks so that his collapsed lungs could function again and his ribs heal. John took a picture of him in that hospital bed and sent it around to several people. When I saw it, I asked, “You take that with a phone or camera?” 

He said, “Phone. Why?”

“You might want to hide it because if Charles ever sees that picture, you might have that phone shoved where the sun don’t shine.”

Charles said he heard angels’ wings when he was down in that mud with a tractor on top of him. He appears completely healed now, but I think the brush with death somehow changed him, made him more retrospective, more aware of the fragility of life.  I now have a row of weeds and grass along the bank of my pool that I call my moose row. I no longer try to get down there with a tractor and shredder. Who knows? Maybe his accident saved my life. 

So now we are what we used to consider old men. When we get together, I want to talk about what we are doing right now and what we going to do with the rest of our days to make our lives more meaningful and interesting. I fret about that more than I should, I guess. They usually want to talk over old times and laugh a lot. We have come almost full circle, so to speak. And yet, our friendships have endured. I value that.