Nonfiction by Lee Martin
My father had a cousin named Ervie, who lived alone a little over a mile from our farm on the County Line Road. He was a bachelor. He had a little patch of ground and did some farming, and he hired himself out to help other farmers. My father relied on him after the corn picker accident that cost him both his hands. Even though he continued to farm with his prosthetic hands—his hooks, as he called them—he often needed help with things he couldn’t manage himself. Ervie came to work on machinery or to help with the haying. He was a man in his middle years, or maybe a little bit past them. He’d been married once, but the marriage had ended in divorce a long time before I arrived. The point is, he’d lived alone for a good long while. And then one summer he began to take notice of the woman who ran the general store in Berryville, a community of two churches, that store, and a few houses, two miles west of our farm. Little by little, it became apparent that he was sweet on Jenny Slunaker, and she was sweet on him.
Jenny was divorced from a man who ended up in the state hospital in Anna, which is where people went when they were, as my mother would have said, “troubled.” The mental hospital, the insane asylum, the loony bin, the booby hatch. I heard that hospital referred to with all these insensitive terms. In my teenage years, when my rebellious nature clashed with my father’s temper, he often said, “I’ll send you to Anna.” Even though I was pretty sure he wouldn’t, part of me feared he might. Every time he said those words, my mind flashed to an image from my childhood. My parents and I had just driven away from the Berryville Store, and I saw a man walking along the side of the road. He had on a wide-brimmed straw hat, a twill jacket hooked on a finger and tossed over his shoulder, a chambray shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows, a pair of khaki pants. It was a dry, hot day, and as he shuffled his feet along the dirt road, little puffs of dust rose up around his ankles.
“Who’s that man?” I asked. I watched him as we passed. He didn’t turn to look at us. He didn’t wave. It was as if he didn’t even know we were there.
“That’s Edgar Slunaker,” my mother said in a quiet voice.
My father said, “He just got out of Anna.”
I came up on my knees on the back seat and watched him through the dust, and I felt bad that our tires were churning it up. He didn’t seem to notice. He just kept his head down. He didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry. He didn’t seem particularly happy, but he didn’t seem sad either. Years later I’d come to understand that when someone is troubled, sometimes all they can do is keep moving, keep putting one foot in front of the other, and I suppose that was what Edgar Slunaker was doing on that hot summer day.
“Where’s he going?” I asked.
“Probably to one of his kids’ places,” my father said. “I don’t imagine Jenny wants anything to do with him.”
“Jenny?” I said.
“They used to be married,” my father said.
Divorce was an unfamiliar concept to me. It rarely happened at that time in the place where we lived. This isn’t to say that everyone’s marriage was a happy one. I’m sure there were people barely holding on, tolerating misery, because . . . well . . . that’s just what folks did in our part of the world when I was a boy. Those like Ervie and Jenny, who divorced their spouses and then found themselves alone on the downside of their lives, were the exception, and they stood out in our rural community where the nuclear family, no matter how unhappy the people in it might be, was the norm. And a second marriage? Well, as I was about to learn, that wasn’t always an easy sell.
The Berryville Store was open late on Wednesday and Saturday nights. As I recall, it was a Wednesday, toward dusk, when Ervie pulled up in his car, an old brown Ford that needed a new muffler.
I was sitting on the slope of a freshly mowed ditch across the road with a friend, practicing whistling by cupping our hands and blowing over a blade of grass held between our thumbs. It was that time of night once known as the gloaming—that twilight time when barn swallows swooped low in the sky, coming in to roost, and the chirr of insects set in, and lights came on in houses, and the air was still, and sounds carried a long way and sometimes echoed in the fading of the light.
Ervie stepped out of his Ford, and the door creaked on its hinges. He had on a checked sport shirt, buttoned at the collar. He was whistling a tune, something light and airy, and all these years later, when I recall this moment, I find myself thinking, there goes a happy man. He sprang up onto the front porch of the store, opened the screen door, and stepped inside, the door tapping the frame, once, twice, as it came back on its spring.
My friend and I went on trying to whistle.
Then we heard loud voices. The screen door screeched on its spring, and Ervie came out on his tiptoes, a man behind him yanking him up by the collar of his shirt. The man was Roy Slunaker, one of Jenny’s grown sons.
At first I thought he was just funning, the way men did all the time when they were loafing at the store, but by this time the pole light in front of the store was on, and I could clearly see him trying to lift Ervie into the air as he rushed him down the steps.
“You stay the hell away from my mother,” Roy said. He was a short, stocky man wearing a white tee shirt beneath his overalls. One gallus strap had slipped from his shoulder during the ruckus. He was shouting, and I could tell he was angry in earnest. “You sonofabitch,” he said.
