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Stevan Allred

His Ticky Little Mind

 

This all begins when I come home from visiting Mother in the rest home last week and taking her down to the Norse Hall for the monthly dinner. Good eats at the Norse Hall, and Mother may not be able to remember what year it is but she'll sit there and tell you how that secret pinch of nutmeg made her creamed carrots the envy of all the ladies down at the grange, and that's about all the female companionship I can handle these days.

It was Saturday evening and almost dark. That long busy drive from the city was behind me and I was eight miles past the last red light when I made the turn onto Gossard Road. I've lived on Gossard Road my whole life and my whole life whenever I turn onto Gossard Road the world has been made whole again, a place small enough that I can keep track of everything that matters and big enough to hold everything I need.

That first quarter mile the road rises and makes the tree line beyond sink so you feel the heavens opening up big as God above you. The evening star was bright and it had risen in its customary spot in the southern sky, which at this time of year puts it almost directly above the bungalow, which is the house I was born in, the house I now live across the road from. It was my parents who sold the bungalow and the farm that goes with it to Volpe.

Something wasn't right. Underneath the evening star should have been the silhouette of an oak tree standing plumb and true, the only tree on that particular stretch of Gossard Road tall enough and near enough not to disappear below the top of the rise. I come up to the top of the rise and pulled over in the wide spot where I like to sit for a minute and see the whole valley stretched out before me, with my little piece of paradise smack dab in the middle, the heart of the heartland, and the best forty acres in the whole damn section.

It must be in the nature of things that paradise wouldn't be paradise without there was a snake running loose in the middle of it, because all that's left of that oak tree is the butchery of a stump left to stand there tall dark and ugly.

The headlights of my truck picked up the big white ovals where Volpe cut off the lower branches. There was no lights on at Volpe's house except for the tv, which he's got the biggest damn tv in the whole damn county. The oak tree was laid out in rounds where he sliced it up after he dropped it. Volpe worked on a logging crew when he was fresh out of high school, so the man knows how to drop a tree. He had to take the fence down at the far end of his yard to keep it from getting smashed when he dropped it.

The sky was just this side of full dark, and those fresh cut rounds lay there white as a sliced cucumber, and sliced up the way it was there was nothing left to do but split those rounds into firewood. Enough firewood to keep Volpe warm for five or six winters easy. When I was a boy I spent whole summers in that tree, me and my brothers and sisters and our cousins who lived on Gossard Road. We built a pirate ship high up in her branches and sailed off to the new world. We hung a swing from her thickest branch and we swung ourselves dizzy. We laid in the dirt beneath her and looked up at puzzle pieces of blue sky through her branches, and we made a game out of putting those pieces together.

Now everything that tree ever was would go up Volpe's chimney and be gone forever. Everything except the stump. He left that stump standing twelve feet high to provoke me. I know how his ticky little mind works. We been neighbors for thirty four years, and we went to all the same schools before that, and I got plenty of history with Volpe. That stump sat in the view from my front porch to his like the upraised middle finger of Volpe's hand.

I know a dick when I see one.

I didn't even go in my house after I parked my truck. Walked straight over to Volpe's and knocked on his door.

"Evening, Arnie," he said. On the tv was one of those fishing shows where some guy takes you out to a river and pretends he ain't bragging about all the fish he's caught. Volpe's wife never would've let him buy a tv that big, but Volpe and me, neither one of us could keep a wife past the time our kids grew up and moved out of the house. I never thought my marriage to Viv would fail the test of time. They left us less than a year apart, and Volpe told me right after Viv left he thought his wife caught the leaving disease from my wife. Like his wife didn't leave first, and like that artificial inseminator fellow she ran off with had nothing to do with it.

There was a dish of ice cream half eaten on the coffee table in front of Volpe's recliner, and the word 'mute' in blue letters across the bottom of his big tv. I stepped back from his front door and pointed at his butchery.

I said "What'd you do that for?"

"And what a fine evening it is," Volpe said, "Thanks for bringing it up."

Volpe stepped past me and I got a whiff of whatever fancy cologne it is he puts on now that he's divorced. He stood out in the yard, looking up at the evening sky.

