Vol. IX, No. 1, 1996


Willday

by R. B. Mullinix



The morning after Hog and I returned home from the Buffalo River, as Mooch and I neared the milk barn door, I could hear someone inside, whistling. We stopped, a little startled. Then we heard Hog holler, "Hi, Pied, stand still you old hussy," and slap Old Pied on the belly. Then we heard Pied kick the milk bucket from between his knees. When we got inside the door, he was settling down on the milk stool again, wiping milk off his face on his shirt sleeve, threatening to take off his wooden leg and beat Old Pied to death with it.

Mooch and I looked at each other. That's all. What would usually have doubled us up laughing we tiptoed around like a cat. Wordless, we agreed not to say a word, lest we upset Hog's delicate balance. Last night, Hog had gone in torment to the bunkhouse, leaving behind him little hope he might ever get his head right. Now, here he was acting only like Old Pied had kicked him in the head. We let well-enough alone and got through milking. The rest of that day, for days to come, the whole family walked softly around Hog.

With him acting near normal, it was good to have Hog home, especially when Goob came home for a weekend and we were all together again. In some ways he was like the old Hog who was always ready to play a trick on someone and who played some good ones. Once when a MoPac freight barreled through a bunch of Dad's yearlings and the railroad wouldn't pay for them, Hog led us all in lye soaping the tracks on the mile-long grade from Self Crossing to Cricket Tunnel.

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We could hear a train working at that grade all one long night, and hear it back all the way to Bergman to refill its sand hoppers and make another run.
But he wasn't the old Hog. The old Hog took plenty of time for fun. This one couldn't do anything that wasn't work, except the times his mind went off somewhere and he sat in a dead blank. He did laugh sometimes, but it wasn't a good laugh. It was almost always at himself. "The Marines say I'm 100% disabled,'' he'd say, and pick up a truck crankshaft and carry it to the work bench. .

Hog'd always been the mechanic of the family, so that's the first thing he turned to. He overhauled the engine and clutch on Dad's hay truck and the engine on the tractor. He couldn't operate the brakes on the tractor with his wooden leg, so he built hand levers for both pedals. Then Ernie Beauchamp came to get him to overhaul the diesel engine of his big truck and went fishing for a week. Then Hog tinkered in the shop making a motor-powered lawn mower out of an old reel push mower and the motor off Mom's old gas Maytag and the gears off two worn out sickle sharpeners.

He talked to us now, a little, about cows and rain and hay and such, but sometimes we had to ring a cow bell or hammer on an anvil to get his mind back from wherever it was.

By the middle of April Hog couldn't find any more mechanicking to do, so he took a buck saw and ax and started to cut two truck loads of cedar that Dad had intended to get Orville Benton to do. He cut for a day and a half before he came in and went to Luther Whorton's and borrowed a two-man chain saw. He took it straight to the shop and took the handle off the helper's end and made a pivoting spike for it so he could use it by himself. He finished cutting the cedar in two weeks, stumbling and hopping on one leg and his "pine limb," he called it, through piles of trimmed cedar limbs with that monster chain saw. The job would have killed a normal man, but Hog wasn't normal. He had a wooden leg, and was demented.

By the middle of May, Hog had finished the cedar. I don't know what else he had finished, but he packed a bag one day and caught the northbound train at Self Crossing and was gone. Mom got a postcard from him in July saying he was driving and mechanicking for a wheat-harvest outfit moving north. Along in August, she got one showing the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. He said he had driven there from Winfield, Kansas, on a combine. He told Dad to open his pension checks and put the money in a savings account because he didn't need it, or to use it if he needed it.

Dad might have needed it, but he'd never have used anyone else's money.