He opened the door to Ervie’s Ford and tried to stuff him inside, but Ervie wasn’t willing to go.
“I’ve got a right,” he said.
Somehow, half in and half out of the car, his arm got in the way when Roy tried to slam the door. The door came down on Ervie’s arm, and I heard him cry out in pain.
“You’ll get more than that,” Roy said, “if you ever come back here.”
Finally, Ervie got the Ford started, and he backed away from the store and took off down the road, gravel flying from his tires.
My friend and I sat there, stunned, and thrilled, too, by what we’d just witnessed. It seemed like a scene out of a television show. Something from Gunsmoke, or The Rifleman, or Combat. Two men having at each other, one of them in the midst of a violent rage, promising to hurt the other.
But these were men I’d known to be good-natured. Full of bluster and bluff, of course, as most men were. Prone to pop off from time to time with innocent ribbing. But this was something different. This was temper and threat and danger. A part of me was enthralled, but another part of me felt embarrassed and small to see Ervie, a man who was always kind to me, humiliated in this way.
Roy went back in the store, and a short time later my father came out and called for me, and we went home.
This was the summer that my father and I spent the weekdays alone on our farm. My mother was taking classes at Eastern Illinois University, an hour’s drive north in Charleston. When she was eighteen, she’d passed an examination that gave her a teaching license, and she’d taught for more than twenty-five years before her school board said she’d have to finish her bachelor’s degree. That’s what she was doing that summer at Eastern. My father and I drove up to get her on Friday afternoons, and we took her back on Sunday evenings. The other days, my father always told people, we were “batching it.” We were bachelors. We were men living without women, something I’d never done, so there were times I wasn’t sure how to behave. Like that night when we left the store. What was I allowed to ask about what had happened?
My father broached the subject first. “I suppose you saw,” he said.
The windows on our truck were down, and the smell of freshly cut hay, curing in the field, came in with the warm air. My father worked the gearshift lever on the column of the steering wheel with his right hook. His left one was slipped over a special spinner knob on that side of the steering wheel, a requirement for him to be able to keep his driver’s license.
How was I to answer? Was it all right to say I had, to ask my father why Roy had been so angry, to say I’d felt a thrill while at the same time I’d been embarrassed by the sudden flare of violence? I wasn’t a rough and tumble boy. The ways of men were mysterious to me. I was ill-suited to be a farm kid. Most of my friends went barefoot and shirtless all summer. Each time I tried to go without shoes, I ended up stepping on something: a gear from a clock that somehow got into our yard, a tree root, a piece of glass. My mother cleaned my wounds. Doc Stoll gave me a tetanus shot and mumbled something about maybe shoes being a good idea for me in the future.
“Roy was mad,” I said.
My father stopped at the crossroads. Before he made the left-hand turn onto the County Line Road, he looked at me. He was one of those rough and tumble men, but he said to me in a soft voice—I imagine now he said to me what my mother would have said, feeling his parental responsibility in her absence—“Don’t you be that way. You keep a level head on your shoulders. That kind of fool behavior only leads to trouble.”
The next morning, Ervie’s Ford came down our lane. He had a double-barrel shotgun with him.
“I’m not going anywhere without this,” he said. “Not now.”
He and my father sat on webbed lawn chairs beneath the shade of the big maple tree out front, and I sat on the grass near them. They talked as if I weren’t there. They talked the private talk of men.
Ervie had the shotgun across his lap. He rolled his left sleeve up and showed my father the ugly bruise where Roy had slammed the car door on his arm.
“You can’t do that to a man,” Ervie said. “Someone has to answer for it.”
My father said, “You want to be careful. You don’t want to end up in jail.”
Ervie tugged down his sleeve. “He threatened me. He treated me like I was no one. I went home and I sat up all night with this.” He slapped the stock of the shotgun. “Just in case.”
My father cautioned him again. “You don’t want someone to end up dead.”
“No, I don’t. But I love Jenny, and I won’t let him or anyone else keep me away from her.” His voice cracked, and I could see he was close to tears. “I sat there all night,” he said.
I felt myself crossing into a world I wasn’t yet supposed to know—a world, I know now, of the heart and its yearning and everything that tries to stand in its way.
“All night,” Ervie said again, and his eyes were fierce. “Goddamn it, all night.”
He was a man, afraid. A man in a pickle. He’d lived alone so long, and now here was this woman and the light she brought him. He was a man willing to risk his life for the sake of her companionship and love.
These were the people I came from. Men and women who worked hard, laughed easily, called lunch “dinner” and dinner “supper.” Folks who had barely been out of the county unless it was to get on a ship and travel across an ocean to fight a war. Folks some might consider rubes or bumpkins. People who made their homes on those farms and in those small towns, and just like everyone everywhere came to find out who they were when they were alone in the night, when they were “troubled,” when they waited for whatever was about to come, when they felt their hearts torn by everything they wanted and everything they feared, when they calculated how much they were willing to risk.