"Have you seen the evening star?" he said. He was sideways to me. The man's got no more chin than a hen does, and a long stick of a neck, and with his big beak of a nose cantilevered out over the bottom half of his face he looks like he's part weasel.

"Going to be hot in August without the shade of that tree," I said.

"I got air conditioning," Volpe said. "I'll be all right."

A pair of bats was working the sky over our heads, all swoop and flutter, quiet as the grave, doing their level best to keep the flying insect population down to a dull roar. Volpe's face was white and bloodless in the porch light. I stepped down and stood so I could talk straight into his face. "Why on earth would you cut down your shade tree?" I said. I knew for a fact that my grandparents had situated their house to take full advantage of the shade of that oak.

Volpe's mouth pulled up into that tight curve he's been smirking with since he was five years old. "Have you seen my new satellite dish?" he said. "I been meaning to ask you over to watch one of my five hundred channels."

He walked out into his yard further and pointed up at the roof. "You mount it so it faces the southern sky," he said. The satellite dish was a round white circle against the twilight sky. It had that baked on enamel look of a household appliance, but there was something sausage-like about the bulbous gray hunk of electronics that pointed at its center.

"Wasn't getting the kind of reception I needed," Volpe said. One of the bats flew low over his head and Volpe swatted at it. He pointed at the oak tree laid out like a dead relative down the length of his yard. "Did you see all that rot running through those rounds?"

"You couldn't put that dish on the back corner of the house?" I said.

Volpe tightened up his smirk and put crinkles at the corners of his eyes, just in case I didn't already know that he was laughing at me. He stuck his hands into the back pockets of his jeans. His arms are so long the man can practically tie his shoes without bending over, so his elbows stuck way out, and that left his gut wide open and just begging for me to sucker punch him.

"Well now, I suppose I might have," he said, "but right here is where the signal is strongest."

Course it ain't me that's got a history of throwing the sucker punch, it's Volpe.

"You want a dish of ice cream Arnie?" he said. "Rocky Road, it's your favorite."

I said "No."

It was going to take a whole lot more than ice cream to patch this up.

Come Sunday morning I got up early, fixed myself a pot of coffee, and sat out on the porch. There was a chill in the air and I was glad for the bourbon whiskey I sweetened my coffee with. I had my binoculars in case any interesting birds came by, and I was set to spend my one day off right there in the heart of the heartland.

The bungalow was a whole lot more noticeable without the oak tree between us, the way it occupied the morning sun that tree used to occupy. That stump was stupid and butt ugly both. Butt ugly because it stood there like a big old stick stuck straight into my eye, and stupid because it was a whole lot more work for Volpe to cut down that high than it would've been to take her closer to the ground. He had the extra difficulty of handling a thirty six inch chainsaw while he was up a ladder, and he had to move the ladder at least twice to get the job done.

Volpe came in from mucking around out back of his house with his John Deere tractor, which he owns the biggest damn tractor in the whole damn county. If you want your hay field plowed up for putting in Christmas trees, and you want the job done quicker than you could do it yourself on the kind of tractor most folks around here own, Volpe's the man you call. I had a clear shot of his living room window, and Volpe come in and turned that tv on, and even at two hundred yards the picture on that tv was so damn big I didn't hardly need my binoculars to see that all he was watching was some stupid gardening show.

We used to set up a card table and play cards in that living room back when he and I was married men with families. A regular routine we had, with our wives taking turns on the roast beef and the kids running around in the yard after dinner. My Viv used to make potatoes au gratin that would make a dead man drool, and Mary Sauerberg Volpe's pies were grand champions at the county fair so many times she had to quit entering and give somebody else a chance. Good eats for sure, and for a good solid twenty years if it wasn't the Gossards over to the Volpes' on a Saturday night it was the Volpes over to the Gossards'.

Viv and Mary Sauerberg were friends in a way that Volpe and me never were. Our wives did all kinds of things together, from joining the Skip-A-Week Quilt Club to running the church socials to going to A-robics together. There was twelve years of age between them, with Mary Sauerberg seven years younger than Volpe and me, but that didn't stop the two of them from getting along like a house-a-fire.

