The only thing that Cartwright knew about McBride, today’s prospect, was that the farmer was a sucker, though the few neighbors around there would have told Cartwright that no one knew the valley better than honest Sherman McBride – the creeks that bred trout, the caves that held flint – except for the two boys he raised off those mouthfuls of corn that rose from the fields and strained for the sun. Even so, honesty would be the man’s downfall.
I’ve never heard the term “drummer tale” before, but of course I’ve read them. Tales of travelling salesmen, carrying goods to customers either in the deep woods or in easy reach of the city, willing to do anything to make a sale. “No Flies, No Folly” from One Story was such a tale. They’re great reads, full of primal urges like making money, and asserting one’s superior cleverness over a more naïve opponent. And often they serve as a window to another time and place – in this case, rural West Virginia in the late 19th century.
Cartwright is the drummer of this tale, a salesman of farm tools who replaces a drummer shot by a farmer who caught him with his wife. Cartwright finds his “sucker list” and does quite well off it, by dubious means: “Truthfully, he bullied them into buying the tools, or, if they would not be bullied, he casually insulted the farmers’ methods in front of their wives.” But his skill, though lucrative, is something of a trap: “the more success he found, the more desolate the places the Company sent him, and the higher the profits they came to expect.”
He sets his sights on McBride, and finds first his sons, identical except one is missing a finger, working the fields. “The boys wore homespun, bearing the scurvy look of those who live without women.” He meets McBride and convinces him he can’t live without the new plow he’s got tucked away in his wagon, the last piece of merchandise he has to sell this trip. He isn’t sure why McBride is on the sucker list; he isn’t a drunk, or stupid, he seems pretty upstanding, in fact, but he was on the list, and Cartwright assumes it’s for a reason.
When it comes time to do the deal, turns out McBride doesn’t have enough money for the plow. He offers half, then brings out a clipping. We don’t find out yet what the clipping says, but it’s good enough to send Cartwright with the nine-fingered son (who is forthright and casual about his missing finger, lost to a bear trap: ” he hadn’t lived in a civilized town yet. He hadn’t learned shame”) into a cave down to the bowels of hell, where we discover the clipping is an offer from the Smithsonian on fossils and prehistoric animal remains. Cartwright faces a huge bear skull buried in the rock of the cave:
Cartwright ran his thumb against the sharp ring of the occipital bone and the worn points of fang, tracing the fissures of the skull that rippled like stitches under his touch. It thrilled him. He couldn’t wait to turn it over in his hand. He was amazed there were such things in the ground, waiting to be dug out like potatoes….
A scene came drifting up from the lake bed of memory. When Cartwright was seven years old his father had bought a gold locket for his wife’s birthday from a drummer passing through. A smile they hadn’t seen before took hold of her face, but a week later, his father stood clutching the doorframe, looking shamefully at where the false gold stained her pale skin, like gangrene. He tore it from her neck and threw it down the well. It was the one time his father cried in front of them. The frightened children fanned into the woods. That night, Cartwright’s father had to come looking for him with a lantern to fetch him back home.
The juxtaposition of those two events puzzled me, but then, as Cartwright tries to liberate the skull from the rock, it turns to dust, and I wasn’t puzzled any more.
The two leave the cave and at its mouth, he finds McBride and the other son. He tells them the contract is voided. McBride has bought the sales pitch hook, line, and sinker, and wants it; he sees it as liberating him from labor, increasing his yield, and freeing him from the soil. Ah, so this is why he’s on the sucker list: he is that vanishing breed, the completely gullible, the believer. And now, he can’t have the plow he’s been told will change his life.
While they’re thrashing this out, one of the sons finds the sucker list, fallen out of Cartwright’s pocket during his exit from the cave. McBride shoots him; they bury him with pine branches, steal the plow – and the next year discover the plow hasn’t made the slightest bit of difference. Cartwright’s remains – belt buckle, gold tooth – are pillaged over the decades, and eventually a woman gives “his rib cage a Christian burial…. Is only his torso in heaven? She wondered. Do his legs dance in hell? But she was too frail to go searching for the rest, though his pelvic bone rested hear a prominent fork in the road, gathering dry leaves like a crock.”
It’s a completely engaging story, and full of wonderful side trips about passenger pigeons (“Cartwright’s family took up pine stobs, brooms, and pokers, beating pigeons to death by the dozens, so numerous and stupid they were…. They gorged themselves, like every other hard-up family from Canada to Texas. It was nothing less than manna. … There were damn few pigeons left now and someday the sky would be evacuated of everything but rain, airships, and stars”) and other things we do to our planet to make it worth something, only to find, to our surprise somehow, that we have less and less.
The story for the most part is told in close third person with Cartwright as the POV character, but it takes several brief jaunts to visit the thoughts of McBride and a conversation his sons have after their first meeting with the drummer. At the end, after Cartwright is killed, of course he can no longer be the POV character so it switches to a broader narrator. It’s a bit disconcerting, but not overly so. The story is strong enough to carry it.
Null’s Contributor Notes state his main theme:
…the crisis of people who love the land, but are faced with the prospect of selling or destroying some aspect of it to translate the landscape into dollars. This is West Virginia’s story….Despite our common myths and party rhetoric, extractive industry has failed to improve the lot of West Virginians.”
This story drives this home again and again, from the passenger pigeons to the foxes to the plow to the bear skull to Cartwright’s belt buckle and gold tooth. Yet it doesn’t seem preachy at all. In fact, I’ll admit if I hadn’t read the notes, I might not have come up with this reading. Now that I have, I’m fascinated.
An ecological metaphor. And here I thought it was just a drummer tale.