In Eminence, MO, folks call trailer courts neighborhoods and hundred-year-old farm houses with acreage equal to a football field are mansions. There’s one high school, and you’ll get sidelong looks if you finish. People will talk, call you learnt, expect you to work at the mega hog farm as manager with an education. You’ll need a wife, finding her ‘s easy cause every household’s got at least one daughter ready for marriage, and you won’t meet her at a bar, there’s only a few in town. More likely it’ll be at a church, there’s twenty inside city limits.
I have trouble separating the author from the story in this particular case: Marc Watkins, from Sedalia, MO, is as much a record of joy as the story is a study in misery. He dropped out of high school at age 14 because of anxiety and depression, and went to work washing cars. His parents knew something, though: they kept at him to continue his education, so he earned his GED at 18 and later graduated from the University of Central Missouri. Along the way he took a writing class. He published some stories. He won a fellowship to the Texas State University MFA program. He’s gotten some great press. And now he’s a Pushcart winner.
The story, on the other hand, is grim; as dark as, well, two midnights in a jug. It’s available online. I suggest you read it, rather than reading here. I found my breathing getting more and more shallow as I read; there’s some powerful olfactory imagery there.
This past summer, in the continuing war against the poor, The Heritage Foundation released a report that the average poor family in America has air conditioning and cable TV, as well as a computer and an Xbox. They must’ve met Margret Jean, Cordell, and their fourteen-year-old son, Abner.
They live in a trailer, bought at auction when they lost their house after the farm failed. And yes, they have a plasma TV. But no plumbing, so they have a bucket positioned under the toilet; they empty it once a day and throw lime into after every use so it doesn’t smell too bad. But there’s been a manure fire at the mega hog farm for the past month, and the ash keeps raining down on the home, killing the few acres of soybeans they have left, blowing in under the door if the rag they keep there gets dislodged, so they’re in shit anyway.
Breathing a little shallow yourself now, eh?
This story is packed with telling details, just in Margret Jean walking across the floor:
Her bare feet touch cold linoleum beneath her bed, some of the tile edges curl upwards till their ends make a knife of plastic. She walks to the kitchen, avoiding the painful tiles, without looking…”
That says so much. She knows how to avoid the worst pain; and yet, she hasn’t done anything about the painful edges curling up, not put some kind of rug over them, not put on shoes, not pulled up the tiles completely. She just knows how to avoid the painful edges, she’s been doing it so long. I don’t think we’re talking about linoleum here.
Margret Jean may be poor, she may have lost her house, and her faith in her husband to take care of her, but she still has faith in some things, so she buys some Cialis from her friend Louvinia – not for Cordell, but for herself. She picks deer ticks off Cordell when he returns from his coon hunt to seduce him; all I could think of was grooming behavior.
Cordell no longer has his house or his farm, but he has his plasma TV for football and the two recliners, still wrapped in plastic, to go with it. And Trixie, his formerly favorite dog, who lost her leg when he blasted her with a shotgun. He only meant to scare her, but one of the bullets hit her and now she’s dying. She’s in heat, and maybe he can get one more litter out of her before she goes, so he lets the other dogs at her. This goes beyond the difference between people who have animals as pets and those who have working animals. It’s just plain hideous.
Then there’s the son, Abner, fourteen, who’s sitting in the thirty-year-old Chevy Nova next to the trailer, tires flat, watching the hog manure ash fall on the windshield, maybe imagining he’s zooming down the highway. He’s dropped out of school, but his dad won’t let him get a job at the hog farm while the fire’s still burning. Abner empties the shit bucket in a copse of trees his father still owns, land full of timber he promised the church (another glimpse of the man Cordell used to be). The ash doesn’t fall out here. His father doesn’t want him working at the hog farm as long as the ash is falling, but he goes anyway, and here, for me, is the killer:
There are stakes wrapped with chicken wire set along the edge of the burning section to keep the fire from spreading. Three bulldozers sit idle next to the fire. The machine operators lean against the treads, waiting for the order to snuff the fire.
I have to admit, I’m not sure if the boy’s defiance of his father, getting a job at the hog farm, fire or not, is hopeful or depressing. Maybe he’s given up believing in his parents, and is taking matters into his own hands. Or maybe he’s just realized he’s stuck, and he might as well fall in line. It could be something entirely different. But with that image of the bulldozers and drivers sitting around doing nothing while shit rains down on Margret, Cordell, and Abner’s trailer, where they moved when they lost their house and most of their farm, takes this to a whole different level.
Finally, the bulldozers move:
But the treads of the dozers carry embers to sections of the manure pile that haven’t caught fire and these embers start little fires of their own. The manager sees this, and tries to stop the dozers, but it’s too late. Little fires catch hold, and the whole pile now smolders, sending up a cloud of ash that blurs the evening horizon. Let night come on early. The land’s used to it.
This story was first published in 2009. It’s almost 2012 now, and the fires are still smoldering, raining manure ash down on Cordell and Margret Jean and Abner. And the Heritage Foundation doesn’t know shit about these people. Neither do I, not really, I’ll admit; but I’m glad Marc Watkins has introduced me to them.