But Volpe and me are a different story. Volpe's been a bully his whole life, the only difference being he's gone from using the size of his fists and the mean look in his eyes to using the size of his wallet and the size of his farm operation to back everybody else down. Back in grade school one time I hit a softball down the third base line right between Volpe's legs for a stand-up double, and Volpe tried to convince everybody it was a foul ball. He come running over to where I stood on second base and got right in my face.

"Foul ball," he yelled, "it was on the line."

"Was not," I said. "Hit the ground in fair territory."

"Was too," he said. Back and forth like that, was not, was too, the way kids do. His eyes all screwed up tight and he kept punching the ball at me, trying to knock me off second base. Everybody gathered around us and taking sides, and Volpe getting madder and madder at me when I won't back down, and then the bell rings for the end of recess, and everybody starts back to the classroom. Soon as I step off second base Volpe tags me with the ball and says "You're out."

He figured he'd beat me, his mouth all smirky and he's holding the ball up like he'd just won a MVP trophy. I nodded like I was agreeing with him, and then I nailed him with what I says next.

"Well," I says, "I guess if I'm out at second 'cause you tagged me, then that must've been a fair ball that got me here."

That was the first time he hauled his fist back and punched me in the nose. I let him do it, and then I walked right in to the classroom with all that blood dripping down my face. Hah. Got me the good citizen of the month award because I didn't hit him back.

Volpe's a good bit slicker that that now, or he'd never of got himself as fine a wife as Mary Sauerberg. Viv and me both was friends with her, because Mary Sauerberg was always good company. I knew her oldest sister when I was in school, and while Ruth Sauerberg didn't have Mary's looks, they were both women who were raised to be friendly and kind to everyone, and that included a lump of coal like me. Mary Sauerberg would get me to talking about whatever cabinets I happened to be building at the time, or she'd ask me if I'd seen the osprey that was hanging around Jimmy Ahlquist's pond, and I would find that I had more to say to her than I did to most people. She had a way of leaning in when you talked that showed you just how fascinating your subject was, and maybe she'd widen those big brown eyes of hers, or raise up an eyebrow to show you how she had a question. You could answer that question if you were paying close enough attention to keep talking about whatever it was that brought that eyebrow of hers up. And when you did answer it, she smiled real pretty to let you know.

Of course that left Viv and Volpe to talk between themselves, and what Viv and Volpe mostly talked about was our kids and how they all got along. At least that's what I heard when I was within earshot. Volpe's the kind of guy thinks that who a person turns out to be is all in the breeding. He had them prize Herefords after all, and he was always bragging on what good stock they were, and how many ribbons his kids won down to the county fair. The years his kids went on and won ribbons at the State Fair he was damn near impossible to be around, and since the only beef any of us ate came from his herd he had plenty of occasions to remind us all what a smart cattleman he was.

Viv never seemed to mind all his bragging though. I asked her about it once, after the Volpes had been to our house for Saturday night dinner, and Volpe had gone on and on about his Reserve Champion Hereford cow at the State Fair and all the careful breeding he'd done to get the bloodlines that made her what she was, and then on and on about how his son Michael Jr. was going into the Marines, the toughest branch of the service, where he was sure to become an officer. "Don't you see how he talks about his cattle," I said, "and how that's so when he talks about his kids you'll understand they're such fine children because he picked out the finest heifer in the county to breed himself to?"

With Viv you know you've crossed the line when she gets those lines under her lip, and she shakes her head back and forth like she's saying 'no' to an ant, but the movement is so small you have to know her a few years before you see it.

"Arnold," she said, "it's bad enough you think women are no better than cattle, but you have to be some kind of idiot to think it's not going to hurt me when you call my best friend the finest heifer in the county." She pulled herself up so that all of her five foot two frame was plumb and true. She said "You wish you'd married her instead of me, don't you."

No use explaining that I called Mary Sauerberg a heifer because that's how Volpe talks. Too late to put the hackles on when the milk cow's already bolted for the barn door. And no use saying that the thought that I would have rather had Mary Sauerberg for a wife never even crossed my mind, but I said it anyway.