The next we heard, Hog was in Oregon picking cherries, planning to go to Washington to pick apples. He said it was pretty tricky climbing around on a cherry tree with a pine limb. He wintered in McAllen, Texas, potting flowers. Then he was in Renton, Washington, welding on Boeing airplanes. From there, Hog started sending whole pay checks, every two weeks, to add to his savings account. Mom said, "I wonder what he lives on." A year later, he was in Peoria, Illinois, welding on Caterpillars. In his move, he missed sending only one pay check.

In April of 1955, Hog asked Dad to send him what-ever money he had saved. He said he had a chance to buy a welding rig and to contract welding maintenance for a construction outfit building a section of four-lane route sixty-six. He asked Mooch to come and work with him when he got out of school for the summer and he'd pay him five dollars an hour.

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Dad said, "Shoot, for that kind of money, I think I'll go." But of course he didn't. He had been out there before, and found out there's not enough money to buy what he already had. He was fight where he wanted to be, unless the government drained Bull Shoals Lake and he could get the old farm back in the White River bottoms at Sugarloaf.

Mooch worked for Hog for three summers, until he finished engineering school. When Mooch came back at the end of the first summer, he said Hog had just bought another welding rig and hired a welder and a helper for each rig. When he came back at the end of the second summer, he said Hog had bought part interest in a big bulldozer outfit, and he and his partner had won the bid to clear the basin for Table Rock Lake.

"How can Hog clear basins?" Mooch asked Dad. "He knows how we hated seeing Sugarloaf bulldozed to perdition. He hated it too. That's part of what was wrong with his head."

"I don't know," Dad said. "Maybe he's got money on his mind. Maybe not. But I don't know what he'll do with it. There won't be anything left to buy that's worth anything. Are you going to work for him next summer?"

"I guess so," Mooch answered. "I need the money for school."

"And I guess Hog needs it for whatever he wants next too," Dad said.

"No," Mooch said, "he doesn't want or need money for anything except to get more money with. And he doesn't care any more what he does or how he does it as long as he's making big money.

Mooch worked the third summer, up to the sixteenth of July, in the Long Creek arm of Table Rock basin, not far on the other side of Cricket Tunnel. Mooch explained why he quit in the middle of the summer: "I heard Hog tell the guy he subcontracted to to move the graves out of Oasis and Cedar Valley Cemeteries not to worry too much about getting those old bones. 'Just meet the letter of the contract,' he said. 'Get in and get the job done and get out. Just make it look good. The important thing is that the families will have a stone up on the ridge to go to on Memorial Day. What difference will it make if you miss a leg bone or two?' "I'd rather not go to school than earn it that way. He's certainly not the old Hog."

Dad said, "Well, maybe, but you and I can't walk in his shoes any more, maybe never could, but not now for sure, can we?"

No, I thought, you can't. The old Hog is there, and he's not. There's just a lot more of him now. He's not better, not worse, just different, made by a lot of things you can't know, maybe never even know about. He came back, tried to anyway. He couldn't go back to Sugarloaf, because it wasn't there any more. We'd loaded up all of it we could and hauled to Self, including maybe the shapes we fit into there. But Hog was in Korea then, and maybe his shape is still there at Sugarloaf, wandering around amongst house and barn foundations and empty cemetery under fifty feet of water, or clutching onto something, like the husk of a seven-year locust.

He just about baptized himself in everything he could remember, or that we could drag out in front of him. None of it worked, so all he could do was yank up his britches leg and show you and maybe admit to himself he wasn't there any more.

I watched him, and felt him, doing it, every aching step of it. Maybe when I understand the meaning of everything he did and said during that week on the Buffalo River and the trip back, I'll know what Hog is working for. But it's not for money.

When Hog and I left the river, we drove up to Uncle Frank's for Sunday dinner. Aunt Etta was expecting us, with everything she remembered Hog and I both liked--fried chicken with rice and gravy, home-canned creamed corn, mixed wild greens with pepper sauce, and gooseberry pie.