Ervie loved Jenny Slunaker. To him, it was that simple. An angry son? A bruised arm? Threat and injury were nothing in the face of that love. If he had to carry a shotgun, if he had to stay on watch all night, that’s exactly what he’d do.
“I’ve been alone so long,” he said. “She makes me happy.”
“Then you know what you want,” my father said.
“I do,” said Ervie.
And my father, who’d been a bachelor until at the age of thirty-eight he married my mother, let him sit there in the shade, the breeze sending maple seedlings winging down, and no one said a word for a good long while.
“I’ll get through this,” Ervie finally said.
Then he took his shotgun and got into his car, and he drove away.
And he did—get through it, I mean. He married Jenny. They had years and years together. Whether Roy ever accepted the marriage, I can’t say. I only know that where there had once been a bachelor there were now a husband and a wife. A new life began the way it had for my parents when they decided to marry, the way it had four years later when I unexpectedly came along, and the way it did the year after that when my father lost his hands.
Sometimes, when I was a boy on the farm, I’d find the skin a snake had shed. It had put on a new skin and slithered right out of its old one. It always amazed me, this sloughing off, this presto change-o, this natural moving from one state of being to another.
I didn’t yet know the man I’d one day be, and I had a hard time imagining my life, especially when I was in the company of men. I preferred my mother and her tender heart, and the way she let me know, without saying a word, that it was all right to be sensitive to the world around me.
She came home the weekend after Roy had accosted Ervie at the Berryville Store, and I don’t remember my father saying a word to her about it. Perhaps they talked about it when I was out of earshot. Maybe she told my father she didn’t want me to hear such gossip.
“But it’s not gossip,” I imagine my father saying. “It’s the goddamn truth.”
“Still,” my mother might have said. “It’s no behavior for a boy to know, let alone hear you going on about . . . and with that kind of language.”
She was taking a zoology class that summer, and I liked to walk with her along the fencerows as she let me swoop her butterfly net through weeds—over foxtail, milkweed, honeysuckle vine—to see what sorts of insects we might catch. If we caught something she could use as a specimen, she dropped it into a glass jar—the killing jar, she called it—along with cotton balls soaked in fingernail polish remover. She screwed on the lid and waited for the insect to die.
My tender-hearted mother. The same tender-hearted mother who killed chickens by wringing their necks, the chickens she cut into pieces and cooked for our Sunday dinners. How could this be the same woman who sat beside me when I was afraid of the dark, the same woman who sang so softly in church, the same woman who said a prayer with me before I went to bed?
I didn’t like to watch the insects die, but I was afraid to express my displeasure for fear my mother wouldn’t let me go with her to search for them anymore. So I kept quiet.
I remembered Edgar Slunaker and the way he had walked along that dusty country road with his head down and how every time I thought of him—that solitary, somber figure—I got an ache in my throat the way I always did when I was about to cry. His son, Roy, took issue with Ervie’s affections for his mother and lost his temper that night at the Berryville Store. Did he go home and feel ashamed of what he’d done, or did he persist in trying to keep his mother and Ervie apart? But Ervie stood firm. In the end, he and Jenny found a way to make good on their love.
Now I try to imagine what my father’s accident did to my mother. Surely it hardened her, tempered her like the steel of the hooks she lifted onto my father each morning and relieved him of each night. Their weight became hers, too. I see that now. She carried them with her all the years of her life after the accident, not in the same way that he carried them, but still I imagine that, once he was dead and she woke to face the new day, she must have missed the heft of them, must have missed the sound of the harness creaking as my father slipped his stumps into the holster and she helped him settle the canvas straps across his back. She must have missed the weight they shared.
The summer Roy Slunaker tried to hurt Ervie, tried to scare him away from his mother, I had no idea how it tied into my own life and the life my mother and father had. Still, I took it all in, and it was there when finally I made the connection.
That snake skin. The animal who had to make room for a new one. The way I cared for my father that summer—shaved him, dressed him, cleaned him after he used the toilet. His bursts of temper. The way we sometimes slept next to each other. The night a thunderstorm came and we lost our electricity and I was afraid someone might be lurking outside. My father said, “Hush, honey. Nothing to be afraid of. I’m here. Everything will be all right. Close your eyes and go to sleep, and before you know it, it’ll be light again.”
We were bachelors that summer. We had each other, just the way Ervie and Jenny did, just the way my parents did. I was just beginning to learn what they already knew: all the ways to reinvent ourselves when trouble comes, when it brings us to our knees, when we find out we’ll do anything to keep ourselves from being alone.