"Talk is cheap, Arnold Gossard," says Viv, "and I see how you look at her."

It took building Viv a special cabinet to hold her sewing machine so it fit into a corner of the dining room to patch that up.

The summer before Mary Sauerberg left, her and Viv went on a tear to lose the weight they put on having all those babies. Viv especially, she being the stouter of the two. The Volpes' two boys were already gone by then, and we were down to Roger, the youngest of our three. The five of us'd sit down to Saturday night dinner, and Roger would bolt his like a hungry dog and then run off to be with his friends. It was the summer before he went off to college, the first summer the Volpes had after Ray, their second born, moved out and left them a married couple on their own again.

There was a night over to the Volpes' when I ended up doing the dishes with Mary Sauerberg, and when we got done Viv and Volpe had gone off for a walk. They walked up to the top of the rise where the wide spot in the road is, and if you look away from where our own farms are you can see the next valley spread out like a patchwork quilt. We could see them silhouetted against the evening sky looking out at the rest of the world, and then as they walked back towards us the sound of their voices came to us on the wind, but not what they were saying. And as Mary Sauerberg and I sat on the porch we were quiet, the way friends can be sometimes, until Mary Sauerberg said something that sounds different now when I think about it than it did when I heard it first.

She said, "It's a good thing to have friends when the people you love move away."

There'd been a lot of moving away, what with our kids growing up, and that's what I thought she meant. But Mary Sauerberg herself would leave Volpe in less than a year's time, and that had to be already on her mind. So she wasn't thinking of the four of us being empty nesters together, she was thinking about Volpe still having Viv and me close by after she left.

It was Viv who told me why Mary Sauerberg left. Volpe was too proud a man to talk about it until the hurt wore off, and his hurt didn't really wear off until Viv left me. There's nothing like watching another man suffer the way you have to help you forget your own sorrow. In the year that went by between when Mary Sauerberg left and when Viv left we still had Volpe over for the occasional dinner on a Saturday night, but Volpe took to spending most of his Saturday evenings down at the Cazadero, where they had that video poker. He sold off his Herefords and had a pile of cash to play with, and I think he had his eye on one of the waitresses there for awhile. Least ways that was the gossip that Viv carried back to me from the women down at Curves, where she went for her A-robics class.

I come home one night after delivering a set of kitchen cabinets over to Viola, and I pulled over in the wide spot at the top of the rise. There was just the barest sliver of a moon that night, and way off at the other end of Gossard Road was the remnants of a burn pile that Jimmy Ahlquist had lit in the morning. The smoke gave the night air a campfire feel, like Volpe and me and everybody else on Gossard Road was pioneers who got here last year and was still setting up our homesteads. I felt peaceful with that smell in the air, and I set there a while in my truck with the windows open. Our house was dark, and I was wondering when Viv was going to get back from running her errands.

After a time I started the truck back up and drove on down to home. I'll be goddamned if Volpe's front door didn't open just before I got to his place and who should come out of it but Viv. She saw my truck and she saw me slow down, but she just waved her hand at me like I was to go on by. She was looking down at the ground like she had to be careful where she walked, and she was in her high heeled shoes, but she was on Volpe's nice smooth concrete walkway from his front porch to the road, and she'd walked there ten thousand times at least.

I drove on down to our place and parked the truck next to the pole barn. There were a lot of reasons why Viv might be down to Volpe's for a minute, but the thing was I'd called her twice while I was out, and I had the feeling she'd been down there for hours. It don't take hours to bring Volpe a lasagna the way she'd done from time to time, and walking over to his house in high heeled shoes didn't make no sense at all.

Viv was up in our bedroom when I come in. I had to look in half the rooms in the house to find her because she hadn't answered me when I called her name. She had the closet doors open all the way, and she was just standing there, staring at all our clothes hanging on the bar.

"I'm going to reorganize all this," she said. "I'm going to throw out all my clothes that don't fit." She'd been to the beauty salon and got her hair fixed up, and she was wearing a new dress that showed off her waist she'd got back with all them hours she spent down at Curves.

"You're all gussied up," I said, "where you been?"