"Why didn't you bring Isodora with you so she could stay with me while you fished?" she scolded. She and Uncle Frank never had any kids, so they tried to keep one or more of us to stay with them whenever they could. "Why didn't you come up here and sleep where it's warm. You could have at least come up and eaten with us. Hog, it's so GOOD to see you. Let me hug you."

She might as well have hugged a corner post, but she hovered and fussed around Hog like a banty hen with one chick, as though she couldn't do enough for him. I guess she couldn't. What do you say to one of your sister's babies who's been to war and come back acting like someone you'd never known and would never get to know? And she only knew that he limped, not that he'd lost a leg or that, judging by the way he acted, that's only a little bit of what he'd lost. I tried to lighten things up at dinner with chatter about our fishing trip and all the lawyers we'd caught. It didn't work very well with Hog hunched over his dinner, except several times he jerked his head up and gazed out the window and down across the bottom to the river. Once he watched something high up, and I followed his gaze to that pair of eagles riding the wind way up over the bluff.

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Aunt Etta brought out an old picture she'd kept of a tractor and hay wagon Hog had drawn when he was five. It smelled like it had been kept in her cedar chest. Hog looked at it a long time and ran the tips of his fingers over the crayon marks, without taking the picture in his hands. Then she brought out a toy bulldozer we'd all played with. Hog looked at it and took it in his hands and felt its rubber tracks and blade and all the little levers and set it on the table. Hog finished the last bite of his gooseberry pie and said, "We'd better go," and we left, after Aunt Etta hugged the corner post again and Uncle Frank shook its hand.

We went back to the river to take up the lines and get ready to go home. I was kind of anxious to get back and show off all the fish we'd caught. Hog found everything in the world to do but finish the job. He checked the gunny sacks for dead fish. He turned over a rock in the river's edge to see if the crawfish had shed their hard shells yet. He pulled off willow and elm and sycamore buds to see how far advanced spring was. He thought his boot was leaking and pulled it off to see and decided it was just his wet britches leaking in. We finally got all the lines up and the drop hooks off and everything rolled and stretched on boards to dry and the tarp and cooking stuff packed, and while I was loading the last, Hog walked back to the river and stood in the edge of it. He stooped over and swished his fingers through the water. He found a flat rock and skipped it all the way across the river so hard it crashed into the rock slabs at the foot of the bluff. He swished both hands through the water again and anointed his eyes and cheeks. He turned and came back to the truck, climbed into the driver's seat, lifted his leg onto the gas pedal, and said, "Let's go. We can't stay here any more." I don't think Hog ever went fishing again.

I know for certain he never said a word for over an hour. I was getting sick and tired of his sulking. I felt like singing the little nonsense song we all heard whenever we got mad and went moping and pouting around: "Hoggie's mad, and I'm glad, and I know what'll please him. A bottle of ink to make him stink, and little --somebody he didn't like to squeeze him." It would usually bring us out of the dumps, fighting if nothing else. But I guess I didn't feel like Hog was really sulking, not the kind of mad that makes you mm inside your own head and feel sorry for yourself. Hog was in there, alright, but he was lost in there, wandering around trying to find pieces to fit together. He'd have to find a lot of pieces to put together before there would be enough of himself to feel sorry for.

I knew that. But it still didn't keep me from wanting to get in there and shake something up. I wanted my brother back, and we'd been on the river a week and he didn't seem any closer to being home than he was the night he threw his duffle bag on our front porch and went off to the bunk house alone.

I blurted out, "How'd you get your leg shot off?" He didn't answer me, but I was started, and I wouldn't stop. "Wha'd they do with your leg? Did they bury it? .... What happened to Johnny? Did you see him die?" Johnny was Hog's friend from down on Bear Creek that went in the Marines with Hog and was shipped back under a flag.

