Tag: grieving

The Fence and the Sadness of Men


The Fence and the Sadness of Men


I was standing by the fence on the morning of the stillest day of the winter. Frost clung to the ground, the eucalyptus were mute and dying, their outer branches at least. I saw him at some distance. John Burrows on his 1949 John Deere row tractor, the high ping ping of the engine carrying across the cold fields.  It was the A model with the close-together front wheels and the overall tricycle look. Its twenty-five or thirty horses were geared down to make a powerful ploughing machine and an unstoppable widow-maker when one of the two rear wheels climbed a stump or dropped into a hollow, tipping the tractor over sideways and pinning the driver under too much weight for him to breathe.

I imagined him smoking but had heard he’d stopped since Alice had died. The one thing he treasured most he gave up as a way of being with her when he normally would have been with himself. A neighbor said he also wore his wife’s scarf, a cream-colored Angora sort of thing that farmers did not wear and felt uncomfortable about even when their wives wore them. But John had changed, and he was dangerous to laugh at. At least, no one dared to and wouldn’t have anyway.

We talked about him in Booth’s Cafe. How he wore the scarf, and the pipe in his mouth, upside down because of the rain—except that it wasn’t raining, therefore some sort of half-mast gesture. We talked about his farm and how it needed painting and plumbing and tanks that needed to be cleaned and cows attended to. Gary the vet had come of his own accord finally, with an excuse that the county required it of him—an inspection for sleeping sickness, or something like that. But we all knew that Gary had come because of John’s grief and had spent as much time watching his friend as feeling cows’ udders and the veins in their necks.


The whole time Gary was there, John drove the tractor out across the corn stubble and frost, leaving herring-bone tractor tire tracks, crisscrossing the fields enshrouded in frost and cold and bereft of meaning, navigating this way and that with no discernable pattern. That was what worried Gary, whose father had walked across his own fields with a shotgun and blown off an ear out of desolation when Gary’s mom died. Gary had come after him, found him, and led him home, the old man not being able to hear a thing, weeping, and laughing about how he’d missed and what a goddamn fool he’d been and how much he loved Gary. And then he had stumbled, and the two of them went down, fell and then got up on their knees and held each other for the first time in their lives and wept and held each other the way the frost held the fields.

Gary couldn’t keep inventing reasons to watch over John. He’d made four long veterinary visits that same week, and his receipts were showing it. He called and suggested maybe I should find something to do up by the fence, that John would come by eventually—and so I’d just gone straight over, driving the pickup up the gorge road, stopping briefly to see if I could see trout in the black icy water beside it, then on up to the ridge that separated the Burrows farm from ours.

I could hear the tractor long before it came up over the horizon. Then I could see him. There was purpose in his life again, at least enough to have him follow the line of the fence and not just make crisscrosses all over the fields. I tapped the fence post in front of me as if it needed something, banged on the top strip of the barbed wire a few times, testing for tension. I walked around the pickup, kicking the tires, checking the pressure. And then it occurred to me what needed to be done. I opened the hood and pulled one of the distributor wires off and dropped it down through the engine onto the ground and continued bending over the engine, poking around at nothing.

I heard the tractor stop. That was a good sign. John sat looking at me, and I watched him, gazing into his sad eyes, looking for some indication of what his intentions were. He sat for a long time, his Alice scarf hanging down like a college boy’s, his pipe inverted, his hands red and blue from gripping the iron steering wheel. I said nothing. No greeting seemed appropriate. And he—I hadn’t required anything of him—he just sat there, the engine running, the white sun above us sailing slowly toward the dying eucalyptus grove to the west.

“My truck won’t start,” I managed to say eventually. His face remained as before. With just the hint of a smile appearing at the edges of his mouth, as if he saw through my ruse.

His lips moved.

“What?” I shouted. But not that loud. His mouth opened further. I wanted to say, “How are you?” But I already knew how he was.

“I miss Alice,” he said.

I was unprepared for that. He reached up and took the pipe out of his mouth. I mounted the wire fence, jumped down on the other side and approached the tractor. He handed me his pipe, stem-first but didn’t let go when I took it. His eyes brimmed and filled so much I wasn’t sure he couldn’t see me. The pipe trembled and I continued pulling him by the pipe, at the same time taking another step toward him, pulling him past his tipping point, until he came away from the tractor, slipping down onto the field, and I knew what to do, although I had never done it before and held him while he cried and then couldn’t hold back myself and let loose, the two of us howling like two sad dogs, Gary said, who had returned for the fifth time that week and had followed the most recent herring bones across the field and along the fence until he saw us. He stopped his truck a little way off and shut off his engine and listened to the cries and howls, he said, coming across the dark field, the ping ping of the tractor swallowed up by the silent clinging frost, and the cold white sun curving westward.