"You know where I've been," she said, "I've been down to Volpe's." She said this with her hand on her hip, and her mouth all squinched up the way she did when she thought the question I'd asked was stupid.

"What you got to wear lipstick to go down there for?" I said.

"I'll wear lipstick any time I please," she said. She reached into the closet and pulled a dress out, one of her housedresses that had no more shape to it than a sausage did, and she threw the dress down on the bed. It was only then that she looked at me.

"What is it Arn?" she said, "what is that look on your face?"

I had no answer for that, seeing as how I could not see what look I had on my face. All I knew was that Volpe was not a married man anymore, and that my wife didn't look like my wife anymore, and that the two of them had spent the afternoon together doing I didn't know what. Everything changed when Mary Sauerberg left.

Viv said "You think I've done something wrong?"

It was hard to tell. What I knew was that she and Mary Sauerberg had secrets between them and that Viv must've known Mary was leaving. She hadn't seen fit to tell me what was coming until it was already here and gone, and now she was keeping company with Volpe and not telling me until I caught her at it.

"I don't know what you've done," I said. "That's what troubles me."

Viv was looking me right in the eyes with the same hard look she used on that real estate fellow who came knocking on our door asking if we wanted to sell. It was a barbed wire fence of a look that backed a slick city fellow with a dark suit and a silk tie right off our front porch and into his car. But I had done nothing wrong, and I stood there and took that look from Viv, and I sent it right back at her. They say good fences make good neighbors, but there we were in our own bedroom and each of us with a fence in our eyes to keep the other one out.

Viv turned finally, and started in pulling clothes out of her side of the closet and piling them up on the bed.

"What's for dinner?" I said.

She kicked her high heeled shoes off and they landed on the floor of the closet with a clunk and a clunk.

"Whatever you find in the fridge," she said. "I had dinner with Michael."

Dinner? With Michael? Not even Mary Sauerberg ever called Mike Volpe by that name, and neither one of us'd ever had dinner with Volpe without the other one there. Viv could've blown me over as easy as you blow out a match after she said that.

I come home a week later to find Viv's side of the closet empty and her car gone. She left me a letter in an envelope with my name spelled all the way out like I was some stranger. The letter said she was filing for a divorce. I would not be able to take her for granted any longer she wrote.

I couldn't tell if she left me because I was jealous and she felt guilty, or if it was because I was jealous and she hadn't done a thing, but it was one or the other. If taking a person for granted was reason enough to get a divorce there wouldn't be a married couple left in the whole damn county.

That was last fall. Volpe come over a week or two after Viv left to tell me he knew how I felt, and then he offered to mow my lawn for me like I was some kind of invalid or something.

I haven't said ten words to Volpe between then and now. The crows were lined up on the telephone wires in front of his house making quite a racket about how the tree they were used to roosting in was gone. He'd finished his breakfast, which was oatmeal by the color of it. He got up from his chair and turned the tv off, and a few minutes later Volpe rolled out of his driveway on his big John Deere. Going off to plow up somebody's forty acres for Christmas trees.

I poured a judicious amount of bourbon whiskey into my coffee and finished it off, and then I got up and mosied on over to the bungalow. The closer I got the taller and uglier that butt ugly stump got. His lawn was covered with wood chips all around where he'd sliced up the oak tree into rounds. The rotten spot running through the rounds that Volpe'd mentioned the night before was no bigger than my fist, nowhere near big enough to pose any real hazard to his house. He could've had that tree milled into some fine boards for cabinetry instead of wasting it all on firewood.

I sat on one of the rounds and started in counting the rings on the next one. Two hundred and seventy eight years that tree had stood before Volpe cut her down. It couldn't have hurt me any worse if that tree'd been a wedding oak that my ancestors planted. You cut down something that's stood the test of time as long as that tree has and you're messing with something that you haven't got any right to mess with.

There wasn't but one thing to do to make the world whole again. I headed out to Volpe's barn and found his chainsaw in his tool shed off the back side. It was a big wooly bugger of a Stihl, and he'd had the saw a long time but it was clean and the chain was sharp. I hauled the saw back to the oak tree and fired her up.