"No." Hog said one word, and just kept staring down the road and gritting his teeth a little every time he had to make his wooden foot on the gas peddle work with his good one on the clutch every time he shifted. No, he had begun to grit his whole face, like his teeth. Then, maybe five minutes later, his voice raspy, like a fiddle drone, "I felt it though." Several shifts and gritted teeth later, his voice still raspy, but arguing now in a major key. "I carried him. I carried him"--He punctuated carried by ramming the gear shift into a higher gear without the clutch--"almost all the way down from Chosen Reservoir. He kept saying put me down and take care of your leg, but I couldn't. I just kept carrying him. My leg froze in its own blood in my boot and britches and I could feel the warm go out of him and I kept yelling at him to hang on, but he wouldn't. When we met relief and I tried to put Johnny down his blood was frozen to my coat and shirt and they had to cut him off my back like a turtle shell. And my boot and britches and leg off the other end."

He paused, then added, with a twisted grin, "Maybe the dogs got my leg, like old Jezebel's bones."

I guess I'd wanted to hear how he'd been a hero. I didn't ask anything else. He would never repeat what he'd said, ever.

When the old hay track banged and puttered in toward the machinery shed, everybody came out--Dad and Mom, Mooch and Iva Lou, and Isodora, and Goob. Goob was in law school in Fayetteville and had come home for the weekend to see Hog. He was already packed and ready to go back. We'd almost missed him.

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"Let's see your fish," they all yelled, but they were looking at Hog. Goob, the first one to him, had doubtless heard from Mom and Dad that Hog limped bad and that he acted strange, but they hadn't made Goob realize how bad Hog was. Or Goob was just so glad to see Hog that he couldn't keep from running to him and greeting him with some kind of nonsense, that old bantering affection we were used to.

Goob took a swipe at the side of Hog's head and said, "You almost didn't get to see me."

Hog whirled and stepped back into a crouch. His eyes looked mean as a bobcat's when the dogs are trying to tease it out of a hole. Then the fight went out of his eyes, and he straightened up and turned and started toward the bunk house.

Goob yelled after him, still not recognizing that the old Hog --No, both the old Goob and Hog, that pair of babies still incensed by the same womb, inseminated by the same soil--was gone. "What are you limping for? You stub your toe?"

Hog stopped, stiff as a fence post. Then he turned around, his face wan, his eyes awful. Whimpering, I thought. His eyes are whimpering, like a little blind pup. But his jaw muscles looked like rope, he had them clamped down so tight. He bent over and worked his right britches leg up over the buckles and stump. The stump was swollen, from being jammed into gravel and mud and ice water for a week, so tight it was shiny.

It hurt. It hurt so bad it stunned us all into our spots. Nobody, nothing moved, except the hurt. I knew Dad and Mom and everybody else were choking inside, like I had when Hog pulled off his clothes to go in the river. Their hurt was so bad I had to squeeze my eyelids hard. But Hog's hurt was worst, so tangible it almost pushed me over.

Isodora walked over to Hog and touched his stump. "Does it hurt? she asked.

Hog scooped her up in his arms and buried his face in her neck and cried there like she was his mother. I thought, Isodora must be the only one he can cry to, because she's as simple as he is, or was. Then I thought, No, me too. That's why he had me go fishing with him. He was trying to remember what it was like.

Nobody else moved or said anything for a lot longer than it takes a gunshot to echo down Barren Fork and die away.

Finally, Mom walked over to Hog and put one arm around his shoulders and one hand on Isodora's. Hog looked long at her, her eyes, her hair, her hand on Isodora's shoulder, held Isodora out for her to take, and slowly twisted out of her arm and walked on to the bunkhouse and shut the door. Goob got in his car and went on back to Fayetteville and the rest of us went to evening chores. While I was separating the milk I could hear Mom at the bunkhouse trying to get Hog to come in for supper. He didn't answer her. He stayed there all through the night. Maybe before he went in there, maybe sometime during the night, he had gotten some of the little pieces of himself, of whatever he was now, moved into the fight places. Maybe not. He came out in the morning and went to work.

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