The next day, at the Booth’s café, where the town’s most silent farmers—all of them my friends—met for coffee late mornings after milking, feeding and mucking, someone asked Gary how John Burrow’s cows were doing, as if Gary might have veterinary information that could be useful to all of them. The question was slow and neutral. And so Gary began to tell the story. Everyone stopped talking. Even fierce Agnes Booth stacked dishes in slow motion so she wouldn’t miss a word. Not a farmer met Gary’s gaze as he spoke, he said later. He told about telling me to go up and wait by the fence, that John would come along. How he had let himself in the field and had followed the most recent herring bone tire track until he had seen the John Deere and me standing beside it. He said he couldn’t tell whether we were talking. That I was just standing there, and John was holding out what appeared to be his pipe. A farmer stirred sugar into his cup, clinking the spoon against porcelain. A big red hand came out from the man beside him and calmed the stirring. Someone else blew his nose quietly into a red bandana with his eyes closed. One or two others rubbed at something in their eyes with their forefingers. Men folded the flap of an ear forward to hear better. Gary told how I had pulled on the pipe until John had swiveled around in the steel bucket seat and come down into my arms. That was when Agnes Booth, without a sound, and with her head down, withdrew through the swinging door to the kitchen, easing the door shut behind her and studying the farmers for a moment through the round window, as if realizing the gathering had suddenly become something very private and foreign. Then Gary told them about John and me howling like sad dogs. Which is when the men gasped, coughed, sniffed in mucous, and said “God!” to explain why they were crying and suppressing the tears with heels of their powerful hands, trying to recover with deep, deep breaths.

A week later, in a soft voice, Agnes told me she had thought a dam was about to burst and that that was the the reason she had left the room, that she hadn’t known whether it would be water she would be able to swim in. A week later, I was there when John Burrows walked into Booth’s Cafe without the scarf, sat down, ordered Agnes’s coffee and lit his pipe.



Mr. Bobanosa and the Great-Tailed Grackles

The urraca of Mexico, known by some as the clarinero, is loved by some, despised by many. Mr. Bobanosa belonged to the first group. He found the birds bold and irreverent, mischievous and – fitting for a city with a passable symphony orchestra – so gifted in their song that, in his opinion, the musicians could only learn from them.

Mr. Bobanosa liked to sit in a particular outdoor café under an arching acacia tree that shaded cappuccino drinkers and smoking students from the penetrating mountain sun, and provided a meeting place, indeed a parliament hall, for the Great-tailed Grackles – the English name for the Mexican urraca.

Mr. Bobanosa – unlike the clarineros – was shy and could not begin to meet the gaze of the woman he found staring at him one day, perhaps because of his dignified middle-aged bearing, perhaps for his kind brown eyes, or even because of the smile that often lingered on his lips as he listened to the unrestrained gossiping of the grackles.

He was sitting under the great acacia, in a moment when he was not thinking of his deceased wife, and looked up to see a woman with dark eyes looking at him, as her husband or lover berated her for some real or imagined trespass. Her stricken eyes seemed to be asking him, Mr. Bobanosa, for the understanding that her companion appeared to lack. These eyes, now flooding, remained on him so long that her companion turned in his chair and gave Mr. Bobanosa a dark inspection.

Mr. Bobanosa did not finch, nor did he lower his eyes, but smiled at the man and tipped his hat respectfully, as if greeting an only semi-distant acquaintance. The man, scowling, nodded and turned away to face the woman again, but this time with diminished vehemence.

Mr. Bobanosa lowered his glance finally. He had never done such a thing before, interpose himself in the affairs of others, no matter how great the injustice before him. His usual restraint in the world had left in him for a moment, and this surprised him.

In a while, the couple stood up and passed him – the man impatient and in front, and the woman behind – her eyes sweeping up from the ground and meeting those of Mr. Bobanosa. And he, Mr. Bobanosa, held her gaze and smiled, as if she were someone he already knew, or might come to know, there in the shade of the spreading acacia, in the din of the incorrigible urracas.

But things did not change for Mr. Bobanosa. His life continued as it had before. He played his cello, without the ability that he once had, nor the interest, as when his wife was alive and accompanied him on the piano. He walked in the parks that lay unchanged in his small city. He visited his children. His son was an uninspired banker with an ambitious wife. He took their young boy – arrested in his mental development – for walks, holding him in his arms until his arms ached, all the while unable to communicate with the boy’s indecipherable grunts and squeals. His daughter was a professor of Political Science, but spent most of her time accompanying the governor’s coterie of advisers. She was unmarried and, as Mr. Bobanosa had come to suspect, found the substitute for that kind of companionship in the governor himself, a man with big teeth and a conversational voice inappropriately loud. In short, Mr. B’s most pleasurable moments were spent, not with his children and grandson, but under the acacia at his favorite café, in the company of the exuberant urracas.