I ain't no logger but I have dropped a few trees in my time, same as anybody around here. You have to cut a wedge out of the side where you want the tree to fall and then backcut to the tip of the wedge from the opposite side. To do it just right you leave a half a finger's worth of wood between the two cuts, and you pull your chainsaw out and then you can push the whole tree over with your hand.

That tree was four feet thick at the base, and it was more work than I like to do on a Sunday, working that thirty-six inch bar back and forth, chips flying off the chain like a rooster tail and the rip of that chainsaw loud in my ears. I had to go back to Volpe's barn and borrow a couple of splitting wedges to keep the trunk of that stump from clamping down on the bar. The whole job took me a good forty minutes. Oak's pretty hard wood even when the chain's as sharp as Volpe kept his.

I had my choice of which way to let her fall, and I chose to let her fall across Volpe's walkway. I figured a man that would leave a big dick of a stump like that to stand in my view was a man you couldn't trust to keep a proper distance from your wife. It only made sense that I would block the way into his house with it. That way he'd have to go around it to get to his front door, and maybe going around it would make him think about what a stupid thing he'd done. I dropped that twelve foot tall stump neat as you please right across his walkway.

Thing of it was, even though I'd done such a bang-up job of dropping the stump right where I wanted it, I felt like I'd just shot a horse with a broken leg. There are times when a man has to finish something that somebody else started the best way he can, but that ain't a time to take a lot of pride in what you've done.

Running that saw put some serious sweat on my forehead. I hauled Volpe's saw back to his tool shed, and then I walked right into his house through the back door and got myself a tall drink of water, with ice out of Volpe's fancy fridge where you get the ice right out of the door. I can remember Mother right here in this kitchen complaining about having to defrost her freezer all the time. She'd have given up her left tittie for a frostfree behemoth like this one.

I went into the living room to see how the view was between our two houses now that I'd dropped that stump. There was my porch with my chair on it, and I could just make out the coffee cup I'd left on the arm of the chair. I might want to plant a shrub of some kind at the corner of my porch to screen the view a bit. Wouldn't want Volpe to catch me sitting there with the binoculars aimed at his place.

The remote control for Volpe's big tv was sitting right there on his coffee table, right next to a satellite tv guide the size of a newspaper. I've looked at the big tv's in the stores but it always seemed like you'd need a room the size of a church for a tv that big to make sense. But here it was, and here I was, and it seemed like going back over to my place was open to an interpretation of cowardice that I surely wanted to avoid, so I sat down in Volpe's recliner and turned the tv on.

My god the picture was big at this range. People were maybe halfway to lifesize, even bigger than lifesize when they had a close-up. The sound came from behind me and beside me and in front of me, and when I found a movie that had a car chase in it I felt like I was on a roller coaster. Too much for me, but then I ran across a show where a guy was talking about saw blades and how to fine tune a chop saw, and that was real interesting. The guy had some good points to make about the ball bearing in the pivot, but he was all wrong about using the thinnest blade you can find. You want a thick blade, or else the blade will follow the grain of the wood and you won't get a straight cut.

I started feeling a might peckish after a bit, so I got up and checked Volpe's freezer. Sure enough he had some Rocky Road in there, so I scooped myself out a big bowl of it and sat back down in front of the tv. Man that ice cream tasted sweet. I kept flipping channels around until I found a movie with that weightlifter fellow in it, and his wife thought he was just a computer salesman but really he was a secret agent and he knew all about her stepping out on him, and stupid as it was, I settled in to watching it.

I sat there long enough to determine that a tv that big was a nice thing, but not a nice enough thing that I need to have one. And surely not a nice enough thing that it was worth cutting down a three hundred year old oak tree to make it work right. I sat there until I heard the sound of a big diesel engine coming up Gossard Road on the other side of the rise. My neighbor was coming home.

I stood up and walked out on the front porch. There was that stump lying right where I dropped her, and I looked up to the top of the rise. Here comes Volpe on his big John Deere.

I climbed up on that log and stood plumb and true. Some things in life are worth a good punch in the nose.


Stevan Allred lives in Oregon.

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