Winter passed, spring came with its heat, and then the summer rains began. The mornings were cool, the sun warmed the space under the great acacia, and Mr. B. took off his coat and loosened his tie, as if in recognition that it was a season to be less formal. At the beginning of July, she sat down at his table, took off her white cotton gloves, an affectation, he had to admit, and held out her hand. Her name was Margareta Villanova, her mother German, her father a cattle rancher in the state of Sonora.

They talked, haltingly at first, because Mr. B. was much less outspoken than she. For his part, he bathed in her warm eyes, her almost iridescent black hair, and the wit of her words, and finally in her voice, which he found creamy and seductive. They ate meals together, walked in Mr. B’s parks, even took turns carrying his non-speaking, unreachable grandson. They spent nights together, in tight embraces, and they went to the seashore. They made plans, went dancing, and took a trip to Vera Cruz, and then one to Cuba.

For Mr. B. it was like swirling along the level arc of a merry-go-round, looking here and there, craning his neck to see where she was, trying to close a certain gap in the distance between them, following but never gaining, always ahead or behind.

In January, she did not show up at the café. He called her and left messages, but she did not return his calls. He wrote her and got the letters back through the post office. She was no longer at the address, and she had left no forwarding address. He sought out one of her girlfriends. They did not see each other anymore, she said, and she had no further information. In February, he gave up. The sadness and loneliness he felt was well rehearsed, since it rested on the earlier loss of his wife, and now, once again, it was all really more than he could bear.

He took little comfort in the urracas, the spreading acacia, or the familiar conversational hum of his favorite café. He began seeking other neighborhoods, other parks to walk in, other outdoor cafés to sit in, where people would not know him. At the beginning of April, when the heat was beginning to build, he took a seat under a tree in a café in the better section of the city, where people dressed well and drove newer cars and held important jobs. The tree over his head was quiet, except for a dull sparrow or two. But the coffee was good, and the anonymity soothing. He spread out his hands, taking stock of their shape and the wrinkles on his fingers, and he decided that this – what he had before him, his hands, himself as he was – was what life offered, and it was best to accept what one had, and go on. He would finish his coffee, drink the water the waiter had brought him, pay, and go home.

He folded his hands and looked up, ready to see the world in a new way. Instead, at the table on the other side of the café sat Margareta, holding a handkerchief to her dark eyes and quietly sobbing. Her companion, the same man as before, was angry again, talking in bursts – punctuating this or that with his forefinger, which was aimed at but did not touch her breast.

She lowered her handkerchief. Her gaze fell on Mr. B again, but it was as if she did not recognize him. Then she shifted her glance to another single gentleman sitting closer, and her eyes softened, and the new gentleman shifted in his chair, uneasy but excited by the attention being placed upon him.

Mr. Bobanosa lowered his eyes. He supposed they might shut permanently, or that his heart might stop, or that his next breath would be his last one. He expected his vision to darken. He could hear nothing at all – but otherwise, nothing happened. His breath rose and fell. As if on its own, his right hand moved over and held his left hand, accepting its wrinkles, its substantiality, and its warmth. The air stirred around him, sunlight fell agreeably across his back, he lifted his glass of water, raised his head, and drank. He heard the water as he swallowed. He found it unexpectedly refreshing and new.

His gaze swept upward, past Margareta, up past her scolding, angry partner, up past the new man to whom she would soon turn for salvation. Beyond everything, an ancient tree rose up from behind the café, una laurel de la India, an Indian laurel, spreading its branches forty feet in every direction from its smooth gray truck, the top-most limbs moving slowly in the breeze. Then his eye caught something. He wasn’t sure. But yes. Birds – black, and familiar – with long tails flew in and out of the tree’s cool shadows, performing their usual antics, their usual exuberant social chaos.

He stood up. He paid the waiter. He put the change in his pocket, the paper money in his worn, magnetized leather money clip. He put the money clip into his pocket. In that moment of routine, it occurred to him that there was with as much carbon and therefore the stuff of life in him as in any acacia or urraca.

The result of this thought was that he approached the two tables on the other side of the café – as if to greet friends. He tipped his hat to the new man, who would be next to save her. He turned and tipped his hat to Margareta’s angry companion. He turned to Margareta, lifted his hat, leaned over and kissed her vigorously on the lips. He lifted his hat once more to all three of them, then walked away – listening only for the din of the urracas in the great Indian laurel above them.